“Howie! Number 4 engine’s gone!” Lieutenant McCabe yelled over the loud drone of the functioning engines. Captain Howard Bauer looked out the window of the crippled B-17 to see the fourth engine’s propellers completely still with thick black smoke trailing out of the engine.
Howard wiped the sweat from his forehead and tightened his grip on the controls. The howl of wind coming through the 20mm cannon holes along the fuselage made any attempt to communicate a shouting match.
“We’re losing altitude,” McCabe continued as he frantically looked to Howard for a solution. The bomber seemed to shudder and groan like a dying beast barely able to hold itself up. The altimeter continued to circle down and the oceans slowly grew closer.
“Louie!” Howard shouted to his engineer, Sergeant Louis “Louie” Caltabiano “Get in back and throw everything that ain’t nailed down out the chute! Guns, radio, pull up the goddamn floorboards and shed some weight,” Howard said as he pulled back on the stick to try and gain some altitude. His whole body was stiff from the eight hours sitting in the cockpit and his head felt like a golf ball from all the rattle and thrashing he’d gone through. Most of the crew had been killed after they dropped their payload. The few that were still alive were as chewed up as their plane. But it didn’t matter; Howard was going to get them home.
“We should ditch!” McCabe said, panic growing in his voice.
“Not yet,” Howard replied, all of his attention on the gauges and controls. The two remaining engines strained under the weight of pulling the heavy plane through the air. The intercom squawked with the voice of Lieutenant Jim Walsh, the navigator.
“The cliffs should be on the horizon any second now,” he reported. Howard strained his eyes, trying to look past the horizon for England. They were too low to see it from far off but Howard knew they had to be close. The smell of burning gasoline crept into the cabin and stung his nostrils.
The altimeter spun down slower and slower as Louie threw more and more stuff out the side gunner’s window. Howard let a smile form on the corner of his mouth but he still held his breath. They weren’t safe yet but they were still in the sky. He’d been in some tough spots before but he always managed to come out alive. It would be ugly and there were wounds, but he wasn’t going to give up until the plane crashed or he got them back on the ground.
“I can see the coast! I can see the coast!” screamed McCabe as the cliffs appeared on the horizon. Howard felt a lightning bolt of euphoria rush through him. They were going to make it.
“It’s a beautiful coas-Oh shit! Engine 4 is burning!” McCabe yelled while pointing to the burning engine on the right wing.
“Plane’s fallin’ apart, Captain,” Walsh said through the intercom.
“This little baby’s gonna make it,” Louie replied, confident as always in the plane that he maintained. It didn’t matter that whole sections of it had been blown off, that it was leaking fuel or that two engines were dead; it was Louie’s plane and it would hold together. Howard liked having Louie on his crew. When everything was falling apart, it was always a relief to have at least one voice saying that things were going to be just fine.
The coast grew larger as the bomber drew near. Howard knew that they’d be in no shape to find a runway. That was a problem for once they got over land. The plane sighed and shuddered again as fragments of the right wing flew off. Howard ignored it. He didn’t fly through a sky full of flack and German fighters just to die here.
The cliffs were close enough to see. Howard’s chest tightened and he held his breath. The sweat was beading all over his face and time seemed to slow down. McCabe was shaking and had his eyes closed. Louie had come back to his spot and was praying to his lucky pinup screaming “here we go, baby!”
Howard pulled back as hard as he could. The bomber’s nose slowly crept up. He let out a scream as the plane cleared the English coast with maybe two hundred feet of clearance. This last effort was too much for the plane as a third engine gave out and the plane lurched down. Howard leveled out and powered down the engines. It was just in time as the plane belly-flopped onto the ground. The impact bucked Howard in his seat and the sound of screeching metal and crumbling earth deafened him. The plane slid through the countryside, leaving a trench of upturned ground in its wake.
After skidding across a few hundred feet of ground, the weary war machine came to a stop. Howard clambered out of his seat slowly. He felt like he was swimming in tar. McCabe was ahead of him, crawling on his hands and knees. The two pilots made their way out of the cockpit towards the back of the plane. Louie was dazed but alright. He grabbed his lucky pinup, kissed it and followed Howard to the back.
Walsh was still alive, but he’d broken his leg. The three helped their wounded comrade up and dragged him out of the wreck. With each movement, the dim haze wore off and the pain echoed across Howard’s body. He pushed the pain out of his mind and focused on escaping the wreck before it caught fire.
With one last effort, Howard and his crew pushed their way out of the bomber and fell in a pile onto the upturned dirt. The stench of sweat, gasoline and charred flesh was all around them. Howard could taste copper in his mouth. They groaned and heaved themselves away, inch by inch. They crawled until they were far enough away to feel fresh undisturbed grass on their hands. Nobody had any strength left to move. They all laid there, exhausted from the landing.
Howard rolled onto his back and looked up to see a sky devoid of any clouds. The only sound he could hear was the distant crackle of fire consuming his destroyed plane. Howard smiled faintly at the serene landscape they had intruded on.
We made it, boys. We made it home.