by Doug Prince
Fire from the Sky
That boom-boom sound comes naturally to the male species. It's a rare girl who can make the noise properly. We threw gravel on people passing below, bricks on stray cats and dogs, pretending we were dropping American bombs on the Nazis. Fifty years later I still remember the illicit pleasure and the malice of doing that. Now that video games are available on which one can enact the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, children discuss knowingly bombs guided by lasers and TV cameras. I think we had a clearer idea of what hitting a building really means, and still that didn't stop us. We were as heedless as today's generals pressing a button and watching the computer screen excitedly for the outcome.
The British and the Americans started bombing Belgrade on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1944. The official version from the United States Air Force speaks about heavy bombers "conducting strikes against Luftwaffe and aviation targets" with "approximately 397 tons of bombs." It also says: "According to one report, these operations of 17 of April resulted in some damage to a residential area northwest of Belgrade/Zemun airdrome. Most of the destruction wrought by the two days' activities, however, appears to have been military in nature." It's that word appears, judiciously inserted in the report, that is the crux of the matter.
It was just before lunchtime. The dining room table was already set in a festive way with our best china and silverware when the planes came. We could hear them drone even before the sirens wailed. The windows were wide open, since it was a balmy spring day. "The Americans are throwing Easter eggs," I remember my father shouting from the balcony. Then we heard the first explosions. We ran down to the same cellar, where today some of the original cast of characters are still cowering. The building shook. People covered their ears. One could hear glass breaking somewhere above. A boy a little older than I had disappeared. It turned out that he had slipped out to watch the bombs fall. When the men brought him back, his mother started slapping him hard and yelling she's going to kill him if he ever does that again. I was more frightened of her slaps than of the sound of the bombs.
At some point it was all over. We shuffled out. The enthusiasts of aerial bombardment either lack imagination for what happens on the ground, or they conceal their imaginings. The street was dark with a few flames here and there. With all the dust and smoke in the air, it was as if the night had already fallen. A man came out of the gloom covered with fallen plaster, telling us that a certain neighborhood had been entirely leveled. This was typical. One heard the most outrageous rumors and exaggerations at such times. Thousands of deaths, corpses lying everywhere, and so forth. It was one of the poorest parts of the city he was talking about. There were no military objects there. It didn't make any sense even to a child.
The day after the first raid in 1944, the planes came again, and it was more of the same. "They dropped about 373 tons of bombs on the Belgrade/Save marshalling yards," the official report continues. "This assault resulted in major destruction of freight and passenger cars, large fires, gutted warehouses, severe damage to the main passenger station, equally severe damage to the Railroad Bridge over the Sava River, etc. No report on this mission refers to the bombing of other than military objectives." Actually, a bomb landed on our sidewalk in front of our building. It spun around but didn't explode.
n 1972, I met one of the men who bombed me in 1944. I had just made my first trip back to Belgrade after almost twenty years. Upon my return to the States, I went to a literary gathering in San Francisco, where I ran into the poet Richard Hugo in a restaurant. We chatted, he asked me how I spent my summer, and I told him that I had just returned from Belgrade.
"Oh yes," he said, "I can see that city well."
Without knowing my background, he proceeded to draw on the tablecloth, among the breadcrumbs and wine stains, the location of the main post office, the bridges over the Danube and Sava, and a few other important landmarks. Without a clue as to what all this meant, supposing that he had visited the city as a tourist at one time, I inquired how much time he had spent in Belgrade.
"I was never there," he replied. "I only bombed it a few times."
When, absolutely astonished, I blurted out that I was there at the time and that it was me he was bombing, Hugo became very upset. In fact, he was deeply shaken. After he stopped apologizing and calmed down a little, I hurried to assure him that I bore no grudges and asked him how is it that they never hit the Gestapo headquarters or any other building where the Germans were holed up. Hugo explained that they made their bombing runs from Italy, going first after the Romanian oil fields, which had tremendous strategic importance for the Nazis and were heavily defended. They lost a plane or two on every raid, and with all that, on the way back, they were supposed to unload the rest of the bombs over Belgrade. Well, they didn't take any chances. They flew high and dropped the remaining payloads any way they could, anticipating already being back in Italy, spending the rest of the day on the beach in the company of some local girls.
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