Zon, Holland – September 17, 1944
“The object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard die for his.”
Lieutenant General George S. Patton (1885 – 1945)
“There it is!” First Lieutenant Frank West, CO of 2nd Platoon, Headquarters Company, held the binoculars to his eyes and aimed them along the Wilhelmina Canal toward the 150-foot highway bridge that spanned it. He was in a concealed position along the north bank and had a good view of the span. Jake was lying beside him in the shrubbery and Johnny was slightly behind both of them. The woods were silent save for the chirping of birds and the hum of insects and there was no enemy activity on or around the bridge. They just may have caught the Germans by surprise.
The main objective of the airborne invasion of Holland was to outflank the Siegfried Line and sneak into Germany through the back door. This opportunity presented itself during the latter stages of the battle of Normandy.
While the airborne forces were withdrawn to England to rest and refit, German resistance on the Continent stiffened. On 25 July, Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s United States Twelfth Army Group had finally succeeded in breaking out of the lodgment and cutting off the Cotentin Peninsula at Avranches. The Allies were finally moving after weeks of stalemate in hedgerow country. General Patton’s Third United States Army was activated on 1 August and he exploited the wide, flat plain to attack and push back German forces.
On 7 August, the Germans initiated an ill-advised counterattack intended to drive a wedge between the American and British armies. The assault was halted near the town of Mortain. This German force of twenty-one divisions, thrust deeply into Allied lines like a probing finger, was now vulnerable on both flanks. Bradley proposed an aggressive plan to surround them.
Patton’s Third Army attacked northward and the Canadian First Army attacked southward. They planned to meet near the town of Argentan. Patton reached his objective on 12 August but heavy resistance held up the Canadians near the town of Falaise. The Germans fought tenaciously to keep a small gap open at the eastern end of the Falaise Pocket, the name the Allies gave to the area of nearly encircled Germans. The Germans called it the Kessel, the Cauldron.
It was 20 August before the Falaise Gap was finally sealed shut. An estimated 50,000 German troops were captured and over 10,000 were killed in the pocket. In spite of the overwhelming victory, 30,000 German soldiers escaped to fight another day. They abandoned most of their equipment and made their way back to Germany using horses, carts, bicycles or on foot. Anyone seeing this raggedy column of dirty, dusty beaten soldiers might have concluded the War was over. They would have been wrong. This defeated rabble of an army would reconstitute into a stubborn fighting force. The Allies considered their escape from the Falaise Pocket a lost opportunity. The Germans called it the “Miracle of the West”.
As summer unfolded, the Allies experienced more remarkable victories. On 15 August, Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France on the Mediterranean coast, was successfully launched. On 25 August, Paris was liberated. On 3 September, Montgomery’s Twenty-first Army Group liberated Brussels, Belgium and Antwerp the next day. The successes were continuous and equally dizzying. The German army had lost over 500,000 men and 2,200 tanks and was on the verge of collapse. In all of this success, Eisenhower still had a significant problem. He had forty-nine divisions on the Continent organized into four Allied Armies and they had all out-distanced their supply lines. Feeding, fueling and arming a fighting force of this size would have been an extraordinary challenge under the best of circumstances. But the Allies had yet to capture a deep-water port and were forced to supply these armies primarily over the Normandy Beach more than 400 miles from the front lines. Despite the Herculean efforts of the Red Ball drivers, who operated their trucks around the clock, there simply was not enough transport to feed and fuel all of the armies. Eisenhower had to prioritize his offensive or it would stall along the entire front.
General Montgomery, promoted to Field Marshall on 1 September, presented an idea to Ike to end the War quickly. When they met on 10 September in Brussels, Monty explained his audacious plan to lay an airborne carpet of three divisions over Holland and seize five major river crossings. The British Second Army would thrust up this corridor and advance rapidly over the captured bridges. They would breach the lower Rhine at the city of Arnhem sixty-five miles away. Once over the last bridge, they would strike into the industrial Ruhr region of the Third Reich.
Eisenhower was intrigued. He thought it might be the perfect time for such a bold and daring gamble. Allied forces were chasing the disorganized and dispirited remnants of the German army across France. The Wehrmacht chain of command seemed to be in chaos. Ike was also under pressure from Prime Minister Churchill to take out the launch sites for the new V-2 terror weapon. The Germans started launching the rockets at London on 8 September from western Holland and civilian casualties were high. General Marshall was also pressing Ike to use the newly formed First Allied Airborne Army.
