Mar 15th

The crew

By Robert M

George wound his way with great care down the newly worn jungle path that was barely visible in the morning mist. At his age stumbles were a way of life and his daughter, Maureen, followed close behind, ready to extend a saving hand. He stopped and rested, blowing hard. This must have been the path they used to remove the bones he thought to himself.

He had got the call from the War Graves Commission a few weeks earlier. His old aircraft and its crew had been found, sixty years after crashing into the earth in a torrent of flame and noise. Now he was back here, where they had all died. Everyone except him. He didn’t really know why he had come, just that he needed to be there.

At last they reached the crash site. His daughter and their local guide stayed back to give him some privacy while he slowly walked the last few yards, leaving him alone with his thoughts. There wasn’t much to see in the mist, just a few pieces of shattered, scorched aluminium and the dark metal lump of one of the engines. The tailplane was surprisingly complete, still with his gun turret in place.

His thoughts went back to that clear, sunny day sixty years earlier. They had bombed and were on the way back to their base when the fighter hit. In seconds the explosive cannon shells turned the beautiful weapon of war into a flying wreck. He had known instinctively that the damage was fatal and had scrambled out of his turret.

The mid-upper turret gunner, Fred, lay dead on the fuselage floor. Henry, the navigator, still sat at his table with his blood spattered charts spread before him, but he no longer had a head. George knew that he should wait for orders to bale out or check on the crew up front but he was gripped with terror. He quickly clipped on his parachute pack and dived out of the door, just missing the flames from a blazing fuel tank.

He was so low when he jumped that by the time he had sorted himself out he was nearly on the ground. He never saw the aircraft hit, just heard the crash. He had, luckily, landed in a small clearing in the dense jungle. Using his survival kit he had reached civilisation after three days of sweating and swearing. All the time, the guilt he felt was weighing heavily on him. The thought played again and again in his mind, you ran out on them, you ran out on them.

George was never allowed back on operations. The doctors said the nineteen year old would never again be stable enough to fly and he was transferred to ground duties only. His guilt at abandoning his mates had affected him deeply. He knew he should have waited for the order to abandon aircraft.

After the war he returned home and married his childhood sweetheart, Enid. She loved him enough to tolerate the nightmare he frequently had. Always the same one. “We’re on fire” he would cry. “Get out! Get out!”

It was peaceful now in the jungle, just the sound of the birds and the low murmuring of Maureen talking with the guide. Suddenly George noticed a flash of colour amongst the deep green of the jungle and he realised a figure was watching him. He moved slowly, cautiously, towards it. The figure was wearing the bright yellow lifejacket that had caught his eye, a faded blue uniform and flying boots. He immediately knew the serene young face above them.

“Skipper, Is that you Skipper?” said George. “Yes George” replied Pilot Officer James Tenby,” it’s me. I knew you would come back to us one day”. “Oh Skip, Skip” said George, “I baled out without the order to do so, I am so, so sorry. Please, please forgive me. I abandoned you all and it has been on my mind all these many years”. Tears rolled down his cheeks.

“George”, said the aircraft captain, “there is nothing to forgive. I gave the order to abandon but the intercom had been shot to pieces. You just never heard it. That fighter certainly made a mess of us. You did exactly the right thing. There is nothing to blame yourself for; you did what any one of us would have done”. The figure started to shimmer. “I have to go now George, the others are calling me”. “Don’t worry any longer; we will all be meeting again before long. We will be a complete crew again”. With those words the figure slowly faded until it was gone.

Maureen watched her father walking slowly back down the path, his steps now those of a man forty years younger. He seemed taller somehow and his face was more peaceful than she had ever seen it. He turned once more to face the wreckage, came to parade ground attention, and saluted in the proper RAF way, palm outwards.  “Bye chaps” he murmured, “see you soon”.


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