Vanishing Thunder – A faith based short story by Mark Webb © 1993
Stewart slowly pulled back on the control column lifting the massive wheels of his B-17 into the air on a sunny morning in October 1944. The ten man crew of the Silver Shadow remained silent. It was an anxious time as they sat strapped into their take-off positions, surrounded by full fuel tanks and 5,000 pounds of explosives. Four supercharged Wright Cyclone engines screamed at full throttle, pushing the gigantic fortress skyward. Stewart raised the landing gear and settled back in his seat, acutely aware of his new co-pilot. He resented the fact that this stranger now occupied Danny’s seat.
Stewart kept a close eye on the control panel as he maintained a steady climb toward his squadron. He held down a switch that enabled him to speak to the crew. “We’re comin’ up on ten thousand feet boys,” Stewart said, his voice crackling over his throat microphone. “Go to oxygen in two minutes.”
Michael, the co-pilot, lifted the collar of his sheepskin jacket and pulled it tight to his neck. “Aren’t you cold?” he asked, as he held his hand over a small vent. “No,” Stewart said, quietly.
Michael reached for the intercom switch and addressed the crew for the first time. “Has everyone got enough heat?” he asked.
Stewart was ashamed, for he had rarely inquired about the comfort of his crew. He suppressed the anger that swelled with in him as the replies came back from his navigator, gunners and bombardier.
“It’s getting crowded up here,” yelled the top turret gunner.
Stewart shifted nervously in his seat. He was unaccustomed to flying with such a large group. Formation flying was dangerous. One bomber could collide with another, sending them both crashing to the ground.
“I’ll take over, Stewart,” Michael said, sensing his uneasiness. “Take a break.”
“I’m quite capable of getting this aircraft up there in one piece,” grumbled Stewart, “despite what you might think.”
Michael looked at him. “I think you’re very capable,” he said softly. “I also know the B-17 is too much aircraft for just one pilot.”
Stewart looked out at the bombers surrounding him; he felt cramped and it was true he needed a rest. “Well…” He hesitated. “I haven’t seen you fly one of these things yet, and now’s as good a time as any.”
Thirty-six B-17’s flew together, as if joined by an invisible frame, gradually rising to twenty-three thousand feet. Stewart was grudgingly impressed with Michael’s piloting ability.
Three squadrons of long-range P-47 Thunderbolts took up defensive positions around the bomber group as they neared enemy air space. “All right boys, man your stations,” Stewart ordered. “Lock and Load.”
The crew moved quickly, their hearts pounding as they loaded their weapons. The top turret gunner scrambled into position just behind the pilot’s compartment. Electric motors whined as the turret spun around in short, snappy movements. The Silver Shadow began to vibrate as her defensive gunners test fired their weapons over the English channel. A small picture that had been wedged into the corner of the co-pilot’s window fell into Michael’s lap. It was a picture of Jesus, his hand lightly resting on the shoulder of an airman. On the back it read: I am with you always, love Annette.
“Danny’s wife?” inquired Michael.
Stewart nodded, as he reached for the picture. “I’d almost forgotten about that,” he said in a low voice.
“It’s beautiful,” Michael said.
“Lovely,” Stewart said, sarcastically.
Michael looked at him, but said nothing.
“I remember the day we first flew together,” Stewart said. “Danny jumped into the cockpit, slid this picture into the window frame and yelled, “keep your eyes on Jesus boys, and everything else will fall into place.” I had him pegged for a Bible thumper right off the bat. But that wasn’t Danny’s way. In fact, the only time he ever mentioned God after that was when one of us would bring up the subject, usually right before a mission. I can still see him kneeling beside our radio operator,” Stewart said, with a smile. “Poor Charlie used to vomit before every mission. Danny would put his arm around him and…” He paused for a moment. “I don’t know what Danny told him, but…Charlie doesn’t get sick any more.”
Anyway,” Stewart sighed, “we were on our way back from Hanover. A flak burst had severely weakened our hydraulics system, but we were doin’ okay. We figured we were in the clear when one of those new jets came at us from out of the sun. The top turret gunner called it. He had the only clear line of fire, so he opened up.”
Stewart held the faded picture of Christ up to the window. “The vibration from the top turret guns, caused this picture to fall. Danny stood up to replace it, just as cannon fire raked across our plane. And now, he’s gone.” Stewart looked out at the Thunderbolts cruising at a distance.
“It sounds like Danny was a great guy,” Michael said.
“Here,” Stewart sighed. “You keep it.” He slid the picture of Jesus into Michael’s flight bag. “just don’t let me see it on the windows any more, okay?”
Michael nodded, as Stewart wiped a tear from his mask. “I’m sorry about Danny,” he said. “I wish I could have met him.”
