Barbara and Mollie climbed back aboard the cargo plane. The C-47 had been stripped bare except for necessary medical supplies and tiers of brackets on each side holding litters for the wounded. As soon as the plane was airborne, the girls unstrapped themselves from jump seats and began their emergency nursing chores. If the air stayed this rough, half of their patients would be sick.
Mollie reeled from side to side to grasp the swaying litters, and struggling to keep gear in place. She searched for comforting words to calm the injured men, and glanced anxiously toward Barbara, who was stoically concentrating on doing the same thing. They exchanged "V" signs.
In the tail section, Barbara held a paper bag over a green-tinged face, placing her hand on the GI's chest wound to keep the stitches from pulling loose. "Okay, Corporal, just urp in here." She turned away to swallow the surge in her own throat, scrambling for a handhold when a loud thunk sent her stumbling to the bumpy floor. Plasma bottles and pillows sailed over her head. Flak thumped precariously close to the fuselage, its bursts flashing through the tiny window slits. Barbara gnawed her knuckles, cowering momentarily. She craved nothing more than to cover her face and ears and succumb to terror. Forcing herself to her feet, she stumbled over the cluttered assortment covering the floor, and grasped a litter support to keep from falling again.
"Better strap yourselves in back there, girls. This might take awhile," Lieutenant Jordan reported calmly over the speaker like he was piloting the plane through ordinary air turbulence.
Barbara staggered toward her little jump seat at the narrow end of the tail section. "Oooh!" her cry of fright swallowed her breath and voice, when metal screamed beneath her. She stumbled aft barely in time to avoid falling through a gaping hole midship. Smoke from the explosion filled the compartment and the dim cabin lights blinked off. Groans of pain from the wounded and the roar of rushing air sent a deafening chorus through the plane.
"Judas Priest!" In the smoky dimness, she caught a nightmare image of a loosened stretcher sliding slowly toward the jagged opening on her side of the hole. She grabbed wildly for the handle, her screams for help swallowed by the din. Holding on to the litter took every measure of strength. To pull the litter backward would be impossible without help. She grunted with pain when turbulence slammed hard against the floor onto her stomach. Still she hung on.
The soldier's head lay near her desperately clinging hands, his feet dangling over thousands of feet of empty space. Another lurch and Barbara grappled to keep the tenuous hold. The litter slipped inches farther. Her arms felt as if they would pull from their shoulder sockets as the plane angled downward, nosing slowly toward earth. Another lurch. She forced strength enough to lodge her toes beneath a metal brace. The stretcher and its burden slid another few inches into the hole. Minutes seemed like hours as she clung as if frozen in place.
Air rushed like a giant blower, loosening her long blonde hair to tangle over her eyes. Bursting shells flashed all around the plane.
All Mollie could do from her side was gasp and pray. Helpless, to get to Barbara's side of the hole. She knew that three litters had been sucked into the gap.
After the plane outran the antiaircraft batteries, Mollie aimed her flashlight from the cockpit side to assess the damages. Brackets that had held three litters hung empty. She spotted Barbara. "Oh Lord! Hang on, Barb." She searched wildly for something to cover the jagged chasm before it claimed Barbara and the fourth litter. Rushing air from the ruptured metal muted her voice.
Rolling one of the wounded men out of a cot, Mollie handed him a strap for holding the bunk to the frame of the plane. "Hold onto this, soldier. Tight."
The C-47 lurched sideways and she thudded to her knees, clinging to the billowing canvas cot and praying she could cover the yard-wide hole in time to keep everything movable, including passengers, from sliding through. She lay flat on her stomach to push the cot forward and over the torn metal edges. It took half a dozen tries to jam it into a jagged notch in the other side. She lay on her stomach, searching frantically for a way to secure it from blowing around or out.
"I have it. Hang onto your end while I find some way to tie it," a male voice shouted from Barbara's side. "The problem is I can't see." Mollie's flashlight outlined a soldier, his eyes bandaged and one leg in a splint. He fumbled along the edge of hanging cots until a soldier in one of the litters placed a belt in his hands. Looping it over a support frame at the end of a cot, the wounded occupant helped him fasten the buckle. Mollie secured hers the same way.
