By Mark S. McDonald
CASTLE ROCK, COLO. — At first, it was only a faint whistle, then a shrill scream, growing louder, ever louder. Three young soldiers looked as one to the sky. They had heard this dreaded sound before.
Dive-bomber. Incoming, and fast.
With no time to think and even less time to act, two men seeking refuge in a farmhouse in rural Spain darted left through an open doorway, escaping the awful fate of being crushed by the collapsed ceiling of a bombed-out building. They ran into a patio where they could be surrounded with the protection of stucco walls and overhanging trees.
The third soldier, even younger and skinnier than the other two and perhaps not yet as street-wise, made a different, and seemingly unwise, choice. Instincts told him stay in the house, so he took only three steps to his right, dropping into a crouch with hands over his ears.
So much for evasive action. The soldier with the quick wit and an even quicker smile was, quite literally, a sitting duck.
Quivering under the incoming bomb, the men braced breathlessly for the coming explosion. Was it one plane? Or, mi Dios – dear God — two coming at once?
The year was 1936. Europe was in political, social and financial chaos. Adolph Hitler had risen to power, rallying the German people with promises of wealth and prosperity. To feed this lust for influence and power, Hitler built a Nazi war machine, bristling with Panzer steel and Luger lead, that would soon overrun Poland, Belgium, Norway, Holland and invade Russia. As Hitler flexed his political and military biceps, no nation in eastern Europe was safe from his reach.
To the east, Italian dictator and avowed fascist Benito Mussolini was making ominous noises. In the early 1930s, Mussolini, with a blood-lust for conquest, had declared war on France and the United Kingdom, believing that a peace treaty would soon follow, gaining him new glory and additional territories.
Caught the jaws of this ever-tightening external vise of gun powder and shrapnel was Spain, where threats from within were just as real.
Peace-loving Spaniards living in Barcelona and regions north of Madrid, had realized another evil force, this one pounding them in the belly from within their own borders. It was the iron-fist of fascist Francisco Franco.
Young Spanish males, hopelessly trapped in this scenario, faced a grim, life-changing choice. He could side with Franco loyalists and eat regularly while overwhelming and dominating neighboring provinces, or he could join the rebels of resistance, and risk facing starvation or a firing squad.
Either way, the Spanish teenager had to take up arms against his fellow countrymen, his paisanos, his neighbors or even his own uncles and cousins.
Strained and stretched by this conflict, Spain’s economy heaved and buckled under the weight of violence. Money was scarce, so fuel and food – especially beef, poultry, eggs, anything with protein — became the gold standard for trade in the streets.
Such was the world facing the bright-eyed Jorge Salvador when he joined the rebel forces, and started growing up too fast, seeing things a 16-year-old should not have to see.
Jorge – “George” as he would come to be known – quickly discovered that rebel “forces” were not forces at all. Rather, they were random groups of desperate freedom-lovers, left largely to fend for themselves, young men – kids, really – with no uniforms, minimal training, mediocre equipment, haphazard leadership and an empty belly. The lucky ones had a pair of boots from home and a water canteen.
Short on supplies but long on hope, Salvador and his rebel mates were hungry, always hungry. These rag-tag “troops” survived, but barely, begging for bread baked in the modest kitchens of dirt-poor local farm families, who themselves were scratching out a living. What the rebels could not beg, they stole from the fields, pilfering potatoes and grapes from the very farmers they vowed to protect.
Engaged as they were in what amounted to guerilla warfare, fighting quite literally housetop to housetop, often low on ammo. Salvador wondered what would be the first to get him — disease and starvation, a sniper round or the dreaded Sturzkampfflugzeugs, or Ju 87 Stuka. Hitler’s mighty dive-bomber was to the sky what the Panzer was to the ground, a demon of destruction.
This low-wing, single-engine aircraft made its combat debut in 1936. Striking civilian and military targets with wicked efficiency, the Stuka c
ould dive to low altitudes and drop bombs with accuracy never before seen. As the brazen, unblinking ruler of eastern European skies, the Stuka’s very design added to the fear factor.
