S/SGT. JOE “DATBUM” BUBONOVITCH of Brooklyn, assistant engineer and waist gunner, stood in the shade of the wing of Lovely Lady with the other members of the combat crew of the big Liberator.
“I’ve found them pretty swell guys,” he said in evident disagreement with a remark made by ball turret gunner S/Sgt. Tony “Shrimp” Rosetti of Chicago.
“Yeah? So I suppose dat Geo’ge Toid was a swell guy. Say, we got a mayor in Chicago oncet wot dared dat guy to come on over. He said he’d punch him in de snoot.”
“You got your dates mixed, Shrimp.”
“Yeah? Well, I don’t like cartin’ no bloody Britisher around in de Lovely Lady. An’ I hear he’s a dook, or sumpn.”
“I guess here comes your duke now,” said Bubonovitch.
A jeep pulled up beneath the wing of the B-24, disgorging three officers—an RAF colonel, an AAF colonel, and an AAF major. Capt. Jerry Lucas of Oklahoma City, pilot of the Lovely Lady, stepped forward; and the AAF colonel introduced him to Col. Clayton.
“All set, Jerry?” asked the American colonel.
“All set, sir.”
Electricians and armorers, having given the final, loving check-up to their gadgets and guns, dropped through the bomb bay doors; and the combat crew climbed aboard.
Col. John Clayton was flying as an observer on a reconnaissance and photographic mission over Jap held Sumatra in Netherland East Indies, from an air field in (censored). Going forward to the flight deck when he came aboard, he stood behind the pilots during the take-off. Later, on the long flight, he took the co-pilot’s place, sometimes the pilot’s. He talked with the navigator and the radio engineer. He edged his way aft along the catwalk through the bomb bay between auxiliary gas tanks necessitated by the long flight. The plane carried no bombs. Shrimp and Bubonovitch and the tail gunner and the other waist gunner were sprawled on the deck against life rafts and parachutes. Shrimp was the first to see Clayton open the little door forward of the ball turret.
“Hst!” he warned. “Here comes the dook.”
Clayton edged around the ball turret, stepped over Shrimp and Bubonovitch, and stopped beside the photographer, who was fiddling with his camera. None of the enlisted men stood up. When a fighting plane takes to the air, military formality is left grounded. The photographer, a Signal Corps sergeant, looked up and smiled. Clayton smiled back and sat down beside him.
Cold wind was swirling up around the ball turret and hurtling out the tail gunner’s open window. The noise of the motors was deafening. By placing his mouth within an inch of the photographer’s ear and shouting, Clayton asked some questions about the camera. The photographer screamed his replies. A B-24 in flight discourages conversation, but Clayton got the information he wished.
Then he sat down on the edge of a life raft between Shrimp and Bubonovitch. He passed around a package of cigarettes. Only Shrimp refused. Bubonovitch offered Clayton a light. Shrimp looked disgusted. He remembered George III, but he couldn’t remember what he had done. All he knew what that he didn’t like Britishers.
Shouting, Clayton asked Bubonovitch his name and where he came from. When Bubonovitch said Brooklyn, Clayton nodded. “I’ve heard a lot about Brooklyn,” he said.
“Probably about dem bums,” said Bubonovitch. Clayton smiled and nodded.
“They call me ‘Dat Bum,’” said Bubonovitch, grinning. Pretty soon he was showing the English colonel pictures of his wife and baby. Then they signed each other’s Short Snorter bills. That brought the other waist gunner, the tail gunner, and the photographer into the picture. Shrimp remained aloof and superior.
After Clayton had gone forward, Shrimp allowed that he’d just as soon have Tojo or Hitler sign his Short Snorter bill as a “dirty Britisher.” “Look wot they done at the Alamo,” he challenged.
“You mean Thermopylae,” said Bubonovitch.
“Well, wot’s the difference?”
“He’s a good guy,” said the tail gunner.
“Like our officers,” said the other waist gunner. “No side.”
It was dawn when they sighted the northwesterly tip of Sumatra, and a perfect day for a photographic mission. There were clouds above the mountains that form the backbone of the eleven hundred miles long island that sprawls across the equator south and west of the Malay Peninsula; but the coast line, as far as they could see it, was cloudless. And it was the coast line they were primarily interested in.
