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Fearless-Chapter 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January 1941

Hatfield Ferry Pool No. 5

Southampton, England

 

 

The sound of clacking heels on the linoleum floor made all those in the briefing room look up as Dorothy Clarke, who was the Commanding Officer of the Hatfield Ferry Pool No. 5 of the Air Transport Auxiliary, made her way to the lectern. Her appearance...dainty, one might say belied her tougher than nails attitude about her job and the women who served under her. As she stood at the lectern, her eyes gazed at her girls; the women who ferried aircraft between factories and airfields, freeing up male pilots so they could fight the Germans. With lips firmly set in a grim expression, her gray eyes stared at the paper in front of her before she cleared her throat to speak.

"Ladies, can we please have quiet." she said in a strong yet soft voice. With all eyes riveted on her, she continued. "Last night we lost two of our fellow pilots?" Her voice caught and she briefly closed her eyes to regain her composure. "While on a routine flight to deliver Vickers Wellingtons to Plymouth Air Station, Jo Laughlin and Sarah Faulkner apparently encountered dense fog that suddenly rolled in from the Channel. It is speculated that they lost their bearings and found themselves somewhere over the Channel. Spotters on the Isle of Wight reported seeing an aircraft slam into the water at great speed," Dorothy swallowed hard then continued, "rescue efforts failed to recover a body or the aircraft. As for the second aircraft, there were no sightings of it...at least from our side."

As Dorothy spoke, the room was deathly quiet as all the women sat in stunned silence...their division had never lost a single plane or pilot. One woman, Meg O'Brien, began sobbing with deep gulps of despair. Soon the sounds of soft crying prevailed as the group of closely knit women digested the news.

"Ladies," Dorothy said in a louder, more forceful voice than she intended. "We still have a mission and neither Jo nor Sarah would want us to forget our goals. Holding up a piece of paper she said, "Here are your assignments for today."

In stilted motions, the pilots stood and walked toward their commander, each seemingly bewildered by what they had just heard. As they received their assignments for the day, they left the briefing room with a cloud of sorrow following them.

Meg, with moisture filled eyes, was the last woman to get her assignment. "Are you sure?" her shaky voice asked.

With compassion, Dorothy touched Meg's arm. The striking twenty-three year old woman towered over her slight five foot four frame. Meg had a trim body with red hair, green eyes, and a deep rich Irish accent. "Yes, dear, I'm afraid so."

"It's not right," sobbed Meg, "I should have been flyin', not  Jo or Sarah."

"That was my decision, Meg. I picked both Miss Laughlin and Miss Faulkner for that specific mission."

"Damn," Meg cursed. "It's not fair."

"Neither is war, Meg. Just like you, both Jo and Sarah knew the risks and just like you, they were willing to accept the danger because they loved flying." Dorothy drew in a deep breath. "They were lost doing what they loved."

Meg nodded. "Will you let us know if you get any more information?"

"Of course." Dorothy watched the woman leave before she allowed the grief she'd been holding in to take hold. After a few minutes, she composed herself and headed for her office. The war was still raging.

Just as she stepped outside the door, Dorothy saw the ATA commander and momentarily froze in place before glancing at her watch. Commander Gower must have left headquarters before dawn to be there now.

"Have you heard anything more?"

Commander Gower lightly rested a hand on Dorothy's shoulder. "Let's go inside."

With the sound of the door closing behind her, Dorothy turned and looked at the woman who had been instrumental in ensuring women pilots would have a role in the war effort by ferrying planes throughout Britain. "It is bad news, isn't it?"

In the softest of voices, Commander Gower said, "Except for the report of seeing something go down in the Channel. We are not even sure that it was a plane...we have no concrete information on either Laughlin or Faulkner." The commander's eyes kept steady on Dorothy's face for any sign she might know something about the crash...she saw none. "At the moment I am considering them as missing and nothing more." She gathered her thoughts and continued. "I chose both women because of their experience and flying abilities. Laughlin has a good head on her shoulders, as does Faulkner. Until we have information that tells us otherwise, I am keeping them both on active status." Commander Gower shrugged slightly. "The more likely possibility, they were shot down."

Dorothy closed her eyes. "Yes, I thought that too." Dorothy said. "If any of my pilots could survive a crash, it is those two women."

Commander Gower nodded. "I cannot justify using resources that are stretched tight to search for them...I would like your group to do a search while they are on their missions today. I would also like to speak to them before I go."

"Of course. Thank you for your time, Commander Gower."

*

The barrack's rest room, which was what the RAF called the large room where the women pilots gathered, was abuzz with soft voices, all discussing the same topic...the loss of two of their ranks. The entire group, save Meg O'Brien, from the briefing stood in a loose cluster, none in a hurry to take on the day's assignment.

