Chapter 1. The End of the War
"When all is said and done, the brunt of the war is carried by the Infantry … final victory is won by the Infantry, and the final occupation of a country must be made by the Infantry." Eleanor Roosevelt
The Rottershausen Forest, Germany - April 8, 1945
SLOWLY, COMPANY COMMANDER LIEUTENANT Philip B. Larimore, Jr., crept through the cold German forest. Around and behind him, his men stooped low, darting from tree to tree, most with fingers on the triggers of their M1 rifles, others silently signaling man to man. Death could be lurking anywhere in this unnervingly silent forest. Snipers could be nestled in these massive trees—most of them deciduous with bare branches, but here and there sat thick spruce or pine that might hide enemy guns. Machine gun nests could be hidden in any hollow, ready, and eager to annihilate these frontline troops in a hailstorm of gunfire. One well-camouflaged Panther or Tiger tank could fire its cannon into the tree canopy, raining white-hot shrapnel that would cut through flesh like hot knives through butter.
Commissioned the youngest infantry officer in the U.S. Army, now at twenty years old, Larimore knew that, like him, each of his men wrestled daily with the dread of one lead pill or splinter of steel that would end their march so close—so close—to the end of the war. What a waste. They had all heard the rumors that Hitler had ordered fanatical “last man” stands that would throw themselves in a suicidal assault against the Allied forces, allowing the German Army time to mount final defenses in larger cities so that the High Command could retreat into Austria. That meant that every hour brought the possibility of encountering well-trained German troops who were not only willing but had been ordered to die to preserve their Führer’s life. Even so, the American soldiers were beginning to surrender to optimism. They were no longer saying, “If I live…” but rather talking more frequently of home and a future.
Despite his age, Phil was considered an “old man” in Love Company because he had fought on the front lines for over fifteen months. Whether the war was nearing its end or not, he had seen far too much violence and viciousness to grow sanguine. Every mile of the territory they had liberated on their march across Africa, Sicily, Italy, southern France, and now into Germany, had been purchased with the blood of his men and his friends. Some called them Dogface Soldiers; they called themselves War Horses. There was no way, he knew, that they would all make it to the finish line. No one was guaranteed to make it home alive. He had been extraordinarily fortunate—he had suffered and recovered from wounds that had resulted in three Purple Hearts. But every morning, when the sun came up, the only guarantee it brought was that this day, he and his men would face another opportunity to die.
On cue, the forest ahead erupted in gunfire. His radioman’s SCR-300 backpack walkie-talkie squawked: “Lieutenant, point squad number one!” a sergeant’s voice blasted through the static. “We’ve been ambushed in a glade! At least a hundred and fifty Krauts around us. Help needed now, Sir!”
Phil didn’t need the radio to hear the unmistakable sound of German potato masher grenades ahead, quickly answered by American grenades and machine-gun fire. Projecting a calmness he didn’t feel, Phil called orders to each of his platoons, then radioed back to armor, “I need a tank now!”
He spread a field map on the ground and studied it with his Executive Officer (XO), Lieutenant Abraham Fitterman, and a field artillery forward observer (FO) who had just arrived at the front. “My trapped squad must be here,” Phil said, pointing to the northwest edge of the only nearby clearing. “Rain your fire down on the other side of the clearing,” he told the FO. “Abe, the tank will need to go down this road to reach our guys,” he said, running his finger along what appeared on the map to be a forest lane. He looked up at the sound of rumbling and was delighted up to see not one Sherman tank pulling up, but three. “I’ll be on the lead tank. Get that artillery fire going now!” Experience had taught Phil that, in the confusion of the battlefield, tanks not accompanied by officers or NCOs often got lost, and that would result in more of his guys dying.
Before his XO could object, Phil and his radioman leaped onto the back of the massive tank and squatted behind the turret. Headphones hung on the back of the turret—Phil put them on so that he could communicate with the tank commander inside. “Okay, let’s move out!” he yelled, gesturing for his radioman to hunker down behind him for the quarter-mile trip.
