Rheims, France – December 17, 1944
“Nothing but heaven itself is better than a friend who is really a friend.”
Titus Maccius Plautus (254 BC – 184 BC)
The major sat on the cold cobblestones in the dark alley. He moved his short chubby legs slowly in a bicycle motion as his feet pushed him backward into the wall. His nose was crushed crooked and bleeding profusely. The major tried in vain to stem the bleeding with his forearm as he continued to push his body against the wall. He wore the dragonhead shoulder flash of the XVIII Airborne Corps but there were no combat decorations or jump wings on his chest. He was what combat troops called a REMF – a Rear-Echelon Mother-Fucker!
I’ll ask you again, sir. Take off the goddamn boots.” Corporal Jake Kilroy stood over the major with curled fists.
“Shit! Shit!” Johnny shut his eyes tightly and grabbed his temples with his palms immediately after Jake threw the left hook squarely into the major’s face. “What the hell are you doing, Jake?” Johnny whispered through his teeth as he walked to the street to stand lookout.
“I’m tired of these rear area bastards taking all of our equipment,” Jake leaned closer to the major who was unlacing a boot with one hand. “We spend two months in that mud hole and our uniforms are rotting off our bodies and our jump boots are falling apart and we can’t get replacement gear. And these legs intercept all our special gear just so they can look good? Bullshit!” He looked at the major. “C’mon, hurry up, sir.”
The major loosened the first Corcoran jump boot and Jake pulled it off. “They take everything first,” Jake rambled on. “They take the Lucky Strikes and the Camels and we get the Raleighs. We never see the ice cream or the canned peaches. Isn’t that right, sir?”
Jake pulled off his worn out boots and tossed them at the major’s feet as he cowered under the verbal onslaught and silently loosened his second boot. Jake shoved his foot into the new boot. “Pretty good fit,” he commented. “Besides, ain’t there some unwritten law that if a paratrooper catches a straight-leg with jump boots he can kick his ass and take the boots?”
Johnny was looking from side to side down the street. “Yeah, but I don’t think that rule applies to majors, Jake,” he said without turning around.
“Screw that. It does now. What the hell are they going to do to me? Hang me? Put me in the stockade? Like I really give a shit anymore?”
Johnny had been worried about Jake ever since he got the Dear John letter from Macie. Jake hid his heartbreak behind his anger. His already quick temper was on a hair trigger. He wasn’t the first or only paratrooper who received such a letter but it hit him harder than most. Johnny was determined to help his friend through this difficult time, but this latest incident spun out of control too quickly.
When the 101st Airborne Division left Holland in late November, they were a tired and battered outfit. After the slashing mobile tactics of the first week of Market-Garden, in which the Germans frequently cut Hell’s Highway and the paratroopers repeatedly reopened it, the battle settled into static trench warfare. The Screaming Eagles, along with the All-Americans, were deployed in defensive positions on “The Island”, so called because it was bounded by the Waal and Lower Rhine Rivers. The unrelenting and incessant mud and dampness gave way to an early winter chill and it became uncomfortably cold and wet. A dry farmhouse was considered heaven until the Germans started shelling everything over two stories high. The paratroopers were forced to scrounge sleeping spots in the rubble or in the cellars. Sleep quickly became a rare luxury and lacking cold or wet weather gear, many suffered from trench foot in the quagmire.
Both sides patrolled aggressively day and night. Local skirmishes and firefights were the norm and the casualties began to mount. It all seemed so fruitless as the static lines rarely moved in one direction or the other. Seizing ground was not the objective. Killing the enemy was.
The food was atrocious. Johnny particularly hated it. The British rations were called “fourteen-in-one” and were designed to feed one man for fourteen days or fourteen men for a single day. The items were all canned and included such servings as kidney pie, kippered herring, plum pudding, scrambled eggs, mutton stew and bully beef. The meat items had a wretched smell and tasted rank and spoiled. Nearly every American GI became sick at one time or another. In addition, there was no coffee, which irked many American soldiers. The British issued tea instead. Even the British troops unanimously preferred any type of American rations to their own.
The paratroopers scavenged in order to survive. They pilfered food from the farmhouses though they would argue anything found in an abandoned house was fair game. They milked cows found roaming the polder and Jake even shot a yearling heifer for food.
