The Bombardier’s Handbook
Introduction by Pat Joseph
Moritz Thomsen kept the journal of his war years in a set of old composition notebooks that, by the time I first handled them, were coming apart at the spines and bound together with string. The excerpts that follow are taken from the third volume of those diaries.
The entries pick up after Thomsen has washed out of pilot training and been reassigned to bombardier school. It was not his first, nor even his second choice and he wrote somewhat ruefully in the fresh pages of the new notebook, “This section should properly be called ‘The Bombardier’s Handbook.’”
In the back, he logged the missions he flew by date and target — Saint-Jean-d’Angély, Reims, Brunswick, Oldenburg, Schweinfurt, Berlin — twenty-seven in all, flown between March 27 and August 25, 1944. The numbers run to 32, but the tide of the war was turning and he was spared the remainder. Inside the front cover he jotted the names of classical compositions — Kabalevsky’s 2nd Symphony, Walton’s Violin Concerto, Liszt’s fantasy on a theme from Beethoven’s Ruin of Athens, etc. The music became for me, as I edited these selections, a kind of soundtrack to the death and destruction — and also the camaraderie and beauty of flight — described in the pages.
The diaries were lent to me by Thomsen’s old friend and co-pilot, Jack Oates, who appears here as Rip, Ripper, and Cowboy Oates, the Texas Ranger. A retired Air Force colonel, Oates had settled in Chico, California, not far from the tiny town of Vina, where Thomsen raised pigs after the war, until he went broke, joined the Peace Corps at age 48 and was sent to Ecuador.
It was there, in his adopted country, that he became an author, eventually publishing four books: Living Poor, The Farm on the River of Emeralds, The Saddest Pleasure, and My Two Wars. Though fame eluded him, the work attracted a loyal following that included some of the greatest writers in America: Paul Theroux, Wallace Stegner, Larry McMurtry, and Martha Gellhorn were all admirers.
Thomsen succumbed to cholera at his home in Guayaquil in 1991. He was 76. When his last book, My Two Wars, was published posthumously, Larry McMurtry lamented that he would never read another work by the man, whose voice, “cranky, intolerant, tough-minded, generous to those whose faults appealed to him — was like no other.”
“This is a book about my involvement in two outrageous catastrophes: the Second World War and my father” Thomsen wrote at the outset of My Two Wars. As he himself admitted, it was like “serving a hunter’s stew and a sunshine cake in the same bowl.” The two subjects struck different chords in the author’s psyche. “It has been possible to write of the war with that calmness that long distancing brings to the resurrection of old horrors,” he observed. “But time has not separated me from those childish and neurotic obsessions, those memories of my father and the home he made. I begin to write about him and find my voice going shrill….”
True. When it came to his father, Thomsen was like some “two-bit Hamlet”—his words—unable to act, unable to let go. The reader, exasperated by all the ancient grudges and nursed hurts, half-wishes he had killed the bastard and been done with it. But the old man died a natural death and left his son to seethe.
It is instructive to realize that Thomsen did not have his journals at hand when he wrote his memoirs of the war, no document to aid his memory or bring back to him the awful immediacy of the experience as he lived it. The notebooks were moldering in Oates’s attic, left behind when Thomsen decamped from Vina and lit out for the Tropics. Had he read them again, he might have been struck, as I was, by the complete absence of his father in the pages. The son of a bitch simply isn’t there.
What is there is young Moritz, a captain in the U.S. Eighth Air Force, 29 years old at the time, already a fiercely talented writer, watching his fellow airmen die, sometimes in his arms, sometimes blown to pieces, or just thrown whole from the wreckage of their bombers. We see him change from a cocky greenhorn to a battle-scarred veteran in the space of a few months, until — weary, dazed, haunted by the specter of death — he is “filled with fury and wild regret.”
Later in life, in a typically arch remark, Thomsen will write that it was “some of the most constructive work “ of his life, “dropping bombs on Germany.” Here, in the thick of it, he is not so sanguine.
