East Lake, Upper Peninsula, Michigan – August 31, 1997
“It is never too late to give up our prejudices.”
Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)
The rental car pulled slowly into the gravel driveway to the twisting sound of the tires crunching the small stones. Keisha opened the door to the back porch where her grandfather was sitting in his rocking chair.
“He’s here,” she announced while wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “Don’t get up, Grandfather, I’ll bring him back.”
“Thank you, dear,” Lincoln smiled at his only grandchild.
J.P. Kilroy got out of the car and reflexively yawned and stretched. It was late morning and promised to be a warm and humid day. There was a light, crisp breeze coming off the lake and it felt soothing in the shade of the huge oak trees that covered the driveway. He reached into the back seat of his rental car and pulled out a small briefcase. Keisha stepped out the door in time to greet him as he climbed the front steps. “Welcome, Mister Kilroy,” she extended her hand. “I’m Keisha, Lincoln’s granddaughter.”
J.P. shook her hand gently. “Very pleased to see you again. I remember you from the hotel lobby. Please call me J.P.”
“Please, follow me.” She walked him around the covered porch, which encircled three sides of the cabin. “What a beautiful place. In the middle of nowhere, I might add,” he smiled.
“That’s the whole point. Part of the beauty is in the isolation.” She didn’t say visitors were both rare and unwelcome but her tone and expression exposed that sentiment.
They reached the rear porch in time to see Lincoln rising from his rocking chair. “Please Grandfather,” she pleaded. “Sit back down.”
Lincoln strained to stand up straight and proud and he extended his hand. J.P. took it and Lincoln gripped his hand firmly. “Welcome to my home. Please sit.”
Lincoln was wearing faded jeans and a plain white t-shirt. He had on a black baseball cap with a set of white jump wings embroidered on the crown. At the apex of the parachute was a single five pointed star surrounded by a wreath. Under the wings in white bold capital letters was the word “AIRBORNE”. It was also written on the side of the bill and back strap of the cap. J.P. recognized the symbol from his recent research. The laurel wreath around the star signified a Master Parachutist. He couldn’t remember all of the criteria but did recall at least sixty-five jumps were required to qualify.
Lincoln unconsciously tugged at the cap as he sat back down. There was a small round wooden table in the middle of the porch. Lincoln’s rocking chair was alongside it. Two other chairs were next to the table as well. Lincoln motioned to one of the chairs as he sat down. Keisha walked over to a plain metal barbecue and began spraying lighter fluid on the charcoal briquettes. She threw a lit match into the coals and they ignited with a small puff of explosion.
“We’re about to have lunch,” Lincoln commented. “Burgers and ribs and of course you’ll join us.” It was more of a statement than a question.
“Of course,” J.P. agreed.
“In the meantime it’s hot enough to be an ice cold beer day.” Lincoln reached into an ice chest near his feet and pulled out three Michelob Light beers and popped the tops.
“Grandpa only likes cold beers on hot days,” Keisha added as she brought out a covered tray of meats. She set the tray aside and sat at the table.
“Thanks for agreeing to see me. We had a hard time tracking you down. Nice place you have here,” J.P. commented as he gazed out over the serene lake.
“It’s served its purpose over the years and I am quite fond of it,” Lincoln answered. “So, Mister Kilroy, what brings you all the way up here? Are you doing an article on World War II veterans, Medal of Honor winners or just black soldiers?” Lincoln took a slug of beer. “Or is this personal?”
J.P. smiled. Lincoln was still sharp. “It’s primarily personal. I’m trying to find out as much as I can about my father.”
Lincoln hardened his eyes and J.P. noticed the subtle defensive reaction. “And of course, I’m curious about your story. How was it to be a black soldier in World War II?”
Lincoln nodded. He looked skeptical.
“Call me Lincoln, please.”
“Lincoln. I could have made up some story about doing this for my newspaper and come here under false pretenses but I respect you too much to trick you. I am curious about your story but I’m primarily here to find out about my father. I’m sure there’s an intersection between your personal story and my father’s story somewhere in the past.”
“I really didn’t know your father that well. But I know you’ve been talking to people that did. Like Harley, Sky and Frank.”
“I have,” confessed J.P. “However, they all have little or no recall of some events.” J.P. had decided to slow play Lincoln and not immediately challenge him with the suspected conspiracy. “And how did you know all of them?” J.P. took a pull on his beer and placed his recorder on the table. “Do you mind?”
Lincoln laughed. “Of course not. I’ve been interviewed so many times about what I did in the War. I’m not afraid of that,” he pointed to the recorder.