Eisenhower approved the plan and gave Montgomery operational control of the First Allied Airborne Army. He shut down all the other offensives and diverted all air support and supplies to Montgomery. Operation Market-Garden was scheduled for Sunday, 17 September.
The Allies assigned 1,400 bombers to take out anti-aircraft sites along the route, 2,023 transports to haul 20,000 paratroopers and 1,500 fighters to protect them from Nazi interceptors.
The British 1st Airborne Division would be dropped at the end of the line at Arnhem. The “Red Devils” would be supported by the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade to be dropped a day later. Their assignment was to seize the road bridge at Arnhem.
Eleven miles further south the 82nd Airborne Division would seize two huge bridges near Nijmegan. The nine-span 1,500-foot bridge over the Maas River at the city of Grave was assigned to the veteran 504th PIR. The 508th PIR was responsible for capturing the highway and rail bridges over the Waal River. The All-Americans also had to secure a ten mile corridor for the single highway. This was particularly worrisome to Major General James M. Gavin as the road bordered on the Reichswald Forest in Germany proper. The forest was close to his flank and could hide menacing German forces. Gavin had to secure that flank near the town of Groesbeek on a high ridgeline known as Groesbeek Heights. If the Germans succeeded in gaining these heights, their artillery would stop the flow of traffic on the highway. The 505th PIR, Gavin’s most experienced regiment, was assigned the task of seizing and defending Groesbeek Heights.
A yawning gap of fourteen miles separated the southern boundary of the 82nd Airborne and the northernmost objective of the 101st Airborne at Veghel. Major General Maxwell D. Taylor assigned the 501st PIR to capture the four bridges over the river Aa and the Willems Vaart Canal. In the center of his sector, Taylor tasked the 502nd PIR with capturing the bridges at St. Oedenrode and Best. He ordered the 506th PIR to capture the roadway bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal near the village of Zon and four bridges over the Dommel River in Eindhoven four miles further south.
Sitting at the start line thirteen miles further south was XXX Corps of the British Second Army. It was their job to attack north and charge up the corridor over the captured bridges.
The men of HQ Company, 506th PIR, were gathered around a hastily constructed sand table in a large briefing tent. They were told the Brits were going to make a run at entering Germany. All the airborne needed to do was to capture and hold the bridges leading north to Arnhem.
It would be a daylight drop. Some men groaned. They would be easy targets. The Normandy veterans silently approved. Jumping into a night sky full of tracers, too fast and too low, in the wrong place and unable to see where they were landing was by far the scariest moment in most of their young lives. They would take their chances in the daylight.
Unlike Normandy, there would be no clickers, no gas masks, no impregnated clothing and no password. They would have to get off of the drop zone immediately since the DZ had to be cleared for the next serial. Small groups of paratroopers would be dispatched to their objectives as soon as they had an officer. There was no time to wait for the coalescing of larger formations. Enemy resistance was expected to be light. Old men and young boys were guarding the bridges. But the Germans would react quickly so rapid deployment was essential. After securing the bridges, the single highway had to be kept open until the British armor arrived.
“We’re jumping from a thousand feet and we land here, on DZ Charlie, with the rest of the Five-oh-six.” First Lieutenant Frank West held a pointer on the sand table. It was aimed at a spot north of the Wilhelmina Canal and west of the village of Zon. “We’re in the first serial so you’d better get off the damn DZ hubba-hubba or shit from the sky will be raining down on you.”
There was some nervous laughter. The veterans held a new respect for Casper. West had proven in combat he had a spine of steel. He continued in his trademark soft-spoken demeanor.
“I’m not kidding, guys. The next serial will be only four minutes behind us. When they drop their para-packs you’d better not be standing there.” West was referring to the equipment bundles loaded with weapons and ammo that fell much faster and hit the ground much harder than a paratrooper. “Drop your chute, gather your gear and get the hell off the DZ fast. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” replied a weak chorus of voices.
“Good.” West cleared his throat. “Head south out of the DZ to this forest.” He moved the pointer. “It’s called the Zonsche Forest. That should give us the cover we need to reach the Wilhelmina Canal undetected. Then we turn east and take the bridge at Zon.” He moved the pointer again to the bridge. “Questions?”
“What about these damn patches, sir?” Private Homer Smith asked the question and the murmur around him indicated he was speaking for more men than just himself. “What the hell is this First Allied Airborne Army crap anyway? We’re Americans, sir.”
