Authors: Paul Lally
Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.
General George S. Patton Jr.
merica didn’t lose World War Two. We quit before it started.
What choice did we have?
After New York and D.C. disappeared beneath mushroom clouds, Hitler said Chicago was next, and then Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis - or so he claimed - when he delivered his ultimatum to President Perkins.
Unlike the rest of FDR’s cabinet, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins had been in Philadelphia the night of December 8, 1941, when Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress. For those of you too young to remember (or would just as soon forget), the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor the day before and broken the back of our Pacific Fleet, including our aircraft carriers
Despite this near-fatal blow, America was not about to take it lying down. No sir, not anymore. Not after three long years of watching France, Britain, Russia, and China go down in flames while we stood on the sidelines cheering them on with lend-lease airplanes, tanks and ammunition.
The time had finally come for us to roll up our sleeves and fight for what was right.
And for good reason. For almost a decade, Japan had been carving out bigger and bigger chunks of real estate in China and Korea, while bowing and scraping and being polite about it all, but still killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians without batting an eye or shedding a tear.
But the day they bombed Pearl Harbor, Americans knew the Statue of Liberty would finally rise like the wounded giant she was, and with her blazing torch of freedom she’d start swinging.
Or so we thought.
Where were you the night FDR made his speech? My guess is you were among the tens of millions of Americans across the nation listening to their radios, waiting to hear the ‘swoosh’ of that fiery torch, right?
Me too, except I was stuck in Buenos Aires, and outraged like everybody else about Pearl Harbor. I promised myself the instant I got stateside, I’d take a furlough from Pan American Airways, enlist in the Army Air Corps and start shooting down every damn Nazi plane I could find.
Or so I thought.
FDR began his speech by saying ‘On Sunday December 7th, a day that will live in infamy -’ and the radio went dead. I thought it was mine. You thought it was yours.
We were both wrong.
Afterwards, they said ground zero had been about a mile up Constitution Avenue. But the force of the atomic blast had been so powerful it could have been right on top of the Capital dome, which still looks like a giant hand punched it down and didn’t bother being neat about it.
The only survivor was blind-lucky Frances Perkins, and according to the Constitutional line of succession, America’s first woman was duly sworn in as president until full elections could be held in November. But presiding over what?
The twenty kiloton nuclear blast had turned senators and representatives into vapor as they sat in their historic, creaking chairs in the Capitol, listening to FDR’s speech. Ditto the Supreme Court, all dressed up in their fancy robes and turned to ashes. The executive branch, too: President Roosevelt, Vice-president Wallace, the cabinet members - the entire sitting body of the federal government gone in a millisecond flash of white light.
And don’t forget Manhattan.
In that same millisecond, half of the island was gone with the wind, taking Wall Street along with it, including thousands of men and women who had been working night and day to get our country onto a war footing.
Think about it: In one stroke, Hitler pulled off a double play that left America staggering around like Goliath with his head cut off. A week later, when President Perkins signed the
Neutrality Act of 1941
into law, Adolf’s double play turned into a home run.
Game over. Nazis take the World Series.
But seriously, what choice did Perkins have? Chicago? Boston? St. Louis?? If you were living in one of those cities you’d have agreed with her that hundreds of thousands - maybe millions - of innocent American lives, including yours, would be lost when the next wave of Nazi rocket-delivered atomic bombs started raining down from the sky, unless we agreed to their lousy terms.
What would you have done? What would I have done?
I don’t know.
But what history will forever note is that President Perkins signed on the dotted line, and I for one don’t blame her even though you may. Your privilege. It’s a free country. But her call. She’s president, and the way I figure it, lousy decisions come with lousy jobs.
By mid-August, 1942, eight short months after December’s mushroom clouds, here’s where we stood: Germany ruled Britain, France and the Netherlands, and had Russia on the ropes, ready to throw in the towel. Japan was raising hell all across the Pacific, taking what it wanted without asking. And the United States? We were as neutral and indifferent as Switzerland about the fascist darkness sweeping across the world.
‘Indifferent’ is wrong. Stunned is more like it. Maybe even numb is better. But it’s no surprise when you stop and think about what it was like back then: forty-eight governors had to appoint new members to congress, a temporary Federal government had to be established in Philadelphia, a supreme court had to be created, plus don’t forget the thousands of layers of bureaucracy that had to be restored in order to run our country as a nation.
Nation? Who are you kidding? We were far from being a nation.
If you were around at the time, you know what I’m talking about. If you weren’t, trust me - trust us - it’s true. State governments were ruling their citizens like separate nations and who could blame them?
Oklahoma was talking to Indiana, Florida was doing business with Georgia; Pennsylvania was trading with Ohio - in short we were the ‘States of America,’ but not the United States anymore. The Nazi bombs blasted Abraham Lincoln’s dream of union into forty-eight broken pieces.
Sure, prayer was still going on all across the land for that blessed day when we would re-unite as a people and rise up and do something about our dilemma. And even more prayers were being said for those millions suffering around the world while we sat on our neutral rear-ends from sea to shining sea, twiddling our thumbs and wringing our hands.
