Over the North Atlantic
I WANTED TO DIE. No, actually I didn’t want to die. Or live. I just didn’t care. Dying would have been better than puking my guts out again in a bucket. Which wouldn’t have been so bad if the bucket hadn’t been inside a freezing Flying Fortress halfway between Iceland and England, trying to ride out a North Atlantic storm. And if there hadn’t been a war going on, and I hadn’t been headed right for it.
I wanted to reach for the bucket again but the floor dropped out from under me as the Fortress was pounded by powerful, howling storm winds that seemed to scream at the fuselage, clawing at the plane’s skin for a way inside. Canvascovered crates bounced on each other, held down by knotted ropes and the weight of what they carried. I worried about being crushed to death before I ever got to England, a crate of beans or grenades or whatever was important enough to rate air transport ending my military career. The waist gunner openings were closed up. Only a small Perspex window let in what little light there was among the gray clouds at twenty thousand feet. The noise from the storm and the four straining engines pounded in my head like a jackhammer
orchestra. I prayed for the plane to steady itself and held on to the hard metal seat for dear life. All I could think about was the fact that, just two days before, I was fat, dumb, and happy, just about to graduate from Officer Candidate School, and ready to enjoy the delights of life as a staff officer at the War Department in Washington, D.C. I was all set. The fix was in. Now I was in a fix.
I never wanted to be in the army. I was happy as a cop on the beat in Boston, just like my dad and my uncles, and seldom even left South Boston, where the Boyle family lived and worked. I had been on the job for three years, and my dad and his brothers and their pals watched out for me. That’s how it works. The rich folks on Beacon Hill look out for their own and the Irish in Southie look out for theirs. I guess it’s like that all over the world, but I really don’t know. Or care. That’s the world’s problem.
My problem was that I had just made detective three days before Pearl Harbor. It was unusual for a kid in his early twenties to make the grade. The test they gave was pretty hard. While I can usually figure things out sooner or later, I’m no scholar. I would’ve had a hard time, but a few of the sheets from the test sort of found their way into my locker a couple of days before the exam. I managed to pass. My uncle Dan is on the promotions board, so with a little backscratching with his buddies over a few pints of Guinness, I was in. That’s just the way it works. I’m not saying I’m proud of it, but it doesn’t mean I’m not a good cop either. It’s not a bad system, actually. The other guys know me and know they can depend on me. I’m not some stranger who got the job just because he’s smart enough to answer a bunch of questions on his own. That doesn’t mean squat when you need your partner to back you up. Three years walking the beat in Chinatown and around the harbor had taught me a lot, not to mention everything Dad tried to drum into my head. He’s a homicide detective, and he always made sure I got assigned to a crime scene when they needed some extra bluecoats for crowd control or knocking on doors. I worked a lot of overtime, saw a lot of dead bodies, and listened to Dad talk me through his routine. Sometimes it was obvious who the killer was, like after a knife fight between drunks. Other times, it wasn’t. Watching Dad figure things out was like watching an artist paint a picture. He used to say an investigation was a lot like art, just a blank canvas and a whole lot of different colors in little jars. All the clues were there, just like a painting was already in those little jars of paint. But you had to mix them together and put them on the canvas right, so it all made sense. Well, the only thing I can paint is a house, and sometimes I couldn’t see how Dad figured things out, even when he explained it all to me. But he would always go through it with me afterward, hoping some of it would stick.
Anyway, I was pretty disappointed to hear about Pearl Harbor. It was tough for those guys out there, but it also meant the draft board was going to come after me. The
Boston PD had more cops than deferments, and we younger guys knew what was coming. I didn’t like it much, but it looked like Uncle Sam was going to ship me off to fight the Japs. Everybody was all worked up over the Japs, but it seemed to me that I had enough problems with the Chinese gangs down in Chinatown without taking on the rest of the Orient.
I thought maybe the military police would be a good choice, to stay in the game sort of. Dad nixed that idea right away. He’d hated the MPs he’d run into in France during the First World War and said no son of his would ever earn his keep busting poor enlisted men over a drink or the ladies. OK, that was that.
Uncle Dan didn’t want me to go at all. He and Dad went off to war in 1917 with their older brother, Frank. Frank got killed his first day at the front. It broke Grandma’s
heart and I think Dad and Uncle Dan’s, too. I never really knew how hard it had hit them until one night over drinks at Kirby’s Bar, right after New Year’s, just a month after Pearl Harbor. I could tell they were working up to tell me something. It took a couple of Bushmills Irish whiskeys before they got around to it.
“If somebody comes after the Boyles, then it’s personal, and we all back each other up,” my dad started. “You know that, Billy. But this war, it’s no good for us. The Boyles have finally made it here. No one ever helped us, especially when Da couldn’t get work because ‘No Irish Need Apply.’ We’ve worked hard to build something for you here, and we’re not going to let this war with the Japs and Germans take it away from you. It’s not our war. No one attacked Boston or Ireland. So we’re going to find a way to keep you safe. We don’t want you to get killed, like Frank.”