“Target, seventy miles, sir,” crackled a voice over their head sets.
“Flak suits on boys, and stay sharp,” Stewart ordered. He turned to Michael. “I’ll take it from here.”
Michael released the controls. “You think the Germans have figured out where we’re headed?” he asked
“I don’t know,” Stewart said, drawing in a deep breath. “But one thing’s for sure, Luftwaffe pilots are vicious when it comes to defending their oil supplies.”
Flak shells began to explode around the formation in small black clouds. They did little damage as the bombers rounded their initial point and settled into their bombing run. The Massive oil refinery at Aschaffenburg lay straight ahead. Shiny flecks of metal approached the formation from above.
“Fighters at 3 o’clock high!” yelled the top turret gunner, as he watched some of the P-47’s turn sharply and engage the advancing enemy.
“More fighters 12 o’clock!” Michael called out to alert the gunners.
Additional Thunderbolts began to peel away in an effort to block the attacking Fw 190’s. Six enemy fighters got through and swept across the formation, firing indiscriminately. A single B-17 spiralled downwards out of formation. A pair of German fighters gave chase, pumping bullets into the stricken plane until it exploded.
“Bandit on 6!” Buck shouted, from the tail turret. “Its a jet boys.” He began firing his Browning machine guns. A steady stream of bullets filled the air as the agile fighter hammered the left wing of the Silver Shadow.
“He’s too fast!” yelled the top turret gunner, as he fired back wildly. “I can’t get a bead on him.”
Stewart watched the ME 262 scream past, then turn sharply. “He’s comin’ around again boys,” he said. “He’s gotta be going five hundred plus, double your lead time.”
“Here he comes, 6 o’clock high!” Buck howled, as he squeezed the trigger. “It’s pay back time.”
Black smoke began to pour from the attacking plane as it returned fire. “That’s for Danny,” Buck shouted, “ya son of a….”
Chunks of plexiglass blew inward as cannon fire riddled the tail section of the Silver Shadow.
“You got him, Buck!” Rick screamed. He spun the ball turret around and watched as the crippled jet fell away. The gunners continued to fire as enemy fighters swept over them, but the tail guns remained fearfully silent.
“Talk to me, Jack,” Stewart said, looking out at the smoke and flames of another crashing B-17.
“Target fifteen miles, Captain,” crackled the reply.
Flak intensified as the formation neared its target. The sky was filled with smoke trails and hot lead. A Thunderbolt streaked past them, intercepting an oncoming fighter and shooting it down.
“Three miles, Captain,” crackled the reply from the navigator.
“Opening bomb doors, now, Captain.”
Electric motors hummed to life as the red BOMB DOORS OPEN light blinked on. The crew felt the distinctive clunk of the huge doors unfolding beneath them.
“Safety off,” Tommy said. He held his breath, and waited for the lead bomber to give the signal. A red flare.
“Bomb’s away,” he yelled, pulling back hard on the release lever. The Silver Shadow rose slightly as ten 500 pound cluster bombs fell out of her belly. The air was filled with incendiary explosives as the entire group unleashed their deadly cargo. Tommy’s eyes were fixed on the refinery below. One flash followed another as the bombs hit their mark. Seconds later, the main storage tanks exploded. Huge fire balls surged upward as the entire complex burned.
“It’s a hit!” cried Tommy. “A direct hit!”
Shouts of joy filled the aircraft.
“Great job everyone,” Stewart said. “Now let’s get out of…” His words were lost in a devastating blast above the plane. Stewart felt a searing pain in his arm as shell fragments punched through the fuselage, causing a fountain of sparks to dance across the control panel. Thick black smoke began pouring out of number two engine.
“Shut it down!” Stewart shouted, as he turned away from the formation, unable to maintain height.
Michael flicked a switch and watched helplessly as the engine shut down.
Stewart struggled with the spinning aircraft. “Feather the props!” he yelled. The propeller blades on engine two began turning toward the direction of travel. Stewart regained control and levelled off at about six thousand feet. The crew slowly removed their oxygen masks.
“Thank God,” Michael whispered, breathing out slowly.
Stewart glared at him. “We just got blown out of the sky, and you’re saying thank you?”
“We’re still in the air, Stewart.”
“Ya, for how long? The escort fighters are busy protecting the formation, and there’s no way we can make it to the rally point now.” His heart sank as he looked around the cockpit. The instrument panel had been severely damaged, including the directional gyro. “We’re like a wounded duck, for cry’n out loud!”
Stewart held down a switch.
There was no reply. “Take over will ya,” Stewart said. He unbuckled himself and climbed out of the pilot’s seat, blood dripping from his finger tips.
