Pantanella Air Base, Bari, Italy, December, 1944:
“DEDICATED TO THE GLORY OF GOD
A LOVING MEMORY OF THOSE MEN IN THE 464TH BOMBARDMENT GROUP WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES FOR PEACE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS”
Lieutenant Franklin “Ace” Egan paused in front of the base chapel and read those words yet again. The young man found it hard to pass by and not stop; it made him feel like he was failing to pay the respect due these men for making the ultimate sacrifice unless he did. To the other men on base, Ace’s ritual had become a part of their daily routine. If a day went by when he wasn’t seen standing and looking up, whether it was because he was on a mission or confined to bed due to illness, the men noticed. Ace pulled his collar up a little farther on his neck to fight off the biting cold, then continued on toward the chow hall.
Ace Egan held a reserve commission in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and he was called up to active duty in October, 1940, only a few short months since he’d begun his adventures as the Ace of Space. Not long after arriving at his first duty station, April Field, Major Taylor Weston discovered that his newest lieutenant had a pretty big secret. During an attempt by enemy spies to steal a bomber from the base, Ace disappeared, and moments later the spies found themselves facing the nine-foot-tall Ace of Space. During the encounter, one of the would-be thieves managed to shoot the hero in his left arm, an injury that did not go unnoticed by the major once the bomber was back on the ground and Ace was back in uniform. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Ace of Space, Feature Comics #41 (February, 1941).]
After revealing that he had figured out Ace’s secret, Major Weston offered the young man a bit of counsel, urging him to consider using his gifts in defense of his country. Ace didn’t have to think long before agreeing. Shortly after their discussion, the major made contact with an old friend whom he had fought beside during the First World War — at Ace’s request — and the young man soon received a special assignment. He was attached to the 15th Army Air Corps and sent to the Pantanella Air Base. Aside from his commanders, Ace had decided to share his secret with only one other person — Chaplain John H. Eastwood.
As he neared the chow hall, he met the chaplain coming toward him while headed to the chapel.
“Ace, my boy,” the man said, removing his glasses and wiping them on his sleeve, “can we count on you for a donation?”
Ace smiled. “I’ve sent word to my man, Jennings, and he is cleaning out my closets. Expect the clothing within the next couple of weeks.”
The chaplain smiled. “I’m certain the Italian men will be very grateful for the donations.”
“That’s not all,” Ace told him. “I’ve instructed Jennings to visit Macy’s and load up on toys and clothes for the local children. He’s getting things for the local women as well.”
Chaplain Eastwood was pleasantly surprised. “God bless you, boy,” the man said, grabbing the lieutenant’s hand and shaking it vigorously.
“All of the packages will have your name on them,” Ace said as he tried to retrieve his hand.
“I understand that you have a mission coming up,” the chaplain said, changing the subject.
“I leave in the morning,” Ace said, “but that’s about all I can say.”
“I understand,” the older man said. “I’ll keep you in my prayers, and I’ll ask the other chaplains to do the same.”
Ace smiled. “I appreciate that.”
“Well, Ace, don’t let me keep you from your dinner,” the chaplain said. “I’ll talk to you when you get back.”
The two men parted, and Ace continued on to the chow hall.
No one could ever accuse the chow hall of being a cozy place, but at the moment, it wasn’t bad. After locating, and laying claim to, a lukewarm cup of coffee, Ace picked up a copy of The Tower, the base paper edited by Chaplain Eastwood. As he read the latest news of life among the 464th Bomb Group, a cold chill ran the length of his spine. Turing to see if someone had left the door open and allowed the cold to invade the chow hall, he discovered that everything was as it should be. Ace glanced back at the paper and wondered if he would soon be in its headlines.
No one in Bari could understand why the Americans had purchased a small field adjacent to the base. Some thought they were going to attempt to do their own farming, while others thought it was for security reasons. The presence of guards on the field’s perimeter seemed to lend credence to the second assumption, but the mystery remained, nonetheless. Had anyone known the real reason, they would have thought both themselves and the Americans insane.
Under cover of darkness, Lieutenant Egan entered the field and walked, unerringly, to where his invisible spaceship stood waiting. No longer was he wearing his government-issued uniform, but rather, the flight suit he had worn when he first encountered the ship’s previous owner: black jodhpurs tucked into black leather boots, a black shirt beneath a yellow wool jacket, a red ascot, and a brown leather flight helmet.
Once inside, and therefore invisible as well, Ace activated the amazing belt that the dying alien had given him. Seconds later, the six-foot-tall lieutenant became the nine-foot-tall Ace of Space.
A moment more, and any of the nearby residents who might have still been awake would have heard what sounded like a clap of thunder or the sound of a distant explosion as Ace’s spaceship took off.
