Win it for Red’s Gal

Win it for Red’s Gal

The weather was warm and the sun shined brightly down on the prison camp. It was Sunday, and the men were fed prunes that morning and Harold attended the small mass with the prison chaplain. He received communion and was on his way back to the barracks when some of the men stopped him.

“Hey, Red! We’re going to try for some softball today. Wanna join? We could always use an extra man.” His bunkmate waved him down and Harold decided it was a nice enough day to spend some hours out in the sun before writing a letter to Loretta. 

“Well, alright,” he said. “I gotta tell you boys, though. We better win. It’s my girl’s birthday back home.” His teammate smiled.

“That’s just swell! We’ll be sure to win it for her.” 

The men had a good game going, very evenly matched. They were back and forth, unable to score on each other but still having a great time nonetheless. Harold felt in himself a release of the prison – the fences and barbed wire a blur as he swung and struck out. He had energy. He didn’t know if it was the prunes he received for breakfast instead of hot water, or that it was Loretta’s birthday, but there was an infectiously happy energy among the two teams. 

By the ninth inning the men were exhausted. The teams broke for a moment to recollect themselves and come up with a strategy. 

“We gotta win this for Red’s gal,” one of the men was panting excitedly. It was nice for them to have a goal to work towards. 

“Yeah, we have to give him something happy to write home about.”

“I always write home happy things to her. She doesn’t need to worry,” Harold reassured. 

When the teams assumed their positions to finish the ninth inning up, a guard approached.

“Wrap it up and go back to your barracks.” He was holding a rifle across his chest. The men looked around, confused. It was only midday – not to mention Sunday – and they were entitled to their ninth inning of softball. One of the men approached the guard with his hands out.

“We’re allowed to finish our game here. We only have one inning left.” The guard, without speaking, raised his rifle and struck the prisoner in the side of the head with the butt of the gun. A couple of men in the crowd of softball players cried out in disbelief, while the others stood breathless in the dirt. The man fell to the ground, unconscious and bleeding. The guard returned his rifle to the front of his body and took a step back, facing the men, giving room for them to come in and collect their friend. Some of the prisoners were afraid to move, thinking it was another challenge for them to also be struck with the rifle – or worse – shot. 

Harold hesitated for a moment with two other men, but decided to approach the player. His face was covered in dirt and his hands limp. His right arm lay loose across his stomach. They reached his side, and Harold crouched beside him.

“Can you move?” Harold now knelt in the dirt next to the prisoner. He lay on his side, breathing, thankfully; there had been enough death earlier in the year. There was a small pool of blood under his head where the guard connected with the butt of his gun. Dirt and sticky red caked the man’s forehead. Harold placed a gentle hand on the fallen prisoner, who winced under his palm.

“We have to get him over to the infirmary,” another prisoner suggested. Harold nodded and stepped aside while the prisoner who spoke up, along with the help of one of the medics, lifted the injured man to take him away and dress his wounds. 

“We’re already prisoners! What gives you the right?” A disembodied voice protested from the small crowd that gathered.

“Stay in line, and it won’t happen,” the guard replied. He was sickeningly overconfident with his gun in his hand. He gave a cool, dismissive glance over the malnourished faces, turned on his heels, and returned to his post.

As soon as it began, the situation diffused. With no one left to confront, the men dispersed. Harold brushed the dirt off his knees and looked down at his palm, then further past it to the blood on the ground. How much longer, he thought. The blood lay stagnant in the August heat, flecks of dust fallen from his pants swirled around on top of it. He returned to his bunk to write Loretta. 

August 13, 1944

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My Dearest Wife;

I want you to know, doll, that today my thoughts and heart went home to you. I hope you had a happy birthday, and I wish the future brings happier ones, with your truly to share in the honor of bringing pleasant times to you.

An exciting game of softball was played today that went into extra innings. Before game time, I informed the boys that it was your birthday and immediately they shouted, “We’ll win it for Reilly.” We did honey, we won it in the ninth inning by a score of 1 to 0. It seems now, that I’ve taken on a new name; the fellows call me Reilly. I like it doll, for every time I hear your name I think of you. That’s all for now sweets. Regards to all.

Your Ever-loving Husband,

Ha

A Couple of Notes

A Couple of Notes

July 5, 1944

My Doll,

It’s in my heart, on the tip of my tongue, and at night, it forms on my lips, I love you. I miss you doll, more than I can say.

Time is going fast, for when the weather permits, I’m outdoors playing ball, and on “rainie” days I read. I would like a few best sellers. Yesterday’s sport events were excellent; the main even being a softball game between the North and South. After a 10-inning struggle, the North won with a score of 3 to 2. I’m looking, these days, for mail containing a picture of you. Although, I see you in my dreams, it’s not enough. I’d enjoy seeing you during the day. That’s about all for the time being, my love to the family and regards to all.

Your ever-loving Husband,

Love Ha

July 22, 1944

Dear Doll,

Another note to tell you I love you and miss you more than words can say. Each minute is packed with thoughts of you, which makes the time seem to go much faster.

I received another cigarette parcel – March to May – yesterday, and am looking forward to getting my food parcel. Many thanks.

