The Tainted Lady
Copyright ©William J. Cronin 2014
Southwick House, Portsmouth, UK – July 15, 1944
Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces sweltered in a mid-July heat wave. Southwick House, a commandeered mansion and grounds, seemed an unlikely place to conduct war. The occupying forces had strewn tents, military vehicles and supplies across the serene, plush landscape and grounds.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower had moved Headquarters from Bushy Park, on the outskirts of London, to Portsmouth. He wanted his planning staff closer to the coast for the launch of Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy.
Major Patrick M. O’Brian saluted senior-staff officers as they exited the headquarters building. He proceeded through the lobby, up three flights of marble stairs to an unmarked door. A thin, balding sergeant posted at the door, looked at O’Brian’s nametag and said, “The colonel is expecting you.” The sergeant opened the door behind him and ushered O’Brian into the office of Colonel Aubrey James.
The blonde haired James, flanked by Brigadier General, William Scott, hovered over a map-table illuminated by a small crystal chandelier.
James’ age belied his rank for he hardly looked thirty. Tanned skin, sunburned face and an athletic body confirmed to O’Brian the scuttlebutt that James was a hands-on field operative, well experienced in special operations. As young as James seemed to be, Scott appeared old. A holdover from World War I, Scott was a massive unkempt man in a disheveled uniform. Scott lit the end of a cigarette and broke off his conversation with James as O’Brian entered the room.
O’Brian stood at attention in deference to his senior officers, but Scott offered him his hand. “Good to see you again, Pat. I wish it were under more pleasant circumstances. I have filled Aubrey in on your background and why I wanted you for this mission. I told him you speak German and Arabic and assured him few people would be as qualified as you to head up this project.”
O’Brian shook Scott’s hand, “Good to see you, Bill. Thank you for your kind words.” He then offered his hand to James. “Colonel, it’s a privilege.”
James shook O’Brian’s hand. “I hope you feel the same way at the end of this meeting, O’Brian.”
“Sit, Sit.” The General directed his two subordinates to chairs he had pre-positioned in front of the map-table.
“Aubrey, why don’t you explain the opportunity we have here.” Scott took a drag of his cigarette then sat back in his chair.
James reached for a pad of paper on the table then adjusted his chair to face O’Brian more directly. “Since you have been deeply involved with Chemical Weapons (CW), much of what I will share with you may be old news.
“In 1938, Gerhard Schroeder accidentally discovered Tabun, a nerve agent, when he tried to develop a pesticide for commercial use. He accidentally spilled a few drops on a lab table. Within seconds, his eyes were painfully irritated. Within minutes, he had collapsed on the floor unable to breathe. His near-death experience convinced him his discovery had military applications. Soon thereafter, the German government converted Schroeder’s efforts to military purposes. By the time we entered the war, Schroeder had refined Tabun to create a new, more lethal nerve agent, Sarin.
“Although the damn stuff is deadly, there are some significant disadvantages to these nasty little gases. First, they are unstable and disperse in the battlefield very quickly. It requires large quantities of the gas to cause mass casualties, not to mention the hazards of storage and transport.
“The Germans have developed a more stable nerve agent in the Tabun/Sarin family, named Soman. It remains in a liquid state longer, is oilier, stickier and far more lethal than either Tabun or Sarin. With London as their principle target, the Germans hope to launch Soman atop V1 and V2 rockets.”
O’Brian, assigned to the Organization of Strategic Services, also known as the OSS, led covert operations into the German CW plant in Dyenfurth, Poland. His operatives, dissident Austrian scientists fearful of how the Third Reich would use the product of their efforts, fed documents from the factory to O’Brian. O’Brian’s field reports were the foundation for much of the information James shared with him now.
“Richard Kuhl, a Nobel laureate for his work in vitamin development, invented a new strain of G class nerve agents under his conscripted service to the state,” James continued, “While Soman was certainly a deadly improvement in the Germans biological warfare arsenal, there were rumors of efforts to develop an even more effective agent. We did learn, however, these new agents were in a different class than Schroeder and Kuhl’s G class drugs.
Colonel James stood up and walked behind the map-table and faced Scott and O’Brian. “Two weeks ago we received a hand delivered communiqué from Heinrich Von Fehling, a protégé of Kuhl’s. Von Fehling claims to have developed GX, a battlefield chemical nerve agent. He wants to swap the nerve agent in exchange for safe passage to the United States.
According to Von Fehling, GX is an odorless and colorless, extremely stable liquid and can remain in an oily, water state for 48 hours before it evaporates. Either through the vapors it produces or through direct contact, GX will kill every human exposed to even a molecule of this agent. Like the G class nerve agents, it attacks the involuntary muscles, causes them to contract and stops the heart and lungs instantaneously. Von Fehling claims you can spray GX by airplane or unmanned drone, deliver it by artillery shells as an aerial bomb, or atop a V class rocket.
“Pat, the most disturbing claim Von Fehling has made is GX is the product of two chemicals, both of which are completely safe prior to mixing. This is an enormous breakthrough in the use of CW and removes a major obstacle in their battlefield use. Since you do not mix the chemicals until you use them, you significantly reduce the risks of handling, storage and transport. He claims you can load GX into the delivery vehicle in two parts, and either mix the two chemicals as they are sprayed or combine them as the delivery vehicle explodes over its target.”
