The Last Jump: Chapter Twenty-Three
“Body and spirit I surrendered whole, to harsh instructors – and received a soul.”
Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936), Epitaphs, 1919
Private John Patrick Kilroy stood at rigid attention in company formation on the parade grounds of Fort Benning. He and the other boys of his training company proudly endured the brutal midday heat. There was barely a breeze to disturb the flags held upright by the Color Guard. The reviewing stand was packed with dignitaries and relatives on this Saturday morning.
Lieutenant Colonel James M. Gavin walked smartly up and down the ranks of the latest paratrooper class. He moved briskly from trooper to trooper, returned a salute, pinned the wings, a handshake, spoke a few words and moved on. The small jump wings represented a huge token to the select few who made it through the grueling crucible of jump school.
As Gavin came closer, Johnny straightened up just a bit more, tightened his shoulders back and puffed out his chest. Finally, Gavin approached Johnny, pinned his jump wings on, shook his hand and moved on to the next trooper. My god, he thought. This colonel looks so damn young. Immediately after that observation his mind snapped back to the beginning. Fuck you, Captain Wolff. I made it!
But there were moments, and more than just a few, over the last four weeks, when Johnny was convinced the comment Captain Wolff made in New York City months ago, was prescient. It certainly wasn’t easy, he reflected, but he just earned his jump wings and all he wanted to do was stick them in the captain’s face. Do you remember me, sir? Whitehall Street? New York City? You said I wouldn’t make it in the paratroopers? Well, look who was so wrong! He looked forward to that encounter. Of course, he had to be careful not to be disrespectful but just rub the captain’s nose in it a little. The prospect had been a tremendous motivator for him in his darkest and bleakest moments over the preceding weeks.
Johnny nudged Jake and glanced down at their jump wings. Both boys were compressing huge smiles into small grins. They stood with their chests out and their heads held high bursting with pride as Gavin continued down the line, pinning jump wings on their equally ecstatic cohorts. Johnny couldn’t help thinking about that last detail when he finally came to peace with Jake.
Sergeant Bancroft bounded up the training platform and addressed the formation. “We’re going for a little march,” he announced. “I’m tired of your belly-aching and bitching,” Bancroft continued. “I’m fed up with the petty squabbling that some of you seem to enjoy.”
A few men glanced furtively in the direction of Jake and Johnny Kilroy. It was obvious Bancroft was referring to them after the commotion in the packing shed.
“And if everyone is not back by sundown, then all weekend passes will be cancelled for everybody.” The groans became more audible.
“So ladies, let’s get going,” Bancroft hopped off the platform. The men shuffled slightly in position, tightening their grip on their rifle slings. Commands were shouted. The formation did a crisp left face and the detail moved out.
Baker Company of training class Number 22 stepped smartly out of the barracks area and marched in a column of four platoons into the wooded environs of Fort Benning. The platoons were now reduced to about thirty soldiers each from the original seventy. They kicked up the dust of the red Georgia clay as they labored under the load of full field packs and slung rifles. There was no cadence being called. Only the slight shuffling sounds of boots grinding into the clay as the company marched into the deep Georgia woods.
In mid-summer in Georgia, the sun set about nine in the evening leaving almost four hours of hard marching ahead. That it was at the end of the day, when the heat of the sun paled slightly, did not make the march any easier. The stubborn humidity persisted regardless of the time of day.
The formation eventually came upon a newly blacktopped road perpendicular to the line of march. At this crossroads deep in the woods one platoon turned left, another went right and the rear-most platoon did an about face and headed back. Bancroft led his platoon straight ahead for another few minutes before he called a halt to the formation.
“Attention,” he ordered. The men snapped to attention. “Right face! Dress right, dress!” he bellowed. The platoon dressed up into perfect formation. “Enema, Yank, front and center.” Jake and Johnny scrambled out to the front and stood at attention. Bancroft addressed his second in command, Sergeant Bruce Copping. “Sergeant, take the rest of the platoon back to the barracks and pick up the stragglers on your way. Everyone back by sundown or no passes!”
“Yes, Sergeant.” Copping issued the orders. A few moments later the rest of the platoon, shrouded by a veil of rising dust, was rounding a bend in the wide trail and were soon out of sight.
Bancroft addressed the two soldiers. “I’m this far from washing you two duds out,” he held his fingers about an inch apart. “You’ve been nothing but trouble since you got here. Every man in this company knows why they had to march tonight and they all hate your guts. Now, I’m going to make sure you don’t get back by dark and they’ll hate you even more. Probably beat the crap out of you so that you won’t be able to make the jumps.”
Bancroft looked at Johnny. “Yank, you’re a fucking slacker,” Bancroft got right up in his face. He had a crazed, wild look in his eyes. “You look for the easy way out every chance you get. You’re a wise guy and a smart-ass and you think you’re better than everyone else but I got you figured out. You can look down on all of us but you’re just a gutless little college boy.” Bancroft paused to let his words sink in. “And Enema here wants to kill you,” Bancroft continued. “And I ought to let him do it. That would rid me of both of you.”
Johnny refused the bait. He would not let Bancroft provoke him before jump week.