The Japs must have been taken wholly by surprise, for they had been photographing for almost half an hour before they encountered any flak. And this was most ineffective. But as they flew down the coast, it increased in volume and accuracy. The plane got some shrapnel from near misses, but luck held with them for a long time.
Near Padang, three Zeros roared down on them out of the sun. Bubonovitch got the leader. They could see the plane burst into flame and plummet earthward. The other two peeled off, and kept at a respectful distance for a while. Then they turned back. But the ack ack increased in volume and accuracy. The inboard starboard engine got a direct hit, and shrapnel sprayed the cockpit. Lucas’s flak vest saved him, but the co-pilot got a direct hit in the face. The navigator slipped the co-pilot’s safety belt and dragged him from the cockpit to administer first aid. He was already dead.
So thick and so close was the flak by now, that the great ship seemed to be bucking like a broncho. To attempt to avoid it, Lucas turned inshore away from the coast where he knew that most of the anti-aircraft batteries would be located. In shore, too, were clouds above the mountains in which they could hide as they turned back toward home.
Home! Liberators had made great flights in the past on three engines. The twenty-three year old captain had to think quickly. It was a snap judgment, but he knew it was sound. He ordered everything thrown overboard except their parachutes—guns, ammunition, life rafts, everything. It was the only chance they had of making their base. Zeros didn’t worry Lucas. Zeros usually kept their distance from heavy bombers. Except for one stretch of water, the crossing of Malacca Strait, he could keep near land all the way, skirting the coast of Malaya northwest. If they had to bail out over water, they would be near shore; and their Mae Wests would have to answer. That was why he felt that he could jettison the life rafts.
As they turned in toward the mountains and the clouds, the flak came thicker and thicker. The Japs must have guessed the pilot’s plan. Lucas knew that some of the mountain peaks rose to twelve thousand feet. He was flying at twenty thousand now, but slowly losing altitude. But he was leaving the shore batteries behind.
They were well above the mountains when a mountain battery opened up on them. Lucas heard a terrific burst, and the plane careened like a wounded thing. He fought the controls. He spoke into the intercom, asking reports. There was no reply. The intercom was dead. He sent the radio man back to check the damage. Clayton, in the co-pilot’s seat, helped with the controls. It required the combined strength of both men to keep the plane from nosing over. Lucas called to the navigator. “Check and see that everybody jumps,” he said. “Then you jump.”
The navigator poked his head into the nose to tell the nose gunner to jump. The nose gunner was dead. The radio man came back to the flight deck. “The whole goddam tail’s shot off,” he said. “Butch and that photographer went with it.”
“Okay,” said Lucas. “Jump, and make it snappy.” Then he turned to Clayton. “Better bail out, sir.”
“I’ll wait for you, if you don’t mind, Captain,” said Clayton.
“Jump!” snapped Lucas.
Clayton smiled. “Right-o!” he said.
“I’ve opened the bomb bay doors,” said Lucas. “It’s easier out that way. Make it snappy!”
Clayton reached the catwalk in the bomb bay. The ship was falling off on one wing. It was evidently going into a spin. One man could not hold it. He wanted to hang on until Lucas jumped—until the last minute. It was the last minute. The ship careened, throwing Clayton from the catwalk. His body struck the side of the bomb bay and then rolled out into thin air.
Unconscious, he hurtled toward death. Through heavy, enveloping clouds his body fell. Lovely Lady, her three motors still roaring, raced past him. Now, when she crashed she was sure to burn, leaving nothing for the enemy to learn or salvage.
But momentarily stunned, Clayton soon regained consciousness. But it took several seconds before he realized his situation. It was like awakening in a strange room. He had passed through the cloud bank, and was now in a torrential tropical rain below it. Perhaps it was to the cold rain that he owed his salvation. It may have revived him just in time to pull the rip cord while there was still a margin of seconds.
His chute billowed above him, and his body snapped grotesquely at the sudden retardation of his fall. Directly beneath him a sea of foliage billowed to the pounding of hurtling masses of rain. In a matter of seconds his body crashed through leaves and branches until his chute caught and held him suspended a couple of hundred feet above the ground. This close had he come to death.
Simultaneously, he heard a rending and crashing a few hundred yards away—a dull explosion followed by a burst of flame. Lovely Lady’s funeral pyre lit up the dismal, dripping forest.
