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BOXCAR; A TALE OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR
By Paul E. Jamison
(A note on names: Up to now, the Skippys have gotten along with the two designations “Head Skippy” and “Second-in-Command Skippy”. Other Skippys were just called Skippy. But with the outbreak of World War II and the extensive participation of the New Ferrets in the war effort, the Skippy command system had to be more rigidly structured. Thus, the designations Skippy Two, Three, Four, Five and Six. Skippy Three was in charge of ferret operations in the Pacific Theater, and Skippy Four in charge of European operations. The Head Skippy was, as usual, in charge of the Skippy Compound. Second-in-Command Skippy was temporarily redesignated Skippy Two and placed in charge of a group of ferrets aiding humans on a top-secret project near Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Skippys Five and Six, respectively, were in charge of ferrets involved in equally top-secret projects in obscure places called Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington.)
Old Buckenham Airfield, April, 1944
It was a fine Spring day. Which meant, in East Anglia in April, that it wasn’t raining at the moment. Otherwise it was windy and chilly.
There were no missions to fly that day, so the B-24 Liberators of the 453rd Bomb Group were parked on the grass in more or less neat rows, and the airplanes’ ground crews were taking the time to work on them. There were no major mechanical difficulties with the Liberators on the line – otherwise they’d be over at the machine shops for overhaul, if they hadn’t been grounded altogether. However, there were always the “gremlins” to look for – the balky doors; the gun mounts that would swivel only under severe protest; perhaps, at worst, the engine that might skip a cylinder to get the pilot’s attention. The mechanics would do what they could to track them down, but the gremlins were elusive critters.
Normally the crewmen wouldn’t pay attention to any animals that wandered on to the base. Many of the flight crews had dogs as mascots and there were some resident cats at Old Buc. Occasionally a fox or a polecat would make an appearance. But today, what looked like two polecats were making their way up the flight line, and just about every mechanic would stop what he was doing and watch them as they passed. Because these animals were walking on their hind legs and were wearing leather jackets.
Reactions were surprisingly mild. Some of the humans stared, others remembered that they’d heard something or other about these animals, and still others didn’t care one way or another, not with that blasted hydraulic leak to worry about. Mainly the ground crews shrugged their shoulders and went back to work.
The Dark-Eyed White ferret pulled his jacket more snugly around his shoulders. Bertram didn’t really need it that bad – he already had a built-in fur coat that was adequate. The extra comfort was mainly psychological. He was used to gloomy weather in Kansas, but not as much as he was experiencing in England. He said to his companion, “At least we’re not with Skippy Three in the tropics. I hear they have to shave their fur there because of the heat. I don’t know if that would be better or worse.”
Someone stopped tightening a bolt on a nearby B-24 and stared at the ferret that had just talked. Then he shook his head and resumed tightening.
The Cinnamon ferret didn’t reply for a moment, and then said, “I don’t know what to say about that. Yes, we’d probably have to shave, but on the other hand –” He turned to look at Bertram. “This is England.”
Bertram said nothing, but he nodded. It had been almost ninety years since David had met his grisly fate at the hands of a thoughtless human – a man of science – here in England, but the Skippys kept the Chronicles, and they made certain that the New Ferrets never forgot. Many of them never forgave.
Bertram gently said, “But we had to come here. We designed the mechanism, and the humans accepted it.”
Skippy Four said, “Yes, and it makes sense for us to install and test it in the field. That doesn’t make it any easier.”
“No, it doesn’t. But we have to keep in mind – not all humans are evil. I’m not even sure that we can define what ‘evil’ is.”
Skippy Four looked down at the damp grass for a moment. “Maybe not. But the humans in Germany come pretty close to defining it.”
Around his neck, Skippy Four wore a Star of David. Bertram knew that the Nazi invasion of Poland had affected his friend deeply.
Bertram held up the crucifix on the chain around his own neck and softly touched it to his lips.
