“You think much about the war, Bob?” I asked.
We were flying at about 12,000 feet, carrying a cargo of farm equipment from San Diego to a rural airfield in Montana. Bob Nelson was a few years older than me, with gray-flecked black hair and Clark Gable good looks, right down to the Boston Blackie moustache. I envied him his looks, which were the opposite of my plain face and thinning, sandy hair. We both flew heavy bombers during the war. He piloted a B-24 and I co-piloted a B-17. Both aircraft were large, four-engine, long-range strategic bombers, and we both flew missions against many of the same targets in the fatherland of the Third Reich. The war had been over four years, and now we were flying a war-surplus C-47 filled with agricultural implements instead of bombs.
“Only in my nightmares,” Bob answered flatly. “You?”
“Try not to,” I said. “Sometimes it’s hard not to.”
Bob nodded but said nothing. His eyes scanned the instruments and he frowned, reached out, and tapped the glass face of each fuel gauge.
“Problem?” I asked.
Bob grunted. “We’re using fuel faster than I expected with this load.”
Weight played a key role in how fast an aircraft consumed fuel. Even a few extra pounds could throw off how much your ship would burn per hour. We were flying heavy, and we left the flight engineer behind to save weight and fuel. I checked my own calculations. They confirmed we were burning fuel faster than we should.
“Head wind?” I said.
“Yeah, probably,” Bob said. He shrugged, dismissing the topic. “We still have more than enough to get there.”
We were quiet after that. My mind mulled over my own thoughts and the events of the last several months.
“Lately, I’ve been thinking about our last mission,” I finally said. “At least our last mission with the old crew.”
Bob raised an eyebrow at that. “Old crew?”
“Our original crew,” I said. “The guys we went over there with. We were a lucky crew. We were three missions short of rotating home, and none of us had suffered a serious wound. But that last mission made up for all that good luck.”
“Where’d they send you?”
“My God,” Bob muttered.
Normally, when an aircrew got near to their last mission, the squadron assigned them to relatively safe milk runs. However, a shortage of bombers for the Stuttgart mission meant we ended up in the lineup.
After a while, Bob said, “Best not to think of it, Jim. The war’s over. We’ve got to get on with our lives.”
“Yeah, I know, but …”
Bob glanced at me sideways.
I rubbed my chin, thoughtful.
“I’ve been getting letters from my old skipper,” I said, “the pilot of my bomber. He loved that old crew, God knows why. I could never get close to most of them. Anyway, he loved them and, since there weren’t that many of us left, he always stayed in touch. Last year, he sent me a letter letting me know our radio operator, a guy named McKenzie, got himself murdered.”
“Yeah, according to Dave—that’s my old skipper, Dave MacIntosh—the police found McKenzie’s car abandoned in a national forest. After they searched for a while, they found McKenzie—well, his body—chained to a tree. They said it looked like someone force marched him through the forest in bare feet, then left him shackled to that tree to die of thirst or starvation.”
I stared out at a clear night sky, lit up with glittering stars.
“Funny, to go through the hell of war and survive, only to be killed by a madman,” I said.
“Like I said about the war,” Bob said, “best not to think of it.”
“Yeah, but a few months later, I got another letter from Dave,” I said. “This time it was O’Brien, our navigator, beaten to death.”