Silver Wings, Iron Cross excerpt
Apart from a general intent to head southwest, Karl had no idea where he was going. His silk escape map covered all of central and western Europe; it offered no detail on Bremen or any other city. He had bailed out with his aeronautical charts still in his pockets, and he wished he’d thought to bring the AAF Target Chart with him. That one offered the greatest detail for his current location, but he’d left it in his discarded flight suit.
Lacking anything to guide him, Karl decided to find a place to hole up for the night. In the darkness, he came to an abandoned warehouse. No lights shone through the windows, and when he moved closer, he saw that some of its walls had collapsed. By now, he had left the crowds behind. He looked around to make sure no one was watching him, then made his way to the bomb-damaged building.
A wooden door hung open on one hinge. Karl ducked through the doorway. Once over the threshold, he groped blindly; this room had no windows, and its intact walls blocked what little light came from outside. He nearly tripped over debris on the floor, invisible in the blackness. He stood still and let his eyes adjust.
As his pupils opened, he perceived a hint of illumination—just a cottony vagueness—a few yards in front of him. The moment hinted of fever dreams, the mind’s wild imaginings during deep sleep. Karl almost wondered if he wasdreaming; this predicament surely rivaled his worst nightmares. But distant traffic noise, the honk of a tug on the river, and the odor of grease and oil vouched for reality. He lifted a foot and took one long, careful step toward the light. Nothing impeded him, so he took another step.
Eventually he found himself at another doorway, with his eyes fully accustomed to the night. The doorway led to an open warehouse floor almost as big as a football field. The far wall lay open, and the pale glow of a nearly full moon provided just enough light to see.
Chunks of machinery sat in rows, most of them covered by tarps. Karl speculated they must have been engines needing a rebuild. If they were new, they certainly wouldn’t be sitting here abandoned. He pulled the tarp off one of them. The engine was a huge thing, long rows of cylinders. These were probably engines for ships or submarines.
Karl decided to spend the night in the warehouse. Seemed as safe as any place, though that wasn’t saying much. He dragged the tarp to a corner, underneath a broken window, intending to use it as a blanket later. Pulled his escape kit and pistol from his pockets and sat down cross-legged. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast at 0300, and he was hungry. Hated to use up the food in his escape kit on the first day, but he saw no other options.
Karl opened the escape kit and inventoried it as best he could in the dim light. The pouch contained two cellulose flasks that could double as canteens. Each flask had a clip-on lid. Karl opened the first flask and shook out its contents onto the tarp. He found packs of spearmint gum and Charms candies—which he’d never liked. The items also included bouillon powder, matches, a fishing kit, a button compass, razor blades, a hacksaw blade, and three condoms.
He chuckled at the sight of the condoms. Guess they think I’ll get on well with the natives, he mused. But he knew the condoms were really for keeping matches and other items dry.
With no water to make broth, Karl couldn’t use the bouillon powder now, so he settled for the Charms. Opened one of the hard candies and popped it into his mouth. The damned thing contained just enough food value to make him even hungrier. While he crunched on the Charms, he opened the other flask. It contained a small first-aid kit, tweezers, aspirin, some five-mark German bills, and a toothbrush. If it were up to me, Karl thought, I’d have traded the candy for a little tube of toothpaste. The second flask also included an item Karl had added on his own: a Camillus folding knife. Not as fierce-looking as the Bowie knives and Arkansas toothpicks favored by macho types. More like the knife a gentleman farmer might carry in his work pants. In Karl’s estimation, far more practical.
He reassembled the escape kit, placed everything back into the flasks except the Charms. Resolved to get away from the city tomorrow and out into the country. There he might find a stream, and he could use the water to shave, clean up, and make the bouillon. The less he looked like an unshaven derelict, the better he’d blend in when he couldn’t avoid people. He also hoped to find some kind of coat; he was already cold and the nights would only grow colder. But he had no idea how he might go about scavenging a coat or a jacket without getting caught. One crisis at a time, he told himself.
