Thursday, April 10, 2003

We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing

Chapter One

Our big liberator bomber rocked gently in the brilliant October sunlight, high above the South Pacific. Only the deep-throated roar of the four motors and the singing of the wind suggested our great speed.

Looking down through rifts in the drifting clouds we could see the ocean far below, spread out like a vast blue floor. From 5,000 feet it appeared cool and inviting and I remember thinking it a beautiful sight.

That was on October 18, 1942. Now, three months later, I wonder how I ever could have seen anything of beauty in that shark-ridden waste of moutainous swells and scalding heat. It took the life of one of my companions and clutched at the rest of us, who were saved only by the intervention of God and two divine miracles.

On that sunny afternoon I was being sped at 200 miles an hour toward the greatest adventure any man can have, that in which he finds his God. But there was no presentiment of what was to come as we bowled along above the clouds.

The nose of our ship was pointed toward Hawaii, San Francisco, and home. Tailward lay one of the greatest theaters of war the world has known.

We had picked up our bomber out there and were assigned to set her down on Hickam Field, Honolulu. After that, we were to return to the mainland with another ship. This meant brief leaves from duty for all of us and visits home for me.

There were five of us, all members of the United States Army Air Corps, Transport Command. In rank we ranged from Capt. William T. Cherry, Jr., our pilot and commander, to Private John Bartek, our engineer, who was also the youngest.

Bill Cherry is a sturdy, drawling Texan, who comes from the town of Quail, though his wife and little girl, 3, live in Fort Worth. Bill entered the army as an aviation cadet at the age of 23 or so and after winning his wings he joined American Airlines as a pilot.

His experience on the big passenger liners made him a natural for handling the heavy, four-motored bombers in the Transport Command. And in appearance he is everything you would expect of the American flying man: broad shouldered, steady blue eyes, and deliberate in speech. As co-pilot, I have flown thousands of miles with Bill Cherry and I've never had a better partner.

He is calm in crisis, stoical in adversity, and possessed of a drawling humor that saved many a situation in the blazing days to come. I never have known him to be intolerant - except of sharks. But we will get to that later.

The other officer who was on our ship, in addition to me, is Second Lieut. John J. DeAngelis, our navigator. DeAngelis is 24 and comes from Pennsylvania. He was attracted to military life while attending the celebrated Citadel School and enlisted for artillery service in the army.

After having been commissioned, however, he transferred to navigation school and eventually was assigned to the Transport Command. John was counting the minutes on our way in aboard the Liberator. He was married in Los Angeles two days before we headed out into the Pacific on Oct. 4.

Another of us who had romantic reasons for hurrying home is Staff Sergeant James W. Reynolds, the radio operator, a smiling fellow of 26 from Oakland, Calif. He had become engaged during the intervals of his six flights across the Pacific with the Transport Command. Reynolds's time passed slowly as a rule becasue there is little radio transmitting done on these hauls of ours. The Japs have a habit of listening in.

Johnny Bartek is a serious kid of 20 from New Jersey; red haired and freckled. Next to the pilots he probably was the busiest man on the plane. His duties as engineer required that he keep constant watch on the gasolines levels, attend to switching from tank to tank during flight, and make certain that the landing gear was down and set properly.

Johnny Bartek had many other duties, but he always found some time to read from a little khaki covered New Testament, of which you are to hear a great deal more later. In those days, however, the sight of that little Bible and Johnny's serious face as he read from it invariably handed me a chuckle.

I then was within a month of my 41st birthday and was the oldest man on the plane. After leaving the navy in 1922 at the age of 21, I knocked around a while and began flying in 1927. I haven't been without a plane of my own since 1930. By 1935 I was in the building contracting business. As soon as I could wind up my affairs after Pearl Harbor I got into the army and was commissioned a second lieutenant.

Because there was no chance for me as a combat pilot I was assigned to the Transport Command. By serving here, however, I free a younger man to fly a fighting plane and that is almost as good as flying one myself.

It is these young men who fly our attack and pursuit ships and the big Liberator and B-17 Fortress bombers on their raids over enemy territory. Our ship's bomb bay was empty now, but the time soon would come when it again would be dropping death and destruction upon Hirohito's forces in the Pacific.

Bill Cherry took over the controls and I walked back through the ship. Johnny Bartek was reading his Testament. I made an amusing remark, which he ignored.

