“Things are not always as they seem; the first appearance deceives many.”
Phaedrus (15 BC – 50 AD)
Cynthia Powers reserved a table in the small bar area of the American Grill Restaurant in the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel. It was the only area where smoking was still allowed. The country was becoming more and more paranoid about second-hand smoke and she was sure the day would come when smoking would be prohibited in every public place. She lit another cigarette and sipped her third Martini.
Cynthia and J.P. sat with their backs to the wall in a cushiony booth. Between them was the cardboard box he retrieved from his car. The strings were broken, the box was open and the envelope holding the letter was slit. While he waited, he hastily rummaged through the jumble of paraphernalia that included shoulder patches, medals, dog tags, letters, photographs and other military memorabilia. He would sort through the tangled mess as soon as he had the chance. On the opposite side of the table were three empty chairs and place settings that yawned at them.
“Are you sure they’re coming?” he asked. She shrugged her shoulders in reply; afraid her words might betray she already had too much to drink. If only she could get some food in her before he noticed.
Three men appeared as the waitress escorted them to the table. J.P. stood and greeted them. “Gentlemen, thanks for coming, I’m J.P. Kilroy. I believe you all knew my father.”
The man with the bushy gray hair and ill-fitting tweed sport jacket reached out first. He was no longer wearing a tie. “My name is Schuyler Johnson. My friends call me Sky. Yes, we all knew Johnny. That’s what we called him, Johnny or Yank.”
Before Sky sat down, J.P. motioned to Cynthia and said, “Cynthia Powers, Army Public Affairs. She set this dinner up.” Cynthia remained seated and nodded silently.
As Sky took a seat, he made ample room for the gentleman with the black horn-rimmed glasses, dark hair and gray temples to introduce himself. “Frank West, I was his CO in the Hundred and first.” They shook hands as Frank took his seat.
Waiting patiently behind the other two, the balding big-man extended his hand and J.P. took it. “Harley Tidrick. Very pleased to meet you and congratulations on the posthumous Medal of Honor for your father.” He nodded toward Cynthia who nodded back. The other two men mumbled sounds of agreement as they sat and placed the white linen napkins on their laps.
“Thank you, gentlemen. I know the Medal is a huge honor but what’s more important to me right now is to learn everything I can about my father. I was hoping you could help.” J.P. didn’t know if his father kept in touch with any of these men or if any of them knew he and his father were estranged. He didn’t plan to burden them with questions about more recent news or happenings. That might come later. Better off to start them out from the beginning, knowing full well, as Cynthia mentioned, they might have failures of memory or faulty recollections.
J.P. continued. “I know many veterans are reluctant to talk about their own wartime experiences and if you want to keep that private I certainly respect that. But anything you might recall about my father, that you might be able to share with me, would be sincerely appreciated.”
The three men looked at each other in a furtive manner. No one responded. There was an awkward silence while the waitress put some bread on the table. Cynthia took a slice and passed the dish.
“I know it was a long time ago,” J.P. persisted. “But anything at all would be helpful to me.” Again, silence. J.P. had an idea to break the ice. He reached into the open cardboard box and pulled out a four-inch by five-inch photograph, three army regulation shoulder patches and a pair of silver jump wings. J.P. placed the items on the table. Harley reached across and took the photo, studied it, turned it over and smiled. He handed it to Sky who nodded in recognition.
Harley finally broke the silence. “We would be glad to tell you anything we can about your father, as much as we can remember.”
“Whose the other guy in the picture?” asked J.P.
“That was his best buddy, Jake.” Harley pointed to the picture, looked at the other two and they nodded agreement.
“His best buddy, Jake?” J.P. repeated absent-mindedly.
“That’s right, kid. His given name was John Kilroy, too. He was called by Jake.”
“Really?” J.P. smiled. “I didn’t know that. Please, go on.”
“Well, Mister Kilroy, if you can keep the drinks coming, we can fill you in on what we remember,” Sky laughed. The momentary tension of a few moments ago seemed to dissipate.
“Call me J.P. please.” J.P. was more than willing to help loosen them up a bit. He signaled to the waitress for a round of drinks. Sky ordered a Vodka Collins, Harley a draft beer and Frank an iced-tea. Cynthia declined, still chewing on her bread. J.P. held up his empty glass containing the slight remnants of wine and the waitress nodded.