Thanksgiving came and went and the American ten-in-one rations promised to the front line troopers never arrived. It was generally believed among the paratroopers that the rear area officers and staff confiscated and consumed them. Thanksgiving was only salvaged by the rumor that they were soon to be relieved and rotated to the rear for rest and recuperation.
At the end of November orders were issued and the 101st Airborne Division pulled out. Most of the airborne units were at half strength or less and many of the men had lost ten to twenty percent of their body weight. The Screaming Eagles suffered over 1,600 casualties during this defensive operation. The All-Americans lost over 1,900 killed, wounded or missing.
On the roads leaving Holland for the fourteen-hour trip to a place called Mourmelon-le-Grand in France, Dutch civilians lined the streets and roads to salute the Screaming Eagles. They acknowledged the paratroopers were the first to liberate their homeland by yelling “September Seventeen” as the trucks rolled by. Hardened men like Sergeant Bill Christian were brought to tears by the show of respect and appreciation. Seventy-one days after Operation Market-Garden started, the last of the paratroopers were withdrawn.
Camp Mourmelon, just outside Mourmelon-le-Grand, was once a French garrison. The Germans used it as a tank depot during their occupation and it was in terrible shape when the Screaming Eagles arrived. Their first order of business was to clean up and repair the low stucco buildings in order to make them habitable. The young men set to work with a purpose. Weapons and vehicles were overhauled and repaired. The regiments requisitioned equipment and clothing, which began to arrive from the supply depots in Rheims. There was a noticeable shortfall of jump boots and the venerable and much desired .45-caliber sidearm. Rheims was the Headquarters for SHAEF and the XVIII Airborne Corps. The rear-echelon brass and their minions continued to intercept supplies intended for the frontline troops despite complaints from their commanders.
Red Cross clubs were opened and men started receiving passes to Rheims and Paris. A bit of normalcy began to set in as a large backlog of mail arrived and rumors abounded about a jump on Berlin in the spring. All these rugged men needed to regain their bravado was a few nights of good sleep, a few weeks of rest, hot meals and showers. They needed time away from the smell of blood and death and the horrible scenes of gaping wounds and limbs lying on the battlefield. Many had trench foot, trench mouth or lice. Some had all three. The new wonder drug penicillin would perform miracles in curing these afflictions. Rest and care would bring the men back closer to their normal selves. After a few weeks the paratroopers were beginning to regain their swagger.
Replacement paratroopers were received straight from jump school in Chilton Foliat and were feathered into the various units. They walked around wide-eyed and in awe of the veterans who strutted around camp with grenades and knives hanging from their web belts. Most of the combat veterans were stoic and withdrawn though many did their best to prepare their younger charges for the rigors of battle.
Jake took twelve magazines for his Thompson to the motor pool. He traded an SS dagger he “liberated” in Carentan for a welding job. He had the mechanic spot weld two magazines back to back and upside down to each other. They were offset lengthwise by a fraction of an inch more than the magazine needed to seat firmly into the receiver. He tested each set of two magazines by inserting one end into his vintage Thompson, ejecting it, flipping it over and inserting the other end. When the mechanic was done, Jake had a dozen thirty-round magazines welded into six. He then took his canvas ammunition sling into town and for a few packs of cigarettes had a French tailor cut, expand and sew the five pockets to accommodate the slightly enlarged magazines. Jake then topped off his magazines with .45-caliber ammo and sealed the open ends with condoms. He would take three hundred sixty rounds into combat the next time he jumped.
Johnny was impressed with the creativity Jake employed to implement his idea. It started at the bridge at Zon, when Jake fumbled while swapping out a magazine. Then he came up with a fairly simple and ingenious solution. Johnny had already figured out that Jake had great intuitive intelligence. That was one of the many things Johnny liked about him. If only he had a chance to get an education.
At first, many three-day passes were issued for the cathedral city of Rheims in the Champagne region of France. It was only a short nineteen miles from Mourmelon. The All-Americans of the 82nd Airborne Division were also camped a short distance away at Camp Suippes and Camp Sissonne. Both divisions sent men to Rheims on weekend passes. It was a bad mixture. The two divisions were fierce competitors in the never-ending battle to prove who was the toughest dog in the junkyard. After a week of bar-wrecking brawls and numerous apologies made to the mayor, passes were severely curtailed. The men were off to Paris instead, much to the delight of the troopers of both divisions. Rheims quieted down, as did the entire western front as the Allies halted strategic offensive operations and dug in for the winter. No major hostilities were expected. Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgway, CO of the XVIII Airborne Corps sent Major General Maxwell D. Taylor, CO of the 101st Airborne Division, back to the States on 5 December for a series of conferences on the organizational makeup of the airborne divisions.
