Kaprun, Austria – June 27, 1945
“Loyalty is the marrow of honor.”
Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg (1847 – 1934), Out of My Life.
Johnny and Jake Kilroy were standing in a line of paratroopers that snaked out the door of the Kaprun town hall and into the street. The building served as headquarters for the 506th PIR. The Divisional S-1, the Staff Officer for Personnel and Administration, was hearing appeals for reconsideration of the points assigned to each member of the division. Eighty-five points were required for immediate rotation back to the States and discharge. Points were credited to an individual for factors such as length of service, time overseas, marital status, campaigns fought, battle stars won, medals awarded and wounds received. Most of the 101st Airborne Division had not amassed sufficient points but some, particularly those who served with other units prior to the Screaming Eagles, were extremely close to the life altering magic number. Each came to plead his case to the high-ranking officer who was sent to adjudicate complaints, address discrepancies and render judgments.
The records were notoriously out of date. It was impossible for the paper trail to keep up with the lightning campaigns fought in Europe in the fall and winter of 1944-1945. Some of the paratroopers needed only to show a marriage certificate, a Purple Heart or some other proof of participation in a campaign to be awarded additional points. Officers from the 506th were present in the room to validate or deny the claims and assertions of their men. Those who received good news rushed back to their quarters to pack for home. All of these “high-point men” would be sent home the next day.
Jake and Johnny were near the end of the line, which moved surprisingly quickly. They inched their way steadily to the door of the interview room.
“This ought to be a snap,” Johnny excitedly said to Jake. “We got enough points. We’ll be home in a week.” He rubbed his hands softly in anticipation.
After the division left Berchtesgaden, the day after the Nazis surrendered on 8 May, the 101st Division was assigned to the Zell-am-See area of Austria and the 506th occupied the town of Kaprun. Their duties became rather routine if not outright tedious.
Occupation duty was fine with Johnny. But high-strung paratroopers used to a steady adrenaline rush became bored and susceptible to mischief. There were accidents, brawls and all sorts of troublesome behavior. Captain Frank West worked equally hard to get both the civilian population and his own men under control. He relied heavily on both of the boys, especially Johnny and his language skills.
“Jake, remember that letter I gave you back in Bastogne?”
“Let me have it back.”
“Jeez, Johnny. I lost that letter.” He hesitated. “Actually I burned it.” Something inside Jake had told him carrying that letter invited bad fortune. Not that he was superstitious but with the War in Europe being over, he didn’t see the need any longer.
“I know you did. So here’s a new one. Clean and tightly wrapped.” Johnny had a big smile on his face. He handed the white envelope to Jake.
Jake took the letter. “I’ll humor you, Johnny. Since the War is over, I won’t be giving this to Rose, ever.”
Johnny chuckled. “Hey, there’s still the Pacific. Rumor has it that anyone staying will wind up fighting the Japs. But if we pull this appeal off, when we’re both back in the States, you can give the letter back to me.”
“You’re nuts, Johnny,” Jake laughed.
They moved closer to the door until they were next.
“We go in together, right?” Johnny was becoming anxious. Getting enough points to go stateside was much more important to him than it was to Jake.
“Together, like always.”
Captain West opened the door and they both entered the room.“One at a time,” the colonel behind the desk growled without looking up.
West intervened. “They joined my outfit at the same time, from the Eighty-second. I think that’s the basis for their appeal.”
The colonel shuffled some papers. “At ease. Both Kilroy? Brothers?”
“No sir,” Johnny answered.
The colonel shuffled more papers. “I got the Eighty-second service on Sicily but you’re still ten points short. The married one is only five short. Anything else?”
“What about Italy? The oil drum drop? On Salerno?” Jake asked.
The colonel turned some pages. “Nothing here about that.”
Jake and Johnny looked at each other. They both realized their mission into Rome and the subsequent secrecy must have resulted in cleansing of their personnel files.
Jake was the first to react. “There must be some mistake,” he said angrily. He looked for help from Captain West who just shook his head. Whatever happened in Italy was before his time.
“I don’t think so, soldier, and besides…” the colonel looked, stopped in mid sentence and stared at Jake.
“Sir,” Johnny interrupted. “We participated in the Italian Campaign. If you would just contact General Taylor, he can personally vouch for us.”
“I’ll do no such thing, Private.” The colonel answered Johnny and then looked back to Jake. “Have we met before, Corporal?”
Jake stared back at the slightly crooked nose and pudgy face and immediately recognized the major he had punched and whose boots he had taken in Rheims. “No, sir. I don’t believe we’ve ever met.”
Johnny looked at Jake with a quizzical stare. Jake was beginning to sweat. He knew there was no way this officer was going to help them.
The colonel continued. “I think we have met, Corporal.” He stamped their petitions, “DENIED” and threw the paperwork into a tray on his desk. “Too bad there are no battle campaign points for Rheims.” The colonel’s mouth twisted into a cynical smile. “Dismissed!”
The two men left the room and were back out on the street. An extremely disappointed Johnny spoke first. “What the hell was all that about?”
“Sorry, buddy. I am truly sorry.”
“About what, Jake? What the hell was that crack about Rheims?”
“That colonel won’t help us. We’re screwed and it’s my fault.”
“What the hell are you talking about, Jake?”
“He used to be a major…”
“A certain major in Rheims that I liberated a pair of jump boots from.”
Johnny stopped. “You’re pulling my leg!”
Jake shook his head. “I wish I were.”
Johnny took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Jesus, Jake. Do you know what you did?”
Jake nodded. Letting his best friend down was the last thing on earth he ever wanted to do.
Johnny struggled to gain control over his rising outrage. He looked around and exhaled loudly. He saw that his friend was inconsolable and Johnny couldn’t stand that. With an extraordinary force of will he suppressed his anger and put his arm around Jake’s shoulder. “It’s not your fault if that pansy-ass colonel doesn’t have a sense of humor!” Johnny let out a faint laugh, trying to hide his disappointment.
“Thanks, buddy,” Jake smiled. “I owe you big time.”
“You owe me?” Johnny asked rhetorically. Then his face lit up with a huge grin. “Fine, you owe me so buy me a beer and don’t ever lose my letter again!”