Chilton Foliat, England – August 28, 1944
“My wounded are behind me and I will never pass them (in retreat) alive.”
Major General Zachary Taylor (1784 – 1850) at Buena Vista, 22 Feb 1847
The paratrooper standing at parade-rest in front of Corporal Jake Kilroy fainted. The medics quickly bore him out of the regimental formation on a litter. They did so unobtrusively so as not to disrupt the speaker facing the men of the 506th PIR. General Eisenhower didn’t seem to notice.
It was Sunday, a customary day off for American soldiers not in combat. The morning broke with a typical misty rain from a cloud-shrouded sky. Some of the men complained when they were ordered to attend a service in Class-A uniform. The men who did most of the grousing were replacements. They were young, wet-behind-the-ears, green nobodies who the veterans disdained from the moment they arrived. They had not tasted blood and didn’t count for much. Besides, the veterans had their own problems and their own nightmares to deal with.
Sergeant Bill Christian woke the men early enough to be on time. He was bumped to three stripes after he rejoined the Screaming Eagles at Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. The 2nd Platoon was decimated and the just-promoted First Lieutenant Frank West went about the gruesome task of assessing his losses. Stockett and Sosa were confirmed dead. Goldbacher and Smith were in a field hospital recovering from wounds received at Neuville-au-Plain and Zebrosky was still missing. There would be many letters to write once the confusion had been sorted out but for the moment West had to focus on the task at hand. He had to rebuild his command structure.
The 2,000 men of the 506th were herded onto freshly cleaned trucks and busses in Aldebourne for the short trip to regimental headquarters outside of Chilton Foliat. Christian gathered his squad and loaded them up. When the trucks arrived, the troops stepped off and formed up. The foggy mist gave way to an unusually bright sun, which soon poured blinding heat onto the overdressed soldiers from a bright blue cloudless sky. They marched crisply but slowly to the subdued melancholy strains of the “Death March” played by an army band. What were the words, again? Jake thought to himself. Once in the dear, dead, days beyond recall.
The 506th formed up smartly, dressed the lines and stood at parade rest. They were assembled on the wide green lawn facing a temporary raised reviewing stand. A slight breeze whispered through the surrounding trees but offered little relief to the sweltering troopers.
Jake took in the scene. The grandiose sixteenth century estate of Lord Wills, with its colorful ivy covered brick walls, stood in stark contrast to the somber message to be delivered that day. Jake was surprised when someone mentioned that Littlecote, the name of the estate, was the site of an ancient Roman villa. He didn’t even know the Romans expanded this far to the island of Britain. But he figured he should not have been surprised. After all, they were the mighty Romans who could have gone anywhere they damn well pleased and besides, there was a lot he didn’t know. Something he was determined to fix after the War if he ever made it back home.
Jake looked up at the reviewing stand. He recognized regimental commander Colonel Robert F. Sink. And there was the unmistakable profile of General Eisenhower. Jake also recognized the Chaplain of the 506th PIR. He saw another general mount the platform and recognized him immediately. It was the CO of the 101st Airborne Division, Major General Maxwell D. Taylor. Jake knew him from the Rome Job and didn’t like him from back then. He disliked him even more when the general broke his word about the Normandy jump.
Taylor told his men, “Give me three days of hard fighting and you will be relieved.” Thirty-one days later, the wretched remnants of the once superbly trained and highly motivated division were pulled off the line and limped back to England. Jake held that lie against him. Taylor was a general. If he didn’t have the authority to make that promise good, he should never have made it! If only Jim Gavin had been given the 101st. Things might have been different. The word was Gavin had been promoted to CO of the 82nd Airborne Division the previous day.
After the initial chaos of the night drop, members of different units began to assemble. Like raindrops forming into rivulets pooling into small streams and then rivers, the paratroopers coalesced to complete their missions. Along the way they cut phone wires, destroyed bridges, mined roads, ambushed convoys and captured and held the four causeway exits from Utah Beach. They owned the night. Acting on their own, these isolated units acquitted themselves admirably.