Bertram let the crucifix drop and looked around. A mechanic was staring at him. Bertram smiled and waved. The mechanic looked at him for a moment, then smiled and waved back.
Bertram looked over the bombers as they walked by. Most of the New Ferrets loved airplanes and they each had their favorites. Like many, especially among those employed in the Wichita factories, he was a Boeing ferret. He liked the B-29, because he had worked on it before traveling overseas, but the B-17 Flying Fortress had been his favorite since the prototype had flown in 1935. Still, the B-24 Liberator intrigued him. He knew it performed better than the -17. But it looked like it shouldn’t. The fuselage was one huge slab, with the belly slung low and close to the ground. No wonder it was nicknamed the “Flying Boxcar”.
One thing was certain: the big, boxy fuselage gave plenty of room for nose art. Skippy Four said, “You know, I like the decorating that the crews do to their planes.”
Bertram said, “Yes! I do, too! This one here is very good. That’s a great likeness of Bugs Bunny.”
“Well… The proportions are off a bit. But it’s still a good picture. This one over here – who is that?”
“The droopy dog? I saw him in a cartoon last year. MGM studio. I don’t think he has a name yet.”
“I’m sure he’ll pick up a name soon. Sad-looking critter.”
“Yes, and this next one… oh, dear.”
After a moment, Skippy Four said, “You know, I don’t think I’ll ever understand the humans’ obsession with scantily-clad women.”
“It doesn’t look like she’s clad at all. The bomb she’s riding kind of hides parts of her anatomy.”
“That’s another thing. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the humans’ fear of nudity. It doesn’t bother us.”
“Well, we got fur.”
“There’s that. Actually, the anatomy is very good.”
“H’mmm… I think that’s supposed to be Betty Grable.”
Skippy Four looked at Bertram. “How would you know what Betty Grable would look like in that situation? They don’t have pictures like that in the movie magazines, do they?”
“No! Umm… I recognize the face.” Bertram looked at Skippy Four. “And how would you know what human anatomy was like?”
Skippy Four calmly replied, “Remember the books we bought at the estate sale a few years back? I found a book on human anatomy. I’m considering taking Figure Drawing classes when we get back.”
“What, human figure drawing? That would be novel – say, that plane over there has some interesting nose art! It looks like a woman from here.”
Skippy Four looked at the B-24 and nodded. “Interesting. It’s a woman, all right, but she’s sure not scantily clad. That dress looks over a hundred years old, in fact.”
“Not a provocative picture. I wonder why?”
“Let’s take a closer look.”
There were two mechanics working on the nose of the B-24 in question, one on the outside and one on the inside. At the sound of the odd little voices, the one outside stopped what he was doing and turned around.
The man stared at the two ferrets. That was to be expected. But he only stared at them for about two seconds before he broke out into a big grin and began pounding on the airplane’s nose.
The inside man looked through the nose glass and the outside man leaned close and said, clearly and loudly, “New Ferrets! Right here! New Ferrets!!” He pointed at Skippy Four and Bertram.
The inside man looked at the ferrets for the first time. They saw him burst into another big grin and disappear into the aircraft.
The outside mechanic turned to Skippy and Bertram and said, “Boy, are we ever glad to see you guys! We haven’t seen New Ferrets since we joined up and came over here! Hi, there!”
Skippy Four was as astonished as Bertram had to be. Then he got a real good look at the B-24’s nose art.
It was a young lady clad in an old-fashioned dress that was completely unlike the racy art on the other planes. She was obviously no shrinking violet, though. The lady stood, head held high and shoulders back, obviously proud and brave. And the plane’s name…
Skippy broke into a smile. “The PEERLESS PRINCESS! Of course! You must be from Kansas!”
The mechanic nodded his head. “You got it, pal! May I introduce myself? I am Raymond.” He stood up straight and bowed from the waist.
“How do you do, Raymond? I am Skippy and this is Bertram.” The ferrets bowed in return.
