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Ghosts of the Sky
August 16, 1942, a U.S. military zeppelin took off from Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay. It left at 6:03 hours, with two pilots, Charles Adams and Ernest Cody.
Roughly 5 hours later, the same zeppelin nosed into the ocean off the coast of Daly Town, California. A depth charge onboard was ruptured, enveloping the entire blimp in flames. However, after searches were conducted, no sign of the passengers were anywhere. In fact, there was no evidence of struggle or injury of any kind. Almost as fast as it happened, news of the 'ghost ship' circulated through thousands of papers across the country. Journalists scoured every military base for answers. I wasn't a journalist, just a pilot, but I too joined the search for my missing comrades. My name is David Krenshaw and this is my story.
It was early on August 17, probably around 8 in the morning. The San Francisco Bay was particularly murky, if I recall correctly, and choppier than any battlefield. I was driving to Travis Air Force Base, or what was there in August. It actually was finished 2 months later, but time was of the essence so it was already stocked up. As I hit the checkpoint, I flashed my military ID and the gates split apart.
Inside the hectic base, the hammering of nails contrasted the zipping of Lockheeds overhead. They were flying west, to some remote island only to be blown to smithereens like firecrackers. I'd managed to avoid duty, filing enough papers to end the next 4 wars. But this was different. This wasn't a suicide mission where my resulting body would be unrecognizable, my plane would be scrap metal, and my name would slide onto an endless body count in an office somewhere. This was a recon mission, risking life to save life. But that probably didn't matter to my superior, General 'Hap' Arnold. With a somewhat apprehensive nudge, I marched into his office.
'Good Morning, Sergeant,' the rather sturdy man behind the desk began. I snapped him a quick salute.
'Good morning, General,' I replied with absolute respect. He shook his head and brought his eyes up from the documents on his frighteningly neat desk.
'Let's skip the formalities, Krenshaw,' he continued, without nearly any emotion, 'you're here about the L-8.' My eyes dropped a little; he pinpointed just what I wanted. He had a mean knack for that.
'Yes, sir. I want to search for Adams and Cody myself. With permission, of course,' I said with some hopefulness.
'Permission not granted, soldier,' Arnold shot down my simple request. His piercing eyes dropped down to his papers.
'With all due respect, general, why not?'
'We lost two men out there, why send another?' At this, I saw his point, but still felt that some effort should be made. But I could tell this was like trying to run through a brick wall. So, I saluted again and spun around, striding through the doors. The crisp and brisk San Francisco air slapped my face as I hurried across the makeshift runway to a row of planes. I noticed a tall, built man sliding his hand across the body of one of the Douglas Havocs. His long smile gave him away as Clyde Thomason, a damn fine pilot and one of my few military friends. He turned and nodded to me as I approached.
'Well, well, look what the draft coughed up,' he began. This was his usual greeting.
'Look what fell out of the sky,' I retorted as we shook hands.
'So what brings you out here today?'
'I'm going to look for the lost pilots.' His face lost friendliness and displayed honest curiosity.
'Don't tell me 'Hap' O.K.'d that.' Apparently Arnold's reputation preceded him.
'Actually he didn't. I did.' Clyde was awestruck.
'You're going against orders to find people who could be just about anywhere? Sounds like fun,' he joked. 'Which plane you takin'?' At this, I eyed the rows of gleaming metal birds.
'I'm taking the Coronado,' I said pointing towards a small plane with two long pontoons on the underbelly. 'You wouldn't mind giving me your Colt, would you?'
'Why would you want my pistol? Expecting some action?' He pried.
'No, but stranger things have happened,' I ended the conversation. With that, he handed me his holster which I slid onto my belt. The added weight felt unnatural and almost condemning to me, but I didn't have time to debate this stuff. So, I clambered into the clunky aircraft, slipped on my goggles, and threw some levers. The rotors sputtered to life, parting the thick morning air. Clyde leaned on the propeller of his bird and waved to me.
