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Mr. Albertson has graced these pages with his graphic work previously.  Now he brings his vision with words.  I’m reminded of the quote, “Vengeance is mine sayeth the lord…”


Divine Wind


Bryce Albertson

     In 1281 AD, the Mongol hordes, having ravaged the continent of Asia, constructed a fleet of warships and turned their attention toward Japan.  Faced with certain annihilation, the Japanese were saved by a great typhoon that obliterated the Mongol fleet.  The Japanese gave this storm a name, one that means “Divine Wind”.

     Almost seven centuries later, a different storm was born.  Inheriting its name - and purpose - from its ancestor, it raged against the enemies of Japan, raining fire and death from on high, tearing their fleet asunder.

     The West trembled in fear.  They too would call this storm by name, and address it in its native tongue.

     They would call it “Kamikaze.”

*          *          *

Fall 1989

     The old man coughed violently.  “Inez, I ain’t got much longer in this worl-”

     “You hush, Mr. Fitz,” Inez commanded.  “Ain’t gonna be none of that dyin’ talk around me.”

     Inez had been one of the first girls to be bussed to a previously ‘whites only’ school where she had seen her share of fights.  She had raised five rowdy boys to be fine young men.  At five-foot-ten and over two hundred pounds, most people listened to her.

     “Inez, anybody look at me’d know-”

     Inez cut him off with a look that Fitz was all too familiar with.

     “Alright, dammit,” Fitz said as he elevated the head of his bed.  “I’m sorry... hey! You take me out to my duck pond?”

     “It ain’t your duck pond, and you just wanna smoke.”  Inez put her hands on her hips.  “You know them things gonna kill you.”

     “Ain’t nothin’ gonna kill me until I’m good and ready to go,” Fitz said before putting in his teeth.  As Inez helped him into his wheelchair, he said: “You one helluva woman.”

     Inez placed her hand on her chest, feigning shock. “You a old dog’s what you are!”

     Fitz curled his lips into a sly grin. “Old dogs learn alotta tricks in they time.”

     “You been sayin’ that for three years,” Inez said.  “That wrinkled thing ain’t worked in six.”

     “You wrong,” Fitz said.  “Been closer to ten.”

     They laughed together as Inez wheeled the old man down the hall.

     James William Fitzgerald had been a resident of the Sunnymead Center since cancer had devoured his wife five years prior.  He was none too happy with the idea of living there and had come to be known as “The Meanest Old Bastard Still Alive”.  Before his legs had gone south, he had always bowed in recognition when referred to as such.

     On reaching the end of the squat wooden pier, Fitz reached into his pocket and dug out his cigarettes and an old Zippo.



     “You believe in angels?”  Fitz asked and then sucked hard on his Pall Mall non-filter.

     Inez smiled.  “They’s all around us.”

     “Ever see one?”  Fitz looked into the dark face that lovingly towered over him.  “I mean, aside when you look in the mirror?”

     “You don’t stop, do you?”  Inez asked.  “You a dog alright, but you a smart dog... but no, I ain’t seen no angel.”

     “I have,” he said, “and ‘fore you get all wound up, I ain’t talking ‘bout dyin’.”

     “You better not, I’ll take your dusty butt back inside,” Inez said as she turned to watch a pair of mallards glide across the pond.

“So, when you see this angel?”

     “Just a little while ‘fore you started taking such good care of me, when I had my heart attack,” Fitz explained.  “He looked down at me, and said ‘It ain’t your time yet.  But when it comes, know that your Amy’s waitin’.’”

     “Ain’t that somethin’!” Inez said.  “Guess He thought you needed to hear that.”

     “More than you know,” Fitz said.  “When my time comes, I won’t be afraid.  No ma’am. Not no more.”

     Inez laughed.  “Like you was ever afraid of dyin’!”

     “For better’n forty years.”  Fitz said.

     “You know He’s been watchin’ over you since you was born,” Inez said, taking the old man’s hand as she sat down next to him on a wooden bench.

     “I know.  I lost my faith during the war.”

     “Lotta folk did.”

     “No,” he said.  “Lotta folk stopped believing in God.  Wondered how there could be a god let all them boys get killt, all them people die in the camps.  I knew he was there.”

