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- Story Listed as: Fiction For Adults
- Theme: Fantasy stories / Fairy Tales
- Subject: War / Conflict
- Published: 03/21/2020
Flying Tigers - by T.R.Hart
China – 1942
The old man heard a distant rumbling and turned his eyes to the sky. He was hoping for badly needed rain, to ensure a bountiful harvest. “A cloudless sky” he sighed. In the distance he thought he saw a flock of black birds flying in a peculiar pattern. Then he saw men running quickly from the fields shouting “It is the Japanese!” The farmers would be the lucky ones today. Those who lived in the city were not.
The Japanese airmen took a delight watching people on the ground scattering like mice. They laughed and shouted “Banzai” to each other. Killing was such an easy task against such a defenseless population.
Soon there would be no opposition to Japan’s need for sorely needed resources. The Emperor needed food for his people, labor for his industry, and oil to maintain Japan’s military domination.
The Far East would become part of his Empire. The Chinese, they claimed, should be grateful to their new emperor …after all, they were “liberating” the Chinese from the “foreign devils”.
Their jubilation was interrupted by the screaming sound of airplanes coming from above. The rear turret gunner’s eyes widened in terror at the sight of a warplane with the face of a fearsome tiger shark painted on its nose.
“Flying Tigers!” the children shouted, while the adults pulled them to safety. At a time when opposition to those “malicious dwarves” from Japan seemed futile, it was the sight of these brave American pilots that was seen as a gift from their gods. Every time one of the bombers was knocked out of the sky in a ball of fire or seen plummeting to the earth, there was a great cheering from the peasants.
One of the pilots escorting one of the Mitsubishi Ki-21 "Sally" heavy bombers, dubbed “Sallys” by the Americans, became enraged by his inability to catch the fleeing tigers and sought vengeance by strafing a group of children who had sauntered out thinking that the danger had passed. They could see the pilot laughing as the bullets tore through the little one’s bodies sending them flying into the air like rag dolls.
“That sonofbitch!” shouted Ricky Caruso, one of the “Tigers” who had witnessed the massacre. He put his nose into a steep dive and began to hammer the Ki-27 with slugs from his .50 caliber nose guns. The pilot zigged and zagged but Caruso’s P-40 Warhawk’s superior speed in a dive caught up with the “Nate” and within seconds the plane was on fire. He could see the Japanese pilot writhing in agony as his flesh was consumed by the flames.
'Burn in Hell you bastard!' Ricky thought as he pulled up from his dive.
“Look out Rico!” a shout came over the radio. “You’ve got a Jap on your tail!” Ricky turned to look when he saw bullets rip into his right wing. He dipped his wing and went into a shallow dive hoping to elude his attacker.
“Don’t try to fight him Rico! That little brown bastard’s too nimble for you. I’m coming, just keep him off of your tail.”
Ricky zigged and zagged but the Japanese pilot was determined to get his vengeance. 'I think I might have bought it this time' he thought. He felt a thud hit the back of his seat protected by a thick armor plate and knew that the next bullet might find him.
Suddenly he heard one of the Tigers diving and saw tracer bullets flying past him. He saw the Jap fighter, a new Nakajima Ki-43, or “Oscar” as the Americans referred to it, fly away with a badly damaged tail flap. There was shouting over the radio, things like: “Go get that bastard”, and “make him meet his ancestors”, but the Tiger let him go and responded in a clear and calm Midwestern drawl: “I’ll get him next time.”
Ricky recognized the voice. It was his best and closest friend, Lars “Ox” Lundgren, the lumbering farm boy from Minnesota. He heard the roar of an engine to his left and saw Ox’s gap-toothed grin staring back at him.
“I owe you one!” Ricky laughed, but he had clearly been shaken by the ordeal.
The one thing you learn in the army is never to volunteer, or so the saying goes, but the kids of the Great Depression knew when there was an opportunity to be had, you had to jump on it. Ricky and Ox were two of those kids.
