I was lying in my bunk, listening to the waves rocking the sides of the Yorktown when I heard the sound. It wasn’t much, just a slight splash in the water, but when you have been living on an aircraft carrier for six months in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you know the sound of a Catalina when you hear one. I heard the heavy seaplanes moving toward the Yorktown, and saw a light suddenly flicker on in the captain’s cabin. Must be important, I said to myself Captain Fletcher doesn’t wake up at 5:45 in the morning for anything like this usually. I heard a slight murmur of voices on the above deck, but I couldn’t make out the words.
Then, without a warning, a siren went off, then another, and then another. I leapt out of bed, and started for the narrow stairs that I knew would soon become a mass of bodies, pushing and shoving their way up, before long. Unfortunately, the stairs were already clogged when I reached them. Why did they have to put the pilots’ cabins at the far end of the ship, I wondered. Oh well, now I had an excuse to wait for Mike.
Mike was my best friend aboard the Yorktown. I hadn’t known him until I had been drafted into the army to fight in World War II, but when we met, we became inseparable. He had come from Russia to the U.S. in World War I, and had adjusted to the American culture very well. I was happy to have someone that flexible to watch out for me, just as I watched out for him. He was very smart, and could literally take apart his plane and put it back together. He knew exactly what every thing did and was one of the best pilots on the ship. The only thing that made him different from the rest of us was his attitude toward the war we were fighting. Unlike me and the other pilots, Mike was the only one who didn’t think that it was exciting and even fun to fight for his country He just didn’t like war.
I, on the other hand, thought it was very exciting to be taking part in this war. For the first time, I felt that I was doing something important. Even before I had been drafted, I had dreamed of flying a bomber, destroying enemy areas, and shooting down enemy planes. From the beginning, I looked forward to the day that I would fly up on a mission. Little did I know that that day would be a day I would remember and hate forever.
When I saw Mike, I motioned for him to come over, and we walked up the narrow, steel stairs together to the pilot ready room. When we finally managed to push ourselves up the stairway and across the slippery deck, the small room was already crowded with pilots. When we squeezed ourselves in, we knew something was going to happen that day.
Captain Frank Fletcher was standing in front of us, pacing back and forth and looking very anxious. Then suddenly, he stopped. “Boys,” he said in his serious barking voice, “today is a day that will make history. Japanese carriers have been sighted and we’re sending every man out to bomb them. If we can wipe them out, maybe this war will turn around.” The men in the room grew quiet for a few moments, and then cheers and some talking broke out. Many of us had never even seen a Zero (Japan’s preferred fighter) let alone an enemy aircraft carrier. This was big even by the older pilot’s standards. Sure, they had shot down a few planes in their careers, but bombing a carrier? That was something only people like Jake had ever done.
Jake was my rear gunner. He had been on the Yorktown before almost everyone, and he had seen it all. He had shot down Zeros, participated in bombings, and had paid the consequences. His right cheek was black and heavily scarred. In one mission, his plane had caught a hail of machine-gun fire and many had grazed his cheek. His pilot was killed, but he inflated the life raft, and was picked up by a search-and-rescue team. After that, he had become one of the most respected members of the ship. Younger men eagerly listened to his tales of battle, but surprisingly, he was never eager to begin another battle. All that had ended after his pilot had been killed. It had really changed Jake, and after that, he was never quite the same about war. Sure, he told stories like everyone else, and stayed in the Navy though he could have left long ago, but he seemed to not care about the war anymore. Still, I was glad that he was my rear gunner. I felt invincible with such a good man sitting behind me, pumping his machine gun at enemy planes (though, as I said, I had yet to see a Zero).
Captain Fletcher resumed speaking. He gave us details, such as wind speed, locations, temperatures, squadrons, and the rest of it. I followed very closely, but I noticed that Mike hadn’t. His face had turned slightly whitish, and when I asked him what was wrong, he just said, “I don’t think I’m going to like this at all.”
“Oh, come on, Mike,” I said to him. “You’ll be fine. Anyway, you’re the best pilot on the ship, and everyone knows it.”
“Really?” he said, as if surprised.
“Of course; now let’s get to our planes, they need some work,” I said, ending the conversation.
We walked down to the hangars with the other pilots in silence. The anticipation hung in the air, and even the workers were giving us admiring looks. After all, weren’t we the people who were going out to bomb the ships? Weren’t we the people who would win this war for America? Finally, we reached the hangars. Hundreds of planes lay there, wingtip to wingtip, waiting for their journey to the elevator and onto the deck.
The SBD Dauntless is an old plane. It had been flying for almost ten years, but was still the best dive-bomber in the sky. It seats two people, the pilot and the rear gunner. The pilot guided the plane to the target, dove at it, and released the bomb. The rear gunner got the hard job and all the glory. The rear gunner’s job was to shoot down as many enemy planes as possible, without being shot down himself. This was not easy if you were in a tight dive going at 400 miles per hour with some Zeros hot in pursuit. It was very dangerous, and there was no cockpit to protect the rear gunner from the low temperatures and enemy bullets. A rear gunner needed all the skill (and luck) he could get. That’s why new trainees are always taught as pilots. They figure that we don’t have enough skill to deal with enemy planes ourselves. Frankly, I agree. I wouldn’t last two minutes in the back of a Dauntless, and the stories I’ve heard Jake tell don’t bode well with my natural disposition. For one, I hate cold. I get cold enough in a regular cockpit, even wearing a flying suit. I don’t know what I’d do if there was no glass between the elements and me. Also, I don’t know beans about a machine gun. Of course, I know that you just pull the trigger, but it doesn’t look that way. When I first saw a machine gun, I thought it was some sort of remote-control device, with all the little things coming out of it (which I later learned were called cartridges). Anyway, I’m just glad that I’m a pilot and not a rear gunner.
