“One man is much the same as another and he is best who is trained in the severest school.”
Thucydides (460 BC – 325 BC), The History of the Peloponnesian War, c. 404 BC
The boys of 1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, Item Company, 3rd Battalion of the 505th PIR took shade under the wings of their C-47 transport. Johnny Kilroy sat on the hardscrabble ground leaning back on the front wheel of the landing gear. He was carrying a full combat load and wondered if he would be able to stand up when the time came to board the plane. Jake sat a few feet away, finishing a letter he started earlier in the day. “How do you spell Oujda?” Jake asked aloud.
“S-H-I-T-H-O-L-E,” answered Private Danny Peregory.
“It doesn’t matter,” offered Private Sky Johnson. He was sitting back-to-back with Danny. “The censors will black it out, anyway.”
“Maybe not,” Johnny chimed in. “By the time that letter makes it all the way back home, according to the colonel, we’ll be in Berlin.”
The four boys laughed. Colonel James M. Gavin was indeed a brilliant motivator. There was a reason for the hard training, Gavin explained. It was to prepare them to endure the hardships of combat. If they survived that, they were clearly the toughest sons-of-bitches in the world and could easily crush anybody they faced.
“Yeah, he’s a bit of a cheerleader,” Sky answered. “But I’m sure glad I’m going into combat with him and not against him.”
All the boys nodded their agreement but Gavin’s popularity was not always so universal. When the men returned from leave after jump school, the entire regiment moved to the Alabama Area. They trained intensively for seven months. Gavin pushed his boys physically and mentally harder than they had ever been pushed before.
There were speed marches in full combat gear. Hand to hand combat and bayonet drills were stressed. The troopers were taught how to use their knives to kill quickly and silently in the dark. They were taught that they, and they alone, owned the night. Only the strongest survived and many were transferred for failing to measure up.
Night maneuvers were practiced regularly. Units would be trucked out to the Alabama boonies and would have to solve night navigation problems by the stars or, if clouds obscured the sky, by maps and road signs. The men also practiced nighttime jumps with an emphasis on exiting the plane as rapidly as possible. Once on the ground, they practiced “rolling up the stick” and assembling as quickly and quietly as they could.
Every trooper was taught the fundamentals of small unit tactics. Men of all ranks were expected to proficiently lead a formation of any size on the attack or on the defense. And since Gavin wrote the book on airborne methods and tactics, when they found something did not work or something else worked better, Gavin simply rewrote the book.
His boys also trained with German, Japanese and Italian weapons until they were proficient enough to maintain, operate and fire every weapon in total darkness. They were taught to identify and disable enemy mines and learned a dozen words or phrases in each language that would help them communicate with the enemy. They were arguably the most well-trained and best-prepared unit in the entire army.
Time passed quickly. After months in the Alabama Area, the regiment moved north to Fort Bragg, North Carolina where it was officially assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. On 30 March 1943 the regiment flew from Pope Airfield to Fort Jackson, South Carolina and made army history with the first mass jump of 2,000 paratroopers. What was supposed to be a routine training jump with high-ranking brass in attendance turned into a nightmare as one C-47 stalled and cut a swath through the descending paratroopers. Three men were killed. It was later determined the cause of the stall was the slow speed of the aircraft. Minimum jump speeds were increased. The price of lessons learned by the fledgling airborne was exceedingly costly.
On 20 April, the 82nd Airborne Division moved out of Fort Bragg for Camp Edwards in Massachusetts to stage for overseas deployment. The men were ordered to remove all patches and identifying insignia. They groused and complained about hiding their jump wings. Unit pride was becoming deeply ingrained in this elite group.
After a week at Camp Edwards, the division boarded trains for the New York Port of Embarkation. Once there, in the dark of night, three regiments boarded three transports in New York Harbor. The 504th PIR boarded the SS George Washington, the 505th went aboard the SS Monterey and the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment sailed aboard the SS Santa Rosa. Also aboard the George Washington were two additional battalions designated EGB 447 and EGB 448. The joke among the troops in these battalions was that EGB stood for “Excess Government Baggage”. The paratroopers of the 82nd called them “Easy Going Bastards”. It was a typical attempt at gallows humor, as everyone knew these battalions contained the replacements who would refill the ranks of the killed, wounded and captured.
