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The Plum Blooms in Winter

By Linda Thompson

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Saturday 18 April 1942
Osaka, Japan

ALTIMETER STEADY AT FIVE HUNDRED FEET, USAAC Pensacola Payback screamed along at two-hundred-seventy miles per hour, right above the steep-pitched roofs of Osaka, Japan. Lieutenant David Delham forced himself to take even breaths and focus on his instrument scan.
Attitude-indicator needles vibrating at level. Twin seventeen-hundred-horsepower engines thundering on her wings.
Straight and level. Straight and level.
His bombs-deployed indicator blinked red. The bomber bucked like a mustang as the third five-hundred pounder dropped.
“Bomb’s away.” Smith, his bombardier, bellowed confirmation over the interphone.
Dave tightened his grip and yelled into his headset. “Fine work, Smith. Deploy the last incendiary.”
“Yes, sir.” The fourth indicator glowed red. “Last bomb’s away.”
At his elbow, his copilot, Watt, let out a piercing whistle that mimicked the shriek of the bomb plummeting toward its target. “Special delivery, Japan.”
Dave gave a grim chuckle. He pushed the B-25 into a steep bank and peered over his left shoulder.
Smith blared his elation through the interphone. “Two direct hits!” Flames erupted across the aircraft factory’s blue-gray roof.
Four bombs. Two targets smoldering. Three minutes, tops.
The crew broke into wild whoops and yells. Watt strained against his five-point harness and pummeled a fist into the air. “Take that, Jap scum! Now there’s some payback for Pearl.”
Dave hollered along with the rest. “Right on the money, men. We did it!” He, Dave Delham, and his crew had done it. What every American worth his hot dogs and beans had burned to do every day of the four-and-half months since that underhanded attack on Pearl.
Not bad for our first combat mission. Not bad at all.
The bombing run had gone precisely according to the plan their commanding officer, aviation legend Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, had laid out. Next, Dave just had to get them out of heavily guarded enemy airspace and on the ground in one piece.
At that instant, he knew he could do anything.
Vitiollo, in the navigator’s pit behind him, shouted over the din of howling engines, shrieking wind and rattling gas cans. “Whoo-hoo! This bird has earned her name.”
Dave grinned and patted the dashboard. “Yes, she has.” Pensacola Payback. He’d coined the name, but every member of his four-man crew had shown he was dead set on delivering on it.
Fourteen total hours in flight, according to the mission’s operational plan. They’d turned those B-25s into flying gas cans so they’d have the range. Too bad fate had handed them a big wild card that morning when an enemy patrol forced them to launch the attack farther out than planned—by a couple hundred miles.
And two-hundred-fifty gallons of precious fuel.
But fuel concerns would have to wait. A string of distinctive black puffs of smoke bloomed right below them, a few yards ahead and to their right.
His co-pilot’s voice went shrill. “Ack-ack. One o’clock. Look sharp.”
“I see it.” Dave pulled the yoke back. The plane pitched up.
A shell burst in front of the nosecone. The bomber jumped, jostling him in his seat. Smoke whizzed along Payback’s snout and past the elevated cockpit, pushing an acrid odor into his nostrils.
Watt swore. “Too close. They have our altitude.”
Dave gripped the yoke tighter, tension rippling through his jaw line down to his fists. Those innocent little puffs were more than capable of tearing off a wing or punching a hole in a fuselage.
“Evasive maneuvers, Delham,” Watt barked.
Guess you think you’d do it better. Watt’s attitude problem could also wait. Dave spun the yoke, and they snaked left. He threw the switch on the interphone. “Smith, we’re fresh out of bombs. Man your gun.”
“Already on it, sir.”
Watt peered through the windshield. “We’re so dang close to the ground. They could put up a wall of machine-gun fire and down us.”
The interphone crackled to life again. “Pursuit,” Braxton, the gunner, reported from his vantage point in the turret. “Eight o’clock, high.”
“Greetings, dear guests. We’ve been expecting you.” Dave twisted in his seat for a glimpse of the enemy, but he couldn’t see them past the fuselage’s metal roof. “Cussed gun turret better work, Watt.”