— Pat Joseph
The Bombardier’s Handbook
by Moritz Thomsen
The trip from Nebraska to Maine was a great and stupendous farewell;
of the millions of men who are fighting now there must be few who
were allowed, before leaving, to cross their country from the flat
prairie desolation of the West to the very tip of Maine, to sail above the
Mississippi, the Lincoln Highway, the stone farm houses of Pennsylvania,
Niagara Falls, and the thickening industrialization of New York. We were
in the air some seven hours, eating sandwiches just abeam of Chicago and
rinsing them down with coffee a few minutes later someplace in the heart
of Indiana. Chicago was a great lake of lights just beginning to draw in
color from the east, but it seemed as isolated, as deserted, as lonely as any
of the nameless towns we had passed before.
Chicago belonged to Earl, Johnson, and Moe; they gathered in the
nose and watched their city pass behind them. When we flew over Winslow,
Maine, the hometown of Savasuk, our radio operator, he came up in the
nose and we dove on his house from 7,000 feet, and Bob shoved it in low
pitch and we went screaming over the town in a wide circle, over the river
and the freeway, the main street, and the neat rowed houses in the outside
circle. Savasuk sat there entranced, looking first to see if his mother was
in the yard and then toward the factory where he knew his father must
be at that moment. That was his farewell and ours, too.
We flew the Atlantic in about ten hours. For several hundred miles
we could, from time to time, see through the scattered cloud deck. But we
were in bright moonlight, which painted the cloud tops without reaching
through to the sea. It created an illusion of flying at a limitless altitude,
for the clouds were several thousand feet below us and then below them
there was nothing but the darkest darkness I have ever seen. It seemed
very ominous at the time, and I sat in the nose for over an hour watching
below me, trying to make out the form of an ocean swell or an island.
I flew for a while but for short stretches; Rip, the co-pilot, slept in
the radio room most of the way. Johnson slept in the alley behind the nose
until he got sick and went up to the waist. About six, Bob and I went back
to the radio room and slept for about four hours; at least I did.
We picked up the radio about 200 miles off Ireland and homed on it,
descending finally through the clouds. The first thing we saw was a big
castle abeam of us and then we went down to about 900 feet, flying over
country that, unlike the country we had seen for four months, was free of
snow and gleamed richly with dark greens and winter browns.
The first combat mission, the one I have lived through in every detail a
hundred times in the last year, finally got pulled off with no bands playing
and no excited hand-clapping upon the return. We bombed an airfield
north of Bordeaux, Saint-Jean-d’Angély, an advanced pursuit school for
fighter pilots who get thirty days flying there before coming to meet us.
The trip down was as briefed; we saw a little flak burst several hundred
yards abeam of us as we went over La Rochelle and after that, going over a
convoy, we were fired upon by a small warship. It was a fine day for being
shot at and I enjoyed the red bursts of fire from the boat; we were so high
that the ship was harmless and its anger was as comical as the rage of an
ant that has been teased with a stick.
After that we met no fighters and saw no more flak. We simply flew over the target, found that another group was getting there ahead of us, did a 360 and came in again. When we left the place was a shambles and the bombs were exploding over the entire area. We turned back and came out the same way, north through France across the Channel to the cliffs of Dover and home. I started writing about this raid while it was fresh in my mind, but I was too tired, and since then I have been out twice more so that the details are confused and seem rather unimportant.
The next day we were scheduled for an airdrome about four miles
north of Reims. We were shot at over the target and later about halfway
back. The flak was light but very accurate and we were hit twice, one of
the pieces coming through the jack box on the pilot’s left and hitting him
gently on the side. We also lost an engine over the target and came back
on three with the added spice of sweating out another which was losing
oil and that began to smoke over the Channel.
They fell for a couple of minutes, exploding abeam of us and below us, blazing up for a moment like a match struck in darkness and then dying down, a stream of smoke and below the smoke a dark tangle of falling wreckage.