My activities of late consist of basketball, about 4 games a week, and baseball of which I average about 4 games a week. Tomorrow, Sunday, I’m playing 3rd base for our All Star Team. It should prove to be an interesting game. On rainy days, I catch up on reading. I’m still OK honey and I’m hoping you’re having some fun and enjoying good health. That’s all for now sweet stuff.

Regards to all, and Always Love Ha

Happy Anniversary

Happy Anniversary

Loretta woke up alone. It was the first of June, her first wedding anniversary. She stirred quietly as the morning sun peered in through her bedroom window and turned to face the day. As she sat up, she rubbed her eyes, feeling the ring around her finger touch her face. She stopped for a moment to examine the symbol of her nuptials – the physical representation of the unfathomable love she had for her soldier across the world. The sun caught the ring and it gleamed for a moment. The spark of light forced Loretta to put her face in her hands and cry. 

The silence was a reminder that there was no Harold hopping around the house that morning. There was never any preparation for what she was experiencing. She felt guilty for leading a semi-normal life at home while her husband lay in prison, probably fearing for his life. Harold always made it sound so peaceful and civil in prison, but she read the newspapers. She knew it was – most likely – far worse than he described. She often found herself questioning what he wrote, but not because she thought he was lying. She knew he couldn’t tell the whole truth or else his letters wouldn’t make it past the censoring bureau. She also knew that he couldn’t tell the whole truth because he didn’t want her worrying more than she already was, and that reminded her of how much he still cared. 

She made herself a pot of coffee and took in whatever silence she could manage before other members of her family woke up. It was a Thursday, and she didn’t have to go to work until three o’clock that afternoon, so Loretta planned to get a quick bite to eat with Eleanor if the timing was right. They could gab and people-watch before she had to go catch the train at Jamaica Station. Such a beautiful, sunny day may as well have been cloudy and raining, for Loretta could do nothing other than think about her man. The morning felt a little emptier than usual; her company was the ticking clock, almost eight. Loretta’s mother was already off policing, and she was thoughtful enough to leave her daughter a small slice of pound cake next to the coffee pot. Attached to it was a note with a simple heart. Loretta sat with a newspaper at the table. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle always carried news of the war – where the Allies were, how many were killed, who defeated whom, and so on. It was overwhelming to read and at the same time she was oddly comforted to know that Harold wasn’t in the mix-up of battle. His battle was happening within the fences, certainly, but to what extent she feared she would never know.

Eventually the photos of war and destruction turned the slice of cake in her stomach, so she decided it best to start her day. She wanted to go for a walk around the block, stop in and see Harold’s mother, and see if Eleanor was around for some more coffee. It was such a melancholy day for it being so warm, but she reasoned to make the most of it. She thought to herself that Harold would want her to celebrate, regardless of what he was doing. Before work too, she decided, she’d check in once more at home and see if he sent her a letter in the mail – that would brighten her day.

June 1, 1944

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Dear Doll;

What a husband I turned out to be; missing our first anniversary. I’m sorry doll, and I won’t let it happen again. I hope [you’re] well and happy. I love you. Regards to the family.

Love

Ha

Softball Season

Softball Season

April 13, 1944

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Dear Doll;

Softball season started this week and we’re going at it strong, too strong I should say, for we break a bat a game. At this rate, I’ll be playing volleyball next week. Sports keep me busy during the day and my nights are always reserved for thoughts of you. I love you doll.

Love

Ha

The men organized their teams and really did enjoy the sunlight they were receiving – when it pleased the guards. It wasn’t the bat-breaking group of men Harold portrayed to Loretta, but he was at the very least grateful for not feeling holed up in the barracks with the bugs and the cold any longer. Spring was proving itself more forgiving already, and with the weather only getting warmer, Harold felt optimistic. The chatter around the camps was that Hitler was losing control of his men and the war; Harold liked the idea of getting home before Christmas. 

The break in the cold was pleasant enough to encourage Harold to socialize outdoors, walk around the camp, and read a little more. He came to learn, though, as the weather got warmer, the smells of the latrine and the smells of the ill and dying worsened. If the temperature exceeded 70 degrees fahrenheit – and God forbid if the heat was accompanied by a breeze – the smell of several thousand men’s communal toilet wafted across the camps, hanging in the air and sticking to their nostrils. There were certain parts of the camp the men were able to socialize without having to endure the smells too much, but eventually it became a part of their daily life, and they learned to ignore it. Harold was certain the stench was worse than the year before when he was captured. There were promises and grievances to clean the latrines out every week. Eventually once a week turned into once every two weeks. Once every two weeks turned into once whenever they felt like it. There was no toilet tissue available, and the men grew accustomed to saving food wrappers and sometimes old letters to wipe themselves. The Red Cross made notes of this, he was certain, but he couldn’t understand how such inaction continued. Poor latrine conditions were the least of their concern. The camp was in violation of so many Geneva Convention laws, including the killing and beating of unarmed prisoners. Harold couldn’t understand how nothing was done. He also couldn’t let on to Loretta, though, whom he wrote home with nothing but positive notes to keep her from worrying too much. 

