The Hess Cross

Free The Hess Cross by James Thayer

Book: The Hess Cross by James Thayer Read Free Book Online
Authors: James Thayer
was a little hard on Smithson back there. Don't underestimate his value. He's in charge of our entire Midwest effort. And for some reason which escapes me, he's very good at it. The Germans are busy in the U.S., but Chicago has less instances of so-called accidental power blackouts, explosions, and missing personnel than any other area in the country. Smithson knows his job."
    "What about Miguel's killer?"
    "You don't have time to look for him. Stay away from that. That's an order."
    "I want him dead." Crown could not keep the fever out of his voice.
    Sackville-West said in a softer voice, "John, the importance of your assignment can't be overstated. The stakesare enormous. Your job is to escort Hess from London to Chicago. Miguel is gone, and you've got to forget him for a while."
    Not very likely, Crown thought. Not very likely at all.

IV
    I RON M IKE
WAS MADE TO CARRY BOMBS, not passengers. The huge Flying Fortress, official USAF designation B17D, was the most sophisticated bomber in the world.
    Boeing engineers in Seattle had been given three short guidelines: speed, payload, and protection of the crew. They produced a bomber that soon became the backbone of the Allied air forces. Speed: the B17D was powered by four 1,200-horsepower Wright Cyclone turbo-supercharged engines capable of propelling the plane at 325 miles per hour at 20,000 feet. Payload: over eight tons of bombs. Protection of the nine crewmen: three machine guns forward, two amidships, and two in a bulge beneath the fuselage.
    The most distinctive feature of the B17D was its glass nose, in which the bombardier was stationed. This greenhouse was also one of the most vulnerable targets on the plane. The pilot and copilot sat side by side in the cockpit above the fuselage just ahead of the leading edge of the wing. Above the cockpit was an astro-hatch lookout post,resembling a bubble, where a crewman watched for diving enemy fighters.
    Iron Mike
was RAF Wing Commander Thomas Stratton's Fortress. He had flown it from the Boeing plant in Seattle to Wichita, where the oxygen system, automatic pilot, homing equipment, and machine guns were installed. Then on to London's Croyden Airport, where it had been assigned to the RAF's Hell Fire Fifteenth Squadron.
    Stratton had personally painted "IRON MIKE" on the plane's nose behind the bombardier's greenhouse. The fierce cartoon boilermaker raised a steel mallet above his head for another blow at the black anvil he stood behind. Below the cartoon was the inscription "IRON MIKE—ONE MORE STRIKE," followed by fourteen bomb decals, each representing a mission over Germany.
    On Monday, November 16, Stratton received orders to remove
Iron Mike's
bomb racks and install nine wicker seats. He protested loudly to Group Captain Benchley that his Fortress was a bomber, not a bus, but was told only that
Iron Mike
was being assigned to an extremely important mission that would only last several weeks. Stratton was not placated. His crew was enraged. Waist gunner Jimmy Toland threatened to reverse his .30-caliber machine gun so its barrel pointed at the passengers. Bombardier Lou Budwig promised to drop the nine passengers and their bloody wicker seats through the bomb bay somewhere over the freezing channel.
    Despite the complaints, the bomb racks were removed with the alacrity which naturally follows an order given to an RAF group captain from an air chief marshal. Benchley had been sworn to secrecy by Air Chief Marshal Hilling. Neither the group captain's superior nor his superior's superior was to know of the work on
Iron Mike
. For security reasons, Stratton and his boiling crew were confined to quarters for the three days until the mission. Profits at the Goat's Head Pub near the airfield plummeted.
    John Crown's safety harness strapped him tightly to the wicker seat. He was wearing a leather flight coat, and he was cold. The Fortress's cabin was not heated. And because it was not pressurized,
Iron Mike
could not climb above

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