“And you knew them, how?”
“Well first, when I was a truck driver in the Service of Supply, we were assigned to the Three Hundred and ninety seventh Quartermaster Truck Company attached to the One Hundred and first Airborne Division. They called us the ‘airborne niggers’.”
“Grandfather!” Keisha mildly admonished.
“I can say it,” Lincoln smiled. “Sorry, but that’s what they called us back then.” The recollection seemed to disturb him slightly but he continued. “I first laid eyes on Johnny and Jake Kilroy in a pub in England.”
“Yes, I heard that story from Frank,” J.P. acknowledged.
“Then I saw them again in Rheims and at Bastogne. I never really got to know them all that well.”
“And the others? You all seemed pretty tight at the White House.”
“There are so few of us left, Mister Kilroy. You remain close to the ones that are still alive. The older you get and the fewer are left, the closer you become.”
“He hasn’t missed a reunion in years until recently when…” Keisha began until a glare from her grandfather stopped her. She placed the burgers and ribs on the barbecue and the rolls on the upper rack to warm them. Ears of sweet corn were cooking in a pot of water on the side grill.
“I met Frank West at Bastogne too. He changed my life. Turned my whole military career around. We also met in New York City on the day of the big parade.”
“What parade? Who met?”
“We all met just before the victory parade. January of forty-six. That was the first time I met Harley. He came to New York for the parade. And I met your mother. I already knew Sky.”
There’s Sky again, J.P. thought. He never said anything about a meeting with all the guys and my mother.
“Why was my mother there?”
“Your parents lived in New York City and the Eighty-second was marching in a homecoming parade up Fifth Avenue so Sky reached out to pull everyone together. A homecoming reunion, of sorts.”
“I never heard of black paratroopers in the Eighty-second Airborne division. How did that happen?”
Lincoln straightened up in his chair. “You know the military was segregated in the War and many black people were very angry about that…you know…fighting for freedom around the world and not having it back home for ourselves.”
J.P. nodded. He was familiar with the military policy of segregation.
“And some people are still angry about that even today,” he looked at Keisha who was busy turning the ribs and burgers. “But we shouldn’t be angry at everyone who was white. Sure, some were complicit in this racial tragedy and others stood by and didn’t object but there was always a ray of hope in the seeds of change. I didn’t see many of them at the time. I was too angry to see anything good back then. Then I found Jesus Christ and he opened my eyes to the truth. I realized that some white people back in the day were taking great risks to make great changes.”
“Besides Eleanor Roosevelt?” J.P. asked. He wanted to show Lincoln that he also knew something about the history of segregation in the War. The First Lady personally championed the training and deployment of the Tuskegee Airmen, in part by making a demonstration flight for the press in a plane flown by a black pilot.
Lincoln nodded. “Her story is pretty well known but have you ever heard of Lieutenant General John C. H. Lee?”
“Another Lee?” J.P. chuckled. “Can’t say that I have.”
“Well,” continued Lincoln, “he was second in command to Ike in SHAEF…Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces. He also was commander of the Service of Supply in Europe. Great man! He organized the Red Ball Express. Ever hear of that?”
J.P. nodded. “Sure. The trucks that kept the front lines supplied after the breakout.”
“That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Lee pulled in trucks and drivers from all over. Most of them were black, or as we said back then, colored troops.”
“African-Americans, Grandfather,” Keisha corrected as she painted barbecue sauce on the ribs.
“Yes, dear,” he smiled at her with glowing eyes. Lincoln turned to J.P. “So for three months, six thousand vehicles delivered twelve tons of supplies to the front lines every day. We did it despite the weather, accidents and the Krauts. They were the most important three months of the War in Europe, from August to November, when we kicked Jerry’s ass all the way back to the German border. General Lee planned all that and I drove the Red Ball and darn proud of it!”
“As well you should be, sir,” J.P. conceded. Lincoln Abraham was no different from the other veterans he spoke with. They were reluctant at first but with a little prodding, they began to speak more freely. Once they got going, the flood of emotions and memories usually came out in a torrent. J.P. didn’t wait for Lincoln to continue. “What did you do, specifically?”
“Mister Kilroy,” Lincoln answered quickly. “I never talk about what I personally did in the War. I believe that bragging dishonors the fallen. I’ll talk about my shared experiences with the outfits I served with, but I won’t brag on myself. But I can attest to others who made great contributions.”
“Who else?” J.P. prodded.