“Especially not fighting for the fucking English, Billy,you remember that,” Uncle Dan chimed in. Like any good IRA man, he hated the English. It had galled him to fight on
the same side as the English in his war, and he didn’t want me to do the same in mine. Unfortunately, their plan didn’t go any farther than deciding I shouldn’t get killed, which sounded fine to me. We drank some more, and went home. Dad got yelled at. I went to sleep.
In the morning we went to Mass. That always calmed Mom down, and she was nice to Dad as we walked home from church. That’s when she got the idea. Her second cousin, one of the Doud clan that had moved to Colorado, was married to a general who worked at the War Plans Division of the War Department in Washington, D.C. Maybe he’d give me some sort of job there. I’d seen him last at a family wedding a few years ago. Since he was an older guy I called him “Uncle.” Uncle Ike.
The Boyle family put the wheels into motion. Dad called our congressman, Teddy McCarrick, who owed him for certain favors granted during the election. Teddy was glad to oblige, knowing there was always another election around the corner. Not only did I get an immediate qualification for Officer Candidate School, but he called a week later and told Dad that my uncle had asked Army Personnel to assign me to his staff as soon as I graduated OCS. Well, all right! On my uncle’s staff in the nation’s capital, where the women outnumbered the men ten to one and I’d be an officer and a gentleman. Not bad for an Irish kid from Boston. A lot better than a grave in France, according to Uncle Dan.
We only forgot one thing. The part of OCS that stood for “School.” I did fine in basic training. I’d always played sports and kept in shape. I knew firearms, which is more than I can say about the other guys in boot camp. I figured it was more dangerous around the firing range there than anyplace I’d ever see in this war. But then we went to school. Never liked it, never will. It wasn’t the kind of school where you could bullshit your way out of trouble, like I’d done many times back home. They really expected you to learn this stuff: map reading, tactics, command, logistics. It gave me a headache. I kept hoping that I’d find the exam answers slipped under my door, but this wasn’t Boston, and the noncoms were all Southern boys. Not an Irish guy among them.
Somehow, I made it. Rock bottom out of my company, but I made it. Before we got our bars my drill instructor told me I was the dumbest Irish Mick he had ever seen, and that was saying something. I thanked him for the compliment and thought, Imagine how surprised he’ll be tomorrow when we get our orders, and I go off to the War Plans Division. Ha! I’ll show him!
We got our orders all right, and Sarge really was surprised. So was I. I wasn’t going to D.C. I was going to London goddamn England, to the headquarters of the U.S. Army
European Theater of Operations, General Dwight David Eisenhower commanding. Uncle Ike. In charge of the whole shooting match. Why, I had not a clue. I love my mom, but I had to think that maybe this was not one of her best ideas. The plane stopped rocking and lurching. The storm had calmed down, and so did my stomach. The sun rose, or we caught up with it, and things started improving. We descended through white clouds, and when I went up to the cockpit I actually enjoyed the view. I was the only passenger, not because I was special, but because a Flying Fortress bomber was not meant to be a passenger plane. I had AAA travel priority, so I had been put on the first flight out of the States headed for England. This was it, or at least for a lowly lieutenant, this was it. I had never flown before—hell, I had never been out of Massachusetts before the Army—and the sight of England from the air was beautiful. So green and lush, small fields marked off by stone walls and clumps of houses at intersections, huddled together like storybook villages. I closed my eyes, mentally apologized to Uncle Dan, and then opened them to admire the greenness unfolding below me as we descended lower and lower.
We landed at a military airfield. I climbed down the metal steps to the runway, stiff from sitting so long on a hard seat. One of the crew threw down my duffel bag and waved so long. I caught it and waved back, wondering what the hell was going to happen now. I walked past the wing of the Fortress and stood on the wet tarmac. Rows of aircraft lined the field. At the end of the runway, off to the side, a twisted black hulk scarred the orderly landscape, its tail fin pointing up to the sky like a cross. A real confidence builder. A jeep pulled out from a nearby hangar and stopped next to me. It was misting slightly, and the officer driving it had his trenchcoat collar turned up and his service-cap visor pulled down. My own trench coat was rumpled from the long trip, and my tie was undone. Scarf. I had to remember they called ties “scarves” in the army, just to confuse honest civilians. I saw the officer, a major, look down at my shoes with a grimace of distaste. I looked down, too. They were flecked with dried vomit.
“You must be Lieutenant William Boyle. Get in.”
In my wisest decision since I arrived in England, I kept my mouth shut, and got in.
Excerpted from Billy Boyle: A World War II Mystery
by James R. Benn
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