Tuesday, June 1, 2010

In Memory of Memorial Day

World War II

It was over Target Berlin the flak shot up our plane

just as we were dumping bombs on the already

smoking city

on signal from the lead bomber in the squadron.

The plane jumped again and again as the shells burst

under us

sending jagged pieces of steel rattling through our


It was pure chance

that none of us got ripped by those fragments.

Then, being hit, we had to drop out of formation

right away

losing speed and altitude,

and when I figured out our course with trembling hands

on the instruments

(I was navigator)

we set out on the long trip home to England

alone, with two of our four engines gone

and gas streaming out of holes in the wing tanks.

That morning at briefing

we had been warned not to go to nearby Poland

partly liberated then by the Russians,

although later we learned that another crew in trouble

had landed there anyway,
and patching up their plane somehow,

returned gradually to England

roundabout by way of Turkey and North Africa.

But we chose England, and luckily

the Germans had no fighters to send up after us then

for this was just before they developed their jet.

To lighten our load we threw out

guns and ammunition, my navigation books, all the junk

and, in a long descent, made it over Holland

with a few goodbye fireworks from the shore guns.

Over the North Sea the third engine gave out

and we dropped low over the water.

The gas gauge read empty but by keeping the nose


a little gas at the bottom of the tank sloshed forward

and kept our single engine going.

High overhead, the squadrons were flying home in


—the raids had gone on for hours after us.

Did they see us down there skimming the waves?

We radioed our final position for help to come

but had no idea if anyone

happened to be tuned in and heard us,

and we crouched together on the floor

knees drawn up and head down

in regulation position for ditching;

listened as the engine stopped, a terrible silence,

and we went down into the sea with a crash,

just like hitting a brick wall,

jarring bones, teeth, eyeballs panicky.

Who would ever think water could be so hard?

You black out, and then come to

with water rushing in like a sinking-ship movie.

All ten of us started getting out of there fast:

there was a convenient door in the roof to climb out by,

one at a time. We stood in line,

water up to our thighs and rising.

The plane was supposed to float for twenty seconds

but with all those flak holes

who could say how long it really would?

The two life rafts popped out of the sides into the water

but one of them only half-inflated

and the other couldn’t hold everyone

although they all piled into it, except the pilot,

who got into the limp raft that just floated.

The radio operator and I, out last,

(did that mean we were least aggressive, least likely

to survive?)

we stood on the wing watching the two rafts

being swept off by waves in different directions.

We had to swim for it.

Later they said the cords holding rafts to plane

broke by themselves, but I wouldn’t have blamed them

for cutting them loose, for fear

that by waiting for us the plane would go down

and drag them with it.

I headed for the overcrowded good raft

and after a clumsy swim in soaked heavy flying clothes

got there and hung onto the side.

The radio operator went for the half-inflated raft

where the pilot lay with water sloshing over him,

but he couldn’t swim, even with his life vest on,

being from the Great Plains—

his strong farmer’s body didn’t know

how to wallow through the water properly

and a wild current seemed to sweep him farther off.

One minute we saw him on top of a swell

and perhaps we glanced away for a minute

but when we looked again he was gone—

just as the plane went down sometime around then

when nobody was looking.

It was midwinter and the waves were mountains

and the water ice water.

You could live in it twenty-five minutes

the Ditching Survival Manual said.

Since most of the crew were squeezed on my raft

I had to stay in the water hanging on.

My raft? It was their raft, they got there first so they

would live.

Twenty-five minutes I had.

Live, live, I said to myself.

You’ve got to live.

There looked like plenty of room on the raft

from where I was and I said so

but they said no.

When I figured the twenty-five minutes were about up

and I was getting numb,

I said I couldn’t hold on anymore,

and a little rat-faced boy from Alabama, one of the


got into the icy water in my place,

and I got on the raft in his.

He insisted on taking off his flying clothes

which was probably his downfall because even wet

clothes are protection,

and then worked hard, kicking with his legs, and we all


to get to the other raft

and tie them together.

The gunner got in the raft with the pilot

and lay in the wet.

Shortly after, the pilot started gurgling green foam from

his mouth—

maybe he was injured in the crash against the


and by the time we were rescued,

he and the little gunner were both dead.

That boy who took my place in the water

who died instead of me

I don’t remember his name even.

It was like those who survived the death camps

by letting others go into the ovens in their place.

It was him or me, and I made up my mind to live.

I’m a good swimmer,

but I didn’t swim off in that scary sea

looking for the radio operator when he was

washed away.

I suppose, then, once and for all,

I chose to live rather than be a hero, as I still do today,

although at that time I believed in being heroic, in

saving the world,

even if, when opportunity knocked,

I instinctively chose survival.

As evening fell the waves calmed down

and we spotted a boat, not far off, and signaled with a

flare gun,

hoping it was English not German.

The only two who cried on being found

were me and a boy from Boston, a gunner.

The rest of the crew kept straight faces.

It was a British air-sea rescue boat:

they hoisted us up on deck,

dried off the living and gave us whisky and put us

to bed,

and rolled the dead up in blankets,

and delivered us all to a hospital on shore

for treatment or disposal.

None of us even caught cold, only the dead.

This was a minor accident of war:

two weeks in a rest camp at Southport on the Irish Sea

and we were back at Grafton-Underwood, our base,

ready for combat again,

the dead crewmen replaced by living ones,

and went on hauling bombs over the continent of


destroying the Germans and their cities.

Edward Field

Reprinted from Poets of World War II
(The Library of America, 2003), pages 195–200.
© Copyright 1967, 1987 Edward Field.
By arrangement with University of Pittsburgh Press.
From Counting Myself Lucky: Selected Poems 1963–1992 (1992).
Reprinted in After the Fall: Poems Old and New
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007).

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