Mollie could see the stretcher being held by her friend only when shells burst nearby. From her point across the chasm, she watched in helpless terror as the plane lurched them close to the edge again. She held her breath when the blinded soldier crept close to help
The air was freezing, and Barbara tried detachment to keep her grip on the litter. Rough air tilted the plane, and the patient's litter skewed sideways and another six inches toward the opening. She clenched her jaws tightly, her hands like empty rubber gloves. She screamed over the turbulence when another set of arms grasped the litter, just as her perilous grip loosened.
"Got it. Can you roll a little to the side so I can get a better hold?" The soldier nudged her over until she could slide backwards. "Get one of the straps around it and we'll pull him back." Crouching, she struggled with shaky stiff fingers, until the belt was buckled and another secured over the litter handle.
Turbulence knocked Barbara hard against a post at the edge of a cot. The blow sent her tumbling sideways. She lay crumpled and unmoving.
Mollie's breath caught when the patient's foot, still hanging out of the hole in the fuselage became wedged under a metal groove, temporarily halting his progress toward eternity.
"I can't hold him much longer or see how to bring him back in," The blinded man yelled. "There's no one else over here that can move."
Several heads leaned from the sides of their litters. One of the men pulled Barbara's flashlight from her pocket and aimed it toward the hole. He shouted directions."There, his foot is free. Pull his leg to the right."
"There's a bottle or something to your left," another called.
Slowly the blinded soldier inched backward, tugging the litter. After tying it to a support post, he dragged Barbara's limp figure until they were both wedged into the narrow space in front of the jump seat.
When the plane finally leveled, Mollie ran her tongue over her lips, tasting salty blood from cuts where she had been biting them. She screamed when a hand touched her arm.
"Little excitement back here, huh?" The co-pilot, Lieutenant Hoffman, bundled to his chin in his fleece lined leather jacket, shouted over the noise of rushing air. "Did we lose anyone?"
"Six GIs on the litters that were located over that hole. Another poor guy and Barbara were hanging mighty close to oblivion until someone over there rescued them. Barb is hurt and I have to get across somehow." Mollie moved toward the billowing canvas cot covering the crater.
"Hold it, Mollie!" Lieutenant Hoffman hurriedly untied the two metal boxes filled with medical supplies and dragged them one at a time to the edge of the hole. He secured them with webbed straps. "I doubt these will strengthen the edges of the damaged brace, but let's hope." He crossed his fingers.
"Phew!" Mollie whistled when she aimed her flashlight and could see the bracing struts, dented and torn, hanging under the fuselage. The thinnest of metal skin was all that had been holding Barbara and her two patients. Minutes before, she'd leaned over that weak spot. Shuddering, she recalled the badly damaged planes she had seen land, some with but one engine, some without landing gear; some with holes in fuselages. How large would a crater need to be to send the plane crashing into the channel?
As if testing her thoughts, a piece of metal ripped off and took the hanging struts. Forcing deep breaths, she managed to conquer panic.
Lieutenant Hoffman grasped the framing on top of the sloping fuselage and swung across the gap. "Barbara has a nasty cut on her head. Toss me some compresses," he shouted over the din.
Mollie understood and grabbed her little bag of supplies. "Be right over." She climbed onto the box, stretched on her toes to reach the handhold, and leapt to the other side.
"You Tarzan, me Jane!"
He grinned. "You're crazy, gal!"
"Hold the flashlight. This needs a good hefty compress or it'll keep bleeding." Mollie cleaned the two-inch gap in Barbara's scalp and pulled little pieces of tape over it, then covered the wound with a bandage. Barbara's eyes responded to the flashlight by a narrowing of the pupils. Mollie sighed with relief. The head injury was probably a concussion and a bad cut, not a fractured skull.
"She's coming around. How are you guys?" Mollie moved her flashlight across the faces of the frightened men, then settled it on the one Barbara had rescued. He was unconscious, surely in shock. She pulled a bottle of plasma from her bag, braced herself against a support pole and after a couple of tries, plunged a needle into his arm. "I thought Belgium was in Allied territory."
Lieutenant Hoffman shrugged. "We must have missed a few antiaircraft batteries. Ike will burn some asses. We'll be back to Dover Airbase in about thirty minutes. Cold, Mollie?"