His copilot grunted. Those turrets were cantankerous.
“Can you I.D. the aircraft, Braxton?” Dave had heard the Japanese Zeroes boasted a dive speed of four hundred miles per hour. Faster than Payback was going to make, especially this close to the floor. Payback had no room to trade altitude for speed, unlike the enemy planes above.
“Not sure, sir. They’re way up there. I don’t think they’re Zeroes. They look kind of—uh-oh.”
“Uh-oh, what?”
“Two broke formation.”
“They coming for us?”
“They’re diving.”
Dave and Watt exchanged glances. “Straight on. Keep her speed up,” Watt said.
“Second Lieutenant.” Dave put the emphasis on the Second. “Shut up—for once.”
Watt opened his mouth to say something, then snapped it closed.
A long, tense moment passed with no word from the back.
Braxton’s voice sounded through the interphone. “They’re gaining, sir.” He cursed, his voice rising in pitch. “They’re firing. I can see it.”
Fly, Payback, fly! Nothing he could do in the cockpit but set her weaving and listen to the empty fuel cans rattle.
And wait for the rat-a-tat of machine guns up their backside.
***
Land of the Gods. Land of the samurai. Matsuura Miyako’s ancestors had been in the thick of it. Statesmen and generals. Masters of tea ceremony and of sword. Daimyo of entire provinces. She even shared her family name with a count.
Watanabe-sensei, Miyako’s ninth-grade teacher, paced his classroom. “Time for this week’s math quiz. Clean sheets of paper, students.”
She placed her history book on the stack beneath her desk, running her fingertips along its textured spine. She’d never admit it to the girls shuffling books and papers around her—the tack that sticks out gets hammered, ah?—but when she touched that book, a sense of pride welled up in her. Like an invisible silk cord stretching to the heavens, it lifted her shoulders and straightened her spine.
Full of herself, her friends might say. But they’d say it with a certain deference. Secretly, didn’t they all want what she felt when her fingertips brushed those pages? The prestige of a notable family. The sense of noble destiny that sang through her blood.
Of course, she wouldn’t be asked to defend any castles like a samurai’s wife of old. Or shipped out to war with the Imperial Navy like her father and older brother, Akira-san. Instead of practice thrusts with a naginata pike, she spent Sunday afternoons learning to spear stakes of flowers into shallow vases.
Her job would be to make a home and to raise the next generation. Less prestigious—far less prestigious—but crucial. Great deeds were for the men. She was tempted sometimes to dwell on whether that was fair, but such thinking accomplished nothing except to put a bitter taste in her mouth.
Instead, she let her fingertips glide across the book once more and felt herself drawn into a steady current of Matsuura family destiny that had coursed along, unrelenting, for more than forty generations. It belonged to her like her blood and her breath.
The sunny Saturday morning was creeping along like a snail in a koi pond. She sighed and positioned the paper on her desk.
In the branches outside the window, a bush warbler guarded her snug nest. In the distance a hawk wheeled, mocking Miyako by painting majestic circles in the boundless azure sky.
An ear-splitting shriek shattered the air, jolting her in her seat. Her pencil clattered to the floor.
Air-raid drill—the second that week. Her best friend, Natsue, grabbed her wrist from across the aisle. “It’s past 12:15,” she whispered, eyes dancing with something more than simple joy at missing a quiz. “We’re done for the week, yes?”
Watanabe-sensei glared at them. “Girls. Quickly.”
She thrust her books into her satchel. The girls joined a mass of crisp white blouses and plaid skirts streaming from the building, along the sidewalk and into the subway station. The blare of sirens faded as they clattered down the cement stairway plunging into the station’s bowels. The stale air buzzed with girls’ voices.
Natsue huffed. “I don’t know why we have to do these drills. We’ll never see a gaijin warplane.”
Miyako answered with breezy confidence. “Our glorious army has always protected us.”
At home, she and Mama-san and her little brother Hiroshi had a ritual. Every night since Papa-san and Akira-san shipped out, they knelt around the big radio in its mahogany console and listened to the news. Hiro-chan would race his toy ships across the thick carved rug, and the subtle pinch of worry around Mama-san’s mouth would ease as the announcer crowed out the latest victories.
