Elliot looked up, and through the early morning mist that clung to the field he could see the flight lieutenant inspecting his plane.
“Yes sir!” He stood tall, and gave the lieutenant an emphatic salute.
“At ease airman. I had my doubts about you, I still think you're a little young for the front lines of air combat. But I like your energy. Follow my lead up there, you'll make a fine team member.” The lieutenant chuckled amiably.
“Yes sir! Thank you sir!” Elliot was still standing at attention.
The lieutenant didn't look up, he just kept studying the control surfaces of his P-51 Mustang.
He’d been flying since the last days of World War One. He knew the way these fresh pilots acted, their strict attention to detail ingrained in them by overbearing drill sergeants. He paused his inspection. “Hansen, is it?”
“Enough with the formality, call me Buck.”
“But, military regulations?” Elliot stood stiffly. To address a superior by his first name felt very uncomfortable.
“To hell with regulations. When you're up there,” the lieutenant looked up at the softly lit sky, “and the bullets fly, there's no distinction in rank. There's only friends and enemies. Trust is the most important thing in combat. It’s beneficial to reduce emphasis on formalities.” He moved towards Elliot's plane while speaking and as he finished, extended his hand.
Elliot reached forward. “Thank you Buck, it's a pleasure serving with you,” he said as they shook hands.
Buck smiled and was about to say something else when suddenly the air resonated with the wail of a siren.
“German bombers, twenty miles out, coming hot and heavy from the west!” The loud speakers thundered. “B squadron, prepare for takeoff!”
“That's us!” Buck shouted over the noise.
A lone figure stumbled across the tarmac, pulling his pants on. It was Second Lieutenant Mac, yelling madly.
Elliot turned and climbed into the cockpit of his plane. He closed the canopy while putting on his headphones. He flipped the power switch, turned his radio to standby and waited with his hand on the ignition.
Mac had reached Buck’s plane and whispered something in the lieutenants ear.
Buck spoke over the radio, “B squadron report!”
Mac and Elliot checked in as ordered and the lieutenant continued with the briefing. “Squadron leader Giordano, isn’t here. Mac and I have received a field promotion. We're picking up an airman from C squadron. Mac, he's under your command. Start your engines boys!”
Elliot flipped the ignition switch and the engine roared to life. Buck’s plane began to roll forward, Elliot followed behind. Mac dropped into third place and the airman from C followed onto the open runway. The four planes sped up, lifting off the ground at even intervals. Elliot retracted his landing gear, pulling into formation behind Buck.
The rest of the squad fell into place and together they banked towards the oncoming bombers.
“How many do you see Mac?” Buck’s voice crackled over the radio.
“Break off, attack from the sides.” Buck sounded calm.
Elliot was trembling.
Buck and Elliot turned left and climbed, Mac and the other pilot turned to the right.
“Look up,” Buck said. This time he sounded nervous.
Elliot looked. Two black dots were emerging from the deep blue sky, diving straight towards them. They quickly grew in size until he could see them both clearly. He checked his altimeter and position behind Buck. When he turned to look at the Germans again, he saw only one plane. It was pulling in behind him.
“I lost one Buck, the other’s on my six!”
As soon as he finished speaking the German began to fire. Tracers raced past the canopy. He held the stick tight, trying to avoid the hail of bullets. Buck suddenly pulled up, flying upside down, over Hansen and the German, before dropping in behind the enemy.
“Gotcha,” Buck said confidently. He squeezed the trigger, four fifty caliber guns blazed. The Germans engine burst into flames and he dove.
“Nice shot Buck!”
“Save the applause Hansen. I found the missing German. He's on my tail.”
Elliot cut the power and extended the planes flaps before rolling over. By the time he was flying upright again, Buck and the German had passed overhead. He increased power and moved into position behind the German. The enemy was already firing on Buck and smoke was pouring from the Mustang. Elliot pulled the trigger, sending bullets tearing through the German plane. The engine flamed as the German rolled upside down and slowed his plane. Elliot pulled alongside close enough to see the German’s face. His shoulder was bleeding badly, his face twisted in pain. With one hand he signed “peace” before sending his plane into a nosedive.
Buck’s plane slowed until they were flying side by side.
“Nice shot Hansen.” His words were labored. “I’m hit. I won't make it home.”
“Don't talk like that, sure you will.”
Buck smiled. “No kid, there's a hole straight through my chest.”
Tears welled in Elliot's eyes as he looked back at the greatest commander he'd ever known.
“There's something I'd like to tell you sir. You were right. I am too young to be here. I am only seventeen.”
“Well, your one hell of a pilot all the same. Get home.” The engine of Buck’s plane quit. It plummeted towards earth, crashing in a bright ball of fire.
Elliot turned his plane around, pushing the throttle to maximum as squadrons A and D passed overhead, diving into the fight.
The landing was routine, executed by muscle memory. Shock and grief gripped his soul. He was oblivious to the world around him. Bucks final words tumbled violently in his head. Hard as he tried, his mind refused to focus elsewhere. He stepped from the cockpit, head spinning from the day’s events. Lighting his first cigarette, he coughed as the smoke entered his lungs.