'HAVE SOME FUN UP THERE,' he shouted.
'I'LL BE BACK FOR DINNER!' I came back. Somehow I sensed I wouldn't be. I masterfully manipulated the controls as the plane rolled out into the runway and shot forward. With one last prayer, I lifted off into the sky. The wind instantly wore my face raw, but I was used to it by then. That must've been at about 9 o' clock. Then time seemed to slip past me'
The stinging rain pelted my frail seaplane like bullets. The analogy didn't sit well in my stomach. Of course the foot of water in the cockpit didn't go down like Coca-cola either. My goggles were constantly being spattered with rain, essentially rendering them useless. The engine had gone from a hum to a choke, feeling the moisture settle into each and every gasket. The rain had made my uniform wetter than the violent ocean below. The chilling downpour had seeped into my very bone structure, dropping my temperature by probably 30 degrees. It was then that I realized how long I'd been gone. I'd been watching hundreds of miles of identical water, while the hours washed away. The sky was as bleak as the sea, which wasn't so hot itself. In fact, I couldn't really see much.
With some difficulty, I brought my watch hand to my face. After swift wipes with my finger, I could read '10:45' or so. I've only been gone 2 hours I first believed. Then terror set in: I hadn't been gone for 2 hours; I'd been gone for 14 hours. I dropped my hand and tried to spot an island or something to land on. Sure, it was simple to spot black dots in a blacker background. Then, as if by the power of God, a bright light appeared from below somewhere. It was brilliant, almost like a sparkler. It also seemed to be getting bigger. Then I figured out what this earthward light was; a Japanese flare. The erupting stick shot past my head, rising a few feet, then dropping into the cockpit. The flames stayed burning even when submerged in the stagnant water. The bright cinders soon danced around a red tube along the interior of the plane. The red coating slowly dripped off. My mind raced as to what that valve was. The faint smell gave the answer away; the gas line. Naturally, I panicked. Sure, all the handbooks say the first rule is to 'not panic,' but it's kind of hard to do once the entire plane is engulfed in flames. I groped around the seat, searching for a parachute; no dice.
I couldn't lightly descend onto the island below, so I'd recklessly plunge into the choppy waters, and then try to swim ashore. I turned to the side, set my hands on the body of the craft, and vaulted off the edge, the intense air battering me.
My face was stung by thousands of razor-sharp rain drops. The inky field of ocean grew nearer as a torrent of chilling liquid enveloped me. I began viciously paddling my way through the water, the current still sucking me into oblivion. My arms soon coursed with pain. My chest couldn't take much more of the pounding waves. For a moment, I swear I blacked out. But I finally touched sand with my boots. With more struggle, I floundered onto dry land, letting the extra 10 pounds wash off. My breathing sounded like a vacuum, but the water also coughed out. I spit up one last gallon of water, accidentally swallowing an unhealthy amount of sand in the process, and tried to stagger to my feet.
With wavering legs and drenched clothes, I slogged toward a dense, grey thicket of jungle. It looked deep, it looked dark, and it looked like heaven to me. So, as I limped onward, the bushes and vines of the South Pacific surrounded me. I couldn't make out the sounds of wildlife, and that scared the remaining hell out of me; someone must be here. Between my heavy gasps, I picked up far off conversations. The language was familiar, but I knew I didn't understand it. But my contemplations were interrupted by an ear-splitting, blood-curdling, distinctly American scream from somewhere ahead. On pure instinct, I flung myself into the foliage, crouching behind a scratchy bush. Soon enough, a faint light came from the vague path I'd been travelling on. As it neared, I realized it was a cigarette, oddly still lit in the downpour. The quick bursts of visibility it offered illuminated a Japanese face. The face was connected to a fatigue-clad body, which was carrying a foreign rifle, which was probably meant to kill any of the Allies.