Ricky and Ox were the two most unlikely friends that one could imagine. Ricky was a wiry little Italian-American kid from New Jersey with a smart mouth and a pugnacious attitude. Ox was a farmer’s son from America’s heartland…a lumbering giant of Swedish stock, quiet, with a calm demeanor that belied his high intellect. They both had one thing in common. They were good with anything mechanical and loved to fly.
There was a real push by the American Government to strengthen its air corps. During the midst of the Depression, Hollywood rolled out films that glorified pilots as heroes, facing danger in the skies. They dreamed of becoming Aces, that is, to score at least five kills against the enemy. Why stop at five. Surely the Red Baron’s score of eighty had to be surpassed? After all, wasn’t America the greatest country in the world?
The war in China had been going on for almost ten years when the call for Volunteers came out in March of 1941. The Russians had been helping the Chinese fight the Japanese, but now were pulling out and heading home to meet the greater threat from Hitler. The German war machine was moving through Poland and crushing all of the Soviet defenses.
Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of the Nationalists in China, called on the American Government, anxious that Japan’s hegemony in Asia would go unchecked, for help. Ricky and Ox knew nothing about China, but they knew that a war was looming between Imperial Japan and the United States.
“We gotta get in this war before they come over here!” was the catchphrase heard all over the airbases across the country. The pilots were still flying the old biplanes and were dying to get their hands on the new Curtiss P-40’s.
Ricky and Ox met in flight school. They took turns being the tops in their class, but Ricky edged out Ox in the aerial combat maneuvers and didn’t let him forget it.
“Hey Ox!” Ricky bellowed. “Com’ere, look at this.”
Ox, who was never one to be overly excited, slowly walked over to his friend who was on his toes trying to read the note that some wise ass pinned high on the bulletin board.
“Put me down, dumbass!” Ricky chided as he wriggled out of the big man’s hold.
“I din’t see a ladder ‘round here so I thought you might need a lift” Ox laughed.
“Listen up Ox. It says here that they need fliers in China. Volunteers will be discharged from the armed services, to be employed for "training and instruction" by a private military contractor, the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO). They’ll pay $600 a month for pilot officers, $675 a month for flight leaders, $750 for squadron leaders and about $250 for skilled ground crewmen. Some of the guys said that they would get 500 bucks for every Jap that they shoot down!”
“I dunno, you have to leave the Army to join. Are you sure you want to risk it for an adventure?”
“Listen Ox. If we get over there and shoot some Japs down and become Aces, then we could make some nice money, come back with battle experience, and re-enlist. We can’t lose…unless… you’re a big chicken?”
“They call me Ox, not chicken. Okay little man, I’m in!”
That summer, Ox, Ricky, and about 100 other “volunteers”’ boarded ships destined for Burma carrying civilian passports. They were initially based at a British airfield in Toungoo for training while their aircraft were assembled and test flown by CAMCO personnel at Mingaladon Airport, just outside of Rangoon. General Chennault, the founding leader of the American Volunteer Group, set up a schoolhouse that was made necessary because many pilots had "lied about their flying experience, claiming pursuit experience when they had flown only bombers and sometimes much less powerful airplanes.
It wasn’t long before each man had his own brand spankin’ new P-40 Warhawks that the Brits turned down as obsolete. They would be facing the Japanese fighter, the Nakajima Ki-27, a slower, but more nimble fighter in the hands of an experienced flier. Chennault warned them not to be pulled into a dogfight. If they were forced to engage the men were told to put their plane into a steep dive and pull up fast. Any Japanese pilot foolish enough to try to catch them would break up in mid air as they couldn’t handle the “G” forces in their fragile built aircraft.
Bombers were targeted. P-40 pilots were instructed to swoop down like birds of prey from high altitudes and lay into the bomber squadrons with overwhelming fire power. “Hit ‘em hard and fast”, and get the hell out of there!
“Now it’s personal!”
Ricky and Ox were sleeping off a hangover when the news came:
“Hey Guys, get your asses outta bed! Fitz yelled. The Colonel wants everybody out on the double. We got big news from Pearl Harbor!”