James leaned forward and rested his hands on the map-table. “Since the chemical can be absorbed through the skin, chemical suits are only effective if they are airtight. First, our troops don’t have any chemical suits, and, even if they did, the chemical would kill them before they had a chance to put them on. As a practical matter, since these suits would need an independent air supply, they would be too bulky to be practical for battlefield use. Since GX can kill within seconds, antidotes would be useless.”
O’Brian knew the value of such a breakthrough. American scientists were under great pressure to develop G class CW and were two to three years behind the Germans. If Von Fehling’s claims were accurate, GX was in a deadly class by itself. He thought about the benefits of such a weapon in combat, the greatest of which would be a very high fatality rate with no collateral damage to military hardware, animals, plant life or buildings. To defend against an instant killer, would present a considerable challenge.
Without success, O’Brian had worked diligently to compromise Schroeder or Kuhl and find a way to destroy Germany’s CW capability. Allied commanders knew Germany had a chemical arsenal and were surprised Hitler had chosen not to use it. Since Hitler had not used CW, Allied commanders had not given an aggressive counter offensive a high priority. O’Brian speculated, in written reports to Army brass, Hitler must have assumed the U.S. or Britain had CW on par with theirs. Since the Allies had air superiority over Europe and now bombed German cities with vicious regularity, Hitler probably feared Allied retaliation. Clearly, Hitler thought we could hurt him more than he could hurt us. However, this was only speculation. No one knew for sure what Hitler would do when backed into a corner. If what Von Fehling claimed was true, Hitler had more of a CW upper hand than anyone knew, for nothing in the British or American arsenal could compete with such a horrific weapon.
O’Brian addressed the General. “Why does he want to defect?”
“We know very little about Von Fehling. Everything I share with you now has come through underground sources.”
O’Brian knew Schroeder. His scientific work in the development of pesticides prior to the war was well known. Although O’Brian knew Kuhl was involved in Germany’s CW research, the Germans had successfully hidden his work. It was only recently that information began to leak out about Kuhl’s development of Soman. Whether the Germans intentionally acted to discourage an Allied chemical attack, or to divert attention from their development of the more deadly GX, was unknown. Nevertheless, unlike his superiors, Von Fehling was a total mystery to O’Brian. He had never heard of him before this briefing, which added to his skepticism about the authenticity of his claims.
The General continued. “Von Fehling is Austrian, supposedly a patriot with strong nationalist convictions. Like Schroeder, Kuhl and many others, Hitler conscripted Von Fehling and shipped him to Poland to work in the Nazi’s CW program. Von Fehling’s family lives in Reutte, Austria, near Salzburg. With the Russians poised to capture Poland and the Americans advancing toward Germany from the west, Von Fehling fears his own government would kill him to keep the secret of his GX discovery from the enemy. He says his negotiations with us are exclusive. We have to assume he is also in touch with the Russians.”
“Major, General Scott downplays the concern here at Headquarters. General Eisenhower authorized us to deploy whatever resources necessary to pull Von Fehling from German control. Ike is adamant Von Fehling will not fall into Russian hands.”
“Colonel, how do we know this isn’t some elaborate bluff?”
James backed away from the map-table, pulled a pack of Camels from his breast pocket and lit a cigarette. “We don’t. We have nothing to corroborate his claims, we don’t have time to investigate either and we can’t take the chance he’ll cut a deal with the Russians. At the Russians current pace, they will be in Dyenfurth within the month. We don’t have much time. We have to take his claims at face value.”
“And what does this guy want?” O’Brian tried to contain his skepticism.
General Scott drew a long draft from his dwindling cigarette, threw his head back and blew smoke toward the wood-paneled, coffered ceiling. “Von Fehling’s list is pretty long.” The General stood, brushed a small tube of cigarette ash off his trousers. The ash left a black mark that he ignored. He walked behind the map-table and stood next to James. They both looked at one another as though embarrassed to admit the concessions Ike had made to Von Fehling. Scott continued. Von Fehling wants us to extract him, three of his assistant scientists, their families and all of their lab materials. Von Fehling wants to return to Ruette from Dyenfurth to collect his personal effects and be rescued there.”
“Austria is still under German control, isn’t it?” O’Brian knew Hitler’s beloved Eagles Nest, his home in the Bavarian Alps near Salzburg, would be one of the last regions he would surrender.
The General ignored O’Brian’s inquiry and dismissed the question with a wave of his hand. “He wants his family smuggled out of Austria with verification they are safely behind American lines, before he will surrender to us. Von Fehling’s other demands, once we have relocated him to the states, don’t concern our mission. However, Ike has placed restrictions on us that complicate the mission. Aubrey, fill Pat in on General Eisenhower’s issues.”
“Our staff here has completed plans to rescue the families and efforts are underway in the field to accomplish this goal. Ike’s worst fear is that the Germans might use Von Fehling’s defection to smuggle the weapon behind our lines and use it against us. If Von Fehling is on the level, then Ike doesn’t want to transport such a weapon into populated areas until we understand the risks. Even though Von Fehling assures us these chemicals are safe to transport, accidental release of the chemicals could be catastrophic. If we inadvertently release the chemicals in German held territory, Hitler might assume we had initiated a chemical attack and retaliate in kind. We can’t risk that. Ike has chosen a remote location to launch and conclude the mission so that we can maintain isolation, secrecy and security. The city of Ruette, where Von Fehling wants to rendezvous, is a remote alpine village, an excellent pick-up point. We will locate an appropriate airfield before you reach Libya.”
