A little known fact of the Solomon Islands campaign of World War II, is that some of the casualties were due to crocodiles. The swamps and rivers in those jungle isles abound with the largest and hungriest of all the crocs, the saltwater crocodile, known in Australia as the “salty.”
As I complete the second draft of Uncle Herb’s story, I thought it might be of interest to share just a small part of the tale with you. The excerpt below is from the middle of the novel. It takes place just after the torpedo bomber was shot down onto jungle-covered New Georgia Island. It’s not for the faint of heart.
EXCERPT from The Fallen Eagle:
Herb forced his way through vines and thorns and wet matted vegetation and stinking muck, with such difficulty and pain that it took him another ten minutes to circle the banyan.
“No sign of him,” he said to Joe when he rejoined him at the end of the circuit.
“Maybe you should go back the way the plane came in,” Joe murmured. His voice was so weak it scared Herb as much as Bill’s absence. Joe pointed a lax finger at the torn-up jungle aft of the tail section. “We left a lot of the plane back that way.”
“Yeah, I know.” Herb went with his head hanging from pain and weakness. He began working his way down the hill slope, back along the trail of wreckage the Sea Eagle had dropped as she came in. She had clipped a dozen treetops and disemboweled herself as she collided with bigger and bigger branches.
Laboring downhill, Herb passed a crumpled bomb-bay door, and then the mangled metal of Bill’s .30 caliber machine gun. But still he found no sign of Bill.
Herb knew that to shout would hurt. But he drew a deep breath in slowly, and when his lungs had filled to the point of agony from his breastbone, he forced himself to holler, “Billy!” Doubling over from the pain of the shout, he suppressed a groan and listened for a response.
Far off, faintly, weakly, he heard a reply. “I’m down here, Pops. Help me!”
The sound of Bill’s voice renewed Herb’s resolve. He moved downslope along the wreckage path, passing splintered trunks of smaller trees, piles of branches and foliage, bits and pieces of the Avenger. He moved through razor sharp blackberry-like vines that pierced the light fabric of his flight suit and tore fresh gashes in his arms and shins.
Eventually, he edged down to the brushy bank of a twenty-yard-wide, fast flowing, muddy river. He stopped on a sand bank that was crisscrossed by waterlogged tree trunks, fallen branches and tangled vines. He was certain Bill’s voice had come from the direction ahead of him. But the river—rain-swollen and turbulent—intervened.
He drew another deep, painful breath and called again, “Bill!”
He looked where the voice had come from. The far shore of the river was a sandy flatland covered with regular rows of hundreds of plantation palm trees. Beyond them was the ocean, perhaps two hundred yards away, blue and clear with light surf. In a line from the sea to where Herb crouched, a swath of palm trees had lost their tops when the Sea Eagle cut into them before crossing the river and hitting the hillside, which was the slope of a river-cut bluff. The tops of the shorn-off palms had fallen among the still-standing trunks. And there, near the river’s edge, lying on his back on a bed of fronds laid down by one of the palm tops—was Bill. His legs were stretched out nearly down to the water’s edge. When he spotted Herb, he sat up.
“I got tossed out the bomb bay,” he explained. “Went into the river face first. Water broke my fall. Otherwise I’d be dead.”
“You hurt bad?” Herb called, wincing at the fierce pain in his chest.
“Yeah.” Bill lifted his right leg a few inches. Even at twenty yards’ distance, Herb could see the calf muscle had been fileted by shrapnel or something that happened in the crash. The wound was exposed because Bill’s trouser leg was torn open. Raw flesh hung from the underside of his calf. It was dripping blood pretty badly.
“Did you get a tourniquet on it?”
“At the knee.” Bill pointed just below his knee, where his web belt had been cinched up in an effort to stop the blood flow. “It’s not working too good.”
“Can you get across the river?”
“No!” Bill called back fearfully. “I can’t. You gotta come over here!”
“I don’t know if I can make it. I’m not in too good a shape either. Besides. Joe’s over here.”
“How is he?”
“Not too good. I’ve gotta get back to him. You gotta come over here.”
“I don’t know, Herb. I’m pretty sure there’s crocodiles in this river.”
“How do you know?”
“When I was wading ashore, I heard something big splash in over on your side.”
Herb glanced around. “Nothing here but mud and sand.” He unsnapped the clasp on the service pistol holster at his hip, drew out the .44 and held it up, just to be safe. “Come on. I’ll cover you.”
“Okay,” Bill said reticently. “But you keep those eagle eyes wide open.”
Bill stood gingerly and hobbled down into the water. As he did, he drew his own pistol and checked that its safety was off. “Pops?” he asked. “Can’t those things smell blood in the water?”
“I think that’s sharks, Billy. Keep moving.”
Bill waded out until he was thigh deep. The current was fast and it tugged him sideways. He stumbled over a boulder on the bottom and nearly fell. “I can’t do this!” he called.
“Keep moving!” Herb called back.
At the halfway point, Bill was up to his waist and the current threatened to float him away. “It’s too deep!” he cried.
“No, it isn’t. You’re gonna make it. Now, keep moving.”