“I feel like shit!” Ricky moaned.
“You look like shit!” Ox laughed.
“You’ll be in shit if you don’t get your asses up quick” warned Fitz.
There was grumbling among the young men as they fumbled on that early December morning. They sat in the field house waiting for the Colonel.
“Attention!” Everyone was on their feet. The Colonel looked even grimmer than usual. The Japanese were moving closer to Rangoon every day and the odds were getting greater every day, but there seemed to be something eating the Colonel. His eyes narrowed. Maybe some dumbass really screwed up last night? No, this was different. This was really something serious.
Everyone was told to take a seat. The Colonel spoke slowly and deliberately. The men’s jaws dropped when they learned about the devastation brought upon the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. The shock turned to anger when they heard that the Japanese had attacked without warning. “Those sneaky Japs, someone yelled. Colonel Chennault gave a look that silenced all wagging tongues in the room. There were a few more sentences passed from the great man’s lips, but the ones that everyone remembered were: “Now, it’s personal!”
There was no time to piss and moan. It was time to act. Everything that they learned was soon put to the test. There would be no dog-fighting and no hot-dogging from now on. It was strictly business. America was in this war now and the Flying Tigers were going to do their part. They were a small bunch with a big punch. No other squadrons would ever take a toll on the enemy like they would. Ricky and Ox looked at each other and gave a nod. They knew what they had to do.
The “Tigers” drew blood on Dec. 20, (Local Time), twelve days after the sneak attack at Pearl. The Japanese bombers were designated with female names, while the fighters escorting them were given male names. In the early days of the war there were no Chinese planes who could stand up to the Japanese fighters. The Japanese figured that since there was no resistance by the beleaguered Chinese Air Force, there was no need to send fighter escorts on the first bombing mission, but they were wrong.
“We got a date with a buncha’ “Sallys” boys!” Joe Martin laughed.
“Where’s their boyfriends?” Ox replied over the radio.
“They’re too scared of me!” Ricky wisecracked.
The Captain’s voice came over the air. It was calm and to the point: “Okay, cut the chatter, our objective is to climb high, keep an eye out for fighters. Do not engage them unless absolutely necessary. The bombers: dive on ‘em, hit ‘em fast and re-group. Keep an eye on the rear gunners. Don’t believe that bullshit that they all have four eyes and can’t hit the side of a barn. Good Luck men!”
For the first time that they could remember there was no talking. The Sallys were spotted below and with no fighters in sight! The P-40’s, painted with the scowling faces of tiger sharks, came ripping through the bombers like they were a school of fish. One by one they were torn apart by 50 caliber lead. Some went down like wounded birds, but others burst into fireballs. Of the twenty bombers sent out to wreak havoc that day, only one would escape the Tiger’s fury, There would be more bombers coming in a few days, but the next time they would be bringing their escorts with them.
As predicted, the Bombers were back in larger numbers escorted by the “Nate” fighters. Although considered inferior to the Tiger’s P-40’s, the Nakajima Ki-27 was light, nimble, and in the hands of an experience pilot, deadly. There were plenty of them too.
“Damn-it” the Colonel seethed. “The sons of bitches took Rangoon. We’re already short on supplies and we got them up our asses now!” Their kill ratio was almost twenty one to one, but the Tigers started with only a hundred P-40s, and, they were irreplaceable.
Although morale was good, the constant attacks started to wear down the men. Any plane considered dangerous for flying, was scavenged for parts. Even those considered “flyable” were patched and held together by clever mechanics. There were rumors going around that one of the plane’s gas tanks had been plugged with chewing gum… but then… where would you get chewing gum in the jungles of Burma?
“Hey Ox, I’m gonna get my fifth Jap today! Just call me Ace!”
“How many s’s in Ace?” Ox laughed.
It wasn’t long before the sirens went off, but this time the news came late and for the first time the Tigers were under attack. The men jumped into their cockpits and gunned their engines. Like a bunch of angry hornets, they climbed high into the clouds in search of the Bombers who caught them off guard.