It took twelve days to make the crossing in a massive convoy protected by nine destroyers, a small escort carrier and the battleship USS Texas. Twelve days of over-crowded conditions, two meals a day in continuous lines to the mess halls, boat drills, seasick soldiers and foul smelling overflowing heads, to finally get to their destination. On the way across the men were told their destination was North Africa. They were glad to finally sight landfall although Danny boasted he could smell Casablanca long before anyone could see it.
Despite the numerous orientations on culture and customs, the boys were not prepared to deal with the Arabs and the depraved conditions in which they lived. They particularly coveted mattress covers, which they fashioned into native garb for everyday wear. Failing to negotiate a proper price, the Arabs would try to steal whatever they could not barter for. The guards were more wary of them than the enemy.
It was a short-lived blessing that the 82nd only spent a few days bivouacked in Camp Don Passage on the outskirts of Casablanca. The two parachute infantry regiments and the 426th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion (PFAB) moved out to the small town of Oujda, French Morocco. Division Commander Major General Matthew B. Ridgway selected the location for its isolation, French-built airfield and expansive and barren surrounding areas for training.
Before they left the Casablanca area, some of the boys heard a broadcast from Axis Sally, the English-speaking propagandist whose broadcasts were aimed at Allied forces. “Welcome to North Africa, Matt Ridgway and your bad boys.”
So much for all the stupid precautions disguising themselves, Jake thought. The German high command already knew they were there!
The 82nd Airborne made the exhausting 400-mile journey in two-and-a-half-ton trucks as well as by rail in sweltering “forty and eight” boxcars, so named because they could carry either forty men or eight horses. They drew a desolate, dusty scrap of land for their bivouac area and laid out their tents in straight, neat company streets. That was the first day of six weeks of hell.
None of the rigors of the Frying Pan, the Alabama Area or the crossing could have prepared the men for what they encountered in Oujda. Nature and the army brass conspired to make conditions as unbearable as humanly possible.
First there was the unrelenting heat, which humbled the discomfort of Georgia and Alabama. Temperatures reached over 110 degrees regularly, draining the most determined men of their drive and energy. The fine gritty dust blew everywhere. It choked the throat, clogged the nostrils and burned the eyes. The equipment did not fare much better as fine sandy particles clogged mechanisms and rendered vehicles and weapons inoperable.
Water and rations were always scarce. The mess food was bland and sparse. The cooks were called “belly robbers”. The boys barely ate enough to sustain themselves given their physical exertions. Their food was always covered in a fine layer of sand and immediately attracted large black flies. They couldn’t help but ingest the insects along with their food.
Paratroopers were expected to practice water discipline. They would fill their helmet liners and canteens each morning from giant canvas Lister bags at the end of their company street. This was supposed to last them all day, for shaving, washing, cleaning their socks and for drinking. The water had a terrible, sickening taste, having been saturated with chlorine and hung all day in the heat of the sun. They also had to take their daily Atabrine tablets to ward off malaria.
It was not long before sickness and disease struck the division hard. Soldiers were coming down with malaria, yellow jaundice, dysentery and diarrhea. They carried toilet paper with them everywhere and often had to find a place to defecate on a moment’s notice, a condition known as the “GI Trots.” Sometimes they didn’t quite make it, to their undying embarrassment. Paratroopers who had been in superb physical condition and in the peak of health just a few weeks before were being steadily worn down by undernourishment and disease. Oujda was grinding the finely honed paratroopers into powder.
Despite the impact of the heat and disease, Gavin continued to push his 505th PIR. Shortly after arriving at Oujda, he was summoned to division headquarters along with Colonel Reuben Tucker, CO of the 504th PIR. There, General Ridgway revealed their first combat mission. One reinforced regiment of the 82nd Airborne would jump into Sicily on the evening of 9 July 1943, spearheading the invasion by the Allies.