Clayton seized a small branch and pulled himself to a larger one that would support him. Then he slipped off the chute harness and his Mae West. His uniform and his underclothes, to the skin, were soaked and soggy. He had lost his cap during his fall. Now he removed his shoes and threw them away. His pistol and ammunition belt followed. Then his socks, tunic, trousers, and underclothes. He retained only a web belt and his knife in its scabbard.
He next climbed upward until he could release the snagged chute. He cut away all the lines, wrapped the silk in a small bundle; and, together with the lines, tied it to his back. Then he commenced the descent toward the ground. He swung down easily from branch to branch. From the lowest branches, giant creepers depended to the ground undergrowth below. Down these he clambered with the agility of a monkey.
From the silk of his chute, he fashioned a loin cloth. A sense of well being, of happiness surged through him. Now, that which he had lost he had regained. That which he loved most. Freedom. The habiliments of civilization, even the uniform of his country’s armed forces, were to him but emblems of bondage. They had held him as his chains hold the galley slave, though he had worn his uniform with pride. But to be honorably free of it was better. And something told him that Fate may have ordained that he was to serve his country quite as well naked as uniformed. Else why had Fate plunged him thus into an enemy stronghold?
The poring rain sluiced down his bronzed body. It tousled his black hair. He raised his face to it. A cry of exaltation trembled on his lips but was not voiced. He was in the country of the enemy.
His first thought now was of his companions. Those who had alighted within sound of the crashing plane would naturally attempt to reach it. He made his way toward it. As he went, he searched the ground. He was looking for a certain plant. He did not entertain much hope of finding it in this strange, far away land. But he did. He found it growing luxuriantly. He gathered some and macerated the great leaves between his palms. Then he spread the juice over his entire body, face, limbs, and head.
After that he took to the trees where travelling was easier than through the lush and tangled undergrowth. Presently he overtook a man stumbling toward the wrecked plane. It was Jerry Lucas. He stopped above him and called him by name. The pilot looked in all directions, except up, and saw no one. But he had recognized the voice.
“Where the heck are you, colonel?”
“If I jumped, I’d land on your head.”
Lucas looked up, and his mouth dropped open. An almost naked giant was perched above him. He thought quickly: The guy’s gone off his bean. Maybe he hit his head when he landed. Maybe it was just shock. He decided to pay no attention to the nudity. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied Clayton. “And you?”
“Fit as a fiddle.”
They were but a short distance from the Lovely Lady. The flames were rising high above her, and some of the trees were blazing. When they got as close to her as the heat would permit they saw Bubonovitch. Bubonovitch saw Lucas and greeted him happily. But he did not see Clayton until the latter dropped from a tree and alighted in front of him. Bubonovitch reached for his .45. Then he recognized the Englishman.
“Migawd!” he exclaimed. “What happened to your clothes?”
“I threw them away.”
“Threw them away!”
Clayton nodded. “They were wet and uncomfortable. They weighed too much.”
Bubonovitch shook his head. His eyes wandered over the Englishman. He saw the knife. “Where’s your gun?” he asked.
“I threw that away, too.”
“You must be crazy,” said Staff Sergeant Bubonovitch.
Lucas, standing behind Clayton, shook his head vigorously at his crewman. But the remark didn’t seem to excite Clayton, as the pilot had feared it might. He just said, “No, not so crazy. You’ll be throwing yours away pretty soon. Inside of twenty-four hours it will be rusty and useless. But don’t throw your knife away. And keep it clean and sharp. It will kill and not make as much noise as a .45.”
Lucas was watching the flames licking through the openings in his beloved plane. “Did they all get out?” he asked Bubonovitch.
“Yes. Lieut. Bumham and I jumped together. He should be close around here somewhere. All those who were alive got out.”
Lucas raised his head and shouted: “Lucas calling! Lucas calling!”
Faintly an answer came: “Rosetti to Lucas! Rosetti to Lucas! For Pete’s sake come an’ get me down outta dis.”
“Roger!” shouted Lucas, and the three men started in the direction from which Shrimp’s voice had come.
They found him—dangling in the harness of his chute a good hundred feet above the ground. Lucas and Bubonovitch looked up and scratched their heads—at least figuratively.
“How you goin’ to get me down?” demanded Shrimp.
“Damifino,” said Lucas.
“After a while you’ll ripen and drop,” said Bubonovitch.
“Funny, ain’tcha, wise guy? Where’d you pick up dat dope wid out no clothes?”