As the waitress left, J.P. pointed to the picture Sky was holding. “I know this question is going to sound ridiculous, but it’s been a long time and I don’t have many pictures of my father at that age and…well…with the shadows in their faces and all…I’m not sure which one is my dad and which one is his friend…Jake.”
Harley took the photo from Sky and held it up facing J.P. “The one on the left with the M-One was your dad. The other one with the Browning Automatic Rifle is Jake. That weapon was more user friendly to left-handed shooters ‘cause it had its bolt lever on the left side of the weapon.” Harley handed the picture to Sky.
Sky studied the photograph for a moment. “It really is hard to tell with the shadows and all,” he conceded. “But here,” he pointed to the soldier on the right. “Jake is holding a cigarette. Your dad didn’t smoke.” He handed the photo back to J.P.
“That’s funny. I remember he smoked cigarettes before switching to a pipe.”
Harley turned to J.P. “He didn’t smoke at that time. After combat, a lot of guys picked up the habit.” J.P. accepted the explanation. He turned the picture toward Harley and pointed to Jake.
“Did Jake make it home?” J.P. asked. The question seemed to again unsettle the three of them. Sky looked down at the table and Frank coughed and shook his head slightly.
Harley answered. “No.”
“That’s a shame. I don’t remember my father ever speaking about him. But then again Dad never really spoke about the War at all. Never.” J.P. let the words hang in the air, realizing he had to be careful with his questions. He could sense these men were all on an emotional precipice, on the verge of conjuring up recollections they would rather not. He didn’t want to disrupt the flow of the conversation with some unseemly memories. If he pushed any of them over the edge the whole meeting might go up in smoke. “And where’s Oujda?” he asked, purposely changing the subject. He held up the picture again.
Sky answered. “Armpit of the freakin’ world,” he forced a laugh. “Morocco, North Africa. It was called French Morocco back then. Ten miles west of Algeria and forty miles south of the Med. The Eighty-second trained there for the jump on Sicily.”
J.P. nodded and gently brought the conversation back to his father and said, “So, they were really close?”
“Thick as blood, thicker than thieves.” Frank answered.
“Well I guess that explains some of the duplicate souvenirs in the box. There are two sets of wings and extra sleeve patches.” J.P. gestured at the small pile in front of him as he spoke.
Something on the table caught Frank’s eye. He reached over and picked up the two identical jump wings. They were striking in their silver appearance despite their age. They each were adorned with five small bronze stars, two on each wing and one on the apex of the parachute.
Frank showed the jump wings to Sky. “You have one of these, right Sky?”
Sky looked at the jump wings and nodded in the affirmative. “My original regiment, the Five-oh-five, made four combat jumps. We were the only regiment to do that in the War. I made all four with them and another with the Seventeenth Airborne Division.” Sky seemed moved by the memories. The nostalgia was palpable.
Frank looked at J.P. “These are among the rarest jump wings you will ever find. There are only a handful of paratroopers in the history of the world who ever made five combat jumps!” Frank handed the wings back. J.P. had not realized how unique they were. He felt a chill when Frank dropped them into his hand.
Frank went on. “I only have two, and those were enough for two lifetimes. The ‘Screaming Eagles’…the Hundred and first…only made two combat jumps, into Normandy and Holland. The Eighty-second had two combat jumps in Italy before D-Day and then Normandy and Holland. The Seventeenth Airborne made the last one when they jumped the Rhine near the end of the War in March of forty-five. Other smaller units like the independent Five-oh-nine battalion, jumped in North Africa, Italy and Southern France but no unit made more than four.”
The facts and figures came rather easily to Frank. J.P. presumed he was a pretty smart guy and had his information right. Frank continued. “The few who survived long enough to make five combat jumps had a rare combination of luck and skill. Those wings represent men that were really, really special, son. The absolute best among the very best!”
The waitress came with the drink order and passed out menus.
“So, where do we begin?” J.P. asked.
Harley answered. “Well, Sky was with Johnny and Jake in the Eighty-second from jump school through Italy and then Frank was their CO when they transferred to the Hundred and first from D-Day through the Bulge. Then made a jump with the Seventeenth Airborne.”
Sky interrupted, “That was really fun.”
Frank continued. “Between us we should be able to cover most of your dad’s wartime history and hopefully, if we didn’t forget all that much, answer most of your questions.”
“What about the Medal of Honor? What happened there outside Bastogne?” J.P. looked around the table.