“Enema, you’re a dumb fucker,” Bancroft shifted his attention to Jake and got nose to nose with him. “You can’t control your temper and you act without thinking. If I washed you out today I’d probably be saving your life since you’re damn sure to get yourself killed dead on your first combat jump.”
Jake also refused to respond although every fiber of his muscular being was a nerve pulse away from tearing into Bancroft.
Bancroft stepped back, and addressed both of them in an even tone. “My little problem is Captain Wolff is pleased with the company. He thinks we already washed out too many good ones and wants to go into jump week with what we got. He figures we’ll lose even more next week when some of your little girlfriends chicken out at the door.” Bancroft seemed to calm down a bit. “But I’d rather you quit right now,” Bancroft continued as his face screwed up in anger again. “If you quit, you see, I can’t be blamed for washing you out. Quit right now and we can all go back and the rest of the boys will all get their weekend passes. What’ll it be, girls?”
“I’m not quitting,” Jake answered first and quickly.
“Me neither,” Johnny said as fast as he could after Jake spoke.
“Okay, we’ll do it your way.” Bancroft reached into his pack and pulled out a large adjustable wrench and handed it to Johnny. “About a quarter mile up this trail is a running path to the right that goes up that small hill,” Bancroft pointed as he spoke. “At the top of the path is a little clearing, a place to turn around. In the center of that clearing is a bell attached to a concrete post. Remove the nuts and bring me back the bell. And I want it and you two back before the sun sets or no passes. For anyone! Understand?”
“We understand,” Johnny replied.
Bancroft spun on his heels and began jogging to catch up to the platoon that was by now out of sight. That rat-bastard is in really good shape, observed Johnny.
As soon as Bancroft was out of earshot Johnny turned to Jake and said, “Okay, Enema, let’s go.” He immediately realized his mistake.
Jake dropped his M-1 and took off his pack. “You and me need to settle this right now.”
“I’m sorry Jake, it just slipped out. But don’t be stupid. Look, this is what the bastard wants. If we’re at each other’s throats we’ll never make it back in time.”
“Then you need to mind your smart-ass mouth, college boy.”
Johnny held up both his hands in a sign of surrender. “Okay, I’m sorry. How about a truce until we get this done?”
Jake just stared at Johnny, studying him, his face emotionless.
Johnny broke the silence. “And if you want to continue this later when it’s just you and me and no one else is involved, I’d be happy to oblige.”
A slight smile appeared on Jake’s face. “Oh, so you’ll give me a chance to defend my honor at a later time?” Jake asked in a mocking tone.
“Yeah, yes. Now can we get on with this?”
“Surely,” replied Jake as he bent down to pick up his gear. “Let’s get on with this.”
Johnny dropped his pack and M-1 and pointed to Jake’s. “Let’s leave these here. We’ll pick them up on the way back.”
Jake nodded and took the lead as they started off down the dirt trail looking for the running path. Johnny, wrench in hand, noticed the low angle of the sun flittering through the trees. He estimated no more than two hours of daylight left, barely enough time to get back to the barracks assuming they retrieved the bell quickly and could find their way back.
Sweating profusely, the two men jogged for another few minutes when Jake abruptly took a sharp turn to the right. He found it! Johnny followed as they ascended a well-trodden path that led up a slight hill. Jake slowed and Johnny nearly bumped him as they came to a stop. Right before them, just as Bancroft had described, was a square concrete post standing about four feet out of the ground. On top of the post stood a brass-colored bell that hung from a cross piece so that it swung freely. The cross piece was attached to two upright stanchions that were welded to a flange that lay flat on the top of the concrete pillar. Four bolts came up from the post through the flange and attached it solidly to the pillar. Johnny looked at the area surrounding the bell and post. It was well trodden. He surmised the troops would run up the path and around the bell and probably slap it to signal that they had made it this far. There was something inscribed on the bell but before Johnny could read it, Jake snatched the wrench from his hand.
“Let’s get to it,” he breathed heavily as he adjusted the wrench around the first bolt.
Jake tugged mightily and the nut broke free. Repeating the same procedure for the remaining nuts, they lifted the bell off of the post. It weighed only about ten pounds but it was bulky and awkward to carry.
The two boys retraced their steps down the path and back onto the dirt trail. They finally reached their field packs and knelt down to strap them on.
“Jake, I don’t know what the hell we’re doing here with this bell,” Johnny gasped, emphasizing the name, as he carefully placed the bell and the wrench on the ground and fished through his field pack, “but I’d bet were doing something we’re not supposed to be doing.” He wrapped the bell in his poncho and shoved it into his pack.
The two men worked quietly and quickly as they loaded up their gear and moved out toward the paved road, forgetting the wrench on the ground. In just a few minutes they were standing at the crossroads. Jake spoke first. “We came from that direction so we probably should go back that way,” he pointed down the wide dirt trail they had come from.
Johnny deliberated for a moment. “He sent the other platoons off in three different directions so I figure there’s more than one way to get back. We got about two hours of hard marching ahead of us and I think we’d be better off on the paved road.” Johnny sensed a flicker of frustration in Jake’s face, as if his original suggestion was inadequate. Johnny recovered quickly. “But if you really think that’s the way to go, I’m with you.”
