New York City – January 12, 1946
“It is not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath.”
Aeschylus (c. 424 BC – c. 455 BC)
Jake, Rose and baby John Patrick stood on the sidewalk on the corner of Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue just off Washington Square Park in the shadow of the Washington Arch. They were dressed against the biting cold. One and a half year old John Patrick Kilroy was bundled into a furry snowsuit. Rose, with reddened cheeks and teary eyes, wore her black ersatz fur coat over two sweaters and gabardine slacks. Her black wool hat was pulled down firmly over her ears. She leaned on Jake for warmth as he held the baby against his flannel shirt buttoned over a heavy sweatshirt. He wore dungarees and his baseball cap had a Screaming Eagle on the front and an Eighty-second Airborne crest on the bill. He wasn’t cold. He could never be as cold as he was in Bastogne. Streaks of sunlight snuck through the canyons of the city to provide intermittent and much appreciated warmth.
Eager crowds lined both sides of the avenue in anticipation of the Victory Parade by the 82nd Airborne Division. Onlookers were twenty deep in places. It was the first and only time an entire division would be welcomed home from the War and honored for their service. Frank West and Jake’s cousin, Harley Tidrick, were supposed to meet them on this corner. Lincoln and Sky would be marching in the parade. They all arranged to gather afterward for dinner at the famous Luchow’s Restaurant on Fourteenth Street near Union Square Park.
Since arriving from Liverpool, England on the third of January, the 82nd had been absorbing replacements and practicing precision marching at Camp Shanks in Orangeburg, New York. Sky’s responsibility was the assimilation of the 555th PIB (Colored), which had been administratively attached to the 82nd. That is how Captain Sky Johnson met First Lieutenant Lincoln Abraham, a company commander in the Triple Nickels. It didn’t take much conversation before they realized they had common friends in the Kilroys and traced their meeting back to the brawl in the Queen’s Bazaar Pub in London. The two young paratrooper officers worked well together to get the Nickels up to speed.
New class-A uniforms were issued to all personnel and any free moment not spent in marching drills was used to polish brass, boots and helmets to a dazzling shine. General James M. Gavin insisted the uniforms of all marching members of the division include the battlefield decorations and unit citations earned by the division. That order included the entire contingent of Triple Nickels.
The parade route was one hundred blocks long from lower Manhattan all the way to midtown. It would take the division over two hours to march the entire five miles. The parade route was choked with people. Veterans were particularly well represented on this Saturday afternoon as they prominently wore their field jackets, military caps or sported flags and placards identifying their units. Gavin would lead the march until he joined City Mayor William O’Dwyer and New York Governor Thomas Dewey among other notables on the reviewing stand. This was a big deal for both the city and the army.
Jake heard the deep rumbling of drums. At first it sounded like distant artillery. He looked south and could barely make out the honor guard leading the formation. The flags were fluttering and the paper and ticker tape began to descend from the tall buildings. Soon the air was filled with a snowstorm of paper fluttering toward the ground. The drumbeat became louder as the marchers closed the distance. People began to clap and cheer as they anxiously awaited the arrival of the first company.
The lead element marched into Washington Square Park. There were nineteen ranks of soldiers marching nine abreast in perfect unison. An officer and a trooper carrying a pennant led each company. There were four companies to a battalion, three battalions to a regiment and four regiments in the division. Including attached units and formations, over fifty companies marched that day, all with great exactness and skill. The marching music from one of the many marching bands was barely audible over the cheering crowd but the deep thrumming drumbeat remained clear and the paratroopers stepped smartly to the beat.
Finally, the first formation was marching underneath the Washington Arch and the crowd grew louder and more excited. General Gavin led the formation followed closely by his staff. Shouts of “Slim Jim” and “General Platoon Leader” could be heard emanating from the crowd. They were terms of endearment from men who loved Gavin and treasured serving under him.
Jake nudged Rose whose clapping was muffled by her thick gloves. He nodded toward the flag bearers behind Gavin. The American flag was flowing gently in the breeze alongside the divisional flag with its seven campaign ribbons and numerous battle streamers. The colorful sight was awe-inspiring.
As the leading company passed by, Jake noticed how precise their marching was and how picture perfect their uniforms were. Helmets gleamed, brass sparkled and boots reflected like mirrors. There wasn’t a spot of lint on their Wool Field Jacket, M1944, commonly called Ike jackets, or a single wrinkle in their khaki trousers. The ranks and files were aligned flawlessly. The paratroopers marched with visible pride stamped on their cold, blushed faces. The multitude cheered its appreciation.
Company after company marched by. The throng never lost its enthusiasm. Names were hollered from the masses as discharged civilian veterans recognized old friends. The paratroopers continued to file by, one proud company in perfect formation after another.
Jake looked around. Harley and Frank were still not there and the sidewalks were packed right back to the buildings. Moving about was going to be difficult.
The men had agreed to meet at the Washington Arch the night before when they got together at McSorley’s Old Ale House on Seventh Street and Second Avenue. Harley had come into town and Jake met him at Grand Central Terminal. Together they waited for Frank’s train and after introductions and bear hugs, they took a cab to McSorley’s. They grabbed a booth in the corner and waited for Lincoln and Sky.