Yesterday they sent us into Germany, across the Zuiderzee just north
of Amsterdam. It was cloudy going but coming back I could see the city
faintly, its windows catching the late sun and shining dimly in a million
golden squares. It was cloudy all the way to Brunswick, our target, and
we bombed through clouds. The flak was moderately heavy but not too
accurate and we were only hit once, the piece slicing through the waist
above the gunner and bouncing off the armor plate through several braces,
the interphone wiring, and the gunner’s oxygen. The interphone was dead
but we, in the nose, did not know this at first.
I had dropped the bombs and had moved back to my seat to grab a flak
suit when I looked out the side window to see a 109 aiming directly at us,
wings blazing with gunfire. It was so close that it filled the entire window
and it was there for only a second, an enormous jet-black, furiously angry
plane with its nose pointed at our ship, and its wing blocking the view. I
grabbed frantically for the interphone button to call a warning, and in my
stupefaction at discovering a dead connection I simply stood there for a moment, wondering at first if we had been hit. I think I felt my head and
then looked at the nose to see if it was intact. Then I was back in the seat,
the flak suit forgotten, with my guns ready. I punched the navigator and did
a brilliant pantomime which was supposed to represent a Messerschmidt
attacking and he was behind a gun then, too.
We saw no more fighters, though the pilot saw a ragged, mean-looking
pack of about fifty milling around off our right. We headed back for England
and about that time the 17s began exploding in front of us.
The first one, a straggler, was far below us; I saw him do a loop, a maneuver so grotesque, so fantastic, that at first I was unable to imagine what the hell was happening. After a while he fell into pieces and disintegrated into nothing — a long stream of black smoke, a flame. I saw two chutes. Two other planes blew up within five minutes, smoke tailing behind an engine, the plane straggling a bit, falling down below the formation and perhaps after thirty seconds breaking into innumerable pieces in a terrific burst of flame. Now, a week later, it makes me sick to write about it.
Yesterday, over Schweinfurt, a hundred fighters attacked the group next
to ours. 51s kept half of them off, but the other half went tearing through
the formation, one terrific attack that left seven fewer bombers. They
fell for a couple of minutes, exploding abeam of us and below us, blazing
up for a moment like a match struck in darkness and then dying down, a
stream of smoke and below the smoke a dark tangle of falling wreckage,
broken and burning bodies, a wing panel floating like a leaf, shimmering
with reflected sunlight, a quiet and predestined chaos.
Jones liked to tell us how he volunteered to be a gunner, turning down
a soft job driving a truck in some Army camp just eighty miles from home.
And before that about all the fast cars he had owned and how the cops would chase him and how he would escape from them, hiding in the woods. He liked danger; he liked being a big shot.
He wanted us to recognize his good qualities; I remember how at interrogation, Goyens began to speak to someone else about something good that Jones had done, and how Jones sat there, pretending not to hear but flushing absolutely red like a little girl. He looked over at me and saw that I had caught him and he began to giggle foolishly, twisting his cap around on his head. He was always putting his cap on at some crazy angle.
Remember the way he wore his hat, and the way Sullivan looked this evening when he dumped it into the trash. Remember Jones with the flak through his throat and half his shoulder torn off. Remember the blood soaking his shirt, a pool of it lying in the hollow of his chest and how it had begun to clot in obscene lumps on his Mae West and on his parachute harness. The face first white, then gray, and the lips bloodless, screaming “death” at you without moving. And how heavy his lids became when he tried to open and focus his eyes and how they blurred and went blank with the effort.
When we got to England and were circling the field, I said to him, “We’re here now, Jones. We’re back OK and going to land.” He understood me. He opened his eyes and nodded his head. I wonder if he felt compelled to make that awful effort to let me know that he understood. It must have been so damned important to him that we get back and that he feel the earth beneath him once more. Remember that endless journey back, and the high cold wind, and the riddled ship, the shattered windows, and the red blood cooling in the waist.
The crew is scattered all to hell from that mission. Jones is dead; Dugas has decided that combat is too much for his stomach. We got back to the base and were grounded for two days. On the second morning, he stopped me on the street. He was deeply disturbed and had a great deal of trouble to keep from crying. He said that he couldn’t digest his food, that at altitude he suffered from dangerous gas pains and that when he spoke to the doctor about it, he had been threatened with LMF (lacking moral fiber). “He told me to stop smoking,” Dugas said, big tears beginning to form in his eyes. “He told me to cut out the coffee and not to eat things that make me gassy. Why, Good God, man, I can’t starve to death just so I can fly.”