Jake caught him off guard with his response. “You’re right, Yank. The paved road should be faster.”
“The problem is we didn’t come that way so we’ll have to find our way back to the barracks area somehow.”
“This road curves off in the same general direction we came from,” Jake answered. “We’ll figure it out. With that, both men began to quickstep down the paved road. They traveled for a time in quiet until Jake broke the silence.
“You’re not a slacker, Johnny,” Jake surprised him again. “I’ve been in the army over a year and I never volunteer for anything either. That doesn’t mean we can’t do our job or we’d ever let our buddies down.”
Johnny was impressed by Jake’s overture. He had to admit that Jake was making an effort to resolve their differences, even if it was only for this challenge.
“Look, Jake, I’m sorry about the Enema thing. Slip of the tongue. And I was a jerk way back when you offered me your hand.” Johnny felt better getting that off of his chest. He attributed his own bad behavior to the strain of jump school. “Besides,” he continued, “Bancroft doesn’t know us or what makes us tick. He’s the idiot.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Jake replied as he extended his hand. Johnny grabbed the hand heartily, shook it and they continued their speed march down the paved highway.
They had gone a little while longer when Jake first heard the sound of the engine behind them. They turned to see a civilian pickup truck heading in their direction. They stopped and raised their hands to the driver of an old dilapidated Ford. Johnny assumed he was a civilian contractor working on some construction project. The truck stopped. Jake went to the window.
“Evening, sir. Could we get a ride with you down this road?”
The driver was a burly bald-headed man with a thick black beard. He seemed annoyed by the request and in a hurry to continue on his way. He spat some tobacco juice onto the pavement and looked at Jake. “We’re not supposed to pick up any of you boys, so if I might be on my way.”
“So, you won’t give us a ride?” Johnny asked rhetorically.
“Can’t do it,” the burly man replied. He became indignant and surly. “Orders is orders!”
Jake swung the M-1 Garand from his shoulder. He leveled it at the driver. “In that case, we’ll just have to borrow your truck, cousin. But don’t you worry; you’ll get it back, someday.”
“Whoa, hold on there,” the man replied. He raised his hands, began smiling and became more obliging. “Just get in back and I’ll take you down the road. But duck down if you see any military vehicles pass by.”
“That’s more like it,” Johnny answered. “We’re going to the barracks in the Frying Pan.”
“Yes, sir. It’s just a few hundred yards off of this road a few miles up ahead.”
“Well, let’s get to it,” Jake smiled. “And no funny stuff,” he slapped his M-1 as if to remind the driver that the two young paratroopers were both armed and still dangerous.
The two soldiers hopped into the bed of the truck. The driver took his time and carefully navigated the paved road. In eight minutes they traveled the same distance they would have needed about an hour to travel on foot. The truck stopped and they scampered out. The driver pointed off to his left down a trail into the woods. “Right through there, a few hundred yards is the barracks area.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jake replied. “Have a nice day.” The driver sped off, visibly pleased to have jettisoned his perilous cargo.
“You have ammo for that thing?” Johnny pointed to Jake’s M-1.
“Nope.” Jake laughed. “Now let’s see if we can find our barracks.”
The two men picked their way through the woods until they could see the trees thin out in the distance. When they reached the edge of the woods, they both recognized the area and were able to pick out their barracks. They had beaten the other platoons back by virtue of their fortuitous hijacking. They found a comfortable spot with good visibility. After a half hour of waiting, they observed the four platoons march back into the barracks area. Johnny looked out to the horizon. The full sun was just touching the mountains in the distance. It would be dark soon. He stood up and looked at Jake.
“Well buddy, I think it’s time we deliver Bancroft’s bell.”
As they came running into view, the waiting soldiers erupted into a chorus of cheers.
“How the hell did you do that?” smiled Danny Peregory as they ran up the steps and into the barracks. Members of the platoon slapped them on their backs and continued cheering.
Sergeant Bancroft was sitting at his desk in his office. He yelled out the door. “What the hell is all that ruckus about, Sergeant Copping?”
“The Kilroys are back,” Copping answered in amazement.
“No shit?” Bancroft was genuinely surprised. “Dismiss the rest of the company and send those two eight-balls into my office.”
Copping complied and closed the door behind Jake and Johnny. They snapped to rigid attention.
“Reporting as ordered, Sergeant,” Johnny managed to suppress the smile that was about to explode on his face.
“I don’t know how you pukes managed to pull this off but I’m not nearly finished with you yet. You two are…” Bancroft stopped in mid sentence as Jake reached into Johnny’s pack, unwrapped the bell and placed it on Bancroft’s desk without saying a word.
“What’s this?” Bancroft smiled.
“It’s the bell you ordered us to bring back, Sergeant,” Jake replied.
“Bell?” Bancroft said. “I have absolutely no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.”
Johnny thought Bancroft accepted the Kilroys victory too gracefully. He wasn’t the type to be a good loser.