For now, he made do with wrapping the tarp around him. It smelled like an engine and was filthy, but it kept him warm. Karl placed his .45 on the floor near his right hand and leaned back against the wall. After just a few minutes, he fell into a deep sleep.
A great trembling of the earth shook him awake. Karl opened his eyes in a state of utter confusion; for a moment, he could not remember where he was. Realization hit him like a gut punch—yes, he’d actually gotten shot down. And the nightmare had just become worse. The ground shuddered; the building rattled. A tremendous roar sounded from a couple miles away. Not distinct explosions, more like a continuous, pulsing eruption. Air raid sirens shrieked.
The Lancasters, Karl thought. That’s the RAF up there, heavy aircraft filled with bombs like insects full of eggs, impregnated with destruction.
Allied doctrine called for round-the-clock bombing of Germany, and the Brits took the night shift. Karl huddled in his corner, his senses overwhelmed by nonstop thunder. So this was what it was like to be on the receiving end of heavy bombardment. No, he reconsidered, this is only a hint. The bombs aren’t hitting on this side of the river.
Even at a distance, the detonations sounded like the end of the Earth. The rolling booms grew louder. Flashes lit up the broken window above him, and the glass clattered with each shock wave. Were the bombs walking their way toward him?
Karl sweated under his tarp. Wondered if the next bomb would take him out of this world. Night bombing was imprecise; it amounted to area bombing. After all, this new kind of industrial war was a war on cities. Stop the enemy’s factories, de-house his workers. In darkness, all of Bremen became a target.
An animal impulse in Karl’s mind cried out for him to flee. But flee where? He could only curl up in a fetal position and wait for the Armageddon outside to stop. Until it did, each second could bring death. Karl had once heard a Londoner say he didn’t worry about bombs, because they’d either hit you or not. If not, no problem. If one does hit me, the man said, I won’t even know it. So why worry?
But this wasn’t an either/or proposition. Karl could think of a thousand possibilities between escaping without a scratch and dying a quick death. Flying debris could maim you. Fire could trap you. Crumbling walls could bury you. Maybe that Londoner had downed a couple pints when he scoffed at aerial bombardment.
The noise pierced Karl’s eardrums and flowed straight into his brain. Is this what I wrought every time I flew? Karl asked. From Hellstorm’s flight deck, the bombs were silent; they struck the ground with soundless blooms of smoke and fire. Now he realized just how appropriate a name had been given to that aircraft.
He did not regret his choices. This war was a fight between good and evil, simple as that. Cousin Gerhard couldn’t understand it, Karl thought, and that’s why he chose the wrong side.
But such bad things had to happen before the good could win. Hamlet was right: cruel to be kind.
Through the ringing in Karl’s ears, he heard the boom of flak guns. He hadn’t heard them before, and that’s when he realized the bombing had ended. The gunners continued their barrage, perhaps hoping to pick off stragglers from the formations. After a time, the pounding of flak batteries stopped—replaced by sirens, shouts, and the rumble of trucks and ambulances.
He kept still and tried to get back to sleep, though he doubted he could sleep again tonight. Closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of Bremen attempting to recover from another attack. Seconds later—or was it an hour?—the sound of footsteps told him two things: Yes, through sheer exhaustion, he had fallen asleep again. And someone else was in the warehouse.
In the next room, boot heels ground against dirt and glass on the floor. The steps came slowly and deliberately. Karl wondered if someone had seen him come in here and reported him to authorities. He picked up his .45, clicked off the thumb safety, and held it with both hands.
The smoke and haze had cleared somewhat, and now the moon poured enough bourbon-colored light to throw shadows. A silhouette emerged at the warehouse entrance. Karl couldn’t tell if the man was armed; the figure kept his hands at his sides. With his Colt aimed at the stranger, Karl waited and hoped the man wouldn’t see him.
The figure turned slowly, scanning the warehouse.
