Please join me as I celebrate the 6-year anniversary of the publication of Forcing the Hand of God, my historical novel about WWII fighter pilot Major Rodger Brown.
A World War II Pilot wagers love, family and honor – Forcing the Hand of God
It is the late ’30s and fighter pilot Major Rodger Brown of the Flying Tigers is deep in the thick of World War II. Back home, his pregnant wife , long time friend, parents and younger sisters anxiously await his return. Torn between his obligations to his country and family, Roger is a man tormented by the realization that he prefers battle in the air than the drudgery or everyday life on the ground.
Forcing The Hand of God evokes a time (World War II) when men and women found the courage to do the necessary, the objectionable and even the unthinkable to defend their lives and preserve the essential fabric of this country. It is also a timeless story of self realization and the internal and external conflicts that are part of life for a military professional and the family and friends who love him/her.
Intrigued? My gift to you: the first chapter of Forcing the Hand of God.
Resting his hand on the prop of the P40 Warhawk, Major J. Rodger Brown paused in his preflight and looked skyward. Haloed by early morning sunlight, Eastern grey-legged geese spread into formation, their haunting cries echoing in the blue skies over Kunming, China, the “City of Eternal Spring”. Another flock took wing and another, heading for the distant pass between Golden Horse and Green Rooster Hills that towered either shore of Lake Dianchi, where a rosy mist dissipated over the water. Masses of white-winged ducks blossomed into flight from the lake, clouding his view of the gate to the Kwan-yen Temple covered in lush vegetation. Thousands of bleached-white grave markers peeked through the camellia, magnolia, giant azalea and primrose blooms.
He sighed, thinking to himself how much like a once-beautiful aged woman this place was: beneath the make-up you could see the ravages of time and war.
And those damn snow-covered mountains on three sides made for some tricky air currents: he’d lost a good pilot and one plane downed in Lake Dianchi. Already the fishermen would be scavenging the plane, mainly for the rubber from the tires for shoes.
He studied the white, tufted cirrus clouds, reminded of his home town, Wilmington, Illinois. He tugged on a glove. He had left home without regrets. There is no one, nothing, more important to him now than winning at this small game of war. He and his few remaining Flying Tigers, knighted the “Aces Up”, mercenaries of the sky.
The humidity and buzzing bugs irritated him more than the paperwork after each sortie. He waved away the sixty or so coolies clad in filthy unbleached cotton blouses and pantaloons, clearing the airfield. Shouldering eight-foot long bamboo poles with attached brown fiber baskets filled with debris, the men, women and children scurried about like a swarm of winged worker bees. Rodger wondered, as he leaned against the fuselage of the P-40, which of them had radios given out as part of Chennault’s warning system throughout this war-torn land. Rodger had trained pilots in the Chinese Air Force Task and had agreed with another pilot who had called them “fighting rascals.”
He had a deep respect for the poor Chinese peasants who had little to eat, diseases of every imaginable kind, from colds to leprosy, and maybe one in ten had a water buffalo to work the rice paddies. On top of that, many of the women hobbled about on four inch feet bound from birth.
The wind had died down to a hundred knot headwinds. Rodger felt a familiar rush of excitement, hoping for a little action in the air as he began his preflight. Maybe the rest of the airmen from the American Volunteer Group who dubbed this place “Shangri-La” relished their leave at the Wensham Hot Springs, but his playground is here, in the air. He wanted neither R&R, nor reassignment stateside.
He inspected his P-40, noting its every detail. With its fierce painted shark’s scowl and soulful eyes, it was more than a machine, more than metal and parts. It was a part of him. He ran his hand along her belly, completing his walk-around preflight. Before climbing into the cockpit, he checked his sidearm.
He settled into the seat, making final adjustments to his parachute straps, yanking the seatbelt across his lap, snapping it quickly. He smoothed his leather pilot’s helmet; the goggles fit snug and secure but the frayed chin strap chafed. He scanned the instruments, resetting the altimeter and positioning switches and fuel controls. Stretching, turning his head from side to side, he watched for clearance hand signals from the ground crew. He pulled forward slightly out of the revetment, nodded, and began the “start engine” procedures.
As the engine settled into its friendly, throbbing roar, Rodger checked for the engine instruments lights in the green. He reached over and adjusted the directional gyro.
Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the other three Warhawk and Tomahawks ready to go, their props churning. Rodger switched on his mike. “Red Flight to tower. Ready to roll.”
“Red Flight cleared to runway. Remain clear. Call when ready for take‑off.”
