Captain Jake West
US Army Air Forces
West had secured passage back to the US on a fast freighter. It would leave Liverpool sailing in convoy for the United States on the morning of September 9th. The family had gathered with him in London on the evening of the 6th. He had knelt on the sidewalk to give chocolate to his young cousins. It was the first candy the children had seen since the beginning of rationing. They took it carefully with wide eyes from their very odd foreign relative. For his aunts he brought traveling dresses West’s mother had picked out back in the States. The women worried about all of the details of travel and immigration in the midst of war. But the brash young American relative had all the paperwork, funds, and answers. They were only too glad to trust him after a summer that had brought widowhood.
He had promised both women that he would come back on the 8th. One final visit to observe RAF operations as the Battle of Britain accelerated toward its peak. Once reunited they would take ship out of Liverpool. His aunts were mere days from escaping to the US. A world beyond the ocean that appeared not only safe, but as rich and prosperous as the Britain of their childhoods.
The Germans first true determined raid on London hit on the 7th, while West was at RAF Biggin Hill south of the capital. The high explosive bomb followed immediately by an incendiary fire bomb destroyed the lodgings of West’s aunts and cousins. West had arrived on the morning after the bombing, the 8th. He was in time to see the bodies in the street on stretchers being covered with blankets. In the reek of smouldering ruins West’s first image of the dead was his aunt’s arm grasping rigidly above her and the bodies of her children. The white bones of her fingers rose upwards from her burnt flesh split open from crotch to head from the roasting heat. As he knelt over the bodies of the children he saw them untouched by fire. Unlike their mothers they lay as if asleep. Only the cold blue pallor of their faces and hands in the morning light confirmed they were dead.
The volunteer coroner leaned down towards West. It had fallen to the coroner all summer to not only collect bodies, but to help retrieve them, and to break the news to surviving family. There was no way for the coroner to know from West’s civilian clothes that West was a foreign military officer.
The smell of burnt bodies was something you never accepted. Your mind knew what it was instinctively. It made you want to run away. It followed you throughout the rest of your life echoing in otherwise normal smells: a dessert; unwashed clothes; or old milk. What was new for West was that it was flesh of his family – of his flesh. Of a family he had come to protect. That in a perverse way he had exposed to the change in German tactics.
“Chum, you better come down to the warden. They’ll take care of you and give you some advice making arrangements for the dead.”
The deafening sound and smell of cordite during the brutal bombing West had endured in a slit trench back at the RAF base mixed with the stench before him. He rose slowly and brushed his jet black hair back absently.
It occurred to him that beyond all the press heroics, these people were losing a war. He let the coroner steer him away by the arm, then froze. The strength of the young American caused the coroner to let go.
“There is a body missing. A girl. My cousin Mary,” said West.
West twisted free as if to recount the bodies of the children. And as he swung back toward them there was a desperate cry.
“Cousin Jake! Oh no!” cried a young girl.
She ran out of the side street. Both of the men moved to block her. To keep her away from the bodies of her mother, of her little brothers, of her aunt, and of her cousins. She threw herself onto the young American, her eyes wide with fear, her face streaked with dirt from her hiding place. West wrapped his arms around her, swept her up in his arms, and turned toward where the coroner had pointed to the air raid wardens van.
“We’ll have a cup of tea, Mary, just down here where they need us,” he said as he held her tight and walked through the rubble.