As they approached the clearing, white tracer bullets from enemy machine guns laced the air from directly ahead. Friendly red tracers came from behind. “Our guys are fifty yards ahead!” Phil called to the tank commander. “Friendly platoons on our left and right!” Into the radio, he said, “Second Platoon, send up three squads, pronto! One behind each tank as we move up!”
His men sprinted from the forest to the shelter of the tanks. “Shermans, move into the clearing!” Phil commanded. At his direction, the two trailing tanks fanned out, one onto his left flank and the other his right. Enemy fire poured in, churning up dirt all around them. Phil could identify at least three machine-gun nests on the east side of the clearing opposite them. He ducked as the slugs of multiple snipers coming from at least two directions missed him by inches. “Commander,” he yelled into his headset, “I want you to lay down suppressing fire—tell the other two tanks to do the same!” As the three tanks’ 75-mm cannons began to blast their deadly shells across the clearing, Phil rose to a crouch and manned the turret-mounted .50-caliber Browning heavy machine gun, firing and taking fire all the way across the clearing. When he was close enough to his besieged squad, he shouted into the radio, “Our guys! Ten yards ahead. Let’s get ‘em outta here!”
The men who had been following close behind the tanks now emerged, running up to evacuate the wounded and the dead. Enemy fire erupted again, and Phil covered his troops by firing his machine gun till it was empty, killing several Germans and drawing more hostile fire, creating a diversion that allowed his patrols to withdraw. As the tanks backed across the clearing with Phil’s troops sheltering behind them, and with no ammunition to protect himself or anyone else, Phil turned in a hail of German bullets, started to hop off the side of the tank—and the back of his head took a jolt like a sledgehammer, knocking him from the tank. He hit the ground on his butt, his helmet gone, stunned, and seeing stars.
His radioman landed beside him and carefully ran his fingers through Phil’s hair. “Sniper’s bullet, Lieutenant, Just nicked your scalp, but it’s bleeding like bloody hell.” He reached into his overcoat and pulled out a gauze bandage. He tore the wrapper off and pressed it against the wound to stop the bleeding, then wrapped it around Phil’s head and tied it off as bullets ricocheted off the tank. Phil shoved his helmet back on over the bandages and they both grabbed their M1 Garand rifles. “Let’s get outta here!” Phil said.
As he darted back among the tanks and retreating men, enemy fire from the far side of the clearing intensified, coming now from three directions. Just as Phil reached the protection of the trees, the last man to leave the clearing, something slammed into his right leg, causing excruciating pain. He fell. Bullets shredded the earth around him. Ignoring the agony, he rolled into a shallow ditch and peeked over the edge. The tank he’d been riding on was pulling rapidly away from him, and scores of Germans, firing as fast as they could and screaming at the top of their lungs, were only yards from him and closing fast. Phil lowered his head. Seconds later, the screaming enemy soldiers leaped the ditch and kept running. They didn’t see me, he thought, or else thought I was dead. Maybe I’ll make it!
Or maybe not. The battle was still raging nearby, and yet the blasts of sound from rifles, machine guns, and tank cannons began to fade. His vision dimmed. He rubbed his eyes. No improvement. Even the overwhelming pain in his leg began to melt away. He knew what was happening: He was bleeding out, and he didn’t have the strength to pull off his belt and apply a tourniquet. Before long, the world around him had gone silent, and his body completely numb.
So, this is what it feels like to die, he thought. Not as bad as I imagined. He felt strangely at peace. His breathing slowed. His eyes closed. For Phil Larimore, the long, grueling war was finally over.