“Why an airfield?” O’Brian didn’t like the sound of it.
General Scott lit another cigarette. “Ike wants a B-24 to pick up Von Fehling’s team and materials. The Liberator is the only plane with the range and size to handle the task and be able to defend itself if attacked.” Scott stood silent and shot a glance at James as the weight of this revelation settled on O’Brian.
“Why do we need range? Britain is less than 600 miles from Ruette. This would be an easy flight for a C-47.”
“And most of the flight would be over enemy territory. Too risky.” James gestured for O’Brian to join him and the general on their side of the map-table. James pointed to North Africa on the map. “This is where Ike wants to originate the mission.”
Before the general could provide reassurance, O’Brian understood the logic in the selection. When Allied forces defeated Rommel, the Afrika Korps retreated to Italy. The U.S. took over German and Italian airfields along the North African coast to launch air strikes against the Germans in Italy and Poland. When General George Patton took control of the Island of Sicily, the Army Air Force moved their bases from North Africa to Sicily. O’Brian had served undercover in Libya while the country was still under German control. His role was to scout out airfields the Allies could use once they pushed Rommel out of Africa. Libya was certainly remote and the flight path to Austria was over water to minimize detection.
James pointed to the map. “We have a small makeshift base called, Benina #2, near Benghazi. I’m sure you’re familiar with it. It was one of the airfields you recommended we use when you originally reconnoitered the area. We abandoned it last November when we moved our bombers to Sicily.”
“Yes, I’m familiar with it. Thirty miles south of Benghazi,” O’Brian confirmed his knowledge of the God-forsaken place. He could already feel the 115-degree August heat on the back of his neck, and he could remember the frequent summer sandstorms that irritated his eyes. “The runways and taxiways are all Pierced Steel Planking, PSP and, if I recall, the only permanent structures at the field were a couple of Quonset huts.”
“That’s correct.” James traced the route from Benina, across the Mediterranean Sea, around the heel of Italy, up the Adriatic Sea, over Venice, then into the Alps. “We have assigned three of our newest B-24s, with flight and maintenance crews from the 376th now stationed in Sicily, to meet you in Benina in three days. It will be my responsibility to get Von Fehling and his assistants to Reutte. It will be your responsibility to pick them up and transport them to Benina for debriefing. The General tells me you have excellent planning skills. You’ll need them. We have an OSS office in Benghazi. Ike’s orders are to support you with anything you need. Once you arrive, communicate with Benghazi on your requirements. We have two weeks, Major. You’d better get to it.”
General Scott put a fleshy arm around O’Brian’s shoulders. “Good luck to you.” Scott extended his hand to O’Brian and O’Brian shook it.
O’Brian repeated the process with James. The general took his leave, and James escorted O’Brian to the door.
“Within the last month, Hitler has launched V-1 rockets at London. He could just as easily aim these rockets, tipped with GX gas, at our advancing troops in France, with horrendous results. If that happens, we waste the countless lives we sacrificed at Normandy to establish a beachhead on the continent. We need to get Von Fehling and his discovery out of circulation.”
“I understand, Colonel.”
“The car that brought you here will take you to a nearby airfield where a small plane will carry you to London. From there a C-47 will fly you to Benina. There is no need to tell you how critical this mission is, Major. Like General Scott, I wish you well.”
Colonel James excused O’Brian.
O’Brian exited the office, closed the door and struggled against the human flow of traffic in the cramped quarters of the old manor. Preparations were underway to move headquarters yet again, this time to France. Allied forces were on the move in France and had driven the Germans a tangible distance to the east.
He could not fathom the weight of the responsibility just handed to him. He did not want, nor would he have asked for, such responsibility. As he looked out over the English Channel toward France, he reminded himself that thousands of soldiers died on the beaches of Normandy. They died to secure a foothold for Allied forces on French soil, a critical first step in the liberation of Europe. He was certain none of the soldiers, who perished on those beaches, had asked for or wanted that responsibility.
Benina Airfield, Libya
Major Patrick O’Brian looked down from the makeshift stage at the small crew gathered in the ready room. Before the 376th Bomb Group left for Sicily, the Quonset hut would normally be a throng. Pilots, navigators, bombardiers, radiomen and gunners would have filled the sweltering room with cigarette smoke and loud talk. Now, except for the single aircrew sitting in front of him, the hut was empty.
There had been three aircrews assigned to the mission. For the last week, the crews trained and competed for the final two slots, although none of them understood the mission they would undertake. Most of the training involved landing a B-24 on a very short runway, one on which engineers had not designed it to land. O’Brian had selected the two crews who mastered the maneuver and reassigned the remaining crew to 376th in Italy.
The B-24L was selected because of its lighter weight and longer range. The only noticeable difference between the L and previous versions was that designers removed the Sperry Ball gun turret in the belly of the plane, aft of the bomb bay. Normally a 50-caliber gun mounted to a tunnel in the floor took its place. O’Brian had it removed to handle additional passengers.
Of the two remaining crews, only one would fly the mission. The second crew would back-up the first. O’Brian stripped both B-24s to the skin to handle the rigors of the short field landing they would have to make and to compensate for an additional fuel tank crews installed in the bomb bay. On their return trip, once they expended the fuel in the bomb bay tanks, they would jettison them in the Adriatic Sea. Since the plane would fly most of its mission without the cover and protection of other aircraft, its full complement of 50 caliber guns would remain aboard.