“Your arm!” Michael gasped.
“Just keep your eyes peeled,” Stewart said, leaving the cockpit. “It won’t take them long to figure out we never hit the ground.” Fatigue swept over him as he scrambled below. His arm throbbed; he felt dizzy, as though the plane were still dropping.
Bits of paper swirled through the air in the navigator’s compartment. It was like being in a whirlwind, with torn strips of metal flapping wildly. Tommy was kneeling beside the body of a man, his hands covered with blood.
“Jack’s dead, Captain,” he said, bitterly.
Stewart felt sick. He removed his jacket and covered the pale, blue face of his navigator. “Come on, buddy,” Stewart said, resting his hand on Tommy’s shoulder. “I need you to patch me up.”
Tommy quickly opened the first aid kit and began cleaning the wound on Stewart’s arm. “A flash of light, and that was it,” he said. “Most of our charts got sucked out.”
Stewart looked at the gaping hole in the fuselage. “It doesn’t matter anyway,” he said. “What good are charts without a gyro?”
“We don’t have a gyro?” Tommy said, wrapping a long, white bandage around Stewart’s arm.
“Not any more!”
“So what are we supposed ta do now?” Tommy said. “Guess our way home?”
“No problem,” Stewart said, trying to make light of the situation, “The English coast is about three hundred miles that way.” He pointed west.
Tommy had a right to be scared. Without the maps, Stewart could only guess at the location of German ground defences. He knew, as Tommy did, they would not survive another attack.
“Is the chin turret okay?”
“I think so,” Tommy said. He climbed into the plexiglass nose section and pulled on the operating levers. The turret spun around mechanically.
“Stay sharp,” Stewart said. He moved toward the plane’s midsection. The radio operator was white as a sheet. “You alright, Charlie?”
“I will be,” he said, nodding slowly. “Soon as my stomach settles.” He looked up, his eyes wide with fear. “The squadrons have re-formed at the rally point, sir.”
“Good,” Stewart said, trying not to look at him.
“We won’t be joining them will we, sir?”
“I’m afraid not, Charlie. We’re on our own.”
“No!” Charlie said firmly. “We are not alone.”
Stewart glanced up at him, confused.
“Danny told me, Captain. He told me Jesus is with us, no matter what.He said the Lord will give his angels charge over us, and if we pray…” Charlie paused. A certain peace seemed to come over him as he looked into Stewart’s eyes. “I’ve been prayin’ real hard, Captain.”
Stewart smiled weakly. “You keep praying, Charlie. Pray for a way to get us home.”
Laughter erupted in the tail section. Stewart turned sharply and peered down the fuselage. The waist gunners were lifting something up from the floor. He moved closer for a better look. It was the tail gunner.
“Captain, look at this!” Buck whispered, still trying to catch his breath.
Stewart stared in amazement. Buck’s flak vest had prevented a 20mm incendiary shell from piercing his chest.
“I guess that means no purple heart, eh Captain?” Buck said. His laugh quickly deteriorated into a coughing fit.
“How far did we fall, Captain?”
Stewart didn’t answer. He was looking past his gunners, to a silver speck that glimmered in the sky, far beyond the shattered plexiglass that once enclosed the tail. His eyes grew wide. “Bandit on six!” he screamed.
The waist gunners bolted to their positions as Buck climbed into the tail turret and brought his guns to bear. Stewart scrambled back to the cockpit and strapped himself in. “He’s comin’ straight up behind us.”
“I can’t get a clear shot!” Crackled the top turret gunner.
“Me neither!” yelled Rick, from the ball turret. “He’s all yours, Buck!”
The approaching fighter was alone. Buck watched it carefully through his gun sights, but did not fire.
“Any time, Buck,” cracked the top turret gunner.
There was no reply.
Stewart held down a switch. “Buck! What are you waiting for?” His heart was pounding. The only sound he heard was static, as he waited for the reply.
“It’s a Thunderbolt!” Buck yelled, releasing his grip on the trigger. “Looks like we’ve got an escort, boys.”
The crew cheered as the thunderbolt rotated into a perfect barrel roll, then throttled back alongside the Silver Shadow.
“What the hell’s a Thunderbolt doin’ down here?” Stewart said.
“I don’t know!” Michael said, returning a wave from the pilot of the other plane. “But he’s a bit of a hot dog, that’s for sure.”
They watched as the P-47 waved its wings and rolled over.
“I think he wants us to follow him,” Michael said. He gave Stewart a puzzled look. “How would he know our directional gauges are dead?”
Stewart shook his head slowly. “I have no idea.”
“It’s like he knows we’re lost,” Michael said.