Maybe Karl breathed too hard. Maybe moonlight glinted off his watch. Whatever the reason, the stranger ducked behind an engine block. Now Karl could see little but a pair of hands. Holding a pistol.
“Wer bist du?” Karl called.
“And who are you?” the stranger said.
“I asked you first.”
“I am a naval officer. Off duty. My home was destroyed.”
Karl said nothing. Wondered about the right thing to do.
“You’re just looking for shelter?” Karl asked finally.
“Yes, yes. You too?”
“I used to work here in a factory,” Karl said. “I’m a soldier on leave. My mama’s house got bombed.” Tried to keep his sentences simple and childlike.
“Then we have no reason to point weapons at one another.”
“Okay, put yours down.”
The figure rose from behind the engine block. Lowered the pistol, but did not put it down. Karl tilted his muzzle toward the floor, but kept his finger inside the Colt’s trigger guard.
“Come on out,” Karl said. Realized he’d used his command voice, and he chided himself. Remember, he thought, you’re a simpleton.
The stranger stepped toward Karl, into a shaft of moonlight. Karl recognized the man’s handgun by its distinctive shape. A Luger. The man eyed Karl’s weaponry as well.
“This could end well or badly,” the man said. “I mean you no harm.”
Of course, you don’t, Karl thought. I’m a fellow German, for all you know. Why would the guy say that? Does he suspect?
Neither man moved to put away his handgun.
“Are you from here?” the stranger asked.
“My mama lives here, like I said.”
“That’s not a Bremen accent.”
Damn it, damn it, damn it, Karl thought. I’m gonna have to shoot this guy.
“That’s not a German pistol, either,” the stranger said. “As a matter of fact, that’s a Colt Model 1911. Standard issue, I believe, in the United States Armed Forces.”
“Yeah, my papa got it in the war. I mean the other war.”
“And you just happen to be wandering around tonight with family heirlooms.”
The stranger raised his Luger higher, but he did not point it at Karl. “Let us drop this charade, Sergeant. Or Lieutenant, or whatever your rank is. You are an American airman. And a lucky one, to have made it this far. Your German is good, too, wherever you learned it.”
“I learned it at home, just like you,” Karl said.
The stranger regarded him over the Luger, holding the weapon out with straightened arms, a look on his face like a man working through some difficult puzzle.
“Do you know what you have done to my people, to our cities?” the man asked.
Now I’m under interrogation, Karl thought. He dropped the simpleton act, kept his finger on the trigger. “I got a pretty good idea. Especially after tonight.”
“I should shoot you right now.”
Karl remained still, his weapon held ready, but not aimed directly at the naval officer. He tightened his fists around the Colt, clamped the grip safety down hard. Set his finger against the trigger. Every part of the weapon—spring and sear, hammer and firing pin—gathered within a breath’s pressure of unleashing a bullet.
Just a matter of who’s half a second faster, Karl thought.
He examined his would-be executioner. Young guy, probably only a little older than Karl. But with the eyes of a man who’d witnessed too much. That was clear even in this dim light. Karl knew the look; he’d seen it before. On his friends and in the mirror.
“You seem to have lost your taste for killing,” Karl said.
“I never had a taste for killing,” the man said. Answered quickly, too. But a long moment passed before he added: “I just had a job to do.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Do you, now?” The stranger sounded like he wanted to argue. But he let his question hang in the air without any elaboration.
After several seconds passed, Karl said, “You said you had a job to do. Past tense. They discharged a naval officer at a time like this? And that’s why you’re in civilian clothes, hiking through an air raid by yourself?”
The man let his eyes wander as if considering how much to reveal. With the stranger off guard, Karl noted this would be a good time to fire. But he saw little profit in that right now.
“I am a sailor home from the sea,” the man said. “For good.”
Karl tilted his head back, raised his eyebrows.
“You mean you’ve just quit?” Karl asked. “Walked away from your base?”
Long silence. “Yes,” the stranger said finally.
“Then you’re in more trouble than I am,” Karl said.