O’Brian felt silly standing on the stage to address the flight crews who would occupy only half the seats in the front row, and opted to move the two easels from the stage to the area below the platform. Lieutenant Robert Bishop, aircraft commander, bounded the three steps to assist as O’Brian hurriedly collected his props.
“Here, Red let me help you with this stuff.” The tall angular, blonde-headed mid-westerner, gathered up one of the easels, and two of the hardboards covered in brown paper, and followed O’Brian down to an area close to the first row.
O’Brian, initially concerned that Bishop would see the contents of the charts, dismissed his fears. Hell, they would see them in a minute or so anyway.
“Alright, fellas. Get to your seats.”
It was 5 a.m. The smell of coffee filled the area around a large coffee maker. The crew, who moments ago milled around the coffeepot filling their cups, took their seats. They all stared at the hardboards atop the easels covered with paper marked in handwritten letters, TOP SECRET. Normally, several attempts at getting the crew to settle down before a briefing would be necessary. This morning the six members of the crew, who would accompany O’Brian into the heart of German territory, waited impatiently for the details of a mission.
“You guys look like shit.” O’Brian looked each man directly in the eyes.
They all laughed. O’Brian had handpicked this crew, from the three best flight-crews in the 376th.
“Come on, Red; tell us where we’re going.” Co-Pilot 2nd Lt. Bill Gilmore squirmed in his seat. “If we’re going to get our asses shot off, at least tell us where.”
“And why.” Sergeant, Frank Alessi, flight engineer, radio operator and top turret gunner chipped in.
Stationed in Poland less than two months ago, O’Brian feared he would ride out the war as a spy and never see action. Even though he was behind enemy lines, he spent most of his time interrogating defectors and informants, analyzing information and writing reports.
“First, I want to thank you for all your hard work training for this mission.” He combed back his thick wavy rust colored hair with his fingers. “I know it has been hard to do the work and not know what you’re training for. When I go over the details of the mission, I know you will understand why we have had to keep this so secret.”
O’Brian paced back and forth with his hands clasped behind his back. At over six feet tall, he loomed over the seated crew. “Let’s review what information you already have. The mission is to fly to a destination in Austria. The location, as you know, is some 1400 miles from here, which puts the range of the B-24, depending on wind and weather conditions, at the maximum distance the plane can fly with a minimal crew and small load. With a full crew, and the potential of hauling a cargo of 1,000 pounds, the B-24 only has a range of 2,800 miles. This explains the spare fuel tanks in the bomb bay, and stripping your plane of all unnecessary equipment to reduce weight. These measures have given your plane a surplus range of 300 to 500 miles, which should be adequate for the mission.”
“You also know that we have been training for short-field takeoffs and landings, in preparation to land the 24 on short civilian airstrip. The ability of your crew to take off and land within the requisite distance with room to spare is the main reason I selected you out of the three crews that participated in the training. As you will see shortly, this skill may be critical to the mission and to your survival.”
O’Brian could see the crew’s impatience building. “From interrogations of captured German officers, double-agents working in the Third Reich for the OSS, and an Austrian scientist, pressed into the service of the Germans, the OSS learned that the German’s had developed, or more accurately stumbled upon, a sophisticated chemical nerve agent. This compound’s performance far exceeded Hitler’s goals for a battlefield weapon that would take human life instantaneously without destroying animals, buildings, the enemy’s military hardware, or contaminate agriculture.
“Germany’s Tabun and Sarin nerve-gas programs had failed miserably in developing such a weapon. Dangers in handling, and extreme long-term contamination of the battlefield – which made occupation by German forces hazardous, were problems solved with this new GX-type nerve gas. Ironically, the Germans discovered this new compound in the same way that they discovered Tabun and Sarin gas. Scientist accidentally discovered Tabun while working to develop a better pesticide. The laboratory crew became violently (nearly fatally) ill when experimenting with a new formula. Required to report any scientific discoveries that might have military value to the government, the Reich quickly converted the research team’s effort into the development and improvement of the nerve gas.
“Although Hitler’s less secret plan was to use these gases in the battlefield, his ultimate goal was to carry these weapons of human destruction first to Britain atop V class rockets. Within months, we anticipate Hitler’s completion of the V2 series. With this improved class of rockets, Hitler envisions the complete destruction of the British without destroying a brick of their formidable industrial complex. With the legions of V-rockets growing in stockpiles across Germany, and the new GX-type gas nearly ready for mass production; Great Britain would fall into Hitler’s hands without firing a single shot, or losing one Arian soldier. He would concentrate his assault on central London. The loss of life would be so horrendous, Hitler theorized, that Britain would immediately surrender allowing the Reich to triumphantly cross the English Channel, occupy the country, and force the Brits to haul their own dead brethren from their beloved city. We must prevent this at all costs. If the Brits fall to the Germans, we prolong the war significantly.”
“This is where we come in?” Corporal David Jones, the tail-gunner, blurted out. The crew laughed.
Waist gunner Corporal, Alex Collins, punched Jones in the arm. “Shut up. Let the major finish, will you?”
“Yea, Jonsey. This is where we come in.” O’Brian smiled. He was sure that Jones had lied about his age upon enlistment, a common occurrence. He barely looked sixteen, but he was one hell of a gunner. His small stature made him ideal to operator the tail gun turret.