“A Skippy. Shoulda known. I worked with some of you at Beechcraft back before I enlisted. Best bunch of guys I ever met.” He bent down to shake hand and paw.
Three other mechanics left the PEERLESS PRINCESS by the open bomb bay and crowded around Bertram and Skippy. They were all quite pleased to the ferrets. And there was a reason why.
Raymond said, “Fellas, I’m not the only one from the Sunflower State. The whole crew of this fine plane, on the ground and in the air, is from Kansas.”
Skippy nodded. “And of course you’d be familiar with us.”
“Sure thing.” He patted the side of the plane. “And of course when we named the old girl, we’d call her something to do with our home state.”
“It’s a good name, and the artwork is fantastic!”
“I’ll tell Norman you said that. He’s from Kansas, too, and he’ll want to meet you guys!”
“Excuse me, what’s going on here?”
Two men wearing the peaked caps of officers were striding up to the PRINCESS. Raymond looked at them and said, “Oh, hello, Cap’n! We got a couple of visitors!” He indicated Bertram and Skippy.
The two men stopped and looked at the ferrets. The Captain was the older of the two officers, which meant that he was closer to his 30th birthday. After a moment, he said, “Well, I’ll be… New Ferrets. All the way over here in England. This is a welcome surprise!” He bent down. “I am very pleased to meet you. I’m Captain Jim Weiss, and this is Lieutenant George Courtney. We pilot and copilot this rig.”
The ferrets shook hand and paw. Skippy said, “The pleasure is ours, Captain. I’m Skippy and this is Bertram. And I think that the PEERLESS PRINCESS looks to be a fine plane.”
“Well, I think she has a very good ground crew.” Raymond and the other mechanics beamed at the praise.
Lieutenant Courtney said, “It is fine to see some New Ferrets here. What brings you folks to Old Buc?”
Skippy replied, “We’re here because of a new bomb release mechanism that we came up with.”
Captain Weiss said, “Really? Colonel Potts was telling us in the crew meeting a while ago that we were getting visitors that would help us install and test the new mechanism! Are you saying that you folks designed it?”
Raymond spoke up, “Begging the Colonel’s pardon, sir, but these are the Skippys. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if they did design some fancy new gadget for the planes. I’ve seen what they can do back home.”
Captain Weiss thought for a moment and nodded. “Of course. I’ve seen you ferrets do some remarkable stuff myself. From what Colonel Potts and Major Stewart said, this sounds pretty sophisticated.”
Bertram said, “Excuse me – Major Stewart?”
Captain Weiss replied, “Yes, Major James Stewart. He directs bombing operations for the PEERLESS PRINCESS and about four dozen other -24s.”
Bertram’s dark little eyes got big and round. “You mean - the James Stewart?!”
Captain Weiss kept a straight face. “Why, yes, I think that’s right.”
Raymond looked at Skippy. “Star-struck, is he?”
Skippy nodded. “Reads every new issue of Photoplay from cover to cover.”
“What, even the advertisements? My little sister never went that far.”
“Including the ones for human skin cream, which do us no good. Oh, he has it bad.”
Bertram was hopping with excitement. “I knew he was here! I read about his promotion in the newspaper! He’s only been here for a couple of weeks!”
Lieutenant Courtney said, “We know.”
Captain Weiss said, “Major Stewart is a good man. He’s good at his new job and he cares about the men under his command. I figure he’ll earn another promotion soon. Which he’ll deserve.
“Anyway, tell us a little more about what you’re doing here.”
“Well, we’ve done some work with B-29 assembly in the Boeing plant back in Wichita, and we had the opportunity to examine the current design of the bomb release mechanism. The design as it stands is good, but we thought we could do better.”
“I can believe it.”