Operation Husky would land elements of the Seventh United States Army commanded by Lieutenant General George S. Patton alongside elements of the British Eighth Army under General Bernard Law Montgomery to seize the island. It would be the largest amphibious landing up to that time with 160,000 troops and 2,500 ships and landing craft. The sea borne landings would be preceded by airborne drops to seize vital road junctions and prevent enemy reinforcements from counterattacking the beaches. Since there were not enough transports to drop the entire division at one time, Ridgway gave the assignment to Gavin’s 505th PIR. Ridgway reinforced the 505th with the 3rd Battalion of the 504th and the 456th PFAB, making up the newly structured 505th Regimental Combat Team (RCT).
Gavin trained his boys mostly at night. He held live fire exercises and practiced assembling his forces in total darkness. When the objectives were finally assigned, he looked for similar landscapes and built mock fortifications replicating the enemy bunkers and pillboxes. The paratroopers attacked these mock fortifications repeatedly until they could do so in their sleep.
By late May the additional airfields were completed. The 52nd Troop Carrier Wing (TCW) arrived under the command of Brigadier General Hal Clark. It quickly became apparent most of the pilots were young, green and never trained in close formation night flying. Their training would have to take place in North Africa.
General Clark devised the combat formation for the transports. The basic formation would be a flight of three planes, one in the lead and one trailing on each wing, forming an inverted V. Three flights would also fly in a rough V shape with two three-plane Vs trailing the lead three-plane V. These nine planes were called a V-of-Vs and could carry a full company of paratroopers. Four or five V-of-Vs, of nine planes each, would comprise a serial which could deliver a battalion of paratroopers. Serials would follow each other in ten-minute intervals. This became the basic combat formation for parachute drops for the rest of the War.
General Clark immediately tasked his five Troop Carrier Groups to begin training. They flew night navigation missions designed to familiarize them in close formation flying at low altitude with poor visibility. After a number of these missions, they were ready to train with the paratroopers. On 5 June, the 3rd Battalion, 505th PIR loaded up for a training drop with the 314th Troop Carrier Group (TCG).
“All right, boys. Saddle up!” Copping yelled as he looked under the wings of the C-47. “Let’s load em’ up!” When the cadre from jump school was assigned to Item Company, 3rd Battalion, Staff Sergeant Bancroft was designated platoon leader for 2nd Platoon. He selected Sergeant Bruce Copping as one of his squad leaders. The men liked him because he was not one of those NCOs who sold weekend passes to the enlisted men. They also respected him because he was an original member of the Test Platoon and had over seventy-five training jumps to his credit.
“Hey, Sarge. I gotta take a crap,” Danny laughed weakly.
“You’re all geared up, Danny Boy. No time for that. Do it in your pants.” The moans and groans from the men were raucous and loud.
“Aw, I was just screwing with you, Sarge.” Danny laughed. “I don’t gotta go”.
“Good thing, because we would have left you right here,” Sky said as he grabbed Danny’s forearm and pulled him from sitting to standing.
The men helped each other up and into the aircraft, squeezing each fully laden paratrooper through the door. Jake went in first. He was the “pusher” for this flight. It was his job to make sure everyone was moving quickly toward the door once the jump signal had been given.
The troopers filed in behind Jake, struggled up the inclined cabin and sat down on the folding wooden seats. As the last man was helped through the door, the right engines coughed thick black smoke and the prop turned slowly with a high-pitched whine. Suddenly the engine fired and caught and the prop began spinning faster as the oily smoke was blown rearward in a black swirling river of air. The pilot started the left engine and taxied the plane to the takeoff point. A brisk wind rocked the plane as it made its way toward the head of the runway.
Copping decided to leave the door open for the flight. It was to be a long one, the pilots practicing low-level flight and navigation before dropping the paratroopers. The open door would suck out the stagnant air. That would be helpful if anyone puked, or worse.
The plane started to turn from the taxiway onto the main runway. The runway was extremely wide allowing the planes to take-off three abreast with plenty of room to spare. Copping’s plane was the middle plane, the leader of this three plane V. The pilot stood on the brakes and pushed the throttles forward. He ran the two 1,200 horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines to maximum RPMs. With both of the radial engines humming smoothly and the aircraft shaking violently in place, the pilot released the brakes and the plane lurched down the runway. In under a minute they were in the air. As the planes banked left, Jake could see the next flight of three racing down the runway. They would assemble into a V-of-Vs, then a serial and finally begin the long practice exercise.