Bess Potter, a good looking, slight woman with light brown hair from Essington, England, wiped an errant tear away before she said, "I can't believe it. Just yesterday Sarah was telling me about how much she loved flying."

With her thick Chilean accent Camila Calvo, who had just returned from a flight, added, "She told me how happy she was. Her fianc was coming back from the war."

Brenda Hiller, one of two Australian pilots at Hatfield, nodded as a grim look crossed her face. "No doubt about it, mates, they were both bonzer women," her strained voice said. "Sarah is the reason I'm here," she added with great sadness.

Midge Reister, a lanky blonde, who looked more like a fashion model than a pilot, added, "I remember barnstorming with Jo all around Texas and Oklahoma." Her eyes scanned the group. "Of course, you already know that."

When Meg O'Brien came through the door and joined the periphery of the group, everyone looked in her direction.

Beverly Maddox, an American standing next to Meg, softly asked, "How's it going?"

Meg nodded before she lifted her head to reveal red rimmed eyes. "Right shattered," she whispered in her rich Irish brogue. "I can't believe she's gone."

Midge let out a sarcastic chuckle. "Save the sentiment, Meg. No one cares about your tears."

Meg balled her fingers as her green eyes narrowed and she moved aggressively toward the woman.

Not allowing Meg to intimidate her, Midge growled. "Jo is my friend, not yours. You were only a convenient bedmate for her. She loved me and wanted to be with me."

Meg let her Irish temper surface. "She couldn't get far enough away from you, Midge," she cried as her open hand met the blonde's cheek."

Holding her cheek, Midge advanced on Meg with a scowl.

Millicent Smyth-Armstrong, who was married to a lowly member of British royalty, stepped in between the women. "I have no love for the Irish but the brashness of you Yanks is too much. Jo and Meg shared a room. If something else was going on, it is none of our business," she said in a soft tone. "We all care about both Jo and Sarah." She focused her soft brown eyes on Midge. "Your remarks are uncalled for, Miss Reister." Millicent lifted her arm and pulled Meg close. "Just ignore her, my dear."

At that moment, the door opened and Dorothy Clarke, along with Commander Gower, entered the room and all went quiet.

"Ladies, Commander Gower has requested that you take some time today as you start your missions and fly over the area where Sarah and Jo flew last night. Keep your eyes open for wreckage, debris or any other signs of a plane crash."

A low rumble of voices filled the room.

Commander Gower held up her hand. "Right now our resources are running thin and I, along with the RAF, can't justify an intensive search. It is up to you to look for your fellow pilots." Her eyes scanned their faces. "Can you do that?" When everyone nodded, she said, "Right, now it is time to get busy. Fly safe, ladies."

Once the two women left, the senior pilot, Shannon Brannigan from Galway, Ireland, cleared her throat. "I can remember when you all first got here and how quiet and scared you were. You have turned into first rate pilots and now we must do our part in findin' our lost pilots and friends."

"By Jove, we will." Bess Potter commented as she ran her fingers through her light brown hair. "I couldn't believe I was actually accepted into the program and when I got here and saw all of you speaking so many different languages, I didn't know if I'd fit in." A slow smile filtered onto Bess's face illuminating her hazel eyes. "It was Jo who first spoke to me. I had never heard an American accent before that." With a self-effacing chuckle she added, "Except in the cinema. I remember thinking how great her voice sounded in real life."

"She was a fair dinkum woman to me, too." Brenda looked around at the blank looks. "Blimey, mates, you've been around me long enough to catch onto my slang. It means excellent." For a brief moment, a smile curved her lips.

A ripple of laughter flowed through the group.

"Sarah always understood me," Brenda said with a somber expression.

"Aye, lassie, that's because you are roommates and she didn't have a choice," Mara Nasmith said in her distinctive brogue. "She came ta me one day and asked if I understood what you meant. I remember laughing and saying no." Mara's lips formed a tight line. "She can't be gone."

It wasn't long before everyone added their memories of their two fallen comrades.

When the door opened again, a bald Reginald Applewhite, the senior group leader, entered and everyone went silent. "Ladies, you have missions to perform," his tone slightly pompous, though he was nothing of the sort. "You accomplish nothing with tears." He then turned and left the building.

Meg broke the silence when she said, "Too bad the door didn't hit him in the arse. Everyone laughed as she pulled out a small notebook from her jacket. "I'm flying a Hawker Typhoon today. Anything I should look out for?"

"Be careful not to dive...I had a hard time controlling it," Bess offered. "I've even heard of the tail section falling off in a dive."

Meg nodded and left the group. She didn't want them to see how devastating Jo's absence was to her. No one could ever know what Jo meant to her.

That day as each of the pilots flew, they kept their eyes peeled on the ground, hoping against all odds to find their friends and bring them back home.

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