Chapter 4. Shock and Infamy
"Great crises in human affairs call out the great in men. They call for great men." General Joshua L. Chamberlain
Gulfport, Mississippi - December 1941 to September 1942
THE MORNING OF DECEMBER 7, 1941, dawned clear in Gulfport, with unlimited visibility and an unseasonably warm fifty-nine degrees predicted as the high. Rather than attending church together as they usually did on Sunday mornings, Phil (as she liked to call him, rather than Philip) and Marilyn decided to play hooky. He picked her up early, and they trailered their horses to the nearby De Soto National Forest, where they unloaded and saddled their mounts and rode through the gently rolling terrain. When they came to Black Creek, Mississippi’s only national scenic river, they followed it until they found a wide, white sandbar. There they set out a picnic lunch and talked for hours in the warm sunshine about their hopes and dreams—and, for the first time, about the possibility of a life together.
Late that afternoon, back at the stable after grooming and putting away their horses, they found a group of people gathered around a radio. “What’re you listening to?” Phil started to ask. The sober-faced men impatiently shushed him before he’d even finished his sentence. He and Marilyn leaned in to listen.
The announcer went on: “I’m going to replay the recording of the broadcast from radio station KTU in Hawaii that I played earlier.”
There were a few seconds of static followed by a scratchy transmission: “One, two, three, four. Hello, NBC. Hello, NBC. This is KTU in Honolulu, Hawaii. I am speaking from the roof of the Advertiser Publishing Company Building. We have witnessed this morning the distant view of a brief full battle of Pearl Harbor and the severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by enemy planes, undoubtedly Japanese.… This battle has been going on for nearly three hours.… It is no joke. It is a real war.… There has been serious fighting going on in the air and in the sea. The heavy shooting seems to be—one, two, three, four. Just a moment. We’ll interrupt here.”
Phil and Marilyn’s eyes met, and each saw the shock on the other’s face. He pulled her close. After a second or two of static, the announcer continued, “We cannot estimate just how much damage has been done, but it has been a very severe attack. The Navy and Army appear now to have the air and the sea under control.”
The sound of rustling paper came through the small radio. The announcer took a deep breath. “This is much worse than we’ve heard up to now. The BBC is now reporting, and I quote, ‘At oh seven fifty-five local time, the first wave of between fifty and one hundred fifty planes struck the naval base for thirty-five minutes, causing several fires and untold damage to the Pacific Fleet. The Japanese squadrons dropped high explosive and incendiary bombs. A second strike followed at about oh nine hundred when a force of at least one hundred planes pounded the base for an hour.’ End quote.
“The BBC also says, and I quote, ‘The Times newspaper’s Washington correspondent says the U.S. government expects Germany and Italy to declare war on the U.S. within hours. Although the attack has shocked the American people, there is little doubt that it had been brewing for some years.’ End quote.”'
Marilyn began to cry. Phil handed her his handkerchief. “Oh, Phil,” she said, “This can’t be happening, can it?” He could only hold her close, his mind racing. The disbelief they felt mirrored the shock of the entire nation—shockwave that began at 8:47 AM Hawaiian time, 12:47 PM where Phil and Marilyn gathered around the radio in Gulfport.
The announcer paused a moment, to the sound of more rustling paper. “This just in. This just in. Japan declares war! Japan declares war!” More papers rustled, and he continued, “This wire is just in from Hirohito, the Emperor of Japan. Here are his words, quote, ‘We, the Emperor, hereby proclaim unto our loyal and valorous subjects that we have now declared war upon the United States of America and Great Britain,’ end quote.”
Phil’s mind swirled. This is it. This is really it. I’m going to war. I’m going to have to fight. He couldn’t have imagined such a contradictory mix of excitement and horror occurring in a single moment. Marilyn continued to weep in his arms. “I have to get back to GCMA. Now!” he said.
She nodded. They ran to the car and sped away.
