Times Past, 1943
The Christmas Island Incident
It’s a typical day during World War II for Hop Harrigan. That is, until a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer crosses his path, headed for Japanese-held Christmas Island! Can Hop rescue Santa Claus in time to save Christmas?
December 24, 1943:
“Ummm, could you repeat that, Hop?”
Lieutenant Hop Harrigan of the U.S. Army Air Corps looked out the windshield of his Beech D18S amphibian plane, then pressed the button on his radio. “I believe you heard me, Tank,” he said.
“Oh, I heard you, all right,” Tank Tinker responded over Hop’s headphones. “I just want to hear you repeat it, so I get it right when I turn you over to the men from the asylum.”
The young blond pilot laughed. “I’m serious,” he said, although his tone made it hard to tell. “It really is snowing.”
“Quit pulling my leg, Hop,” the red-headed, overweight mechanic said.
“No lie, Tank. It really is snowing.”
“Real funny, Hop,” Tank said. “Everyone knows that it doesn’t snow in the Indian Ocean. I doubt any of the islands there have even had frost since the last ice age.”
Hop smiled at his friend’s disbelief. “Trust me,” he said. “If I weren’t here now and seeing it with my own eyes, I would be having the operator connect me with Bellevue myself.”
“You’re really serious,” Tank finally said.
“Yes,” Hop relied, laughing.
“How’s the plane doing? Are the wings icing up?”
Hop grew serious, but only slightly. “That’s the odd thing. My windshield, my wings, every part of this plane that I can see, is dry. It’s like the snow isn’t even touching me.”
“Where are you now?” Tank asked.
Hop checked his instrument panel, then his map. “A lot closer to Christmas Island than I should be.”
“Are you nuts?” Tank asked, a bit louder than he intended. “The Nips are crawling all over that place.”
“I swear,” Hop said, now completely serious, “these aren’t the coordinates I showed a few minutes ago. I don’t know what happened.”
Before Tank could reply, Hop blurted out, “Holey moley!”
“You need to lay off those Captain Marvel comics I gave you,” Tank told him. “What’s wrong?” he could hear the disbelief in the next words his friend spoke.
“You might want to get Bellevue on the horn.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
“Something just shot past me moving at a rate of speed I haven’t seen since the Movietone News people tried to catch the Flash on film.”
“Any idea what it was?” Tank asked. “Maybe one of those costume types has decided to take a bigger hand in the war than what they have so far.”
“Come off it, Tank. Those folks are doing their part by keeping the good ol’ USA safe and sound, so the boys in uniform can concentrate on taking care of Hitler, Tojo, and the rest of those rats.”
“I guess,” Tank said. “Still, just think of what Superman or Green Lantern could do to the Axis if they got into this fight good and proper.”
“Yeah, well. Anyway, I think I’m going to swing this bird around and see what’s going on. If you don’t hear back from me in a couple hours, send Wash in,” said Hop, referring to his mentor and fellow pilot, Major Prop Wash. Before Tank had a chance to respond and tell him what a horrible idea it was, Hop signed off and headed his plane in the direction of whatever it was that passed him.
“Boy,” Hop said, “am I going to hear about this when I get back to base.”
In the distance, toward the Japanese-held Christmas Island, Hop saw flashes of light in the dusk and knew in an instant that whatever it was that shot past him was coming under attack. Rather than maintain his current altitude and risk being picked up on radar, Hop began to descend. By the time he leveled off, the pontoons on his Beech were mere inches above the waves. As he neared the island, a thought popped into Hop’s head.
As fast as that thing was moving, there’s no way Tojo’s boys could have hit it. However, a nagging feeling wouldn’t let him turn his plane around and fly to safety.
Soon, the flashes were accompanied by the sound of exploding shells; at times, Hop could even hear the pinging of falling shrapnel bouncing off his plane. One burst, in particular, caught the pilot’s attention, and he knew that something had been hit. How the Japs could have targeted, let alone hit, something moving that fast was beyond his imagination, but it was very apparent that they had.
Luck was with him, and Hop made it to the island in one piece. Touching down, he killed the engines and rode the surf into a small, deserted cove that he spotted during the flashes of fire overhead. Time, he knew, was of the essence, since the Japs would soon have every available man out searching both the island and the surrounding sea for the crash site and any survivors.
He debated, briefly, the pros and cons of dropping the anchor, and decided he would rather not swim to the seaplane if he had to make a quick getaway. Before going ashore, Hop grabbed a pistol, made sure it was loaded, and then pocketed extra ammunition; they wouldn’t do much against the numerous soldiers on the island, but there were other things there just as dangerous as the Japanese, if not more so.
As he stepped onto the pontoon and leaped the few feet to the dry sand, Hop could hear the faint roar of engines in the distance. Beyond that, however, everything seemed quiet. Even the ack-acks had gone silent. Leery of the brush not twenty feet from the surf, he scouted the area along the beach.
Although the light was failing near the north end of the beach, he could easily see where the sand and bushes had been disturbed. Without giving it a second thought, Hop began to smooth the sand in an attempt to remove any traces of the disturbance. Realizing that the searchers would have lanterns, and that his footprints would not be hard to spot, he walked back to the water’s edge, making it look as though someone had come ashore and then headed back out to sea. It wouldn’t fool the Japanese for long, but it might buy him some time. Making certain that he was precise in placing his feet, Hop then walked backward, stepping in his own footprints until he was near the brush.