Anticipating Bill’s arrival, Herb carefully negotiated his way among the logs and branches tangled in front of him and moved to the water’s edge. He reached out his left hand encouragingly to Bill, ignoring how the hand was dripping blood into the river. Bill made for the outstretched hand, but he stumbled just shy of the shore and went down. He plunged under the surface briefly and then rose sputtering and gasping.
“Swim!” Herb commanded. “You’re almost here.” He lowered himself into the water to get nearer to Bill. He went in up to his waist, but kept a grip on a branch, anticipating hauling Bill out by offering his left leg with the boot toe up. Bill flailed in the water just a yard or two away but making slow progress against the current.
A heavy splash downstream made Herb turn his head in time to see a reptilian tail—green, scaly, glistening, and at least ten feet long, gliding off a big downed log and slipping smoothly beneath the river’s surface. The crocodile had been sunning in a shaft of daylight that shone through overhanging branches. Herb guessed from the size of the tail that it must be attached to a stupendously huge animal. Ripples appeared on the surface of the water in a V shape, coming straight for Bill, who was flailing nearer with agonizing slowness against the stiff current.
“What is it, Herb?” Bill asked direly as he floundered.
“Just keep swimming, Billy. Faster!”
The V moved much more rapidly than Bill. The streamlined giant slipped swiftly through its native element. Bill had heard the croc too. “Is… it…” he asked between strokes, “coming… this… way?”
“Yeah!” Herb snapped. “Now, hurry up!”
Bill was little more than an arm’s length away now, but a strong eddy in the river kept him at bay despite his efforts. Herb lowered himself still further into the water and stretched out his left leg. Bill finally caught his ankle and drew himself to Herb, climbing hand-over-hand up his leg until he had an arm around Herb’s chest. Now both men’s floating bodies were tugged by the current. Herb’s left arm lacked the strength to draw them out.
“Get us out of here!” Bill begged.
“Pipe down!” Herb ordered. “Let me concentrate.” Leaving off his effort to drag them out, he held the pistol out at arm’s length. “Keep still!” he half whispered to Bill. He drew a bead on the V in the water, which by now had come to within ten feet of them. Just as he was about to squeeze the trigger—it vanished. The croc had dived, intending to take them from beneath.
“Herb!” Bill cried in a small voice. He drew his legs up under him, but the wounded calf released blood-colored swirls into the water.
Herb swung the muzzle of his pistol down, aiming nearer and nearer, estimating where the reptile’s head would be if he could see it through the murky water. At the last instant before that aim-point met the place where Bill’s feet were now drawn up alongside his, Herb fired off three shots in rapid succession. The bullets kicked up three splashes of water and an instant later the croc’s head erupted from the river. The yard-long jaws opened wide and snapped in the air, lashing up a welter of froth. But they didn’t close on Bill, who screamed as the mighty reptile’s head foamed the water inches from him. The monster was no longer interested in Bill or Herb. It was churning its own red blood into the river’s frothing surface. It went into a death roll, from its blindly snapping jaws to the tip of its lashing tail, tumbling over and over as it had intended to do with Bill in its jaws. But now it was thrashing its own death agony. Each time the scaly yellow throat rotated to the surface, prodigious spurts of blood gushed from two holes, painting the river’s surface crimson. The huge tail sliced the water, splashing wave after wave of spray over Herb and Bill. After three rolls, the croc settled and floated belly up. It drifted away from them in blood-reddened water as the current carried it toward the sea.
Bill clung to Herb, trembling and gasping like a fish out of water.
The croc’s small, clawed feet stuck up, looking almost comical—four little surrender flags hoisted in the air. The two exit wounds on the croc’s throat poured red streamers into the river, adding to the red stain spreading around the dead monster.
After a few moments gasping for breath, Bill clambered up some branches and logs and pulled himself to safety. Herb stayed put awhile, aiming his pistol at one ripple and then another, fearing that another croc might appear. When none did, he climbed up and over the fallen branches to join Bill. He sat down on a big, muddy log and hung his head, wincing at pains he had temporarily forgotten.
Bill laid out flat on a little sand bar between two logs, arms at his sides and his hands limp. After a few moments, he said without looking at Herb, “Nice shooting, Pops.”
Herb lifted his head and drew a breath. “Just doing my job, Billy Boy. Now, come on. Let’s get going.”
Bill said, “I lost my gun out there.”
“You wanna go back and fetch it?” Herb cracked the faintest of smiles. “I’ll cover you.”
“Very funny,” Bill said.
“We gotta get back and see how Joe’s doing. Patch up that leg of yours. C’mon.”
“You gotta help me walk.”
“No dice, Bill. I’m pretty messed up myself. Come on. You can make it. Or do you want me to leave you here with the crocs? There’s a couple more coming.”
Bill sat up straight. Out in the river, two more V-shaped ripples were coming upstream. Without another word, Bill got up and followed Herb going back the way he had come.
By the time they scrambled up the hillside to the plane, Herb was half dragging Bill along, despite what he had said. Bill’s face was white as a ghost. He moved in herky-jerky motions that convinced Herb he was just about out of blood.
TO BE CONTINUED
Well, so there you have it. The prose may still need a little line editing but I think you get the point: there’s never a dull moment when your plane crashes onto a jungle island. Let me remind you again because you might not believe it, this is based on a true story. And there’s worse to come!