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The Long Road Home. Chapter 8.
By
AnnaMayZing

The Long Road Home. Chapter 8.

Tags: ww2, air raid,

“Don't be afraid, Ilsa. They won't bomb us this time.”

After losing a friend and colleague during the first Allied bombing raid on Rome, the Nurses try to put on a brave face when the Americans return.

Rome. September 19th 1943

 

The repairs to the compound and the security arrangements were completed in a few days and the soldiers left with only a handful of men remaining to guard the entrance. The orderlies were replaced with German medics which left just Maria, Katarina and Ilsa as the only Red Cross nurses.

Along with the medics, more equipment arrived and one of the new huts became an operating theatre. It became obvious that they were going to be receiving more and more casualties, especially since news had reached them of the allied invasion of the Italian mainland.

 

Two weeks after the news that the armistice between Italy and the Allies, had been signed, the three nurses were sitting in the matron's office when the air raid sirens began their incessant wailing. Immediately, Ilsa jumped to her feet, a look of panic on her face.

Katarina spoke gently to her.

“Don't be afraid, Ilsa. They won't bomb us this time.”

Her eyes wide with fear, the young nurse stared back at her.

“How do you know?” she asked, a little shakily. “They did back in July.”

Maria smiled.

“Have you forgotten?” she asked.

Ilsa frowned.

“Forgotten what?” the fearful young woman replied.

“That the soldiers have painted big red crosses in white circles on all of the hut roofs,” Katarina reminded her. “The Allied bombers won't attack us, knowing this is a Lazarette now, will they?”

Both Katarina and Maria gave her what they hoped were their very best reassuring smiles but Ilsa didn't look convinced.

Eventually, she gave a half smile and shrugged her shoulders.

“Good,” Maria continued. “So, let's get to our patients and try and reassure them too, shall we?”

 

They had barely reached their respective wards when the first explosions rocked the huts. To their utter dismay, the Americans were bombing the airport!

The ground shook as the bombs exploded just a few metres from their compound and the force of the sudden changes of pressure and vibrations shattered windows, showering their patients with shards of glass. Although the frames were criss crossed with adhesive tape, it only helped to reduce the danger rather than eliminate it.

The noise was unbearable and the constant crashing of anti-aircraft fire just added to the ear-shattering cacophony of noise that seemed to go on forever.

 

Almost as suddenly as it had begun, so the unearthly racket died away and, as the droning aircraft receded into the distance, Maria emerged from her hut just in time to see a huge silver aeroplane heading directly towards the compound. Smoke and flames were trailing from the two right-hand engines and the end of the wing seemed to be missing.

She froze as the huge machine got nearer and nearer until it was so close she could see the pilot struggling with the controls.

At the last moment, the pilot seemed to see her and the left wing lifted slightly, causing the stricken, silver bird to bank to the right.

It passed so close to her that Maria felt the blast of heat from the burning engines as it passed overhead.

 

With a thunderous roar, the American bomber hit the ground just beyond the perimeter fence and immediately broke apart.

When she looked up, Maria saw that the fuselage was reasonably intact but burning. The wings had been torn off, the fuselage had broken in half and the huge tail fin was lying to one side at a crazy angle.

Immediately, she recovered her senses and ran towards the burning wreckage, screaming for Katarina as she went, pushing herself to run as fast as she possibly could.

Out through the gates, across the road and through the gate onto the airfield she ran, Maria and Ilsa hot on her heels.

As they approached the inferno, an Italian Fire truck squealed to a halt closely followed by a grey Luftwaffe truck and a small Kubelwagen. Almost as soon as they stopped, the Italians began to spray water onto the orange flames but, to the young women's amazement, the fire was confined to the wings, the tail and the grass around the wreck. The front part of the fuselage, or what remained of it at least, was barely scorched.

Soldiers emerged from the back of the truck and jumped to the ground, surrounding the wreck, rifles cocked and ready.

The officer from the Kubel, a young Leutnant in the black uniform of the SS, began shouting orders.

“Any survivors must be disarmed,” he yelled. “Shoot them if necessary!”

As the words left his mouth, one of the aircraft's crew appeared from inside the shattered remains of the silver plane, crawling through the twisted and torn metal. As he dragged himself out with one arm, Katarina noticed that his leather flying jacket was ripped and his other arm was hanging limp and glistening wet with blood. She could see the jagged white of his bone.

The SS officer raised his Luger and cocked it.

In an instant, Maria was by his side and pushed his arm downwards.