The others checked in. “Red Two.”
He did his run-up. The high-pitched, pulsating engines galvanized Rodger’s every cell. As he sucked deeper, filling his lungs with the vibrations and the smell of the fumes, his breath seared the inside of his mouth. He searched through his pockets for a piece of spearmint gum. The juice flowed down his throat, relieving the ache. The snap‑snap became the rhythm of his heartbeat.
He looked over his left shoulder, then his right. McGree, Barnes and Freeman flipped their thumbs up.
His hands tingled as he gripped the controls, his feet pushing hard on the rudder. He leaned side to side, holding his breath against the burnt exhaust fumes as the P-40 snaked along the runway. Rodger rammed the canopy shut and called the tower again. “Ready for take-off.”
As he rotated the stick and became airborne, he concentrated on the job before him. Just a bandit or two for them, he prayed. At least one for me. Like squaring off in the boxing ring with a formidable opponent, he felt his senses sharpened to a painful degree. His next round would be in the sky.
That same moment he looked over his shoulder, visually checking his formation. McGree flew beside him as Element Lead, dogging his every move like a bloodhound after his prey. McGree would be right there if Rodger made a mistake, right there.
The two new pilots, Freeman and Barnes, eased into their positions. Freeman lined up on his wing and Barnes was number four to McGree. Excellent positions. Both men were fair-haired and light-eyed, almost indistinguishable from one another, except for their voices. Freeman’s softly slurred, “yes siree” amused Rodger. It could be put on.
With the casual indifference of experienced flyers, they hadn’t bothered to acknowledge one another before, during or after the briefing, although their very lives depended on one another’s skill.
No sane man would do what they volunteered to do, thought Rodger. It’s the ultimate game of high stakes, and God held all the Aces.
The clouds rolled behind them. The engines hummed in unison, and each silent man listened, watching the sky for any sign of action. The sun shimmered through a layer of clouds. Rodger squinted, looking again at the yellow-orange orb. From the right, directly at them, came bombers. With Rising Sun insignias.
They crossed the border into French- Indochina. As Rodger banked on a new heading and gained altitude, the blood ran savagely up his neck. He climbed to a position up-sun from the bombers. He must not be too quick, too fast, or he’d lose the element of surprise. He readied for battle, adjusting his gun sight and test-firing the six fifty-caliber machine guns. He knew his men did exactly the same as he.
Rodger eased into a half‑roll, leading the flight through a split-s. They swooped down onto the unsuspecting fleet. The sky lit up with tracers streaking air with trails of orange. A Mitsubishi KI-21 bomber fell from the sky, black smoke billowing from an engine. The formation broke apart, then reformed.
McGree cried out, “Rear flight for me!”
Rodger aligned himself with the enemy lead bomber. Enemy escorts appeared, coming straight in for an attack. Rodger had to break hard into the Zeroes. As he out turned the lead escort, the Zeroes dropped off and climbed up-sun for altitude. With a quick glance, Rodger saw that his men were in combat spread, line abreast. He focused on the sky in front of him, looking for the Japanese lead bomber. He snaked back and forth, never holding a heading for more than a second or two, continuously “checking six,” all of the time, clearing his own tail and his men’s.
He sighted the bomber.
It crossed from his right to left, slightly high. Max RPM prop. Full throttle. Readjust trim. He climbed left in a curve of pursuit turn.
He was exposed. Vulnerable. But he concentrated on the target, holding the gun sight pipper on the compartment of the pilot. He waited. The Zero came into view, looming larger. Timing would be critical. Just as Rodger squeezed the trigger, the strident voice of his wingman blasted into his headset.
“Red Lead! Bandits, six o’clock! Break right!”
Rodger steadied his hand upon the trigger, maintaining his position. He released the red button. Strikes appeared on the fuselage and left engine. The Japanese bomber shuddered, plunged nose down, and turned wing over wing.
There was a pause, as if an honorable breath had been drawn. Rodger could see into the cockpit as the plane spiraled downward. The pilot lay a little sideways, slumped forward on the stick, a ghastly, twisted smile on his face.
Rodger broke into a hard right turn. He had a Zero on his tail. McGree and his wingman closed in on the enemy. Rodger’s heart skipped a painful beat. No sign of his Number Two. Freeman hadn’t been able to hang on during that last hard break. Rodger knew Freeman would furiously seek them out like a snow goose cut off from the flock.
“Red Leader! What’s your position?” Freeman’s voice exploded into his headset.