McSorley’s was a New York landmark made famous by its prominent clientele. Artists and writers frequented the place and made it legendary through their portraits and writings. Other celebrities of the arts followed and soon the pub attained icon status. The walls were covered with old dusty pictures faded brown with age. It was no more surprising to find a vintage oil lamp as the farewell picture of Babe Ruth or a wanted poster for John Wilkes Boothe. The bar had no stools and the handcuffs hooked to the bar rail were said to be once owned by Harry Houdini. The sign above the bar read “Be Good or Be Gone”.
The only two alcoholic drinks served were light and dark ale. The three men ordered dark ale while they waited for their friends. Frank was extremely interested in how Jake was doing with Rose and Johnny’s son.
“Things are going good, Frank. We found a bigger apartment and I moved in with her. She didn’t want to live in her old neighborhood anymore once she took me in.”
“I guess that’s good. So what are you doing?” Frank asked.
“I’m registered for college. I start next week. The GI Bill is covering it and some living expenses. I’m also driving a cab part-time, when Rose is home and I’m not in school. We know it will get hard at times, with our schedules, but we’ll work it out.”
“And the boy?”
“Great kid,” Jake smiled. “Just eats and sleeps. I can’t wait to play catch with him.”
“So, Rose is accepting this…help,” Harley stated rather than asked.
“So far,” Jake answered. “It’s only been a few months but we get along great and I really like them both a lot. Not everyone would do what she is doing to make sure her son has a better life. I admire her for it.”
“Not everyone would be doing what you’re doing, either,” Frank interjected.
Jake got embarrassed. “I’m not so sure. I bet a lot of other guys are doing the same thing. Helping out a buddy’s family, I mean. But I don’t want Rose’s reputation to suffer and I think she’s worried about that. That’s why she wanted us to move.”
Just then two men walked in the door. They wore civilian clothes but their high and tight haircuts indicated they were military. Sky was in front. He shook hands and embraced Jake, remembered Harley from London and was introduced to Frank.
The introductions continued. Lincoln was next and he shook Jake’s hand. They stood for a moment, staring knowingly at each other, and then embraced in a long and warm hug.
“We’re a long way from Foy,” Lincoln reminded.
“And I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” Jake commented.
“Me neither,” Lincoln reciprocated.
Harley reminded Lincoln he was also present for the brawl in the Queen’s Bazaar but Lincoln confessed he was so scared he only remembered Johnny.
“Congratulations!” Jake told Lincoln. “You became a paratrooper!”
“Thanks to him.” Lincoln pointed to Frank. He remembered him from Foy and thanked him profusely for the letter of recommendation, which helped him get into the 555th PIB.
“How many jumps?” Frank asked.
“Sixty-something,” Lincoln answered smugly with a big smile.
“Is that a lot?” Harley asked.
“More than the rest of us combined,” Jake speculated.
“Oh, yeah,” Sky interjected. “Ask him how many combat jumps?” Sky was smiling. It seemed the two of them had had this exchange before.
“None, you know that,” Lincoln smiled back. “But I’d like to see you jump into the blinding smoke of a burning forest on the side of a mountain with only a shovel and a prayer.”
“No thanks,” Sky joked back. “Give me Krauts shooting flak at my plane and swamps to land in anytime!”
“That many jumps? You were that busy?” Jake asked Lincoln.
“Yup. The Japs were sending balloon bombs over the Pacific and most of my jumps were made in the Northwest.”
“Very impressive,” Frank added. “You’re in Master Parachutist territory.”
They all sat down and ordered more ale.
“You’re going to see the best freakin’ division in the world marching tomorrow,” Sky announced. “Right Linc?”
Frank responded. “How can that be? They deactivated the Screaming Eagles on twenty-six, November of forty-five.”
“Oh no,” Sky scoffed. “The Hundred and first is better known only because of Bastogne. If we were there, like we were supposed to be, we would have gotten all the credit and the fame. But we’re the ones marching tomorrow.” The ribbing seemed good-natured.
“But you weren’t there. Wewere!” Frank responded. “Right, Jake?”
“Boys, boys. C’mon now. Both divisions were great! I should know. I served in both of them.” Jake was sure Sky was just having a little fun but Frank seemed to be taking the exchange more seriously. “According to the newspapers, this division represents all the fighting men of all the services. This division is… what did they call it…symbolic of everyone who fought. In fact I read there are new guys and replacements marching that never even saw combat. Is that right?”
“That’s right,” Sky answered. “Gavin wanted a full division for the parade. I suppose we are representing everyone who fought or served but I need to tell Frank this story.”
“Go ahead,” Frank allowed.
“At the Bulge there was this lone private digging a hole for an outpost. This American tank comes hauling up the road
and the commander asks this paratrooper if this was the front line. The paratrooper asked, ‘Are you looking for a safe place?’ The commander said, ‘yeah’. So the trooper says, ‘Well buddy, just pull your vehicle behind me. I’m the Eighty-second Airborne and this is as far as the bastards are going’. True story.” Sky held up his right hand.