“Don't you dare!” she hissed.

The SS man glared at her with contempt but, having noticed the Hauptmann rank insignia on the band she had slipped onto her arm, he said nothing.

 

By now, Katarina was at the American's side.

“Is all right,” she told him in English. “Not to move... Verstehen sie mich? You... erm... you understand?”

The American visibly relaxed and nodded, leaning against her as she knelt beside him.

The young man, whom she was sure couldn't be more than a teenager, was comprehensibly splattered with blood, which she was sure wasn't just his.

Maria and Ilsa joined her seconds later.

“He is just a boy!” Ilsa gasped, stating aloud a fact which had not gone unnoticed by the matrons.

Maria turned to her.

“Help Katarina whilst I check for the rest of the crew.”

 

There was no point in looking for the rear gunner or the ventral gunner. Both those areas were smashed or burned beyond recognition and she had already seen the bodies of the two side gunners amongst the shattered debris between the two halves. Instead, she made her way into the tangled wreckage of the main fuselage.

Behind the cockpit was a small, partitioned area where she found the body of the Radio Operator. He too was beyond saving. What Maria thought was probably the radio equipment had broken free and was laying on top of him. She considered that he must have died instantly upon impact.

The pilot and co-pilot were still strapped into their seats, both unmoving. She could see immediately that the co-pilot was dead, the left side of his face was missing.

The pilot, however, had survived the impact but only just. As she pressed a finger against his carotid, searching for the almost imperceptible pulse, his eyes opened slowly.

“Did I... did we...?”

“Shhh...” Maria stopped him. “You are... erm... not good.”

“I have to know...” He coughed and his hand came up and gripped her arm, a trickle of blood escaped his lips as he spoke. “The hospital...”

“No... you not fall on hospital,” she assured him, struggling to find the right words in English and pressing her hand upon his.

On hearing her assurance, his hand relaxed and his eyes closed once again.

“I... saw... you...” he breathed and his grip on her arm released.

Maria slowly lowered his arm to his side and returned her fingers to the artery in his neck, the weak pulse was gone.

 

What had once been the nose of the aircraft no longer existed. Any crew in that area could not possibly have escaped the crash.

She sighed. She would never get used to the senseless death of these young men, it just wasn't right. She returned to Katarina and Ilsa.

“Anyone?” Katarina asked and Maria shook their head.

“This one is in a bad way,” she continued. “His Humerus is broken and his arm is only partially attached. His legs are broken too.”

“Leutnant!” Maria called to the SS officer. “I need the truck to get this man back to the Lazarette!”

The Officer narrowed his eyes but, since he was alone amongst Luftwaffe personnel and Italians, he didn't object.

“Are there any other survivors?” he asked.

Maria shook her head.

“No. There is no way that those in the rear or the front could have survived. The two pilots are dead and there is a third corpse in the seat behind the pilots. Two more are inside the wreckage between the two halves. He is the only one to get out alive so...” She shrugged.

After a short pause for consideration, the Leutnant shouted to the Luftwaffe Sergeant.

“Feldwebel! She is in charge now. Do as she says!” and without further conversation, he jumped into his Kubel and drove back towards the ruined airport buildings leaving a cloud of dust behind him to mingle with the smoke and steam.

 

Maria was quite surprised at how carefully the airmen lifted their charge onto the floor of the truck but then she remembered the camaraderie she had witnessed three years previously between the Luftwaffe pilot and the downed Englishman at the hospital in Amiens.

Maybe airmen, like sailors, had a strange affinity that even the horrors of war could not transcend.

 

The truck drove very slowly back to the compound, the driver trying to keep the truck as steady as possible.

Maria had run ahead of them to ensure that the operating theatre was ready as not a moment could be spared in the battle to save this young man's life.

 

The next time that they saw him was after several hours of surgery. Unlike their own identification tags, the American 'dog tags' included the wearer's blood group and so, no time was lost in finding the correct match.

The surgeon had worked into the night to try to repair the damage to his limbs and now, only time and care would tell whether it was all to be in vain.

 

The following morning, Maria went to the hut to check on the patient.

As she walked through the door her jaw dropped.

“'trina!” she exclaimed. “Have you been here all night?”

Her sister looked up from her chair beside the American's bed and with weary eyes, she nodded.

“The medics could have looked after him, you know.”