“Hey Danny Boy,” yelled Private Dominic Angelo. “How was that cathouse in Oujda?”
Danny was sitting halfway up the stick on the right side. Angelo was directly across from him. They got along well because they were the same size and both fun-loving pranksters. Angelo was first generation Italian-American from Providence, Rhode Island. He worked on the docks as a longshoreman before joining the paratroopers.
“If you mean La Rue 63, I was on guard duty.” Danny had a big smile on his face. There was not much to do in the small dirty town of Oujda. At the French-American Soldiers Club, the paratroopers could drink wine and socialize with the troops of the French Foreign Legion and the American 509th PIB. That socialization usually wound up in a fracas of some kind. The boys eventually looked for other places to go. The brothels in Oujda were dirty and dangerous. Before the paratroopers wandered into the tougher Arab neighborhoods where they were likely to be robbed and even killed, airborne commanders quietly set up unofficial army-supervised brothels, complete with medical inspections and armed paratrooper guards. The armed troopers were there to keep the Arab hustlers and thieves away and to discourage the paratrooper clientele from fighting.
“Right,” laughed Angelo. “You were guarding this,” he grabbed his crotch. “Did you get any free samples?”
“Of course,” Danny lied.
“Did you use a rubber?” Angelo asked.
“Nope. Hate them.”
“Your gonna get the clap,” interjected Private Joseph Boothe who was sitting next to Private Angelo. “Don’t you watch those god-awful training films?” Boothe was a former steelworker from Pittsburgh, barrel-chested with huge tattooed arms. His hazel eyes were large and round and made his face appear bug-like. He wore his blond hair short and had a large cleft on his chin. Boothe and Angelo were inseparable buddies and barely nineteen years old.
“Nazi propaganda,” Danny laughed even louder.
The men settled back for the three-hour flight. They sensed a combat jump was imminent. They were exhausted and welcomed the respite of the long training flight to get some much-needed rest. If anyone got nature’s call, there was a “honey-bucket” in the aisle. As disgusting as it was, there was no other choice.
The planes had been flying for a few hours in formation at an altitude of 400 feet. Occasionally there would be a sharp-banked turn, a course change at a predetermined waypoint, and then the C-47 would level out and drone on. They would ascend to 600 feet for the night drop when they reached their targeted drop zone. Johnny sat next to Jake, head back and eyes closed. “You sleeping, Yank?” whispered Jake.
“Not anymore,” joked Johnny.
“I got this letter from Harley. Tell me what you think,” Jake handed it to Johnny.
Johnny never met Harley but Jake talked about him often. Johnny unfolded the letter and struggled to read it in the dim light of the cabin.
April 23, 1943
As you know from my other letters, our division has been here in rainy and dreary old (blacked out) since last September. It’s damp, foggy and rains almost every day. Not good for morale. We are the only American (blacked out) in this entire country. We’ve been here so long they’re starting to call us the Queen’s Own (blacked out). The entire defense of (blacked out) is just the Home Guard and us.
“He’s in England,” Johnny concluded. “And apparently his division is being called the Queen’s Own 29th Infantry Division. That’s pretty funny.”
“I figured England but there is something else in the letter later on,” Jake pointed at bottom of the letter. Johnny continued to read.
In December, a call went out for volunteers to train for the (blacked out). Wally Carter, my assistant squad leader and me volunteered. I couldn’t help myself. In February, about 175 of us, officers and enlisted, went to (blacked out) for training. It was the toughest training we ever had at the hands of the (blacked out) commandos who survived the (blacked out) raid. If I thought the weather was bad here, I sure was surprised to find out it was worse in (blacked out). I shouldn’t have been surprised because (blacked out) is further north and it has its own rugged mountain country, moors and swamps.