That night Harold lay awake and unable to shake the very real fear that he might not get out of his hell before Christmas. He was feeling awfully low, although receiving packages from loved ones and letters from family. The brutality of the prison camp, of the guards – and the damned barking dogs – brought him down if he thought on it for too long. It was nearly impossible to avoid the negativity when kept in a pen like an animal all day, every day. He tried his best to embrace the changing seasons, the boys outside playing softball, and the sunshine. But with the impending warm weather Harold could only think about Loretta and Artie, the lake houses, and his first date with his gal back in 1937, or was it 1938? Strawberry ice cream, two scoops. Soon it would be their first wedding anniversary, and where was he? Stuck in prison.  

The days and months melted together like their summer desserts and Harold found himself having difficulty recalling certain dates and memories; he mistakenly dated a letter to Loretta 1943 just a couple of months prior. Soon it would be a year since he was shot down. He traced the marks on his arm from where his own plane betrayed him. And if he thought long enough about it, Harold swore he could feel the rigid scar tissue in his back pulse – a constant reminder of the day he could have died. He didn’t fault himself for wondering if death would have been the better option, as he lay there hungry and restless. His faith, though, and his love of Loretta made him trust that no, death wasn’t better. 

After heavy rain everything sat in stagnant rainwater, and began to fester with mosquitos and algae. Warm weather in prison camp didn’t mean memories and ice cream. It didn’t mean that the men would get a different meal than hot water, canned meat, or prunes. It just meant they didn’t have to burn as much of their resources to keep warm. 

While outside with a cup of water, he felt a bug crawl on the left side of his neck and swatted at it. Sometimes, he feared, if he was quiet enough he could hear the bed bugs crawling along the wooden bunks. The infestations only increased since his admission to XVII-B the year before, and it was apparent in the men. He thought to himself that, when he got home, he would have to convince Loretta to have all metal furniture in their bedroom when they were settled in the cottage. How badly he wanted to be next to her in bed than beside another soldier.  

Unfair Advantages

Unfair Advantages

February 20, 1944

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My Darling Wife;

Your packages were eagerly received and well worth their weight in gold. To date I’ve received 5 parcels, of which 3 were cigarettes. The contents of the other two were quickly devoured or put to urgent use. I’d like to add that vitamin pills will be appreciated. I’m getting your letters, but very irregular. I’m anxiously awaiting our wedding picture. I hope [you’re studying] earnestly to master the accordion. T’would be a great delight to be serenaded by the music your nimble fingers choose.

Half the letter gone, and I haven’t once mentioned that I love you. Believe me doll, I do love you. What else could it be that causes you to appear in my every undertaking? Your hair, eyes, lips are seen with animated enjoyment. The letter must close but the love I have here within for you shall never cease.

All my love,

Ha

The winter continued to be unforgiving. Harold was becoming almost entirely reliant on what Loretta and his other family members sent him from the United States. He knew then after receiving his care packages in February, the next shipment probably wouldn’t come around until April or May. Harold found himself feeling weaker and his weight dropped more than he ever noticed before, although he hadn’t seen his own reflection in months. He noticed the veins in his arms becoming more prominent, the hair on his head felt thinner, and his teeth hurt. With only a few hours of running water a day – and it never hot – the men were resolved to burning the remainder of the outdoor latrines down in order to keep warm. They were still sleeping regularly two – sometimes three – to a bed, which would mean anywhere between six and nine men per bunk, to prevent freezing. Commandant Kuhn promised ample blankets to the Americans as well as the other prisoners of war, but it was obvious they didn’t care what the soldiers received. Tensions were high as the men banded together to split blankets – more like tablecloths, Harold thought. There were maybe two blankets to every three or four men, and they hardly did a damn thing. They never saw the belongings that were stolen by the guards a month prior; the Red Cross rations seemed to be less and less as well. The soldiers were used to receiving one package per man, and they found themselves sharing more often now. It was vital to have shoes on at all times so that their toes didn’t freeze off. The close quarters increased the risk of illness and the sick bay was overwhelmed with disease – mostly skin and upper respiratory infections. 

All of this became routine, though. The men couldn’t fight the guards – they had guns – and dogs. Harold loved dogs back home, but hated these dogs. These shepherds were extensions of the SS, trained to attack any man who got “too” out of line – or not out of line at all. But the guards didn’t seem to need any real excuse to beat, or even kill, Americans. When a soldier was killed by an SS, some men with their spirits beaten down would say, “They shouldn’t have ran,” or, “They shouldn’t have tried to escape.” But there was no need to use such forces on men who weren’t even granted three square meals a day – Harold knew that. With the camp population swelling further beyond capacity each week, and the German rations cut in half only a month earlier, tensions continued to escalate across the camp with tangible force. 

“This is due to the rich supply of the Red Cross food,” Commandant Kuhn said, pleased with himself. He looked for any excuse to make the men suffer wherever possible, wherever he could squeeze them a little tighter. 

