WW II New Guinea - Pilot Lee Marks must learn to face expert Japanese fighter pilots, killer storms, and a conniving commanding officer if he is to survive.
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Novels by Roger A. Naylor
Lt. Lee Marks, a rookie Fifth Air Force P-38 pilot, tastes the blend of excitement and fear as he enters the air war over 1944 New Guinea. In a campaign where the weather claims as many pilots as the Japanese, Marks must quickly learn the idiosyncrasies of both if he is to survive.
In addition to those challenges, Marks finds that nothing in his training has prepared him for duty under Major Mo Brennan. A triple ace, Brennan manipulates his men and the system as efficiently as he eliminates the enemy.
Becoming his leader's unofficial exec, Marks finds himself torn between what works and what is right, what the future might bring-and what he must sacrifice to find out. And he learns along the way that sometimes an airman's toughest battles are fought on the ground.
The rousing story traces the Allied course of action in the New Guinea campaign, and it explores the war, the men who make the war, and the natives who are the hosts. The novel is sprinkled with GI humor, the uplifting ingredient that kept it all together, and it flies on the wings of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning.
January 27, 1944 – Somewhere over the Coral Sea
“Perhaps the longest journey a man can take is that of half-circling the globe to an unfamiliar land with the ordained task of entering ill-prepared into battle against an enemy he has never seen, an enemy he can never understand, an enemy who will inevitably choose death over defeat.”
Second Lieutenant Lee Marks recalled the words of his CO at advanced fighter training. Lee still knew little about the enemy, but he knew it had been a long, tedious trip. Oh, man, my butt hurts, he thought, and this is the good part.
The C-47, the olive drab aluminum whale in which he rode, suddenly lurched and Lee Marks found himself tipped on his back into a trough formed by the bench seat and the curved side of the fuselage. Twisting his neck he looked straight downward through the porthole of the old Gooneybird to the blue sea 10,000 feet below.
A chorus of yelps and profanity overrode the metallic din of the airplane as it continued its sharp bank, climbed slightly, and slipped ghostlike into a neighboring cloud.
“What was that all about?” asked Bubba Nash, the skinny young pilot next to Marks.
Lee Marks looked to the captain who sat across the aisle for an explanation. The senior officer calmly surveyed the fledgling fighter pilots as they struggled to regain lost composure and hide their fear.
“Probably saw some Japs,” the captain finally shouted. “One of their small carrier groups was messing around northwest of here yesterday. He patted the metal bench seat with the shallow indentations to accommodate the human anatomy and added, “Good old ship, but she’ll never beat a Zeke.”
Lee settled in again as the aircraft righted itself. The pain in his hips and tailbone told
him the respite at Townsville, Australia, had been too short. He took a deep breath and tried to relax, but the pungent mix of dust, aluminum, mildew, and body odor that he had come to think of as Army Air Force reminded him all too clearly of where he was, and more important, why he was there.
A recently commissioned fighter pilot, Lee Marks had just turned twenty-one. His black,wavy hair was combed back, and his deep-set, brown eyes probed intensely from behind a slender, almost hawkish face to give him a somewhat forbidding countenance. Lee Marks was handsome when he smiled, but in recent weeks his smile had seldom been seen by strangers.
Last leg to New Guinea, thought Lee as he mopped the sweat from his forehead with a shirtsleeve. By tomorrow, I’ll be in the damned war—if we don’t get shot down today. He tensed at the thought. He’d try to deal with the fear as he always had, like facing a dive into a cold, dark swimming hole—deny his dread, hold his breath, and dive right in.
The captain across the aisle seemed to be watching him. Lee reacted by looking down the line at the others, where a glib line had just drawn a burst of laughter. He smiled inwardly at himself. He hadn’t even heard the joke. Would he ever break that self-conscious habit of looking away from strangers?
He forced his attention back to the captain. The lines in the captain’s Atabrine-yellow-tan, weather-beaten face suggested he was old, perhaps even twenty-five. His shapeless visored officer hat was tipped at a jaunty angle. Brown eyes peered through slits formed by puffed eyelids. Except for the age, he fit Lee’s image of a veteran combat pilot. Huh, Lee thought, he’s probably a desk jockey from Port Moresby.
Smiling, the captain leaned across the aisle. He said, “I’m Captain Dick Robesky. My friends call me Roby.”
“Second Lieutenant Marks, Sir, Lee Marks,” he replied, wondering if he was now a friend or still only a lieutenant.
“You assigned to the new Fighter Group?” Robesky asked.
“Yes, sir, the 483rd Fighter Group, 125th Squadron, I guess.”
“Ohhh, so you’re one of Mo Brennan’s new birds,” the captain said. “You want to learn your way around? You listen up and learn. Nobody in the Air Force gets things done like Major Brennan.”
“Thank you, sir,” Lee said. “I’ll listen.”