Once the 101st had assembled a formidable critical mass, they were ordered to attack and hold the strategic town of Carentan. This town stood at a vital road junction that would facilitate the link up of American forces from Utah and Omaha Beaches. The 101st took the town at great cost. They also took the towns of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Sainte-Come-du-Mont, occupied the town of Sainte-Sauver-Le-Vicomte and assisted in securing the Cherbourg Peninsula. They returned to England on 13 July. Fighting as regular infantry for thirty-one days, they were bled of many of their best troopers and left the flower of their great division in shallow dirt graves hastily dug throughout the bocage country of Normandy.
Casualty figures were still top secret but it was evident that every other bunk was empty and nearly every other man in the division was a replacement. Jake would eventually learn the division suffered 868 men killed, more than 2,300 wounded and nearly 700 missing. Many of the wounded would eventually return but the unit cohesion and high standards of training that weaves the fabric of an elite group was ripped asunder at Normandy.
Another formation of men began marching into the field. Jake peered over to see a group of Army Air Forces pilots who formed up alongside and to the left of the paratroopers. Jake realized these were pilots from the 15th Troop Carrier Wing, the unit that dropped the paratroopers on D-Day. What in the hell are they doing here?
Chaplain McGee stepped up to the microphone and tapped it. The thumping sound immediately got everyone’s attention. Any chaplain who would drop into German occupied France at night armed with nothing but Rosary beads and a Communion kit easily won over the rough and tough paratroopers. They perked up as he stepped to the microphone.
Jake couldn’t take his eyes off the pilots. They looked nervous and uncomfortable standing alongside the men they miss-dropped in Normandy. As Chaplain McGee was saying some fine words about the sacrifice of their paratrooper comrades not being in vain, Jake wondered how these men became transport pilots. Didn’t they possess the right stuff to be fighter pilots? Did they not have the requisite skills to be bomber pilots? Were they volunteers? Or did the paratroopers get the pilot rejects and washouts from all of those other schools?
Chaplain McGee droned on. What could anyone possibly say to ease the pain of those who lost friends and brothers? That they did not die in vain and should inspire us? Hell, what difference does it make? They’re dead. They’re never going home!
Chaplain McGee stepped back from the podium, as if he read the disapproving mind of Jake Kilroy. A lieutenant stepped up and unfolded a paper. He began to read.
“Almighty God, we kneel to thee and ask to be the instrument of Thy fury in smiting the evil forces that have visited death, misery and debasement on the people of the earth.”
What the hell does smite mean? Jake asked himself? I don’t want to smite them. I want to kill every last fucking one of them!
“Be with us, God, when we leap from our planes into the dark abyss as we descend in parachutes into the midst of enemy fire…”
A paratrooper must have written this especially for this memorial service, Jake concluded. I need to listen to this.
“Give us iron will and stark courage as we spring from the harnesses of our parachutes to seize arms for battle. The legions of evil are many, Father. Grace our arms to meet and defeat them in thy name and in the name of the freedom and dignity of man.”
Now Jake hung on every word. This was no ‘turn the other cheek’ prayer. This prayer asked God for help in dealing out revenge and retribution. I wonder if God is listening?
“Let our enemies who live by the sword turn from their violence lest they perish by it.” Fat chance! They’re going down swinging and I can’t wait to help them perish by my Thompson!
“Help us to serve Thee gallantly and be humble in victory.”
The young lieutenant stepped away from the microphone to make way for Taylor whose words were drowned out by a flyover of C-47 transports in formation. The flight only lasted a few minutes but it was enough to drown out most of Taylor’s remarks. Nothing lost, thought Jake.
Eisenhower replaced Taylor at the microphone and scanned the assembled ranks before him. The men waited in eager silence to hear from their Supreme Commander.
“Men of the Screaming Eagles,” he began. The man in front of Jake wobbled, leaned and toppled over onto the grassy field. The medics scurried there immediately to ferry him off on a stretcher. Jake missed a few words but picked back up on Ike’s comments.
“… and met every single one of your objectives. Men, you exceeded my most optimistic expectations and I want to personally congratulate you and thank you for a difficult job well done. Your countrymen owe you a great debt of gratitude.” Eisenhower paused.