     Fitz closed his eyes and took a deep drag, squeezing his eyes tighter as the words rolled off his tongue with the smoke.  “I hated him.”

     Inez dropped the old man’s hand as if she had mistakenly grabbed a Cottonmouth.  “It take a heart attack to change your mind?  You get scared of goin’ to hell and figure you repent?”

     “It ain’t like that!” Fitz said.

     Inez went to stand, but Fitz took her by the wrist and gently pulled her back down.  “Now you know better’n that,” he said.  “I didn’t get scared, I stopped bein’ scared.  I ain’t like most folks, them that think their heart attack some sorta punishment from God for bad livin’.  The day my ticker popped was the best day of my life.”

     “He prove he didn’t hate you back by sendin’ a angel?”

     Fitz sighed.  “You lookin’ at me like I’m crazy.  I’d think anybody say they was thankful for a heart attack was crazy, too.  But I’d seen me an angel before...”

      Inez leaned back against the bench.  “Now I know you pullin’ my leg.”

     “No ma’am,” Fitz said solemnly.  “You can call me a dog, but I be damned if you can call me a liar. You the closest thing to family I got now that Amy’s gone.  If you’d listen to an old man, I’d be grateful.”

     “You see me goin’ anywhere?” Inez asked.

     “I don’t know if I ever told you ‘bout the ‘Bama before.  If I have, you gonna hear it again... Now the ‘Bama Pride was a B-17 bomber.  She had thick armor, more’n a dozen .50 caliber machineguns and carried 8,000 pounds of ordinance.  Took ten men to keep that beast in the sky.

     “There was the pilot, Captain Edward Hawkes; he and I was in the cockpit.  He brought us home safe from eighteen missions.

     “Right under us was Johnson and Bello.  Johnson was navigator; Bello was bombardier.  Johnson was a nice guy, smart but stupid, if you know what I mean... and Bello was a wop, not that I got something against Italians.  Our radio op, Corelli, was Italian, too.  Good kid.  Corelli was Italian, Bello was a wop.

     “Our engineer was Sergeant Randall Reece.  Big fella.  The man could fix anything and he was one hell of a gunner in that top turret.

     “Billy and Walter was our waist gunners.  Couple of boys from Hattiesburg.    Coulda passed for brothers.   Hell, they fought like brothers, but they’d cover each other’s butts, too.  It was like ‘you ain’t kickin’ his ass, that’s my job!’  You know how brothers get...

     “Seamus O’Condell was our ball turret gunner.  Called him ‘Irish’.  Me and him was both part Irish, but he looked it: little fella, red hair and freckles... so he got saddled with the nickname.  There’s only two kinds of people you could get into a ball turret, drunks and lunatics.  Suppose Irish was a little a both.

     “Our tailgunner, Freddie Hart... weren’t no drunk about him.  He was the kind of guy you were glad was on your side, not cause he’s some sort of hero.  Your family back home was safer ‘cause he ain’t nowhere near ‘em.  Downed nineteen Zeros, confirmed.   Pulled two tours of duty, volunteered for his second.”

     “Volunteered!” Fitz coughed.  “Sonofabitch liked his job more than a Christian should.”

     “Now I don’t know if you know this, but Hart did: A tailgunner had about the same odds of livin’ through his first tour of duty as I do of kickin’ a field goal from forty yards, against the wind, with a bowlin’ ball.

     “I think Hart lived for as long as he did cause the Devil’d shit his shorts if he saw him comin’.  But God ain’t afraid of no man.   No matter how tough a sonofabitch he think he is, like it say in the Bible, we all equal when we in his sights. It was stormy that day...”

*          *          *

Winter 1944

     “How we doin on fuel, Cap?”  Walter’s voice cut through the static on my headset.   “Seems like we’ve been out here an awful long time.”

     Captain Hawkes was completely cool, as always.  “We’re fine, son. Just hang tight.  Johnson, according to your calculations, you know, the ones that put us over the rendezvous point an hour ago, how much longer before we start seeing some Seventeens?”

     Someone chuckled.

     “Sir, I’m doing the best I- these maps aren’t-”

     “Now son,” the captain interrupted, “are you suggesting that the US Army would provide us with bad intelligence?”

     The only ones not laughing by then were Johnson and Hawkes.  Johnson was wound too tight.  Hawkes never laughed at his own jokes.

