"Our Country!
In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right;
but right or wrong, our country!"

    --Commodore Stephen Decatur

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Fire in the Sky--A War Story

Philippines, Summer 1945:

The great nations of the world have waged terrible war for more than five years, but my grandfather is still a young man, eager and fresh-eyed, ready for anything. He tried to join the Army the day after Pearl Harbor, but the Lieutenant at the New Haven recruiting station told him to wait--the war would still be raging when he graduated from college. The Lieutenant would eventually be proven wrong. Classes at Yale were cancelled in 1944.

Now, he is halfway around the globe, 15,000 feet above Manila Bay. The sleek silver lines of his C-47 slice through the tropical breeze while the twin turbocharged 14-cylinder engines split the air with a deafening roar. A platoon of soldiers is in the back, passing time on the first leg of a long journey home. Some of the men are sleeping; others listen to Tokyo Rose on a shortwave radio and play cards.

They are bound for Leyte, where transport ships are waiting to rotate out the victorious beachstormers for a little R&R back in the states. Even as they fly over the remaining pockets of Japanese-held territory, thoughts of war and slaughter are already receding into memory, rarely to be spoken of in the presence of those who were never there. One of the men is re-reading a letter from his girlfriend for the 100th time--she has accepted his marriage proposal.

My grandfather is looking out the side window at a fishing junk trawling the gentle turquoise-green waters when suddenly the pilot shouts out, "FIRE! Engine One!" Thoughts racing, he remembers the technical briefing he had taken only two days earlier as he lunges up from his seat and into the main compartment. Counter to every instinct, he screams above the roar of the engines and frantically pulls the crew chief's hands away from the bright red handle with the neatly stenciled letters "CO2 EXTINGUISHER."

Although words only come out in blurts and sputters, the message is received loud and clear. The crew chief backs down. My grandfather would later explain that the extinguisher is not designed to put out an engine fire; it only has 15 seconds worth of carbon dioxide, not nearly enough to smother such a large blaze. Instead, the situation now slightly calmer, my grandfather returns to the cockpit to assist the pilot with the still burning engine.

They must first cut out the burning engine to stop the supply of gasoline. My grandfather takes the controls, struggling to keep the plane level on only one engine. Meanwhile, the pilot is busy watching fuel and temperatures gauges--the magic number is 495 degrees Fahrenheit, the ignition point. Unless the engine cools below this temperature, it will catch fire when the fuel starts flowing again. Everybody on board holds his breath, hoping the fuel will stop leaking--nobody wants to crash-land behind enemy lines on the trip home.

Agonizingly tense minutes pass by, the intensity mounting and magnified by the stifling equatorial sun. Each man privately wonders if the remaining engine will sputter out, sending them all violently earthward. The shortwave radio is no longer playing. The soldiers in the main compartment are staring holes through the cockpit bulkhead as if they can see the pilot, perhaps to discern by some imperceptible sign a change in his expression that will signal their deliverance. The roar of the engine is the only sound. It is the sound of life.

Suddenly, the plane shudders as my grandfather wrestles with the controls. The second engine is spinning up as the pilot gently eases the throttle all the way forward. The men erupt in cheers, not knowing that the plane is still in danger. If they keep flying, the joint in the engine will heat back up and start leaking again. Partly to avoid attracting unwanted attention from the Japanese and partly to avoid frightening the soldiers, my grandfather does not signal mayday.

As the pilot scans the area looking for a safe place to land, a slash of white in the jungle catches his eye. My grandfather is now busy with maps of the area, but this airstrip is not marked. His maps are a few weeks old. He fixes their general position based on the features of the nearby shoreline and a nearby town. The airstrip is in newly captured territory. The Seabees have finished their work just in time.

Maintaining radio silence, they begin to circle around for landing. The pilot attempts to lower the landing gear, but only one wheel comes down. The fire has damaged the starboard wing more than they first realized. The electrical wiring and hydraulics are completely out of commission. My grandfather signals to the pilot to circle back around for another attempt. This time the crew chief will have to manually lower the jammed landing gear.

The silver fuselage sparkles in the sun as the plane banks in a great sweeping arc in the sky. To an observer on the ground, it must look like some futuristic, metallic bird of prey, circling for the kill. Inside the bird's aluminum belly, the crew chief is frantically cranking away with a small wrench, but the landing gear doesn't budge an inch. To make matters worse, the port landing gear will not retract either. It will be a rough landing.

The crew chief commands all aboard to brace themselves as the pilot circles around one last time, they will only get one chance now, they've lost too much altitude. As they level off, my grandfather sees construction equipment sitting on the side of the runway. The plane buffets as the pilot narrowly misses a row of telephone wires and then they come smoothly down until the plane is just above the runway. "This is it! Brace for landing!"

In the next instant, there is a sound of crunching and grating metal. Just as the lone wheel rips into the concrete, the left wing hurtles sideways towards the ground and starts to drag. Both my grandfather and the pilot muster every last bit of strength to keep the plane from spinning out of control into the line of bulldozers. Without hydraulics, they only just manage to keep on a more or less straight path down the runway. The smell of gasoline and burning rubber fills the air.

When the plane finally comes to rest, every man runs like hell to get away from the mangled wreckage. With hundreds of gallons of gasoline everywhere, the slightest spark would spell the end of anybody unfortunate enough to be within fifty yards of the ensuing explosion. My grandfather is one of the last to jump clear of the wrecked plane. The plane is tilted crazily and the cockpit door is 15 feet above the ground, but he manages to roll into the ground and run to safety.

My grandfather finally stops to catch his breath and before he can even turn to survey the damage to his plane, he sees a Jeep driving up from the small encampment on the edge of the jungle clearing. He quickly realizes this is a Colonel with his driver, and jerks his body to attention only to be painfully reminded how badly he is bruised from the crash. The Colonel dismounts and storms up to my grandfather asking, "are you the pilot?!" My grandfather politely responds in the negative.

"You should have ditched in the bay! We just finished construction here, the General is on his way for an inspection, and you just put a big old scratch on my runway!" In reply, my grandfather would like to inform the Colonel on the exact probability of success of a water landing with this particular model of airplane, which is to say, zero. Instead, he manages an obviously strained, "yes, sir." Despite my grandfather's having just saved the lives of the flight crew and a whole platoon, the Colonel mutters a few oaths under his breath and then storms off to his Jeep and speeds away.


It will be a long wait until another plane can come to transport my grandfather and his passengers to Leyte and even longer until my grandfather will see the shores of California again. Despite the Colonel's poor assessment of his flying skills, my grandfather will soon be promoted to a special detail, flying the top Army brass back and forth between forward bases, always flying over enemy territory.

Meanwhile, the whole might of the American military prepares for the last invasion: Japan itself. My grandfather even trains to lead the first wing of paratroopers on X-Day, as it's called, but after the atomic bomb brings the war to an early end, he will instead spend two years with the occupation force before he finally returns home to complete his studies at Yale.

Nearly 70 years after these exploits, William James Gardner passed away on a Sunday evening in April. This story was only one of many, most of which we will never know. In the last years of his life, my grandmother placed a framed box of his war medals next to his bed, but like most of his generation, he spoke little of those days when the "whole world went crazy" as my grandmother once put it. He goes now to be reunited with so many brothers in arms who were called home all those years ago, every one of them covered with glory defending the nation that they loved so dearly.

My grandfather on his 90th birthday.

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