“Paratroopers, attention! Left face!” The troopers turned in unison to face the pilots.
“Air Transport Command, attention! Right face!” The pilots turned to the right and were now facing the paratroopers.
“You pilots need to look into the eyes and faces of the men you dropped in the wrong places at lower altitudes and faster speeds than you were ordered to.” There was undisguised anger in his voice. Eisenhower went on.
“A lot of their buddies will not be coming back because of the way they were dropped.”
Most of the pilots knew Ike spoke the truth. There were silent gulps and lowered eyes from the most guilty. At the same time, those that performed well and knew it stood upright and defiantly glared back at the paratroopers.
Ike cleared his throat. “We’re going in again and perhaps again after that. I have to know that every pilot will be able to look me square in the eye and tell me you dropped your men where, and when they were supposed to be dropped.” Eisenhower glared at the pilots for a moment and stepped back from the microphone. It was the largest mass ass chewing Jake had ever seen.
Another lieutenant stepped up to the microphone and gave the orders for the men to face the reviewing stand. He began reading the names of the men killed in action, alphabetically. The impact on the assembled paratroopers was stunning. It was as if they had been collectively hit with a sledgehammer. Men gasped and struggled to maintain their self-control when they heard the name of a close friend. This group of rough and rugged warriors was reduced to a weeping mob of mourners by the time all 231 names of the dead in their regiment were read. At the completion of the memorial, taps was played and the men marched back to the trucks to the playing of “Onward Christian Soldiers”. The powerful service moved Jake more than he realized. He knew too many of the names.
In combat, things move quickly. It’s about survival and those who dally, think and mourn will not long avoid injury or escape death. Instincts and training take over. No time to think. No time to grieve. But now, back in garrison, there was too much time to think. Why was it that some came home while others did not? Was it luck? What was it that pushed some men toward danger while others would shrink and cower? The questions raced through his mind on the ride back.
Jake often considered courage or bravery to be a fixed but diminishable commodity. Each man had his own unique quantity. Each man depleted it at his own personal rate. It was a finite amount and if used too quickly, would be completely expended. When totally drained, only time away from combat could replenish it. Regardless of how many times the cycle occurred, the replacement supply of this intangible commodity never quite reached the prior level. He saw that on Tedesco’s face in Neuville-au-Plain.
During the attack on Carentan, he felt his own resolve weakening. The vessel of his own courage was nearly drained. His nerves were shot. There was no audacity left. Perhaps it was because Johnny, his soul brother and one-man support system, was not there beside him. Or maybe it was because he had used so much of his courage so quickly and completely in Normandy already. Whatever the reason, he instinctively knew he desperately needed the cherished time away from combat to recharge his batteries. It was a mixed blessing to be re-staged in England after the Normandy drop. The time away from combat was a necessity. Jake wondered how infantrymen like Harley stayed on the line for so long.
It was almost three months since D-Day and two months since both airborne divisions returned to their respective bivouacs in England. Assimilating the replacements was a slow and tedious process, as most of the airborne veterans really wanted no part of the FNGs, the “fucking new guys”. Some of the wounded began to trickle back to the 506th PIR. Training was stepped up and the entire division was re-equipped. Planned jumps were canceled with frightening regularity as Allied spearheads overran drop zones in France and nerves began to fray.
During this time, the Glider Troops were finally recognized with their own distinctive insignia and the same hazardous duty pay as their paratrooper brethren. After seeing the carnage of wrecked gliders all over Normandy and having fought side by side with the glidermen, every paratrooper firmly believed the belated acknowledgment was well deserved and long overdue.
In their spare time, what little of it they had, most of the paratroopers went to London. They partied and celebrated with much more recklessness than they did before Normandy. Fights were commonplace. Drunken paratroopers were thrown into jail with regularity and officers like Lieutenant West spent a fair amount of time extricating his bruised and battered warriors.
