Death followed Micah Lund like an ever-present shadow.
It hovered in briefing rooms and Quonset huts in the form of empty chairs and bunks. It lingered in the conversations of men tired of fighting a war. Death even invaded his sleep where, night after night, he dreamed of his brother, Levi, killed on Guadalcanal, and his mother, who died of a heart attack soon after.
Micah pressed against the hard bombardier’s seat in the forward dome of the B-29 and sighed. Through the bomber’s Plexiglas nose, the sapphire water of the Philippine Sea brushed past as if paint applied to canvas. Sunlight glistening upon the swells cast silver sparks. The surrounding beauty failed to improve his sullen mood. He had seen too many friends plummeting through the Japanese night sky toward an uncertain fate, toward a wave of fire rolling across bombed cities.
Behind him, Commander Adams nosed the giant plane upward. “How are we looking on those engine temperatures?” his voice crackled over the interphone.
The flight engineer responded. “Number four is a little hot, but holding at two-thirty.”
The atmosphere inside the plane changed the closer they drew near Honshu. Joking and small talk stopped. Skin tightened over weary faces. The dark outline of an island appeared in the distance. Micah picked up his interphone. “Commander, we’re approaching Shikoku.”
“I see it. Everyone at battle stations.”
As the plane passed Shikoku, the gray shape of Honshu arose from the sea. Heavy smoke blanketed the shore on the starboard side.
“Take a good look, boys,” Commander Adams said. “That’s Osaka burning. The 499th paid them a visit last night.” He swung the aircraft to port. Below, lay the Seto Inland Sea, the passage dividing Honshu from Shikoku and Kyushu, and connecting the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Japan. Tiny islands with sandy beaches dappled the route. “We’re coming up on Hiroshima. Are you ready to enter the data into the bombsight, Lieutenant Lund?”
“Yes, Sir,” Micah responded. He went to work setting the values for speed, altitude, temperature, and barometric pressure. When he had finished, Micah consulted his book of mathematical tables to synchronize the sight and aircraft speed. He paused as a nagging thought took hold and then picked up his interphone. “Hey, Commander, why are we on a public relations mission for the Army? Aren’t we supposed to be dropping bombs on the enemy instead of leaflets warning them to run away?”
“The leaflets will make their factory workers flee and hurt war production.”
“Killing their factory workers will end war production.”
Commander Adams smiled. “You really hate the Japs, don’t you?”
“After what they did to my family? Hate doesn’t begin to describe how I feel.”
Hiroshima appeared ahead. Located on the broad, flat delta of the Ota River, the fan-shaped city stretched across six islands formed by seven estuarial rivers that branched out from the Ota. Green rolling hills surrounded the city. Whenever he’d flown over Hiroshima, Micah was reminded of Bellingham. An odd yellow haze hovered over the Nakajima-Honmachi district like a desert sky after a sandstorm.
Puffs of gray smoke burst beneath the plane. “We’ve got flak, but it’s coming in low,” Commander Adams said. “Switching over to bombardier control.”
Micah leaned over the bombsight eyepiece. Near the bank of the Motoyasu River, the green copper dome of the Industrial Promotion Hall glinted in the sun. He adjusted the mirror that measured the changing approach angle until locating the T-shaped Aioi Bridge. A shudder tore through the bomber.
The shrill voice of the flight engineer exploded over the interphone. “The prop windmilled on number four!”
“Are we going to abort?” Micah asked.
“No,” Commander Adams replied. “Stay on target.”
“I can’t guarantee accuracy on three engines.”
“To hell with accuracy,” Adams said. “We’re dropping leaflets.”
The bomb bay doors opened with a metallic yawn. If Micah’s calculations were right, the bombs would release the instant the plane passed through a predetermined point above the bridge. The bomber lurched upward as the ordnance released. “Bombs away!” Micah said. He jerked around to follow the bombs’ progress. At the precise moment, the detonating cord blew the bombs apart. Millions of leaflets scattered across the sky like wind-blown confetti. He picked up his interphone to report the leaflets’ successful distribution and his nostrils twitched at the smell of something burning. Flint gray smoke filtered through the cabin.
