CHAPTER ONE MISSION #22
His nickname was Lucky, but Second Lieutenant John Luckadoo felt anything but.
He was on his twenty-second mission flying B-17 bombers into occupied Europe against the Luftwaffe, meaning he was on someone else's borrowed time. Most bomber crew members only made it to ten missions before they either got wounded, captured after being shot down, or lost their lives altogether.
Lucky stowed his gear near the hatch at the front of the olive-green B-17 bomber and walked around the aircraft looking for anything out of place. He was tall and skinny with a boyish grin. He spoke with a soft voice that had just a hint of an accent with elongated, slow, and drawn-out words like the Tennessee River that ran through his hometown of Chattanooga. His face had an innocence, a kind of aww shucks, easygoing look, that masked what he'd seen over the skies of Nazi Germany.
Lucky ran his hands along the fuselage and wings and worked the ailerons with his hands up and down to make sure the mechanism was smooth. He checked the connection points on the antenna wire that stretched from the top of the tail to the radio hatch just behind the wings.
As he got to the front of the aircraft, he stopped and looked at the ship. The Flying Fortress looked formidable perched on her front landing gears, her nose peering skyward. The bomber's four massive Wright R-1820-97 Cyclone turbo supercharged radial engines towered over him on the 103-foot wings and eleven .50-caliber machine guns poked out of the top, side, and cheeks of the bomber.
The preflight walk was routine before a mission, but not without focus.
Lucky knew how important it was because the bomber was the single most important part of the mission. It delivered the bombs, but more importantly acted as a body for the ten-man crew. Each man—from two pilots in the cockpit to the single gunner in the tail—was tethered to the four-engine bomber and relied on the machine for air and warmth.
Confident the ship—nicknamed King Bee—was airworthy, he returned to the nose, where a small door was open leading into the cockpit area. No one climbed into a B-17 confident they were coming home. As the war progressed, Lucky realized he was facing not one enemy but four.
Fear of never returning home.
Fighters that attacked with more experienced pilots and better equipment as they aggressively protected their homeland.
Flak from the Nazi antiaircraft guns, which hit American bombers with deadly accuracy.
And freezing temperatures, an unseen enemy in the unpressurized and unheated airplanes that seriously impeded the aircrews' ability to function.
All four factors had a devastating effect on the aircrews' mind and body. There was no way the aircrews could contend with the pressures of combat day after day and remain the same people. Lucky and others had become indifferent to death. They expected it and were surprised when it didn't come. Mustering the courage to get back into the airplane day after frightful day eroded the will of the aircrews. Some withered under the onslaught and refused to continue to do so. Others, like Lucky, found the stamina to remain focused on the job at hand and carried on. But this mission felt different. This time, Lucky was flying with a brand-new crew.
Almost a month earlier, Lucky's original crew completed twenty-five missions and rotated home. For bomber crews in 1943, twenty-five was the magic number. Complete that many missions and you got to board a slow boat back to the United States.
That left Lucky to finish his last four missions with various crews. The crew for this mission, led by Second Lieutenant Maurice Beatty, were strangers. Beatty had been certified for combat by Lucky the month before on a short check ride over the English countryside. His crew had only been with the 100th Bomb Group for a few weeks. They'd flown half a dozen missions—short hops to the French or German coasts. Milk runs, essentially. They'd only once flown into the teeth of the Luftwaffe defenses over central Germany.