“This is Colonel Clayton, half-wit,” replied Bubonovitch.
“Oh.” It is amazing how much contempt can be crowded into a two letter word. And S/Sgt. Tony Rosetti got it all in. It couldn’t be missed. Lucas flushed.
Clayton smiled. “Is the young man allergic to Englishmen?”
“Excuse him, colonel; he doesn’t know any better. He’s from a suburb of Chicago known as Cicero.”
“How you goin’ to get me down?” demanded Shrimp again.
“That’s just what I don’t know,” said Lucas.
“Maybe we’ll think of some way by tomorrow,” said Bubonovitch.
“You ain’t a-goin’ to leaf me up here all night!” wailed the ball turret gunner.
“I’ll get him down,” said Clayton.
There were no vines depending from the tree in which Shrimp hung that came close enough to the ground to be within reach of Clayton. He went to another tree and swarmed up the vines like a monkey. Then he found a loose liana some fifty feet above the ground. Testing it and finding it secure, he swung out on it, pushing himself away from the bole of the tree with his feet. Twice he tried to reach a liana that hung from the tree in which Shrimp was isolated. His outstretched fingers only touched it. But the third time they closed around it.
The strength of this liana he tested as he had the other; then, keeping the first one looped around an arm, he climbed toward Shrimp. When he came opposite him, he still could not quite reach him. The gunner was hanging just a little too far from the bole of the tree.
Clayton tossed him the free end of the liana he had brought over with him from an adjoining tree. “Grab this,” he said, “and hang on.”
Rosetti grabbed, and Clayton pulled him toward him until he could seize one of the chute’s shrouds. Clayton was seated on a stout limb. He drew Rosetti up beside him.
“Get out of your chute harness and Mae West,” he directed.
When Shrimp had done so, Clayton threw him across a shoulder, seized the liana he had brought from the nearby tree, and slipped from the limb.
“Geeze!” screamed Rosetti as they swung through space.
Holding by one hand, Clayton seized a waving branch and brought them to a stop. Then he clambered down the liana to the ground. When he swung Rosetti from his shoulder, the boy collapsed. He could not stand. And he was shaking like a leaf.
Lucas and Bubonovitch were speechless for a moment. “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I never would have believed it,” said the pilot.
“I still don’t believe it,” said Bubonovitch.
“Shall we look for the others?” asked Clayton. “I think we should try to find them and then get away from the plane. That smoke can be seen for miles, and the Japs will know exactly what it is.”
They searched and called for several hours without success. And just before dark they came upon the body of Lieut. Burnham, the navigator. His chute had failed to open. With their knives they dug a shallow grave. Then they wrapped him in his chute and buried him. Jerry Lucas said a short prayer. Then they went away.
In silence they followed Clayton. His eyes were scanning the trees as they passed them, and it was evident that he was searching for something. Quite spontaneously, they all seemed to have acquired unlimited confidence in the big Englishman. Shrimp’s eyes seldom left him. Who may say what the little Cicero mucker was thinking? He had not spoken since his rescue from the tree. He had not even thanked Clayton.
It had stopped raining and the mosquitoes swarmed about them. “I don’t see how you stand it, colonel,” said Lucas, slapping at mosquitoes on his face and hands.
“Sorry!” exclaimed Clayton. “I meant to show you.” He searched about and found some of the plants he had discovered earlier in the afternoon. “Mash these leaves,” he said, “and rub the juice on all the exposed parts of your body. The mosquitoes won’t bother you after that.”
Presently, Clayton found that for which he had been looking—trees with interlacing branches some twenty feet above the ground. He swung up easily and commenced to build a platform. “If any of you men can get up here, you can help me. We ought to get this thing done before dark.”
“What is it?” asked Bubonovitch.
“It’s where we’re going to sleep tonight. Maybe for many nights.”
The three men climbed slowly and awkwardly up. They cut branches and laid them across the limbs that Clayton had selected, forming a solid platform about ten by seven feet.
“Wouldn’t it have been easier to have built a shelter on the ground?” asked Lucas.
“Very much,” agreed Clayton, “but if we had, one of us might be dead before morning.”
“Why?” demanded Bubonovitch.
“Because this is tiger country.”
“What makes you think so?”
“I have smelled them off and on all afternoon.”
S/Sgt. Rosetti shot a quick glance at Clayton from the corners of his eyes and then looked as quickly away.