To the rest of the group he continued. “Heinrich Von Fehling, a staunch Austrian nationalist and lead scientist on the GX-gas project, aware of how Hitler planned to use GX-gas, stalled the completion of the project until he was able to contact members of the Austrian Resistance. The Austrians arranged to have Fehling meet one of our OSS operatives in Germany and they worked out a deal to steal the technology from the Germans.
“Von Fehling agreed to participate if the OSS would smuggle his family into Switzerland, and agreed to fly his small research team of three out with him. We received word yesterday that his family reached the Swiss Alps.”
“This is where . . .” Collins elbowed Jonsey in the arm to silence him.
“Yes, Jonsey. Our job is to fly into the Austrian Alps, where we are to meet Von Fehling, load up the research team and all of their material, and return them safely to Libya. From here they will be flown back to the States.”
Second Lieutenant, Joe Kern, the navigator and nose gunner, raised his hand.
“Does ‘their material’ include the nerve gas?”
“Afraid so. This stuff is so nasty we can’t afford to leave any trace of it in Germany. If we left the compound in Austria, some smart Kraut could analyze the compound and duplicate it, a chance we cannot afford to take.”
“So if that stuff gets shot up on the plane, we goners.”
“One of the risks of the mission. The gas is the least of our worries. If it does escape into the plane, experts tell me death will be quick. Fehling claims that the gas will kill within a few seconds of contact. If you want something to worry about, capture is a fate far worse than the gas.”
“Any other questions before I move on?” He waited for questions, but there were none. “Alright. Let’s look at the flight-plan.” O’Brian ripped off the cover to the first easel. At the top of the first chart were the words ‘Palace Dog 35.’ O’Brian hated the name chosen by some egghead at OSS headquarters. “This morning the 376th will bomb Naples harbor in Italy. We will join them, fly in formation with them to within 50 miles of Naples, then separate and fly around anti-aircraft batteries.” O’Brian pointed at the chart with a pencil. “Once we break formation, we drop to 50 feet fly over southern Italy avoiding radar. Once into the Adriatic Sea, we will fly north over water for as long as we can, then turn to the northwest fly over Northern Italy, then directly for this small civilian airfield south of Ruette in the Austrian Alps. This is the rendezvous point.” O’Brian traced the route with the pencil stopping at the red X affixed to the map just below St. Anton.”
O’Brian moved to the other easel and ripped the cover off. “The most difficult part of the mission is landing on this civilian field.” He pointed to an aerial photograph of the field. Ruette field is 2500 feet long. The single runway is on a plateau, surrounded by mountains on three sides. At one end of the runway is a sheer cliff and a 2000-foot drop. At the other end, 200 feet from the end of the paved runway, is the rock face of the mountain. Making matters worse, the altitude of the field is 6,000 feet. It’s a short runway where gaining lift with a B-24 will be a challenge. Landing will be the most difficult – stopping the beast before it reaches the mountain. The crosswinds at takeoff will be unpredictable. Updrafts at the end of the runway will add some lift as the bomber comes off the end of the runway. These crosswinds will also make landing tricky. Nothing we could do here in the desert could simulate mountainous, swirling, wind conditions. Nevertheless, if there are tail winds on takeoff, the 24 will drop like a rock coming off the runway. We can only hope that we can gain enough airspeed by then to compensate.
“OSS field operatives will await our landing. They will have gathered personnel and equipment and have them ready to board. If everything works according to plan, we’ll land, load up, and takeoff within 15 minutes. Our time on the ground in Austria is crucial. If we are late in arriving, or delayed in departing, we will have to land in Libya in darkness, an event we have also practiced during our training.”
“What about anti-aircraft fire?” Kern asked the question then looked at the other members of the crew.
“Greatest chance will be over southern Italy. We’re a single aircraft, flying under radar. We aren’t going to attract a lot of attention. Going over Naples, the 376th will draw all the fire until we slip out of sight. The Austrian Alps have minimal Axis air defenses. Air attacks from Britain come from the west from the French border. Defenses from the south are deep within German borders to protect industrial areas. We do not expect significant resistance.”
O’Brian continued to field questions from the crew: length of time to the target, weather, radio navigational aids, how close fuel calculations were, the danger of the cargo, and so on. When planning the operation, O’Brian calculated the chances of a successful completion of the mission and a return to their base in Libya at eighty-five percent. As O’Brian dismissed the small crew and they filed out of the ready room to the airplane, he knew that the enemy of any good plan was the unknown. It wasn’t what he knew that would get them in trouble, it was what he did not know and could not plan for that would get them killed.
He looked at Jonsey as he gathered his coffee cup and papers. Jonsey’s fair, acne covered face and wheat-colored, disheveled hair reminded him of the stakes of the mission, and his responsibility for the men that would fly this mission. If the mission failed, he couldn’t blame some asshole at HQ for the blunder. It was his plan, his responsibility. Jonsey’s blood would be on his hands.
O’Brian took one final look at the mission plans on the easels, stripped the paper off the hardboards and folded them into small squares he could shove into his rucksack. He surveyed the ready room to make sure that the crew did not leave any sensitive information behind and then aimed for the door. He returned the salutes of guards posted at the door then hurried to the flight line.
Although, he hadn’t prayed since grade school, as he closed the distance to his assigned airplane and awaiting crew, he prayed that he had anticipated all the serious problems that would await them, and that they would successfully handle the unknowns as they encountered them.