Jake looked puzzled. “You ordered us to get this bell.”
“I did no such thing, Enema. Why would an NCO order his men to steal the property of another regiment?” Bancroft smiled again, a sinister sneer that chilled the small room. “You need to get that piece of shit out of here.”
Suddenly Johnny realized it was a setup. “You’re right Sergeant Bancroft, our mistake.” He shot a hard stare at Jake that said follow my lead. He reached down and scooped up the bell and quickly wrapped it back in his poncho.
“We’ll be on our way now, Sergeant,” Johnny took a step backward.
“You’ll leave when I dismiss you,” Bancroft barked. The two men stiffened again. Bancroft paused, stood up and walked around and sat on the front of his desk. “Paratroopers are a rowdy bunch, as you know by now. Always pulling pranks and getting into trouble somehow.” Jake and Johnny were not following Bancroft’s drift. He sensed their confusion.
“How else could you explain why the hell two jump school students, not even paratroopers yet, would steal the bell that the Five-oh-four uses to mark the midpoint of their morning run?” Bancroft had a smug look on his face. “And when the NCOs from the Oh-four find it missing, they’ll scour the barracks area looking for it. I imagine they’ll punish the thieves pretty good once they find…you.”
Johnny suddenly got the picture. Bancroft ordered them to take the bell but there were no witnesses. When the Five-oh-four finds their bell missing, Bancroft will rat them out, if he hadn’t already done so. If the NCOs don’t mangle the Kilroys there’ll be severe discipline if not outright expulsion. Pretty insidious way to get rid of us, thought Johnny.
Bancroft stared hard at both of them. “I’m heading out to Phenix City so I won’t be around to witness the slaughter.” He paused at the door and put on his overseas cap. “Now you’re dismissed,” he said. “And confined to the barracks.” He stepped smartly out the door.
Johnny and Jake walked to their bunks. Jake began stripping off his pack and gear. He looked at Johnny and extended his hand. “Let me have the bell and the wrench.”
Johnny looked at the bell. The inscription said, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment – Strike Hold. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m bringing it back. It’s our only shot. I’m not waiting here for those goons to come in and kick our ass. Bancroft probably already snitched on us.”
“I know,” Johnny answered. “But how the hell are we going to find the place?”
“We? You coming with me?”
“Hell yeah, we’re in this together.” Johnny began shedding his heavy gear. “But how are we going to find that place?”
Jake nudged Johnny. “Hey, we’re paratroopers. We’re supposed to find strange places in the dark. If we can’t do it on our own base, how the hell are we supposed to do it in some strange country with the enemy hunting us down and shooting at us?”
“Good point. But I doubt Copping is just going to stand around and let us go.”
“We wait for lights out, for things to quiet down and then we go.” Jake looked to Johnny for agreement. He nodded.
They used the few hours to recuperate in their bunks and waited for Copping to turn the lights out in the empty barracks. After another hour, the two men stuffed their gear under the blankets of their bunks. Johnny wrapped the bell in a towel and retrieved a flashlight from his footlocker. They dressed light, just their fatigues and a baseball cap. They slipped out a window and headed directly for the paved road. It was dark but the various lights in the barracks area made for decent visibility. They worked their way out of the barracks area unnoticed. The going got much slower through the woods but they were soon standing on the paved road. Thankfully, a full moon began rising in the direction they were traveling. Johnny knew they were doing the only thing they could to counteract Bancroft’s plot but still wondered how they were going to find that one secluded spot in these vast woods.
Jake looked at his watch by the moonlight. “I figure between five and six miles based on how long it took the truck to get us back here.”
“Right,” Johnny agreed after a moment. “Since we speed-march about six miles an hour, we need to start looking for that crossroads in about an hour.”
“That crossroads trail and the path will still be hard to find in the dark,” Jake complained.
“I left the damn wrench where we dropped our packs. If we can find it, that will mark the trail for us.”
Jake nodded. “Right, Yank, good idea.” He reached for the bell. “Here, let me carry that thing for awhile.”
Jake grabbed it by the clapper. There was no noise. They began their speed march back down the dark lonely road in silence.
Fatigue was straining to take over the two men but the adrenaline rush averted it. The moon continued to rise and illuminated the paved road enough for them to see each crossroad as they came upon it. The problem was that there were so many of them and they all looked alike in the dim light. After the prescribed time, they began to explore up the cross trails, one after the other in turn, far enough to satisfy themselves that the bell-path was not there.
Trail after trail yielded nothing as they worked through the night. They collaborated in silence through the darkness until they could see the faint glimmer of sunrise on the horizon.
“Sun is coming up,” Johnny finally said. “Maybe we’ll have better luck in the daylight.”
Jake turned his head to one side, listening intently. “Hear that?” he asked.
Johnny perked up his ears. “No,” he confessed.
“It’s a cadence being called. Somebody is out there for a morning run and I’d bet they’re headed for the bell.”
“Shit,” Johnny complained.