“He thinks I have no guts,” he went on, and then he broke down completely and began to bawl like a baby. I, at first, did not recognize in Dugas an unalterable decision not to fly; I thought, stupidly enough, that he was troubled with indigestion and was troubled because the medics would not help to cure him. But later, little by little, we all saw that he was determined never to fly again and that there was nothing we could have done about it, as though we would try to prevent anyone from escaping a job that is almost certain to end in death.
“The target for today, men,” the S-2 officer will tell us, “is the heart
of the industrial section of Berlin.” A fool would know they are lying just
to look at the map.
There is always the inquest after a mission. When Bob and I were out together we would have to discuss every detail.
“Did I sound calm on the interphone?”
“Yes, I was surprised. You sounded like you were on a practice mission. I bet I sounded like I was screaming.”
“Oh hell no. You sounded good.”
“Well, I don’t know why. I was scared to death.”
“Boy, who wasn’t? Remember when we were just past the impact point? The planes ahead of us had already dropped their bombs and were coming back. I looked out and thought they were enemy fighters. Remember that? I called up and said, ‘Two hundred planes coming in at 12 o’clock.’ Boy, I figured we’d had it, right there.”
“Oh Christ, yes. It didn’t look like a formation, just hundreds of planes coming to knock the crap out of us. I’ve never had such a sinking sensation.”
“That’s when you want to bail out.”
“I’d like to if we weren’t over Berlin. It’s rough.”
“Oh, it’s rough in the ETO.”
“Yes, and the flak’s rough in the ETO.”
The first sight of fighters freezes the blood until they are indentified as friendly. Before they are sighted and called out over the interphone, you find satisfaction in the power of your numbers and of being clustered together, a part of a great armada, but then suddenly you are completely alone, armed with only a gun that you have never fired under combat conditions.
We love the friendly fighters. They are absolutely fearless, diving through our formations on the tail of enemy fighters as though they did not realize that, because of the impossibility of identifying them, the guns of fifty men were firing on them. We like the way they swoop and play, the way they dive down just after our bombs, right into the chaos of our destruction, strafing through the smoke, without mercy, flying low over flak guns, grounded aircraft, high tension wires, at 400 miles an hour. They are, while they are with us, not ordinary men; there is no meanness, no lying, no treachery visible. As they soar around us they are the embodiment of everything that makes a man fine — a sureness, a cleanness, a concentration of purpose, a deftness, a brave and unselfish daring, a dedication.
The door opens with a crash and Porada stands there without turning on the light.
“For Christ sakes, get out of here! That last one was right on course!”
The major bolts out of bed and I am only half awake. I can hear him in the darkness, fumbling hysterically for his shoes and swearing to himself.
“What’s up, Maj?”
No answer, but an overcoat gets ripped off a hanger, and the empty hangers knock together for a moment.
“Hey, Maj, what’s going on?”
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” the Major says. He runs out the door and leaves it open behind him, and as I get up I can hear him running up the road after Porada, who has already gone out. Upstairs, someone yells down, “What the hell’s this all about?”
And I yell back, “Porada talks like there’s a formation coming back
for another run on us.” I put shoes and overcoat on and go outside. It is
dark and cold and a light drizzle is falling, and it is obvious that no one is
bombing us. Far away, a robot bomb vibrates in the air, an ugly ominous
sound, and just as I start back to bed the motor cuts out and a moment
later there’s a tremendous explosion. The door slams and the windows
rattle with the concussion.
Back in bed I can hear another buzz bomb off to the east but getting
closer. It comes quite close to the field and the whole place shakes and
vibrates when it is overhead. But it keeps going until the sound of it is
gone, and then minutes later in absolute stillness there is a puff of air, like
the very beginning of a sigh, and the windows rattle weakly.