The lack of food, the cold, and the three doctors available to the Americans made some of the men begin to lose their minds. One prisoner was admitted for being mentally ill. The other men  had noticed for a while, their fellow slowly and surely slipped into a state of delusions and paranoia. The doctors available to the camps weren’t trained in this type of condition. Harold felt sorry for the man, unable to discern real from fake. Then again, Harold often woke up wondering whether or not he was truly living in Stalag XVII-B, even after almost a year of imprisonment. When the man was finally admitted, they wished him well and hoped he would gain some healing in the medical ward; at least he was safe there in his hospital gown.

One bitter morning in March was broken with screams. A French doctor tried to calm the mentally disturbed prisoner, but it was obvious that the man was disillusioned. The prisoners – those feeling well enough to rouse from bed that early – made their ways through the freezing barracks to see what was happening in the twilight of morning. The shouting only got louder until Harold and the others saw the shadow of the patient run towards the boundary fence, his feet crunching and catching in the frozen, muddied ground. A guard, on alert, began to yell at the prisoner, only frightening him more as he picked up speed and ran faster in his hospital pajamas away from the medical barracks. His dressings flapped around in the bitter cold. Clearly he was ill to be running in such minimal clothes.

“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! He is ill!” The French doctor chased after the man, waving his arms to garner attention from the SS who at that point released his pistol from the holster. The patient huffed to a part of the fence – free of electrical charge – and began to climb. Frantic, the doctor began to yell louder and higher pitched, to get the patient to get down off the fence. He was pleading, screaming for the SS to hold fire for the man was clearly out of his mind. 

“No! No!” The men watched from the barracks, helpless to the situation. If they left their barracks they’d be beaten, maybe even shot themselves. They looked on at this twisted dance between SS, doctor, and sick man.

A loud crack rang out, piercing the morning air. Smoke trailed from the barrel of the guard’s pistol like a snake as the doctor slowed down and looked on, his hands limp at his sides. A dog, startled by the gunshot, began to bark and its shrill cries stung Harold’s ears. The patient, upon hearing the screams of the doctor, turned around on the fence to look behind him. The SS took the opportunity and shot the man through his heart. He exhaled hard. They were far away but Harold could see the victim’s hot, white breath curl from his mouth and up into the morning as if his soul was leaving his body. His hand released from the fencing, his body falling limp and bloody onto the frozen ground. The doctor, who hadn’t stopped running, arrived to his aid. 

“You killed him!” He knelt into the dirt and held the dead man’s head in his hands. He cursed the guard in French. The blood soaked through the hospital pajamas and for only a moment, Harold wondered if they would discard the clothing or recycle it for the next patient. The guard said nothing right away, only holstered his pistol before instructing the doctor and other guards to dispose of the body. The men in the barracks looked on, said nothing, and eventually peeled themselves from their witness stands and returned to their bunks – dead men walking. They could never win in here, it seemed.  

Mind Games

The next morning – to the prisoners’ surprise – started the same. Dawn was interrupted with the deafening sounds of alarms, and the men funneled out of their barracks once again to the parade grounds. The dirt was solid and uneven from all the tracks of the previous day, and Harold stumbled over himself – as did many of the others – while they formed in line. Guards presented themselves through the haze of daybreak with the exact same orders as the day before. Many men hesitated, for fear of deceit again, while many others turned around and gathered as much as they could for whatever impending journey lay ahead. Harold still had Loretta’s note in his breast pocket from the day before. He grabbed canned food from the Red Cross, his cover, his jacket, and packed it all haphazardly before returning out into the morning chill. The rest of the men did almost the same, gathering what they wanted and needed, then turning to face the biting winter once again.

The sun rose high, but today there was a breeze. The men fidgeted around, not for lack of patience, but from cold and exhaustion. Their packs grew heavy; many men rested their belongings on the dirt while they waited, once again, for the guards to herd them out of XVII-B. After what felt like an eternity, the prisoners were met by the same guard as the day before.

“Alright! Back to your barracks!” 

More confusion and anger rose among the crowds of men who realized the German guards were playing games with them, as if they were fat house cats and the prisoners were their prey. They didn’t put up a fight – most eager to escape the wind. Harold turned and followed his bunkmates back to the barracks, where he returned his pack. This time, though, he left it ready. 

“What in the hell do you think they’re tryin’ to do to us?” The men were gathered around their stove in a small group.

“They’re tryna’ control us, that’s what,” one suggested.

“I think they’re trying to remind us who’s in control, you know? First, they cut our rations. Now, they have us standing outside in the freezing cold with the fear we may be marching on into the elements? They want us scared, I’d say.” The prisoner rubbed his hands together and politely pushed his way forward towards the stove; it was burning straw taken from some of the mattresses and wood from a knock-down barrack that the Germans decided was too close to the fences. 

“Whatever it is, I don’t like it.” None of the men liked it. Harold shook his head. He had nothing to say this evening. He was just as beat up as the rest of his bunkmates with the threat of leaving. He tried to suppress the fear of never seeing Loretta. 

On the third morning, the men almost expected an alarm – and that’s exactly what they received.

“Aw man well isn’t this just horse shit,” one man shouted from his bunk; it was below freezing, and they were all exhausted from the half rations and exposure to the elements. Slow and lamenting, the prisoners got up out of bed and – before they were told to – packed up small miscellaneous items to bring with them outside.