“Set the cowl flaps on number three and pull the fire extinguisher,” Commander Adams ordered. “If the fire reaches the wing spar we’re dead!”
Micah eyed his parachute resting at his feet. If their plane went down, certain death awaited through beheading, torture, or starvation. He would rather die on his own terms. But now that he faced the real possibility of dying, he found his courage fleeting.
The plane continued north over the Chugoku Mountains. Commander Adams spoke into his interphone. “I’m going to turn around. If we keep heading northwest we’ll reach the Sea of Japan. The Navy doesn’t operate rescue subs in that area. Our only chance is to come about. If we make the Pacific, a sub or PBY might find us.”
Micah coughed as the smoke intensified. His eyes watered and ached. Commander Adams completed the turn and once again they were headed toward Hiroshima—the last place Micah wanted to see. A cracking noise carried from the burning wing. He turned toward the commander whose knuckles whitened over the control yoke. Micah snatched his parachute off the floorboard. Smoke obscured everything behind the flight engineer’s table.
“We’re not going to make the Pacific. Sound the alarm bell,” Commander Adams instructed. “Prepare to bail out.”
Three short rings carried through the cabin followed by Commander Adams contacting each crewman in the forward and rear compartments to obtain acknowledgment of the order. “Lower the front landing gear.” Commander Adams coughed and pointed at Micah. “As soon as the landing gear is down, you get your ass out of this plane. Don’t expect a warm welcome.”
The front landing gear lowered with a grinding sound. After moving a few inches, the doors froze. “Son of a bitch,” Commander Adams said. “The fire must have affected the hydraulics. I want everyone to follow Micah out the bomb bay.”
“We can’t squeeze through the connecting tunnel with our parachutes on,” Micah said.
“Take off the parachute until you enter the bomb bay, then put it back on.”
Micah clutched his parachute in one hand and crawled along the floor in the direction of the forward bomb bay. He hacked after breathing in smoke. His vision turned fuzzy. Mucus streamed onto his upper lip. He inched across the floor through billowing smoke, shifting to his right at the lower gun turret. “You still here, Blevins?” Micah asked, passing the navigator’s table.
He bumped into the bulkhead and ran his hands along the steel wall, searching for the hatch that led to the unpressurized bomb bay. A blast of cold air washed over his face when he opened the hatch. Micah shoved his parachute into the tunnel and slipped in behind it. He wiggled through on his stomach, emerging in the bomb bay. The world began to spin and he closed his eyes. When his vertigo passed, Micah lowered onto the narrow ledge that surrounded the doors. Wind roared up inside the plane, threatening to suck him outside. He hesitated, his attention drawn to smoke pouring through the tunnel. Where were his crewmates? They should have been right behind him.
As Micah dipped his left shoulder under the strap of the parachute, a thunderous crack erupted throughout the bomb bay. The plane heaved over and Micah pitched into the opening. The fingers on his left hand caught the lip of a door. Steel sliced flesh. His blood painted the sky. Micah lunged at the bomb bay door and the B-29 groaned like a wounded beast and spiraled away, leaving him in space.
Micah clutched his parachute with all his strength while reaching to snag the dangling right strap. His stomach fell as if he were going down the big drop on a rollercoaster. Freezing air numbed his limbs. His fingers grazed the strap. A little farther. Almost there. A strong gust slammed into him. The parachute broke free and tumbled out of reach.
The ground rushed at him in a blur of green and brown. The sky shimmered like asphalt in summer heat. Micah clawed at passing clouds as if they could somehow save him. Beneath him, the buildings of Hiroshima spread toward sheltering hills. Blue rivers stitched together the islands of the city like threads in a quit. Overhead, the blazing sun dimmed and a curtain of darkness closed over him.