by C.D. Stocker
Roman Haerig pressed his head against the cockpit glass to get a clear view of the wreckage below. He banked his BF-109 fighter plane to the right and its engine puttered, sending a vibration to every bolt and rivet in the frame. Roman felt it crawl through his spine, he gritted his teeth to shut out the pain and squinted.
On the Mediterranean’s surface was the littered debris of German planes, the evidence of an Allied attack on their evacuation flight from Tunisia – a flight intercepted by P-38s, the fierce twin-boom fighter of the American forces.
The P-38s fed on the easy targets first – the transport planes – powdering their huge frames with cannon fire until they lost their spirit for flight and dropped from the sky. Some were lucky to fall; the added time allowed aircrew members to bail while the falling metal frames filled the air with the sounds of a rushing locomotive. Other unfortunate planes afforded the aircrew no such chance and were sheared apart by gunfire and exploding fuel, tainting a once unspoiled blue sky with streaks of muddy smoke. All eventually came to a final rest on the ocean’s surface, creating a trail of shimmering oil slicks and debris that Roman strained to see.
He and the other Luftwaffe BF-109 fighters were there to protect the transport planes and fend off the attack. But Roman learned quickly, he and his other countrymen were outnumbered, and their aging aircraft were no match for the newer P-38s. When he dove in to intercept an attack, he was warned away with 20mm holes in both wings and the engine. Sluggish steering and a growing oil leak now left him drifting behind, viewing the remains.
As he fell away from the formation, Roman had an unadulterated view of other 109s suffering different fates than his. Instead of holes in their wings, theirs broke away. Instead of a leaking engine, it locked up altogether. Time stood still as propellers would suspend their movement, becoming deceptively peaceful, leaking white smoke in small puffs like a dying heartbeat. And as if being pulled by a string, the fighter planes coasted on a path to their ultimate destination—a watery grave.
With each crash Roman longed to see the familiar sight of silk parachutes floating safely down to the white caps of the ocean.
The sight never came.
Roman knew they had time to bail, but no one did. And the answer lay hidden in the belly of his own plane. Crammed away in this claustrophobic space was a fear-stricken mechanic who, at the behest of Roman, decided a ride in the underbelly of a German fighter plane was a better fate than being left behind on an airfield overtaken by the Allies.
Roman remembered his mechanic in vivid detail. Friedrich Müller stood fore of the spinning propeller with his thumb up, signaling to Roman his plane was ready and he could take off. He wore ragged tan overalls and a grease-stained shirt. His complexion was dark and his face was red from a tour of labor on a hot, shadeless airfield. His body, covered with a thin layer of African dirt spun up by the powerful BF-109 propeller, was rigid and starved.
The implication of Friedrich standing there wasn’t lost on Roman.
Explosions sent mechanics and pilots scrambling for safety. Some shoved their countrymen to the ground, fleeing from the panic-inducing whistling that now filled the air. Other men writhed in pools of blood with detached limbs at their sides. Planes were reduced to rubble, pulverized into the earth in craters several meters wide.
Machine gun fire kicked up dirt on all corners of the airfield. If it was far, the sounds were dull hisses, close by, it cracked the air like miniature lightning bolts. The dirt, intermingled with the smoke from the explosions, filled the air with a fine haze. Roman’s eyes began to sting.
But Friedrich continued to ready the plane.
When he was done, he stood straight with his shoulders back and thumb in the air, as if to say, “Good luck my friend. God speed.”
Similar scenes unfolded all around the tarmac and Roman wasn’t the first to jump out of his cockpit when he had been poised to take off.
“What are you doing sir?” Friedrich dropped his thumbs up and tipped his head to the side, shaking his chin. Roman had opened the fuselage access panel and was now chucking needless parts and equipment behind him and out of the way.
After throwing out enough to make room, Roman turned and shouted, “Get in!”
The hum of the four-engine American bombers grew louder as they closed in on the base for their second pass.
The mechanic looked back at the hangar.
“Now.” Roman interrupted.
The request jumpstarted the man into action and he wormed his way into the newly created space, tearing his uniform in the process, and cutting a gash an inch wide in his arm.
Roman closed the panel door without checking the man’s safety, climbed back into the cockpit, and took off down the runway with other squadron members at his flanks.
Once in the air, the effects of the adrenaline finally caught up to him. Roman couldn’t steady his hands and breathing turned into a labored task. Only greater altitude and distance returned him to relative normalcy.
And now, after surviving the attack from the P-38s, Roman was flying his bullet-riddled plane over open waters.
He flew low because he had no choice. Too high of an altitude could kill Friedrich. The cockpit wasn’t pressurized, let alone the fuselage. If Roman went above 3,600 meters, the mechanic would asphyxiate and die. So, he kept it steady at 1,500 meters, level with the clouds and far above the sea of blue stretched out beneath him.
Roman considered the likely possibility of an enemy patrol circling back around to finish off any remaining aircraft. Try as he may, the overriding thought of these fighters coming for him did not go away. He peeked over the edge for another look at the debris and wondered if he would be joining them.