When the major comes in I am almost asleep, and he undresses very
quietly and crawls into bed.
“You asleep, Thomsen?” he asks.
I do not answer him. He is very new to the ETO, but all of us have
noticed how jumpy he is under attack.
“Thomsen,” he says softly.
“Oh go to sleep,” I tell him. “For Christ’s sake.”
Yesterday we were well received by the people of Ludwigshaven; we
bombed their marshalling yards, their bean fields, and their homes. Before
that we destroyed an airfield at Nancy and before that an airfield almost in
Paris, near Versailles, and before that we missed the suburbs of Berlin and
aimed a death blow at the asparagus co-op. These, so far, are the missions
that I have led. It is impossible to know how many persons I have killed
and it is impossible not to think about it, especially when we are assigned
“The target for today, men,” the S-2 officer will tell us, “is the heart
of the industrial section of Berlin.” A fool would know they are lying just
to look at the map; a fool would know we are bombing a block or a square of blocks that contains nothing more military than the mother of a soldier
or a club for officers on a ten-day leave.
Our power has made beasts of us. Our strength has made us as evil
as the evil that we fight. We have turned into an air force of murderers.
There are very few who are not changed by combat; there is a slow
but discernible disintegration of the pride that gives you the will to keep
going out, quietly and without fussing over every detail.
At first a man will fly with anyone. He prefers his own crew of course,
but he will not complain at being scheduled with a new man, nor will he
bitch at flying three or four days in a row; then something happens. He
sees danger where he did not see it before, sometimes real, sometimes
In my case, I was amazed on my fifth or sixth mission to discover that
I had a developed an unreasonable fear of going back to the bomb bays and
removing the pins from the nose and tail of the bombs. I was speaking of
this to the crew one morning, telling them how unreasonable so many of
our fears were, and later, Sullivan, after we had taken off, climbed back
and helped me pull pins, being very nonchalant about it.
After we lost Jones, I was pretty scared of flak. Over Berlin, I actually
shrank in size before the barrage, kneeling behind my seat with my helmet
well over my face and my hands tucked under my flak suit. The mission was
poorly navigated and the wing floundered around over central Germany. I
got over my fear by being subjected to the sight of flak constantly, for over
an hour, until I was tired of being frightened and settled down.
Bob went down over Berlin with his tail shot off and pieces of wing
tip floating behind him as his ship went rolling out of control and into a
vertical dive. He dropped straight down, leveled out just above the clouds
and three men left the ship. At this moment our group was attacked by
fighters and no one saw what happened to the ship below us. We were about seven minutes from the heart of the city. I wonder where he is and what
they have done to him. It is lonesome with him gone. I keep seeing him in
other soldiers, recognizing his walk or the way he pedaled his bicycle, and
there are things that happen that I want to tell him. I think he must have
bailed out OK, but I worry about his reception. A crazed mob would very
likely tear to pieces a man who so thoroughly symbolized the destruction
of their capital, so I hope to God that he either managed to escape or else
was able to turn himself in to military personnel.
There were no other sounds except people running and sometimes a woman screaming — loud, animal, distraught, somehow sounding vile and obscene in the midst of the majority’s placid, resigned acceptance.
I am now able to add Posen to a growing list of badly led jobs. Our
target was a Messerschmidt factory adjacent to a marshalling yard. There
was practically no flak, and I had leisure to study the bombing pattern.
Not one bomb came within a thousand feet of the factory, and watching
the pattern spread gave me the sickest feeling of futility and despair I
have ever known. I was suddenly without strength. The responsibility for
having led 120 men across Holland, Germany, and into Poland, and then
to have missed a legitimate and highly important objective, was simply
too much to take. I crawled out of the nose and let Frank take over the
navigation and sat, huddled up on the map table, ashamed to be looked
at, exhausted, miserable.
We let down to 14,000 feet and came out north of Berlin and I went
to sleep in the catwalk, except for a few minutes when fighters attacked
us and I stood behind a gun, full of excitement and fear and not caring too
much if we were shot down or not.