Ox and Ricky flew as wingmen. They knew the drill. Dive on the bombers together. Keep an eye out for fighters, and do it again. No dogfighting unless you got caught alone. It was harder to knock the bombers out these days. There were so many of them. A lot of lead was flying in every direction. Sometimes a Tiger caught a bullet from his own buddy if he wasn’t careful…and then there were the Jap fighters who were getting better at hitting back.
The bomber’s let loose on the townspeople below. Ricky and Ox could see them running for safety. They could see the bomber crews cheering as their bombs destroyed everything in sight, but it was a certain tail gunner laughing and making throat cutting gestures that enraged them.
“We gotta get that little bastard!” Ricky yelled.
“I’m with you little buddy!” came Ox’s reply.
The two planes dove onto the bombers but each man aimed for that tail gunner, and he knew it. His face turned white when he saw the painted birds dive out of the sun and before he could aim his gun, the 50 caliber bullets riddled his body. Just moments before, the Japanese rear-gunner was jubilant, celebrating the destruction and annihilation of Chinese peasants. Now, he was nothing more than a mass of gooey flesh dripping from the bomber’s tail.
Jimmy Fitzpatrick, “Fitz”, was flying with Eddie Martin that day. Eddie kept his cool, but Fitzy wanted to get another “kill” and pulled out of his dive to take out one of the Nates. The Japanese pilot’s pretense of being an unskilled pilot was a trap. He deftly turned his plane and within seconds was on Fitzy’s tail. Jimmy zigged and zagged to no avail. The Japanese pilot stuck to him like glue. Eddie had his own troubles. He was being chased by two Nates and high tailed it back home thinking that Fitzy had “bought it”.
Fitzy climbed high hoping to elude his hunter, but bullets ripped into his engine, smoke was followed by flames and Fitzy desperately pulled on his canopy to free himself. After a brief struggle that seemed like hours, he had managed to free himself from the burning craft as it tumbled through the air. Fitzy pulled his parachute cord. It opened, pulled him back a little, and he thought “Thank you God!”.
A fireball, that was a plane seconds earlier, burst through a group of trees near the perimeter of a farm. He watched the flames burn and was happy to be alive. His fear had turned to joy when he saw Ricky and Ox fly by. They flapped their wings and he knew that help would arrive soon. He was on friendly territory.
Suddenly, a strange sound was heard. It was the sound of a plane’s engine and it was coming nearer. “Christ, it’s a Jap!” Ricky yelled. “And he’s going after Fitzy!”
The two tigers raced to turn their planes around but were too late to save their friend. The Japanese pilot, in one of the new Oscars, was throwing lead into Jimmy’s body. He looked like a marionette dancing on the parachute lines. Fitzy was now a bloody corpse. They could see the pilot laugh. He mocked the Tigers and flapped his wings. Within seconds he was far away and beyond their vengeance..
“I’ll get that Jap if it’s the last thing I do!” Ricky cried.
“Yup” Ox replied, as he wiped a tear from his eye.
The Debt Repaid
The News of the Doolittle raid on Tokyo had boosted morale for the Tigers, but they were a small group of courageous young men fighting at a terrible disadvantage. Although their ratio of kills would never be surpassed, the loss of each “Tiger” devastated their three squadrons. Fitzy’s death hit close to home. They had not been able to avenge his murder.
“There he was” Ricky seethed, ”Hanging from his lines thinking he made it home and that dirty little bastard killed him!”
“Don’t you worry little buddy. Oscar has his day coming. We’ll get him.”
“Colonel says to keep on the bombers, but if I see him he’s mine, Eddie growled. Fitzy was my wingman. He would’ve done it for me.”
The three Tigers bitching got back to the Colonel…and he wasn’t happy. He wasn’t a large man but he had a chiseled jaw and deep set eyes that could put the fear of God in you. “If you men break rank... you jeopardize the rest of my men. Stay together and hit the bombers!”
Of course the men promised that they would keep to their objective and kept their thought to themselves, but each knew that if the chance came to get even, they would take it.
