Saturday, November 12, 2016

The day impossible happened


This is something I have pursued for more than twenty-five years. The kind of story that raises the hackles on the back of your neck. There's an immediate urge to dismiss it as preposterous, impossible.

Because it is preposterous and impossible. Yet the records are there. A document that tells what happened in deliberately cold and official terms. A field in North Africa during the war. An event that took place that was so impossible the commanding officer at the airfield demanded, and got, the signatures of hundreds of witnesses who saw the whole impossible incident. This is what happened. As it happened. As it was seen and sworn to by hundreds of ground crewmen and pilots, enlisted men and officers.

A flight of P-38s had gone out on patrol. They left to cross the Mediterranean. They mixed it up with German fighters and there was a brief scrap. When the P-38s reformed one airplane was missing. No one could recall, in the furious melee, watching him go down. They looked around, then they started home.

They arrived back at their field in North Africa. The one pilot who failed to return was listed as missing in action. Not yet, though. Not until his fuel ran out. Not until there wasn't even a glimmer of a chance.

The clock ticked slowly. Then, beyond the point of any fuel. Another two hours went by. They put his name on the list of the missing.

It happens. That's war.

Then the air raid sounded. Radar picked up a single aircraft, unknown, coming in toward the field at fairly low altitude and high speed. Anti-aircraft guns started tracking. Some pilots ran for their planes.

Then they saw the intruder. A P-38, alone. Coming in along a shallow dive, engines thundering. It failed to respond to radio calls. There was no response to flares fired hurriedly into the air.

A strange approach; that flat and unwavering dive. The P-38 crossed to the center of the field.

Suddenly the airplane seemed to stagger. It fell apart in midair, a tumble of wreckage falling toward the ground. No flash of fire, no explosion. Just that startling breakup of machinery.

They saw a body fall clear of the wreckage. Pilots muttered, called aloud their thoughts without thinking. Then a parachute opened. Silk blossomed full. But the body hung limp in the harness.

Close to the wreckage, the pilot collapsed. No one saw him move. The crash trucks raced to the scene.

Those who came later saw their friends stunned, disbelieving, shaking their heads. They talked about it through the night. The next morning the light of dawn hadn't changed a thing.

It was impossible.

The fuel tanks of the P-38, the same airplane that was hours beyond any possible remaining fuel, were bone dry.

They had been dry for several hours.

The pilot whose parachute opened, that lowered him to his home field, had a bullet hole in his forehead. He had been dead for hours.

Impossible.

But it happened.

And no one knows how.

Fork-Tailed Devil: The P-38 by Martin Caidin.

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