Hurtling toward a bombing target near Rostock, Germany, on Feb. 24, 1944, the tail gunner of a B-17 nicknamed Dear Mom suddenly caught sight of an approaching enemy aircraft amid exploding black puffs of flak.
Co-pilot James Keller of Baltimore was on his 21st such mission in World War II - four more of these harrowing flights over Germany's heartland and he had a ticket home.
But in a flash, a shattering explosion rocked the left wing.
"Oh, my God. ... Oh, Libby!" screamed Keller, calling for his maker and his fiancee, Elizabeth, back on Bentalou Street.
Keller's action in the next crucial minutes would decide the fate of the 10-man crew of Dear Mom, now tilting wildly out of control at 21,000 feet and threatening to crash in Nazi territory.
Those were times when uncommon valor was commonplace, when the world depended on fliers and riflemen and sailors and paratroopers to restore peace, to end the extermination of a people. More than 50 years later, these warriors who survived the Depression and World War II would become known as the "Greatest Generation."
Memorial Day ushers in the summer and offers holiday sales. But veterans reserve the day as a personal, somber reminder of the ultimate sacrifices made, from Belleau Wood and Tarawa to Chosin Reservoir and Ia Drang Valley, and beyond. They observe this holiday with a wisdom only they possess.
And now, these World War II vets are dying at nearly 1,000 a day, and their treasured stories are going with them.
Many have begun shedding their warrior's silence, telling their stories in classrooms, on Web sites and cable television - including Keller and another Baltimorean, Lt. Lou Ellis, who would gamble against the same awful odds aboard his B-17, Little Patches. They're finally letting go of images seared into their beings, of memories long kept private.
In the cockpit of Dear Mom, Keller fought to keep the plane aloft. Meanwhile, his crew's .50-caliber machine guns were blazing, keeping the Luftwaffe fighters away. Nobody had time to jettison the bombs, a heavy drag on the aircraft.
His pilot was dazed, and Keller couldn't reach the autopilot controls. Even with his oxygen mask secured to his face, he felt strength ebbing from his body, the deadly embrace of unconsciousness beckoning.
Suddenly, the pilot snapped out of shock and activated the autopilot. As Dear Mom stopped shuddering and its path smoothed out, Keller's grip of the controls slipped. He passed out as the ship banked and headed back to base at Snetterton, England.
Against bitter odds
Keller survived one of the most treacherous assignments of the war, flying B-17s in daylight raids. The odds for those who made bombing runs over Germany were brutal - an American air crewman based in England had a 1-in-3 chance of surviving 25 missions.
There were times when the casualty rate was 60 percent for the U.S. 8th Air Force. In some of the murderous runs over Berlin, only two bombers out of 21 returned. The 100th Bomb Group, known as the "Bloody 100th," lost 177 planes in combat and 52 in accidents. If the Germans shot down a B-17, they killed or captured four officers and six enlisted men.
"I don't know which was worse, the sustained infantry fighting on the ground across France or flying bombing missions over Germany," said CBS television commentator Andy Rooney, who did both as an Army sergeant and combat correspondent in World War II.
"On the ground, there was the constant misery," said Rooney. "But in the 8th Air Force you could eat dinner off plates, go into London and meet a girl, then go fly into the worst kind of terror one could imagine. And the odds were stacked against you if you were in a B-17."
When Lieutenant Keller returned home from Europe, he had won the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with four clusters. His days with the 338th Squadron of the 96th Bomb Group were history.
Keller, a retired printer, is 84 now. He lives in a comfortable little home near Sue Creek in Essex. His beloved Libby died in 1999, after 55 years of marriage, but his twin daughters, a son, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren keep him happy.
He remains active in his hunting club in Pocomoke City. He has a little runabout on a trailer - it's named Dear Mom. Occasionally, you can find him sipping a cold beer at the local American Legion hall.
"During the war I was scared all the time. ... I saw a lot of hits in the air because our bombing formations were huge, hundreds of planes sometimes, and the German anti-aircraft fire was so thick," Keller said. "When one of our planes got hit, you could watch the parachutes open and you'd count them. And when you got back to England, you would hear who didn't come back, see the empty bunks.
"I never made friends with anybody over there because they, or you, would be gone so fast. It hurt too much to lose the few that I became buddies with."
Keller said he prayed a lot during bomb runs. And he started off every mission with the same ritual - left sock on, left flight coverall leg on, left boot on. Then he took care of the right side and got dressed for war.
"I don't look back on those days as the 'good old days,'" Keller said. "During the Depression, I was raised in a home and there were no jobs. But after the war, this country took off. Everybody had a house, a car, kids.
"That's what we fought for, a free country," Keller said. "But I'll tell you something, that freedom wasn't free."
On a street in Hamilton in Northeast Baltimore, not far from where he grew up, Ellis, 80, brought souvenirs into the living room to show a visitor. One is a plaque bearing two jagged pieces of metal.
"On our way back to England from a mission over Germany, I found them in my lap, pieces of shrapnel," said Ellis. "I keep them to remind myself that luck has everything to do with life."
Ellis, a lieutenant and co-pilot, flew 35 bombing runs over Germany - 10 more than Keller, because by that time, B-17 crew members were in short supply. The Allied command did not want to rotate experienced airmen back home too soon.
His aircraft, Little Patches, was another of the durable B-17s that limped back to England several times, shot up or running "on fumes." Ellis' crew bombed Berlin three times, along with synthetic oil plants at Merseburg, some of the most heavily defended German targets of the war.
Ellis was based at Bassingborn, England, near Cambridge, a place of culture and comfort.
"We had central heat, showers and a room we shared with another crew member. There was less of the officer-enlisted man distance. ... Some crews called each other by their first names. But everybody was a professional, we all knew there was this important job to do."
The price of war
He logged 850 combat hours over Germany in the cramped confines of Little Patches.
"There was lots to complain about and lots of high danger," Ellis said. "The temperature was about 70 below zero at the altitude we flew at. Our targets were rail yards, submarine ports, factories and Berlin, and they were ringed with anti-aircraft guns."
Ellis' crew, too, had its superstitions - none of them laundered flight coveralls.
"I know it doesn't make any sense, but neither did the insanity of combat," he said.
His worst flight was Feb. 26, 1945, when his aircraft bombed Berlin. One of the engines was knocked out, and anti-aircraft fire knocked a gaping hole in the fuselage. With some expert flying, Little Patches got the crew home one more time.
Ellis, a graduate of Polytechnic Institute, came home after the war and worked for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. He's retired now and has been married to his wife, Dorothy, for 50 years. They have five grown children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Nowadays, he feels comfortable enough with his wartime experiences to visit schools and present a slice of living history to students.
"It is our obligation as combat veterans to tell it like it was, so our nation's young persons coming up know the price that was paid," he said.
A son, James E. Ellis, joined him during a recent high school visit. The younger Ellis, a supervisor with the Baltimore office of the FBI, said that like many World War II veterans, "Dad didn't mention the war to us much when we were young, but he opened up later."
One night at home, the teen-age son had inquired of the father, "Dad, we won the war, didn't we?"
After a pause, the father gently responded, "Nobody ever wins a war."