‘Adventurers unite’ grimaced Sergeant Blackwill, his dirty face streaked with dried blood. His attempt to ease the situation with humour was admirable, although we needed more than humour to help us now.
There were only three of us left, three adventurers out of the nineteen young men who had set out on the B-17C Flying Fortress from Port Moresby not forty minutes earlier. Me, Higgsy and Sergeant Blackwill.
I had been laughing with O’Neil about a sweetheart he had back home, a dead ringer for Bette Davis he reckoned, when we first saw the flames. Before we knew it the plane had become a fireball and we were lurching downwards towards the jungle. I caught O’Neil’s eye in that moment of horror, but then he was gone, the wing was gone, half the god-forsaken fuselage was gone and now the canopy was scraping the craft. The heat was unbearable as I tried to gauge the distance to the ground – surely no one could survive that fall? In that instant I had no other option, the craft was breaking up. Die or die. I jumped.
It’s hard to say how I managed to survive. I cannot recall my fall through the trees. All I remember is waking up on the leaf strewn jungle floor bruised, bleeding and, to my astonishment, alive. Two figures stood over me, both badly burned and caked in blood: Sergeant Blackwill and Higgsy. For some unknown reason the three of us were not destined to die that day. A miracle some would call it; others would just say we were incredibly lucky.
O’Neil wasn’t so lucky. I found him a while later, 30 yards or so from where I ended up. I knew that he’d bought it before I got to him by the angle of his shattered back. His eyes were still wide in shock. I gently closed them and straightened out his crumpled body. I thought about his Bette Davis lookalike, and about the telegram she would receive.
We spent a couple of hours searching for other survivors around the wreckage. Most of the lads had been emptied across the jungle from the ailing craft, and hadn’t lived through the fall. Flying officer Jones was still breathing, and for half an hour and we stayed with him as the breathing turned to gurgling which gradually faded to silence. We laid him next to O’Neil and the other boys. Flight lieutenant Horton never even made it out of the craft. We saw his blackened remains still smoking in the fuselage.
It became apparent that we were the only ones who had the chance of getting back to base. We must have been 30 miles from the airfield, 30 miles of relentless, unforgiving cloud forest. Had enemy troops progressed this far into the jungle? We could only hope not, we had little choice but to hike it as there was no chance of rescue here. ‘An adventure’ Higgsy called it – maybe our final adventure I thought. ‘Well then – adventurers unite’ championed Sergeant Blackwill as we set out on our journey of life or death. Three adventurers, united by the sheer will to survive.
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