     “Sir, after reviewing our flight plan, recalculating based on our heading and speed, figuring for-”

     “Spit it out!” Irish shouted from his turret.

     “Sergeant O’Condell,” the captain said in a firm but quiet tone, “Quit yelling in the radio before we’re all as deaf as you are.”

     Johnson sighed.  “I don’t think were gonna see any Seventeens out here.”

     Hawkes was growing impatient.  “Johnson, where are we?”

     “Sir, we appear to be about seventy miles east of Ponape.”

     “Johnson!”  Hawkes shouted.  “Why are we this far out?”

     “Sir, it’s the maps!”

     “Shut up, dammit!”  Hawkes shouted.

     “Stop shouting through the radio-o-o-o,” Hart quipped with a poorly executed stage echo.  “This episode of ‘Where the Hell in the South Pacific Are We?’ has been brought to you by the Ford Motor Company, makers of fine-”

     “This is no time for your shit, Hart,” the Captain said.

“Gentlemen, we’re three hundred miles off course.  I’m going to take us below these clouds and try to find a landmark.  Those Japs are used to this kind of weather, so keep your eyes open.  We’ve got plenty of gas to get back, but we won’t make the drop sight.  Colonel Frakes is gonna shit a goose when we get back fully loaded and say ‘we got lost.’  Any ideas?”

     “I’ve fixed the bay doors often enough, I’m sure I can break ‘em once,” Bello said.  “We say the doors wouldn’t open and we couldn’t deploy.  Out of how many... Two hundred planes?  Think they’ll notice we weren’t there?”

     “Boys in the hangar’ll be proud of us for not scratchin’ the paint,” I said before switching off my radio.  “Ed, I don’t trust Bello to rig them doors any more’n I’d trust him with my sister.”

     Hawkes switched off his radio. “You have a better idea?”

     “We tell ‘em we deployed on a surfaced sub.”

     Hawkes smiled.  “It’s about time you proved useful.”

     “I’m plenty useful.”  I grinned back.  “Ask yer wife.”

     Hawkes turned his radio on.  “Bello, hold off on that monkey wrench, we’re gonna do some fishing.  Those bombs are gonna sink so we’ll have to settle for flounder.”

     Bello chuckled.  “Understood, Sir!”

     Hart’s joke, better timed, echoed through the fuselage.  “Stop shouting through the radio-o-o...”

     I heard a metallic click through my headset.  Someone had chambered a round.

     “We have guests, gentleman,” Irish barked.

     Hart snapped back his bolts, loading a round into both .50cals.  “Where, Irish?”

     “Three O’clock and low, Hart.  Outta your territory.”

     “I see ‘em,” Billy said.

     “Anyone care to fill me in?” Hawkes asked.

     “I got two at three O’clock, still low, maybe they didn’t...” Billy paused.  “Shit!  They see us... they’re climbing.”

     “So are we,” said Hawkes.  “Go to O2, boys.  Let’s see if those Nips like the cold.”

     Hawkes knew that the only planes out this far from land would be Zeros.  The Mitsubishi Zero had a low service ceiling.   They’d have to give up the chase or choke the life out of their engines.  The Japanese Imperial Navy had a nasty habit of pinning medals to pieces of pilots, so I knew they wouldn’t be afraid of a collision with us in the clouds.  We were in for a rough ride.

     “Another on our six and low, boys,” Hart said, a hint of excitement creeping into his voice.

     “Oh Sh-” Reece’s voice was drowned out by machinegun fire, a sudden sputtering of impacts and lastly the shriek of a Zero’s engine as it dived past.

     “Reece, you okay?”  I asked.

     “No major damage,” he said.  “Dropped outta the clouds on top of me!”

     Irish rattled off a few rounds.  “I’m on him... he’s climbing...”

     The Zero came roaring back and opened fire, but he’d lost the element of surprise.  With six .50 caliber machineguns brought to bear, the doomed pilot never stood a chance.

     The Zero smoked and went into a spin.  Another exploded like a piñata, raining shrapnel and pilot like candy and streamers.  Over the hail of gunfire, I could hear Hart.  Though I couldn’t make out his words, I could tell he was singing.

     “Should be above their ceiling soon,” I said as shells rained down on both sides of our waist.