West nodded. They were ordered to sew on the new patches by the high command of the newly formed First Allied Airborne Army. It was a crest-shaped gray patch with a gold winged white numeral one above crossed swords. Across the top was the legend “Allied Airborne”. The men of the 101st universally disdained the patch because they had to cover the American flag on their right sleeve to accommodate it. They would have reacted the same way if they were ordered to cover the Screaming Eagle patch on their left shoulder. Unit pride grew stronger as the casualty lists grew longer.
West responded. “All right men. If you haven’t had time to sew on the new patch, just forget about it.” Muted whoops and hollers followed. “We have more important things to do today than worrying about patches.” West looked cautiously around the tent. “If anyone asks, just tell them you never got the darn patches.” With that, the few men who had sewn them over their American flag patch unceremoniously ripped them off to the delight of their comrades.
“Any other questions?”
“Who’s up ahead of us, sir?” someone from the back asked.
“Eighty-second. They have two large bridges to capture at Nijmegan and Grave.”
“And the last bridge, sir?” asked PFC Leland Brewer, the platoon medic.
“The Brits have that one, Beerman. The bridge at Arnhem.”
“Are we under British command?” asked Brewer.
“We are. Monty’s running the show.”
“Aw, fuck,” someone mumbled out from the crowd.
West reacted. “What was that?”
“Aw fuck, sir,” the same voice repeated. It was Sergeant Christian. The men laughed.
Christian explained. “Their rations are shit, sir. Pardon my language Lieutenant but we can’t eat that bully beef, pudding pie and tea and the rest of the crap they eat. It ain’t human food.” The company broke out in agreeable laughter.
West replied to all the men. “I understand. Hopefully, it won’t be for that long.”
“Right, give me three days of hard fighting…” someone in the back yelled out in satirical mimicry of Taylor’s D-Day promise. The men laughed again.
West continued after the noise subsided. “After we take the bridge, we go four miles south to Eindhoven and capture that town and the four bridges over the Dommel River. We secure the highway and wait for the Brits there. They’ll be starting off sixteen miles from Eindhoven at the Meuse-Escaut Canal. They should be linking up with us by the end of the day.”
West looked around the tent trying to make eye contact with each man while waiting for the next question. After a few moments when no one spoke, he did. “The Screaming Eagles have a fifteen mile stretch of highway to keep open and a bunch of bridges to seize and hold until the Brits arrive. That’s our mission, open the road and keep it open! Any questions?” No one responded. “All right! The trucks are outside. Saddle up. I’ll see you on the flight line.”
The 120 men of HQ Company filed out of the tent and piled onto three two-and-a-half-ton trucks. It was a typical misty, damp, fog-shrouded morning in England. The men were advised the weather was better over Holland.
After a few minutes they were delivered beside one of the ninety C-47 Skytrain transport planes lined up neatly alongside the main runway at Membury Airdrome. The men dismounted and gathered beside their assigned C-47 with a huge J7 painted behind the cockpit. This was the unit designation for the 303rd Troop Carrier Squadron, one of four in the 442nd Troop Carrier Group. On the nose of the plane was a painting of a beautiful woman in a sitting position wearing a bathing suit. Under the nose art was the legend, Tallahassee Lassie.
The veterans of D-Day tended to stay together in small groups. They considered themselves living on borrowed time; fugitives from the law of averages. Some of the men were loading a mortar, bazooka and ammo into A-5 para-packs to be fastened under the wings and released when the squad jumped. Jake and Johnny were in a group with Smith, Goldbacher and Brewer. They were loading up on ammo and K-rations when Lieutenant West walked over.
“Everything okay here?” The men nodded. West looked at Johnny and shook his head. “You shouldn’t be here, Johnny. You’re not right just yet.”
“Lieutenant West, sir. I’ll be fine. I won’t let you down.”
West nodded. He looked at Jake. “Keep an eye on him. Watch out for him.”
Jake flashed his trademark smile. “I always do, sir.” Johnny gave Jake an affectionate shove on the shoulder.
Many men carried non-issue personal weapons such as brass knuckles, hunting knives and revolvers or pistols bought or sent from home. Jake still had his .45 from the Rome Job. Johnny had lost his .45 in the waters off Normandy but traded a Nazi belt buckle to a rear-echelon officer for a pistol. Jake picked up magazines for his Thompson and shoved them into his pockets.
“Don’t worry about the standard combat load. Take what you need.” It was West. He was telling his men to ignore the rules regulating the amount of ammunition each man was to jump with. That was another reason they loved him.