Painted on a forward panel of the fuselage near the nose was a crude rendering of a young girl sunbathing nude on a beach-towel. The unknown artist had tilted her face and large breasts up taking in the full measure of the sun. Above the nose-art the words, The Tainted Lady, in red, yellow, gold and black lettering gave the aircraft a name. The crew had heavily soiled the breasts of The Tainted Lady by ritualistically touching them before climbing on board for each mission.
As O’Brian stood at the end of the line and watched each crewmember pat the breasts of the plane’s imaginary patron, the irony of plane’s name and its mission did not elude him. The naming of the plane was purely coincidental. The army rotated the Lady’s previous crew home after they flew their prescribed number of missions. O’Brian acquired the plane simply because it was relatively new. While he did not believe in omens, he recoiled when his superiors assigned the plane to him. When he saw the artwork for the first time, he wondered if the secret purpose of his mission had leaked out, and someone had played a cruel practical joke on him.
As O’Brian stopped in front of The Tainted Lady, he symbolically rubbed her breast and hoped that the coincidental assignment of this particular aircraft to the mission wasn’t some ironic foretelling of the bomber’s fate.
Benina #2, taxi ramp
The Tainted Lady would fly to near Sicily and join up with a formation of B-24s from the 376th Bomb Wing on their way from Sicily to Naples for a bomb run. This tactic would give them cover at least to Naples. Four squadrons of nine B-24s would participate in bombing Naples harbor, a crucial shipping port for the Axis effort. Even at this early hour of the morning, the outside air temperature had risen to the mid-nineties, which meant that temperatures inside the airplane had reached over one hundred and five degrees. By the time Major Patrick O’Brian had climbed aboard, the crew had already stripped down to their under-shorts, a customary uniform change for pre-flight activity.
With the bomb bay filled with fuel tanks, the crew entered the plane from the rear hatch located in the floor aft of the bomb bay. Once in the plane, Bishop, Gilmer, Kern, Alessi and O’Brian went forward, while Jones and Collins remained in the rear compartment. Jones would operate the tail gun turret and Collins would operate the starboard waist gun.
To get from the aft compartment to the forward compartments the crew had to navigate an extremely narrow, 9-inch wide catwalk through the bomb bay. V-shaped sparring, barely wide enough to squeeze through sideways, further hampered movement. Crews complained about the difficulty moving through the compartment with flight suits on and that it was impossible to get through while donning parachutes.
Another source of crew irritation about the bomb bay was that piping for the fuel and hydraulic systems, which transited that compartment, leaked and fumes settled in bomb bay creating a fire hazard. A common practice was to fly the plane with the bomb doors slightly open to suck out the foul air. The doors resembled a tambour top on a roll-top desk. The doors were made of light material and designed so that, if the door became jammed in their curved track, pilots could still drop their bombs through them, which happened often. The unintended consequence was that these same doors could not hold a man’s weight. If a crewmember slipped on the catwalk and hit the bomb door, the door would give way and the crewmember would be lost.
Once through the bomb bay, the pilot, co-pilot, engineer and radio operator would step up first to what O’Brian called the half-deck or the radio operators/flight engineer’s compartment, then the pilot and copilot would take another step up to the cockpit or flight deck. Bishop sat in the pilot’s seat on the port side and Gilmer sat in the copilot seat on the starboard side.
Since O’Brian had combined the flight engineer and radio operator positions, Sgt. Alessi sat at the radio operator’s desk, and O’Brian would sit at the vacant flight engineers seat. Both of these positions were immediately behind the flight deck. Above Alessi’s station was the top gun turret, which he would operate if needed. O’Brian assigned himself to operate the port waist gun.
The bombardier, navigator and nose turret gunner accessed their forward compartments through a crawlway below the half-deck. Standing on the bomb bay catwalk, they would have to bend down and crawl through a square opening in the framing to their respective compartments. The navigator had a small map table next to a window where he could view landmarks or use instruments to acquire celestial fixes. Forward of the navigator’s position the bombsite was directly below the nose turret. The bombardier had a small chair from which to work. Early in the war, all three of these positions were staffed until crews bitterly complained how cramped the space was. Later, commanders eliminated the nose gunner position and assigned the duties to either the navigator or the bombardier depending upon conditions. Since there was no bombardier, Kern was the only crewmember occupying a forward compartment.
O’Brian stripped to his shorts as soon as sweat began to form on his forehead. Within minutes, the crew was soaked to their socks. O’Brian stood in the opening to the flight deck wishing he had a camera. Gilmore, the copilot, sat to his right and read off items in the pre-flight checklist. He wore, cowboy boots, long black socks, and white boxer shorts, with his name printed in block, handwritten letters on the waistband. Bishop, to his left wore an aircraft commander’s hat, crushed by a radio headset and soaked from perspiration. Prior to boarding, the crew “walked the props through,” removing any oil from the engine cylinders, which could cause damage to the motor when started.
Once the crew settled in their assigned places, Gilmer started through the engine start checklist.
“Props clear? Gilmer asked.
“Props clear.” Bishop responded
“Ignition switches on?”
“Ignition switches on.”
“Booster pumps on?”
“Start engines.” Gilmore started engine number 3. O’Brian watched a plume of black oily smoke billow from the engine then sent into a swirl from the props as the engine slowly caught fire.
Gilmore watched the oil pressure gauge. “Oil pressure coming up.” When the needle moved past thirty pounds per square inch, he repeated the start-up sequence for engine number one, four and two.
