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Kelso's Rule


Brian Peters

 He gripped the bomber's control wheel so tightly, his arms ached and his knuckles turned white. No matter how he maneuvered the bomber, the flak homed in on his crotch. The airframe shuddered and bucked as flak erupted right on top of them. The shrapnel tore through the Lancaster's black aluminum skin like a butcher's knife through crepe paper.

The wind harped over the exploded plumes of metal and exposed control cables. The flight column jerked out of his hands and the plane nosed into a death spiral. Everything moved in slow motion as the earth spun through the cockpit windows. The bomber, now a pained and bleeding creature, fell from the sky for the last time. He tried to scream but couldn't get any sound out. He knew he was about to die. He was falling and falling and"

"- get up, sir. Time to get up." the young duty sergeant said, shaking Captain Kelso's shoulder. Crenshaw had a voice made from old tree bark and rusty steel. It would have been easier walking up to a pistol or cannon shot.

"Eh? What? Hey, shove off! I just got to sleep." Kelso stammered as his terrifying dream was replaced by an equally terrifying reality.

His senses slowly flickered back to life as his mind crawled out of its woolly mist. Crenshaw persisted until Kelso waved him off like he was swatting a persistent mosquito.

"All right, all right. I'm up. Go wake up Walker." Kelso growled as he swung his tired, lanky frame out of his bunk and placed his feet onto the cold concrete floor.

He ran his hands through his disheveled blonde hair and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. He staggered to the showers to wash away the horrors of the previous night.

Kelso jumped into his sweat encrusted flight suit and met his wingman outside. Walker was a bright young buck with a medium build; well muscled and nice looking with an infectious grin that he wore most of the time.

Kelso puffed on his Lucky Strike and coughed like a cat expelling a fur ball. Several airmen in the distance waved envelopes and opened parcels. An impish grin spread across Walker's face. "Mail call buddy. Maybe your mamma's sent you fresh underwear." They both laughed as they sauntered over to Administration.

Walker came up empty for the third time that week but Kelso scored a package. While his wing man harassed him, Kelso knifed through the string and tore off the brown paper to reveal a shiny silver cigarette case and a letter from his folks. He took a deep cleansing breath and stuffed the case into his uniform shirt pocket. Still no word from Allison. He last remembered her outstretched in front of the fireplace, eyes half open, a faint smile on her cherry red lips, her nipples the color of the flames. The image pained him into action.

"C'mon Walker. Let's grab a ride into town. There's plenty of time for a pint."
"Right behind you buddy."

The last vestiges of daylight had sunk in the west when the pair returned. The sky was awash in saffron and blue-gray clouds. They met up with their crews at the Operations hut. Tonight the target was Dresden, deep within the heart of Germany's industrial machine. The intelligence officer declared the flak as 'moderate to heavy' which Kelso translated as so thick they could walk across it.

They jumped into the battered and broken crew truck for the short ride to their Lancaster. The reality of war and its machinery began to swell before their twinkling eyes. The roar of Merlin super-charged engines and the scent of burnt aviation fuel were like the incense of battle before the altar of youth. They were young and yearned for combat.

They were willing to die, not believing they would; they were hopeful but not idealistic; they were young but not virginal. They had shiny faces and flat bellies, some without beards to shave, eyes that still had the spark of hope and promise and Kelso loved them all.

Nonchalantly, they poured out of the truck and milled about on the grass. Kelso affectionately patted Lucky Lady's nose art of a reclining nude with a four leaf clover covering her lap. Allison. He noticed another bomb painted under her left arm making an even twenty. Only five more rides, he thought.

"She brought us home last night and she'll do it again tonight." Kelso said aloud

"Only barely, sir." countered Garibaldi, the outspoken and irreverent upper turret gunner. "I think Whitey is still picking lead out of his flak jacket." Kelso walked over to the esthetic tail gunner and gave him a friendly pat on the back.

"Don't forget Kelso's Rule - 'As long as I'm driving, everyone comes home alive.'"

One-by-one, they clambered aboard; Henderson, the nose gunner and bomb aimer had the face of a greyhound; Peterson, the handsome wireless operator, was dating twins; Caine, the flight engineer, rarely smiled. The last to enter was Sulley, the navigator, who weighed one hundred pounds soaking wet. He sprawled on the grass and gave it his traditional good bye kiss for good luck before climbing aboard and locking the hatch.