Another pile contained the main and reserve parachutes and they began to strap them on.
“What the hell is this?” Goldbacher asked holding up one of the parachutes. It was different and distinctive by virtue of the white straps leading into a central round buckle.
“Relax, Goldbrick. It’s one of the new harnesses the British are using,” Christian answered. “Quick release!”
Goldbacher gave Christian a skeptical look.
“It’s sort of late in the game to introduce new equipment, Sarge,” Smith chimed it.
“No, look Homo, there’s nothing to it. It’s a standard T5 chute with a new harness.” Christian strapped on a parachute and adjusted it to his body. “Look, here.” The men gathered around as he snapped the straps of the harness into the buckle. “Now watch.” Christian rotated the large button in the center and punched it with the side of his fist. All the straps simultaneously released with a loud metallic click and the parachute and harness dropped to the ground.
“Quick release. Pull the pin, turn the button and whack it. Bingo, the chute’s gone.”
“Clever, but I don’t trust anything the Brits invented,” Jake joined the conversation.
West was observing this scene. “If it makes you feel any better, these gizmos were invented by an American company called the Switlik Parachute Company.” West looked around to see the impact of his pronouncement. Most of the men seemed assured by that information.
“Well in that case…” Goldbacher reached into the pile and strapped on a parachute. The rest of the men followed.
Strapping on his chute, Jake turned to Johnny. “Yank, what kind of soldiers were those Rangers you fought with?”
Johnny pondered the question for a moment. “Besides being a scraggly-looking bunch, they were damn good soldiers. Kind of like us.”
“In what way?”
“Too light to fight, too stupid to run!”
Jake nodded. While the paratroopers were among the toughest, most highly motivated and intelligent combat soldiers in the field, they lacked the firepower to be successful in all situations. The airborne planners developed a parachute artillery element but delivering the .75-millimeter howitzer and ammo using gliders was always an iffy proposition. Even when they successfully deployed this artillery, re-supply was always a challenge for men fighting behind enemy lines.
More often than not, paratroopers would find themselves up against tanks and artillery without sufficient firepower to answer back. In the battle of flesh against steel, it was only the courage and determination of the individual paratrooper that turned a would-be rout into a contestable skirmish. They won battles they should have lost by dint of their amazing unit loyalty and cohesion. These accomplishments were all the more remarkable because they were designed to be light-infantry; quick hitting, fast moving and swiftly withdrawn. They proved to be hard-hitting and fast moving but never rapidly withdrawn. Despite their lack of organic support elements, the paratroopers were always kept on the line much longer than they should have been.
Jake knew exactly what Johnny meant by his short answer. The Rangers were designed and trained to be the same fast moving, hard-hitting shock force as the paratroopers. The longer they stayed in one place, the more their weakness in firepower was exposed. But the longer they held on and made a fight of it, the more reluctant the brass was to relieve them.
As the paratroopers filled every available space in their uniforms, an American Red Cross coffee van drove up the flight line. Two young ladies moved from plane to plane, serving coffee and doughnuts to the waiting paratroopers.
“Who likes it black?” asked the young redheaded volunteer with a thick British accent.
“Here,” said Christian, Jake and Brewer in unison.
She handed out three cups of black coffee from her van.
“Milk and sugar,” Johnny asked. “Me too,” Goldbacher announced.
“Milk’s in it, love. Sugar’s right there,” she pointed to the packets of sugar.
The replacements lapped up the coffee and doughnuts. Most veterans ate the doughnuts and sipped the coffee since there was no place to take a piss in a crowded C-47 at 2,000 feet.
An army ambulance, olive drab with a huge red cross on a white square on the roof and sides, made its way down the flight line. It was the familiar three-quarter ton, four-by-four Dodge truck-ambulance designated WC-54. As the paratroopers geared up, the army nurses moved from group to group making sure they had adequate medical supplies, morphine Syrettes and attending to any latent injuries. The nurses treated wounds that were not completely healed or scars that were tender and painful. They also provided blank V-Mail forms to any paratrooper who requested one and then tucked the hastily written letters into a pouch slung over their shoulders.
Jake took a V-mail form and a pencil. He leaned on the back of Johnny’s parachute and began writing in big block letters. He spoke as he was writing. “I need to send another letter to Macie. She always says I don’t write enough.”
“When did you write last?” Johnny asked.
“Well, I sent a V-Mail a week after we got back from France and started writing a long letter. We got busy with replacements and then finding out you were in the hospital, I didn’t finish that letter for a couple of weeks.”