The men of the 506th knew to confine their wildest celebrations to places far away from Aldebourne. When they frequented the local pubs, they behaved like choirboys and spent their leisure time playing darts and learning local dance steps like the “Bump-A-Daisy” and the “Lambeth-Walk”. The paratroopers had become well known to the local people who cared for them as they would care for their own sons. The men respected the many sacrifices of their hosts and accepted their collective embrace. It was just a matter of time before they would depart on another mission and the next time they left they would not return to England.
Administratively, the status of numerous paratroopers was in a constant state of flux and confusion. There were thousands missing after the first few days. Some men drowned in the muck of the flooded Merderet River or landed in the angry English Channel and were never to be heard from again. Others joined different units, fought, died and were left on the battlefield for mostly colored troops of the Graves Registration details to sort out. Still other men who were erroneously reported missing or killed in action strolled into Aldebourne weeks after D-Day to the astonishment of grieving friends. Paratrooper units suffered the most confusion and uncertainty in the weeks following D-Day. They were also the victims of the most grievous administrative errors. In some cases, no details were available to console the next of kin. Worse yet, in spite of the onerous precautions and careful attention to detail, some of the notifications of killed or missing in action were sent out prematurely or were in error.
Finding Johnny after a harrowing few weeks was miraculous. He was in the First Army Hospital in St. Albans. It took a long time to determine his whereabouts because he was evacuated with the wounded from the 2nd Ranger Battalion. He was unconscious from blood loss and was near death, his buttocks ripped nearly to shreds. His wound was severe and there were many jokes. Even he could not help but chuckle when he thought about it. How do you tell people with a straight face you were shot in the ass?
The sniper’s bullet entered the side of his right buttocks with a neat round hole. The bullet tumbled slightly in his flesh and exited in his crack with a larger more irregular bullet hole. The bullet then penetrated the left buttocks on the opposite side of the crack with an even more expansive penetration wound. By the time the round exited the left buttocks, the final exit wound was sizable and jagged. Johnny began losing blood rapidly. He was semi-conscious when the medic rolled him over to treat the wounds. The shot of morphine relieved the pain and Johnny fell asleep under the sedation. He awoke briefly on a stretcher aboard the ship ferrying wounded soldiers back to England. A bottle of plasma was hanging from an extension on his stretcher. The smells of dried blood, burnt flesh and antiseptic were everywhere. The navy corpsman gave him another shot of morphine and said something about a new miracle drug invented by some Limey, called Penicillin. Before Johnny could grasp what was happening, he was unconscious again.
The next time he awoke, he was in the hospital and lying on his stomach among a large contingent of seriously wounded men from the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions. The army nurse explained his wounds were severe but no longer life threatening. However, they required an extensive period of time to fully heal. He was told he was being rotated back to the States. He had received the proverbial “million-dollar wound” along with the Purple Heart.
Johnny asked his nurse to contact his unit. She sent the information, which was delayed in transit. For over two months Private John P. Kilroy was carried on the regimental rolls as “missing in action”.
Weeks rolled by and Johnny heard nothing as he remained bed bound, eating on his stomach. He was down to 150 pounds when Jake showed up one Sunday; having finally gotten word from regiment that Johnny was recuperating from wounds in a hospital outside of London.
The reunion was emotional. Both had been through a brutal time in the days following the invasion. They exchanged stories about their ordeals and what each of them had witnessed. They felt close enough to share their innermost fears.
Jake was interested in Johnny’s chance meeting with his cousin. Johnny related all of the details but omitted the shooting of the prisoner. If Harley wanted Jake to know that, he would tell him himself. Johnny made a point to tell Jake that Harley ended up fighting with the 2nd Rangers on D-Day. However, he also told him that Harley was more proud of his Stonewallers and their courage on Omaha Beach than he could ever have imagined.
Jake found out that Johnny was scheduled to fly back to the States for further recuperation. Jake was happy for his friend but he didn’t discuss it. While others might have celebrated, Jake knew his buddy well enough to know he would feel guilty about being sent home. So the subject never came up. But Jake had one thing to do before Johnny shipped out and he made sure to ask Johnny to be the best man at his wedding when they got back home. Johnny happily accepted.
