Early in November the clouds lifted enough to carry out the assigned missions .
And Sweeney Squadron put its first marks on the combat record .
Every plane that could fly was sent into the air .
Cricket took eight ships and went south across the Straits and along the north coast of Mindanao to Cagayan .
Anything the enemy flew or floated was his target .
Fleischman with eight was to patrol the Leyte Gulf area , with his main task to get any kamikaze before they got to the ships .
Greg himself took two flights , with Todman leading the second , to patrol and look for targets of opportunities around Ormoc on the east coast of Leyte .
Each plane carried two five-hundred pound bombs .
A weapons carrier took Greg , Todman , Belton , Banjo Ferguson , and Walters and the others the two miles from the bivouac area to the strip .
It was a rough long ride through the mud and pot holes .
No one had much to say .
The sky glowered down at them .
There was a feeling that this mission would be canceled like all the others and that this muddy wet dark world of combat would go on forever .
The truck dropped them off at the various revetments spread through the jungle .
Donovan snatched Greg's chute from him with a belligerent motion and almost ran to the plane with it .
His face was dark as the sky above it as he stood on the wing and waited for his pilot .
Greg climbed into the cockpit feeling as if he had never been in one before .
But his hands and those of Donovan moved automatically adjusting and arranging in the check-out procedure .
`` I've got her as neat as I can '' , Donovan said , as he dropped the straps of the Seton harness over Greg's shoulders .
`` But this goddamn climate .
It's for carabao not airplanes '' .
`` We'll make out .
Don't you worry , chief '' , Greg replied , wondering if he himself believed it .
`` Yeah .
See you '' , Donovan said as he jumped off the wing .
The expression was his trade-mark , his open sesame to good luck , and his prayer that pilot and plane would always return .
At the prearranged time , Greg started the engine and taxied out .
From the time the chocks were pulled until the plane was out of sight , he knew Donovan would keep his back to the strip .
He wondered where the superstition had originated that it was bad luck for a crew chief to watch his plane take off on a combat mission .
Yet long before the scheduled time for return , Donovan would be watching for every speck in the sky .
Greg rumbled down the rough metal taxi strip , and one by one the seven members of his flight fell in behind him .
The dark brown bombs hanging under each wing looked large and powerful .
The pilots' heads looked ridiculously small .
The control tower gave him immediate take-off permission , and the clean roar of the engine that took him off the rough strip spoke well of the skill of Donovan .
Greg's mission was the last to leave , and as he circled the ships off Tacloban he saw the clouds were dropping down again .
To the west , the dark green hills of Leyte were lost in the clouds about halfway up their slopes .
Underneath him the sea was a dark and muddied gray .
Water splashed against his windshield as he led the flight in and out of showers .
The metal strip they had taken off from was coal black against the green jungle around it .
He possessed the fighter pilot's horror of bad weather and instrument flying , and he wondered , if the ceiling did drop , whether he and the other flights would be able to find their way back in this unfamiliar territory .
He shivered in the warm cockpit .
The overcast was solid above him .
As far as he could see there was no hole to climb through it .
They would have to go west through the narrow river valley that separated Leyte from Samar and hope that it didn't close in before they returned .
Greg pushed the radio button on his throttle .
`` Todman , let's try to go under this stuff .
Stay in close and we'll go up the valley '' .
`` Roger , Sweeney '' , Todman called back , and pulled his four in and slightly above Greg .
Greg took the formation wide around three A-26 attack bombers that were headed north over the Gulf .
He dropped down to five hundred feet , swinging a little north of the city of Tacloban , and punched into the opening that showed against the mountain .
The valley was only a few hundred yards wide with just about room enough for a properly performed hundred-and-eighty-degree turn .
It was only a fifteen-minute flight , but before it was through Greg felt himself developing a case of claustrophobia .
The ceiling stayed solid above them at about eight hundred feet , and at times the sheer cliffs seemed about to close in .
If the other pilots were worried , they did not show it .
The formation remained perfect .
When the sea was visible ahead of them , the relief was as great as if the sun had come out .
He spread the flight out and led them across a point of land and then down the coast .
Although they drew light ground fire they saw no signs of activity .
Once Todman thought he had spotted a tank and went down to investigate while Greg covered him .
`` Somebody beat us to it '' ! !
Todman said over the radio as he came back up in formation .
Visibility continued to be limited , and Greg was never able to get above a thousand feet .
It was frustrating .
His earphones were constantly full of the sounds of enemy contacts made by other flights .
He thought once that he identified the somewhat hysterical voice of Fleischman claiming a kill .
But Greg's area remained as placid as a Florida dawn .
Finally , as time began to run out , he headed into Ormoc and glide-bombed a group of houses that Intelligence had thought might contain Japanese supplies .
The low clouds made bombing difficult .
There was not enough room to make the usual vertical bomb run .
The accuracy was deplorable .