He breathed out a sigh of relief, but kept silent. The enemy jock closed in on him.
On the edge of a high-speed stall, his blood sucking away from his face and neck, Rodger forced himself through the pain of high G forces to look over his right shoulder. He bit his tongue smiling and sucked the familiar taste of his own blood mixed with the gum. McGree had reached the deflection angle, assured of a strike.
A sudden burst of flaming metal rained through the sky around him. The hunter was felled, and he was free once again.
“Good shot!” Rodger shouted. Relaxing against the back of the seat, he spoke low to them. “Skies all clear. Let’s round ’em up and head for home.”
An electric feeling passed from man to man, plane to plane. They all knew it, felt it, welcomed it.
They landed, screeching tires heralding the return of all the warriors. Mechanics and ground crew waved and shouted at them as they quickened their pace for a hurried debriefing at headquarters. Rodger walked up front, absorbed in his own thoughts, yet tuned into the conversation behind him.
“Jesus, good shooting, cowboy! Gonna get you some hot spurs!”
“Well, I thought I’d been railroaded outta the sky that one time!”
“Lucky. We’re real lucky, yes siree.”
“We have our mechanics to thank.”
Rodger smiled. But the image of the Japanese pilot with his grotesque smile intruded on his thoughts. Some were lucky, some were not. They were too damned lucky. And Rodger felt unjustly cursed by this luck.
As he came into the debriefing room, he stopped to stroke the cheek of a ragged doll nailed to the doorjamb. McGree also brushed hurried fingertips across the face of it, setting the strings of hair moving back and forth.
This was a ritual for Mary Elizabeth, the Chinese‑English eleven-year-old who cooked and cleaned for them, and scolded them every time for the dust they brought in, the daughter of their best mechanic. If they didn’t need LinChing for his mechanical skills and translations, Rodger would ship that girl and her father stateside.
“Well, gentlemen,” Rodger turned to the room of men. They all quieted immediately. “If McGree is through with his critique of this day’s events,” Rodger lowered his palm when McGree responded with a curt nod, “and there are no further questions, you are dismissed.” The shuffling of feet whipped up dust balls.
“I would like to add a few words.” Wary faces turned to him. “A job well done.”
After he showered, he walked over to the club for a round of drinks. He stood against the bar, sipping scotch neat, listening to the animated voices rising and falling.
“And there, up front, all ammo blasting at one time was this—-”
“Look, you jelly-kneed bastard, if it wasn’t for the rear cover, you’d be smokin’ still!”
“Hey, who you callin’ jelly-kneed?”
Every man here is a hero of one sort or another, mused Rodger, assessing the men around him. Escaping death once, twice, the game of it; it wasn’t, and never would be enough—not for them, not for him.
As he turned to leave, several of the men stopped talking to yell, “Good night, sir!”
“Sir! Want to go duck hunting with us tomorrow?”
Rodger shook his head, “No thanks!”
Going out the door, he raised his arm in a half wave, half salute to them. Warmed by the scotch, he whistled softly into the stagnant night air.
Abed in his quarters, he thought of his wife Adele. He had been deployed to London for more flight training and met her, wooed her away from an RAF pilot and proposed to her. How pretty she had been in her white wedding dress, her quirky half-smile, the twinkle in her green eyes, and her silky brown hair with golden highlights. The image of her became almost real and he ached for her.
But as he searched her dream image, a chill swept over him. He recalled her face at their last weekend together in London—a serious, pinched look about her, none of the bantering or the mocking smile that so intrigued him. And there beside her stood his Uncle Kyle, with his hand on her elbow. The irony of it, his uncle, a colonel, there for the wedding of an airman to an American woman who flew transports for the English Women’s Transport Auxiliary; the two people in the world who should have understood his need to be here, united against his re-enlistment.
But he had Ada, his longtime confidante and neighbor. She understood.
Sitting up, Rodger lit a cigarette, flicking the match on the ground beside his cot. He guessed it wasn’t easy for Adele, pregnant now, to be living in the same house with his mother, Madeline.
Hell, it’s a wonder anyone could live in the same house with his mother. But his father, John, and Ada would ease things for Adele, make life interesting and bearable. Until he came home. When he came home. He knew the war would not last forever.
He leaned against the splintering wooden wall, stretching his cramped legs. It would be a long and sleepless night for him, filled with visions—those faces, both beautiful and monstrous.
And he would be obligated to listen to every one of them. Every damned one of them.
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