Manila. Burma. The Solomons. Pearl Harbor. The message was clear. Japan was invincible, advancing to fulfill its Heaven-decreed destiny as the rightful overlord of Asia.
Natsue completed Miyako’s thought. “Our glorious army protects us. And Heaven itself.” She leaned toward her, her voice a teasing lilt. “I know something you don’t.”
“What?” Miyako knew that impish grin. Whatever this was, it was good.
She lowered her voice to a whisper. “It’s about my brother.”
Kenji-san. A pleasant little shiver chased up Miyako’s spine. “Tell me, ah?” Her voice rang at her from the cement wall, shrill and piercing.
“Shh.” Natsue smothered a giggle. “He’s hoping to see you today.”
“He is? You mean—”
“I mean he likes you.”
She caught her breath. If Mama-san learned about this, she’d be scandalized. When Miyako was a few years older, her parents would arrange proper omiai visits for her to meet young men of the right social class. Appropriate husbands. The sons of old samurai families like her own.
Still, picturing Kenji-san’s striking oval face and the way his strong shoulders filled out his school uniform made her pulse quicken. She’d never have her mother’s delicate beauty, but if Kenji thought she was pretty, it would mean something.
“I can’t today.” She felt the air leak from her chest. “Mama-san wants me to pick up my little brother.”
The sirens stopped. Watanabe-sensei’s voice boomed from behind them. “You’re released for the weekend, class.”
Natsue gave her an exaggerated pout. “You can’t go five minutes out of the way, ah?”
Miyako sighed and shook her head. Didn’t Mama-san wear her down like rain? According to her, one good rumor could kill a girl’s omiai.
Natsue’s eyes went hard with something that looked like real hurt. “I guess my brother’s not good enough for you.” She spun away and started up the stairs.
According to Mama-san, he wasn’t. But her friend’s bruised feelings weighed on Miyako like a heavy coat. She hurried after Natsue, touched her arm and whispered, “Hai. I’ll come.”
Natsue gave her a blinding smile and led her out into the sunshine. They turned along one of Miyako’s favorite streets. Narrow enough to stay shaded even in mid-summer. Lined with an impossible jumble of wooden two-story buildings—shops with their doors flung open and homes piled topsy-turvy against each other. The air hummed with shopkeepers’ musical greetings. Restaurant owners in tidy cotton kimono bowed to them, and the savory scent of fried green onions hung on the air.
Three blocks in, the street bent around an old cherry tree. Natsue herded her into its dappled shade. “He’ll come this way.” She gave Miyako a conspiratorial smile.
Thinking about Kenji-san set her heart trilling, a nightingale in full chorus. Broad branches sprinkled with blossoms arched above the sidewalk. A soft breeze carried the subtly spiced aroma of sweet bean paste from the pastry shop on the corner. Petals drifted in the breeze and settled in clusters on the pavement.
Natsue sighed. “The blossoms always disappear too soon, ah?”
She heard it for the first time then. A soft drone in the distance. She shaded her eyes and looked hard at the horizon. Just a blot against the clouds. A plane coming in low, engine noise swelling as it closed the distance.
She watched it for a long moment. “Look. Two tails. I’ve never seen that.”
Natsue waved at it and flashed her dimples. “Our brave pilots. Aren’t they wonderful?”
The plane thrummed on toward them, its engines giving out a throaty rumble.
A burst of sound pounded her from every side, swallowing the plane’s drone. A piercing whistle. A series of sharp cracks, like summer fireworks but a dozen times louder.
What under Heaven—
A deafening explosion. She felt the concussion in her ears. She pressed her palms over them.
Behind the plane, midnight-colored smoke spiraled from the roofline.
Realization slammed her so hard her world stood still.
The enemy. A gaijin dared to drop bombs on the Land of the Gods. Didn’t he know every stone was sacred? She stood, transfixed, staring at the plane like it was a dragon coiling and arcing through the sky.
Boom. A new sound eclipsed the rest, reverberating through her chest.
Shrieks and yells from all sides. The crowd thronging the sidewalk scattered in a dozen directions.
