Marseilles, France – November 4, 1945
“Adapt yourself to the environment in which your lot has been cast, and show true love to the fellow-mortals with whom destiny has surrounded you.”
Marcus Aurelius (AD 121 – AD 180)
Corporal Jake Kilroy leaned over the rail of the USS Wooster Victory, an American fast steam turbine troopship. He held the letter from Macie he had repeatedly read since receiving it in August. This time it hit him hard. The irony was so thick it was almost comical. No, he thought, more like a Greek tragedy.
He watched the wharf as the last of the American soldiers, barracks bags piled high on their shoulders, ambled up the gangway and onto the ship. Most wore the red, white and blue patch of the 75th Infantry Division. The division was scheduled for deactivation and high-point men from other divisions were transferred into the 75th for the trip home. Many of the transferees were from the 101st Airborne Division. It was distasteful for a paratrooper to belong to any unit other than an airborne unit, especially a straight-legged infantry outfit. Not that the 75th was a poor division. On the contrary, they were respected as a hard-fighting outfit. Their original nickname, the “Diaper Division”, given to them because they were so new in the ETO, gave way to their ultimate nickname, “Bulge Busters”. That moniker was hard earned as they fought fiercely for ninety-four consecutive days to help push the fanatical Germans out of the Ardennes and back to the Fatherland. Still, they weren’t airborne!
As a matter of mild protest, the Screaming Eagles continued to sport their own Eagle patch despite orders to the contrary. Even the airborne officers defied the orders. The patch was sacred to the paratroopers and no one pressed the issue, as they were aware every single member of the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division was in a particularly foul mood.
Captain Frank West walked over. “How are you doing, Jake?” West leaned over the railing alongside him.
“I’m okay, Sir. Not looking forward to getting home. Not as much as I thought I would be. Johnny and me…we were supposed to make this trip together. It’s just not the same now.”
West nodded. “For sure. That’s a tall order Johnny left you with.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, Sir. I’ll do it if I can but I can’t imagine Rose letting me take care of her and the baby. There better be some magic in this letter Johnny wrote to her.” He tapped the breast pocket of his combat blouse.
They leaned against the ship’s rail in silence for a few minutes. The dock crane was pulling the gangway away from the ship. Glints of bright sunlight sparkled from the gleaming metal stairway. The seagulls, disturbed by the motion, complained loudly as they scattered in all directions into the clear Sunday sky.
West broke the silence. “Johnny was a great guy and an outstanding paratrooper. We’re all going to miss him.” West turned around and stared out to sea. “We’re going to miss a lot of those guys, good guys who put themselves between their country and its enemies. All those great lives not lived, children never born.” West choked up a little. “The world will never know what pieces of humanity are missing from it and our countrymen could never be thankful enough for what they sacrificed for our liberty.”
Jake knew West took every casualty hard. He wrote to the family of every man he lost. Both of them, along with many others, suffered from survivor’s guilt. They simply suppressed that emotion as deeply as they could and carried on. Jake leaned his back on the railing.
“I can’t believe they’re deactivating our division,” Jake blurted out in a surly tone. “After what we did at Normandy, Holland and especially Bastogne. It’s just not fair to the guys who didn’t make it. I thought the Eagles would be an active division forever.”
“You and everyone else, Jake. Nobody can believe what those stupid idiots in the War Department did.” West had an edge in his voice. “When General Lee formed the division he told everyone we had no history but we had a rendezvous with destiny. That turned out to be Bastogne. We’re the only division to get a Presidential Unit Citation in the history of the army. We created a legacy for future warriors to follow and a tradition to be proud of. And what do the damn pencil pushers do? They did what the Jerrys could never do. They wiped out our division! Dumb shits!”
The deck began to vibrate as the engines started up. Longshoremen released the lines and the tugs began to edge the ship from its berth. The long awaited journey home was finally at hand.
“What do you have there?” West asked pointing to the letter in Jake’s hand.
Jake put a wry smile on his face. “This is what Johnny would call irony. Or maybe he would call it a Greek tragedy.” Jake handed the letter to West.
It was short letter and West finished it quickly. He had a dumbstruck look on his face.
“Can you believe that, sir? Macie wants me back and I’m headed for New York City. Would you call that a tragedy, or what?”
West nodded. “It’s certainly a twist the ancient Greek playwrights would appreciate. Shakespeare too. What are you going to do, Jake?” West handed back the letter. “Would you take Macie back?”
“Absolutely, with no questions asked. She’s always been in my life. I thought she always would be my destiny. On the other hand, if I can convince Rose to keep me around, I’ll keep my promise to Johnny. I’ll take care of them.” He paused. “And I’ll do my best to persuade her but if Rose throws me out, I have a place to go.” Jake folded the letter and stuffed it in his pocket. “I’ll answer Macie’s letter after I know which way the wind blows in New York City.”
West shook his head. “Good luck, Jake. I don’t envy you.” He pulled out a small notebook from his pocket and scribbled something. He tore the page out and handed it to Jake. “Here is my home address, Jake. If you need anything…anything at all just let me know. If I can help in any way, I owe it to you and Johnny. Remember! Anything at all.”
“I’ll remember that, Sir. And thank you.”
“You can call me Frank.” West smiled to himself. “Just don’t call me Casper.”
Just then the deep-throated ship’s steam whistle blared a long note followed by a few short blasts. The gulls scattered again. The deck vibrations strengthened as the ship’s propellers churned up the water in the stern. At last, they were finally heading home.