“Lord, Lord, how subject we old men are to the vice of lying.”
William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)
“They arrived in Liverpool on the SS John Ericson at the end of October with some other Hundred and first artillery and engineer units,” Frank West explained between bites of his lunch. “All that bullshit about removing patches and jump boots…as soon as we got to England we hear Axis Sally on Radio Berlin welcome Max Taylor and his convicts of the Hundred and first Airborne.” Frank reflected a moment. “Sky tells me she did the same thing when the Eighty-second arrived in Africa, only that time it was ‘Matt Ridgway and his bad boys’.”
“Really? Security was that bad?”
“I suppose so. The Jerries had a daily broadcast called Home Sweet Home where Axis Sally played American music and tried to discourage the GIs with anti-Semitic and anti-FDR stuff. No one took it seriously but everyone liked the music.” Frank paused. “I can’t remember her real name.” Frank took another bite. “Anyway, when the boys got to England they joined us in Littlecote, Wiltshire. I was an officer in the Second Battalion, Headquarters Company of the Five-oh-six and they reported to me.”
J.P. had finished his lunch while Frank was talking and poured himself more wine. “Do you remember what kind of soldiers they were?”
“They were both good, smart soldiers. Jake was more intuitive, Johnny more analytical. I remember when they first came to my unit it was unusual. Two paratroopers with combat jumps, both corporals and nobody asked for them? We had no open billets, and one day they just showed up with orders. It was very unusual. We made them jeep drivers and they shuttled brass back and forth to the nearby villages. Our division was pretty spread out.”
Andrew came by and picked up the empty plates. Both men declined a dessert menu and J.P. broke the brief silence as he emptied the wine bottle into their glasses.
“Nothing notable or unusual up until D-Day?” J.P. asked.
“Jake and Yank were good troopers until that bar fight in London. Then they both got busted back to private. It was a month or so before D-Day. I found out much later what it was all about but they wouldn’t talk about it at the time. Quite frankly, troopers were getting busted left and right for brawling. Everyone was on edge for so long, pent up on that island and ready to explode, it didn’t take much to start a fracas.”
J.P. noticed Frank was getting melancholy. His memories were flooding back both strong and emotional. The whole D-Day experience was resurfacing in his mind and not all the recollections were pleasant ones.
“Sky was right last night when he said there were screw-ups,” Frank added. “In Normandy they dropped us all over the place. Instead of cutting engines to jump speed, most of the pilots sped up to avoid the flak. Men went out the door at over two hundred miles an hour from less than five hundred feet. The shock ripped equipment off their bodies and in some cases broke bones. Some of the landings were deadly, in swamps and lakes and even into the sea. Some of the chutes never deployed they were dropped so low. But those who landed all over the place killed Germans and eventually seized their objectives.”
J.P. decided to gently provoke Frank. “You were all trained for that, right?”
“Right. We were trained to anticipate the unexpected, to take the initiative and think for ourselves. The men who found themselves on the ground that night in Normandy did just that.” Frank was less emotional than Sky had been the night before but was also fighting off old ghosts. “But General Taylor told our men to give him three days of hard fighting and we’d be relieved to plan for ‘bigger and better missions’, as Taylor called them.” Frank took a sip of wine. “Thirty days later we were relieved and shipped back to England.” Frank hesitated. “Thirty days! They used us as regular infantry for a month with no consideration of our limitations. What a huge waste. They had landed plenty of regular straight-leg infantry by then but they exhausted us instead. Our unique knowledge and training were shot to shit in line combat. They bled us white.”
“Why do you suppose they did that?” asked J.P. He was planning to order another bottle of wine.
Frank poked his near empty wine glass up in the air. “I suppose it was because we were aggressive, reliable and tough soldiers. But we were light infantry and poorly equipped for long campaigns. We were highly trained troops with a unique specialty. It took two years to train most of us. There had to be other airborne operations we could have been saved for. Instead, they wasted us as regular infantry when so many others could have done that job.” He gulped the last of the wine in his glass. “This wine is good.”
J.P. nodded and took a long sip from his glass.
Frank wiped his mouth and continued. “And of course there was the Bulge when the Germans counterattacked through the Ardennes and punched a huge hole through our lines. Both American airborne divisions were sent in as regular infantry to stop the Krauts.”
“Bad idea?” asked J.P. He signaled to Andrew for another bottle of wine. If Frank intended to relive the entire War then J.P. would furnish him with plenty of wine and patiently wait for him to slip up.
Frank thought a moment and answered. “In Ike’s defense we were getting our butts kicked. He had no choice but to use us to plug the hole. But after the Bulge we were just a shadow of what we once were. The replacements weren’t as good as the original guys, not nearly as well trained and never fully accepted.”
“What about that other airborne division?” J.P. asked.
“That was the last combat jump for Sky and the boys. He borrowed your father and Jake, called in a few favors, to help train some of his green paratroopers and somehow they wound up making that jump too. I never quite understood how they got involved with Operation Varsity and the Seventeenth Airborne but that made five combat jumps for the three of them. After the surrender Sky transferred back to the All-Americans.”
J.P. considered what Frank had just told him. “I had a feeling Sky had more to tell.”
“Call him,” Frank suggested. “He gave you his number. I know they met in London before D-Day and Jake ran into Sky on D-Day and in Holland. They both saw Sky again at the Bulge and…” Frank hesitated.
