“Things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember.”
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)
“The main problem was, they just didn’t know how to use us.” Sky Johnson stabbed at a piece of apple pie on his plate. His mood slowly shifted from affable to morose. J.P. suspected many older veterans went through the same metamorphosis while discussing their war experiences. He decided to let Sky talk his way through this mood swing.
“Who didn’t know?” J.P. asked.
“The brass, the big shots, the leaders who were supposed to know better. The made a lot of bad decisions that hurt us and got men killed.”
J.P. didn’t want to sound unsympathetic but he felt he had to draw out more information. “Well, it was an all volunteer outfit with highly spirited men. It stands to reason you would get the difficult missions.”
“Sure.” Sky put down his fork and clasped his hands under his chin. “That’s not what I’m talking about. Take Sicily for example. First, they don’t have enough planes to drop the whole division at one time. Ike gave too many of our planes to the Limeys. Then we take the long flight path to Sicily, get lost and drop us in thirty-five mile an hour winds when we never practiced in anything over fifteen. Then they scatter us all over the freakin’ island and we find out later that only twelve percent of the guys actually dropped on target.” Sky picked up his fork and poked another piece of pie into his mouth. “And then they shoot at our own planes. But the real killer was they knew the Hermann Goering Panzer Division was on the island with Tiger tanks but they told us there were no Germans and no tanks.”
“They knew? Why didn’t they tell you?” J.P. interrupted.
“It was Ultra,” explained Frank. “The Allies broke the German High Command’s code. The brass figured if they warned the airborne troops there were tanks on the island, and they were captured and talked, the Germans might figure out we were reading their mail. So they told the airborne there were no tanks on the island.”
“That’s ridiculous,” commented J.P. “What the hell good is that kind of intelligence if you can’t actually use it?”
“Exactly!” Sky agreed, pointing his fork at J.P. “They didn’t need to tell us where they got the intel from. They could have told us they spotted the tanks from the air.” Sky paused for a moment. “Another thing. When the Five-oh-four was sent in and got shot up, there were over three hundred casualties.” Sky’s eyes clouded up. “We had eighty-one paratroopers and sixty aircrew killed. After all that hard work and training, to be shot down by your own guys…” Sky let the words hang in the air and just shook his head. The table fell into an awkward silence.
Sky continued after a few moments. “The men deserved better leadership than that.” He paused.
“The whole incident became top secret and not made public until the following spring.”
“They kept it under wraps that long?” J.P. asked.
“If that happened today,” Frank interjected, “it would be all over the Nightly News!”
Sky nodded in agreement. “What’s the use in complaining now? Sorry, but it makes me feel better to get it out.” He paused for a moment and resumed his narrative. “The day after Biazza Ridge we patrolled to the west and came to the Acate River. There were no Krauts. They all retreated. We crossed over a bridge named Ponte Dirillo. There is a marker there today, a memorial with the engraved names of the guys we lost. Angelo, Boothe, Lieutenant Klee and a whole bunch more.” Sky shook his head in a gesture of deep regret. “They called the rest of the Sicilian Campaign a road march but we still took casualties.” Sky collected the props from the table that he used to explain the airborne dispositions. “The Italians would fire a volley for honor and then surrender. We lost Lieutenant Klee on one of those honorable surrenders.”
Sky choked up again. Cynthia reached across the table and covered his hand with hers. She shook it gently.
Sky continued through the painful memories. “It took us only about five weeks to secure the entire island. Patton beat Montgomery to Messina but most of the Germans got away to the mainland. Another mistake! We would hear from the Hermann Goering Division again.”
The waitress approached the table. “Here are your special order drinks.” She placed one in front of each of them. No one reached for his or her drink right away.
“Let me see,” Sky went on. “After that we flew back to Kairouan to take on replacements. Bob Hope and Francis Langford put on a USO show for the troops.” Sky wiped his mouth and brushed away a small tear.
“God bless Bob Hope,” Frank added. “The troops loved him.”