“Let’s go, follow me,” Jake ordered and took off back down the paved road. Johnny followed. Jake ran with an ear toward the sound, which now became slightly audible to Johnny. Assessing the angle of the sound as best he could, Jake tried to figure the direction of the runners and their likely course and destination. After passing a few crossroads they had already explored, Jake stopped. He looked directly across the paved road down the trail from which he believed the troop of runners was coming from, and then headed down the trail in the opposite direction.
“We were already here, Jake,” Johnny observed.
“Yeah, we probably missed it.” He kept running, still listening to the sounds now behind them and getting slightly louder. He scanned the ground ahead. Suddenly he saw the wrench, lying off to the side of the trail partially covered by some leaves. Jake stooped and picked it up. “Got it,” he proclaimed.
Johnny slapped him on the back. “Well done, Jake.”
“No congratulations yet, we still got to put it back.” They quickly found the running path and clambered up the slope to the concrete post. Johnny quietly placed the bell stanchion back over the bolts while Jake dropped to his knees to find the nuts. He handed one to Johnny who spun it on a bolt and tightened it with the wrench. They repeated that twice more as the sounds became louder down below. They both scrambled on hands and knees as the first of the runners started up the path. Johnny found the last nut. He finished tightening it just as the first runner, head down and struggling up the incline came into view a few yards away. Both men slipped into the foliage as the runner came into the small clearing, ran around the concrete post, slapped the bell and started back down the incline. The ringing was sweet music to their ears as the two men edged their way back deeper into the woods.
The parade of runners continued in an unending stream. They wore white T-shirts with the AIRBORNE inscription on the front and back. Small groups of men would enter the clearing at the same time, each one slapping the bell, soon to be followed by single runners with gaps in between. Every so often a large gap would appear where no runners would be visible for a long period of time. Jake and Johnny remained concealed in the woods regaining their strength and contemplating their next move.
“Looks like the whole regiment is out this fine Saturday morning,” Johnny observed.
“Yeah, just a little run before reveille,” Jake added. “Now how do we get back before breakfast?”
“I got that figured if you got a three mile run left in you,” Johnny answered.
Jake realized what he meant and nodded. They both shed their green fatigue shirts to expose their white T-shirts underneath. Johnny stuffed the wrench into his pocket. They waited for a large break in the line of runners and slipped out of the woods, slapped the bell as hard as they could, ran down the incline and merged in with the long line of runners.
They hid in plain sight in the flow of paratroopers streaming back toward the barracks area. No one noticed them. A running formation was usually tight on the way out but loosened up considerably on the way back as runners slowed and straggled. Johnny’s calculation was right on target. Most morning runs were six miles and they joined at the halfway mark. They ran along the wide dirt trail at a six-minute mile pace, being careful to stay in a gap in the loose formation. When they came into the barracks area, they slipped out of the formation and made their way to their own barracks. The sun was up as they slipped through a back door and into their bunks.
At reveille they showered, shaved and joined their buddies for a jog down to the mess hall for breakfast. The weekend would be light duty as the men prepared for jump week. Most of the men had post privileges and could go to the Enlisted Man’s Club, the Post Exchange or to the movies. Some stayed in the barracks. Johnny and Jake stayed with Sky and Danny, both overjoyed that the Kilroys buried the hatchet. The four young men went to the mess hall together, checked their parachutes again and hung out for the weekend.
Monday morning broke sunny and promised to be another hot, humid summer day. The trucks were lined up outside the packing shed. No more macho running and screaming nonsensical musical ditties. This was now serious business. Men would be jumping from airplanes, risking life and limb to prove they were worthy of their selection to train for and become United States Army Paratroopers. Sergeant Copping was unusually quiet and businesslike that morning. He knew some of the men would be injured, a few seriously and others might die. The injured would be recycled to a following class. The seriously injured would likely be assigned to a leg outfit, a non-paratrooper infantry unit, after they recovered. Those who died might have a road or a movie theatre on the base named after them. Those who made it through would be awarded their coveted jump wings the following Saturday at graduation.
The men formed up after breakfast and ran down to the packing shed in formation. It was a mild jog by airborne standards. There they retrieved their parachutes. Jake and Johnny joked around as Johnny smiled and pointed to the “P” between the first and last names on his pack. Whatever tension existed between them was entirely gone.
The troopers loaded onto the two-and-a-half-ton trucks for the short drive to Lawson Field where the Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft awaited. The C-47 was the military version of the Douglas DC-3 commercial airliner. It was always easy to pick out from a crowd of airplanes because of its distinctive nose and cockpit configuration. The GIs affectionately nicknamed it the “Gooney Bird”. It was powered by twin Pratt & Whitney Model R-1830-92 engines capable of generating 1,200 horsepower each. The C-47 could carry twenty fully loaded paratroopers over 3,600 miles at a top speed of 230 miles per hour. It was the mainstay of airborne transportation.
The training company was divided into twelve man sticks and assembled on the bleacher seats alongside the concrete runway. Johnny, Jake and Sky were in the same stick. A lone transport was sitting a hundred yards away, revving up its engines and belching out oily smoke.
There were some last minute instructions from Sergeant Copping. “Relax, men,” Copping began. “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.” Some troopers pulled out packs of Lucky Strike or Camel cigarettes. Copping continued. “Remember, if you stick in the door you’re done. Sergeant Bancroft is your jumpmaster.”