Lucky Lady sat on the taxiway and waited her turn to take off. In her bomb bay nestled twelve, five hundred pounders ready to do their job and in the cramped cockpit, Kelso waited to do his. He stared into the moonless sky, lost in thought of the six souls he was responsible for. He felt close to them; their spirits fused in the dark fuselage of their great ship. This machine of destruction had drawn them together, had given them a singular life and a sole purpose. At precisely midnight, a green flare shot up from the control tower tearing through the inky sky.

"Ride's on lads. Lets crank 'em up Caine."

Soon all four Merlin engines were purring like kittens over a bowl of milk. The propellers blurred silver as the over burdened bomber lurched forward out of her revetment.

They joined up with the other night bombers from 424, 410 and 407 squadrons of Canadian Bomber Group 6 to form a single force of over one hundred aircraft. The ship's intercom remained quiet; each man following his own ritual for battle. They had faith in the man upstairs but they had more faith in their captain. Minutes turned into hours as the formation droned on into the night.

"Pilot from navigator"

"Go ahead Sulley."

"Come left to one two five degrees. We are thirty minutes to the initial point to start our bomb run."


Kelso manhandled the aircraft to keep his position in the group as the bomber bucked like a wild horse in the invisible jet stream.

He called over the intercom for the crew to test their weapons. The plane rattled like a palsied animal as the guns opened fire; first Whitey in the rear then Garibaldi in the upper turret. The smell of cordite and burnt machine oil permeated the cockpit as Henderson in the nose turret joined them in poking holes in the black velvet sky. Kelso was mesmerized by the flaming tracers arcing along their lighted paths.

At three minutes to initial point, Kelso called out

"Bomb aimer from pilot. Arm bombs."

"Arming pins removed and intervalometer set." Henderson reported back.

"Bomb bay doors coming open." Kelso trimmed the plane to accommodate the bomber's new aerodynamics.

"Don your flak jackets and helmets everyone. We're coming into the soup."

Kelso steered on the new headings from Henderson until the bombs were finally salvoed and the bomb bay doors closed. The captain slammed the bomber into a tight left turn and exited the target zone as fast as the four engines could take them.

"Upper turret from pilot. Is Walker still there?"

"Yes, sir. He's got his front teeth clamped to our rudder."

"Everyone keep your eyes peeled for enemy fighters." Kelso commanded.

They strained their eyes for hours, looking for tell tale signs of fighter exhaust or cockpit lights. Whitey, isolated in the tail, swung his gun turret back and forth scanning the blackness for enemy fighters who loved to sneak up from behind and blast hapless bombers.

Seated behind and below the pilot, Sulley turned on his penlight and shielded its blinding beam with a piece of red plastic. In seconds he had penciled a course for home and turned off the light.

"Pilot from navigator. Steer two seven eight. We're only twenty minutes to Calais and the coast."

"Roger" the pilot acknowledged, dreaming of England's majestic white cliffs and the safety of home.

Kelso jinked and jerked the huge bomber around the sky never giving the invisible enemy a stable target. It wasn't long before the unwanted guests arrived like ants rushing to a picnic. The ship's intercom broke into wild chatter as everyone called out targets. Kelso broke in and restored order.

"Here they c-" was all he managed when a bright flash to port caught his attention. "Oh Christ, there goes Galloping Gerty." he cried aloud as he watched in horror as the bomber disappeared in a huge white flash of crazy broiling flame and thick acrid smoke. He keyed the intercom and yelled "Matheson just bought it. Sulley, record the location and get me a better course out of this god damned shooting gallery. Everyone watch for chutes." None came.

His arms ached from driving the bomber. Perspiration on his brow froze in the sub-zero cockpit. Enemy fighters descended on them like lions picking off the weak and disabled. Search lights stabbed the dawn sky and anti-aircraft gunners blasted at them from below. Kelso saw no escape except into the rising sun.

"Gunners from pilot. I'm going to fly into the sun to blind the bastards behind us. Whitey, I'm counting on you to keep our ass clean."

Four of them came in from two o'clock then split into two groups; one section continued straight while the other swung to their six o'clock. Kelso radioed his wingman.