Boom. Boom. It took up a bone-jarring rhythm. The Imperial Army was firing on the gaijin plane.
The smell of super-heated oil poisoned the air.
Burning. My brother. She picked up her satchel and tugged at Natsue’s arm. “Hiro-chan!”
Natsue nodded, eyes wide, but she didn’t move.
“Come on!” Miyako tugged harder. Natsue didn’t respond. Miyako seized her friend by the shoulders and twisted her away from the plane. “You can’t stay here. Come with me.”
Natsue moved at last.
The girls pushed through the frantic throng. The throbbing taiko-drum boom of the Army’s big guns hammered on behind them.
What if I’m too late? Miyako dashed down two long city blocks, pain pressing on her ribs. The satchel banged against her hip, but she felt grateful for that. She clung to the hope that the silk-covered amulet she’d knotted around its strap would ward off modern bombs as well as ancient forms of evil.
She spotted him through the group of jostling shoulders and breathed a thank-you to the amulet. Most of his third-grade class was gone, but his teacher herded a half-dozen children back toward their air-raid shelter.
Natsue hurried along beside her, gasping for breath.
The plane roared overhead. Miyako saw the red circle under its wing—and five white points around the circle. The circle was Japan’s. The white five-pointed star was not. That insignia wasn’t theirs.
Just a few hundred feet away, off to her left, the bomber’s belly split open. An object tumbled out, dark against the sky, and dropped between the rooftops. The whistling noise hurt her ears. A woman at her elbow screamed. Sharp cracking sounds echoed along the street, piercing through her like rifle shots.
An acrid chemical odor assaulted her nostrils. Behind a tall fence across the street, tongues of flame began to taste the sky. The aircraft factory. If that caught fire, the whole neighborhood could bloom into flame.
Fear sent icy tentacles into her heart. She gave it no room. Nothing could matter but reaching her little brother.
“Hiro-chan!” She dashed toward him. He swiveled. She couldn’t make out his voice above the din of frantic shouts and booming artillery, but his lips formed her name. He raced toward her, eyes and mouth wide. His crisp sailor collar flapped against his shoulders. His fringe of dark bangs bounced on his forehead.
A fresh explosion rocked the factory complex. A roar like the island splitting pummeled her ears. The ground lurched and a force as strong as the divine wind of legend flung her to the pavement.
Her consciousness drifted, separate from light and time.
An hour might have passed—or mere seconds—before the smell of hot oil and concrete intruded on her senses. She forced her eyes open and pushed her impossibly heavy self off the pavement.
Burning oil and debris strewed the street. Charred wood smoldered where the aircraft factory’s fence had stood. Cement dust floated in the air, coating her nostrils and leaving a layer of flat-tasting grit in her mouth.
Hiro-chan? She stared around through the dull gray haze, panic making her breath come fast.
Navy-colored fabric. A square of it, just visible beneath a pile of rubble. A length of heavy-looking metal girder twisted across the pile.
“No!” She ignored her own pain and rushed over. Knelt beside him. She pulled at pieces of fencing, clawed at chunks of tile. Found his cheek, then worked until she got his mouth and nose clear.
Fine gray dust caked his face and coated his lashes. His skin beneath it looked as pale as a gaijin. He coughed. “Sister...” His eyes focused on her for an instant before they fixed on something behind her. “Mama…Ma...” His mouth went slack around the word.
“No, Hiro-chan.” She wedged her arms under his shoulders. Concrete ground at her hands, sharp edges gouging her knuckles. “Don’t. No!”
He convulsed and fought for one more breath. It choked off in his throat.
She shook him. “Hiro-chan!” No response. She probed at his neck, pressing for a pulse but finding nothing. Her fingertips trailed rust-red blood through the colorless dust on his skin. His blood. Her fingers wet with it. She jerked her hand away. His face had gone vacant.
She felt her heart tear from her chest. A dark rage flooded the aching void it left.
Who’d let the gaijin enemy through to lob bombs at Japanese children? Where were the kami-sama and the heroes who were supposed to protect their land?