Mike and I got into our separate planes and waved at each other. We knew it would be a few hours until the workmen refueled our plane and made all the necessary inspections (Does the engine work? What about the flaps? Did we load enough ammunition?). I briefly wondered why we had to stay in the cramped cockpit of the plane if the workmen were going to take two hours to do everything before we even were on the runway. It was probably some safety precaution that was taken so that the pilots were always ready for takeoff, but I thought it was stupid nonetheless.
I won’t bore you with the story of that long, hot wait, but to make a long story short, it seemed as if everyone was anxious. (Except for Mike. He seemed downright scared. I didn’t worry, though. He was a great pilot.) Finally, we saw what we were looking for. A man held a thumbs-up sign in the air, which meant that we could start our engines and move our planes into the huge elevators that moved between the hangars and the top deck. Mike and I went together. I thought he’d feel better if I was with him for this journey. I radioed a message to him and said that he would be absolutely fine, and he managed a weak smile at me.
Then all of a sudden, we were on the runway. I felt my blood rush through my body. I had taken off many times before, but only for patrols and routine practice flights. This time, though, I was going on a mission. I watched the planes before me roll down the runway and into the air. I listened intently for the call that would give me the OK to rev my engine up to max. Then, I heard it. “CR 163, permission to take off granted.” I paused, but only for a second, before pushing the accelerator as far as I could. I heard the tires screech forward, and the big Rolls-Royce engine rumbling faster and faster . . . and then I was in the air.
I held the steering bar gently, circling twice before heading off toward the east—where Japanese carriers had been sighted. I looked out the cockpit window, and saw Mike grinning at me. “See, I told you you’d feel better,” I radioed to him. He nodded enthusiastically in response. We quickly flew to the front of the formation, just behind the lead plane. We watched the waves sparkling below us, and the clouds rushing by. There was nothing I liked better in the world at these times than flying. It felt so calm and quiet, that I couldn’t imagine what it would be like with enemy planes, and guns, and the rattle of bullets. It seemed impossible. But I knew it wasn’t, because of the pilots that had died, and the scars on Jake’s cheek, and the worried look that crossed Captain Fletcher’s face when someone mentioned Zeros.
After almost three hours of flying, I heard Mike radio that we were five minutes from the targets. A radio message from the leader confirmed it. I checked the bomb-releasing mechanism, and shouted back at Jake to check the guns. Below us, I saw the torpedo planes readying their weapons. Then a cloud slid below us and we lost our view.
I heard the Zeros before I saw them. The rumble of an engine and the sound of air shrieking under us could only come from one of the fast-moving planes. Surprisingly, I didn’t see any of them. Then I heard machine-gun fire, and then a crash as a plane hit the water. I knew then, with a sudden dread, that the torpedo planes below that had met the Zeros wouldn’t stand a chance. It was best not to think about it, I thought.
The cloud that was hiding us suddenly went away. Below us, I saw a fantastic site. Three carriers lay there, like islands glinting among the waves. It was a moment I’ll remember forever. A dive bomber rarely gets a view of his targets like this. I saw the Zeros coming off the runway, and the remains of the torpedo squadron trying hard to shake off the fighters. But I didn’t care. I was caught up in the moment, and I was going to do a good job. The leader started the dive. I saw the Zero pilots looking up at us, saw them turn and scream toward us, but it was too late. We were all in the dive now. I saw the deck looming, closer and closer. My hand was on the bomb release button . . . and then it was over. I was climbing again, and the radio was filled with cheers and shouts. I noticed that Mike’s voice was absent. I asked him what happened over my radio and he said that he felt terrible.
“What about the men in the ship, won’t they die? That isn’t right, even in a war.”
I had no answer for him. I hadn’t thought about how the Japanese felt about the war, and how they cared about their soldiers dying. It was an unsettling thought. I never did answer that radio message.
Then the Zeros came. One moment they were gone, the next they were there. They swarmed over us, and I heard my plane vibrate from Jake returning their fire. I dodged planes and looked for a way out of the flying mass of planes, streaking by in a bright display of colors. I saw a hole and dove for it. Miraculously, I didn’t hit any planes in my desperate leap for freedom. I hit the accelerator and soon was far from the battle. I saw other members of my group around me and saw Mike among them. He looked positively shaken by the mess he had gotten out of, and I had to admit, I was too. But I had loved every minute of it. The adrenalin rushing through my body, the Zeros zooming by, and the bullets whizzing all around me. There was risk, but it didn’t matter, it felt great to fight for the U.S.
Mike and I headed back for the Yorktown. The sun was starting to set, and I was surprised at how much time it had taken us to fly to the Japanese carriers. I had thought we would be home before sundown, but it didn’t look like we’d make it. We flew in silence. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of silver. Then it was gone, hidden by a cloud. I saw the thing again, up above us, and I knew it was a Zero. I realized Mike couldn’t see it! And it’s sitting on his tail? I thought frantically. I hit the radio button. A short wave of static and it died. A Zero must have blown one of the connector cables, I thought. I tried to wave my plane, do anything to warn Mike, but it was too late. I saw the Zero firing, and the bullets seemed to go in slow motion, as if I were in a dream. I saw Mike’s plane being ripped apart, and at that moment, I felt a terrible grief rising up in me. I didn’t hear Jake blowing the Zero to bits, didn’t hear the sound of metal being ripped apart. I was in another world. My mind was whirling around and around with the question, “Why did they do it to Mike, why?” And I knew why. It was because of war. And I knew that I didn’t like war anymore, didn’t like the bombing, and the firing, and the killing, even if it was for my country. I thought all this as I watched the tail of Mike’s plane slip beneath the gentle waves, glowing slightly from the dying rays of the setting sun.