The death of an age mate and dear friend raises the specter of one's own imminent death. We are supposed to be afraid. Dying was never openly discussed by air crews when flying combat missions in WW II, or did I ever reveal my own half-whispered prayer as we entered "flak-alley," two minutes flying straight and level so the bombardier could aim, giving anti-aircraft gunners a good target.
"Okay, God, here's your chance to keep me alive long enough to make love with at least one more beautiful woman!"
I'd managed to shed my virginity shortly before going abroad and stunned by the drama and ecstasy, was anxious to repeat.
Flying officers of two B-17 crews—pilot, co-pilot, navigator-- shared a tent. The other pilot, a taciturn mid-Westerner named Roy Arndt, was an atheist. We never talked religion but before we'd flown combat, my navigator, Ardrah "Ike" Buddin, from Rock Hill, South Carolina, said to Arndt, "Wait ‘til you see flak exploding. You'll start believing in God."
Arndt didn't reply until a week later, the evening after his first mission. He turned to Ike, said, "I'm still an atheist."
I was once asked to describe how it felt amid bursts of flak. Truthfully, I was too busy to feel anything. Veterans of much tougher combat—ground troops attacking through machine-gun and mortar fire—say much the same thing. If there's any feeling, it's like stage-fright, what people feel before making a speech, or some other kind of performance. Only stage-fright as I felt it, was more intense. This makes no sense; no matter how bad you are, the audience does not try to kill you.
My dear friend died quietly and without pain, according to a doctor and two nurses who visited during the long week of the dying "process." They claimed to be able to detect signs of pain in those unable to express it. Al neither ate nor drank. Or did he speak. Yet he was conscious. Once I put my lips close to his ear, said, "I love you, Al," to have his eyes open wide, turn to me and see me. I took his hand, felt him squeeze a dozen times in the next quarter hour, until he drifted into something like sleep. When he died, a tiny pulse in his neck simply stopped. Nicole, one of his gentle aids, left the room. I rested my left hand on his thin shoulder, cradled his head in my right arm, put my head down, and cried.