     “Nailed him!  The other’s running scared,” shouted Walter.  “That’s six!  Someone wanna confirm that?”

     From the tail, twin .50’s continued to thump.

     “You missed,” said Hart.

     Walter was fumed. “What the hell do you mean I missed?”

     “Confirmed,” Reece said.  “I saw him smoke.”

     “Who’s still firing?” Captain Hawkes asked.

     “It’s Hart,” Reece said.

     “Hart,” Hawkes commanded, “tell me why you’re wasting shells.”

     “I’m not wasting shells,” Hart said in an arrogant huff.

     “Then what are you firing on?”

     “A Jap,” Hart said, continuing to fire.  “Uh oh... bye-bye!  He’s goin’ down!  That’s nineteen for me.”

     “What’s going on, was there a plane or not?”  Cap was pissed.

     “I couldn’t see one,” Irish paused.  “Oh my God... Hart... Oh God...”

     Hawkes gritted his teeth.  “What the Hell were you shooting at, Hart?”

     I practically heard the sadistic smile twist across Hart’s face as he said, “A Jap.”

     Irish choked on his words.  “It was a parachute, sir.”

     The radio chatter fell eerily silent.

     “Anyone gonna confirm that one?” Hart laughed.

     “It’s confirmed,” Reece said, his voice little more than a growl.

“Confirmed that you’re heartless!”

     “Like the Slopes were so fucking humanitarian at Pearl,” Hart spat.  “If Walt and the Mick weren’t such lousy shots, I wouldn’t have to clean up their mess!”

     “Fuck you, psycho!”  Irish was pounding on his turret ceiling.

     “If I could turn these guns around,” Hart screamed, “I’d blow your fucking coward guts all over this goddam ocean!”

     The thunderclap in my headset deafened me as someone’s radio crashed to the deck.  I bolted from my seat.  Hart was a bastard, but I wasn’t going to let anyone throw him out at 35,000 feet.  I squeezed through the radio room and into the waist. I expected to see two men squared off, but Hart hadn’t bothered to leave his guns and Reece was stopped cold.  Walter had Bill’s head cradled in his lap.  He looked up at me, tears welling in his eyes.

     “Billy’s hit,” he said.

     Bill coughed up dark blood.  The look in his eyes told me what had happened before I saw the wound.  He had been gutshot.  He tried to say something, but I couldn’t hear it.  Walter bent close to him, then reached into the left breast pocket of Bill’s leather flight jacket and took out an envelope.

     Bill weakly raised his hand and pointed at me.  Walter looked at him, almost hurting, then handed me the letter.

     “Okay, Bill,” I said.  “But we ain’t even gonna think bout that.  We gonna get you home, son.  You just take her easy, now, okay?”

     Walter smiled at Bill and tried to reassure him. Bill smiled back and let go of his wound, his face going slack as his intestines spilled across the catwalk.

     “Walt,” I said too quietly to be heard over the engines.  I was starting to get claustrophobic and quite lightheaded, more from the grisly scene than the altitude.  “Walt,” I said again, more loudly.

     Walter choked out an acknowledgment.  “Yes, sir?”

     “What’d Bill say?”

     “He said he was sorry ‘bout the letter,” Walter said.  “I understand, though.”

     There was nothing I could say.  Walter was an only child.  His father had died in the trenches of the last big one, his mother of TB.  Bill was the closest thing that Walter had to a family.  With Bill gone, Walter was alone again, and no one was on the right waist gun.  Bill wanted his letter to make it home, and he figured Walter wouldn’t live long enough to get it there.

     Reece knelt.  “Gotta let him go, Walt.”

     “I know,” Walter said.  “I can’t...”

     “Yes you can,” Reece said as he laid his massive hand on Walter’s shoulder.

     “It’s not that,” Walter said.  “I just... I can’t bag him.”

     “Walt,” I said.  “Man the top turret for a few, we’re blind up there.”

     Walter muttered, “Yeah,” then obeyed.  I wasn’t gonna give him grief for not responding with ‘Yes, Sir.’  He needed some time and all that would be above us this far from land were the stars.  That and he’d have a chance to stand up straight for a few.  Reece and I bagged Billy’s remains and strapped them into a chair in the radio room.