THE NEXT MORNING, MONDAY, DECEMBER 8, the nation awoke to even more bad news. News bulletins reported the extent of the damage from the surprise attack on Hawaii: 2,403 U.S. personnel killed, including sixty-eight civilians; nineteen U.S. Navy ships, including eight battleships, destroyed or damaged, along with 328 aircraft. The only good news of the morning was that the three aircraft carriers of the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been out to sea on maneuvers. Fortunately, the Japanese had been unable to locate them. The ship that accounted for the most lives lost, the battleship U.S.S. Arizona, would eventually report 1,177 dead—meaning that about half of the dead at Pearl Harbor had been on the Arizona.
Japan had, on the morning of December 7, simultaneously with the Pearl Harbor attack, launched an offensive of unimaginable scale. A thousand of their warships had attacked an area equal to a third of the earth’s surface, including the Philippines, Hong Kong, Wake Island, and Midway.
After a hastily arranged Protestant church service at GCMA, the Gulf Coast Military Academy, Phil and his fellow cadets attended a solemn assembly at 11:30 AM during which they listened intently to the nationwide radio broadcast that began as President Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the Capitol to address not just those in attendance, not just the nation, but the entire world:
"Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Senate, and the House of Representatives. Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."
The president recounted horrifying details of the attacks, then continued:
"No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us. Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.
"With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us, God. I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire."
Roars of approval and a tsunami of applause broke out in the Capitol as the joint session of Congress leaped to its feet as one. Hearing that acclaim over the speakers in their auditorium, the cadets at GCMA likewise bounded to their feet, throwing their caps high, hugging each other, swatting each other on the back. It was now as clear to them as it was to everyone else: War was inevitable. And the training that the young men at GCMA had already received put them in a position, they believed, to quickly make a difference as that war unfolded—a prospect that thrilled them.
The next five months flew by. While Russia and Great Britain were battling Germany on opposite fronts, it took several months for U.S. forces to prepare and begin serious military action. In April, Japanese forces began a crushing all-out assault on U.S. and Filipino troops in Bataan, resulting in the horrific “Bataan death march” of 60,000 to 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war. It wasn’t until May that the U.S. began counter-attacking Japan in a series of naval battles in the Pacific and the first American soldiers arrived in Great Britain.
On a beautiful, cloudless, 70-degree Saturday, May 16, 1942, Phil graduated with honors from GMCA and ROTC. That fall, Marilyn continued her education at Gulf Park College, working toward a law degree. But that wasn’t her only goal. “I’ve always wanted to marry a doctor,” she told Phil. “One day soon I will.”
A Memphis press clipping reported that Phil, “with a medical career as his aim, just graduated from GCMA where he was a second lieutenant. He will be home for the summer and will begin his medical study this fall.” So said the newspaper. But Phil and Marilyn knew that he would not be studying medicine that year. He was destined for war.
Chapter 39. Secret Mission
"Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities, because, as has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others." Winston Churchill
West Germany and Czechoslovakia - April 2-3, 1945
ON MONDAY, APRIL 2, 1945, JUST BEFORE DINNER, it was windy, rainy, and cold. Phil was outside the company command post (CP) smoking a cigarette with his executive officer, Lieutenant Abraham Fitterman, when a Jeep raced up and slid to a halt sending water and gravel flying across the asphalt.
In the passenger seat of the Willys MB was a man Phil didn’t recognize, wearing a major’s insignia on his impeccably clean and pressed uniform. Phil and Abe glanced questioningly at each other, then popped to attention and saluted. The man saluted back and barked, “At ease. I’m Major Hugh A. Scott, Division G-2. I’m looking for Company Commander Lieutenant Larimore.”
“You’ve found him, Sir!”
“Hop in the back, Lieutenant.”
Phil nodded. “Abe, you’re in charge until I come back.” As soon as Phil was in his seat, the Jeep raced away, ending up at the Battalion CP, situated in a very nice German home. From the windows of the neighboring homes flew panties, bedsheets, nightgowns—anything white. Phil had been told that for years, the Nazi swastika had flown from those same windows. When the Allied forces had liberated the town the day before, just as in France people had lined the streets and roads to stare at the oncoming troops, some out of curiosity, some to express their relief at the end of the Nazi regime. Others had glared in open hostility.
