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Around them, their beloved Fortresses are getting used up from months of heroic use. Their friends, those who’ve survived this long, are beginning to go home. It’s hard for the Beavers not to be the ones going home, but it leaves them part of the few battle-tested veterans at the tip of the spear, and sitting pretty at the top of the 65th heap. The cherry on top is Sarnoski receiving a long-overdue battlefield commission to second lieutenant. It’s a pleasant surprise to everyone but Zeamer, who used his clout to make it happen for his friend. What none of them expect, though, is it being followed up with orders for Joe to return home.
The crew, especially Zeamer, is knocked for a loop. But work is work, and when in mid-June word comes down that a perfect weather window has opened for a crucial mapping mission that Zeamer and the crew had volunteered for when it was first pitched in April, the Eager Beavers step up as usual, Joe included. Even though as a bombardier he doesn’t even need to be on the flight—even though he’s supposed to go home in three days—he’s part of the crew.
Good thing, too, since malaria has grounded both copilot Dyminski and flight engineer Thues. Dyminski taps his flight school buddy J. T. Britton, who accompanied him to the Southwest Pacific, to take his place. Able, the belly turret gunner and Thues’ assistant, gets a temporary promotion to flight engineer and top turret. Taking his place in the belly turret is squadron armaments chief Forrest Dillman, who’s never flown in combat.
It will be a memorable debut, for this is no normal mapping mission. Command is planning an invasion of Bougainville Island in the Solomons, an essential step in the developing Allied plans to neutralize Rabaul. For that, they need accurate maps of the Bougainville coastline, particularly Empress Augusta Bay on its southwest coast. The success of a marine landing there will hinge on those maps.
What it means to the planners is a twenty-two minute mapping run starting at Bougainville’s northern tip, almost six hundred miles away. What it means for the air crew tasked with doing it is an eternity of non-evasive flight, in the daytime, below cruise, stomach deep in enemy territory, alone. What it means for command is a volunteer crew, which is why Zeamer and his crew found themselves in their C.O.’s office in April with Generals Whitehead and Ramey, getting the writing on the wall. They agreed to the mission—the crew on the condition that Zeamer would fly, Zeamer on the condition that he could fix Old 666 up his way and without any interference with the mapping mission.
He got his way, and now the crew spends the afternoon and evening of June 15th loading 666—newly christened “Lucy” by Zeamer just two days earlier—with extra ammunition, extra guns—they’ll have nineteen on board including the spares—and stripping every last piece of deadweight from the plane. For this mission they’ll need long-range fuel tanks in the bomb bay, so anything unnecessary gets jettisoned. Zeamer wants to strip the paint off, but there’s no time. Radio operator Vaughan brings an additional liaison radio, just in case. They’re ready.
Then, at 10 p.m., four hours before their 2:00 wake-up time, Zeamer gets a call—from bomber command. They want to add a photo recon of the Japanese airbase on tiny Buka Island, just off the northern tip of Bougainville, to their trip. The 8th Photo Squadron has attempted to get it that very day, but camera malfunctions have made it a bust. They know Kendrick has drawn the film for the Bougainville mission. Zeamer’s crew will already be right next to Buka; they can just do it before beginning the mapping mission.
The normally sedate Zeamer is angry. He had an agreement with Whitehead and Ramey: No interference with the mapping. He refuses. It’s one thing to do a mapping mission so close to an active Jap airbase. It’s another to stir up the hornet’s nest next door before you start. Zeamer is upset enough he never gets back to sleep.