     I turned to Reece.  “About Sergeant Hart...”

     “Don’t worry, Sir,” Reece said.  “He’s not worth going to Leavenworth over.”

     “He’ll get his when brass sees my report.”

     “No offense, sir, but I doubt it.”

     “So do I.”  I sighed.  “Check on Irish.  I’m gonna take Hart out to the woodshed.”

     “We city folk beat our kids in the cellar,” Reece said and offered a half-hearted smile.

     “Thanks, Reece,” I said as I turned to deal with one of the more unpleasant aspects of my job.

     Hart surely heard me coming, my footfalls being anything but gingerly.  Even so, the bastard had the nerve to act surprised, even cheerful as he knelt at his post.

     He looked over his shoulder.  “Hey, Cap’n Fitz!  Shouldn’t we hold off on the ceremony ‘til we land?  I mean, the Silver Star is a big de-”

     I grabbed the collar of Hart’s flight jacket and yanked, slamming his head into the fuselage like the clapper in a church bell.  I dragged him from his gunnery station, which was all I had meant to do.  Giving Hart a humdinger of a headache was an accident, but it felt damn good.

     I jerked Hart to his knees and pinned him against the fuselage, keeping my back to the cockpit as much as possible.  If it came to blows, I’d have at least a little room to move.  Keeping Hart pinned in the tail also meant he’d be forced to look up at me, at least physically.  “What the Hell is wrong with you?”

     Hart curled his left hand into a fist and made to raise it.  I must have smiled.  He never followed through with the punch.  Instead, he curled his arms like a boxer and prepared for the worst.

     Hart was many things, but he wasn’t stupid.  Had an IQ of 146.  I knew this because of how damn much he went on about being a ‘genius’.  Striking an officer was punishable by hard time and plenty of it.  He knew I was baiting him and he wasn’t going to give me the pleasure.

     I grabbed a strap of his flight helmet, wrestled him to the floor and pressed his face into the hard black rubber of the floor as I explained how things were going to be.

     I had been a drill instructor five years.  Hart didn’t stand a chance.

     “Hart!  You’ve gotta be the stupidest sonofabitch alive,” I said, knowing Hart’s ego would sting long after his face quit.  “When we land, I’m gonna thoroughly abuse the privileges of my rank on you, understand... boy?”

     Hart thrashed beneath me but said nothing articulate.

     “I asked you a question!  Do us all a favor and lose your voice?”

     “No sir!” Hart barked.

     “You mean you don’t understand?” I asked, pressing his face against the floor a little harder.

     “Sir, that’s not what-”

     “I didn’t ask for no explanation! Answer my question!”


     “If you lost your voice how come I still hear you?”

     “Sir, I didn’t lose my voice I -”

     “I told you I didn’t want no explanations!  How stupid are you?”

     “Sir, I’m not stup-” Hart shouted.

     “You callin’ me a liar, boy?”

     “Sir, what do you want me to say?”

     “Not a goddam thing, now shut up!  Do you understand?”

     Hart didn’t answer.

     “I asked you a question, boy!”

     “Sir, I understand your order!”

     “My order was to shut up the fuck up, Sergeant Hart!  You understand?  Answer me, goddammit!”

     When Hart answered his voice cracked and sounded like a schoolgirl pretending she’s Sergeant Rock.  “Sir, I understand sir!”

     “Get your ass back to your post!”


     “Back!  To!  Your!  Post!” I was so fired up that I emphasized each word with a swift boot.  Hart wasn’t gonna shit right for a week.

     Hart crawled back to his precious guns.  I turned to head back to the cockpit and noticed Irish and Reece staring at me wearing smug looks of satisfaction.

     “Don’t you two have something to do?”

     “Sir, Yes sir,” Irish said as his head disappeared into the turret.  Reece just smiled.

     “Reece,” I said, my voice flat from exhaustion.  “See if Walt is ready to resume his post.   Check on him every fifteen minutes unless we’re in a fight.  Clear?”

     “Sir, Yes sir,” Reece said, still grinning.

     Hawkes flashed me a look as I squeezed back into the cockpit. “What happened back there?”

     “The official version is gonna say Hart fell,” I said.  “You figure out where we are yet?”

     “Not yet,” said Hawkes.  “We’re setting a course south until this storm clears.”

