AFTER the Allied victory in North Africa, Jack Crane wondered where the Consolidated Press would send him next. He cabled New York: "Awaiting your instructions."
Crane had only a short time to wait. The next day a cable arrived for him at American press headquarters. "You have been promoted to take charge of all our war news," it read. "Return by air to America to take up your new duties."
With mixed feelings, Crane packed his bags. He was glad to be given such an important post. Yet it saddened him to think that his career as a war correspondent must, at least for the present, come to an end.
* * *
Late that afternoon, Jack Crane went out to the flying field used by the U.S. Army Air Transport Command. There he obtained a promise of transportation to America, as soon as space was available.
There might be only a few hours to wait, he was told. At most, it would be only a day. The officer in charge advised Crane to stay around the field. Then he took him to the officers' mess, where Crane met one of the Army's veteran air transport pilots.
Jules Johnson, as this pilot was called, had been an airline pilot before Pearl Harbor. With the coming of war, the Army gave him a commission as a flier in the Air Transport Command. Then they put him to work piloting two-motored transports across the heart of tropical Africa.
"I've watched the Air Transport Command grow up," Johnson told Crane. "At first it was a shoestring organization working with borrowed planes. By the end of 1943, it will be ten times bigger than all the world's pre-war airlines put together.
"Almost one-third of the big planes being built in America are destined for air transport service.
"Our service girdles the world. From America some planes go westward to Alaska and Australia. Others go eastward to Africa, India and China.
"It's an exciting job to fly and navigate these planes. I like it. I believe we're pioneering for the air-transport age which is certainly coming after the war."
IT HAD TO PROVE ITSELF
Captain Johnson told Crane that at first many people thought that air transport would never amount to much in wartime. Planes could not carry big enough loads, they used to argue. War cargoes (such people thought) were too heavy to be carried by air.
"Then came air transport's chance to prove itself," Johnson said. "It was during the battle for Egypt, at the time when Hitler's Afrika Corps came closest to taking Cairo.
"The British had lost almost all their tanks outside Tobruk. For hundreds of miles they had retreated before the Axis. Now the fighting was so close to Cairo (Egypt's capital) that gunfire could be plainly heard in the downtown streets.
"At El Alamein, the British troops halted their retreat to make a last, desperate stand. They had the anti-tank guns they needed to stop the enemy onslaught But the guns were almost out of ammunition."
To ship the needed anti-tank shells from Britain to Cairo Johnson explained, would take almost three months. The Mediterranean was closed by Nazi planes. The only sea route open was around the southern tip of Africa.
A CABLE TO WASHINGTON
"In desperation, the British general staff cabled to Washington asking if anti-tank shells could be shipped by air," Johnson went on. "The Air Transport Command never hesitated.
"I was in America at the time and they chose me to carry one of the first loads of shells. We picked them up at the factory and took off for Africa.
"It was a routine flight for us, but the men in the desert could scarcely believe their eyes. We were unloading shells at a forward airport only 72 hours after their order arrived in Washington.
"Mine was the first plane to land in Egypt. You should have seen those British tommies cheer when they recognized our cargo. There was a camouflaged anti-tank emplacement right where my plane landed and they sent a man across to ask for a case of ammunition.
"He was a Cockney, Crane, and I'll never forget the happy grin on his face. 'Crikey, you Yanks certainly 'urry,' he said. 'Wots this 'ere? Special delivery?'"
* * *
"It seemed funny, then, Crane," Johnson continued, "but it isn't so funny when we look back.
"Because if those tommies hadn't received their anti-tank shells, the German army could probably have pushed right on to Cairo. If that had happened you would never have seen the Axis disaster in Tunisia that you've just been reporting ..."
The next day, as Crane flew home to America, Captain Johnson's final words were still ringing in his ears. "That's how air transport saved the day," he had said, "and paved the road for our final victory in Africa."
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