"Walker, you got two coming to your tail. Back off one hundred yards but keep the sun on your nose."

The crew soon forgot radio discipline as the fighters turned in to form a pincher.

"Everyone hold your fire until they come into range. Henderson, you got that jerry at two o'clock?" Kelso asked.

"Yes sir. 'Gonna blast his ass in a few more seconds!" Kelso saw the red twinkle of the fighter's cannons. Henderson quickly answered back and then Garibaldi joined in the fray. In the midst of the whirlwind, Kelso said a silent prayer. Christ, protect my men. Let me get them home alive.

The bullets sounded like hail slamming against a tin roof as they ripped into the Lancaster. The fighter flew over top of them and started another run from behind. The intercom burst into screams that Kelso mistook for Whitey getting shot but he soon realized the rear gunner was cheering.

"Got the sonofabitch. Blew his ass right off. Holy shit, did you see that Garibaldi?"

"Damn right. Feels good don't it?" Both broke into high pitched cheers until Kelso brought them back to reality. "Where is the other fighter? Someone got him?"

"He's coming up on our eight o'clock. He's going to make a front pass 'cause of the sun. See him cap'n?" Garibaldi asked.

"Not yet. Wait. Yup. Got him at nine o'clock. Turning to meet him. Nose gunner, get ready."


Again, the fighter fired early and Kelso jinked to the left and dove to give Garibaldi a better shot. The airframe shuddered as the guns fired. The German kept coming. His guns winked again as he dove to attempt a belly shot.

Without warning, the left cockpit window shattered, slicing at Kelso's face and cutting through his flight suit and padded overalls. Errant glass snowed into the flight engineer's and navigator's compartments behind the cockpit.

The captain raised his hands in natural defense but the damage was already done. His vision blurred as everything turned hazy; milky. He felt the warm blood pour over his face as he tore off his oxygen mask and sunglasses and tried to wipe away the blood and restore his vision. He felt his forehead and yelped in pain as glass penetrated deeper into the flesh with thick screaming stabs. The plane nosed over into a vicious spin and out of control. Just like in my dream.

"I'm cut up bad. Caine. I can't see a damn thing. Get up here and take the wheel." he yelled over the 100 mile-per-hour gale. It was a physical effort to turn his head. Pain erupted from every muscle. When his eyes focused he saw the engineer staring at him, awestruck.

Caine pried Kelso out of the pilot's seat and quickly assessed the plane's damage. The altimeter was spinning wildly as he fought with opposite rudder to stop the spin before opening up the engines to gain back some of the precious altitude they had lost.

With the help of Peterson, Kelso crawled to Caine's chair, felt for the station's intercom jack and plugged in. Unconsciousness ebbed over him like the tides on the ocean. Peterson wiped away the blood and applied gauze to the pilot's forehead and eyes.

"Where is that other bastard, Garibaldi?" screamed Kelso in a lucid moment.

"He dove beneath us, sir. I lost him. Whitey, you got him?"


"Look!" someone screamed. "Two pairs of Spitfires just showed up. They're chasing the Germans off."

"Where's Walker?" Kelso asked.

"Below us with two engines smoking but a Spitfire is escorting him out."

"Navigator, give me a course home." Caine demanded. "Peterson, how's the captain? I can't land this bucket of bolts on my own."

"Not good. I can't stop the bleeding."

He could never recall being this tired. His vision tunneled and silence grew until it thundered in his ears. The war had lost its rhyme; its reason. She came into focus again, Allison with the green eyes. She stood there in front of him and said nothing, her corn silk hair unruffled by the blasting jet wind. Her hollow stare was frozen in time. Am I dreaming or dying?

The plane bucked, jarring him back to his pain. Kelso found breathing difficult and thought he had a cracked rib or taken a bullet to his shoulder. He searched for any injury with trembling hands but couldn't feel anything. His finger found a small cut in his flight suit over his right chest. He grabbed at Peterson.

"I've been shot!" Peterson undid the pilot's flight suit and gently tore through the other layers of clothing seeking any signs of blood or trauma.

What he saw made him smile. Kelso looked into the wireless operator's face and read the expression.


Peterson produced the cigarette case and the smashed bullet that was embedded into it.

"Kelso's Rule, sir. We're all going home."

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