Roman recalled watching the other pilots, his own friends, fall from the sky and refusing to ditch their doomed planes. The very notion of it made him tighten his grip on the yoke. It was absurd. Friedrich, he knew as a good man. They had laughs together and swapped stories of life back home. The man carried a picture of his family in his front chest pocket of his dirty overalls. And so did Roman.
But Friedrich would never know if he bailed or not. Any heroics, Roman decided, would be for naught. Faced with the same situation, he knew the mechanic would ensure his own self-preservation. They both had families to consider, loved ones back home, lives to live after this.
Roman shook off the thoughts and focused on the task at hand. His plane took every ounce of grit and determination he had to keep it in flight. His eyes bounced from the instrument panel to the top of the cockpit window. Once. And then again. He checked the dials. The altimeter read level and his fuel was good. Everything checked out, minus the sluggish steering and the small oil leak.
He looked up through the top of the cockpit glass. Warm sunshine beamed in from the newly clear sky above him, bringing a semblance of peace with it. Roman closed his eyes and basked briefly in the calm moment.
When he opened them, he discovered the sunlight had betrayed him. Out in the distance, three silhouetted figures were at his twelve o’ clock.
Roman didn’t want to believe the shapes were what he knew them to be. But when the distance shortened, it was undeniable. He recognized the frames of three descending P-38s.
He immediately throttled forward and pulled the nose upward. He learned from the prior encounter the only option was to gain altitude and then dive as soon as the superior P-38s engaged. The dive would allow Roman to match their airspeed momentarily. This would only buy time. Once the Americans followed in behind him and closed the distance, he would have to engage his flaps and drastically lower his airspeed.
If done correctly, the maneuver would cause the P-38s to fly right over and he would then be in the superior position. Roman would force a closer dogfight, where the flight characteristics of the BF-109 outmatched that of the P-38.
The P-38s were now in range and Roman saw tiny flashes light up the nose of the enemy aircraft. He banked his fighter right, and then left, watching as the tracer rounds zipped by his wings. After the two-second burst, Roman pushed the yoke forward as far as he could, just inches from touching the instrument panel where the rising needle of his oil temp gauge caught his eye, indicating the leak had worsened. When the yoke was pushed as far as it would go, he pulled the throttle back and stalled the engines.
The abrupt change started a free dive and Roman was careening down on a collision course to the ocean. His harness cut deep into his shoulders and he choked back an urge to vomit. The stress of a negative G dive was not a new experience for Roman, but he wondered how Friedrich was dealing with all of this.
With the engine stalled, Roman could hear the peaceful sound of air rushing over the glass of his cockpit.
His peace was cut short.
Trailing behind the last P-38 to overpass him, Roman aligned his gunsight on its tail and let loose a two-second burst from his 20mm cannon. The tracers cut through the American plane, its tail fell apart, and Roman dodged the pieces as he set his sights on the next target.
He chased the remaining Allied planes, who abandoned their turns and were now pulling vertical to gain altitude, certain to leave Roman behind as they climbed higher.
The BF-109’s engine knocked and choked as it attempted to climb with the P-38s. Roman slammed his fist against the glass. His plane had reached its limit.
He pushed the nose down and terminated his pursuit. The only option was to regain airspeed and readjust his heading to Sicily, hoping his enemies would lose interest in pursuing him.
Roman glanced behind and saw the P-38’s booming down. His cheeks warmed to a sickly green. It was impossible to outrun them.
This final attack maneuver made clear to Roman the Americans were intent on seeing him killed and a victory mark added alongside one of their cockpits.
Roman pushed the throttle forward. The dwindling engine gargled and banged.
As the P-38s closed in, a final barrel roll was all he could hope for. He rolled his plane to evade the chasing aircraft. But the American pilot behind him anticipated his move.
In the moments before Roman’s wing was cut loose, he thought about the man below. If, like him, Friedrich was holding that tattered family photo in his hands, longing to be safe in the arms of loved ones. Or if his mind was rushed with thoughts of his son. Thoughts of him being orphaned and growing up longing for a chance to share a beer with his dad, the war hero who died over the Mediterranean.
If only he could communicate with Friedrich, that’s all Roman needed to feel content. A moment to say, “We’re not going to make it.” And ask, “Do you want me to stay with you?”
He was sure the selfless man would say, “Save yourself.”
If he could say anything at all that is. Roman wanted to justify his selfishness by believing the man was dead.
The P-38s were approaching firing range and in a few seconds, Roman would be barreling towards the sea. The white caps of the waves would grow larger and larger until his world turned to black.
Or he could escape death and bail out.
Roman placed his hand on the lever to unhinge the cockpit glass, he tightened his grip, started to pull, and then paused. He ignored the shots tearing through his wing and thumped his foot against the floorboard. He waited for a reply.
The engine let out the last of its gray smoke in rhythmic heartbeats and the propeller rolled to a quiet stop. Time now seemed suspended and Roman relinquished his plane to that invisible string which guided him and his mechanic to the tranquilizing arms of the ocean, together.