It was July 4, 1942, a month after the Battle of Midway. Things were looking up for us, but it was still shaky. Even after losing all of those carriers, the IJN was a wounded tiger, but still a tiger and it seemed like Russia would collapse any minute in the face of Operation Barbarossa. I was sitting in Sloppy Joe’s in Key West hoping Papa Hemingway would come in and liven up the evening when a couple of OSS guys came in, and made a bee-line to me. They always wore trench coats and fedoras. They were so obvious. They might as well been wearing sandwich boards saying, “SPIES.” They wanted me to fly to Bimini and pick up a Nazi spook who had jumped off of a U-boat and defected. I was to fly him back to Key Largo in the fastest plane I could find. At the time, that was the Lockheed L12A, a sleek 6-seater that could get 200 knots when the conditions were right.
That morning when I got dressed, I put my Government Model Colt .45 Auto in a shoulder holster under my flight jacket, and strapped a .38 Special snub nose to my left calf in a leg holster that one of the local dicks had loaned me. I wasn’t taking any chances with this bastard. One false move and he was fish food. I really didn’t care. A Nazi is a Nazi, and the best Nazi is a dead one.
I dodged thunderstorm cells all the way out to Bimini. The weather wasn’t good. When I set the plane down at South Bimini and pulled up to the terminal, I really didn’t know what to expect. It’s a good thing it wasn’t 1944 after my brother was killed in France, because I would have shot the bastard on sight. He was standing there at the terminal in the same dumb trench coat and fedora that the OSS guys wore. I killed the engines, unhooked my harness and went back to open the door. Strangely, I offered him my hand to help him into the plane. “Danka,” he said.
“Take a seat,” I said. I got clearance to take off and taxied out to the runway. The big radials roared to life and soon we were sailing into the sky. I thought then that I should just shoot the bastard and push him out the door once we got over the water. I could tell the OSS guys that he gave me trouble.
“Captain, may I join you?” His English was perfect. He was behind my shoulder asking if he could sit in the copilot seat. “Sure, I love chatting with Nazis.” I’m thinking about how long it takes for my hand to move from the flight yoke to the .45 in my jacket.
“I am not a Nazi, Captain,” he said with a solemn tone.
“Sorry. Cheap shot. Do you have a name?”
“Walter,” he said.
“Ralph. Good to meet you. So why did you do it? I heard you jumped off of a U-Boat.”
“This is true. I was to chart the shore batteries at Galveston. You have some impressive guns there.”
“Yeah, we like guns. But, I mean, why? You know you’ll spend the rest of the war in an internment camp,” I said.
“Yes, I know. I cannot bear what is happening to Germany. The Fuhrer is mad.”
“No argument here.”
We sat in silence for a time. The sky floated by, dream-like. I didn’t know what to say to him. My instincts told me he was a decent guy caught in an impossible situation. “Do you like baseball?” I asked.
“Yes, I love the Yankees – Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio.”
“You have to find another team. Everybody loves the Yankees. Try the Dodgers or the Giants.”
“OK,” he said. “I will choose the Giants. They sound heroic. Dodgers sound like cowards.”
“They really aren’t a bad team, but I read you. Do you have a family?” His face dropped and he looked at the floor.
“I have a wife… and a young son.” You could hear the pain in his voice.
“Me, too,” I said.
“What is your son’s name?” he asked.
“Syd. I named him after the guy who had the best hi-fi system in Bryan, Texas.”
“So you like music? Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey? My son’s name is Walter, like mine. My family names all of its boys Walter.”
“Duke Ellington, Charlie Christian. Dorsey is OK. Sinatra is a pimp.”
“I did not know that,” Walter said.
“You heard it here first.” I hesitated. Crazy idea time… This is going to cost me. Then I just blurted out, “Look, Walter, I know a little airstrip in Cuba where I could drop you off. They don’t have any radios there. I could tell the spooks you jumped out of the plane and committed suicide.”
“’Spooks’ – this is a humorous expression, yes?”
“Your ‘spooks’ need to know what I know. Many lives could hang in the balance. I will go to Key Largo.”
“You’re all right, Walter. After the war, I’d like to buy you a beer.”
“I would like that. I suppose they don’t have Beck’s in your internment camp in Texas.”
“Maybe. I have a couple of friends in Washington who owe me. I’ll see what I can do.”
“That would be very kind. With a Beck’s I can endure almost anything.”
“I feel the same way about Lone Star.”
We ran out of things to talk about. We listened to the big Pratt & Whitney R-985 radials throb through the air. I have to admit that I was stunned by the man’s courage. He was ready to face anything to do what was right. He was a patriot in the truest sense of the word. The big .45 pressed against my ribs and I thought about how I was so ready to shoot him just a short time ago.
I tuned to Miami Center and began the process of descending down to Key Largo. Soon the plane would touch down, and this place would not exist anymore. Two men from opposite sides would go different ways. I would go back to the bar in Key West and Walter would go to a prison camp in Texas. In two years, my brother would be killed in France by Walter’s people.
I kept my word. After VJ Day, I called in some favors and got him out of the camp. I drove him to Austin and we had a beer.