Five days later Ridgway sent five top unit commanders of the 101st back to England to present a series of lectures on the division’s experience during Operation Market-Garden. Ridgway himself remained in his rear area command post in England. It was not lost on the paratroopers that the regular COs of the 101st Airborne and XVIII Airborne Corps were absent. Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe and Major General James M. Gavin were in temporary command. With so many of the top commanders out of theatre, the troopers reasoned, they were unlikely to be deployed in combat operations in the near future.
Sky Johnson got word to Jake and Johnny to meet him in a small out-of-the-way bar in Rheims on Sunday, 17 December. The two boys wangled a pass from Captain West, the newly promoted CO of Easy Company. West warned them to keep out of trouble as he signed the passes.
Sky was sitting alone at a table in the corner when the boys walked in. They saw him, sat down and greeted each other with slaps, pats and handshakes.
They ordered some beers and Sky spoke first. “Jake, I’m so sorry to hear about…”
Jake held up his hand, “Thanks Sky, we don’t talk about it.”
Sky nodded. He heard about the Dear John letter and could see Jake was still seething inside. He turned to Johnny. “How are Rose and the boy?”
Johnny pursed his lips and shook his head ever so slightly. He didn’t want to talk about them either in front of Jake. “Fine.” Johnny changed the subject. “What’s new with you, Sky?”
Sky got the message and went along. “The word is I’m getting a battlefield commission. I’ll get to go to ‘ninety-day wonder’ school.” Sky was referring to the three-month course for new officer candidates and what they were called by the troops after completing the course.
Johnny cuffed Sky on his forearm. “Congratulations, sir!”
“Not just yet,” Sky smiled.
“I’m happy for you, too,” Jake added. “If that’s what you want.”
“I can use the dough,” Sky reasoned. “And what the freakin’ hell, I haven’t made much of my life so far and someone seems to think I’m a pretty good soldier.” Sky became uncomfortable with the topic of conversation. “What’s new with you guys?”
Jake answered first with his impish grin. “Well, Yank here took us on a tour today.”
Johnny rolled his eyes and looked at the ceiling, “You’re something, Jake.”
“Where?” Sky was interested.
Johnny answered. “We scrounged a jeep and went to see some World War I battlefields.”
“Where’d you go?”
“We went up to Château Thierry, Belleau Wood and the Argonne Forest. Took most of the day.”
“What’s to see in those places?” Sky continued.
“Exactly my point,” Jake interjected as the waitress placed three pints of beer on the table.
Johnny smiled. “There were a few memorials and the earth was still not healed after all these years. You could still see the outline of the trenches and the shell holes in the fields.” He paused. “And Julius Caesar camped his Roman legions on those same fields outside Mourmelon in fifty-four BC.” He took a slug of beer. “Imagine that? It’s not what you can see. It’s what you feel. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I’m standing on top of history.”
Just then five soldiers from the 82nd Airborne came into the bar and sat at a large table on the other side of the room. The three men took notice and resumed their conversation.
Sky looked at Jake. “You’re not too happy about the historical tour?” he chided.
“I’m just busting balls,” Jake smiled. “I’m always amazed at how much shit he knows,” he nodded in Johnny’s direction. Jake got serious for a moment. “Hanging out with him is like hanging out with an encyclopedia. When I get home, I’m going to school on this new GI Bill.”
Johnny looked a bit surprised. “Really? That’s fantastic!”
“Absolutely!” Jake answered. “I always told you, as much as you didn’t want this war to change you, that’s how much I want it to change me.” Jake looked at Sky. “I’m tired of being the only guy who doesn’t know stuff. I’m going back to school and get an education and Uncle Sam is going to pay for it. I’m going to make something of myself, if I get back!”
“You’ll get back,” Sky assured. “We’ll all get back!” He held up his glass and the three men clinked glasses, drained them dry and ordered another round.
Sky looked across the bar at the other paratroopers. They seemed young and fresh, probably replacements. He had heard the stories of the bar-fights in Rheims. “I heard that Taylor had to apologize to the mayor of Rheims in person for all the brawls since he’s the only senior general who speaks French. He had to apologize for both divisions.”
“Good for him. He deserves it. He speaks Japanese too and I’m hoping he winds up in the Pacific pretty soon,” Johnny commented.
