My father Stewart Cudworth was always a great writer. Typically this ability was funneled more into his job as a sales engineer in a career working for electronic and fiber optic companies. Yet early in his life he wrote fiction and sometimes teased my mother, an avid writer of poetry, that he was the better writer.
What follows is an essay written during wartime in 1943. This piece won the Literary Contest in the Bainbridge News and Bainbridge Republican newspaper in Upstate New York where he and my mother lived on farms a mere 200 yards apart. At the top of the newspaper clipping in my mother’s writing there is an inscription written in fountain pen. “By Stewart Cudworth. He won it. Fooey.”
My father was 19 at the time he wrote this. He did not serve in the air force as this story might have suggested, but instead enlisted in the United States Navy and served in the Pacific theater.
The story begins:
“Johnny Gordon saluted in reply to the C.O. and turned and walked to his Spitfire. He climbed in, all the time turning his orders over in his mind. He gunned the motor and took off just as the sun rose above the distant hills. It was his first operational flight and he thought about all his fighter instruction which had been drilled into his head, the best flying altitude, the tricks of Jerry and all the other little things that enter into a fighter pilot’s life. This flight Johnny was making was a “rhubarb,” so called because it consisted of flying low over the coastal territory of Europe, so low that the propellor sometimes chopped leaves off that sour plant, the main home crop of little northern France towns.
As he gained altitude to set his course, Johnny noticed the darkness emptying out of the hollows. There was a little knot in the pit of his stomach, but as soon as he saw the shimmering Channel, he forgot his worries to enjoy the short trip over the water.
Johnny picked a large wave and lowered the Spit into the trough and sped for France. He came over land and started looking for any Nazi activity to strafe. Apparently taking the Germans by surprise, he attacked a train, a supply depot and gun emplacements without opposition. Then he headed for the Channel and home, skimming the treetops.
As he cleared a small knoll he saw a group of German infantryman raise their rifles and fire at him. Johnny gave them the rest of his ammunition, which he had been saving for any Jerries he might encounter. Over his should he saw three of the soldiers fall; the rest scattered over the fields wth terror written on their faces.
About 10 miles from the coast without warning his motor suddenly quit cold. Johnny zoomed as high as his momentum would allow and picked his spot to land. Before the plane hit, he looked at the gauge and saw there was plenty of gasoline. Must be the Germans had hit is ignition. The Spit hit the rough ground and came abruptly to a stop. Although Johnny’s safety belt saved him from injury other than bruises, the plane was a complete washout. Fearing the arrival of a German patrol, Johnny headed for the weeds. Ass soon as he was out of sight he plopped down to rest and regain his strength, stretched out in the bushes for a short nap, hidden from hostile eyes.
When he awoke, the sun had climbed high in the sky and it shone directly from above. Johnny felt a slight gnawing in his stomach, so he arose and carefully made his way through the woods, keeping his eyes open in order toduck at the first sign of danger. If he were captured, there was no telling what might happen to him. Suddenly, as he passed a large tree, a voice said, “Arretez!” Johnny stopped as the voice commanded and slowly turned around. From behind the tree stepped a man with a mustache and dressed in the style of a French peasant. He said one word, “Yank?” and then motioned to Johnny to follow him. Johnny nodded and fell in behind. He marveled at the way the man picked his way through to a little thatched cottage with woods on one side and fields on the other. Across the fields he saw the smoke rising from the chimneys of a town. The peacefulness of the scene belied the cruel servitude these homeloving people were under.
After scanning the area, Johnny and the peasant sneaked to the house. Inside, the man turned and said quickly with an accent, “In there,” pointing to the small attic. Johnny climbed up and laid down on the straw that was there. “Wonder how long I gotta stay here,” he thought. It seemed like hours before the peasant reappeared. He brought some black bread and some porridge. “here,” he said, “eet is the best I have.” Johnny muttered “Merci” remembering that fragment of his high school French. The food tasted good to this empty stomach, although ti was far different from the scientifically prepared diet of the A.A.C. The rest of the day dragged by and Johnny napped fitfully, being awakened frequently by the sound of distant airplane motors. He crawled to the knotholes to look out, but he couldn’t see any of the planes.
Dusk fell and Johnny again crept to the knothole, and looked out into the night. There was a bright moon shining through broken clouds.
Good night to hit Berlin with some blockbusters,” he thought. Then his mind turned for the firs time to home, his family, his girl and the gang back home in the drug store. He said a little prayer that he might see them all again.
About two hours after sunset, Johnny’s benefactor put his head through the door. “C’mon, M’sieu Yank,” he said in a low voice. “It is time to go.” Puzzled, Johnny slid down to the room below. There the peasant swiftly coated Johnny’s face with lampblack. Then they set out into the woods with only brief patches of moonlight for a guide. It was eternity before they stopped, thought Johnny. The man said nothing but pointed to the North. They were on a slight rise and in the distance was the sparkling Channel. They pressed on to a small cover in which there was a small fishing boat with another man in it. The peasant led Johnny to the beach and whistled softly to the man in the boat. “Au revoir, M’sieu Yank,” and vanished into the night.
The man in the boat beckoned to Johnny to get in and then cast off. There was a brisk southern breeze and they soo passed into the open seas. For the first time the boatman spoke. He surprised Johnny with his fluence in English. “You are flier, ”est-ce pas,” he asked. Johnny replied. “Yes, I was forced down this morning and was hidden by the peasant who brought me here. He said very little, but I trusted him completely.”
“Yes, Georges Dandot he is one of our best men,” said the Frenchman. “He speaks little English, but he does good work anyway. I am Pierre Robert. I used to be a university professor before the fall of France. We are both members of the Underground which fights the Nazis under the cover of dark. You are the 13th flier we have returned to fight another day.”
“But aren’t you caught returning by the Germans?” asked Johnny. “Wouldn’t they kill you?”
“Yes, I am sometimes caught, but I shrug my shoulders and say that the wind blew me off my course. The Boches don’t dare kill me, because for every dead Frenchman they find a strangled Stormtrooper by the road. Some day, when the Allies invade Europe, all of France will rise and fight the enemy. Then France will regain her glory.”
As the white cliffs of England rose in the moonlight, a flight of four-motored bombers passed over on their way to Germany. Pierre, who had been calm in his conversation with Johnny, rose and addressing them said in a tremulous voice, “Hit the enemy in its vitals ––for la belle France.” His voice died to a whisper and he said no more until the boat scraped on the beach. Then he said simply, “We shall meet again I hope.” With that he headed to France.
Johnny watched the small bot until it vanished from sight. Then he turned and walked up the beach to the barricade where he would find some Home Guards. When he returned to his station, he would have something to tell people––that la belle France still fights.
The story predicts the future:
At the time this piece was written, France was obviously under the rule of Germany. That next year on D-Day, June 6 of 1944, the American move into Europe that defeated Hitler and his troops began. In some small way, even fiction written during wartime contributes to the hope of defeating a dangerous enemy. And that’s the right kind of pride.