That was five days ago, and I still have no ego and my heart secretly
rejoices that other bombardiers have been missing their targets and that
tons of bombs have, in the last few days, been dumped in the Channel,
several thousands of yards from the gun emplacements we have been
trying desperately to destroy.
Last week I went to London to see what it felt like to be bombed. The first one fell about four blocks from me on Drury Lane up from Picadilly. It
scared the hell out of me and made my legs shaky. I went up to see what had
happened, just the usual thing, a few buildings flattened, a couple hundred
people killed, everywhere the fire, gray dust of pulverized stone, glass finely
powdered in the streets, sometimes ankle deep, and the apathetic curious
survivors. I left and came back later, feeling insensible to it somehow, dazed
by it. There were trucks into which was being piled debris, and cranes were
loosening the rubble to make it easier and quicker to dig for the bodies of
the living and the dead. I wonder how many people went insane.
“What are you supposed to do when they come?” I asked a soldier who
had escaped. “What the hell can you do?” he said. “I screamed.” And he
pulled up his trousers leg to show me the cut where the flying glass had
They came over in quantity that night, and I watched them rocket
over Trafalgar Square, their engines loud and ominous in the stillness of
the London blackout. There were no other sounds except people running
and sometimes a woman screaming — loud, animal, distraught, somehow
sounding vile and obscene in the midst of the majority’s placid, resigned
One rocket coming from over Westminster Abbey and up Whitehall
looked for a while as though it were aiming directly for the Square, and
in the twenty or thirty seconds when it seemed possible, I could feel the
elements of hysteria beginning to grow. There were no shelters in the area.
The mind begins skipping crazily for solutions to an insoluble dilemma.
You are rooted for the infinity of the bomb’s trajectory to the spot upon
which you are standing, at the moment when the mind decides that this
particular bomb is meant to destroy you.
A couple weeks ago I sent a story, through Army censorship, to New
York; it was not very good, really, just about as chaotic as I feel these days.
The idea of it was that the war was a symbol of the final degradation of civilization and that from here on we were faced with nothing; that no
values remained. A couple days ago, censorship returned the story. They
had no objection to my finding the war stupid and a sign of civilization’s
collapse, but they were distressed that while everything was going to hell, a
character in my story should mention having gotten drunk with an enlisted
man. Officers and enlisted men do not fraternize, censorship tells me.
I remember with great vividness one morning ten years ago when
I was a freshman at Washington. I was walking to a class in economics
with Bunny, and we were having a heated and furious argument about
the future. I don’t remember now whether what I said was the result of
much thought or not, but I am sure that I believed it. I said something like,
“Within ten years your whole world is going to go to pot. You wait and see;
there is going to be a revolution like nothing ever before seen in history.”
This, of course, makes me something of a prophet, even though I
did not have in mind a conflict so deadly, so organized and mechanized
and completely non-ideological as the war has slowly but inevitably
become. I guess what I anticipated was a revolution of ideas, a revolution
of comparatively minor outbreaks, riots, massacres, strikes, etc. I guess
when the big cannons are finished blowing their tops, there will still be for
many years the sound of skulls being rapped with clubs, the single revolver
shot in darkness, and the mass injustice of minority groups taking things
into their own hands.
And probably that will be the least of our worries.
He walked around in a complete daze, falling into holes and stumbling over the grass, and then he went into one of the bomb shelters and was very sick. Oates was all through with combat, and he was celebrating.
I took the train down to London again. The bombing is worse than
ever, but except for three or four moments of peril and terror, I accepted
its presence and did not think much about it. After a forty-eight hour pass
I came back to the base just as the remnants of our group were returning
from Leipzig. We lost eight ships, four of them from our squadron. Hart,
Martin, Bonomo, Darsnek, Sullivan. More than seventy men all together.
It’s funny. I know that they have died, all or most of them, and that
they died in violence — by burning, by crashing, by falling — and that their
bodies are broken and spread all over Germany. But as with our bombing,
they disappear so neatly; the mess they leave behind — a few clothes, a
wallet, a few medals — is so harmless that we are insulated against the
horror of their deaths.