He glanced back down the line at the other passengers. Several older-looking strangers with lines of experience lacing their yellowish-tan faces sat among the sixteen fresh, young, khaki-clad officers who had made the trip from the States together. The new officers were being attached to the recently formed 483rd Fighter Group, Fifth Air Force, at Dobodura, New Guinea. Six of them would join the 127th Fighter Squadron, while Lee and eight others were to
merge with three veterans to form the 125th Fighter Squadron.
Lee had known two of the pilots since primary flight training and had become acquainted with others during advanced training and the subsequent long trip. He had watched the behavior
of the young eagles as they flew closer and closer to the combat zone. One small cluster talked endlessly about their athletic prowess during high school and college years. Another group had spent over ten thousand miles boasting about and probably embellishing their sexual conquests. Still others had matched up in pairs and were quietly discussing their families, the war, flying, or the uncertain future. Lee had spent much of his time alone, thinking. Nerves, he mused, all of us coping with nerves. How differently we do it.
He glanced at his watch. They should be over half way in their seven-hundred mile flight from Townsville, Australia, to Port Moresby on the south coast of New Guinea. Only half-way? Lee slid down in the uncomfortable seat, tipped his hat over his face, and begged for sleep. The sweaty smell of the cap stung his nostrils, so he moved it higher on his forehead. But the high-pitched voices, staccato sounds, and boisterous laughter pronged his consciousness, reminding him of the countless excursions on buses, trains, and ships over the last year.
The vibrations of the two radial engines produced a monotonous backdrop to the voices and teased Lee with their hypnotic effect. While their rhythm induced drowsiness, their heavy drone reminded him that they were over water far from the nearest land. He found himself listening for the slightest miss or sign of engine trouble. He had searched and searched for that small chunk of pleasant relief called sleep, but he had seldom found it.
Lee began to retrace his long journey back across the wide Pacific, back along the railroad tracks to South Chicago and home. Ever since his leave prior to shipping out, thoughts of home meant thoughts of his sister Marie—thoughts of trouble. At a time when his military mates found sanctity in memories of home, Lee tried desperately to avoid such reminiscence, for it brought only pain and confusion, frustration and anger.
Home had always been the center of Lee’s world, that place where his victories were lauded and his defeats quickly laid to rest. He had received frequent encouragement from his mother, though in his youth he had often felt her disciplining hand.
“You study hard – you work hard, Lee Marklevitz,” she had said when he was very young, “and someday you be president. Someday you make up for that no good, foolish father of
Lee had always felt the shivers when his mother berated his father like that. He knew she had the right. His father had left them soon after the birth of Lee’s younger sister, Marie. No warning—he just left. And the remaining trio of Marklevitzes had never found their way out of that cold, dark hole. His mother eventually shortened the name, moved them to a small, rented house in a lesser neighborhood, and set about raising a “good American family.” Still, whenever she began to malign his father, Lee had felt threatened, for perhaps someday she would turn on him. Ultimately, as it turned out, she did.
It came when he got into trouble over Marie, who was now sixteen. Despite his warnings, Marie had been sneaking out with a spoiled, rich punk who was three years older than she. Having made love to more than one girl during his high school and college years, Lee was alert to the signs. He had only seen Pete Loren with his sister once, but he knew what Loren was after. It would only be a matter of time until the smug Casanova had her in the back seat of his new convertible.
The trouble erupted one night when Lee was hanging around the local pool hall while home on leave. An acquaintance cornered Lee and told him that Pete Loren had boasted openly
that he had been screwing Marie Marks and that she was “a real hot fuck.” Lee remembered the fight in the alley—every blow. He had methodically chopped Loren down to a bleeding mass in a fetal position on the alley bricks. He could still remember the strange feelings he’d had during the fight. His initial anger had somehow become an overwhelming compulsion to punish, hurt, destroy the other man. And he had hurt Loren, though he never really knew how badly.
Two policemen had hauled Lee off to the station, where he was told there was a good chance that Loren’s father would file charges. Officer Crowder advised Lee not to leave town, then winked. Lee would never forget his mother’s angry tears as she assailed his bad judgment and compared him to his father. And now, barely two weeks later, he found himself on the opposite side of the world.
Aware of his quickening pulse, Lee knew he could work himself into a useless frenzy, so he sat up and looked around.
“Feel like talking now?” Captain Robesky asked.
“Well, yes, sir. I guess I do.”
“Come on over,” the captain said, motioning to the vacant seat beside him. As Lee settled in, Robesky asked, “You like the P-38, Lieutenant?”
“Sure do, sir. Any idea which model we’ll get?” Lee noted that he was still a lieutenant, not a friend.
“Hard to say, maybe Model Js, probably not the new Model L,” the captain answered. “Where you from?”
“How old are you, Marks?” Robesky asked, looking directly at Lee.
“Is that all? You seem a lot older than the rest of these kids.”
