Second Lieutenant Archer Dooley, Jr., had gotten the locomotive, enjoying the sight of his one-tracer-round-in-five stream of .50-caliber projectiles walking across the desert, and - as he raised the Mustang's nose just a hair - moving into the locomotive's boiler.
As he flashed over the locomotive, the locomotive had blown up. His first kill. Then there was a ball of fire, from which rose a dense black cloud of smoke.
As Archie pulled up to make a second run at the train, he realized that the ball of fire was several hundred yards from the railroad tracks. What else had they hit, he wondered, even by mistake, that had exploded like that?
Then, as he lowered the Mustang's nose for his second run, taking care not to collide with the squadron commander's Mustang, he realized that the squadron commander's Mustang was no longer in sight.
And then he realized what the ball of fire really was.
At the time, it seemed probable that the squadron commander had been hit by ground fire. The squadron commander had told him that some of the trains were armed with antiaircraft machine guns and light cannon, mounted on flatcars. Because his attention had been fixed on the locomotive, Archie hadn't noticed anything on the cars behind it.
That night, at the Officers' Club (empty, as always, of females - long-legged, firm-breasted, or otherwise), he learned about the Group's promotion policies: Everybody got to be a first lieutenant after eighteen months of commissioned service, which meant he had about ten days before that happened.
There were two ways to get to be a captain. If you lived to serve twelve months as a first lieutenant, then promotion was automatic. But promotion came a lot quicker in another circumstance. The senior first lieutenant was the squadron executive officer (senior, that is, in terms of length of service in the squadron, not date of rank). If the squadron commander got either killed or seriously injured (defined as having to spend thirty days or more in the hospital), then the Exec took the Old Man's job and got the captain's railroad tracks that went with it.
Four weeks and six days after Archie reported to the squadron, the squadron first sergeant handed him a sheet of paper to sign:
Headquarters 4032nd Fighter Squadron 23rd Fighter Group In The Field 2 March 1943 The undersigned herewith assumes command. Archer Dooley, Jr. Archer Dooley, Jr. Capt. USAAC File 201 Dooley, Archer, Jr. 0378654 Copy to CO, 23rd Fighter Group
He hadn't gotten to work his way up to executive officer. The young man who had become the Old Man and the Exec had both gone in on the same day, the Old Man when his Mustang ran into a Kraut antiaircraft position that had gotten lucky, and the Exec when he banked too steep, too low to the ground and put a wing into the desert.
That left Archie as the senior first lieutenant in the squadron.
The colonel had driven over from Group in a jeep, told him to cut orders assuming command, and handed him two sets of railroad tracks, still in cellophane envelopes from the quartermaster officer's sales store. Archie had pinned one set of captain's railroad tracks over the embroidered gold second lieutenant's bars still sewn to the epaulets of his A-2 horsehide flight jacket, and put the other set in the drawer of the squadron commander's - now his - desk. If he ever had to go someplace, like Group, he would pin the extras on his Class A uniform then.
Being a captain and a squadron commander was not at all like what he'd imagined. A lot of really unpleasant shit went with being the Old Man. Like writing letters to the next of kin.
He hadn't actually had to compose these, thank God. There were letters in the file that some other Old Man had written, full of bullshit about how your son/husband/brother/nephew died instantly and courageously doing his duty, and how much he would be missed by his fellow officers and the enlisted men because he had been such a fine officer and had been an inspiration to all who had been privileged to know him.
Excerpted from Secret Honor, by W. E. B. Griffin. © January 10, 2000 , W. E. B. Griffin used by permission of the publisher. No part of this book can be reproduced without written permission from the publisher
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