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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.
In Chapter Nine, Hillenbrand shows her versatility as a storyteller by shifting once again into a different narrative subgenre, that of World War II air combat narrative. Though Louie’s crew has found itself in dangerous situations before, this is the first time they truly directly encounter deadly combat. Right from the start, Louie has his reservations about the Nauru mission, simply because of how low the men were meant to fly. And these reservations were valid, as it was far too easy for the Japanese Zeros, as well as the anti-aircraft weaponry, to engage Louie’s bomber from that altitude. This shows that Louie and the other men who regularly run missions perhaps have a better understanding of the nature of warfare than those handing out and planning the missions. This foreshadows the later incident when the men are forced to fly the Green Hornet, even though they know it is not a safe plane. Despite the danger and the hectic environment, Louie is still able to complete his mission and think clearly enough to help save all of the other men. He shows himself once again to be under control in very difficult situations. He also proves himself a true friend, as he does everything in his power to help save the other men.
As in other military combat narratives, this true-life story does not focus on the heroism of a single character. Rather, this story is about the collective heroism of the whole crew of men and on the ways in which they function as one body, which feels the pain of any one part, and especially of the loss of parts. Though the crew of the Super Man has seen many servicemen die, the loss of Brooks will likely be felt much more than any other. This might affect their willingness to take the same risks they once took and may make them more hesitant in future combat. Considering their ability to be daring in dangerous situations has helped them out of more than a few situations, one has to wonder if this change might make them less safe. This is also the first time Louie will process the loss of one of his crew members.