     I sat and closed my eyes, trusting Hawkes to wake me if he needed me.  I didn’t sleep long.

     “We find land?”  I asked and rubbed my eyes.

     Hawkes beamed at me, “Yup. Hostile.”

     “Oh Christ!”

     “Relax,” Hawkes said.  “Just a handful of regulars.  No air support.”

     I put on my headset.  Turning to Hawkes I asked, “You tell the boys?”

     “Yeah,” said Hawkes. “We’re gonna take another pass and confirm.”

     We descended on the island.  A small detachment of soldiers opened fire with small arms.  We were safely over water and out of range in a few seconds.  The ‘Bama circled the island like a bull shark would a wounded seal.  I didn’t like what I saw.  The Japanese camp was in the middle of a fishing village.

     “I don’t like it, Ed,” I said to Captain Hawkes.  Switching on my radio, I said, “There’s not enough of ‘em. It’s a waste of ordinance.  Too many civilians.”

     “Bullshit!” said Walter.  “We should deploy, right here right now.”

     Voices chattered in my headset, some for and some against.  Hawkes called for quiet and got it.

     “Well, boys,” Hawkes said, “America’s a democracy.  We’ll vote.  Count off and give your reply.  Hart, you’re up.”

     “One,” Hart said without hesitation. “Aye.”

     The rest of the crew checked in and gave their answers, Hawkes saving his response for a tiebreaker.  It wasn’t necessary.  The nay’s, consisting of Reece, Irish and I were easily outnumbered, with or without the captain’s vote.

     “Then it’s decided,” Hawkes said, gaining some distance from the island.  He circled the ‘Bama out wide and centered his approach.  “Switching control to the Norden.  Bello, the bird’s yours.”

     I sat helplessly as Bello guided the plane over the target.  I felt the altitude dip as the doors opened, then jerk upward as the bombs fell away from the plane.

     I didn’t need to see what was happening below.  It was the same thing every time.  They ran screaming, but nothing could out run the horror that our incendiaries spat across the island.  We had opened the gates to Hell and given soldiers and children alike a free pass.

     “Well,” said Hawkes, “We found a target.”

     I was stunned. “There were children down there, Ed.”

     Hawkes remained stone-faced.  “They would’ve grown up to be soldiers, anyway.”

     A crackle of static came through my headphones.  “I know where we are,” Johnson said.  “Make your course 174.  We should come up on Guadalcanal in four hours.”

     Hawkes brought us up above the ceiling of the Japs’ carrier-based fighters and corrected course.

     Hart’s voice broke the silence.  “Inbound fighter, low at six.  Climbing.”

     “Hart, that Zeke won’t make it up here,” Hawkes said as we came into some light clouds.  “He’ll choke before he can get a shot off.”

     “He sure as Hell looks like he’s gonna try,” Irish said.

     “Lost him in the cloud,” Hart said.  Jesus!

     I heard the thunder of Hart’s guns echoing up from the tail as he fired in a continuous frenzy.

     “Hart,” Irish shouted. “Lay off!  Don’t shoot your barrels out.  Hart?  Hart!”

     The firing stopped as abruptly as it had started.

     “What just happened?”  I asked.  “Hart?”

     No answer.

     “Reece, check it out.”

     “Yes, sir,” Reece replied.

     After a few moments, Walter said, “Sir?  We got a problem.  You might wanna come back here.”

     I scrambled to the tail expecting to see Hart dripping from all sides of the tailgunner’s nook. I was wrong. Reece had pulled Hart out and was shaking him by the collar of his flight jacket.

     “Hart, say something.  Wake up,” Reece said to the terrified gunner.

     Hart stared, slack-jawed, eyes wide.  So pale I thought he was dead.  Then he started screaming.

     “Hart, calm down,” Reece said, holding the trembling gunner at arm’s length.

     “Reece, take his guns.” I said and turned to Hart.   “Hey... hey... calm down buddy... what’s wrong?”

     Hart whimpered. “Not a man... It’s not a man...”

     That didn’t surprise me.  The Japs were desperate for pilots.  They wouldn’t be if they’d quit welding their canopies shut.  “I figured you for the sort that’d enjoy shooting a woman for a change.”