“Speaking of Taylor, what was that all about with him back in Holland when you guys drove him up in the jeep?” Sky had been meaning to ask them since they got there. “Was he pissed that you passed over the thirty-cal ammo?”
“Oh, what the fuck,” Jake said.
“No, no, no,” Johnny pleaded.
Jake looked at Johnny. “It doesn’t matter anymore.” He looked at Sky. “When we went missing back in Sicily for those few days we were assigned to General Taylor.”
Sky had a puzzled look on his face. Johnny had his head in his hands looking at the table. Jake was about to spill the beans on the Rome Job.
“Taylor went to Rome to meet with the Italians to work out a plan to drop the Eighty-second on Rome. We were his bodyguards. Taylor did a good thing canceling the drop even though I still think he’s an asshole. We were sworn to secrecy.”
“Now you’re sworn to secrecy, too, Sky,” Johnny added. “If this gets out we’re dead.”
Sky sat there in shock. “There were rumors about Taylor being in Rome but nobody believed them.” Sky whistled through his teeth. “How about that!”
“Well anyway,” Jake continued, “the bastard recognized us and started to grill us to make sure we hadn’t told anyone. We told him we hadn’t. Then he said maybe we shouldn’t be allowed in combat anymore since we could get captured. Then Johnny told him we were paratroopers and wanted to stay paratroopers. When he left we were sure he was going to transfer us to some rear area outfit. But we wound up in a line company, Easy Company, Five-oh-six.”
“He was throwing his weight around,” Johnny joined in the storytelling. “He seemed pissed off about General Brereton, ordering him to visit the units up and down the road. So he takes it out on us. As they say, shit rolls down hill. I just didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of bullying us. Besides, we kept his damn secret!” Johnny looked at Jake and smiled. “Until now.”
“But we’ll never be captured anyway. We have a pact.”
“What pact?” Sky asked.
“Never to be taken alive,” Jake answered. “Come to think of it, we need another one.”
“Oh, no. Not another pact,” Johnny moaned.
“Yeah, one more,” Jake answered. He placed his hand in the middle of the table. “If any of us should die, the survivors have to promise to keep his last wishes.”
Sky put his hand on Jake’s. “Sounds reasonable to me.”
Johnny smiled and said, “I can’t keep track of all these blood pacts.”
“Sure you can, Yank. One, we’ll never be taken prisoner, two, we don’t go home with a missing body part and three, we keep the last wishes of anyone not making it back. Simple.”
Sky laughed. “Okay, sign me up for all three.”
“I know, simple.” Johnny stuck his hand on top of Sky and Jake’s hands. Jake placed his other empty hand on top of the pile and shook it slightly. “It’s done.”
The three men sat quietly and talked. The beers kept coming as Sky related the story of the Waal River crossing. The boys hung on every word and could only imagine the fright and horror felt by men, never trained in boats, crossing a wide river under enemy fire. When the men of the 82nd boasted they would follow Gavin into hell, they had no idea what hell was really like.
Sky’s tone became quieter and more somber as he described the casualties and named some of the men he thought they might know. Then his voice rose a bit in anger when he explained that after they took the bridge at Nijmegan, the British failed to race up the highway to rescue their own besieged paratroopers. Sky had absolutely no use for the British. He despised their leadership, planning, tactics and general attitude. He only had respect for the foot soldier, the “Tommy”, who had to serve and fight under these incompetent commanders.
Soon they were talking about different subjects. Their relationship went all the way back to jump school and the bond between them was strong. They remembered their lost buddies and toasted them. They sat for some time, joked and enjoyed their reunion. When they were done, they paid the check and left. They were standing outside in the gathering evening darkness, bidding farewell and didn’t notice the five paratroopers who came out the door behind them.
“What do Eagles scream?” howled one in a high-pitched voice.
The three men turned. Sky had his right shoulder facing them so they could not see his sleeve patch. Jake and Johnny had their Eagle shoulder flash facing the five young paratroopers.
“Help,” squealed another in a mocking girlish tone. It was the same old chant used by All-American paratroopers to provoke a fight with the Screaming Eagles. It always worked. The Eagles would usually respond by loudly asking what the AA stood for on the 82nd patch. Others would derisively holler “almost airborne” and the knockdown drag out brawl would begin.
The five soldiers stepped forward a few paces but stopped when Sky turned his sleeve patch in their direction. “How many combat jumps do you girls have?” He turned to face them.