“Don’t blame me,” Johnny chided. “You didn’t write that much before I got wounded.”
“I know…I’m trying,” Jake confessed. “But I love this V-Mail.”
The United States military copied the idea from the British. There was usually insufficient space aboard transports to haul the tons of mail passing between the Homefront and the troops. In order to save space, V-Mails were photographed to microfilm at the point of origination. The Eastman Kodak Company provided the high tech equipment to both compress and expand them at their destination. A normal letter size form would be shrunk to the size of a postage stamp and filed on a roll of microfilm. A single reel of microfilm, about the size of a deck of cards and weighing only twelve ounces, carried more than 1,600 letters. A musette bag of V-Mail microfilm replaced over sixty sacks of conventional mail.
V-Mail forms could be obtained at post offices back in the States and were readily available to GIs overseas. When completed, the originator folded the letter so the destination address was visible. All of the V-mails were routed to the few centrally located photographic stations where the letter would be censored and photographed onto microfilm at 2,500 letters an hour. The original letters were kept until verification was received that the microfilm had reached its destination. If there were difficulties, the batch was re-photographed and resent.
It cost three cents to mail a V-Mail from the States and about twelve days to get to Britain. It took a few more days to reprint the letter from the microfilm before it entered the standard paper mail delivery system at its destination. The average time for a regular letter was about a month.
When the form was folded, they were easily recognizable by the red border on top and the legend, V dot-dot-dot-dash MAIL; the dots and dash being Morse Code for the letter V. The restrictions on V-mail did not deter its popularity. Since the reproduction was half the size of the original, it was important to write in large, dark, clear letters to assure legibility on the receiving end. With practice, most people adjusted to the restrictions.
Jake finished his V-Mail. “You writing one?” he asked Johnny.
“Already done and mailed,” Johnny smiled back.
Jake folded his and handed it to the nurse. He had no way of knowing his V-Mail of a few weeks ago had to be reprocessed because the PBY-5 Catalina carrying the original microfilm had crashed. His regular letter was still winding its way through the bureaucratic maze of bulk paper mail. As of that day Macie had not yet received either of his letters.
Almost without notice, the fog burned off and the morning sun began peeking through the clouds. As the time for loading came nearer, it became eerily quiet on the flight line. The only audible sounds were those of truck engines and the click and clatter of equipment as the men helped each other gear up. Individual paratroopers took on the grotesque shape of a hunchback as the heavy burden weighed them down and they struggled, zombie-like, to hobble around.
The flight crew of the Lassie arrived and boarded the plane and the men followed. Pushing and pulling each other through the door, the paratroopers painstakingly squeezed aboard. Jake was first in as he was the designated pusher. The smell of leather, hydraulic fluid and oil permeated the plane. It brought back memories of the other jumps. Johnny was right next to him. He would kneel for the take off and stand right behind the flight deck for the rest of the flight.
When all the C-47s were loaded, the planes taxied into takeoff position. At ten second intervals it took only fifteen minutes to launch all ninety planes. Off the English coast over Bradwell Bay, this serial rendezvoused with others from various airfields. The elaborate plan lined up the 424 C-47 transports that would haul more than 6,700 paratroopers and seventy gliders of the Screaming Eagles to Holland. The line of transports on this southern route would be one hundred miles long and ten miles wide. Tallahassee Lassie was in the first serial.
Planes and gliders transporting the 1st British Airborne and American 82nd Airborne Divisions would fly the northern air route. Before it was over, Operation Market-Garden would land 20,000 airborne troops and 500 vehicles supported by over 4,700 planes. The most powerful airborne force ever launched was winging its way to seize the vital bridges of Holland.
Jake looked out the window. As predicted, the weather had cleared considerably over the Continent. The sky became azure blue with just a whisper of white, puffy clouds. What began as a relatively serene ride soon became intense. Jake could see the American P-47 Thunderbolt fighters diving down and strafing suspected enemy anti-aircraft batteries with devastating firepower. Despite the efforts at flak suppression, some of the enemy guns began scoring hits.
The crew chief removed the door, a sure sign they were nearing the drop zone. The sounds of gunfire were more clearly audible to the anxious paratroopers. The flak became more intense as the Lassie neared the drop zone. One C-47 Skytrain in their serial was hit and started a slow rollover. Troopers were still spilling out as the plane crashed into the countryside.
Lieutenant West sensed the uneasiness in his men. The red light had not yet gone on but he decided to prep his men for the jump anyway. He stood up near the door and faced the cabin. All eyes were on him.
