Flying the B-24s is dangerous business, even out of combat. Friends of Louie’s die and other crews go missing often. Planes malfunction, runways are too short, and the equipment is at times insufficient for the dangerous conditions the men face. For every plane lost in combat, six were lost in these accidents.
When something does go wrong, soldiers have a difficult decision to make. The waters are infested with sharks that swarm the downed plane of Louie’s close friends Moznette and Coxwell instantly. But even more perilous is the prospect of being captured by the Japanese, whose cruelty is legendary among the enlisted men. Rescue attempts are thorough but have almost no chance at success. Oftentimes, rescue attempts lead to more deaths than they do rescues. The men cope with the difficulties in various ways. Louie tries to read the bible he was issued, but doesn’t understand it. He opts for alcohol, which helps him temporarily forget.
Louie’s crew heads to the island of Canton to complete two missions over Makin and Tarawa. Though they end up safe, they are reminded of the immense danger they face each time they fly.The next mission Louie receives is targeted against the island of Nauru, a small island with huge amounts of valuable phosphate deposits. The briefing tells the men to come in at eight thousand feet, a dangerously low altitude. The men are told that there will be ten to twelve Japanese Zero planes waiting to engage them. Louie’s crew has never been engaged with even one Zero, and the idea of ten is frightening. Regardless, Louie’s bomber and twenty-two others are sent to take out the island.
On the day of the attack, Louie’s bomber leads the way. As soon as the plane is over the island, it starts receiving Japanese fire. Because the plane is being controlled by Louie’s bombsight, evasive maneuvers are impossible. As Louie fires off his bombs, the plane takes a beating, but Louie soon drops all of his bombs successfully. Phil and Cuppernell point the bomber for home, but it is followed by three Zeros. Bullets fly through the bomber, and shrapnel tears through most of the crew. Pillsbury and Brooks are hurt the worst. In a heroic act, Pillsbury shoots down a pursuing Zero, despite his shredded leg.
Even when the men are clear of the Zeros, the plane is so badly damaged it is questionable whether or not they will be able to land. They are six hours from their base. Luckily there is just enough hydraulic fuel left to power one brake and the plane stops on the runway, inches from catastrophe. The injured are rushed to the infirmary, and Brooks doesn’t make it.
Chapter Eight does little to advance the story but establishes important facts for the coming chapters. Hillenbrand establishes how easy it is for something to go wrong in one of these planes. She further shows that the conditions after a malfunction are almost certainly deadly. And beyond this, rescue is almost impossible. Louie will have to face all of these realities in the future and Hillenbrand wants the reader to understand why his coming story is so unbelievable. The chapter also serves as part of the factual information stream that runs under Hillenbrand’s dominant plot. In this case, the information concerns the unfortunate loss of life that occurred in combat, but also the incredibly large amount of lives lost outside of combat. Hillenbrand brings in staggering statistical information here, as she does elsewhere in the book. Danger surrounds the soldiers at all times, even from their own planes and from the setting in the South Pacific, where search-and-rescue missions are nearly impossible when planes go down.