That brought him up short. “Well, let’s see now,” he said. “There’s, uh…uh…Okay, you can take ship number nine.”
I’d been bold because, hey, what could he do? It was war. They needed us. Would they lock me up? Send me home? Great—send me home! Bombers blew up, crews got lost at sea. War’s not glamorous. Send me home.
WHEN WE WEREN’T in the air I attended briefings and studied. I recall one lecture on emergency first aid for gunshot wounds, and bleeding control in general. Another covered offensive and defensive attacks against Zeroes. I took a class in meteorology and worked to perfect my instrument and compass skills. We practiced air-raid procedures and tear-gas alarms. I took skeet shooting at least once a week to learn to lead the target. The more I shot, the better chance I had of machine-gunning down a Zero. I also learned how to fly because Phil was promoted to first lieutenant and then let me log time at Superman ’s controls to qualify as the third pilot.
Otherwise, I spent my spare time working out, playing tennis, seeing movies at the base theater and in Honolulu, hanging out at the officers’ club, reading every Ellery Queen mystery I could get my hands on, shopping whenever I picked up my paycheck, listening to music or the radio, fooling around with my buddies, going to parties, checking out the nurses, making friends around the islands, and writing home. I missed my family terribly. Fortunately, I hadn’t left a wife or girlfriend behind, so with no emotional strings I figured I should live it up while I could.
I also stayed in top shape and ran along Kahuku Beach. With the pleurisy gone I felt better than ever. On the airfield and at an exhibition meet in Honolulu I ran a 4:12 with ease. If I’d lost ten pounds I could have run even faster. In fact, I ran so well in Hawaii that I got invitations from New York promoters to run against Gunder Haag, the top European miler. However, General Hap Arnold refused to grant me permission. The way he explained it, I was in a special bomb unit. Due to our sometimes secret and experimental missions, I couldn’t leave the island.
IN MID-APRIL 1943, at Kahuku Air Base, we learned we were about to make a big raid Down Under; during the war this referred not to Australia and environs but to southern Pacific islands. On the morning of April 18 I got up early and ran a mile on the beach, then did five 50-yard sprints. I reported with my flight crew to the alert room for a briefing and learned that our next assignment would be one of the longest ever.
Our orders were to fly from Oahu southwest to Canton Island, just below the Equator, refuel, then head southwest again to Funafuti, in the Ellice Islands group (now known as Tuvalu) in the south-central Pacific. Takeoff was at 13:00 hours. We checked the ship from A to Z but never got off the ground. Phil taxied too far on the runway and buried our left wheel in the mud. For two hours we struggled to get free, then had to change ships. Our new plane, number 143, had no radar, no belly turret, and no nose turret.
We bounced through two storms on the way but arrived safely at Canton Island, gassed up, ate, and left for Funafuti, an island maybe eight hundred yards wide surrounded by a series of small islets and completely covered with coconut and other tropical trees. Funafuti is where rescuers brought World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker after his plane went down on an important mission from the States to General MacArthur in the Pacific, and he spent twenty-seven days adrift, fighting the elements. That was a long drift and I’d always been amazed that he’d survived.
Funafuti’s natives were primitive Micronesians who lived as they had for almost five hundred years. They spoke no English but managed to say hello in the usual way: “Halowa.” Girls and boys no olderthan five smoked cigarettes, reminding me of my youth. Funafuti had a great swimming beach, if you didn’t
Raymond E. Feist, Janny Wurts