“Today you jump from fifteen hundred feet. Your T-4 parachute will deploy quickly but if you don’t feel the pop in four or five seconds, pull the damn reserve chute,” he demonstrated on a parachute resting on a small table. “You’ll be in the air about a minute and remember the landing techniques we’ve been practicing for weeks. Knees slightly bent, hit and roll, recover and collapse your chute.” The men nervously nodded their concurrence. “For the next three days we lower the height to six hundred feet and Friday we jump at night.” He paused for a moment and scanned the group. Everyone was paying strict attention. “Okay, first stick up.”
Twelve men jumped off the bleachers and marched to the waiting transport. The C-47 took off, circled the airfield and cruised over the drop zone. It only took a few minutes to reach the jump altitude before the troopers began counting the white parachutes out loud as they exited the plane. The first stick jumped all twelve men. They circled lazily above and came down to earth. The men collapsed their chutes and walked over to the trucks waiting to ferry them back to the packing sheds to repack their chutes for tomorrow.
This aerial dance was repeated over and over again as the plane dropped its anxious paratroopers and landed to pick up another load. By the fourth or fifth stick, a military ambulance, called a “meat wagon” by the troops, made its way out to the drop zone to pick up an injured paratrooper. A few sticks later the men counted only eleven chutes coming out of the plane. Someone had frozen in the door. Jake leaned over to Johnny, “After all we’ve gone through, how can anyone stick in the door? Not now! Not after all the shit we’ve put up with!”
“I don’t know,” Johnny replied. “I’m just hoping I don’t freeze in the door.”
“Don’t worry. I’m right behind you. I’ll get us both out,” Jake smiled with that look of confidence Johnny was beginning to admire. He knew Jake was dead serious.
“Next twelve,” shouted Copping. Jake, Johnny and Sky jumped off the bleachers with the rest of their stick, marched over to the C-47 and loaded up. Bancroft was at the rear of the plane directing the men in. After the boys had loaded, the plane taxied to the head of the runway. The pilots gunned the twin engines. As the transport plane picked up speed and raced down the runway, Jake began laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Johnny asked above the roar of the straining engines.
Jake pointed his thumb at his chest. “Nothing. Just my first time in an airplane.”
Johnny laughed. “Me too!”
The plane reached altitude quickly and approached the drop zone. The red light over the door blinked on. Bancroft went through the pre-jump drill with orders and hand signals. The hand signals were essential, as the men could not always hear the jumpmaster over the engines.
Bancroft put out two fists, raised his thumbs and jerked them upward. “Stand up!” The men stood erect on mostly trembling legs, their faces sweating and white with fear. The jumpmaster raised his right hand, crooked his index finger and made an up and down motion. “Hook up!” The men hooked their static line on to the wire cable strung down the centerline of the plane. The men stared down the cabin at Bancroft eagerly anticipating his next command.
Bancroft touched the reserve chute strapped to his chest with spread fingers on both hands. “Sound off for equipment check!” Each man checked the equipment of the soldier next to him, especially the gear that was strapped behind, to make sure there were no loose or missing straps.
Bancroft raised two fingers on his right hand, wagged them and yelled, “Count off!”
“Twelve Okay,” came the barely audible shout from the end of the stick closest to the pilots.
“Eleven Okay,” came next until each man in turn had counted down to one. Bancroft nodded, pulled his wind goggles over his eyes, took his position on his stomach and waited for the red light to turn green.
At this point in a combat jump the men would have closed the line and tightened the stick against the door. When the green light went on, the jumpmaster would have been the first out the door. A combat load of twenty fully laden paratroopers was expected to clear the door in less than twelve seconds. But speed was not the purpose of the qualifying jumps. Bancroft would control and monitor each man’s exit for later critique.
“Stand in the door,” Bancroft barked. The first man took his position in the door, facing outward with both hands on the outside of the door and feet on the threshold.
Both engines of the C-47 went nearly quiet as the pilot cut the throttles to reduce airspeed to ninety knots, the maximum jump speed decreed by airborne doctrine. Paratroopers learned quickly to anticipate the green light by the sound of the engines. Suddenly, the jump light turned green. Bancroft, lying on his stomach with his head out of the open door, tapped the first trooper on the leg and out he went. The next trooper stood in the door. “Hands outside!” Bancroft barked and the trooper quickly remedied the position of his hands. A tap on the leg and he too was gone.
Johnny was before Jake but after Sky. The line was moving toward the door at a slow but steady pace. No one had yet refused. Sky went out smoothly and Johnny stood in the door and observed the scene unfolding in front of him. The ground below didn’t appear far away. Cars and trucks appeared rather large and the people on the ground looked bigger than the ants they were supposed to look like. Before Johnny could fully digest the notion that there may not be enough height for his chute to open, he felt the tap. Gritting his teeth, he closed his eyes tightly and stepped out of the plane, right leg first, into empty space. Johnny immediately swiveled to the left facing the tail of the plane. He was bent slightly at the waist in a semi-pike position. His knees were bent with his legs locked tightly together at the knees and feet. He tucked his chin, brought his elbows tight to his sides with his hands, fingers widespread, gripping his reserve chute. His position was textbook perfect. He was quickly caught by the slipstream and was propelled toward the tail of the plane. Before he could count or even focus his eyes, he felt the opening shock of the parachute deploying. It was gentler than he expected but it still jarred his teeth and he bit his lip. Blood trickled form the corner of his mouth. He opened his eyes revealing the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. The twenty-eight foot diameter parachute was fully deployed above his head and he swung gently beneath it.
