Over the English countryside a thick fog saturates the air. The pre-dawn darkness of October 14, 1943, is black, cold, and dismally wet. The morning fog squeezes its dank touch into the barracks room, one of many at a sprawling bomber airdrome in the Midlands. It pervades the nostrils and chests of sleeping men, hangs in a tenacious and clammy grip to the curving walls and ceilings of the Nissen hut, slicks the floor with a greasy film. The blankets feel wet, clothes are damp; one could almost reach out and squeeze the water from the air.
It is the bottom of a black ocean of dampness.
The room is dark, and from different directions, in this center of damp nowhere, comes the low sound of Fortress gunners breathing deeply. Most of them breathe steadily. But not all. From one bunk there issue sounds of unease, of a body moving under the blankets. In the dark it cannot be seen, but the gunner’s face is contorted, he cries out soundlessly, his fingers twitch and curl back on unseen triggers.
Perhaps, if these men could foretell that October 14 would be seared into the history of the United States Army Air Forces as the fateful Black Thursday, their sleep would not be so deep, there would be more figures moving in nightmare, more fingers closing around imagined gun handles, twitching toward unreal firing buttons. But no man ever knows, the night before, and most of these men, already veterans of the growing, flame-lashed air battles over the continent of Europe, have found little solace in idle or fearful speculation about the morrow. There is no pattern by which they may ever know which one of the hundreds of targets, near or far, is to be their next.
Not all the men sleep. Some are awake, but their consciousness is a heavy thing. They stare sightlessly into the dark, feel the discomfort of the cold and the dismal humidity. Others are shapeless mounds, invisible faces beneath the tiny red glow, alternately brightening and dimming, as a man draws deeply on a cigarette, glimpsing briefly the swirl of smoke as it vanishes into the blackness. They are awake, and now sounds—sounds they have been expecting and waiting for—impinge on their troubled rest. There are the first subdued noises of the awakening of other men. A distant door slams faintly somewhere beyond the corrugated-steel wall. Then there comes the growing tread of approaching footsteps. A man can check off these steps; if he has been here long enough, survived enough battles, he knows exactly when they will pause at the door of his hut. In the darkness he sees in his mind a hand reaching for the knob, hears a shuffle of those feet, the barely perceptible sound of the door opening on damp hinges. The feet are inside; the door is closed once more and pushed tight. The feet move again, very close now, past the cot; then they stop and there is the sound of a hand brushing against clothing.
A single match flares yellow, stabbing through the blackness, lighting a grotesque figure, thick and bulky in his heavy sheepskin jacket and flying boots.
Then blinding light as the squadron operations officer hits the wall switch. The room is cold and wet and stinking, but if a man snuggles down deep enough into his blankets and wraps the ends around his feet and burrows his head into the pillow, he can elude the cold. The light is more than a disagreeable glare in unaccustomed eyes; it means a rude and unpleasant entry into the wet and the cold.
The men who are awake lift their heads wearily to stare at the officer. Eyes follow him silently, blankly, as he reaches the center of the hut in a measured stride, then stops. Because not all the men are flying today, and because sleep is a precious thing, he reads from the list in his hand in a low voice. As the names are spoken, those men who have been tagged by the operations roster groan wearily, or without sound push their blankets aside and slide their feet to the cold floor. Some sit there, unfeeling, unthinking, for long seconds; others light cigarettes or curse softly for the sheer sake of cursing. Almost all shiver slightly from the dampness and chill that swiftly replace the pleasurable warmth of the bunks.
When he has read the last name, the officer looks around for a moment, absently folding the little white piece of paper and shoving it into a pocket. The summons to fly into Germany has been given. “Briefing’s at 0700,” he says softly, and walks to the door. It opens and closes, and the officer, outside, treads once again through the wet and cold toward the next hut, where the same scene will be re-enacted. Another slip of paper, another list of names, another summons. To what? Death, wounds, terror? Death and wounds are imponderables; they are maybes. But terror is not, and many will feel its suffocating embrace before the day is out. They do not even think of it; they know, and accept its inevitability.
Some miles away, across the flat countryside of the Midlands, a light, cold, persistent rain falls from the sullen clouds hanging low over another heavy bomber base at Thurleigh, about fifty miles north of London, where the 40th Combat Wing has its headquarters.
On his cot, Colonel Budd J. Peaslee opens his eyes. Later, much later, when October 14, 1943, has entered into history, Colonel Peaslee will think of what has passed. Of this moment he will write in his personal notes: “I can see nothing but complete darkness. I hear water dripping from the eaves of my hut, spatting sharply against the sodden ground. In the distance I can hear the muted rumble of many engines—they have been rumbling all night. At times the rumble changes to a high, penetrating tone as some mechanic winds one up to full throttle, but there is always that dull, monotonous background of sound. Thousands of men have been working while I slept—they have worked throughout the black night in the rain and cold. They have worked on bombers and fighters, repairing previous battle damage, tuning engines, loading bombs, and readying thousands upon thousands of rounds of .50-caliber ammunition. The lights have burned all night behind the blackout curtains of our headquarters as navigators pored over their charts and intelligence officers studied flak maps and plans of enemy fighter fields.”
Today Colonel Peaslee will be the air commander of the First Bomb Division. He will lead the Eighth Air Force over Germany.
“I went to bed but I did not go to sleep at once,” he recalled as we talked. “It’s more than difficult to go to sleep at will when you are planning a long trip over strange and hostile roads, along which there will be known hazards. Scenes from past missions meandered across my memory as brightly as they did on the nights immediately after those raids....
“I did not know that before another night had come I should have witnessed a play—a drama of life and death—whose every action would never fade from my mind. It would be set on a vast stage, the sky over Germany, and the actors would be my flying friends, my brothers in arms, with the German Luftwaffe portraying a bloody and unrelenting Villain. I did not know. Sometime during the night I drifted off to sleep.”
And now it is almost morning. The darkness begins slowly to lighten toward the east, although almost imperceptibly through the fog and the drizzle. At these two American bomber bases and sixteen others, all across the Midlands, the men dress quietly, more than three thousand of them. They do not wish to disturb the oblivion of their sleeping comrades. They pull on boots, jackets, pick up helmets, gloves, oxygen masks, and other personal items. They file out-of-doors. The last man in each barracks switches off the light and eases the door shut quietly, envying the others in their slumber, huddled islands among the sea of empty beds.
An empty bed. Who could believe it holds such meaning? How many men have slept in one particular bed? Men never to return, never to come home from the terrible arena of the thin, high air over Germany, men who failed to run successfully the gantlet of machine guns, cannon, anti-aircraft shells, rockets, aerial bombs and mines, broken wings and flaming tanks and shattered cockpits....
Empty beds. Tonight, as October 14, 1943, passes into history, more than six hundred of those beds will remain empty.