“Might as well beat ‘em to the punch, huh, Red?” Harold nodded and picked up his pack, left full from the day before. 

Once outside the men were told to stay in formation on the parade grounds, as expected. The sun was almost completely up over the horizon and they were grateful for no wind. Then, to their surprise, guards walked past them and towards the barracks.

“Bunk checks!” The guard from the previous two days had a diabolical smile on his face. As the prisoners helplessly looked on, a swarm of Germans entered their barracks. They turned in place as they heard items overturn behind them and things scatter across the plank floors. 

After about an hour of dreaded anticipation, the men were instructed to, for the final time, return to their barracks. They scrambled in a mad dash back to their bunks only to find the guards ransacked their living quarters. Harold, having most of his belongings in his pack from the night before looked on as many of the men shouted in anger at missing food, clothing, and blankets. He, too, was missing canned goods left behind and other small Red Cross items.

“Those sons-a-bitches!” The men desperately threw their bedding around while others yelled out in anger.

“They stole from us! They stole our Red Cross supplies! They took it all!” A man, a few feet from Harold, fell to his knees and wailed. 

“They’re going to try to starve us to death. Those bastards.” He put his head in his hands and Harold watched as his bony shoulders jutted up and down under his thin, dirty shirt. Harold sat down on his bed, his rucksack still around his shoulders. He stared into the chaos before him. Some men were like him and kept their bags packed from the night before, but most weren’t so lucky. Thousands of items missing, all in an hour or so – and there was nothing they could do about it. He was in disbelief. They had to get the Man of Confidence to file a formal complaint. They had to do something – get their rations back – anything. He touched his breast pocket again. Loretta was still with him and that was a good thing in all this, he thought. The day was looking grim; he wasn’t sure how much more he could take. 

Unfamiliar Territory

Unfamiliar Territory

Well, fellas, here she is.”

Harold, Kelley, and crew all stood before their new B-17, Classy Chassis. It was originally operated by a pilot, Alexander, who was to replace Topin as copilot while Kelley took over his seat as the captain. Jack and Ned gandered at the damaged Shack Up. “Good job, boys. You broke the plane.” Jack stood with his hands on his hips and cocked his head dramatically and comically to the side. It reminded Harold of his mother when he and Arthur would get in trouble as young boys; she would reprimand Harold for something his brother did, and vice versa. Harold would defend himself and then ask his mother to dress them differently. The group laughed at Jack’s comment because it was funny, but also because they were still in shock that they managed to land the plane. 

“Where’s your digit?” Jack pointed to Harold’s bandaged hand. 

“I dunno, somewhere near Dusseldorf, if I had to guess.” Jack laughed, “You boys ready for this one we got coming up? Dropping in on Kassel. Going to give those Jerry’s a nice wake-up.” Jack and Ned were set up to fly into Kassel and drop several tons of bombs in their wake; each B-17 was capable of carrying up to three tons. They hoped to be home that afternoon. Harold had a letter to write back home to Loretta. 

Several days prior the Allied forces began an operation against German ball-bearing and aircraft factories. Ball-bearings were vital to the aviation industry, and used in just about all machinery. This factory in particular was assembling FW-190’s. It was speculated that the Focke-Wulf was the best single engine fighter aircraft of the war. The FW-190 took its first flight in 1939, and since then its appearance over the skies always left a little extra tension in the already strung-out airmen. If they successfully destroyed these, they could begin the process of sweeping out Germany – at least in the sky. By 1943, Germany was already wavering on its pedestal, with more and more propaganda highlighting Hitler as unstable, his people starving – and as a result more and more Jews and minorities were unjustly punished. The killing of innocent people only increased as the end of World War II – hopefully – approached.

The ships took off out of Ipswich early July 30th. Kelley and his crew departed for Germany just after eight in the morning. The low roar of the plane shook Harold with a slight uneasiness – the same uneasiness he felt each time he went up in the sky. It had only been a couple of days since their previous plane went down – but this was war and a job had to be done. If they were successful in their mission, there wouldn’t be so many planes to worry about shooting them down, he reasoned. It would get done. 

Jack and Ned flew close by to Classy Chassis – two of over 100 bombers set to destroy the Junkers and Fieseler aircraft factories that sat just outside of a small village called Dorla. The B-17s did not have the protection of the Mustang fighter planes this time, and were resolved to defend themselves as well as each other. Daytime missions were always a risky run, sure, but they had luck on their side – especially following the July 28th mission. 

After flying into Germany, Classy Chassis began its mission. They turned north. These ships moved so smooth and elegant, Harold thought, as Kelley maneuvered Classy Chassis effortlessly to the drop location. The sinking feeling in Harold’s stomach came back, knowing the crew would have to fend for themselves, as well as being unreasonably deep in enemy territory. They were over the town of Bebra when suddenly an explosion rocked the left side of the Fortress. Harold was thrown to one side and the ball turret gunner ran to his station without saying a word. Through the ten-panel plexiglass the men saw fighter planes bob and weave about their formation. From below, German anti-aircraft weapons blew a hole straight through the wing of the plane. Engine number four was completely shredded and replaced only by smoke and flame. Flak pierced the metal and the crew screamed out in confusion and fear. The sound of metal ripping from the fuselage and wings was like if every train scheduled to pull into Jamaica Station back home came in at once without stopping. The men tried to steady themselves and Kelley fought to keep the nose even as thick, black smoke poured from the portside of their aircraft. Harold felt a deep, burning pain in his back but continued to look for something to shoot at. He jerked his wrists forward to choke up the sleeves of his bomber jacket and get a better grip on the turret gun when he noticed the gash on his arm. He gritted his teeth at the pain and yelled for direction, not knowing how many of the crew were still present. 