Once under way, Ace opened a sealed envelope and removed his orders. The underground in Germany reported a lot of activity in the Thuringian Forest near the city of Eisenach; unfortunately, one of the local agents was captured before she had an opportunity to pass along information of what the Germans were doing. While this in itself was not reason enough for the Ace of Space to investigate, when the Allies heard that there were reports of flying men in the area, they decided he might be of service.
Flying men? Ace thought to himself. Well, if I can grow to nine feet tall, thanks to a belt an alien gave me, perhaps flying men are not so far-fetched, after all.
Ace knew that the trip would take only a couple of minutes once he had his course laid out. Once he was clear of Bari and the surrounding villages, he increased the ship’s speed and prepared himself as best as he could for what lay ahead.
Thuringian Forest, Germany:
Dawn was less than two hours away as Ace neared the German city, Eisenach. Before landing, the hero turned his attention to a small motion picture screen about the size of a Kelvenator icebox and flipped a toggle switch beneath it to the on position.
An instant later, the screen flared to life, bathing Ace in its bright glow. As he circled over the city, hundreds of tiny red-orange figures began to appear on the screen, the majority of which were stationary. Ace was constantly amazed at the alien technology that allowed him to track people by their body heat. Once he was satisfied that there was only a minimal Nazi presence active at this time, he began to scan the surrounding area. Content that the area was relatively clear, Ace turned his attention to a second screen.
As he watched, a detailed image of the ground appeared on the screen. Ace had never figured out why everything that appeared on the screen was in varying shades of green, but no matter how dark it was, he was always able to get a clear view of the terrain. After locating a small glade among the trees, he glanced back at the first screen. Seeing the heat signatures of nothing larger in size than a small animal, he decided to land.
The heat from the descending rocket’s thrusters began to melt the snow as the ship drew closer to the ground. By the time it had touched down, there was a patch of dry, snow-free earth twenty feet in diameter surrounding the spacecraft.
Once he had shut the systems down, it only took Ace a few seconds to reach the door. With the touch of a button, the door slid up into a recess, and the man stepped out into the cold. Reaching back through the opening, the man tapped the button that erected the ship’s invisibility.
Although winter was still officially days away, the snow-shrouded forest seemed to have cast autumn away like an unwanted cloak. Despite the bitter chill, Ace was comfortable, thanks to the incredible belt around his waist.
As he neared the edge of the forest, a fragile twig snapped off to his left. Ace paused and looked into the darkness. He remained unmoving for a second, then two, and then a few more just to be certain. When he was sure there was nothing there, he continued on his way. He was less than a dozen yards into the trees when he realized he was mistaken.
Snowbanks and moss-covered rocks suddenly came to life, trapping Ace within a ring of well-camouflaged German soldiers. The cold of the snow that had settled on the men had been enough to help mask the majority of their heat patterns, leading the American to believe that what he was looking at on his screens were nothing more than small animals.
Having learned well the capabilities the belt provided him, Ace had no doubt in his mind that he could escape the trap. Realizing that the closeness of the trees prevented him from simply leaping to freedom, he charged into the two nearest soldiers in an attempt to get clear of the circle.
Although the two men went down, thanks to the suddenness of his actions and his incredible size, they both reacted quick enough to wrap their arms around his feet. This was enough to impede his movement, allowing the others to take part. Before Ace had a chance to extricate himself, three more Germans were on him.
Ace took the first man out of action, breaking his nose and jaw, more so with luck than with planning. He had attempted to turn himself around and, in doing so, caught the German in the face with his elbow.
The second soldier managed to duck the flailing elbow and caught Ace on the thigh with the butt of his rifle. As he prepared to strike again, the nine-foot-tall American caught him around the throat with his right hand and slammed him into the nearest tree. The German slid silently to the ground, the white hood of his camouflaged jacket quickly turning red from the blood seeping through.
The third soldier decided that the monster he was facing was too strong to face in hand-to-hand combat and skidded to a stop. Snapping his rifle up to his shoulder, he took a quick aim and fired.
Ace felt the bullet rip through his jacket and burn a furrow along his ribs. As he grabbed for his side, two more soldiers barreled into him, knocking him off balance. He hit the hard ground, taking the impact on his bullet-grazed ribs, and immediately began to struggle to his feet. That proved to be almost impossible, however, as the two soldiers still clung to his feet.
The hero realized it was over when he felt the impact of another rifle butt strike his left shoulder. As his arm gave out on that side, and he fell face first into the snow, more blows followed. A couple caught him in the ribs, sending a wave of nausea through him. Before he could act on his nausea, however, simultaneous blows to the base of his skull sent him into a place even darker than the forest.