2005-02-19

Angels - Chapter 2

WE THOUGHT WE HEARD THE ANGELS SING


Chapter Two


I took Capt. Rickenbacker's hand and introduced myself, then introduced Cherry. The man with Rickenbacker introduced himself. He is Col. Hans Adamson, of Washington, D.C., a friend from World War I days. Rickenbacker had chosen Col. Adamson after the War Department had requested that a military aide accompany him.


Cherry announced all in readiness. Our passengers seated themselves, Rickenbacker behind Cherry and Col. Adamson behind me. They strapped themselves in.


I fired up the four motors and two minutes later we were at the runway. To take advantage of the longest one it was necessary that we take off slightly cross wind. We therefore had to use the wheel brakes to hold us straight on the strip.


I ran up all four engines and we were on our way to the first of a series of baffling misadventures that were to dog us for three weeks. Halfway through the takeoff and rolling at about 60 miles an hour a brake expander tube let go, partially locking one wheel.


The big ship plunged off the runway and shot toward the hangars. To miss the buildings and also avoid running off the airfield, Cherry groundlooped her at about 50 miles an hour. This spins the plane in tight circles until momentum is lost.


It was a terrific strain on the tires, but they held. When we stopped rolling we were back on the runway. A masterful piece of work on the part of Bill Cherry.


Just before the groundloop and while we were bounding wildly toward the hangars, Rickenbacker half rose in his seat and appeared about to speak, but sat back again without saying anything.


When we came to a stop, Rickenbacker spoke to Cherry:


"Good job. Mighty fine job. But I thought for a minute the tires never would hold." Cherry laughed ruefully.


"You and me both," he said.


While a truck was towing us back to the hangars, Sergt. Kaczmarczyk was straightening up the confusion in the aft part of the plane. A brief inspection showed repairs that night were out of the question, so a second Fortress of much later type was rolled out and was started warming up.


The cots, Rickenbacker's and Adamson's luggage, several sacks of mail bound for our forces out in the Pacific, and our own gear were transferred over. During this I saw DeAngelis critically examining his octant.


The octant is an optical instrument, similar to the sextant, but provided with a graduated arc of 45 degrees. Like the sextant it is employed in navigation in the air and at sea to measure angles and angular distances and to observe altitudes to ascertain latitude and longitude.


"Anything wrong with the gadget?" I asked.


"Doesn't seem to be," DeAngelis replied. "It got an awful wallop, though. During the groundloop it shot across the table and banged the side of the plane. I couldn't do anything about it. I was holding on for all that's good."


He carried the octant aboard the new plane. I wouldn't have wanted Johnny's seat there in the nose during the groundloop. If a wheel had caved - which could easily have happened - Johnny would have been on the ground, the plane on top of him.


We fired up our engines at 1:29 A.M. of Oct 21 and one minute later were shooting down the runway.


I adjusted the DF (direction finding) set to the Honolulu tower's frequency for takeoff instructions. We climbed straight away from the field through a haze and cloud ceiling into clear air.


DeAngelis then came up from the nose compartment and gave Cherry and me the necessary navigation information. Cherry swung us on to our course.


Rickenbacker and the Colonel sat awhile and talked. It was a pleasant night, with a fair-sized moon. Eventually, Col. Adamson suggested turning in and Kaczmarczyk made them comfortable in the bomb bay.


Our immediate destination was Island X, about 1,700 miles southwest of the Hawaiian group. We knew Rickenbacker's interest lay in our air combat units, so it was not hard to guess that we might go on to Guadalcanal and other island groups where there was action.


We droned along at from 8,000 to 10,000 feet, high above the cloud bank until 5 A.M. when Cherry said he guessed he would try for a little sleep. I took over the controls.


DeAngelis came up to say he had got some exceptional position shots just at half dawn, while the stars were still out. These had shown us to be directly on our course. He had found almost no variation in drift from his original plotting, he added.


In an hour or so Cherry returned from the tail, saying it was too cold to sleep. At 10,000 feet it makes little difference whether you are flying over the equator or over Chicago in January.