Luckily, the soldier was casually marching; he didn't notice me. So, as silent as a soaking wet pilot could be, I drew my pistol. It was tingling in my hand like it didn't belong there. The Japanese gunman drew nearer. I squinted as aimed it steadily. Then, his eyes darted to meet mine. He swore under his breath, dropped his smoke, and nearly instantly drew his rifle to fire. A single crack rang out.
With a sharp recoil, he dropped to the ground, presumably dead. With a similar jerk, I collapsed, reeling from the blood-spattered hole in my shoulder. My teeth bared in utter pain. With a quick yelp, I managed to get to my feet. I clawed at the gunshot, even though training taught me not to. I apologized to my own education, but it's hard to think straight when there's a gaping hole in you. With a triumphant grunt, I ignored the rest of the pain. I stood straighter and stepped back into the road.
My boots squished into the muddy gully. But through the obscene noise, I noted a slight click. Actually, 10 clicks, all around me. In an exhaustion fueled panic, I frenzied in circles. I saw no movement in the thick jungle. Then, in a synchronized motion, 10 Japanese soldiers emerged from the impenetrable thickets. Each wielded a rifle, Type 38's I believe. Piercing bayonets protruded from the already long barrel. A lightning flash sent the blade gleaming with deadly delight. The 'bushes' crept into clean sight, still watching me with their rifles. From out of nowhere, a tall man turned to face me. He was about my height, but was a Japanese officer of some kind, as judged by his special uniform. In one swift motion, he drew my pistol from its holster and brought it to his inquisitive eyes. He weighed it with his hand and played with it, like a curious pre-schooler. After his inspection, he smiled at me wryly and brought my pistol to a pressure point on my neck. After a sharp pain explosion through my body, my eyes disappeared into a black fog and I collapsed.
Searing pain rocketed past my eyes. It sent coursing excruciation throughout my head. I think I was drugged with something, but any light that I saw made my head feel like a stuffed pin cushion. It must've been lightning that woke me up. The rumble came a few seconds later. With more difficulty, my eyes adjusted. I was in a small tent, facing out into a bay. The moon peeked from a shroud of grey splotches. Lightning flashed from a distant cloud. Only brief hints of reflection could be seen on the rampaging ocean. My head dropped and sank into a moist, disgusting material. I'd been thrown onto the mud. Fantastic I managed to think. But as I looked around, I realized that 2 other prisoners were also sinking into the dismal earth. One was awake, though a bloody wound in his leg kept him that way. I tried to speak.
'Wh.. are.. y?' Is about what came out. His faded eyes raised in question.
'What's that, boy?' He began in a gravelly, but comforting voice.
'Who are you?' I continued, spitting out a divot of sticky dirt. His eyes turned away and watched the other prisoner.
'You can call me Ernest,' he said in a sense of defeat. It was then that I noted his mustache beneath the caked dirt. A lightbulb flashed in my mind.
'Wait, you're the ones who disappeared today on the zeppelin.' He nodded slowly.
'Yeah, I suppose we are. I wanted out of the military, but no one seems to get out except in a bag or a box. So, when we were over an island, we parachuted down. When we landed, we met a Japanese welcoming party. That's how I earned this,' he joked as he pointed to the gunshot in his ankle. 'They kidnapped us and boated us here to Makin Atoll, hell in the Pacific.'
'Why did Charlie come with?' I truly wanted to know the entire story.
'I don't know, I guess I kind of forced him to join me. Now I just want him to get out alive. He's got a lot more living to do than myself. But enough about me, what about you? How'd you get a reservation at such a fine establishment?' I forced a chuckle, trying not to suck up anymore clod.
'I was actually looking for you two, but they accidentally shot me down,' I admitted.
'Well, from the bottom of my heart, I'm sorry. So I have to get both of you out of here.' Our brief conversation was cut short as a Japanese soldier squished his way inside. He carried with him a bucket sloshing with water. I didn't know what was about to happen, but I knew it wasn't good. They made his approach to me, with another soldier behind him, both in cruel scowls. Then Ernest spoke up.