We drill, practice and train even on our own time. The (blacked out) instructors are really impressed with us. We hope to join the other three (blacked out) battalions in (blacked out) soon so I hope to look you up.
P.S. This is a really tough group of soldiers and we’re even allowed to wear jump boots. Now I know how you feel.
Johnny handed the letter back to Jake. He deliberated for a moment. “He was in England for sure and trained in Scotland. I think he trained under British Commandos, veterans of the Dieppe Raid and he expects to be here in North Africa soon.”
“Right,” answered Jake, “but to join three battalions of…who…what?”
“Rangers. Your cousin joined Darby’s Rangers.”
Jake smiled. “Well I’ll be…”
Just then the red light went on and the twin radial engines strained to lift the Skytrain to jump altitude. Copping stood up and went through the hand signals and the men followed with practiced precision. When the equipment check was completed, Copping stood in the door.
The stick crammed together tightly, supporting each other against the turbulence-rocked plane and awaited the green light.
The light turned green and Copping was immediately out the door. The rest of the eighteen-man stick shuffled quickly to the door and out. There was no hesitation. They spilled out into the night in less than twelve seconds.
Jake was the last man out. He held his breath and his parachute deployed and mushroomed open with a loud slap. The opening shock was hard and violent. For a moment it seemed to lift him upward and back toward the plane. Jake immediately knew something was wrong. He was swinging rapidly back and forth and out of control. His effort to pull on one riser and spill some air was in vain. The turbulent wind had him in its grip and tossed him wildly like a weight on a clock pendulum. He knew this would be a blind crash landing. Jake gritted his teeth and pulled hard on the risers with both hands. He hit the hard-baked dirt backwards and crashed hard into the sandy, rock-strewn desert. The wind kept his parachute inflated and dragged him along the ground. Pulling his safety knife from his right shoulder scabbard, he cut the right riser strap. Before he could cut the left riser, his chute dragged him struggling and twisting head first into a basketball-sized boulder. As he was being dragged he switched the safety knife into his right hand and cut the left riser. At last he was free from the deadly grip of his parachute.
Jake rose slowly to his feet while checking for broken bones and other injuries. Aside from the large scrape on his left arm, which tore a huge hole in his tunic sleeve, he seemed to be okay. Sky ran up to him.
“You all right, Jake?” he asked. “Where’s your chute?”
Jake held up the cut strap. “Probably halfway to Egypt by now.”
“I know,” answered Sky. “Can you believe this freakin’ wind?” Sky looked around the drop zone. “And look at this, big boulders all over the place. I don’t think they were supposed to drop us here. They couldn’t have found a worse place!”
Johnny limped over joining Jake and Sky. He too had been dragged along the ground. The three men looked out over the landscape and in the bright moonlight could clearly see the ghastly scene before them. All over the drop zone the boys were being hurled by the wicked surface winds and slammed into the ground. Troopers were wildly scattered as far as the eye could see. Many were struggling with their windblown parachutes while others were lying lifeless on the rubble-strewn ground. There was no effort to roll up the stick or to consolidate the force. The boys were too busy helping injured buddies. When the drone of the transport planes faded into the night, the cries and groans of the injured could be clearly heard from all directions.
Medics arrived on the scene. Ambulances soon began arriving to pick up the immobile soldiers and move them to the field hospital. Even those who could move on their own were badly battered and bruised. Oujda had not been kind to the 82nd Airborne ever since they arrived but the training drop on the night of 5 June was an unmitigated disaster for the 3rd Battalion of the 505th.
The trucks had brought the entire battalion back from the drop zone to the bivouac area. Sergeant Copping handed Johnny Kilroy a holstered .45-caliber pistol Model 1911A1 and the keys to a jeep parked outside his squad tent. “Take the captain to regiment, Johnny. I’ve got a mess to deal with here.”
“Right, Sarge,” Johnny strapped on the holster as he walked to the jeep. Sitting in the front seat was Captain Daniel B. McIlvoy Jr., the chief medical officer of the 3rd Battalion.