     Hart didn’t laugh, he screamed.  Not human!

     “What the hell is wro-”

     “It’s not Hart,” Reece said.  “It’s his air.  Piece of shrapnel cut his O2 line, right close to the tank.”

     “This is your lucky day,” I said, giving Hart my oxygen mask.

     “No Cap,” he said.  “It’s not... not human.”

     “You been sucking clouds for who knows how long,” I said.  “You ain’t got your head on right.”

     “Another half-inch and that shrapnel woulda hit the tank,” Reece added.  “You wouldn’t be breathing at all.  I patched your line.  You should be fine.”

     I clapped Hart on the shoulder.  “Hear that? You’re gonna be fine.  Now I need you to get ba-”

     Hart shook his head violently.

     “Hart,” I said as calmly as possible, “Either get your ass together and back on those guns or I’ll have you court-martialed for desertion when we land.”

     Hart stopped shaking and just stared at me for a moment. It startled me when he chuckled before turning to stare out the aft gunnery port.  He smiled.  “We ain’t gonna land, Cap.”

     “What the Hell are you talking about, Hart?”  I said.  “We’re almost home.”

     Hart slowly turned his head to face me.  His smile faded.  The look in his eyes still scares me when I think about it. “He’s coming back for me,” he said.  “He’s coming for all of us.”

     From out of nowhere, the Zero’s cannons battered the ‘Bama like a hailstorm.  She pitched and tried to climb.

     Something was wrong.  I dropped Hart and tried to reach the cabin, but the angle quickly became too steep and I had to hang on an ammo box to keep from sliding back into the tail.  The Cyclones groaned in agony as we passed our service ceiling.  Numbers one and four dropped.  Three began to choke.  I felt our climb stop.  The ‘Bama stalled.

     As we plummeted from the sky, the ‘Bama pitched forward and before I could react Reece, Hart and I were flung forward, smashing into Walt.  The whole tangled mess of limbs crashed into the radio room wall.  I dragged myself from under Hart, dropped through the radio room and empty bomb bay and pulled myself into the cabin.  Hawkes was slumped forward, held in place by his seatbelt.

     I struggled into the copilot’s seat.  Desperately, I feathered the props... tried to restart the engines, yanking the emergency fuel pump in a rabid fit as our altitude dropped to 20,000 feet... 18,000 feet... 15,000 feet... I tucked her into a steeper dive and tried again.  I was ready to give the order to bail when two and four sprung to life.  Unfeathering the props, I yanked back on the column, leveling the ‘Bama around eight thousand feet.

     “Everyone still with me back there?”  I asked as I began to take the ‘Bama back up to a safe altitude.  Irish, Bello and Johnson checked in over the radio.  Hart and Reece poked their heads into the cockpit.  I sent Reece to check on Walt and Corelli.

     Hart looked away when the captain’s lifeless body slumped back.  There would be little left to bury.

     “Hart,” I asked, “are you gonna be okay?”

     Hart said nothing for a moment.  He glanced up at me and finally said, “Yeah.”

     “I don’t like you much, but we need you,” I said.

     “Sir, I understand.  I don’t like you, either,” Hart said and turned to leave, then added with a hint of venom, “sir.”

     I stared out the starboard window, trying to avoid the reality of what was still strapped in next to me, pooling under my boots, gumming up the controls... what added an even redder tint to my view of the Pacific sunset.

     “Walt broke his neck,” Reece said.  “Corelli didn’t suffer, either.”

     I didn’t ask how he knew.  Reece took a deep breath from the spare oxygen tank, cut Hawkes’s seatbelt then dragged him toward the bay, leaving me alone with the sound of engines and air that rushed in through what could have been a million holes in the fuselage.  Then came a low murmur over the radio.  It was Irish.  He was praying.

     Suddenly, the Zero dropped in front of us, coming at us head on.  The Bendix chin turret roared to life as Bello opened fire.  The Zero’s cannons flashed and knew I was dead.  I shut my eyes and shoved the steering column down as hard as I could.  The Zero’s engine screamed as it climbed over us.  Reece’s .50 cals spat twice then went silent.

     Reece checked in. “Missed.”

     Johnson’s voice barely cut through the noise of the wind.  “Bello’s dead!  Most of the nose is gone!”