Phil followed the rapidly walking major into the house and into a room that had been converted into the boss’s command center, a busy place with several soldiers engaged in various tasks. Colonel McGarr was at his desk on the telephone, but he hung up and dismissed everyone else except his two valets. He pointed to a sofa. “Have a seat, gentlemen. I’m going to have dinner brought in for the three of us, if that’s okay.” It was not a question. Phil and Major Scott sat as the valets set a small table and then left. McGarr handed out cigars and small glasses of bourbon to them and pulled up an armchair. As they lit up, McGarr asked, “Any idea why you’re here, Phil?”
Phil glanced dubiously at the major, who sat stone-faced, and then back at the colonel. “No, Sir.”
McGarr took a sip and a puff and then leaned back. “Damnedest thing, Phil. Cobra tells me he has it on good authority there are a bunch of high-brow horses just across the border in Czechoslovakia that need to be rescued. But we need confirmation, and we need someone who knows horses to provide that confirmation.”
“Cobra?” Phil asked.
“General O’Daniel’s code name. Cobra has sent his G-2 to explain this to us.” He nodded at Major Scott, but before the major could begin, three men entered, each carrying a tray of food. The officers took their seats at the small table and were served dinner and a freshly opened bottle of wine from the home’s cellar.
As they were dining, Major Scott began his story. “There’s an Army intelligence unit working near the German-Czech border, about ninety miles east of Nuremberg, interrogating POWs. They’ve learned about a large stud farm, formerly owned by the Czech royal family but confiscated by the Nazis, near a tiny Bohemian village called Hostau, about ten miles east of the German border. Intelligence says Hitler and his underlings have gathered what may be the finest collection of mounts in the world—apparently as part of some experiment to purify the breeds the same way he wants to purify the races.”
“Which breeds?” Phil asked.
The major pulled a small notebook from his chest pocket, opened it, and flipped through the pages, finally settling on one. “They have Arabians, Andalusians, Friesians, Anglo-Kabardas … I don’t know what all these are.”
“They’re all considered royal breeds,” Phil explained, “horses preferred by and bred for kings and queens. They’ve all been used as warhorses across Europe throughout history. Amazing creatures.”
“He also spoke about the farm having Thoroughbreds stolen from the capitals of Europe, including several famous racehorses that have won Europe’s top sweepstakes.”
“Must be quite a farm,” Phil said.
“Even better than you think, Lieutenant. Apparently, they’ve also gathered Lipizzaners.”
“Lipizzaners!” Phil exclaimed. “The dancing white horses of Austria! I saw them perform when I was a kid in Memphis, and I’ve seen pictures of them performing at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. The best classical dressage mount in the world. Ever see that famous painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps? It shows him leading his troops from the back of a prancing Lipizzaner stallion.”
The major nodded, looked down again at his notebook and continued. “Intelligence reports that as far back as 1939, Hitler put out orders for his men to capture every Lipizzaner they could find. He coveted the Lipizzaner for its white coat and for its perceived racial purity. The super race he planned needed splendid stallions beneath them. The Nazis have collected about two hundred and fifty Lipizzaners, which may represent most of the suitable breeding stock in the world.”
Phil softly whistled. Then he asked, “So, what do you need me to do?”
The major smiled again. “I like a man who gets to the point. Intelligence tells us that over the past month or so, more and more horses—some Lipizzaners, some not—are pouring into the Hostau stables from the eastern parts of Czechoslovakia being overrun by the Red Army. Things there appear to be getting desperate. One report says, and I quote, ‘In the path of the Russian armies, nothing is safe. Men and boys are killed, women and girls raped and murdered. Animals that can be eaten are eaten or are sent back to the starving Soviet Union, where famine continues,’ end quote.”
Phil sat straight up. “How reliable is that report? Would the Russians really harm the Lipizzaners?”