On 25 August, Jake visited Johnny for what he believed to be the last time in England. The week before, on 19 August, a planned airborne drop on Chartres, France, was cancelled at the last minute. The paratroopers were geared up and loaded down when they got the word. General Patton had overrun the drop zone to the delight of the veteran paratroopers. Operation Transfigure was the sixteenth drop that had been scrubbed.
The trucks pulled up outside of Aldebourne and Jake and his squad mates jumped off and entered the converted horse stable that was their quarters. Standing in front of his bunk was a sight he never thought he would see.
“Johnny! What the hell are you doing here? I thought you’d be back in the States by now!” The two men gripped each other’s shoulders and exchanged a brief bear hug.
“I’m really not bad enough to go home.” Johnny pointed to an empty bunk next to Jake’s. “Is that mine?”
The rest of the squad gathered around. Christian slapped Johnny on the back. “Boy, you’re nuts but we’re glad to have you back.”
Johnny winced and dropped his gear on the bunk. “The guys they’re sending home are in really bad shape. Some had an arm or a leg missing or part of their skull was gone or they were badly burned. I just couldn’t go home with them.” Johnny waved his hand at the assembled group of paratroopers. “Any of you would have done the same thing.”
“I don’t know about that!” The voice belonged to Lieutenant Frank West as he entered the stable after hearing the commotion. “But I’m certainly glad to have you back.”
“Thank you, sir. But I’m afraid I might have made of mess of things.”
“How’s that, son?” West was barely older than most of his men but often used that term.
“Well, sir, technically I’m AWOL. I just packed up my stuff, and walked out of the hospital last night. Hitched a ride here. Heard rumors you were about to leave this beautiful island and make another jump. I didn’t want to be left behind. I’d rather be with the fellas.”
There was no official policy to return soldiers to their original units after they recovered from wounds. They were sent to a replacement depot, called a “repple depple” by the GIs. Once there, they would be assigned to any outfit that had a need. This misguided policy was a huge morale-killer. It irritated and aggravated every soldier who wanted to rejoin his old outfit. The instances of paratroopers going AWOL from army hospitals to rejoin their units were epidemic in the weeks immediately following the invasion.
“I’ll take care of it,” West smiled. There were other cases and he had orders from Colonel Sink to protect those paratroopers who went AWOL to return to their unit and make it right with the army. “No firing squad for you, Johnny. You’ll just have to face Jerry like the rest of us.”
“Thank you, sir,” Johnny replied with sincere appreciation.
The group dispersed, West heading immediately to the company headquarters to administratively rescue yet another faux deserter from the clutches of the Provost Marshal.
Johnny carefully lay down on the bunk on his stomach.
Johnny looked at Jake. “I saw Sky. He came to visit in the hospital.”
“How’s he doing? I ran into him and the old outfit at Sainte-Mere-Eglise on D-Day.”
“He’s doing fine. They want to make him an officer.”
“Good for him. He’ll make a great officer.” Jake reflected for a moment. “Remember back in jump school when he jumped in between us and saved your life?” Jake joked.
“Yeah, took a lot of guts. He could have gotten you and him killed.” Johnny smiled at the exaggeration. “Good man. Wish he was with us.”
They sat quietly for a few moments, Jake arranging his gear and Johnny trying to get comfortable on the cot. Jake broke the silence.
“Jeez, Yank! Why’d you come back? You had a ticket home.”
Johnny took a deep breath. “Couldn’t do it, brother. Not with you and the rest of the boys still fighting here.” Johnny put his head down. “I wanted to, believe me. My biggest fear is dying before I see my son and not being able to raise him and take care of him.” Johnny lifted his head. There were tears in his eyes. “But I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I left you and the boys. Besides, I have to make sure my son’s godfather gets home,” Johnny smiled.
“Well, you don’t look like you’re in such good shape to me,” Jake chided.
Johnny jerked his thumb over his prone shoulder. “I’ll be fine. I just need a little time to heal.” He broke into a big grin. “It’s painful to sit down.”
Jake laughed. “Well, I guess if I want to make sure I have a best man when we get home, I’ll just have to take care of your sorry ass.”
“No pun intended,” Johnny added.