by Nancy Means Wright
For Christmas this year I’ve wrapped up for my book-loving son Kate Atkinson’s novel, A God in Ruins, about Teddy Todd, an elderly man thinking back on the World War 2 experiences that colored his life. His British bomber he called J-Jig was caught by flak as it approached the French coast and a shell blasted through the fuselage, almost knocking it out of the skies. Smoke was coming out, though no sign yet of flames. As pilot, Teddy did a crew check and heard from everyone but his rear-gunner, huddled at the very back “in a cold and lonely nest,” a distance from the rest. He always worried about Kenny, an usually cheerful Australian, in that “cramped, claustrophobic space.”
Because there was already a good deal of damage to the plane, it was flying lower and slower with each mile and he felt they should abandon ship. But no one wanted to ditch, especially over the sea, and they struggled on, overshooting the runway, smashing through hedges and ploughing up the field where they finally landed. The aircraft filled with smoke and Teddy urged them to be “as quick as you can, lads.”
When most of the crew got out, he saw that the rear-turret was still attached, but the rest of the plane was in pieces. “J-jig had left a trail behind her—wheels, wings, engines, fuel tanks, like a wanton woman divesting herself of clothing.” The fuselage was burning fiercely, and not a word from his rear gunner, who appeared to be trapped.
Oh my! The story brought me back to a memoir by my older brother Donald who was a 19-year-old flight navigator in that war. I was too young at the time to know much about his life, flying B-29s over the India “hump” to bomb the Japanese. But I recall the story he told and retold through the years about Sgt Oren, the rear gunner in the aircraft they’d named “Bachelors’ Quarters.” In 1944 they were flying over China when they lost #3 engine, fell behind their formation (like Teddy’s fictional plane), but carried on, dropped their bombs, made a 180 degree turn toward “home”– when #1 engine quit. They were still flying through flak, over Jap-held territory. Flight engineer Shoales had been desperately transferring fuel from one engine to another (today was his December birthday). To conserve fuel, they threw everything they could out of the plane: a chopped up radar set, a bomb sight, an empty bomb bay gas tank. It became obvious that they’d have to abandon ship by bailing out of the bomb bay in the rear.
It was a tight squeeze, according to my brother, because they were wearing parachutes with jungle kits, shoulder-holsters with a 45 pistol filled with ammunition, and leather flying jacket. On the back of the jacket was a silk flag with words in Chinese noting they were friends helping with the fight against the Japanese. Pilot Malone gave the order to bail out, and my brother had the gunners and others standing on opposite sides of the bomb bay. Through an open bulkhead door he saw Sgt Oren at his gunner’s position, head set on. Looking down, Donald, who would be the last to jump, saw bodies floating in the air and chutes opening. He signalled to Oren in his rear turret, but no response. The plane was already in flames–and no time or way to yank him forcibly out of his hole. So Don jumped,too, with a last shout to Oren, hoping he’d follow.
Don landed on a grave marker in a peasant farmer’s field, coming up with a fractured ankle and leg. Greeted by a group of suspicious men, he gave a thumb’s-up, saying the only Chinese he knew: ‘Ding how.” And they fed him soup and chicken. The next day he discovered the plane had crashed into a tea house, killing several people. And the rear gunner went down with it.
Why didn’t Sgt Oren bail, the only married man with a wife and young children? Or was it because of that family—afraid he’d be captured on the ground and leave them abandoned? Or was he frozen with fear, a panic attack that kept his legs from moving, his voice from calling out on his intercom? Perhaps he’d swallowed poison to avoid what he felt “the very worst”? Or was it a moment of acrophobia, a desperate fear of heights that wouldn’t let him even look at the far-off ground? No one will ever know the truth. Later his fellow crew members held a funeral service in Kunming where they buried his remains, and after the war, they met with his grieving family.
As for the rear gunner in Atkinson’s novel, I won’t be a spoiler. Except to say that he got out alive–but only after a crazy, explosive escape. I wrote a “Sgt Oren flight situation” into my new historical novel, Queens Never Make Bargains—based on reality, but nevertheless fiction. For young Oren, though, it was one more tragedy of a real war, and the sick minds that had started it.
May this be a Christmas of peace across the world, and may the new year be one of brotherhood for all–with no need for gunners, wherever they may be seated in a war plane. Wishful thinking perhaps, but we’re all fiction writers here. And so, farewell to the old year.
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