The major flipped a few pages of his notebook. “Here’s a report from just a week ago, 24 March. Quote, ‘A German convoy was intercepted by Soviet tanks an hour from the Austrian border. Inside the trucks were more than twenty Lipizzaners. The Russian soldiers found the sometimes-temperamental steeds too difficult to control, so they slaughtered eighteen of the most high-spirited ones, then harnessed the others to ammunition carts and rode toward Vienna,’ end quote.” The G-2 closed his notebook and put it back in his pocket.
“General O’Daniel tells me, Lieutenant Larimore, that you know of his love of horses. He’s been riding horses his whole life. Loved the cavalry, loves the hunt, and the steeplechase. He’s not an Olympian like Patton, but he wants to do something. He’s suggesting one of our Piper Cubs carry a soldier, an expert equestrian, behind enemy lines to either confirm or refute this information. If confirmed, he’s going to propose to senior command that these steeds be rescued. His superiors are not officially sanctioning this reconnaissance mission. Fortunately, they are not forbidding it, either. But should the mission fail, the Army’s official comment would be that any participants were just plain lost in western Czechoslovakia—or worse, that they were AWOL or attempting to defect.”
A sense of the gravity of this mission—and its risk—settled over Phil as he leaned slowly back.
“Let me be clear, Lieutenant,” the major continued. “If you volunteer for this mission, the plane that will transport you will have all of its markings painted out, and you will not be in uniform. You can carry a sidearm and keep your dog tags but no other identification. No papers. No wallet. Because this is an unauthorized mission, if you are captured, any future career in the Army would likely be kaput. And if the political backlash from the Russians should become too heated, the Army might be forced to declare you AWOL or a turncoat. Worse yet, should you not survive, there may be no benefits for your family, including no life insurance benefit.”
From bad to worse, Phil thought.
“Even if you’re successful, officially this mission never happened. There will be no record of it whatsoever. Therefore, no medals or commendations, no matter how heroic or constructive your actions. No one will ever hear of it. No one.”
Colonel McGarr leaned forward and in a soft, almost fatherly voice said, “Phil, this is completely volunteer. If you say no, that’s fine with me. I need you here in our final few days of the attack, so we can end this goddamned war. We need to finish what we started.” He leaned back and puffed on his cigar. By now, the cloud of smoke in the room was thick and slowly swirling. “But if you decide to go, you’ll have my full—albeit unofficial—support. There will be no written record either way.”
“How long do I have to decide?” Phil asked.
“I need to know now,” the G-2 answered. “We have the plane prepared. A pilot has volunteered. The scheduled takeoff is 0400 hours tomorrow. The horse farm is about one hundred sixty air miles away. The forecast for tonight is partially cloudy and cold with limited visibility, but the moon is just past full, so the pilot says the moonlight diffused through the partial cloud cover will be perfect. He says he can bounce in and out of the clouds so that you’ll be protected from anti-aircraft fire and won’t have to worry about the Luftwaffe. But you’ll be flying through mountains, which increases the risk.”
He paused a moment to take a sip of his wine. “We’ve promised the Czech resistance, with whom we’ve made arrangements for your care on the ground, that neither you nor the pilot will know any of the ground arrangements.”
Phil understood the reason for this secrecy: The G-2 didn’t want him or the pilot to know anything that could be tortured out of them. Then, remembering his days flying the Cub at the Gulf Coast Military Academy as a high-school cadet, he had a concerning thought. “You said it’s about one hundred sixty miles there?”
“That’s the maximum range of the Cub, isn’t it?”
The man was silent for a moment, then slowly said, “Actually, because the plane is completely stripped down, you could get one-eighty or one ninety.”
Phil chuckled uneasily. “In other words, once there, we’ll have only fumes left to find the landing strip.”