“Get ready!” West yelled over the roar of the engines.
The men shuffled in their seats and tensed.
“Stand up!” West jerked his thumbs upward while the men struggled to their feet.
“Hook up!” West crooked his forefinger and jerked it up and down. The troopers snapped their static line fasteners onto the cable that ran over their heads down the center of the cabin.
“Equipment check!” West pulled on his harness with his thumbs. Each man began to check the equipment of the man in front of him. Johnny turned around and ran his fingers up and down Jake’s harness. He visually verified Jake had hooked up his static line. As the paratrooper jumped, the line would play out and rip the cover off the pack tray exposing the canopy. The canopy would be pulled loose by a thinner cord, which would break when the canopy inflated. Johnny made sure Jake’s Thompson was secured to his equipment. He tapped Jake on the shoulder with the bottom of his fist and turned around. “Sixteen Okay!”
Jake did the same to Johnny. He patted Johnny’s helmet. “Fifteen Okay!”
Johnny proceeded to check the trooper directly in front of him. It was Homer Smith. Johnny tugged slightly on the harness, visually checked the fifteen-foot static line that was coiled up on Smith’s shoulder and tied off with a rubber band. The end of the coil snaked up to attach to the overhead cable. “Fourteen Okay!”
Smith patted Private Robert Goldbacher’s harness. Goldbacher’s M-1 was inside his bellyband, without the Griswold case, sticking straight up and down. Smith grabbed the butt over Goldbacher’s shoulder and shifted the angle of the weapon so it would not slip out during the opening shock. “Thirteen Okay!”
Goldbacher fingered the harness of PFC Leland Brewer’s parachute. Brewer didn’t carry a rifle; just a .38-caliber revolver his father had sent him. He was otherwise weighed down with musette bags filled with medical supplies. Goldbacher tugged on all the straps to make sure Brewer’s heavy load was secure and would not rip away during the five G force of the opening shock. After he pulled Brewer’s chinstrap tighter he yelled, “Twelve Okay!”
Brewer visually inspected Christian’s static line and pulled on his harness. He turned Christian’s shoulder slightly to make sure his reserve chute was fastened securely to his main parachute harness. He checked the safety pin of the quick-release buckle. Brewer clapped Christian on the shoulder to signal everything was in order. “Eleven Okay!”
The countdown reached West just as the indicator light turned red. He took his position in the door looking for landmarks and watching for the green light. The men crowded together behind him, ready to spring out in one continuous stream. The plane rocked and bounced as the flak increased but the course remained true. The engines throttled back to jump speed.
Suddenly, the cabin floor erupted in a succession of explosions. A series of .20-millimeter anti-aircraft rounds smashed through the thin aluminum skin and floorboards. Jake pushed hard against Johnny. “I think I’m hit!”
Johnny wheeled around and quickly scanned his friend. “Where?”
Johnny turned him around. There was a large hole in the top of Jake’s parachute cover. A camouflage colored silk plume fluffed out from the perforation. The round had gone straight up through Jake’s parachute and out the top of the airplane. Jake’s chute was shredded and useless.
“You can’t jump!” screamed Johnny over the noise. “Your main chute is blown out!”
Jake looked toward the door. Lieutenant West was looking outside the plane and focused on the drop zone. Suddenly the light turned green and out he went. The stick started moving.
“I’m not staying back,” Jake pointed toward the door and the fast disappearing stick of paratroopers exiting the plane.
Johnny began moving backwards toward the door. He thought Jake didn’t understand him. “You can’t jump. No parachute!”
Jake nodded and grabbed the D-Ring of his reserve chute and pointed to it. Johnny understood but immediately recognized the danger. If Jake’s main chute deployed, it might foul the shroud lines of his reserve parachute but there was no time for Jake to remove it. Johnny pulled out his switchblade and cut Jake’s static line just before he turned and went out the door.
When Jake reached the door he leaped out and quickly pulled the D-Ring on his reserve parachute. He heard the zip of the shroud lines playing out and the welcome snap of the opening shock. His main chute was still safely tucked away in his pack although a small stream of silk was billowing out through the crack on top.
Jake looked around. The scene was incredible. The stream of planes seemed to stretch back beyond the horizon. Camouflage parachutes filled the bright sky as far back as he could see. There were red colored chutes on the para-packs indicating weapons and ammo and blue colored chutes signifying rations and medical supplies. It was a spectacular once-in-a-lifetime scene.
