AT press headquarters in North Africa, war correspondents were looking over some new aerial photographs of bomb damage to Axis shipping. The pictures had been taken above the harbor of Palermo, Sicily, immediately after a raid by Flying Fortresses.
Jack Crane was inspecting the photographs closely with a reading glass when an American colonel introduced himself. His name was Swanson.
Crane soon found out that Colonel Swanson was in charge of an Air Force aerial photography squadron, As a second lieutenant in the last war, the colonel had flown observation planes in France in 1918.
"Twenty-five years ago," Colonel Swanson told Crane, "aerial observation was only at the beginning of its development.
"In France, in 1918, we had no radio in our planes. I remember flying over the German lines 'spotting' artillery fire. I would watch how close to the target our shells were falling. Then, having no radio, I had to fly back to my base and telephone to the gunnery officer!
"We've made a lot of progress since those horse-and-buggy days. Come out to my flying field tomorrow, if you're interested. I think we can give you a story."
* * *
The colonel was as good as his word. When Crane arrived the next morning he was shown over the field and allowed to ask all the questions he wanted.
He saw how infra-red film could be used to make enemy camouflage show up on a photograph. He inspected high-speed cameras equipped with telescopic lenses and able to make detailed pictures from a height of over six miles.
Jack Crane was even taken up in an observation plane for a routine-flight over enemy positions. He saw how the camera was handled in making intelligence photographs. He learned the procedure for reporting enemy movements by radio from the plane.
Then, over the noon meal, he talked with the pilots and photographers about their work. He realized, as he listened, how dangerous their work could be even more risky, in some ways, than actual air combat.
Hearing their stories, in fact, Crane was reminded of big-game hunters who, armed only with cameras, go out in peacetime after wild animals and "bring 'em back alive."
Take, for example, the story of Lieut. Dan Casson a story which Jack Crane sent by radio that evening to the New York office of the Consolidated Press.
Casson was one of the most expert American photography officers in Africa. His plane was a single-motored fighter.
By stripping this plane of its guns and protective armor, Casson and his pilot had been able to push its ceiling up to well over 30,000 feet.
"At that height, Axis planes and anti-aircraft don't bother you," Casson told Crane. "You don't need armor and machine guns.
"Last week, though, we came down low for a 'close-up' over Sicily. Then it was a different story.
"I can't tell you the name of the port, but we'd taken many pictures there before. One day the photos showed a cargo we couldn't recognize, being unloaded at one of the piers. Our intelligence officers wanted to know more about it."
"Casson and his pilot volunteered to go over and take 'close-ups'," another officer broke in. "They had to make the flight at mid-day, because that was the only time when full daylight fell on the pier they wanted to photograph. They couldn't hope to catch the enemy defenses unmanned at that time of day.
"Now it's one thing to fly over enemy positions in fighting formation, when each plane (besides being armored) is protected by all the others. It's something quite different to fly over as a lone wolf, with no armored protection and no guns.
"When Casson took off here, we figured he and his pilot didn't have more than a one-in-five chance of getting back to home base."
Now Casson was talking again. "It wasn't as bad at that," he said. "We surprised them a bit by flying in from the land side. We were close to the harbor before the alarm was given.
"I was taking pictures when the firing started. Suddenly every ship in the harbor seemed to be shooting in our direction.
"As soon as my job was done, I looked up from the camera. We were skimming along the tops of the waves. I thought we were going to pancake into the water, but the pilot was grinning happily.
"We were getting away! There was no doubt about it. Another two minutes passed, and we were safe.
"The Nazis had missed us over the pier. After that, they never had another good shot at us. My pilot outsmarted them by diving down so low over the water that they couldn't shoot at us without hitting their own ships."
* * *
"How did you feel," Jack Crane asked, "as you came down over the pier and the guns opened up at you?"
"I was too busy taking pictures to feel anything," Casson replied. `But I can remember what the pilot was saying.
"'We could sure use some of that armor-plate now,' he was muttering. 'I know now what an egg feels like in an eggshell'."
NEXT WEEK: JACK CRANE MEETS THE AMBULANCE DRIVER WHO NEVER GAVE UP.