The Stuka’s innovative features included automatic dive brakes under both wings, which allowed the aircraft to recover and pull out of an attack dive, even if the high acceleration caused the pilot to black out. Fitted with gull-shaped wings attached to the undercarriage, the durable Nazi plane emitted a high-pitched, wailing siren, a screaming whistle that warned all below to take cover. For years to come, this doomsday sound, known as “Jericho’s trumpet,” would haunt the nightmares of thousands of Europeans.
The yowling scream of Jericho’s trumpet was deafening that day, even as Salvador covered his ears. The closer the bomber came, the more the teenager wondered if he would ever work next this carpenter father again. Would he ever taste another slice of his mother’s homemade bread? Was this goodbye to his two sisters, to his older brother, Raymond, whose soccer skills were admired far and wide.
The youth, reared a Catholic, murmured a prayer in Spanish, but he never had a chance to cross himself.
Suddenly, the world exploded, flashed white and he felt weightless, as though he were flying. Then everything went black. When he regained his senses, he kept his eyes shut, shaking the cobwebs in his head.
Am I dead? Have I just gone to heaven?
Determining that he was indeed still alive, he opened his eyes and lowered his hands from his ringing ears. Swirling dust and air-borne debris landed on his face, causing him to wheeze and cough.
If this is heaven, God has some major repairs to do, he thought. Then he began to take a personal inventory. He bent his legs, straightened his arms, moved his neck and wiggled his fingers. They all worked.
Only when he raised himself to one elbow did he gather his wits to discover his new position. He realized he was no longer inside the kitchen.
The force of the bomb had sent his 5-foot, 3-inch 140-pound frame sailing through a gaping hole in the side of what had once been the home of a happy Spanish family. Then, he remembered he had not been alone.
Standing on wobbly knees, he climbed over piles of stone and splintered timber. Outside in the patio, dust and debris drifted to the ground. His body rejected the dust with a healthy sneeze, breaking the utter silence. It was as if the birds and the breeze dared not make a sound, for fear the Stuka would return.
When the soldier began searching for his friends, he spotted something that turned his empty stomach. Before him sprawled a tangle of arms and legs, a teenager like himself, bleeding from the ears, his torso coursing blood.
“No-o-o-o!” Salvador shouted as he knelt in the rubble.
His comrade in arms was still breathing, but barely, his pulse faint and fading. Helpless to save his dying friend, Salvador closed his eyes, raised his face to the sky and said another prayer – he prayed often these days – only this time, he crossed himself.
Rising to his feet, the young soldier began searching the wreckage for his second countryman. His heart sunk when he found only a splatter of blood and bits of human flesh, along with a tattered swatch from a shirtsleeve. Nothing more.
Only then did the events of the last couple minutes come clear.
When the Stuka dropped the bomb, the explosion totally disintegrated one of his fellow rebels and fatally wounded the other. The blast had blown a sturdy wooden door off its hinges, sending it flying across the kitchen, knocking Salvador 20 feet from where he was hunkered. Somehow, some way, he had escaped certain death.
Call it fate, blind luck or good fortune. Jorge Salvador Milian had survived with only scratches and bruises.
Surrounded by the ravages of human conflict, yet grateful to be alive, the youth who would one day come to be known as George Salvador, as he would come to be known, winner of the U.S. Army Air Forces Distinguished Flying Cross for meritorious service, could not control what happened next. He wept.
“I cried,” Salvador would say some 67 years later. “I cried for my buddies. I cried because I was happy to be alive. I couldn’t help it.”
There was something else, too, a gnawing in his gut. Only later would Salvador realize that he wept because, in a vague but very real way, he sensed he was out of place.
He loved Spain, his adopted home, his family and all his relatives in the Barcelona area. He enjoyed playing soccer with his friends. He loved riding his bike in the hills outside Barcelona. But he longed to go back to his native America.
Salvador did not remember anything about his brief experience in America. Only a year after being born in a Colorado mining camp with the help of a Ute midwife, Salvador’s family had moved to Spain. He wasn’t really sure why but, he felt the need – the longing — to return to the United States. The young soldier could not explain it, but the magnetic pull of his birthplace was beckoning.
Called “El Americano,” the American, by his neighborhood buddies back in the once-peaceful suburbs of Barcelona, most kids Salvador’s age were learning to drive and lining up dates for the school dance. Instead, he had already evaded death once. Little did Salvador envision that, soon, doom would come calling again … and again … and again.