Golden sunshine and honey bees, sweeping like flies over our food. The mess hall’s windows were wide open, no screens. Right outside the farmers, all with the worst-looking teeth, were stacking hay onto a wagon. They were friendly people, but it was hard to look at those black, twisted, and broken teeth. Their poverty showed through in every way. Their equipment was old. Except for the horse pulling the wagon, everything on the farm seemed to be done by hand. I never saw a motor vehicle or electric power lines. Only when you got close could you see that the men and women were not as old as their faces and bearing made them appear from a distance. They were tired, bent, gaunt, and worn out. The contrast with us GIs- well-fed, clean, sturdy, loud, self-assured, walking straight up-right- was more than striking. It was awful.
Being part of Great Britain, Northern Ireland was at war with Germany. Only a relatively short distance to the south was the Free Irish State, a country at peace with Germany. None of us could understand why those people did not join in our fight against the horror that was Nazism. Nor were we ever given any insight as to their point of view. It all seemed very strange.
When we first landed in Ireland, we joined a number of other crews and were taken away in open trucks. After a long ride down narrow roads, the trucks came to a halt. We seemed to be nowhere. From several trucks, the same call came: “Hey Stepp, find out where we are!” While Jack Stepp had no higher rank than the rest of us, somehow his innate leadership was recognized.
We were in school, learning about flying against the Germans. We had to unlearn Japanese plane identification, concentrating on Focke Wulfes and Messerschmidts. There were lectures on the war itself, geography and advanced technical equipment. We learned about German radar and that they knew when we were taking off. We navigators were given special training in “G”- a brand new electronic way of determining one’s location. This had become a different war- the scientists and technicians were battling each other. We were their tools. Jamming and anti-jamming equipment and techniques were the topics of the day.
We also learned that the latest B-24s would not have ball turrets. In older planes, these offered gun protection from underneath the airplane. It was found, supposedly, that the ball turret had not been effective and that it slowed down the airplane. We noticed that B-17s still had ball turrets. Evidently someone thought that we were made of sterner stuff.
One evening, we four officers decided to play Bridge: Stepp & Schanes vs. JP & Hemeleski. The first hand produced much argument and unhappiness. It turned out that our team was playing something called “Contract Bridge”, while the opposition was playing “Auction Bridge”. The two games are totally inconsistent. It was very clear that if we continued to play, our overall relationship might suffer. The cards were put away.
Just as we completed our training, I became very ill with something like pneumonia- so ill that I was transported by ambulance to Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. I ended up in a hospital and our crew left for England without me. I was in that hospital for about two weeks. Since I had the time, I somehow found a copy of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”. Each night, I would dream the cold of the Russian Winter.
Before leaving Ireland, I had the chance to see something of Belfast. It was a European city with narrow streets and small buildings having interesting roof designs. The outstanding feature that I still remember was that on its top every taxicab had very large black canvas bag carrying fuel in a gaseous state. When full, this bag was almost as large as the cab itself, It was as though a strong wind could lift the taxi in the air.
In his “Second Prologue” (Or is it the “Second Epilogue? I’m too lazy to find out.), Tolstoy talks about the conflict between freedom of choice and pre-destination. He traces the terrible results of the decisions made by Napoleon in his invasion of Russia and concludes that it is wiser not to press for some personal goal but to move with the times. As I think of the events which followed in England and then through the rest of my life, I have concluded that Tolstoy was correct.
© Steven E. Schanes 2001
April 6, 2000