The papers say our losses are two percent. Multiply that by thirty to
thirty-five missions and you know how many we lose. Actually, it is the
most terrifically tragic thing that I have ever had to face, but I cannot grasp
it. I am in the same boat and my time is occupied with getting myself back.
“Thomsen, you asleep?”
“I can’t get to sleep. Just, those fighters. That’s the first time for me.”
“Did you see Turner go down?”
“Yeah. … He was riding our left wing. … Did you see them?”
“Did I tell you about the holes in our ship?”
“Yeah, I heard about it.”
“Did you see our ship?”
“No, but I heard about it.”
“I swear I don’t know how the tail gunner got out. A 20 mm tore off
the whole vertical stabilizer above him.”
“And another one went through both ammunition boxes right in back
of him. Some of it exploded not three inches from him, by God.
“You’re the ship that had the flat tire, aren’t you?”
“That’s right. You ought to go down tomorrow and take a look at the
ship. Honest to God. Holes in the wing tanks. Holes all through the waist;
oxygen all shot to hell. Blood all over the radio room.”
“You think your radio man will be OK?”
“I think so. It was just a leg wound. He lost a lot of blood, of course,
and he went into severe shock.”
“You ever seen anyone in shock?”
“How gray they get and their cold hands. I gave him first aid and I
thought he was dying, at first. Jesus, cold hands and lying there, unresisting,
sort of clammy and his eyes rolled up.”
“You ought to go down and take a look at it. I doubt if they’ll even
bother to fix it. One 20 mm exploded inside the wing. It’s all blown out.
In fact, I don’t know why it didn’t come off.”
Silence, and then I asked him. “How many missions do you have in?”
“You’re lucky you never saw fighters before today.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean doing sixteen without fighters is pretty lucky.”
“Yeah, I guess so. … How many more for you?”
“You know, today I was pretty sure we’d get through, our crew, all of
us get through.”
“Oh, hell, you’ll get through. There’s no sense in lying there thinking
“But Jesus, the way they explode. Eight of them, just like snapping
your fingers in three to four minutes.”
“Well, there’s no sense lying there thinking about it.”
“I know it, but I do.”
“Well, go to sleep.”
“OK. You go down and look at the ship, though. You’ll know what I
“Christ, I know what you mean.”
“Well, that’s something; that’s more than I do.”
Sully is gone. The last we saw his ship it was diving vertically at 300 miles an hour with flames streaming back from an engine. A layer of clouds hid the explosion and the final quiet disintegration. Johnson and Savasuk came over to the room the same evening with Sully’s union card, a driver’s license, a couple of tickets showing that he paid some club dues, and a soiled ribbon and asked me to write his family. We sat around and drank beer and it was hard to get drunk.
And it is hard to write these letters to the families of the dead, mostly because at this point it is impossible to feel anything of the loss except a physical nausea and an overpowering weariness and sense of futility. The things I write sound so cruel and cold — and they are. “I cannot tell you in honesty that we think your son still lives. The chances are against it. When a ship goes down in flames, well, then the men in it die.” Etc., etc.
The damn thing goes on month after month. And though my old habits are so completely destroyed that I no longer think of being a civilian, and in fact associate the word with something undesirable, there are certain infrequent moments, at sundown, usually alone in the room, when the incompleteness of this life becomes so overpowering and so nauseous that I am filled with fury and wild regret.
The effects of oxygen and combat seem to be cumulative; after fifteen or twenty missions you get back from bombing something and you suffer from an unimaginable exhaustion. We got back this time about eight o’clock, and after dinner I went down into the bar. I was still unwashed, grimy with dirt, and my breath was something I could actually taste.
Oates was at the bar, very drunk. He staggered over to me, knocking glasses off the bar and falling against people, and he said he had been looking all over for me. That was all he said, standing there giggling, falling against the bar, then focusing his eyes on me, smiling a fine drunken smile. “I been looking all over for you, Tommy.”
I bought a beer and took him down the hall outside in back of the club. He walked around in a complete daze, falling into holes and stumbling over the grass, and then he went into one of the bomb shelters and was very sick.