At this height a normal drop would take about sixty seconds but he and the para-packs were falling faster. Jake came down hard. All around him troopers and supply packs were hitting the landing zone. The sky remained full of parachutes in a jump that reminded him of the demonstration jumps they made back in the States.
Jake took inventory of his body and his equipment. Shaking the anxiety from his mind, he cut loose the reserve parachute and knelt down on one knee to orient himself. His weapon was still secured by its sling over one shoulder and under the other and all the equipment and supplies he was carrying survived the hard landing. It was the most frightening two minutes of his life.
Johnny came rushing over. “Holy shit, that was close!” He pulled the safety pin behind Jake’s parachute harness buckle, rotated it and slammed it with his fist. Jake’s useless main chute dropped off of his back. Johnny helped Jake to his feet and pulled him toward the woods. Supply packs, parachutists and debris were raining down all over the drop zone.
“We’ve got to get off of the DZ,” Johnny yelled as they scrambled for the shelter of the tree line.
As they entered the pine forest Johnny saw Colonel Sink in consultation with Major James L. LaPrade, CO of the 1st Battalion. They were organizing small parties and sending some through the woods along a forest trail and others down the main highway toward the bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal. When Lieutenant West came off the drop zone, they ordered him to take a squad of paratroopers. Jake, Johnny, Brewer, Christian and Goldbacher were in that group.
“Follow me,” West whispered as he took the lead.
“Jake,” West called back and Jake was instantly at his side. “Point!”
“Roger that,” Jake whispered and took off in front of the group. He moved silently through the pines for a few hundred meters before he stopped and raised his Thompson over his head parallel to the ground. Enemy sighted. Jake took cover as the group cautiously closed up on him. West pulled out binoculars and searched along the canal.
The unmistakable shriek of a German .88 broke the calm. The shock wave could be felt as the flat trajectory shell smashed into the trees along the main highway hurling sharp steel splinters and deadly wooden shards in all directions. The Germans had spotted the main body coming down the highway but not this little group on its flank just yet. It fired again, then quickly again. There was more than one gun guarding the bridge.
The small group edged closer, still undetected. The .88s kept firing down the road and the main body of paratroopers returned fire with small arms. West was upright now, standing next to a tree. He imagined the paratroopers under fire were setting up their mortars and maneuvering closer to get a shot at the guns. He spotted the .88 gun flashes. There were three of them along the canal on this side in sandbagged revetments. Dug in infantry with machine guns were guarding the positions.
He held up three fingers without taking his eyes from his binoculars. “I count three.” Immediately a 2.36-inch bazooka rocket found an opening in the far sandbag emplacement and blew up a gun. “Make that two!”
The two remaining .88s continued to fire flat trajectory rounds into the trees sending deadly slivers in all directions. As West’s undetected group crept closer, the men could feel the muzzle blasts of orange fire and the hot pressure waves hitting them with tremendous force.
West moved out in a trot to get within striking distance before his team could be discovered. The men followed. An MG-42 machine gun opened up with a ripping sound, firing blindly into the woods. Goldbacher absorbed the full brunt of the salvo. He flew backward and went down like a rag doll. Brewer was on top of him before he could yell for a medic. A few other men fell under the hailstorm of bullets and shrapnel.
Johnny went forward and fell into a trench in front of a high mound at the base of the sandbag emplacement. The .88 traversed in their direction and fired again but was unable to depress the muzzle sufficiently to hit anyone in West’s group. The blast knocked West and Johnny down as the round crashed into a warehouse along the canal well behind them.
Some German soldiers appeared on the crest of the mound. Jake emptied his Thompson and they fell back wounded or dead. Johnny fired off eight rounds and reached for another clip. Jake dropped his empty magazine and reached for a full one. He fumbled trying to get the magazine out of its canvas case and when he finally yanked it free, it fell to the ground. He reached for it and couldn’t find it in the swirling dust. He pulled another magazine from the case and saw two more Germans reemerge on the crest as he slammed the magazine home.
It was too late. The Germans had him.
“CRACK! CRACK!!” Johnny fired two quick rounds into their center mass and the Germans fell dead into the trench. Johnny stepped over them and out of the trench.
“Thanks, buddy!” Jake hollered.
“A bit slow on the draw, hey partner?” Johnny joked.
Jake nodded; a little too embarrassed to respond with one of his sarcastic quips.