'NO! Use me,' he strained. The infantrymen hesitated for a moment, then turned to the ragged pilot. One kicked his torso to the mud, letting it sink in a few inches. Just before the coming events, Ernest turned to me and ordered me one last mission: 'Get the kid out of here.'
With that, one soldier grabbed his jaw and wrenched it open. He might've broken it, I don't really know. But the other laughed maniacally and lifted the bucket high. In a pronounced motion, he let the water pour into Ernest's mouth. His legs flew wildly, trying to counter the flooding of his lungs. He managed to shriek before another deluge slapped into his body. Lying in the muck, watching my ally drown, I mustered some strength. I quickly shot out my leg and tripped the man with the bucket. He cried out in Japanese and went down like a sack of potatoes. The other guy on Ernest let go of my friend and had his detached bayonet against my throat in 2 seconds. I coughed from the pressure of the cold steel. The downed soldier struggled in the mud, but found his footing. He staggered to his feet and pulled out his pistol. It was then that Charlie began to regain consciousness.
The Japanese gunman pressed his gun barrel against the skull of the still choking Ernest and shouted to me in Japanese. He was furious, but I didn't have any clue what he wanted. I thought I was about to see my lost comrade's head blown across the beach. But Charlie, shaking from some unknown drug, looked up at something down the island, something I couldn't see. His groggy face cracked a smile.
The Japanese officer shouted one last time, presumably an ultimatum. Then, the crack of a gunshot echoed in my worst nightmares. But Ernest's face was still identifiable. The officer, however, flew back into the mud, blood dripping from a wound in his chest. The angry soldier on me spit in my face. I winced, only to see a dark figure slip into the tent from the beach and sink his combat knife into my attacker's back. The scowl was replaced with a look of unparalleled terror. I kneed him off and squirmed to face my savior.
Appearing in the faint glow of lanterns, Clyde Thomason grinned at me. I actually laughed.
'So much for dinner,' he quipped. I managed another grin as he sliced through my ropes. Two other U.S. soldiers helped Charlie who was delirious. As soon as I could, I crawled over to Ernest. Every few seconds, water spurted up and out of his mouth. I pounded him in the chest. Another spurt came. After the geyser, he choked out the remaining fluid. His weary eyes turned to face me.
'I *cough* owe you one, stranger,' he roughly said. I slid to my feet and realized that the mud was slicker than it used to be; it was still raining. I extended my hand to Ernest who accepted it and hobbled to his own balance. With a shrill cry, he nearly collapsed. I peered down and recalled his ankle injury.
'Lean on me; I'm getting you home,' I ordered. He smiled somewhat weakly and obliged. Clyde handed me a Thompson machine gun, a one-handed ordinance that could cut down a tree. He armed Ernest with a Magnum revolver, a tank with a handle. We limped outside and realized that we must've been there for at least 2 hours. But we didn't have time to reminisce, so we headed to the boats. Sure enough, between the legs of a stilted hut, 5 wooden boats floated softly. But a small object landed with a clank in one of them. But that didn't matter, because it soon disappeared in a bright fire ball. The flaming driftwood floated out to see. Clyde swore to himself.
'WE'LL REGROUP WITH COMPANY B ON THE SOUTH SIDE,' he commanded to the 10 or so Marines on the grey sand. As we began to move through the village, muzzle flashes erupted from every house and room. The 'town square' was peppered with lead as unseen Japanese troops took potshots at our exposed company. One private simply collapsed beneath the barrage. The rest of us unloaded into the locations of the flashes. Clyde led the assault like a hero, dropping enemies with one shot of his Colt. A swordsman crept up from the rear of our battalion, shouting crazily and wielding a fierce blade. He sank his skillful weapon into a Corporal's shoulder as Ernest turned and landed a slug in his head. The sliced soldier found the strength to keep moving, allowing the sword to remain lodged in him. Clyde waved us on and primed a 'pineapple grenade.' With a brief shout of warning, he pitched it into a bamboo shack. In seconds, the house disintegrated into a shower of bamboo and grasses. A hidden enemy was rocketed through the air.