Oates was all through with combat, and he was celebrating.
When he was through being sick, I took him into the room and put him in the extra bed that was empty since V — left us.
After that I had a few more beers and then took a shower and then wrote a letter. I was still too tired to sleep and was just beginning to relax enough to be hungry.
About 10:30 Oates woke up. He lay on his back, still awfully drunk and still smiling.
“Old Thomsen,” he said.
“Old Oates,” I told him.
“Old Tommy Thomsen,” he said. “Old Tommy Thomsen.”
“Old Cowboy Oates,” I said. “The old Texas ranger.”
“I can’t hep it,” Oates said. “I can’t hep it.”
I sat on the edge of the bed and Oates took my hand and held it against his heart and lay there, completely stupefied, smiling his wide drunken smile and holding my hand against his heart. “Old Tommy Thomsen,” he said.
He lay there smiling for a long time, too drunk to sit up, drifting in and out of sleep, always smiling though. He said, “Goin’ home tomorrow. Goin’ back to the range.”
“Are you packed, Ripper?”
“All packed, all packed, and I’ll never see old Tommy Thomsen again.”
“Sure you will. You’re coming up to the ranch and we’re going fishing. We’ll lock your wife in the house with my wife and we’ll just take off.”“Yep,” Oates said. “By the shadow of a river stream, me and old Thomsen will fish and dream.”
“That’s it,” I said. “You got it.”
“All along the river shore, we’ll fish and fish and fish some more.”
“You got it, Ripper,” I told him. “You’re a goddamn poet.”
“Thomsen’s wife and my wife, too,” Oates began, and then he lay there trying to think of something that rhymed with “too.” “Thomsen’s wife and my wife, too,” he said. “My wife and Tommy’s, too.”
After a minute he gave up. “If I wasn’t from Texas I could make that rhyme,” he said.
He lay there smiling, very drunk, and I tried to get up, but he still had my hand. “Goin’ home tomorrow,” he said, “and all you guys are goin’ out and get the hell shot out of you, and I’ll be home.”
“You lucky bastard,” I said.
“I’m a coward,” Oates said. “If I wasn’t a dirty old coward, I’d stay here.”
“Don’t be crazy.”
“But honest to God, Tommy, I wouldn’t go over again, not for a million dollars; not to save the whole world. My luck’s all used up.”
“You stay on the ground, Ripper. You stay away from airplanes.”
“I’ll be eating steaks and sleeping with the little woman, and you’ll be here getting the shit shot out of you.”
“We’ll be home, don’t worry about that.”
“You know, Tommy, I don’t know if I want to go home now. I’d like to stay, except I’d have to fly.”
“Keep away from airplanes, Ripper,” I said.
He drifted off into almost-sleep and woke up again.
“The skies before were filled with flak,” he said. “And good old Jones he didn’t come back.” He was smiling and proud that he had managed a rhyme.
“Old Jones, you did not die in vain, Old Jones.
We’ll think of you in sun and rain
And Wylie, too, went down a-blazing
To keep that flag of ours a raising.”
“You’d better got to sleep, Ripper,” I said. “You’re getting corny now.”
“OK, Tommy Thomsen,” he said. “Old Tommy Thomsen.”
I got my hand back and undressed him, and got the blankets over him,
and he lay there, very limp, that good smile on his face, and somehow it was
very sad and I felt like crying. I turned out the light and got into bed, and
Oates woke up a little and said, “You going out tomorrow? Are we alerted?”
“We’re alerted, but I won’t go.”
“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow then,” Oates said. I didn’t say anything
and after a while he said, “Won’t I, huh?”
“The Bombardier’s Handbook,” by Moritz Thomsen, was first published in the Winter 2013 issue of Zyzzyva. It was selected as a Notable Essay in the 2014 edition of Best American Essays. Reprinted here with permission.
Pat Joseph is editor of California Magazine. His writing has also appeared in the Atlantic, Smithsonian and VQR.
Photo credits: (Top) Marcus Covert; (Middle) Library of Congress.