They stared at the mysterious plane as it moved forward, taking up a position just ahead of them.
“Follow him, Captain,” cracked a voice from below.
Stewart held down a switch. “What’s going on Charlie?”
“Just follow him, sir,” replied the radio operator. His voice was calm.
The P-47 turned sharply and headed North. Stewart gave a nod. Michael rotated the control column and eased it back, forcing the Silver Shadow into a slow, banking turn. The sun gleamed off her metal finish, highlighting the victory decals that adorned her nose.
“Flak!” yelled the top turret gunner.
Stewart looked out at the small black clouds to his left. “We would have flown right through that!” he said in amazement.
The Silver Shadow continued to follow close behind the P-47 as it weaved its way back across the German country side, carefully avoiding the flak batteries.
Stewart’s mind was racing, something wasn’t right. “Did you see any I.D. markings on that plane?”
Michael thought for a moment. “I never really looked.”
“Well I did!” Stewart said. “And there wasn’t any.”
“Are you sure?” Michael said, frowning.
“Charlie, get up here,” Stewart said over his throat microphone. The pain in his arm made him nauseous. He closed his eyes. “Do you think it’s possible the Germans have restored a downed P-47 to use in situations like this?”
“Stewart, if he was going to shoot us down, he would have done so already.”
“Well maybe he’s leading us into a trap!” Stewart said.
“I don’t think so,” Michael said, confidently
“What makes you so damn sure all the time?”
“That!” Michael pointed out the window. The dark blue waters of the English channel loomed ahead.
Stewart spun around, his mouth, hanging open like a trap door. The radio operator was kneeling behind him. “Have you received any messages concerning that plane?”
“No, sir.” Charlie’s eyes were fixed on the Thunderbolt, his face shone with excitement.
“Was it part of our group?”
Charlie just stared through the window, hypnotized by the plane ahead of them.
“Charlie!” Stewart yelled, grabbing him by the shoulder. “Was it part of our group?”
“No, sir,” Charlie whispered. “All fighters, not shot down, are accounted for.”
“Then were the hell did it come from?” Stewart’s head was pounding. “Get back to the radio room. As soon as we’re able to break radio silence I want you to get me the tower at Ridgewell.”
“Yes, sir,” Charlie said, as he backed away.
The Thunderbolt dove down to three thousand feet, Michael followed without hesitation. Stewart was restless. He leaned back in his seat and listened to the uninterrupted static of the intercom. The crew was quiet as they crossed the channel into Allied air space.
“Silver Shadow, this is Ridgewell control tower,” crackled a voice on the radio.
Stewart jumped up and flicked a switch. “Ridgewell, this is Silver Shadow.”
“We are receiving your IFF signal, Silver Shadow. Descend to zero one thousand and maintain your present course. Welcome back, fellas. Over.”
“Ridgewell, be advised, we are minus one engine, our plane looks like Swiss cheese and we have no functioning directional gauges. Over.”
“Roger, Silver Shadow. We have you on our radar screen. We will direct you from here. Over.”
“You’d better have another look at your screen, Ridgewell. We have an escort. Over.” Stewart covered his microphone. “Idiots.”
“Say again, Silver Shadow. Over.”
Michael and Stewart laughed.
“We have an escorting P-47 Thunderbolt,” Stewart said slowly, “four hundred feet in front of us. Over.” He shook his head. “Where do they get these guys?”
Ninety seconds passed.
“Silver Shadow, this is Ridgewell tower. There’s not another plane within fifty miles of you. You’re all alone up there. Over.”
The two men in the cockpit watched in awe as the P-47 rose sharply, then disappeared without a trace.
“Anybody see him?” Stewart yelled.
“I lost him in the sun, Captain,” replied the top turret gunner.
Stewart continued to look up in disbelief. “He shall give his angels charge over you,” he whispered.
“What?” Michael said. His eyes watered as he looked at Stewart.
“Just a message from an old friend,” he said.
Michael wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “Do you believe in angels?”
“Yes,” Stewart said, laughing. “I think I do.” He removed the picture of Jesus from Michael’s flight bag and slid it back into the window frame. A red streak shot up from the ground about ten miles ahead of them.
“Ridgewell, this is Silver Shadow. We see your flare, and are beginning final approach. Over.”
“Roger, Silver Shadow. Emergency crews are standing by. Over.”
Stewart ordered his crew to take up crash positions and wait for impact. “You want me to take her in?” He asked.
Michael shook his head. “I’m alright. Unless you would rather…”
“No, my friend,” Stewart said, laughing. “I haven’t seen you land one of these things yet, and now’s as good a time as any.”
Images – Pixabay
P-47 Thunderbolt image – Public domain archives.