Another wave of Japanese troops rushed into the encampment. Clyde turned to the rest of us.
'Double back and ring around the shacks; I'll hold them off,' he shouted above the wild firing.
'Don't be a hero,' I calmly reminded him as I helped Ernest away. Clyde laughed with patriotism as he unloaded a clip of his Browning (think a plane's machine gun and you're about there) into the charge, taking down ''s of them. Our strong assembly sprinted around the impromptu town, except for Ernest and me.
We watched as Clyde gunned down the remaining forces. We emerged from our swampy cover and hurried through the ramshackle city. In each and every black doorway, ghosts of enemies seemed to lurk, ready to take us all to die. Ernest hacked and wheezed alarmingly. I watched as Charlie sped ahead, swinging his M1 Garand, na've and seemingly invincible. I found some hope in that. But the mud kept squealing so we weren't home yet. It was then that a soldier rushed ahead of Clyde. A faint clap noise was all that warned him. A small cylinder launched from the grimy earth. With no hesitation it exploded into thousands of bits of shrapnel. The soldier screamed as he fell to pieces on the muddy grave. We all got one last look as we continued on, hearing Japanese shouts behind us. We left the town and ran into the even darker jungles. Clyde bit the top off of a flare and tossed it into the foliage. The sparkling stick soon caught a bush on fire, then a vine, then a tree, then the entire jungle was a flaming battleground. Japanese snipers cried out in horror in the dancing forest fire as their camouflage ignited. Clyde pressed on, with us following as fast as we could.
We emerged onto a thin beach, lit completely by the inferno behind us. A group of 20 Marines was boarding several rafts and boats. The welcomed our group, throwing us into boats. Then the dilemma arose.
'ABOUT A HUNDRED JAPANESE INBOUND!' yelled one soldier, watching our fiery path. Sure enough, an amorphous company stomped towards us, bullets already whizzing past us. Ernest laid down in the boat and rubbed his chest, trying to force out the remaining water. Clyde stared at me intently for a long period, then asked for everyone's grenades. After a quick collection, he gathered about 10 fragmentation grenades. He leaned over to me and explained.
'If someone doesn't hold them off, we'll all die. I'm going to stay behind.' My gut sank.
'This may be goodbye,' I pointed out.
'You don't have to come back for me.'
'But I do.'
'Then take my dog tags,' he said as he tore his metal necklace off and handed it to me. This was the universal symbol that meant the named soldier was dead, or KIA, as the government preferred. I shook his hand and nodded. That was all I needed. It was a heroic end to a heroic friend. Our boat shoved off and I watched as Clyde tore off the pins of his grenades and rolled them, 2 at a time, down the path. Then, he unslung his Browning and unloaded his remaining ammo. The rumble of the powerful machine gun could be heard for several more miles. He went out with all guns blazing. There's no better way to, at least not in my book. As our boat rocked on the terrifying ocean waves, Ernest extended his arm. He clutched something in his shaky fist. He opened his palm, revealing two sets of tags, his and Charlie's. He thrust them into my pocket and gave me unforgettable instructions:
'Keep 'em; I'll be in Hawaii,' he said with a nervous cough. I turned to face his ankle. It looked like raw meat to me, so I tore off some of my sleeve and wrapped it up. Our little raft rolled across the ocean until morning'
Charlie, Ernest, and me landed, or at least, our boat did, on the island of Hawaii. I don't know if it was fate or God watching out for us, but we survived the Makin Atoll assault before it hit the press. We never told anyone what had happened to us or that we even survived. We just lived on without harassment for the rest of our lives. And as for ol' Clyde, he was finally shot down back on the beach, but was awarded a post-humous Medal of Honor. He sure as heck deserved it. So the next time you read your text books or encyclopedias, remember that stories like this one are the real history.
Great Falls, Virginia
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