The men were just about to get their dinners when the sirens blazed and each man scrambled to his aircraft. A squadron of Japanese fighters swooped down and started to hammer them with small bombs and strafing the men as they ran for safety. One of them hit a depot and it set off a deafening explosion. Some of the men got to their planes and gunned their engines down the runway. One was caught by a “Nate” and it was a miracle that the pilot got out alive.
“Jesus, help me!” Ricky cried making the sign of the cross.
He saw Ox and Eddie get into the air. Ricky hopped into a waiting Warhawk and tore down the runway, but not before he was strafed by one of the returning Nates. Bullets tore into his canopy but his plane throttled forward and up.
They were all fighting for their lives. Ox and Eddie looked around for Ricky but he was yet to be seen.
“Shit! I hope the little bastards didn’t get him” Ox yelled over the radio.
“It’s too hard to kill me you dumb ol’ Ox!” came the Jersey accent.
“Where the hell are you?”
“Don’t worry. I got you covered big man!”
Eddie and the others were headed home after knocking a few Nates out of the sky, but Ox looked around and saw that he was alone. He started to panic. Fuel was getting low and he wasn’t sure if he was in friendly territory.
Suddenly Ox was startled by the strange sound of an unfamiliar engine. To his horror he realized that he was in the sights of the Oscar that got Fitzy.
“I gotta shake that little bastard” he thought to himself. His heart was racing as he zigged and zagged to no avail. He tried to climb but he still couldn’t shake him. With each pass he could see the Japanese pilot smile. “That SOB is on my tail again. Where the hell is Ricky?”
“Don’t worry. I got you covered big man!” came a reply. Take him on a steep dive. He can’t catch you. He’ll fall apart like a book of matchsticks... Cheap Jap construction!”
Ox pushed forward on his joystick and dove for dear life. As he was coming out of his dive he could see Ricky aiming his plane straight for the Oscar’s nose. The Japanese pilot couldn’t believe his eyes! This crazy American was coming straight for him. He let off round after round, none of the bullets hitting their mark, but still the Tiger came right at him. Just before the moment of impact the Japanese pilot lost the game of chicken and pulled into a dive. The oscar was too low in the air to pull out of his dive. His propeller clipped some treetops and his plane went into a spin, crashed into a hillside and exploded into a fireball.
Ox gave a sigh of relief. “You saved my ass you little greaser!”
The response came over the radio before cutting out: “I owed you one!”
Ox called out to his friend but there was no reply. He had hoped that Ricky was back at the base. He knew that he was going to be in for a lot of teasing. After all, if he saved Ricky’s ass he would be doing the ribbing, but for the moment he was low on fuel and had to keep his mind on his return trip.
Ox’s P-40 was running on fumes by the time he got back to base. He circled once and surveyed the field littered with debris and pot marked with bomb craters. Ox had one chance to land. 'Dry stick, not an ounce of fuel left', he thought to himself. I might get squished, but at least I won’t burn to death.”
The expert landing was envied and praised by his fellow “Tigers”. They all cheered and pulled the exhausted pilot out of his plane, which was no mean feat as Ox was more than 200 lbs. He looked around for Ricky but didn’t see him.
Ox was full of joy. He had made it back alive. “Hey, where’s Rico? He laughed. The little shit saved my life. I figure he’d be here to rub it in!”
The jubilation ebbed as quickly as it had flowed moments before.
“What’s the matter?” Ox cried. “Where’s Rico? Did he make it back? The last time I saw him he was headed straight for Oscar. He put the little bastard into a spin and he crashed. Rico got him for Fitzy!”
The men looked at him in disbelief. The Colonel, who had been overjoyed at the return of one of his lambs, now had the unenviable task of informing him about Ricky.
“Son, I know you’ve been through a lot, but I have some bad news for you. Ricky made it off the runway but crashed nearby. They found his body. The Oscar got him with a clean shot through the chest. Somebody else must have gotten the Oscar afterwards. Some peasants found his plane burning on a hillside. I am deeply sorry for your loss.”