One of Greg's bombs hung up , and he was miles from the target before he could get rid of it .
Only one of the flight scored a direct hit and the rest blew up jungle .
With their load of bombs gone , the planes moved swiftly and easily .
Greg went up tight against the ceiling and led them back to their pass to home .
Mercifully , it was still open .
Like a man making a deep dive , Greg took full breath and plunged back into the valley .
He was about to make a gas check on his flight when Todman's voice broke in : `` Sweeneys ! !
Three bogies .
Twelve o'clock level '' .
Greg's eyes flicked up from his instrument panel .
He saw them , specks against the gray , but closing fast .
They were headed straight for each other on a collision course .
Friend or enemy ? ?
The same old question .
And only a few seconds to answer it .
`` Zeros '' ! !
Todman said excitedly , and hopefully .
And then he thought Todman might be right .
His mind flicked through the mental pictures he had from the hours of Aircraft Identification .
He narrowed the shape down to two : either a Zero or a U. S. Navy type aircraft .
If it were the enemy , tactically his position was correct .
Japanese aircraft were strong on maneuverability , American on speed and firepower .
His present maximum altitude , up against the overcast , gave him the opportunity to exploit his advantages .
But it also made him conspicuous to the enemy , if it was the enemy , and he hadn't been spotted already .
But the closing aircraft showed no sign of deviating from their original course .
In seconds , Greg made his decision .
He pushed the radio button .
`` Sweeney Blue , hit the deck .
Lots of throttle .
Todman , you take the one on the left .
I'll take the middle .
Belton , the one on the right .
If they're Japs .
Let's make sure first '' .
Greg had the stick forward and the throttle up before he heard the two `` Rogers '' .
The planes , light with most of the gas burned out , responded beautifully .
Greg's airspeed indicator was over 350 when he leveled off just above the trees .
The opposing aircraft continued to come on .
They appeared to be the enemy .
Greg wished the Air Corps had continued to camouflage planes .
There was , of course , no way for the other planes to get by them .
It was a box .
But they could turn and escape to the east .
Greg pushed the radio button again .
`` Todman , drop your second element back .
If any of us miss , they can pick up the pieces .
Now let's make sure they're Japs '' .
Even as he said it , Greg knew they had found the enemy .
The shapes were unmistakable and the Rising Suns were showing up , slightly brighter pinpoints in the gray gloom .
Greg slapped his hand across the switches that turned on the guns and gun camera and gun sight .
The circle with the dot in the center showed up yellow on the reflector glass in front of him .
His hands shook .
`` Arm your guns , Sweeneys '' .
`` They're Japs .
They're Japs '' , came a high-pitched voice .
`` Greg to Sweeney Blue .
One pass only .
No turns .
You'll bust your ass in this canyon .
That's an order '' .
He moved the flights over against one wall .
It gave them all a chance to make a high-speed climbing turn attack and a break-away that would not take them into the overcast or force a tight-turn recovery .
If the turn was too tight , a barrel roll would bring them out .
A hell of an altitude for a barrel roll , but it could be done .
Greg slammed his throttle to the fire wall and rammed up the RPM , and the engine responded as if it had been waiting .
The clearly identifiable enemy continued on as if no one else were around .
`` They haven't seen us '' , Greg yelled to himself over the engine noise .
`` They haven't seen us '' .
He hit the radio button .
`` Now , Sweeneys , now .
Let's take 'em home '' .
He hauled back on the stick and felt his cheeks sag .
Out of the corner of his eye , he watched his wingman move out a bit and shoot up with him .
Perfect , he thought .
With the rapid rate of closure , the approach from below , the side , and ahead , there would be only a moment when damage could be done .
Just like shooting at a duck while performing a half-gainer from a diving board .
He tightened his turn .
His nose up .
It was going to be dangerous .
Eight aircraft in this small box .
Please , dear God , make my pilots good , he prayed .
He took a lead on the enemy , using a distance of five of the radii in his circular sight and then added another .
The enemy did not veer .
It did not seem possible that they hadn't been spotted .
Blind fools .
Now ! !
Greg's fingers closed on the stick trigger .
The plane rumbled and slowed .
Six red lines etched their way into the gray and vanished .
As if drawn by a wire the enemy flew into them .
Greg tightened his turn until the plane shuddered .
Luck was with him .
His burst held for a second on the engine section of the plane .
The Jap's propeller flew off in pieces .
A large piece of engine cowling vanished .
It was all Greg had time to see .
His maneuvering for the shot had placed him near the overcast , almost inverted and heading up into the clouds .
His speed was dropping rapidly .
If he spun out now , he would join his opponent on the ground .
Wingman , stay clear , he prayed .
He pushed stick and rudder and entered the overcast on his back .
He fought the panic of vertigo .
He had no idea which was up and which was down .
He held the controls where they had been .
Sweat popped out over him and he felt the slick between his palm and the stick grip .
His air speed dropped until he thought he would spin out .