The roar of the twin engines faded into the distance and he was struck by the peaceful silence. He looked around for Jake but could not tell who was in which chute as they all drifted leisurely toward the ground. He marveled at the sensation of floating in air, particularly after the anxiety preceding the jump. After a minute or so the ground came up fast and he assumed his landing crouch. He hit the ground, rolled once, bounced up and walked into his parachute to collapse it. He pulled in the shroud lines at the same time he was walking until he reached the silk chute. The ground wind was light so it was not difficult to gather his chute. Standing with both arms full of silk and a huge smile on his face, he turned to search for Jake and Sky.
Sky waddled over with his arms also full of parachute. “That was freakin’ amazing.”
“Unbelievable,” Johnny replied.
“Everybody jump?” he asked Johnny.
“I’m not sure. You see Jake?”
They both turned to scan the drop zone. Most of the men were already heading for the trucks. The ambulance was speeding to the far side of the drop zone. One trooper was still down close by, his chute not yet collapsed and tugging at him.
“That’s Jake,” Sky declared. Both men ran over. Johnny reached him first. Sky ran to collapse Jake’s chute.
“You okay?” Johnny asked.
Jake grimaced. “Got turned around. Landed backwards. Sprained my ankle pretty bad.”
“Let’s get you to the meat wagon,” Sky offered, referring to the ambulance.
“No!” Jake demanded. “I’m not going to wash out now. Not after all this. No way.”
Johnny looked into the determined face of his newfound friend. If you want to have a friend, you need to be a friend. The words called out to him. He lifted Jake up and threw his arm over his shoulder. “Don’t worry buddy, we’ve got your back. We’ll get you over to the trucks.”
“Oh, shit,” moaned Sky. “If we get caught…” He let the words hang in the air. “What about tomorrow’s jump?”
“We’ll worry about that tomorrow,” Johnny replied. He looked at Jake. “Are you sure you’re up for this?”
“Fucking A,” Jake answered.
Sky grabbed Jake’s chute and the other arm. They scurried back to the waiting truck, limping and hopping together, their ugly ballet hidden only by the fluttering loose folds of the silk parachutes they carried.
They all knew what they were about to do was against the rules. They would help Jake hide the injury, pack his chutes and do whatever else they could to get him through his jumps.
Back in the packing shed Jake tightened the laces on his boots. They fit him like a glove ever since they were issued and he, along with everyone else, stood in a tub of water to wet them down. Then they walked and ran in the wet boots to form-fit them. When the boots dried they conformed perfectly to each man’s feet and ankles. With his perfectly fitted jump boots laced as tightly as he could stand it, he limped around the packing table as well as he could. In spite of the throbbing pain, he found if he could put his weight only on his heel, without flexing his ankle, he could shuffle around. With his limited mobility, Sky and Johnny did most of the work packing Jake’s chute for the next day.
Back in the barracks Johnny secured some ice and Jake soaked his foot in a valiant effort to reduce the swelling. In the morning Jake taped his ankle, laced up his boot tightly and limped to the mess hall. Most of the men had aches and pains and many of them had bumps and bruises as well. A lame trooper drew no special notice and even less sympathy. Jake faked his way onto the trucks for the trip down to the packing shed. The instructors were too busy with other injured troopers and watching the sticks spill out of the planes to notice that Johnny was helping Jake move along to their C-47. Once in, Jake was able to sit again. The short trip to the door would be no problem. The rocking aircraft and the paratroopers would camouflage his limp. The problem would be the landing. Jake had to do it virtually on one foot. His injured ankle would not be able to withstand the stress of another hard landing.
Out they went, this time from 1,200 feet. The entire stick jumped again. It was rare to see a refusal after the first day.
Jake’s jump went smoothly. He attained a good position in the air and his chute deployed quickly and gently. He immediately oriented himself and concentrated on the landing. He would have to take the brunt of the landing on his good leg and quickly roll over to take the rest of the stress on his side and shoulders. It wouldn’t be easy but he was determined to pull it off, multiple times, in order to earn his jump wings.
The ground directly below him looked like a soft patch of high grass. He raised his injured foot to keep it from contacting the ground, bounced off his good foot and landed flush on his side before rolling over. He absorbed the hurt through the rest of his body but his injured foot remained protected.
Sky and Johnny were there in a flash. They both kept an eye out for him as they exited the plane. “That was the freakin’ ugliest parachute landing in history,” Sky laughed out loud.
“You looked like a ruptured duck coming in for a crash landing,” Johnny agreed, also laughing. “Are you okay?”