     “Get outta there before you freeze,” I said.

     A moment later, Johnson climbed into the cockpit.

     “You okay?”

     “No sir, I’m not,” he said.  “Bello got him.”

     “He must have missed,” I said.

     Johnson was shaking.  “He unloaded on him!”

     I flipped on my radio.  “Reece, where’s that Zeke?”

     Reece’s voice crackled through the static.  “He rolled and dropped.”

     “Bullshit!”  Hart shouted.  “I would’ve seen him if he dropped!”

     Johnson grabbed my arm and stared me down, speaking in a voice almost too low to hear.  “I saw it.  Bello hit the canopy.  He shouldn’t be flying.  He should be dead...”

     Johnson went white.  “He is dead...”

     The percussive sound of machinegun fire ripped through the ‘Bama as what remained of my airgunner crew lit the darkening sky to the port side.

     “Got em,” yelled Irish.  “I got the bastard!  He’s... H-”

     He’d come around for another pass.  Someone squeezed off a few short bursts then lost it and started firing wild.

     “Johnson!  Get to the waist,” I said.  “I need you on a gun.”

     Johnson shook his head.  “I’m scared, sir!”

     “Get yer ass on a gun or you’ll be a helluva lot worse off than scared!”

     Johnson stumbled out of the cockpit as Hart’s guns fell silent. 

     “Reece?  Irish?  Anyone there?”

     “I’m here,” said Reece.

     I could hear Hart pounding on the fuselage through his radio.  “I’m out!  Irish?  Why aren’t you firing?  He’s low!  Why the fuck aren’t you firing?   Shoot, you Mick bastard!  Fucking shoot!”

     “He’s not in the ball,” Johnson said as he chambered a round into Bill’s gun.  “He won’t get back in!”

     “Then get your ass in it,” I yelled.  “Hart!  Get your ass on a gun!”

     “Already on one, Cap,” Hart said.  For once, I was thankful for his bloodlust.  “Come on you fuckin’ Mick, get up and fight!”

     The ‘Bama was strafed again.  I didn’t hear anything over the radio for an uncomfortably long time.  “Check in guys, count off.”

     After what seemed like forever, the radio crackled “One” as Hart checked in.


     “Seven,” said Reece.

     No one else answered.  “Hart, check the ball and see if-”

     “I’m in the ball,” Hart said.  “Johnson’s dead.”

     “What about Irish?”

     “Fuck the Mick!”

     I heard Reece fire a short burst, then silence.  “Reece, you sti-”

     I was cut off by the sounds of Hart screaming followed by several short bursts from the Zeke’s cannons.  The impacts plastered the underbelly of the ‘Bama, over and over, Hart’s terrified screams faded to frail pleas for mercy and finally to silence.  The Zero’s engine climbed in pitch and intensity as the pilot brought it alongside the ‘Bama’s cockpit.

     I saw him out of the corner of my vision and decided to ram the cocky bastard.  When I turned to give the Slope the old ‘one-finger salute’, he greeted me with a skeletal grin and for the first time, I saw the vision that would haunt me for the better part of my life.

     The Zeke was an older A6M2 Model 21, the kind they used to hit Pearl.  From the looks of it, this one had been at the bottom of the Pacific since then, and so had the pilot.  The sea had begun to consume them both.  At first, I thought the pilot was some demon until I noticed the coral growth that encircled his skull.

     A halo.

     As he faded into the thickening clouds, he raised his fleshless hand in salute then with the abruptness of someone flicking a switch, the sound of his engine vanished.

*          *          *

Fall 1989

     “It wasn’t long before we landed at Guadalcanal, and they carried our friends offa the mangled remains of the ‘Bama.  Hart got it the worst.  Most of him had to be hosed out of what was left of the ball turret.  That shoulda been Irish.  That got me thinkin’... why not Irish?  Why not me?”

     “Ya’ll didn’t wanna bomb them folks,” Inez said.  “‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ saith the Lord.”

     For a moment, neither Fitz nor Inez said anything.  Then Inez said, “Well, I guess we best be gettin’ back inside.  Looks like it gonna rain.”

     “A little rain never hurt no one,” Fitz said as the thunderheads prepared to do battle in the suddenly colder Oklahoma sky.  “It’s the wind that worries me.”