“I’m not finished with General Lee. He did more for the black soldier besides the Red Ball. After the Battle of the Bulge, when Ike was short of infantrymen, Lee offered to train…” he looked over to Keisha, “African-American volunteers to fight as infantrymen to be used as replacements. He was bucking the army policy of segregation and his offer to provide individual replacements was denied. He did however create and train self-contained rifle platoons to be assigned to rifle companies as needed at the front. Over four thousand Negro soldiers volunteered and over two thousand were trained and assigned to fifty-three rifle platoons and attached to combat rifle companies in action.”
“They weren’t integrated into the existing platoons?” J.P. asked.
“No,” Lincoln answered. “They were attached as a complete unit and were called the Fifth Platoons. Those men performed very well. Sergeant Ed Carter Jr. from the 12th Armored won a Distinguished Service Cross, which was upgraded to the Medal of Honor. His people collected the medal at the ceremony we were at.” Lincoln paused. He looked over to see if Keisha was there but she had slipped into the small kitchen area. “Those volunteers for combat traded blood for dignity and respect and General John Lee, a white man, made that all possible.”
Keisha came out to the porch and placed a bowl of potato salad and a large dish of condiments in the center of the table, including hefty slices of tomato, onion and leaves of crisp lettuce. She went back to the grill to turn the meat whose delectable aroma now filled the porch.
Lincoln continued. “Then there was General George Catlett Marshall Junior, Chief of Staff and America’s top military man.”
J.P. was curious about General Marshall’s contribution since the military remained segregated during the War. It wasn’t until President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, more than two years after the War, that the military became integrated. “How did he help black men in the service?”
“He paved the way at a time when it was pretty unpopular to change racial policy in the middle of a war. But he had guts and he did a lot…but one of the most important decisions he made was to order the formation of an all-black parachute company, including black officers. That company eventually became the Five-hundred and fifty-fifth Parachute Infantry Battalion. The Triple Nickels.”
“Were you part of that outfit?”
“I was. I volunteered after I returned from Europe in early forty-five. They had it really rough getting started. It’s hard enough becoming a paratrooper with the high acceptance standards and brutal physical and mental challenges. You can only imagine how hard it was to become a black paratrooper!”
“But they had to meet the same standards as white paratroopers, correct?” J.P. was genuinely curious about this little-known battalion.
“True. We were elite troops, the best of the best with an average IQ of over one hundred and ten. And we had the same dropout rate but that’s where the fairness ended. We were segregated to our own section of Fort Benning. We were not allowed to enter the PX, enlisted man’s club or movie theatres on base. Eventually they had facilities built just for black soldiers but they were separate and hardly equal. We rode in the backs of the busses and eventually had to ride in a colored-only bus. When we went into town we were subjected to the same insults and discrimination as every black person was. It was the Jim Crow South and that treatment was legal. The fact we wore the uniform of the United States military meant nothing and we were treated just hideously.” Lincoln paused. “Our superior officers warned us confrontations had to be avoided. Only black pride, before it became a popular expression, got most of us through. We weren’t going to give anyone an excuse or reason to disband the unit or disparage the black paratroopers.”
“That’s awful,” was all J.P. could reply. “It’s amazing that you’re so forgiving and gracious considering what you went through back then.”
“My grandfather is a saint,” Keisha interjected, obviously not in total agreement with his outlook on life. “My country tis of thee, sweet land of bigotry,” she mocked. He simply smiled at her, not wanting to disagree.
“Well,” Lincoln said after reflecting for a moment. “One thing really did disturb me more than anything else. Over time I was able to rationalize and forgive everything but that one thing. But those were different times; I keep trying to explain that to my lovely granddaughter. Every chance black people were given to prove themselves was both an opportunity and a trap. Many good people wanted us to succeed while others wanted us to fail. It was the defining moment of truth in turning the corner on racial attitudes in this country. So, we were told to hold our tempers and our tongues when provoked and try harder and do better and not retaliate when harassed. It was hard, especially for those of us from the North who had no idea what the South was like, but we did it. We shouldered that burden with as much dignity as we could and went about proving we could do everything in the military that anyone else could do. We knew we were pioneers, guinea pigs, lab rats, whatever. We knew we could make it easier or harder for those who came after us. We chose to do whatever it took to plow the road ahead for the sake of those behind.”
“Sort of like Jackie Robinson?” J.P. suggested.
“Very much so, with the same quiet dignity, determination and perseverance,” Lincoln agreed. “And because of what my generation sacrificed and accomplished in part, people will be calling my wonderful granddaughter doctor by next May.”