“It’s just—I’m a little different, I guess, sir. I don’t seem to need crowds,” Lee said. An uncomfortable silence set in, finally broken by Captain Robesky.
“You know, Marks, when I first broke in over here, flying P-40’s out of Darwin, I had an older flight leader who had been with Chennault’s AVG’s in China. He used to say, ‘If you want the toughest fighter pilot around, choose a scrappy loner.’” The captain looked seriously at Lee.
“But, if I’ve got a Zero on my tail, I think I want a friend for a wingman. What do you think?”
“Guess I really shouldn’t have an opinion, sir,” Lee replied, “being just a rookie.”
“Oh, come on, Lieutenant,” pressed the captain. “You must have an opinion.”
Lee studied the senior officer. Was this a sincere conversation, or was the captain baiting him? The twinkle in Robesky’s eyes suggested the latter. Lee felt annoyed. He resented being manipulated. He wanted to move back to his original seat, but he found himself responding instead.
“If I had that Zero on my tail,” he began, “I think I’d prefer a scrappy loner who can shoot to a wonderful friend who can’t find his ass with both hands.”
Robesky laughed. “Can you shoot?”
“Yes, sir,” Lee responded, still bristling.
“I like that—confident, too.”
Lee backed off. “Sir, I didn’t mean to sound cocky. What I meant was, even as a kid with my slingshot, I never hit anything I thought I was going to miss.”
“No, Marks, I’m sure you didn’t.” Robesky laughed again.
A natural silence blanketed the conversation. Lee glanced at his watch. About two more hours and they should be landing at Seven-mile Drome, the large marshalling base near Port Moresby. He almost asked the captain about the name Seven-mile Drome, but he decided not to renew the conversation. He leaned back, willed the pain from his body, and dozed off again.
He awakened an hour later to violent bumping and tossing by the Gooneybird. The cabin grew dark, and the loud splatter of rain against the craft’s thin aluminum skin silenced its passengers.
Captain Robesky shouted down the line, “Seatbelts on! It’s probably just a squall, but it could get rough.”
“Sir,” Lee began, forgetting his vow in the face of the new element, “how do you tell the
difference between a squall and something worse out here?”
“If you survive it, it was a squall,” Robesky said with a smile. “Over the water you can see a storm from many miles away. You can gauge its height, width, and movement. Out here, you’ll spend a lot of time over water, and you’ll see storms almost every day, but they’re all taken seriously. You can’t show a tropical storm too much respect. Once you’re in it, you’re blind as a bat and you’ve probably lost your radio.”
By 1630 hours, they had found clear skies and begun letting down. At 1745, the tires of the Gooneybird screeched against one of three parallel strips seven miles east of Port Moresby. The airmen disembarked, standing in a huddle and gawking as they awaited the canvas-covered truck that rolled across the tarmac to meet them.
“Je-sus! Look at all the B-25’s,” a young voice exclaimed.
“Yeah, and over there—B-24’s.”
“Where are the fighters?” someone asked.
“Ohh, no! Look over there—P-39’s! You don’t think they’d put us in those relics, do you?” a disheartened second lieutenant groaned.
“Nah,” a voice answered. “I heard they’re pawning those off on the Aussies.”
“God, I hope you’re right.”
“Hey, here’s the truck.”
They tossed their bags up, climbed aboard, and plopped onto the wooden bench seats.
“Damn, I think we’re in another squall!” Sandy Sadler shouted, standing and bending to exhibit his wet butt. The truck lurched forward, sending the jokester tumbling onto his mates. In minutes, the vehicle ground to a squeaky stop, and the men piled out. Two enlisted men, obviously familiar with the base, hoisted up their duffels and took off on their own.
The newcomers gawked in all directions, trying to assimilate everything at once.
“Grab your gear and meet over there,” Captain Robesky directed, “next to the mess hall.”
As the group neared the mess hall, a jeep rounded the corner and jerked to a stop before them. Captain Robesky walked to the jeep and engaged the driver, a major, in serious
discussion. Lee edged a little closer to the conversation.
“Hell no, I won’t trade you, Roby,” the major was saying, the fixed grin on his face contradicting an emphatic voice. “You rolled the damned dice yourself—got first pick. Now, get these yardbirds fed and settled in for the night. Big day tomorrow.” He jammed the gearshift into low and the jeep scooted around a corner and out of sight.
Captain Robesky rolled his eyes, turned, and introduced himself to the group. “I’ll be commanding the 127th Squadron. That was Major Brennan, CO of the 125th.” He went on to
outline bunking assignments and procedures for the evening mess. “We’ll see you right here in the morning, ready for work at 0630 hours. Any questions?”
“Place is sure big,” said one of the newcomers. “Not exactly posh, is it?”
“Enjoy it, Lieutenant,” Captain Robesky countered. “If you ever see anything this nice again, it won’t be for at least six months.”