I remained until Rick - as I came to call him - returned to the cockpit. He asked how things were going and we told him all was well. He asked if we had spotted anything since daylight. We told him no; nothing but overcast.


"Would you like to take her awhile, Captain?" I asked. Rickenbacker holds a colonel's commission in the reserves, but I had heard somewhere that he prefers to be called "captain" if he is to be addressed by any title. He came out of World War I with this rank after shooting down 26 enemy aircraft. Rick grinned.


"I've probably forgotten how to fly by instruments," he said.


Rick took the controls, however, and held us dead on course. I went back to the tail and returned with some rolls, fruit juice, pressed ham sandwiches and hot coffee from the thermos jugs.


Rick and Bill Cherry were trying to compare the relative merits - if any - of the World War I bombing planes and our Flying Fortresses. But there wasn't much common ground. In the discussion of those flapping crates of 26 years ago Rick soon had Bill out of his depth.


"I give up," Cherry said with a laugh. "I wasn't there."


And he certainly wasn't. In the days of the Handley-Pages, the Caponis, the Gothas, and the others Bill was crawling around his family's home in Quail, Texas. Again it struck me as amazing and wonderful that a man who was in the thick of it then could be back in the air and on the job for his country in a new and more terrible war. I thought of those World War I bombs - mere eggs.


Then I looked back at the bomb bay of our Fortress - dark and yawning like a cavern in the morning light. And I thought of the monster cylinders of death she had been so lately launching upon the little monkey men of the Pacific - and traveling thousands of miles to do it. I was thankful not to be one of the little monkey men.


While I mused, Bill Cherry had been turning up the radio and tinkering with the DF control to get a bearing on the radio compass. This works as follows: A recognized station is tuned in and the hand of the instrument indicates the direction the station lies from the plane.


"Jim," he asked, looking puzzled, "did this thing work okay during the takeoff this morning?"


"Sure," I told him. "I connected with the Honolulu tower all right. What's the matter now?"


"It won't budge an inch now."


It should be explained that in order to locate stations, there is a directional loop, up outside the fuselage. This is turned by means of a crank which extends downward into the cockpit. I tried turning it and found it would move only a few degrees of the circle it was supposed to describe.


I continued to try while Cherry took the controls and started nosing us down from our 10,000 foot altitude. We were nearing our ETA (estimated time of arrival.) The crank still refused to turn.


This became a minor worry, however, when DeAngelis came up, looking worried. Our ETA actually had passed. We were down below the overcast now and there was no island in sight. It was impossible that we could have overshot it, because we had kept careful check on our speed and tailwind ever since the takeoff.


Only one explanation remained: We had missed the island, passing either northeast or southwest of it. Then we remember the octant which has smashed against the side of the plane during groundloop. Undoubtedly it had been thrown out of adjustment and consequently had showed us as being dead on course while actually we had been veering away to the right or the left.


There was nothing to do but face it and Bill Cherry put it into words, in his forthright Texas fashion.


"We're lost," he said - just like that.


When we thought we were drawing near Island X, Sergt. Reynolds had been in communication with the wireless station there. So, with Rickenbacker standing by, Cherry prepared to set up "lost plane" procedure.


That is done in this way: The ground station takes two bearings, 15 minutes apart, on the plane's sending. This gives a cross bearing on the plane's course and is known technically as a '"fix." On a map, lines are drawn to the station from the two bearing points on the course, then are projected beyond,enabling the station to plot the ship's true position and provide a new course for it.


This didn't happen in our case, however. In reply to Cherry's request, the island replied it did not yet have proper equipment for lost plane procedure.


"That's cute," Cherry remarked and told Reynolds to try for other stations. Several minutes passed. Reynolds said something to Bill and his face lighted. It seemed we had a station equipped to help us out.


Everyone felt better. In the days that followed I thought many times of the carefree interval that came then. Those were the last carefree moments I was to have for many a weary day.


I saw Cherry's face grow glum. He told Rickenbacker:


"That tears it. The station is about 1,000 miles away."


"How much fuel have you?" Rick asked.


"Enough for about four hours," Bill replied. This was enough to get us only a little more than three quarters of the distance we would have to go.

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