It was then that he heard the low moan.
Hop eased the hammer back on his pistol and, with his left hand, pushed the branches aside. Two things caught his eye at once. A small squad of Japanese soldiers were stepping through the brush several yards southwest of his position, and between him and them was what appeared to be a sleigh with a bent runner laying on its side.
The pilot immediately dropped to one knee and eased the branches back in place. He rubbed his eyes and tried to make sense of what he had just saw. Bellevue, here I come, Hop thought. He peeked through the bushes again.
After rubbing his eyes, he finally let his mind accept what they were seeing. It was, indeed, a sleigh — big and red — with a bent runner. Kneeling behind the sleigh, on the side closer to him and hidden to the Japanese, was a rotund gentleman dressed in red and trimmed in white with white gloves and black boots. Surrounding the sleigh, almost as though they were protecting it from the advancing soldiers, were eight reindeer — not tiny, cute things, but rugged-looking creatures bred to withstand the harshness of the Arctic.
Hop eased the bushes back in place. How the heck does a man go about rescuing Santa Claus from the Japanese? He heard yelling and knew that Santa had been discovered. He risked another peek.
The peek revealed that his worst nightmare was taking place mere yards from where he knelt. As he watched in horror, the reindeer backed away from the sleigh when the Japs approached. So much for protecting the big man, Hop thought, then realized that each animal was now positioned behind, or at least near, a soldier. Perhaps there is still a chance. Eight reindeer against eight soldiers; if nothing else, he might be able to start something and get Santa through the bushes and to his plane.
One shot ought to do it, Hop thought. As he pointed his pistol up to fire into the air, he saw Santa glance his way and shake his head.
“No guns,” Santa said.
There’s no way he could have… Hop thought, then the words to an old Christmas song popped in his head. He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake…
Fortunately, the Japanese still didn’t seem to realize that they were being watched, and from the look on their faces, they thought that Santa was talking to them. They began to laugh and wave their weapons in his direction.
Hop tucked the pistol into his belt and weighed his options. If Santa said no guns, then he would do this the hard way. Despite the absurdity of this whole setup, he decided that if you couldn’t trust Santa Claus, then who could you trust?
Santa made a move and, in response, one of the soldiers put himself between Hop and the sleigh. The pilot knew what he had to do.
With a shout, Hop charged through the bushes like a defensive end going for the quarterback. Several things happened at once when he made contact.
The reindeer reared up and brought their hooves down hard on the soldiers near them, disarming them with ease. The Jap that Hop hit stumbled forward, right into a powerful right cross from jolly old Saint Nick that dropped him like a sack of potatoes. Hop didn’t know who was more surprised, him or the Japanese soldiers. Before the soldiers could react, their rifles were scooped up by the reindeer’s antlers, and the animals re-formed their protective circle around Santa.
Quick as a wink, he grabbed a large sack from the sleigh and rushed past Hop. “Come on, boys!” he yelled to the reindeer. “To the plane. We’ve still got a run to make.”
As they leaped past Hop, one of the creatures stopped and nudged him toward the bushes. Closing his mouth, Hop followed them across the small beach.
Santa was already aboard, and the reindeer seemed to be having no problem climbing aboard themselves. Hop heard a shout behind him and saw the Japs coming through the bushes. While they had been relieved of their rifles, they still had knives and a couple of swords.
“Are you coming, Hop?” Santa called from the pilot’s seat.
“Uh, I, uh, yeah,” Hop answered. “I got to get the anchor.”
“Then be quick about it,” Santa laughed. “We’ve got a schedule to keep.”
“These guys are getting pretty close,” Hop said as he pulled up the anchor.
“Not a problem,” Santa said. “Just stay low and away from the door.”
Hop dropped low on the pontoon as he heard Santa shout.
“Blitzen! Go get them, boy!”
The big reindeer leaped from the plane and raced across the sand toward the Japanese soldiers. Most of them skidded to a stop in the sand, although one seemed a bit braver and only slowed for a second. He started to raise his knife to defend himself when Blitzen gave another leap and, planting his back hooves square on the soldier’s shoulders, brought his front hooves down on the man’s back, knocking him to the ground. Instead of landing on the sand beyond the soldiers, however, the reindeer continued to climb into the sky as though he were running on flat ground.
“Have the boys come and collect the sleigh,” Santa called to the northbound reindeer. “I’ll see you come morning.”
Hop scrambled into the plane as Santa maneuvered it out into the water. Once the door was closed behind him, he climbed into the co-pilot’s seat and reached for the controls.
“You’d better let me handle the flying, tonight, Hop,” Santa said, “I’ve got a bit more experience at this sort of thing.”
“What just happened?” Hop asked. “Are you really…?”
A twinkle in the big man’s eye told him the answer.
“Hop?” Santa asked. “Could I get you to do me a favor?”
“Uh, yeah. Sure. Anything for you.”
“Could you check and make sure I have a lot of coal in my bag?”
Confused, Hop nodded. “OK, but if you don’t mind me asking, why?”
Santa Claus smiled. “Well, there are a lot of Japanese soldiers between here and the free world, and I have to leave them something.”
Hop thought about it, and all he could do was laugh.