“Grenades,” ordered West and the men each tossed a grenade into the gun pit. In a loud, blinding flash, the second gun was destroyed. They moved past that position to the final .88 alongside the canal. It was still firing down the main highway north of the canal. They were out of the woods now and maneuvering among some structures. There was a water tower, a brickyard, a warehouse and some small buildings. What was left of West’s small group approached the .88-millimeter gun from its flank and took the emplacement under fire. The Germans were in crossfire from the road and from West’s group on their flank.
West looked back. All that was left were Jake, Johnny and Christian. They were spread out among the structures. Jake was crouched at the base of the water tower, Johnny peered out from behind a pallet of bricks and Christian was at the corner of the warehouse.
The main group of paratroopers launched an attack up the main road. With the defenders distracted, West yelled, “Follow me!” The group took off toward the emplacement firing and hurling grenades. The .88 belched out one more round before it was silenced. The Germans in the position raised their hands and came out under a torn and tattered white flag. The paratroopers took the dusty and dirt-caked defenders prisoner.
Jake took a seat on the shady ground, his back up against a small brick building. Johnny stood alongside him. They both were breathing heavily as West and Christian approached. They sat on the ground in the shade as the main force of paratroopers continued toward the bridge.
“Good work, men. I’m surprised that…” A blinding flash and a tremendous explosion interrupted him. The shock wave knocked Johnny to the ground and tore the helmets off of the other soldiers. An enormous dust cloud was kicked up and fragments began falling all over. Chunks of concrete and huge pieces of wood rained down on them. The four men squeezed against the wall of the building while scrambling to retrieve their helmets. The debris shower continued as the lighter stones, smaller pieces of wood and clumps of dirt descended to earth.
In a few moments the dust cleared and everyone could see the bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal was gone. West began to pull his Company together. Johnny saw Brewer treating some troopers with superficial wounds and he and Jake walked over.
“How’s Goldbrick doing, Beerman?” Johnny asked. “Is he gonna make it?”
Brewer just shook his head. “He nearly had his leg severed at the hip. Nothing left of his crotch as far as I could see. He was alive when I shot him up with Morphine and sent him back to the aid station.” Brewer worked on another paratrooper as he talked. “He was a mess.”
“Thanks.” The two men walked away to rejoin what was left of their squad.
Jake spoke first. “If that ever happened to me, I need you to kill me.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“If I ever get my balls shot off or lose a leg I want you to finish me. Right here on the battlefield. I’m not going home like that.” Jake looked solemnly at Johnny waiting for an answer.
“You’re nuts, Jake. You know that?” was all he could think of saying.
“Well, I couldn’t ask just anyone. I wouldn’t trust anyone else. But if you promise me, I know you’ll do it.”
“You’re still a fruit cake, Jake. Who else thinks of this shit?”
“I’d do the same for you,” Jake persisted.
“Well, that makes me feel a whole lot better.”
“C’mon Yank. Do you want to go home with your dick shot off or without your legs? Is that something you want to put her through? Are you that selfish? Could you even handle it if she left you because of that?”
Johnny pondered that for a moment. “She wouldn’t leave me because of that but I get your point about putting her through it. Still, I have a son to take care of.”
“Well if it came to that, I’d make sure your son was taken care of but at least promise to finish me off if it happened to me. I don’t have a son to worry about and I’m not about to put Macie through that and I know I couldn’t handle it if she left me because of that. Besides,” Jake smiled his impish grin. “What good is a godfather with no balls, right?”
Johnny pulled Jake off to the side behind a pine tree. “Just to make sure I get this, you want me to kill you if you get shot up really bad, right?”
“I’m begging you to kill me. Otherwise I’ll have to do it myself and I’m not sure I can. I’m not going home half a man,” Jake answered.
Johnny looked around. No one was within earshot. “All right, all right. We’ll do each other if it comes to that.”
Jake reached out his hand. Johnny took it and shook it once vigorously and said, “So, we have this pact and we have the other one about not being taken prisoner.” Jake nodded.
Johnny continued with a wry smile. “Hanging out with you is starting to get very dangerous. And I’ll need to start a damn journal to keep all these pacts straight!”
West walked over. “Good job today, men.”
“Thanks,” Jake answered.
“I have a job for you two. Division lost a glider with some jeep drivers in it. Go back to the DZ and pick up a jeep each. You’ll be driving division staff to visit the regiments.”
“General Taylor?” Johnny asked wondering how he would manage to sit all that time but not wanting to complain.
“Probably,” answered West. “Heck, I don’t know. Whatever the heck they want you to do. Now go!”