Nam si vos omnibus imperitare vultis, sequitur ut omnes servitutem accipiant?
(Tacitus, Annales XII, xxxvii)

26 Apr. 2010

Wing Walker

Named after his dad, who walked on Wacos
and Stearmans in the Twenties, and hovered
above county fairs and Moose Lodge picnics
holding on with one hand, waving to the crowd—

B-17 with 26 flights out and back suddenly
on its 27th return taking heavy fire through
the fuselage, evasive action, no functioning
navigational instruments, no way to get back

and night coming on, but no engine damage,
and enough fuel, yet no way to get a bearing,
no sense of where England lies—crew peering
into the haze, everyone quiet, not talking—

so he takes her down, down, down toward
Deutschland below, down into open farmland
to treetop level roaring along and looking for
a chicken coop, knowing farmers everywhere

are the same, that its windows will face south,
and sees one at last, and knows where west is,
and takes her back up, and at last they can find
the way, and know they are headed for home.

(Continuing the theme of honouring World War II air crew is this fine poem by Jared Carter, first published in the excellent Innisfree Poetry Journal)



As the fifth rum fueled his memory, he’d taxi
along the runway, up to the high blackness,
away from the Sunday-night armchair, away from the telly,
Norths versus Parra, the scrums a ridiculous joke,
and, nineteen-years-old, strap himself back into the war:
switch on the cold night, switch on the electric suit,
switch on his much more intimate suit of fear,
rehearse the nightmare crawl to the front of the plane—
the rear-gunner’s always the last bastard out, Young Stevo,
if he gets out at all from his lonely post up the back—
and he'd restlessly swivel his turret from side to side,
pitch vision to the limit, searching the sky below,
Vaughan Williams' Fantasia right through his head
(he was that sort), to soar in poetry and terror,
to search the black against black for a different black
which, if he failed to spot, they'd be all bloody dead,
the whole bloody crew, and no more girls and cards.
If you saw the bugger first, fired a warning shot
from the pea-shooter .303s—not the .5 cannons
like the Yanks had—fire a burst and he’d piss off looking
for some other plane (whose rear-gunner had gone to sleep
or was dreaming about his girl-friend’s fanny) and blow
those other poor bastards out of the sky; and you’d shout
'Corkscrew port!' and down we’d go, left and down;
then searchlights lit you up, and the clatter of flak,
and more night-fighters playing their jazz-music;
but only the heroes flew right over the markers—
nobody was keen to be in a crew of heroes;
like most planes we’d just dump our load and turn:
our mission was just to stay alive, Young S.
We bombed more country shithouses than factories;
and, coming home over Koblenz, the navigator
was killed by a piece of flak right through his chest;
all he wanted was to plot our course back to Driffield.
After that it gets quiet, just the engines pulsing
across the darkness of Europe, the empty sea...
Dad was still up there, didn’t see me, was still searching
the blackness for that elusive message from death,
could hardly hear me through his ruptured ear-drums
(corkscrewed until they popped—denied of course
by Repat), but anyway, he wouldn’t hear me,
him being there, and me radioing faintly
from somewhere in 1983. He slowly glided,
descended, bumped, rumbled to a kind of stasis;
could breathe now, walk light across solid tarmac
towards debriefing, its customary tea laced with rum.

(first published in Unlikely 2.0)

25 Apr. 2010

John Stevens' ANZAC Day

Today is ANZAC day. My father, John Samuel Stevens served as an Air Gunner in the RAAF in World War II. He went straight into the RAAF from school and flew in many raids over Europe including over Germany, in Wellington and Halifax bombers. His position was tail gunner.

Bomber Command took more casualties than any other British service in WWII. Of those, the biggest proportion was tail gunners. It was the most dangerous job in the war. In his book The Right of the Line, historian John Terraine wrote: ‘The air gunner’s task, especially at the rear, was essentially solitary, calling for both deep moral reserves and great physical fitness. Sitting almost immobile in the cramped panoly of a metal and perspex cupla for six, eight, ten, or even more hours, constantly vigilant yet unable to relieve cramped legs, arms or back, called for extraordinary feats of physical endurance. The air gunner’s prospects were a comfortless life and lonely death, a combination calling for amazing fortitude.’

In addition,the Luftwaffe night fighters usually attacked British bombers from behind and below, which made the tail gunner both very responsible for the safety of the aircraft, and very vulnerable.  In the event of the plane being hit the tail gunner had a long, tight crawl, encumbered by his electric suit and other gear, to reach the front of the aircraft to bale out. Understandably, many didn't make it.

Dad's plane was often attacked, but he reckoned that if the tail gunner was awake and fired a few rounds, the night fighter would buzz off to attack some less alert target. Their plane was often hit by flak, and once was so badly damaged that the navigator was killed and the Halifax forced to land at the USAF base at Riems. While there Dad got to go through a B17 bomber, and was deeply envious of the American air gunners' 0.5 inch air cannons (he described the RAF/RAAF .303s as 'pop-guns').

Despite repeatedly putting his life on the line, and coming out of the war with a serious ear complaint and deafness due to sudden changes in altitude when doing evasive corkscrew dives, Dad refused to march on ANZAC Day or ever to wear his 5 medals (which I still have, in absolute mint condition). He was utterly opposed to war, which he described as "simply murder, you know" and did not believe it should be celebrated or glorified in any way. Whether you agree with that attitude or not, it was deeply held and authentic, and in my opinion he had earned the right to express it.

Yet here I am honouring the memory of W/O First Class John Samuel Stevens on this ANZAC Day.