Jake smiled. “Yep, I am. I think I’m going to be able to pull this off.” He hesitated as they helped him up and collapsed his chute. “I mean I think we’ll be able to pull this off.”
The routine continued for the next two days. Jake beat up his body with his good leg absorbing the punishment from the next two daylight landings. On Friday afternoon, under threatening skies, the company picked up their chutes and prepared for the night jump. The men gathered in small groups inside the packing shed awaiting the arrival of the trucks.
Sky, Johnny and Jake stood near the large open door of the packing shed. They scanned the dark sky. Johnny pointed to Jake’s heavily taped ankle. “Are you sure you can make it?”
“I made the last three, I’ve got one more in me.”
The roar of a thunderclap shook the packing shed as the three men winced. “Those were daylight jumps,” Sky reminded Jake. “You won’t be able to see the ground coming up at night.”
“I know,” Jake confessed. “But by then I’ll have landed and qualified. If I injure it more or even break it, I’ll have plenty of time to get better but I’ll already have my wings. I’ll just curl up into a ball as soon as my chute pops.”
“Ooh,” Sky groaned. “That is definitely gonna hurt.”
“I know,” Jake answered, the smile gone. “I’m not looking forward to it..” Jake looked up at the darkening sky. “I said a little prayer. Maybe the Big Guy can help me out.”
“If there is a God,” Johnny murmured.
Suddenly the wind whipped up and the trees bent over. The sky turned dark green and penny-sized hail came crashing onto the blacktop outside the packing shed. In less than twenty seconds the hail turned to a deep, heavy penetrating rain. The downpour splashed off the ground in mini-explosions, throwing sprays of water back up into the air almost a foot high. The three men backed up deeper into the shed. They watched the sky curiously for about five minutes as the weather worsened.
Captain Wolff strode into the shed from another door and hopped up on a table. He was soaking wet. One of the sergeants yelled, “Attention!”
“As you were, men,” Wolff bellowed before the men could even snap to attention. He wiped his wet hair from his brow. “Gather around, men.”
The company closed in on the captain. “I just got back from the drop zone. The ground is a mud pit and the winds are over forty-five knots. That’s ten knots over the max for a jump.” He paused and then smiled. “Tonight’s jump is cancelled due to inclement weather.”
A chorus of groans immediately emanated from the group. Wolff raised his hands in mock surrender. “You don’t understand men. You all qualify for your jump wings by virtue of the jumps you’ve already made.” The groans turned to cheers. Wolff continued. “With the scheduled parade tomorrow with dignitaries and families coming and all and a tight jump schedule next week for the next class, we simply can’t delay or reschedule one jump. You’ll have plenty of time to train in night jumps when you get back from your ten-day furlough.” The cheers got even louder. “See you all tomorrow at the ceremony.”
The next day Jake managed to march, more like limp, in the parade and received his jump wings right next to Johnny. Immediately after the parade, the company retreated to the Beer Garden to celebrate. The men guzzled 3.2 beer and were having a grand time celebrating their accomplishment. They told jokes and stories and toasted those who gave their all but didn’t make it. They were all extremely proud and the universal ear-to-ear grins testified to their exhilaration.
Captain Wolff entered the Beer Garden and the men immediately stiffened to attention. “At ease men, as you were. I only need a minute.” He hopped up on a table. “First off, congratulations, paratroopers! You are now part of the best fighting force in the army.” A loud raucous cheer went up.
“I’m also very proud to say that this training company has been assigned to me, my company, Item Company, Third Battalion, Five-oh-five, the best damned regiment in the army.” Another loud cheer went up. “So just relax. I’ll be around to meet each of you.”
Johnny was at the bar with Jake, Sky and Danny. He watched as Wolff went from table to table and met his men. He had heard the relationship between officers and enlisted men in the paratroopers was different, especially in the 505th under Jim Gavin. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, he could not wait to remind the captain of his unfulfilled prediction.
Finally, Wolff approached the small group at the bar. He shook hands and exchanged a few words with each one. “Where are you from? What did you do before the War?” Johnny was ready when Wolff got to him. He grasped the captain’s hand and looked directly into his eyes. “Captain Wolff, some months ago back in New York, you recruited me. Do you remember?”
Wolff stared back at him, a faint glow of recognition in his eyes. “I was only in New York for a few days. Were you that guy who the Marine sergeant wanted so badly?”
Johnny smiled, “Yes, sir.”
“Well congratulations, you made it,” Wolff tried to move on but Johnny wouldn’t let go of his hand while his three friends observed the scene with great amusement.
“Sir, you told me I wouldn’t make it through jump school.”
Wolff nodded his agreement.
“Well, here I am, sir,” Johnny continued. “But what was it about me, what did you see, that made you say I wouldn’t make it?” Johnny was enjoying his brief moment of redemption.
Wolff put his free hand on Johnny’s shoulder, leaned in toward him and whispered in his ear. His smile disappeared as Wolff began to grin. Johnny let go and the captain moved on.
“What did he say?” Jake asked.
Johnny had a perplexed expression. “He said he told that exact same thing to everyone!”