More smoke filled the ship. Sparks flashed and Harold began to find it difficult to see. Things looked grim; they still had a bomb shaft filled with artillery, and it was confirmed that two engines on the wing were torn clean off. Harold tried to desperately see if there were any other planes around them caught up in the mess. He wanted to see if Jack was out of harm’s way and on his route back to England.

Again, another explosion. A shell effortlessly ripped through the cockpit and the oxygen systems engaged. Electric was now completely lost and Kelley knew then that there was no hope for getting this ship back to England. They had been in the sky for just over an hour, trailing smoke like a bad omen across Germany. 

The controls were so damaged that they were flying a ticking time bomb if they stayed. Thinking quickly, Adams jumped into the bomb bay and used a large screw driver to wedge open the bomb shaft. All at once, the artillery dropped from the underside of the plane with no target in mind – the only goal to lighten the load and give the crew some more air time as they thought on what to do next. 

“Bail out! Bail out!” Kelley called from the cockpit as he made his way to the bomb bay. It seemed obvious at this point. He knew their situation was making them nothing more than an easier target for German fighter pilots. Jones ran over to radio an emergency message. By the time he returned to the front of the plane, the cockpit was empty – the rest of the crew had bailed out. Papers and wiring flew around and were sucked out into the sky as pieces of metal ripped from the fuselage. Jones found his way to the bomb bay and jumped.

One by one, the men descended onto Germany in different locations. They were separated, wounded, and far into enemy territory. Jack and Ned watched helplessly from the B-17 in front of Classy Chassis, his own crew avoiding flack and bullets from the Germans, and returning fire when they could. The parachutes disappeared among the trees as Jack counted and recounted how many he saw leave the Chassis, telling himself over again that Harold made it.

August 1, 1943

Sunday Night

RETURN TO SENDER

My Ha,

My darling, I’m home now. I was over your house today and your mother is feeling very well and cheerful. Erwin and Frances too. Bob, Irene, and the children were there also. They are well too and Diane is a little devil. God! She’s so cute when she’s naughty. She makes you laugh. I left your house around 8:30, bought an ice cream and moped home. The sky is very beautiful tonight and its countless stars are shining away. Several planes flew overhead and I tried to visualize my honey in one. Honey, I love you very, very, very much. I really think about you all the time darling, you are so nice. 

Honey, take good care of yourself as you belong to me. If you don’t get good meals, step out and buy one that is good. Keep well and don’t ever change.

Enclosed is the card where my place was at Erwin’s reception. I love the way that looks, my Mr. Schwerdt, don’t you?

Annamae Hennesey had a 9lb, some-odd ounces – baby boy. I’m so glad everything turned out so well for her!

I’m sorry this letter is in pencil, Ha. Gosh! I’m always apologizing huh! But I love you.

My regards to Jack and Ned.

Be good honey, I love you lots and lots.

Your,

Loretta

Welcoming Committee

July 7, 1943

My Darling Wife,

I love you with my whole heart and soul. If, by shining its light, the sun could express my love for you, you’d never see darkness. And if the tide would come in every time I think of you, the ocean would be constantly overflowing. Honey, I’m madly in love with you.

I completed the gunnery course and received my diploma yesterday. If we don’t have anything else honey, we’ll at least have enough diplomas to wallpaper our house with. 

Today, I arrived at my base, and immediately dashed off to the mail room. The last time I received mail was may 28. That’s some time ago, so you can imagine how much I appreciated your letters. I got 11 from you, 2 from Erwin, and 1 from Arty dated May 20. Honey, [you’re] swell for writing me so much, and I love you for it. I enjoyed your mail and consider every letter a treasure in itself.

I knew about the shower the girls were going to give you that Saturday and am very glad to learn you had a swell time. The presents we got interest me a great deal, and is the start of a new cottage whose occupants shall be none other than Mr. and Mrs. H.P. Schwerdt. Then, after a while, I hope the stork pays us a visit and leaves a baby Loretta. Gee honey, I love you. 

Honey, [you’re] swell for taking care of the cards and etc; anniversaries and buying presents for Father’s Day. [You’re] just wonderful sweetheart, and I think [you’re] the best wife there is. 

I have $100 on me, and will get a money order and send it to you tomorrow. I’d like to [enlighten] you as to my financial status, and think it best if we keep it a secret. I thought you knew, so here it comes. First of all, my base pay is $114. Then, I get $57 for flying, then, $22.80 for overseas duty, and for being married, I get $37.50. It comes to a total of $231.30 a month. From that, you get $100, my mother gets $25, and the government keeps $7 for insurance, which leaves me a total of $99.30. I’ll be able to send you a money order for $50 (I hope) every month. You should get $100 from the government about the middle of every month beginning with July. I hope this money situation pleases you and that you’re satisfied with it. 