Sky persevered. “After a few weeks we flew back to Sicily to a place called Castelvetrano. It had an airfield and we were preparing for a jump somewhere into Italy. That came close to being another disaster.”
Harley joined the conversation. “There were plenty of ‘cluster-fucks’ made by the brass during the War.” Harley glanced around to see if his words carried beyond their table. He looked at Cynthia. “Sorry, ma’am.” He continued. “Omaha Beach was the worst, then there was the Huertgen Forest, the intelligence failure of the Bulge…the list goes on and on. Some generals had no damn clue.” Harley tossed his napkin on the table and leaned back in his chair.
“Also, our own officers were reluctant to put us in for medals,” Sky interrupted. “Since we were better than the rest we were expected to perform better than the rest.”
“Right,” agreed Frank. “And that stupid point system that allowed for rotation back to the States. And the dumb replacement system. Terrible mistakes!”
Harley gave Frank a curious stare. J.P. wasn’t sure what Frank said to evoke such a reaction. He surmised it had something to do with the replacement system or the point system.
J.P. decided to provoke the men just a little to prolong the discussion. “What was this near-disaster jump into Italy?”
Sky put his head down and then looked up at J.P. “That was another one the brass came this close to screwing up royally.” He held his thumb and forefinger about a quarter inch apart. “They were reckless with us and came that close to getting most of the division slaughtered. Just to drop us on Rome for political reasons. It would have been better if they just dropped us on Berlin and let us try to hunt down and kill that rat-bastard, son of a bitch, Hitler. Not one of us would have survived but maybe we could have ended the War a year earlier.”
Sky’s face softened. He coughed and wiped his nose on his napkin. He slowly composed himself. “Don’t mind the ramblings of an old man,” he said to J.P. “I’m set in my ways and happen to have strong opinions. It was the men, the grunts, the boots on the ground that won that damned War. And most of them were just boys. They made the difference. Not the damn generals! And if the generals were smarter and had listened and learned, we wouldn’t have left so many of our guys over there in foreign cemeteries.”
It was also clear to J.P. these men revered their fallen brothers as much as they resented many of their superiors. They also had great pride in what they accomplished and strong opinions about how it should have been done. And what was this about Rome? J.P asked himself.
J.P. looked directly at Harley. “So I guess my father’s buddy Jake, your cousin, is buried somewhere over there?”
Harley returned his stare. As J.P. waited for a reply, he could see in his peripheral vision the other men were staring at Harley too.
“At the Henri-Chapelle Military Cemetery in Belgium with eight thousand of his brothers.”
Everyone sat in stunned silence. J.P. knew many Americans were buried in foreign cemeteries in distant lands but the detailed reference to a specific place complete with that huge number took him completely off guard. He turned to Sky to get the conversation back on track. “So the Eighty-second went back to Sicily in,” J.P. looked up at the ceiling, “had to be September by then, for a drop on Rome?”
“Early September,” Sky agreed. “And just before we made our next jump, Jake and Johnny disappeared.”
J.P. shook his head. “What?”
“They were pulled out of camp and sent off on a top-secret mission.”
Top-secret mission? J.P. wondered. Could this possibly be it? “What was the mission?” he asked innocently.
“I couldn’t tell you the details.” Sky lied. “We didn’t see much of each other after Sicily and the few times we did, we never got into it. I do know that it was classified…very hush-hush.”
J.P. looked at Harley who shrugged his shoulders. Then he looked at Frank.
“I know some of the details and I can share them with you.”
“Thanks Frank,” J.P. replied. He looked around the dining room. It was nearly empty. Their waitress was standing near the kitchen with her eye on the table. She had the bill in her hand and would come as soon as he signaled. There certainly wouldn’t be enough time for Frank to tell his story tonight. J.P. would have to make arrangements to speak to him soon. He also had to listen to his covert tape recording. This classified mission story may actually be the break he was waiting for. As much as he enjoyed the conversation, he knew time had run out.
He reached for his Prop-Blast and lifted the glass. “To the fallen.”