“Well, congratulations young lady,” J.P. held up his beer bottle. “Doctor of medicine?”
“Yes, medicine. But after Med school there’s so much more work to do. Internship. Residency. All that.”
J.P. looked over at Lincoln. There were tears of pride in his eyes as he said, “She is what we did the heavy lifting for…her future…and it was all worth it.”
Keisha brought the burgers and ribs to the table in a covered dish. The hamburger rolls were slightly toasted and still warm. Keisha quickly made hamburgers and buttered an ear of corn for her grandfather and herself. J.P. fashioned his own burger. Lincoln opened three more ice-cold beers and they continued talking between bites of lunch.
“Did the Triple Nickels ever see combat?” J.P. finally asked. He found himself enjoying his conversation with Lincoln so he decided to wait until later to question him about the secret the others were so ardently protecting.
“No, Mister Kilroy, but did you ever hear of Operation Firefly?” Lincoln answered. J.P. shook his head negatively. Lincoln continued.
“Shortly after I finished jump school in April of forty–five, the Nickels were transferred to Pendleton Air Base, Oregon, for a top secret, highly classified mission.”
“Operation Firefly?” J.P. asked.
“Operation Firefly,” Lincoln confirmed. “It seemed the Japanese developed these high flying hydrogen balloons made of paper and silk and released them into the jet stream over the Pacific. The Japs hung incendiary bombs and booby traps on them. They came across the ocean and flew over the Pacific Northwest and released these anti-personnel and incendiary bombs. They were meant to cripple our war industry by starting massive forest fires in California, Washington and Oregon. After the War we figured out they released over nine-thousand of these suckers and over two-hundred and fifty actually reached America.”
J.P. was surprised. “I never heard about that.”
“Most people haven’t. It was classified Top-Secret. After a camp counselor and five children on a picnic were killed by one of the bombs, the local authorities asked for help from the military. The Triple Nickels got the job. We were trained both as smokejumpers and in ordnance disposal. Eventually we made thirty-six jumps into forest fires in the summer and fall of forty-five. We were the first and only military smoke jumping, bomb disposal outfit in the world.”
They ate in silence for a few minutes. J.P. was impressed with Lincoln’s knowledge and recall. The ribs were great too and he had been famished after his long ride that morning. After a brief time, Lincoln picked up the story again.
“After Operation Firefly, we were assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. We continued smoke jumping after the War. In late 1945, we were assigned to the Eighty-second Airborne Division who was returning to the States after occupation duty in Berlin. There was a big victory parade scheduled for New York City. General Gavin insisted the Nickels march up Fifth Avenue with the rest of his division.”
“That was a very nice gesture,” added Keisha. “When I wrote the letter to Congressman Williams, I described my grandfather as a member of that division because that was the unit he was discharged from. I had no idea he earned the Medal before he became a part of the Eighty-second. I was told it caused a bit of confusion in the research,” she smiled innocently.
“It was a wonderful gesture of inclusion,” Lincoln continued. “General Gavin was truly colorblind. We were part of his division and he welcomed us in every respect. Even though we never set foot in Europe, he insisted that our uniforms include every battlefield decoration and citation his division had earned. The Nickels were assigned as the Third Battalion of the Five-oh-five.” Lincoln choked up a bit. “It was men like him that gave me hope and the strength to carry on.” He made eye contact with Keisha. She knew he made many sacrifices and suffered untold indignities for her to achieve her dreams of equality and equal opportunity.
Lincoln continued. “So, we marched better that day than we ever marched before. So straight, so proud. The drums were beating, the bands were playing and confetti filled the air all the way up Fifth Avenue through the arch at Washington Square. Black people in the crowd were cheering and crying, running out into the streets to cheer us on and touch us. The look in their eyes was priceless. Chills ran up my spine! It was a cold day but nobody noticed. It was a day to remember. A day to make all the sacrifices and all the struggles worthwhile.”
“That’s a wonderful story. I’d like to hear more about the reunion before the parade but may I use your bathroom first?” J.P. asked.
“Right through there,” Keisha pointed.
J.P. got up and went through the doorway. He left his recorder running. No one noticed.
“Are you going to tell him about his father?” Keisha asked.
“I don’t think I’ll need to. He’s smart enough to figure it out for himself.”
“Are you going to tell him anything at all?”
“I might tell him something but I’m not breaking my promise.”
In a few minutes J.P. came back out to the porch. “That was a lovely lunch, Keisha. Thank you very much.”
“That was the least we could do since you’ve come so far for nothing.”