I’m sending you all I can cause I’m all out for a little cottage for 2; or 3, or 4 or more.

My Darling, I love you lots and lots. I think of you all day and dream of you all night.

It’s [goodnight] sweetheart.

Your Honey and Husband

All my love,

Ha

xxxxxxx

P.S. I love you

Regards to all.

Nite Wifey.

Love 

The Shack Up – or Kelley’s crew, as they were known – already completed a handful of bombing missions over Germany throughout the month of July. Harold, a technical sergeant, gunner, and sometimes radio operator, began to live for the rush of a mission. The men would hustle into position and impatiently wait as they were cleared for take-off. He loved the power of the B-17, the Flying Fortress – the Ship – as she effortlessly maneuvered down the airstrip and glided up into the sky, swimming into the clouds in a graceful climb before dropping bombs on Axis forces. It was a beautiful dance; when he was training and flying over Kansas and Oklahoma, Harold often felt bored seeing the same flat, monotone land. He hoped for ground crew assignment because at least he’d have things to work with. Then, up in the sky on his first mission, he saw the unfortunate beauty of a war-torn Europe. He saw mountains, rivers, and bodies of water that all moved their own way, that all had their own shade of blue. He saw rolling plains – and he saw destruction. He bore witness to villages that were decimated, and cathedrals and synagogues reduced to nothing more than smoking rubble. He saw people running for their lives in unknown directions – trains taking innocent men, women, and children and transporting them away to far, unknown places from where they would surely not return. It was absolute chaos – beauty and chaos.

On July 28, the Shack Up went out for its sixth mission. They followed close with other Fortresses manned by men such as Jack and Ned. After they completed the mission, high on victory, the group of Airmen encountered fire from three German 187’s, armed, carrying the intent to damage and destroy whatever B-17s they could. The men quickly went to battle stations as they already began to feel the piercing of metal by the fighter plane’s guns. 

Harold went to his position at the turret when he noticed one of the 187’s wasn’t firing at them. Instead, he was climbing and descending, matching the altitude of the Shack Up and then pulling away to circle back. He watched the plane disappear to the aft of the aircraft and looked down, knowing what his eyes would already be met with – flak. These 88mm anti-aircraft cannons were waiting for the Fortresses, and the pilot of the 187 was radioing the altitude of the B-17 so they could get a more accurate shot on Kelley’s boys. This momentary distraction was interrupted when Harold heard the pang pang pang pang of bullets getting louder and closer to his turret. He heard a bullet whiz past his ear and hit the inside of the plane close behind him. Then, he felt a white-hot pain in his right hand. Harold looked down and was met only with blood. He gnashed his teeth at the pain. Harold picked his hand up to see his pinky had been shot off. 

A loud explosion rocked the Fortress and his attention went to Kelley’s shouts from the cockpit. 

“They hit the goddamn wing again! Engine out!” Kelley struggled with Topin to keep the plane aloft as it violently shook in the sky. Ping ping ping ping ping came back around and Harold quickly realized he could no longer move the turret gun automatically. When the 88mm ripped through the wing it must have blown out part of the electrical, he thought. There was fire and smoke as the flak ripped the wing like paper. He knew his right hand was no good for firing, so he swallowed the pain and began to manually crank the turret as he followed a 187 through the air, squeezing the trigger with his non-dominant hand, and returning fire with a 50 caliber. 

Pop pop pop pop pop! 

Black smoke began to billow out of the 187 and Harold felt relief once he saw flames engulf the wing of the aircraft. It sputtered and screamed as it jolted around in the sky – victory for Harold. The plane began to nosedive for the ground.

“We gotta get the hell out of here!” 

They continued on the best they could, pursued by the last remaining 187. Three of the four engines were out. Kelley managed to stabilize the plane long enough to land in Allied territory. All ten of the men bailed out, unaware of the extent of the damage or whether or not the Fortress would explode. As they ran, they heard the scream of the fighter above them as it doubled back over their heads. Harold looked up to the sun, ready to fight – or face his death. Shot out of the sky and then killed on the ground; he thought to himself this would be such an ironic way to die. The 187 dipped low. Then, reflecting in the summer sky, the pilot waved the wings of his plane – portside down, then starboard, righting himself once more to fly off back to his own base.

“I’ll be damned,” Kelley breathlessly said, “did he just wave goodbye?”

Harold stood a moment in shock, “Gee whiz!” Kelley brought attention to Harold’s bloodied hand. The other men took notice to check themselves over for any serious injuries. Luckily they were all intact; all the other men had ten fingers each. Harold remembered then the pain in his hand and grasped the missing finger. “It’s lost somewhere in Germany now.” He winced for a moment. The crew took off on foot to be intercepted by an emergency response crew that would take them back to their base in Knettishall. They walked with a purpose, breathless and coming down off the adrenaline of an air fight. 

“Close call boys.” 