“Okay, skipper. We got a little problem.”
“Yep, Number 2?
“Okay, let’s restart it.”
“Switch off. Check”
Number 2 engine huffed to a stop.
“Okay, skipper. Ignition-switch on. Restarting number 2.”
If we don’t get thirty pounds, Red, we abort. I’m not about to fly over the entire Mediterranean with a bum motor.
“Twenty-five, twenty-seven, thirty, thirty-four. We’re good.”
“Gil, let’s let it warm a little and see if it holds.”
Bishop bumped up engine idle. “Good, Good.” To O’Brian, “We’re okay, Red. We’re off.”
From his vantage on the half-deck, O’Brian watched Gilmer taxi the plane to the end of the makeshift runway, set the brake and then turn the engines to full power. Once satisfied with the performance of the engines, Bishop turned to O’Brian and said, “Okay, Red. Let’s get the show on the road.”
O’Brian moved to the flight engineer’s seat and buckled his seat belt.
The roar from the engines was deafening. The behemoth cleared the runway with only a slight yaw until Bishop compensated with more power to the number one engine. After Gilmer pulled up the landing gear, O’Brian unbuckled from his harness, and continued his vigil looking through the entrance to the flight deck.
Once at altitude, Bishop throttled back the engines and adjusted cruising speed.
Bishop told the crew through the intercom to take a few minutes to relax while they had the opportunity. To O’Brian Bishop said, “You too, Red. We have a long flight ahead of us.”
Temperature inside the plane dropped quickly. The flight crew took turns donning their flight suits, and O’Brian and Alessi who he shared the half-deck with, followed suit. O’Brian took his seat and pulled a small pocket notebook from the breast pocket of his flight suit. He had started making daily entrees when he took command of the mission. He took a small pencil from another pocket on his sleeve, and began to make notations.
August 6, 1943 – Preparations went without incident. We took off from Benina, Libya at 0945. Despite initial oil pressure problems with #2 engines, departure was smooth. My own concerns about the mission abound. So many lives depend on the assumptions I used to plan the mission.
Before he closed the notebook, he opened it to the front flap were he had pinned a picture of Kate. Her long dark brown hair and dark features in sharp contrast to his own. He had done his best since late last night not to think about her. She had just given birth to Patrick Michael O’Brian, Jr. According to Kate, his son had a shock of black hair when he was born. Kate had hoped that Patrick would end up with her husband’s light features, red hair and freckles. Kate thought that the black hair was temporary. O’Brian hoped his son would have his mother’s dark hair and olive skin. Kate promised to send pictures but the mail hadn’t caught up with him yet.
O’Brian put the notebook and pencil away. Two great responsibilities tore him in two. He loved Kate deeply, and felt significant guilt at leaving her with a newborn. It mattered little to him that Kate’s mother was there and had the situation under control. Regardless, he felt he should have been at her side.
Pulling him in the other direction was his intense need to make a significant contribution to the defeat of Germany. As much as he hated war, he knew that without America’s participation, the whole of Europe and Britain would fall to Hitler. Given the significant threat Hitler posed, in particular his maturing ability to launch weapons of mass destruction, it made it imperative that he be defeated. O’Brian could think of no more important mission. He knew the critical importance of success and what might happen to Britain, and possibly the United States if he failed.
He looked over at Alessi, the only other member of the crew who was married, who busied himself writing letters to his wife. He was an electrical engineer by training, enlisted at the age of 25 because he shared O’Brian’s sense of duty.
His thoughts shifted to the crew. The normal B-24 crew consisted of nine members: pilot, copilot, navigator, bombardier, radio operator, flight engineer and three gunners. O’Brian reduced the crew size due to the short field conditions at the landing site in the Alps, and the fact that they were returning with four scientists.
First, since there was no bombing mission, O’Brian eliminated the bombardier position. Sgt. Alessi had trained as both a radio operator and flight engineer and since they occupied the same space behind the cockpit, O’Brian was able to eliminate another crewmember. With Alessi, Kern and O’Brian performing gunner duties, he had reduced the crew to seven. None of the training he had received in OCS had prepared him for this duty. At first, he could not understand the difficulty of the gunner’s job. A plane comes at you and you shoot at it. He found the task significantly more difficult than he had imagined. The concentration, focus and coordination needed to be an effective gunner made him appreciate the talents of Jonsey who, despite his youth, was one of the best in the 376th. His greatest fear for this mission was that his lack of skill might imperil the crew. Jonsey was his champion, providing encouragement, infecting him with his enthusiasm and zeal for aerial combat.
Jonsey and Corp. Alex Collins, gunner, were holed up in the rear compartment. Jonsey and Collins sat on a bulkhead platform playing cribbage to pass the time.
Jonsey said, “Major. Join us.”
“Jonsey, I’m tired of losing to you. We’ve played more than fifteen times and I’ve never won a hand. Besides, I have stuff to do to get ready.” To Collins, “You okay Alex?”
“Yeah, this mission’s a cake walk compared to one’s we’ve been on, right Jonsey?”
“A cake walk. Right.”
“Jonsey, I want to thank you again for all your help with the 50 calibers.”
“Just remember, Major. Try to think like the pilot. Put your head inside his cockpit. Anticipate where you think he will be and aim there. Works every time.”
“Thanks again, Jonsey”
As O’Brian turned to leave, Collins threw his cards down on the shell box and complained bitterly about the cards he’d been dealt.