The G-2 nodded. “Not much room for error on several fronts.” He took another sip of his wine. “But I’ll tell you this much. Once there, you’ll be escorted through a forest to the farm. While you’re scouting, the plane will be refueled.”
The colonel took a deep breath and let it out. “Lieutenant, don’t diddle daddle. Do your scouting and then get the hell out. We want you back by sunset.”
Phil didn’t have to think twice. “I’ll go,” he said. “A chance to save the Lipizzaners. How could I say no?”
“I knew you’d do it!” McGarr said. “More bourbon!” he commanded his valet. The men clinked their refilled glasses.
In Phil’s mind’s eye, he could see his friend, Ross Calvert, smiling from ear to ear and slapping him on the back. He still imagined his friend as alive and doing well in a POW camp somewhere in Germany. Hell! Phil could almost hear him laughing, being a POW ain’t that bad, Phil. You’ll enjoy your time off in one. And if I can survive one, so can you!
TAKEOFF WAS EXACTLY 0400 HOURS ON APRIL 3. General O’Daniel and Colonel McGarr were both there to see Phil off and wish him the best of luck. “Find those horses,” was Iron Mike’s last command. Phil and the pilot were not to exchange names or any personal or military information about each other. “Mission talk only,” growled O’Daniel.
The flight was surprisingly uneventful. The highly skilled pilot darted in and out of the moonlit clouds. Phil could calm his anxiety only by staring at the semi-dark mountainous landscape racing beneath at their cruising speed of eighty miles an hour—and by saying a silent prayer or two. Fortunately, they encountered no flak, and Phil was even able to fall asleep—until the pilot called out, “Hey, Buddy! Wake up!”
Phil sat up and looked out. The landscape was lighter now; it was just past dawn. “We should be close,” the pilot said. “Help me keep an eye out. I’m going to fly a bit south of the coordinates and then work a grid north, back and forth, until we see something.”
“How’s our fuel?”
“Don’t ask. We need to find the strip pretty soon. But remember, look for something straight. Nature doesn’t make straight lines. Men do. Look for fire, smoke, or a pattern in the landscape.”
Phil was now wide awake, straining his eyes, front to back, side to side. After they had made a couple of passes, they spotted a small town the pilot assured him was Hostau.
“Strip should be a bit northwest of here,” the pilot said. A shrill buzz filled the cabin and a red light began blinking on the control panel. “That’s our almost-out-of-fuel signal!” the pilot said, his voice tight and strained.
Phil’s chest and throat tightened and his heart drummed. His vision seemed to sharpen as he scanned the landscape, and soon he thought he saw something unusual. He rubbed his eyes and re-focused, then yelled, “There! Five o’clock. A fire.” Off their right-wing, in a field, a small fire blazed. “And there’s the strip!” called Phil when he noticed a series of lanterns along the forest edge.
“Dumb asses,” growled the pilot. “Should have put the lanterns more in the open. If we’d come from the other direction we’d have never seen ’em.” Just as he banked the plane to the right so that he could approach the strip from the north, the engine began to sputter. The plane dove quickly. The engine continued to cough and shudder—and then it went quiet and the propeller spun slowly to a standstill. They were now gliding.
Phil drew on his extensive experience as a glider co-pilot to quickly calculate their ground speed, elevation, rate of descent, and distance to the landing field. “We’ll make it!” he said.
“How the hell do you know that?” the pilot barked.
“A year of flying gliders.”
The treetops north of the strip were getting closer and closer.
“Just remember this is no glider. Better say your prayers would be my advice. We hit those trees; it’ll be bad.”
Phil actually felt calm. “Naw. You’ve got it.” But his heart did jolt when the Cub’s wheels clipped the top branches of the last tree at the forest edge. The pilot pulled up the nose and made a bumpy landing.
“Goddamn! That was close!” the pilot muttered.
Phil’s hand went instinctively to his holstered Colt 45 because sprinting toward them came several men in dark overcoats carrying rifles.
“Hope those guys are friendly.”