The men later went and assessed the damage of the Shack Up. There were at least 60 flack holes that ran along the side of their pride and joy. Both wings would have to be replaced, and the back of the plane was almost completely blown off. The tail gunner sighed in his own disbelief, “I can’t believe I didn’t get blown right out of the sky!” Harold and the other waist gunner shook their heads, “She’s going to be out of commission for a while, huh.” The wings were relatively simple to replace, but they had other missions that needed to be carried out and the Shack Up wouldn’t be done in time for their next run on the 30th. 

Kelley shook his head.

“Looks like we need a new set of wings.”

Budding Love

The tall, narrow homes and straight brick buildings of Jamaica, Queens stood in neatened order like soldiers at attention. Each structure was uniform on the outside, save for little window boxes, a chain link fence, or the occasional vegetable garden. Inside the homes of Jamaica were varied with families bustling about, doing what daily tasks could be done in the Depression. Children ran barefoot, played hide and seek, or searched for an open space to play stickball. The Reilly family was one brood with five children – there were six, but the youngest passed away when he was very small. The Reilly children were known for having a mother on the police force – something not common. They were also known for swiping potatoes from the kitchen when their mother was at work and roasting them in back alleys and eating them plain. 

Only a few houses down from the Reilly’s, in an identical structure, was the Schwerdt family. The mother and father, both German immigrants who left before the first World War, raised a family of ten children, the youngest two being identical twins. The twin boys had bright red hair and bright blue eyes and their own mother was unable to tell them apart. Their father, John, was a brewer – and at one point a milkman – but in the economic downturn of the United States, his skills as a brewer were in great demand from the general working class. His wife, a homemaker, spent her days making and repairing clothes and raising ten children. 

This tangle of youths, generally unsupervised – especially in the summer months – made the most of their time by adventuring outside and exploring what there was to do for free in the Great Depression. They ran around in dirtied clothes, equal parts oblivious and affected by the poverty that haunted most families in the 1930s, not just the children of immigrants. 

One of the German twins, Harold, made his way to the playground at the end of the block. Oftentimes it was crowded with other children, but on this particular evening there seemed to be only a smattering of playmates. The sun sank behind the brick horizon that New York made as he reached a swing set occupied by one other.

“Hello,” the young girl said as he sat down on a swing, leaving one between them. “I like your hair.”

Harold felt himself blush. She was very pretty, maybe fourteen years old to his sixteen. 

“Thank you. I’m Harold. What’s your name?”

“Loretta,” she replied. The children sat in a comfortable silence, peppered by the squeak of swing chains, the scuff of dust below their feet, and the occasional honk of traffic. They learned their homes were very close, and Loretta believed she saw Harold a week earlier, down by an ice cream shop.

“Oh, that was probably Arthur, my identical twin. Y’know our own mother can’t tell us apart?” 

Loretta laughed. “Wow, identical twins. You must do everything together.” 

“Well, most things. He’s more of a prankster. My mother says I’m too serious for my age.” 

In the distance, towards the low glow of the setting sun, “Dinner!” was called. Loretta stirred a moment before hopping off her swing. 

“That’s my mother. It was nice meeting you.” 

“Maybe you can find me by the ice cream shop one day, and I’ll buy you a cone,” Harold said. He stood to tip his head to Loretta, and from the opposite direction of the block he heard, “Abendessen!” 

Loretta wrinkled her eyebrows. Harold shrugged a little and chuckled, a little embarrassed.  

“German. It means dinner.

“Oh,you speak German?”

“No, not really,” he admitted. “Our parents prefer us to speak English. But when my siblings and I are out and we hear someone hollering German, we know it’s our mother.”

“That is very clever,” Loretta laughed, “and ice cream sounds lovely.”

The two agreed to meet again at the playground towards the end of that week and before he left Harold took Loretta’s hand in his to shake.

“It was a pleasure meeting you, Loretta Reilly.”

“Likewise, Harold Schwerdt.” She pronounced his name Schwartz but he didn’t dare correct her. Harold believed, at sixteen, that he found love at first sight.

July 13, 1938

Dearest Harold,

I received your letter and was glad to hear from you. I was surprised you wrote so soon. Well, since your first topic was about the weather, I’ll be a copycat. At eight o’clock, Monday morning I was awakened by a large crash of thunder. What a storm it sent everyone out of their beds. It rained off and on all day, so I stayed in. Tuesday, I got up at ten thirty and it was so warm, I sat around and listened to the radio all day. Tuesday night Evelyn, Lil, and I went to see Albie. He has a heavy cold. Today, I got up at ten thirty and helped around the house, then to the playground. I stayed there about an hour then came home. Tonight, I went to a meeting, then to Nachlin’s. Later, Harry took several of us including Lil, Betty, Gert, Ed W., Eppie, and myself to the night baseball game on Hillside Ave. I go in at 11:30 and boy! Did I get a balling-out.

Now, I must ask you how is everyone, if they look as well as they did Sunday. They are swell. Oh! Pardon me. How are you? As far as missing you, I do (not). Hoping to see you soon I’ll close. 

Affectionately yours,

Your Honey (I hope)

Loretta (chubby in your eyes)

P.S. “The Old Gag.” Excuse pencil and paper writing –

Also, give regards to the family. 

(the perfume is my sister’s) xxx