“Yes, I know but, well, I don't know. There is just something about him. I was the last person he saw before he lost consciousness and I sort of wanted to be the first person he sees when he comes round.” Katarina shrugged her shoulders as she explained. “Do you realise that he is the first real casualty we have looked after since leaving Libya? All we are doing here is babysitting until they are returned home.”

“Strange as it seems,” Maria answered, “I do understand that. Have you slept?”

Katarina nodded.

“On and off. Can you cover for me until he comes round?”

Maria smiled.

“You need to ask?”

 

It was mid-morning and Katarina was dozing in her chair when she was awoken by one of the orderlies, gently shaking her shoulder.

“Matron...” he said and tilted his head towards the American. The young flier's eyes were open and he looked scared.

“So... You are alive?”

She smiled as she spoke, trying her best not to alarm him. He didn't reply but just stared at her, his eyes wide with fear.

She indicated to the Orderly to leave them, fearing that the presence of a German soldier in uniform, albeit with Red Cross armbands, would only serve to panic him and she needed him to be calm.

She spoke gently and slowly so that he would understand that she would not harm him.

“You know where you are?” she asked. “You know what happened?”

The young flier stared at her but remained silent.

Reaching for his good arm, Katarina checked his pulse. His heart was racing.

“Please,” she continued. “You have nothing to be afraid of. This is a Hospital and you are hurt. Nothing will harm you here. I promise.”

At that moment, the air raid sirens began to wail and she raised her eyes skywards and then back to her patient and shrugged.

“Maybe I cannot say for them...”

 

A few minutes later, once the sirens had ceased their cacophony, they could hear the distant droning of approaching aeroplanes. The big, eighty-eight-millimetre anti-aircraft guns began their thud, thud, thud and, before much longer, the heavier crump, crump of exploding bombs, each one containing around a quarter of a tonne of high explosive.

The ground shook and windows and equipment rattled in protest, some windows shattered but no bombs fell within the compound and no serious damage occurred.

 

The raid, this time, didn't go on for so long and within a few minutes the Hellish noise died away and an uneasy calm descended. Shortly after, the peace was shattered once again by the incessant wailing of the 'All Clear'.

Katarina looked at her patient.

“Dir geht ist gut, Ja?” she began but then checked herself. “You are good, yes?”

The frightened airmen nodded slightly, his gaze locked onto her eyes.

“I must go... see damage. I come back, yes?”

 

Katarina found Maria outside in between two of the huts. She was looking up at some of the broken windows.

“Just as well it isn't raining!” she shrugged as her sister approached. “Any problems?”

“No, only windows,” Katarina replied. “The men have it covered.”

“Good. How about the American?”

“He came round just before the raid.” She paused, and then, “Maria, I've never seen anyone so frightened before.”

Her sister thought for a moment.

“I'm not really surprised. I suppose he is is not used to being on the receiving end...”

“No,” Katarina interrupted. “No, it isn't that. He was afraid before the raid began. He is just a boy. I can't imagine what he expects will happen to him... I'll get back to him if you don't mind. Try and calm him.”

Maria didn't mind at all and Katarina hurried back to his bedside.

“I back,” she smiled, seeing his eyes following her as she approached. “All is good.”

Once again, she checked his pulse and still, it was racing. She sat beside him once again.

“I am Matron Langsdorff,” she continued and leaned closer to him in a conspiratorial manner. “You can call me Katarina... if you want to, of course.”

He didn't reply but continued to stare at her, his green eyes darting fearfully from one to the other of hers.

When he didn't answer her she reached out and lifted his dog tag which was lying on his chest.

“Low...renker... T... Bow...man,” she read slowly, trying to work out the pronunciation along the way. “This is how you say your name?”

The young man closed his eyes for a moment and then moved his head from side to side on his pillow.

Katarina sighed.

“I not trick you,” she said gently, taking his hand. “Here is hospital, not... not... how you say... Gefängenlager... I not know word...”

The young American didn't speak and his eyes remained closed but Katarina noticed a small bead of moisture form in the corner of his eye. She watched sadly as it broke free and dripped onto the white linen forming a dark circle. Very gently, she squeezed his hand.

“Rest now,” she whispered. “Nothing hurt you here.”

She looked again at the small, aluminium tag.

 

Lawrence T. Bowman

27548522 T42 43 B

Mrs A Bowman

2517 Crane Ave

Elk Horn IA H

 

She looked at the information stamped into the metal and particularly at the name below his service number.

“He looks so young to be married,” she thought.

“Your wife will worry now. She not know of you here. I will tell Red Cross and ...”

