July 4, 2015
Discharging Toggle Annie: Mediterranean Theatre, 25 March 1945
in honor of Horace E. Harwell
by Mary Harwell Sayler
On her last flight (my 7th mission) “Toggle Annie” took off slowly
over small gardens growing and new-green fields of barley, wheat, or rye.
Oxen stood still beside a rock-lined ditch formed well to keep good earth
from washing down the hill and wasting. Along a narrow road, a donkey
pulled a two-wheel cart then disappeared into the same descending blur
that held the floorless tent where our crew slept with no heat, no stove, and
no light but the candle we’d snuffed out before rising, rising with the sun.
Five miles up with my oxygen mask on, I hoped this mission would be a
milk run for “Toggle Annie.” The old ship had seen better days with 100
missions more than me and over 90 sorties, a sort of record for a B-24
Liberator also known as a “Box Car” -- a label that annoys me some.
(Nicknamed, the “Flying Fortress,” the B-17 gets better press.) Oh, well.
It doesn’t matter. All that matters is meeting up, on time, with our fighter
escort and not bailing out. Sometimes, I’ve had my doubts when we’ve
caught flak too close and heavy. Afterwards, I’ve been glad for those two
ounces of regulation whiskey used to regulate our nerves, but now? I don’t
know. Some days I hardly feel a thing but numbness when we’ve flown so
low we see too much to dream.
The children here have such hard faces.
Even in “Toggle Annie,” an oxygen mask can freeze up real quick
if you’re not careful to keep the condensation wiped. One mission
takes two cotton handkerchiefs, and wiping makes me woozy.
I do not ever want my face to get too hard.
On every mission, I think about my girls and how I miss them.
Sure hope “Toggle Annie” doesn’t miss her mark today! Wish I
had those Esso maps from home to pinpoint targets, but thing is,
I’d just as soon my wife not know how much we need them.
The hardest part is walking through a door from one life to another.
Flying’s not so hard, but some things you don’t think about. Like,
coming over on the cargo ship, I couldn’t use my electric razor
since it sent out waves the enemy might detect. Shaving with cold
water carried in a metal helmet doesn’t cut it! I wonder if my girls
will like my new mustache.
It’s hard not knowing if my family is okay.
The $218.80 a month, including flying pay,
won’t go far for them when I’m so far away.
I send all I can but keep a five and two tens
in my escape kit, just in case.
Some do go down. Some missions fail.
Some need money to buy a stranger’s help and food.
Worry does no good. I figure if flak gets close enough
to take me down, I’ll go down then, but not before.
Some do go down. Some freeze with fear. Some faces harden.
Flying this high is hard on everyone. At five miles up and thirty below
zero, a person can work for merely minutes and be exhausted for a while --
sometimes for nothing but frostbite if we’re forced back by too much flak.
One day, I saw a close-by crew go down in silver petals and bright flames.
Some do go down.
I hope this plane outlives its name as Liberator. Meant to carry 30-
caliber guns and nothing more, 50 makes us too tail-heavy. To lift
the weight, we have to bounce then place support beneath before
our tail-gunner’s hand can catch a wrong bounce, down. Timing is
everything. Like now -- we’ll do our job and lay this ship to rest,
one way or another.
We all could use a rest -- three missions in four days, each time on
a different, nameless plane except for good ole “Toggle Annie.”
She’s seen her days of drawing escorts, catching flak, and dropping
bombs, so she’s more than caught her quota of close calls.
I want to fly until I drop -- whatever it takes to stop this dad-burn war.
But hey! We did okay on today’s run -- 650 B-24’s and 17’s striking
airfields and tanks works. Took us eight hours and fifty-five minutes --
not bad for this old barge. A thousand hours logged -- quite a record,
Annie. You did swell. Tonight you’ll rest on solid ground while I’ll
sleep well on a nice firm cot, thanking God I’ve got a sweet-faced
wife and good life back at home. Tonight I’ll dream of daughters.
© 2002, 2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. Poem originally appeared in the 2002 chapbook, Winning the Wars.