But prayer is one thing, action another.
Mine began on a boiling hot day in August, 1942 when my partner Orlando Diaz and I were nursing our beat-up, ex-Pan American Airways Sikorsky S-38 twin-engine seaplane from Providence, Rhode Island to our home base in Key West, Nicknamed
The Flying Slipper
, her long, slender, shoe-like fuselage was suspended from the wings and twin tails by struts and bracing wires. Ugly, you bet, but she flew like a dream – except today our dream had turned into a slow-motion nightmare.
Starting with her damned landing gear.
The amphibian S-38 can operate from both water or land because it has retractable landing gear. Problem was, when we took off from the runway in Providence, the right wheel stayed in the ‘down-and-locked’ position. Not the end of the world. All we had to do was re-lower the left wheel and return to the airport. Problem was, when we tried, it wouldn’t go down.
So here we were, like a wounded duck, one foot up and one foot down, with no place to go but forward, in hopes we could figure out what the hell to do next.
And just as Orlando and I had figured out what, our nightmare got worse. We started leaking fuel.
A lot of it.
Orlando was a licensed A&P (airframe and power plant) mechanic, and while he loved airplanes and engines he hated to fly. So it became my job to scramble back into the passenger compartment and weasel my way out through the boarding hatch and onto the lower wing to figure out what the hell was going on.
Hard enough to do on the ground, try fighting an eighty mile-an-hour slipstream with a wrench in your hand. Meanwhile, Orlando, not a pilot in any way shape or form, sat in the co-pilot’s seat, struggling to keep the wings level while praying in a booming voice that even I could hear outside, let alone God in the heavens:
‘Almighty Father, look DOWN upon two sinners at one thousand feet and closing fast. Look down and hear our prayer, and give STRENGTH to Brother Samuel’s hands so that he may STEM the mighty tide of gasoline coming from number two engine. In your name I pray to DELIVER us from evil and the approaching earth below. Amen, halleluiah, and glory be thy everlasting name - and Brother Sam, I bet you ten to one it’s a bad compression fitting.’
Like I said, Orlando was a hell of an A&P mechanic. A moment’s examination revealed a loose fitting on the fuel line feeding our starboard engine.
‘Bang it hard, brother’ he said.
My third whack loosened the off-center joint, and after two quick twists of the wrench, the compression nut seated and the spray of gasoline stopped.
And with that, the flow of adrenaline to my heart did too, turning my legs into rubber. Great. All I needed was to go sliding off the wing and down into the waters of Long Island Sound. At this altitude it would be like hitting concrete.
‘Need a hand out here, brother.’
‘Negative. Both on the wheel.’
I took a deep breath and slowly slid across the tightly-stretched wing fabric, being careful to place my shoes on the cross ribs, otherwise I’d rip holes in the doped fabric and end up looking like Buster Keaton in a silent movie, my legs wiggling in the air.
Just before I made the final move to the open hatch, I risked a downward glance. Even with both engines working we were still descending. Waves breaking along the Connecticut coastline, Orlando was singing some kind of hymn.
I shouted, ‘Shut the hell up and give her more throttle and pull back on the wheel.’
In answer, the engines went to full power, the nose pitched up sharply and I began sliding. Only a last-second grab at one of the passenger windows saved me. The S-38 was so old and battered that the latch gave way and my fingers grabbed hold of the frame, stopping my forward motion. Even though I’m on the thin side, there’s no way I could have squeezed myself through that small window.
But never underestimate the power of a descending airplane to create minor miracles, because I managed to squirm and squiggle my way back inside, vault over the battered, wicker passenger seats and head for the cockpit.
I dropped into the left hand seat. ‘I’ve got the aircraft.’
I pulled the pin on the center-post control column, swung it over to my side, established a positive rate of climb and flew in silence for thirty seconds or so before I turned to Orlando and said casual-like, as though I’d just been out for a stroll,
‘Let’s give that landing gear a look-see, shall we?’
That’s how airline pilots are. Calm. Cool. Collected. Especially when they’re not.
Orlando knew how to play that game as good as me. ‘Can’t see why not.’
He bumped into me as he struggled out of the cramped cockpit. Not that the space was small, it’s just that Orlando is big. If he weighs under three hundred pounds it’s a miracle. And if any of that’s fat it’s a double-miracle.
I said over my shoulder, ‘Think you can fix it?’
A toothy smile split his dark face like a sunrise. ‘Ain’t nothing I can’t fix with two hands and the Lord’s tool box.’
Hammer at the ready, he slid open a starboard passenger window and thrust his muscle-bound arm outside to do battle with the stubborn landing gear. For a long minute his prayers intermixed with his pounding. Then his deep-pitched voice cut above the roaring wind stream,
‘When I shout ‘down gear’ you say a prayer and start cranking!’
I can’t tell you exactly where or when Orlando got this religion thing. The whole time we were kids growing up in Key West, playing in the alleys and on the wharves, he never used the word ‘God’ unless he was cursing me or somebody else - or something else - which was almost all the time.