When I returned, the beautiful island of Oahu was rolling up over the rim of sea and we were nearing the end of the first leg of our trip toward home. As we headed down, the hangars of Hickam Field emerged out of the landscape. Bill Cherry set us down smoothly at 4:30 P.M.

We carried our gear from the plane to the quarters assigned us, then took the night off. The next day we were directed to ferry a B-17 Flying Fortress to a destination on the mainland, taking off the following evening.

The fellows spent the day in various ways. I went into Honolulu and bought a flowered Hawaiian silk dress for my wife. I wrote home to my son, Thomas, 19 who is in the navy and stationed at San Francisco, and to my daughter, Shirley, 16.

I also made some entries in my diary. If that little book could have known what we were about to go through together, it probably would have jumped out the window and disappeared into the shrubbery. I still have it; that is, my wife has. Its pages still are encrusted with salt and the writing in it, toward the end, is very, very bad.

We spent the night of the 19th at the field and whiled away the next day. Shortly after 5 P.M., we collected our gear and started out toward the hangers, where our Fortress stood on the line with its four motors warming up.

We were a carefree bunch, homeward bound. The weather and our Hawaiian surroundings did nothing to detract from our spirits. It was hard to believe that 10 months earlier, hell had rained from the skies upon this peaceful airfield.

As we reached the plane our supplies were going aboard; sandwiches, oranges, thermos jugs of coffee. We were about to follow when we were hailed and learned shortly that our plans had been changed.

We and our Fortress had been reassigned to carry the world-famous Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker and a military aide upon a secret mission for the War Department. We were keenly disappointed. There's no two ways about that. But an order is an order.

Then, after we had thought about it some we found the prospect stimulating. Before long we were looking forward to our new venture. There was not one of us who did not know all about Eddie Rickenbacker, America's No. 1 ace of World War I, who knocked down more German war planes than any other American.

Further, instead of dropping into obscurity after the war, he had continued in the cause of aviation, eventually heading a great and successful commercial airplane. Mostly though, I think, we all wanted to meet the man who had survived so many thrilling escapes from death both in war and in civilian life.

Being a flying man myself, I think I was most thrilled by his courage while lying pinned beneath a wrecked airliner in Georgia, seriously injured and soaked in gasoline, yet directing the rescuers. Gasoline covered the ground and the wreckage in which other persons were trapped. For hours Rickenbacker lay there, advising the rescuers and warning all newcomers:

"Don't strike a match! Don't strike a match!"

And he had come back from this one and many others to perform magnificent feats - many yet undisclosed to the public - for his country in its new conflict.

We talked it over animatedly as we walked over for supper. We knew that when Rickenbacker wanted to see something he usually got close enough to look at it. And this meant that we, too, would have a chance to see some new territory.

Our new takeoff time had been set for 10:30 P.M. You may be sure that we were at the line well ahead of time, getting everything ready while the B-17 was warmed up a second time. We rechecked all the controls and instruments and stowed the additional food supplies that were arriving. Two cots had been placed in the bomb bay.

We found also that we were to have a third passenger. He was a rather pale looking youngster, Sergt. Alex Kaczmarczyk, who was to rejoin his regiment out somewhere in the southwest Pacific. Only a short time before he had been discharged from the hospital where he had spent 48 days suffering from yellow jaundice. Because of his rating as an engineer he had been signed on as our engineer; Private Bartek acting as second engineer.

About 10 P.M. we topped off the gasoline tanks, replacing the fuel consumed during the warm up. By 10:20 we were all in our places. Capt. Bill Cherry was in the left cockpit seat and I in the right.

Lieut. DeAngelis was in the nose compartmnet, below and forward of us. This ordinarily is used by the bombardier, but as no bombing was on our schedule this night, DeAngelis utilized the bombardier's table in charting our course.

Sergt. Reynolds was in the radio compartment, aft of the bomb bay tanks and forward the bomb bay itself - about amidships. Johnny Bartek stood in readiness by the generator controls, while young Kaczmarczyk waited in the bomb bay.

"Well," Cherry remarked, "we're ready whenever he is."

At this moment the lights of a staff carr approached our ship.

Then the plane rocked slightly as our passengers came aboard. There were footstpes behind. At 10:29 I felt a hand on my shoulder and a voice said:

"My name is Rickenbacker."

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