“None Sarge, we’re replacements,” said one.
“Sorry Sarge, we didn’t see you were Eighty-second. We just want those Hundred and first guys,” said another.
“You want them, you get me too!” Sky gave the come-here sign with both hands. “Just so you know, we each have four combat jumps so we’re not just going to beat you to a pulp, we’re gonna kill you and eat you and bury your bones behind that cathedral over there.”
Johnny attempted to be the peacemaker. “Why don’t you kids save it for the Krauts?” When they didn’t respond he said, “We used to be Eighty-second, just like you.” The young paratroopers appeared less aggressive and seemed to have changed their minds but no one would make the first move to back down.
“Fuck all this talk,” Jake started toward the group of five. “If these bitches want action we’ll settle it right here.” He moved aggressively until Sky and Johnny each grabbed an arm.
Finally, one of the troopers spoke up. “Sorry, Sarge. This is all a big misunderstanding.” He turned to the group. “Let’s go.” They followed him back into the bar.
Jake, Johnny and Sky stood out on the dark street and breathed a sigh of relief. Sky bid farewell and headed toward the south side of town to pick up his bus back to Camp Suippes. Jake and Johnny headed north and walked quickly up the street. After walking some distance, they saw a figure of a soldier walking toward them. They could tell from a distance it was an officer. He appeared short and a bit on the plump side. Both recognized the rank insignia as the officer walked past and they each snapped off a smart salute. As the major returned the salute Jake noticed the boots and the empty chest. He stopped and immediately became enraged. He already had an adrenaline headache from the near brawl.
“Major,” he called out. “There’s something in this alley you need to see.”
“Come and see for yourself, sir.”
“What are you doing, Jake?” Johnny whispered.
“Shush,” Jake hissed.
The major followed Jake into the cobblestone alley. When he was about ten feet in, Jake turned to the major.
“Are you airborne qualified, sir?” Jake asked politely.
“What’s the meaning of this, soldier?” the officer demanded.
“I’ll take that as a no, sir. You’re not authorized to wear these boots, sir, so I’m going to relieve you of them.” Jake moved closer.
“How dare you? What’s your outfit?”
“I’ll take that as a no, too.” Jake then threw a crisp, short left hook squarely into the major’s nose. The officer staggered back, stunned and nearly unconscious, and hit the wall with his back and slid to the ground.
After Jake laced up his new boots he and Johnny continued walking up the dark street toward the bus depot. They left the major sitting in the alley holding his bleeding nose and trying to lace up Jake’s old boots.
“Crap,” Johnny complained. “We’re in for it now. I hope he didn’t recognize us.”
“If he recognized anyone, it’s me,” Jake shot back. “You’re not in for anything.”
Johnny looked at him and smiled. “When are you going to get it, brother? What happens to you happens to me. When you’re in shit, I’m in shit, too.”
Jake contemplated that thought for a moment. “You’re right. I should know that by now.” He shook his head. “You’re right!” Then he smiled broadly. “We’re in deep shit.”
They both laughed. “I get your point,” Jake finally said.
They continued walking in step with long, quick strides anxious to get to the bus depot and out of Rheims. It was about a mile to their destination and they were nearly halfway there when they heard the unmistakable engine sound of an American jeep behind them. The vehicle stopped to the loud screech of its brakes. There were two MPs in the jeep.
“Hey, Mac. Are you two airborne?” the Military Policeman growled as he tapped his white nightstick on the side of the windshield.
Johnny was sure the major had called out the MPs and reported the assault. He was equally sure they would be thrown into the stockade and probably be shot at sunrise.
Jake answered. “Hundred and first.” The driver shined a flashlight at Jake’s face and then the patch. Jake winced at the bright light. He had been identified. The MPs surely had them now.
“Your outfit’s been alerted for movement. All leaves are cancelled. You’ve got to get your butts back to camp immediately,” the MP ordered.
“We’re headed to the bus depot now,” Johnny explained.
“Hop in, we’ll give you a lift. We’ve been rounding up paratroopers all night.”
Jake and Johnny could not believe their luck. They had amused looks on their faces as they piled into the back seat. The driver pulled away.
“What’s going on?” Johnny finally thought to ask.
The driver responded. “Krauts launched an offensive. Attacked through the Ardennes. Punched a pretty big hole in the First Army lines. You airborne guys are supposed to plug it up!”