A new anguish leaked in. Wasn’t the blame hers? If she’d been where she was supposed to be, they’d have been blocks away from the explosion. If she’d lingered even a minute less beneath that cherry tree, at least she could have scooped him up and shielded him with her own body.
Hiro-chan had paid for her disobedience. And what a price.
How could he be gone? That little dark head she’d seen every weekday afternoon, bent with Mama-san’s over his schoolwork. His eyes that danced when they followed his kites’ maneuvers in the sky. His sturdy practice thrusts with the wooden sword in the bedroom hall. All the sparkle and the promise of him.
Something precious beyond worlds, lost. It could never be recovered. And she was to blame.
Oh, she could never face Mama-san. How would she live with her shame?
Natsue and a few others helped her pry him from the rubble. She gathered her little brother to her chest, rocked him, pressed her cheek against his blood-streaked face.
No. Oh, no.
***
Dave heard Braxton’s voice over Payback’s interphone. “Bogies dropping back, sir. Whoo-hoo!”
Watt’s face split in a broad grin. “They couldn’t keep up once they leveled out. Payback’s too fast for ’em. Thank you, Jesus.”
That was one thing Dave could amen. He nosed the B-25 right. They skimmed along a shallow valley, crossed a broad bay, and it was all open sea.
He nudged Payback into a slow bank a few-hundred feet above the waves, then leveled her out, making certain a narrow blue-green band of Japanese coast stayed visible on the right.
He took a deep breath and thumbed the switch for the interphone. “Well, men, we did our country a big service today. We can all be proud. Shoved it straight in the Japs’ teeth and got away clean. But don’t let your guard down. The enemy could come swarming off that coast at any time.”
His crew acknowledged his order. Watt spoke up beside him. “My turn on the yoke?”
“Why not?” Dave shrugged, trying to release the tension from his shoulders. They were only four hours into the fourteen-hour mission, and his upper torso was one big knot. “Times like this, a fellow really wants a stiff one.”
Watt responded with a mirthless chuckle. “You might want it worse later. Not real sure how this is going to play out.”
Dave glanced at the fuel gauge. The auxiliary tanks were gone. Watt had switched them over to the mains before they reached Osaka. And they’d burned through all the extra fuel they’d loaded in cans.
He cursed to himself. If that Japanese trawler hadn’t discovered them, forced them to launch the raid farther out than planned...
The whole operation had banked on surprise. The carrier U.S.S. Hornet stowed its own aircraft belowdecks, so it could carry a group of the Army’s ground-based bombers topside. It took a Navy flotilla two-and-a-half weeks to convey their seventeen B-25s across the Pacific and park them a few hundred miles off the coast of Japan.
They’d trained for two months to master the specialized techniques that let them take off from Hornet. But once his bird left its nest on the carrier, there was no going back. The B-25s were too big to land on Hornet. So with Payback’s bomb bay empty, it was a matter of avoiding any pursuers—and the antiaircraft artillery—and flying over the Japanese-occupied portion of eastern China. Then finding a landing strip farther inland, in free China.
Fuel was always a consideration. But thanks to that puny Japanese fishing boat it had become a crisis. He’d been doing mental arithmetic off and on all morning. Whether they had enough gas to make it to their landing strip now was anyone’s guess.
Yep. I could use that drink.
Doc White had stowed five pint bottles of Navy-issue rye in Vitiollo’s nav compartment. One for each of them. “For medicinal purposes,” he said. Well, Dave could use a slug of “medicine” now. Get past the taste, and it’d warm the hatch going down and take a little edge off the tension. Too bad it was against the regs.
Vitiollo came up and leaned between their seats. “That was some day’s work, eh?”
“Sure was. Once we get Japan behind us, we can relax a little.” A shame they couldn’t crack out one of those pint bottles. It’d be fitting to toast those five thousand good American lads lying on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Heck, they’d done the whole world a favor today.
He licked his lips. “How many hours ’til we reach our welcome party in Free China?”
“About nine flight hours, sir. With a bit of luck and a tailwind, that should get us clear of the Jap-occupied zone.”
Jap-occupied zone. It could be real trouble if they didn’t get clear of the Japanese Army. He glanced again at the fuel gauge. This could be close. Real close.

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