“Not my wife.” The words were slow and whispered. “My Mother.”

Katarina smiled.

“Good. Soon she know you safe.”

“Lawrence.”

Now she frowned.

“Tschuldigung?” she said, momentarily forgetting he would not understand.

“My name is Lawrence Bowman.”

“Ah, so... Low...rens.”

“Larry is easier,” he whispered.

Again, Katarina smiled.

“Good... Larry. I will see your mama is told. I know she be afraid.”

For the first time, the boy seemed to relax.

“I have one question, Larry. How many years have you?

Lawrence didn't answer her and Katarina wasn't sure if she had asked correctly. She pointed to herself.

“I have twenty-five years,” she said. “My birthday nineteen-eighteen.”

His face cleared then and he replied,

“Nineteen.”

Katarina stared at him for a moment, stunned and yet only partially surprised.

“You have only nineteen years and yet...” She wasn't sure what she thought. “You shoot guns in airplane?”

“I...” He looked nervous, unsure. She could see that he was struggling with his conscience.

“Is all right,” she told him with a gentle smile. “You don't have to tell me something. I just take care of you.”

He stared at her for a moment and then replied.

“I'm scared...”

Katarina frowned.

“What is, 'scared'?”

Lawrence continued to stare at her. That same, uncertain stare.

“Afraid, frightened,” he said slowly. “You are so beautiful, so gentle and yet...”

“You think I trick you?” she interrupted him. “No, I no trick you. I Deutsche, ja. I not soldier or...” she quickly looked around before lowering her voice, “...or Nazi. Just Nurse, not else. You not need be afraid of me.”

“I... I think I believe...” Lawrence didn't finish the sentence. He seemed to be struggling within himself, trying to decide whether he could believe her or not.

Katarina felt his hand trembling beneath hers and she drew back.

“Is all right. I not ask more. Rest, sleep. I be here.”

The exhausted young man looked at her once more and then closed his eyes.

 

Katarina took the opportunity to freshen up a little and get something to eat. When she returned the young airman was still asleep. It was just then that Maria found her.

“How is he?” her sister asked.

She shrugged her shoulders.

“He seems all right, considering. He hasn't said much, just his name and age and that the address on his tags is his mother. Otherwise, I think he is too afraid of telling me anything he is not supposed to.”

“Is he as young as he looks?” Maria asked her.

“Yes, nineteen. Do you remember when we were nineteen? Only six years ago but seems so long now.”

As they chatted, Lawrence Bowman awoke. It was Maria who noticed.

“Ah, your patient is back with us,” she said with a smile.

The young man stared at them even more than he did at Katarina.

With his good hand, he rubbed his eyes and stared again.

Immediately Katarina went to his side.

“Is something wrong?” she asked him.

He didn't reply but just stared at her and then back at Maria and rubbed his eyes again.

She looked up at Maria and saw that she was laughing quietly.

“Oh, yes, of course!” Katarina allowed herself a quiet chuckle before turning back to the confused patient. “She is my sister, Maria.”

For the first time, Staff Sergeant Lawrence Bowman smiled.

“You look exactly the same,” he said. “I thought I was... that maybe...”

Katarina shook her head gently.

“No, you are not. Is a long, erm, how you say, explain?”

“A long story,” he corrected her, his smile lingering.

“Ah, so, story, yes.”

“I'm not going anywhere, just yet, I guess,” he replied. “Maybe you can tell it to me?”

Already, Maria was struggling to follow their conversation, her English not being at all good. Hearing the two of them brought back memories of her own stumbling attempts to learn and of the surgeon who had tried to teach her the basics.

For a moment she allowed her thoughts to wander back to the British warship and wondered where Simon Madison might be now.

She took a deep breath and pushed the thoughts away and took her leave, telling Katarina that she would return later.

“I have a sister,” Lawrence said as Katarina sat beside him once more. “She is younger than me. She is called Rachael.”

“Is nice name, How many years she have?”

Lawrence smiled again and echoed Katarina's grammar.

“Fifteen. She has fifteen years.”

Katarina sighed.

“Like me when I begin as Nurse. Can you tell me one thing so I write letter to correct place?”

The young man nodded.

“Sure, what is it?”

Katarina lifted his tag again and read out,

“What means, IA H?”

“Oh, IA means Iowa, the State where they live and H is for Hebrew.”

Katarina's face dropped.

“You are Jew?” she whispered in alarm.

“Sure. Is that a problem?”

 

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