Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772
The huge and sprawling U.S. Air Force base at Ocanara, Florida, is almost a world in itself. At its head is Major General “Bus” Beal, who was a hero in the Pacific theater in the early days of the war and is still at the age of forty-one an energetic and skillful flyer. To keep the operation of the base running smoothly, the general relies heavily on his Air Inspector, Colonel Norman Ross, who brings to his military duties the same resourcefulness that characterized his career as a judge in peacetime; Judge Ross needs all of his acumen to do the job.
Landing his AT-7 one night at the Ocanara airstrip, the general comes close to colliding with a B-17 piloted by Lieutenant Willis, one of the black fliers recently assigned to Ocanara, who violated the right of way. Lieutenant Colonel Benny Carricker, General Beal’s copilot, strikes Lieutenant Willis, who has to be hospitalized, whereupon General Beal confines Carricker to his quarters. The incident, while small, triggers a series of problems that, in the next two days, threaten to destroy the normal operations of the base. Several of the black fliers, incensed by what happened to Lieutenant Willis and further outraged because a separate service club has been set up for them, attempt to enter the white officers’ recreation building, an action that comes close to starting a riot.
To complicate the situation, tension develops between the Air Force base and some leading citizens of the town. Colonel Ross is the only member of General Beal’s staff who recognizes the hazards of the situation. For the others—in particular Colonel Mowbray and his assistant, Chief Warrant Officer Botwinick—the difficulties seem routine. Even General Beal is of little aid to Colonel Ross, for he is brooding unhappily over the arrest of Carricker and over the recent suicide of an old friend.
Other forces are compounding the difficulties among the members of the Air Force base. For Lieutenant Edsell, Willis’s hospitalization is the springboard for agitation, and he helps arrange a visit from Lieutenant Willis’s father to the base hospital. Only a few of the base personnel understand the difficulties Colonel Ross faces and the skill with which he operates. Those who do, such as Captain Nathaniel Hicks, are too concerned with their own problems to be of much assistance.
On the day Mr. Willis is to visit his son, the Ocanara base is host to another unexpected visitor, Brigadier General Nichols, the personal representative of the commanding general of the Air Force. To the embarrassment of all concerned, General Nichols’s purpose in coming to Ocanara is to award Lieutenant Willis a medal for bravery.
Whatever Colonel Ross may have dreaded from the visit, he is relieved to find General Nichols a not-unsympathetic man, for the general has trained himself to be stoic and tolerant. He understands the situation at a glance and, at the awarding of the medal at the hospital, conducts himself so that Willis himself is charmed.
On the following day, the base prepares for a celebration in honor of General Beal’s forty-first birthday. Colonel Mowbray organizes a military parade that is to include not only men and women from the Women Army Corps (WAC) marching but also planes flying in formation and parachute drops. General Nichols shares the reviewing stand with General Beal and his staff. In the nearby field, near a lake, Captain Hicks and his friend from the WAC detachment, Lieutenant Turck, are posted as observers.
The parade begins, and from their observation post, Captain Hicks and Lieutenant Turck see hundreds of parachutists begin the slow descent into a simulated conflict. Then tragedy strikes. A group of parachutists, having timed their leap badly, drop into the lake instead of hitting the field. In horror, Captain Hicks sees them struggle briefly in the water and then sink.
When news of the disaster reaches General Beal’s office, there is a moment of furious commotion. Charges and countercharges are flung without restraint. To Colonel Ross, it seems that fate has ordained nothing but problems for him and the base. General Beal finally takes command and begins directing rescue operations with precision and skill, revealing that throughout the past few days he has not been unaware of the conflicts going on.
That night, Colonel Ross accompanies General Nichols to the plane that is to return him to Washington. Reviewing the difficulties of the past three days, the Colonel sees that General Nichols is right: One can do no more than one’s best and, for the rest, trust the situation to right itself.
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