Other than the wind that seemed to howl through every crack in the airplane, the flight was smooth. Bishop called the B-24 the “Flying Shithouse” because it was as airtight as an outhouse. The fact that Bishop had the bomb bay doors slightly opened did not help. They could not pressurize the plane. Flights with ceilings above ten thousand feet required the crew to wear oxygen masks and the only thing that separated them from minus 50-degree temperatures at high altitude were their flight suits, though the crew did not require oxygen on this flight.
Bishop intercepted a formation of B-24s, who took off from Sicily on their way to bomb Naples harbor. Bishop tucked the plane into the last flight, the final slot in the formation. A tight formation was the best defense against an enemy, fighter plane attack. The tight grid, with all guns staffed, presented a significant challenge to enemy pilots trying to pick-off a single bomber.
It was well before the Italian coast that Bishop commanded the crew to assume their stations. O’Brian climbed to the entrance to the flight deck and watched B-24s pull their formations in as tight as safety permitted as they prepared to encounter Italian fighter aircraft.
As soon as the lead aircraft began to encounter anti-aircraft fire, Bishop announced to the crew that they were peeling off. Bishop reduced power, banked to the northeast, then east and dropped the nose to reduce altitude. O’Brian could still hear the pounding of anti-aircraft flack and then faint distant explosions as the 376th dropped their bombs over Naples harbor.
Bishop dropped The Tainted Lady to an altitude of 50 feet above land. Once into the Adriatic Sea he then altered their course for Northern Italy flying over the water but staying well off the coast. Over Venice, Bishop turned the aircraft northwest, crossed the coastline and began the most dangerous part of the flight. While Axis forces occupied northern Italy, the route of the flight, O’Brian believed, would lead them away from any significant anti-aircraft fire. In the best case, with the plane flying at tree top altitudes, by the time troops identified that the plane was not German or Italian, it would be gone. O’Brian hoped that since there was only one plane, that the flight would not draw attention.
With all crewmembers at their combat posts, O’Brian marveled that the occasional fishing boat below seemed oblivious to the complications of the war. Some crew even waved as the plane flew just over the masts of the boats. O’Brian wondered if he would ever have the opportunity to share with his newborn son his love affair with fishing and the water.
From the port side of the plane, O’Brian could see the coast of Italy fast approaching.
“Okay, boys and girls. Keep your eyes peeled.” No sooner had Bishop announced his warning, Collins yells into the intercom. “Bogey at three.”
Jonsey, in the tail, yells, “I got ‘em.”
“Hold your fire,” Bishop yelled, “I want to make sure he makes us first. Let’s not draw attention to ourselves unless we have to. Collins, can you get a make?”
“About five thousand feet, maybe two miles. Looks like a fighter, maybe a small twin engine. Too far away to tell whose it is. I don’t think they see us, though. They are directly above us skipper.”
“Okay, Jonsey. I got ‘em now. It looks like they are moving away. As soon as we are over the coast our camouflage will make us more difficult to see from above.”
Over land, convoys tracking south clogged all the major roadways. Tank and troop movements, although rare, were O’Brian’s greatest fear. With each encounter, although they were upon them and gone before they could fire shots, O’Brian worried that someone would radio a command post and report spotting an American bomber. He dismissed these fears because there were no targets of significant military value in the direction of their flight. Even if the Italians or Germans stumbled upon their objective, by the time they figured out what they were up to and responded, they would have picked up their cargo at Ruette and would be gone.
The horizon had become more mountainous, and the flying more difficult. Even under ideal conditions, the B-24 was difficult to fly. In order to stay under radar, Bishop had to manhandle the aircraft to match the unruly terrain. The turbulence created by up and down drafts off hills, mountains and plateaus made this part of the flight uncomfortable. Near the point of nausea, O’Brian tried to keep his focus. The highest peaks of the Austrian Alps loomed on the horizon. It wouldn’t be long.
Clearly, the most dangerous part of the flight was landing at Ruette. Initial reconnaissance reports indicated it was a small infrequently used airfield. However, that report was a month old. OSS provided assurances that their team would make certain the field was clear by the agreed upon arrival time. O’Brian knew that airfields across Europe, even one as small and out of the way as Ruette, were a valuable wartime commodity. These fields came in and out of use frequently. The shortness of this particular field presented a significant challenge. The mountainous terrain of necessity created a field with a single runway aligned to the prevailing winds.
The plan called for a fly-over of the field, to check for a pre-agreed signal from OSS that it is safe to land, then a 360-degree banking turn as a final approach to land. Although they had practiced landing many times over the past month, there were too many variables that could not be accurately predicted. A sudden downdraft on the final approach, a common occurrence on mountain slopes, could force the plane to crash into the rock face short of the runway. A severe up draft at the end of the runway could push the aircraft up extending the landing distance, which meant they would plow into the face of the mountain at the end of the runway. Once the aircraft was within 200 feet of the end of the runway and committed to land, they would be too close to the mountain to abort the landing. The mountain would be too high to fly over, and the plane could not turn fast enough to avoid hitting side of the mountain in a banked turn.
When the crew practiced these landings in Libya and had finally mastered landing in the distance required, he was confident that he could accomplish the mission. Now, as he looked out the window at the Alps growing larger and more formidable, his confidence melted. He looked over at Jonsey and hoped he could not read the fear on his face.