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Wings of mercy

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Near the end of World War II, on a large island in the South Pacific, an Air Force captain was in charge of a small unit of men who serviced and repaired fighter planes.

The captain, trained as a fighter pilot, had flown only a handful of missions during the war, and as the war came to a close, he became increasingly bitter over this fact. He began to drink heavily and to isolate himself for long periods of time. He made angry, excessive demands on his men and often threatened them with punishment for hesitating to obey.

As the camp was remote from other camps on the island, the captain's ugly, brooding behavior never came to the attention of the major in charge of the island. The men themselves were intimidated and hesitated to spread the word that he was dangerously close to losing control of himself.

Every morning at sunrise the captain ordered his men - twenty-five in all - to gather in front of his office for muster. With the men at attention he would come out of the door with a clipboard. If he had been drinking, he would hold himself steady on the railing by the wooden steps of the porch and stare at his clipboard. If he was sober, he would read from the clipboard, angrily tell the men of their shoddy work and threaten them with penalties if they continued their poor performance.

Some of the men, eager to return home after a long war, were increasingly intolerant of the captain's behavior and grew to hate him. Behind his back they wished all sorts of misfortune on him.

In the crew was a man named Smith, a short, quiet man of little education but with a soft wit and extraordinary patience. He too longed to be a fighter pilot but had failed several qualifying tests and could only be a mechanic to the planes he loved. While the level of anger over the captain's behavior increased among the men, Smith was relatively quiet and simply went about his job with the same thoroughness he had always shown.

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