J.P. was taken back by her sudden frankness. “I’m not sure it’s for nothing. I’ve learned a lot and I really haven’t asked any questions yet.” He smiled, tried to be friendly, as he sat back down. J.P. knew he had to start probing Lincoln but decided to start off slowly.
“A while ago you said only one thing really disturbed you back then. What was that?”
Lincoln reflected for a moment and appeared to recoil at the memory. “I could put up with a lot but when I saw German prisoners getting better treatment than black American soldiers…well that enraged me. These prisoners probably killed Americans. So, to treat them better than black soldiers made absolutely no sense. I could never get my mind around that! They could go places we could not, ride in the front of the bus and sit in the white section of the movie theatre. They got more respect and decent treatment from the townspeople than we did. That infuriated me more than anything else and still does!”
“I can understand that,” J.P. acknowledged.
“A little anger is okay, Grandfather,” Keisha contributed.
“As long as I live I will never understand that. For all the bad behavior and indignities I was exposed to, that is by far the absolute worst.”
J.P. decided to change the subject. “I was curious about the reunion before the parade?” He let the question hang in the air.
Lincoln looked to be thinking, trying to remember. “Like I said, not much to tell. Sky was a captain by then. He came back to the States ahead of the division as liaison to the Triple Nickels. I was a lieutenant assigned to work with him to coordinate the transfer and assimilation of the Nickels into the Eighty-second. We became friendly. We found out we had common friends in Jake and Johnny. Like I said, your parents were there and Harley, who knew Sky and your father. And Frank, who was your dad’s CO for most of his time in paratroopers.”
J.P. was having a hard time reconciling all of the friendships and relationships and decided to wait until he got home when he could listen to the recording and draw a diagram. He was a visual person and often solved problems by writing them down. He decided to move on to another subject.
“Can you tell me anything about how you and my dad won the Medal of Honor?”
Lincoln took a deep breath and shook his head. “As I said, I won’t brag about what I did. But I will tell you, Mister Kilroy, all that you need to know about that day is written on the citation for the Medal of Honor. Have you read the entire citation yet?”
“Not really. Not all of it.”
“Well you should,” Lincoln advised.
J.P. noticed Lincoln seemed to be getting tired and Keisha was beginning to lose her patience. He decided to go for broke before he ran out of time.
“Mister Abraham, before my mother passed on, she made me aware of a family mystery which she pleaded with me to find out about from my father. He died before I could do that and I’ve been trying to find out about it ever since. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to Sky, Frank and Harley. They have all but admitted they know something about this secret but refuse to reveal it. It’s like they entered into some sort of agreement never to talk about it.”
Lincoln sat silently, listening carefully to every word, nodding his head slightly.
J.P. continued. “I’ve listened to a lot of stories. In those stories a number of unusual or suspicious events have occurred. But as of yet I still can’t conclusively put my finger on anything specific. So, I ask you, sir. Do you know what I am talking about? Do you know anything about this oath of silence? Are you part of it?”
Lincoln caught Keisha’s eyes. He glanced back at J.P. with a look of resignation on his face. “Yes, I know all about it. I’m part of it!”
J.P. stiffened up in his chair. Lincoln’s admission was unexpected. It surprised him. “Then what can you tell me, sir?”
“Not a thing, I’m afraid. You see, Mister Kilroy, I took an oath as well as the others. I’m not about to break my word and I’m happy to hear none of my brothers did either.”
J.P. slumped back in his chair. He had run into another brick wall. There was no way, he concluded, that any of them would voluntarily break ranks. Lincoln was his last hope. He suddenly became extremely discouraged.
“Well,” J.P. sighed, “I suppose there’s no one left who knows or is willing to come clean.”
Lincoln had long ago decided he would not break his promise under any circumstance. However, he did sympathize with J.P. and decided to point him in the right direction without breaking his word. “I can give you two pieces of advice.”
“Yes, I’m listening.”
“The first is you already have everything you need in your possession, right now, to uncover the secret. Letters, papers, memorabilia, citations…all you need to figure it out.”
J.P. pondered Lincoln’s words. He had been through all of that dozens of times in the last months and discovered nothing. He and Cynthia examined all of the memorabilia and nothing jumped out at them. Maybe they had been looking at them the wrong way?
“And the second piece of advice?”
“There is someone living in Bedford, Virginia, who knows everything, more than the rest of us, and you need to talk to him face to face.”
“Who? Harley? I plan to visit him next.”
“No. Not Harley. Your father! He’s not dead but rather very much alive.”