The three aged men looked at each other. Sky slowly shook his head and raised his hands slightly in a sign of ignorance. Frank shrugged his shoulders. It was Harley who answered. “If the citation doesn’t answer that question for you, I’m afraid Lincoln is the only one who can.” Harley held his hands out. “None of us were there.”
Cynthia looked up from her menu. “We can reach out and touch Mister Abraham. We have his contact information.” She comported herself rather well, J.P. thought, considering how much she had been drinking. He was actually surprised she was paying attention.
“That will have to do, I suppose. We’ll ask Mister Abraham to fill in that piece,” said J.P. He looked at Harley and smiled. “What about you, Mister Tidrick?”
“Call me Harley. I fade in and out of their wartime experiences. I was with both of them at different times. I met your father in England before D-Day and we ran into each other in Normandy. Jake started in the army in my National Guard outfit. You see…I’m Jake’s cousin!”
“Wow,” was all J.P. could manage in reply. He was really curious about how Jake died but it was too soon in the conversation to risk troublesome questions. He had to continually remind himself not to upset these men by conjuring up the nightmare memories of lost friends. J.P. would gently coax the information from them using all his learned interview skills as a lawyer and reporter. He ripped off a small piece of bread and nibbled on it.
“So, Sky, I guess it all starts with you.”
Sky reached across the table. He slid the 82nd Airborne Division patch toward him. The tattered patch was a worn, faded red square with a blue circle centered within it. Inside the circle were two white letter A’s in juxtaposition, the opposite legs of the letters conforming to the curve of the inner circle. The airborne tab was attached to one corner, held on with a few stitches. “Eighty-second Airborne Division,” said Sky. “The best freakin’ division in the world.” He smiled and glanced over to Frank.
“In your dreams, Sky,” Frank answered good-naturedly as he slid the patch of the 101st Airborne Division over to himself and examined it. It was crest-shaped with a mostly white, angry eagle’s head on a black field, the gold colored beak breaking up the white eagle head feathers. “That distinguished honor goes to the Screaming Eagles, the Battling Bastards of Bastogne,” Frank continued, smiling back.
“It started with me and almost ended with me,” Sky continued, ignoring Frank’s barb back at him. Sky reached for the 17th Airborne Division patch. It was a simple, circular shoulder flash, encircled by a gold ring with a golden claw of extended talons in the middle of the dark blue circle. He tapped the patch. “Their nickname was ‘Thunder From Heaven’. Good outfit. Got pretty beat up at the Bulge as leg infantry. But that Rhine jump, Operation Varsity, was one jump that shoulda’ never been made. War almost over, end of March of forty-five, Krauts ready to fold, pack it in, that Limey bastard Monty…General Montgomery…looking for more glory.” Sky shook his head, began to choke up. “We lost a lot of good men in that one, for what? To pad Monty’s reputation?” Sky was shaking his head, tears forming in the corners of his eyes.
J.P. sensed he had to change the focus before Sky brought the mood down. “I’m curious about that patch,” he said pointing to Harley’s windbreaker. Just then the waitress came over to the table. They each ordered. When she left, Harley continued.
“Twenty-ninth Infantry Division,” he began, “also called the Blue and Gray Division since it was made up of boys from the South and the North.” Harley leaned forward and continued. “That was a big deal in the first war, having a division made up of boys from different states. The Civil War was only fifty years in the past and the country was still divided, in culture, customs and attitudes. When this division was formed, they made the patch to show that the blue and the gray were fighting together against the Kaiser. The Eighty-second also fought in that war, had boys from all over the country and got the nickname ‘All-Americans’.” He nodded to Sky who acknowledged the point with a grunt and a nod. “It was a really big deal back then, to have an army unit that represented the United States, and not just a region or a state.”
“So, you weren’t a paratrooper like my dad?” asked J.P.
“Nope,” answered Harley. “My CO in the Twenty-ninth wouldn’t approve my transfer when me and Jake volunteered. I almost became a Ranger, though. But that’s another story, kid.” Harley let the comment hang in the air. “But let’s tell you what we remember about Johnny.”
J.P. took a small audio recorder from his inside jacket pocket and checked the tape inside. “Before we really get started, does anyone mind?” He held the recorder up. The three men signaled they didn’t mind. J.P. made a show of turning it on, placing it in the middle of the table toward Sky and waited for him to begin. Only J.P. knew the highly sensitive voice recorder in his pocket had been on since the three men sat down.