“And?” J.P. asked.
“And Sky saw your dad at the victory parade through Manhattan’s ‘Canyon of Heroes’. The entire Eighty-second marched. That was back in forty-six when America was still fiercely proud of its heroes and honored them.”
J.P. reflected a moment. “I have to call him. He definitely has more to tell and I’m pretty sure he’ll talk to me some more.”
“He won’t tell you anything about what you want to know,” Frank warned.
Andrew came over, uncorked the bottle and poured wine into both glasses. J.P. took a sip and looked over the rim of his glass. “It’s just a matter of time before I figure it out.” J.P. smiled. “In the meantime, these are great stories and I’m learning a lot about my father.”
“You may not have as much time as you think.” Frank smiled back. “But I will confess there are two reasons that many of us are talking about our experiences.”
“And they are?”
“Well, first, we’re dying. About a thousand a day, I’m told. We were too humble to talk about the War when we were younger but now I think we fear dying without telling our story. That would dishonor our fallen brothers.”
“That’s a good reason. The other?”
“I fear we’re not teaching our young people enough about the War. They don’t seem to know that much and what they do know appears to be distorted.” Frank took a long pull on his wine and continued. “There is too much revisionist history circulating out there. That’s why I volunteer to visit schools, make speeches, contributed my oral history to the Library of Congress Project.” Frank leaned back in his chair. “I do anything I can so people will remember.”
“Remember the victory?” J.P. asked.
“No, remember the struggle. Remember the price of victory. Remember what our generation had to sacrifice and how we endured it in order to claim victory. Otherwise, without that knowledge and the blueprint for winning, we will collapse as a nation.”
“Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration?” J.P. asked.
“I fear for my country, Mister Kilroy.”
“Why is that?”
“We’re losing our greatness. We’re turning to mush. We are going to fall.”
“Really? I don’t agree.”
Frank took a deep breath and sighed. “Throughout history, after a nation rises up to defeat a great threat posed by a powerful enemy, they lose that sense of community sacrifice for the common good. They get selfish and greedy. When the people of a nation demand more from their country than they are willing to give, the nation crumbles.”
“I’m not sure I follow. I don’t think this country will ever fall.”
“I’m sure the Athenians thought the same after they defeated the Persians. They were free, enlightened, contributed much to mankind in government and the arts and sciences. And they fell in less than a hundred years. It took Rome a bit more time to lose their Republic after they defeated the Carthaginians in the Punic Wars. They held on as an empire for many more years but there was little benefit to the people as emperor after emperor drained the treasury trying to placate the masses with public works and entertainment. It took Rome a long time to rot from the inside but they got corrupt and went broke. Other great nations have fallen after their people abandoned the notion of service for the common good and started looking for handouts instead. The Egyptians, Persians, Chinese and most recently the British who at the beginning of this century effectively ruled the world. Today they are just another second rate, socialist country. All the greatness in all these great nations was squeezed out by a sense of greed and entitlement.”
“But those were different times,” J.P. objected although impressed by Frank’s command of history.
“The times were different, Mister Kilroy, but human nature remains the same.” Frank reflected for a moment. “The greatness comes from the giving, from the service, from the sacrifice. It never comes from the taking. Today we are an impatient nation of takers. ‘What can the government do for me?’ We no longer have the stomach for sacrifice and we look down on those who serve.” Frank choked up a little bit. “No, Mister Kilroy, our greatest days are behind us. I’m afraid my generation reached that pinnacle of greatness for this country during the War. We just bought America a little more time. It won’t be long before we fall, less than fifty years. I’m just happy I won’t be around to see it happen.”
“Whew,” J.P. breathed out loud. “That’s still pretty cynical.”
“Look around and pay attention. We’ve kicked God out of our schools and replaced him with feel-good teachers and bullshit history. We’ve become a permissive society without discipline. Personal accountability is gone and we find blame with everyone else for our misfortune. Everything has to be politically correct. Heaven help us if we offend anyone.”
J.P. stared at Frank without responding. There was more than just a little truth in what he was saying. However, in order to learn what he wanted to know, J.P. would have to keep Frank talking in the hope he might get careless and let something slip. That would be the plan for today. He would figure out how to approach Lincoln, Sky and Harley tomorrow.
“How about a nice hot pot of Espresso coffee? We’ll order Sambuca and some biscotti and chat a little while longer?” J.P. had a warm smile on his face. He made the offer sound tempting and inviting.
Frank looked at his watch. “That sounds good to me.”
J.P. signaled Andrew and ordered. The second white wine bottle was still half full. Andrew placed it back into the ice bucket and brought two clean wine glasses. Frank had calmed down by then and seemed a bit less anxious. He was deep in thought. Then his eyes opened wide.
“Mildred Gillars,” he said.
J.P. looked at Frank curiously. “Who?”
“Mildred Gillars. She was Axis Sally. American born. Arrested after the War and convicted of treason. Served twelve years in prison if I remember right.” Frank seemed pleased with himself for digging that name out of his deep memory. “If that happened today we’d give her a Hollywood contract…if she didn’t already have one.”
“All right then, Frank,” J.P. began, getting back on point. “Tell me some more about dad and his buddy. Let’s start with that bar fight in London that got them both busted.”