“Thank you. And we came up with something that’s a little simpler and maybe will work a little faster. Plus we figured out how to build in some commonality with the B-24. It looks like an improvement on paper, but we can’t really test it full-scale back home. So, the head Skippy called up some folks that he knows in the War Department. The Boss would have gone directly to the unofficial government liaison with the New Ferrets, but the man is very, very busy right now.”
“Who’s the liaison? Anybody we know?”
Skippy Four smiled. “Maybe you do. Some fellow named Eisenhower. He’s way up the command chain here in Europe.”
The men were quiet for a moment, and then Captain Weiss said, “Yes, I think I know who you’re talking about. He’s got a lot on his mind. But you didn’t need to disturb him?”
“No, thankfully. Some folks in the War Department were interested enough to look further at our design. We originally asked for a spare B-24 that we could tinker with, but somebody in the Army Air Force did us one better. They arranged for us to test the design in the field. I think it helped that General Eisenhower has been saying some nice things about us.
“There were a couple of groups of us New Ferrets in the European and Pacific theaters already, acting as observers, and the War Department assigned the installation and testing of the design to both groups. The Pacific group is installing the mechs in B-29s. Six of us came in to Old Buc awhile ago on a Goony Bird and we’ll be broken up into two groups of three to install the hardware in two Liberators. The other four of us are off seeing about our accommodations.”
Raymond spoke up. “Now that I think of it, I saw somebody working over in the residential area earlier with some corrugated pipes. I thought they were installing a drainage ditch or something.”
“That’s it. They’re erecting some ferret-sized Nissen huts. We’ve already talked with someone on the base that builds doll furniture as a hobby. He’ll help us furnish the huts.”
Captain Weiss said, “Sounds like this is gonna be interesting. How long will it take to install the mechanisms? We’ve been busy here and the planes can’t be down for too long.”
“We’ve thought about that. The design is such that we can work on it between bombing runs without disabling the old release mechanisms. We’ll be working around them, so to speak, and when we’re done it’ll be quick to switch over. Of course, doing it that way will take some time. We figure six or seven weeks.”
Captain Weiss thought about this and finally replied, “I see. There’s something else to think about. Have you heard anything about the Invasion?”
Skippy said, “Just rumors. Nothing much else.”
Bertram said, “I haven’t heard anything at all. Invasion of where?”
“The big Invasion. Of Fortress Europe.”
Lieutenant Courtney said, “It’s coming soon. Everybody knows it. The weather right now is lousy for that sort of operation, especially for crossing the Channel in boats, but hopefully it’ll clear up in a month or so.”
Captain Weiss said, “Hopefully. We’ll see. What it sounds like is that you guys will be finished with the installation just about the time of the Invasion. Think you’ll make it?”
Skippy Four replied, “I believe we will.” He and Bertram looked at each other, and he continued. “The thing is… when we’re done, one of ours will be riding along as an observer.”
All of the men looked at the two ferrets, and Raymond said, “Wow. You guys might be there to see the action!”
The ferrets nodded but said nothing for a few moments. Finally Skippy Four smiled and said, “We don’t know yet which two planes they’ll choose as guinea pigs. Maybe THE PEERLESS PRINCESS will be one of ‘em!”
The men were obviously pleased at the idea. Captain Weiss said, “And we’ll be proud to have a New Ferret on board if that happens.”
“We’ll be proud to be there. Well, Bertram and I have to go check in with Headquarters. “He looked at Bertram and smiled slyly. “Maybe introduce ourselves with your group director when we get there.”
Captain Weiss said, “Sounds good. He was talking to a news correspondent the last time I saw him. Great to meet you guys!” He gave a brief salute to Skippy and Bertram. The ferrets waved at the other men and went on their way.
Just before they got out of earshot, the crewmen the PEERLESS PRINCESS were able to hear Bertram say, “Talking to the group director does sound like a good idea. I – uh…” He stopped for a moment and said, “Uh…” Then he ran to catch up with Skippy.
One of the men chuckled. Raymond said, “I was the same way.”
To be continued...