“Evening, Doc. We’ll get you right there, hubba-hubba,” Johnny drove the jeep slowly up the company street between the eight man pyramid tents. Doc said nothing, quietly staring out to the east and the sunrise. In less than five minutes, the jeep was pulling up outside Gavin’s tent. Doc McIlvoy entered the tent while Johnny shut off the engine and waited.
“Doc, come in. Sit down,” Gavin motioned to a folding chair. The tent was spartan with just a folding table in the center and a few chairs surrounding it.
McIlvoy sat down and pulled out a small pad from his breast pocket. He said nothing while Gavin slid some papers to the side and closed the maps he was studying.
“What’s the damage from the Third Battalion drop?” asked Gavin. He had reports that high winds had scattered the drop resulting in injuries.
Doc McIlvoy hesitated. He had something to say and getting face time with the busy colonel was a rare opportunity. He decided to take advantage and get a load off his chest.
“Eleven hundred men jumped last night and the casualties were higher than they ought to have been. We’ve been here only four weeks and we won’t last another three at this rate.”
“Is that a medical opinion, Doc? Or a comment on the hard training?”
“Medical opinion only, sir. The boys have been coming down with malaria and dysentery at an alarming rate. It’s almost an epidemic. Most of them have diarrhea and pretty soon every one will have it. They’re not sleeping and not getting enough to eat or drink and can’t hold down what little they do get to eat. They’re dehydrated most of the time and they’re all losing weight and strength. Soon they’ll be just a shadow of the unit you trained and brought here. You should have seen the jump. The wind was pushing them around like rag dolls. They’re losing their strength and their edge.”
Gavin pondered the report. He had been driving the Oh-five hard since inception because he believed discipline and harsh training would harden his troops and provide them the best chance at defeating the enemy and surviving.“What would you have me do?” he asked.
“The conditions are not sanitary here,” Doc McIlvoy continued as if he had not heard the colonel. “The heat is inhumanly oppressive, the men can’t sleep or shower, the bugs are all over them, and in their food. This place is a cesspool. Who picked it anyway?”
Gavin smiled. “General Ridgway picked it because it’s out of range of Italian and German bombers. Should we go tell him he screwed up?”
McIlvoy composed himself. “No, sir. But we have to take the conditions here into consideration or you won’t have a regiment left that’s fit for combat when you’re ready to fight.”
“I’m hearing pretty much the same from the other battalion surgeons. I’ll ask again, Doc, what would you have me do?”
McIlvoy looked at his pad. He had previously jotted down some notes. “The men need to eat better, sir. You have to get more and better food to them. They also need to be hydrated more so I suggest you ease up on the water discipline. The officers need to make sure the men take their Atabrine tablets religiously.” McIlvoy was referring to the medicine prescribed to prevent malaria that some of the men refused to take because of false rumors the medication rendered them sterile or impotent. “Finally, sir, if there is any way you can avoid mass night jumps like last night,” McIlvoy hesitated, “well, sir, you can avoid the casualties.”
“What were the casualties?” Gavin asked again.
“Two dead, sir. Fifty-three men with broken bones who won’t be returning to duty anytime soon and hundreds more with various bumps and bruises who refuse to come to sick call.”
Gavin stared at McIlvoy open mouthed. “Two dead?” He closed his eyes and shook his head. He would write those letters to the next of kin. He would always write the letters. It made every loss suffered under his command a personal loss. He never wanted his casualties to become impersonal statistics lest he lose his sense of value for human life. Two letters to write and he hadn’t even led his men into combat yet.
Before McIlvoy could say anything else, Gavin focused himself, reached for a pad and started jotting down notes. “We’ll only be here a few more weeks, Doc. I can do something about the food, water and medication. The pilots still need more training but we don’t have to risk paratroopers in mass drops to do that.” Gavin looked at McIlvoy. “Is there anything else?”
“No, sir. Thank you, sir.” Gavin’s tone signaled the end of the meeting. McIlvoy stood up, saluted and exited the tent.
Johnny was sitting in the driver’s seat when Doc McIlvoy came out of the tent. The sky was cloudless, clear blue and the sun was up over the distant hills. It promised to be another scorching hot day.
“Take me to the field hospital, Private,” he ordered. “I have a lot of patients to see.”