Frank stared at Sky. It was hard to get mad at him. He had a friendly grin on his face throughout the whole conversation. “I’m not saying your division was not a great one. Just don’t try to tell me mine wasn’t great either.”
“I’m not. Two great divisions, I agree with that. But which one was better? Jake. You served in both. Which one was better?”
Jake looked at Frank and Sky as they both awaited an answer. “If I’m the referee then my decision is final. They were equal!”
“Fair enough. For today,” Sky laughed. He looked at Frank. “We’ll continue this another time,” still laughing.
The waitress brought over the mugs of ale and Sky reached across and grabbed Jake’s arm. “I heard what you’re doing. How’s it going?”
Jake explained to Sky and Lincoln what he had earlier told Harley and Frank. Sky listened with great interest. Sky loved Johnny, too.
“So, you’re living together?” Sky probed.
“It’s not what you think, Sky. It’s platonic…so far. It’s just more convenient this way.”
“I don’t think it’s bad at all, Jake. What does she think about it?” Sky persisted.
“She’s embarrassed, Sky. She doesn’t want anyone to know. That’s why we moved.”
“Does she know that we know?” Sky circled his hand around the table.
“Yeah, but she’ll never see you guys after tomorrow. I think she can live with that.”
“You should have brought her. We could have made her feel better about it,” Sky offered in support.
Jake cocked his head toward a sign near the bar, which said:
Jake continued. “She’s having dinner with us after the parade tomorrow. She wants to meet all of you. It’s important for her to hear about Johnny from his closest friends. I talk about him all the time. It seems to help her accept it. If you want to make her feel better, tomorrow’s your chance.”
Sky thought for a moment. He reached out and grabbed Jake’s arm. “Let me tell you what this looks like and I don’t mean this in a bad way.”
Sky clasped his hands and looked down at the table. “You came home to help out and it’s almost like you replaced Johnny. Assumed his role and identity. Living out his existence. You’re going to do that and take care of them, aren’t you?”
Jake answered. “If that’s what I have to do to keep my promise, then that’s what I’ll do. Besides, anyone who can, how did you put it, ‘assume his role’, should be proud that he could do it.”
The drinks came. Each man grabbed a mug. Lincoln lifted his mug first.
“To Johnny. Let him never be forgotten!”
They clinked mugs to a chorus of agreement and drank.
Sky was next. “To Jake and the successful completion of his new mission.”
They clinked mugs again, except this time Jake withheld his drink. They all looked at him curiously.
“Look, guys, I appreciate this but this is not about me. Someday that little boy is going to grow up. If I’m still around, I sure don’t want any special credit for this. I don’t want him wondering about who his father was or why his father would want a stranger to raise him. Most importantly, I don’t ever want him to question his mother’s motives or her morals in accepting me. If I’m there for two months, two years or twenty years, I don’t ever want the boy troubled about what happened. He can never know.”
Jake paused. All eyes were on him. “I don’t know if there’s a future for Rose and me as a couple but as long as I’m there, I’ll act like his father and help raise him. In any event, I would prefer the boy never find out how his real father died or what anyone else did to make sure he was taken care of. I think these were Johnny’s last wishes.” Jake paused to let the logic sink in. He looked to Frank who was there when Johnny died and Frank nodded.
Jake continued. “We need to make a pact.”
Sky smiled. “As long as we don’t have to cut ourselves and spill blood,” he joked. “I’ll never reveal anything about Johnny’s death and how his son was raised.” He pushed his glass forward.
Everyone else followed until all the mugs were touching in the center of the table.
“Remember,” Jake warned. “Some day we’ll all be feeble old men and be tempted to talk about this. When this boy becomes a man he might get a whiff of something and start asking questions. Since we’re the only people in the world who know the truth, it will just take one of us to break in a weak moment to blow the whole damn thing. We have to keep this pledge and keep faith with each other and with Rose, no matter what!”
“Count me in, I promise,” Sky spoke first.
“I pledge my silence until my dying day,” Frank added.
“Never a word…on the soul of my mother,” Harley intoned.
“My oath to the Lord,” Lincoln signed himself.
“I swear never to reveal this secret,” Jake concluded the declarations. “It’s done!”
Everyone drank and then and there the oath was sealed.
Company after company filed by. Jake checked little John Patrick, who was snuggled in his snowsuit, and switched arms. The boy was sound asleep under the oversized hood, which protected him from the frigid breeze.
The 504th PIR began marching by and Jake started counting off the companies. When he got to H Company he recognized Sky at the front.
“Hey Sky,” he yelled loudly as he raised his free arm and waved.
Sky turned toward the sound. He expected his friends to be slightly beyond the Washington Arch and was looking for them.
He spotted Jake in the crowd and gave the command, “EYES…RIGHT” and snapped off a salute while looking directly at Jake and Rose. All of the men turned their heads to the right and kept that position until the company passed. Sky then gave the order to resume eyes front.
“What was that all about?” Rose asked.
“That was Sky. You’ll meet him tonight. That salute was in memory of Johnny.”
She nodded, smiling through teary eyes.
The endless procession of companies continued. Neither the crowd nor the soldiers seemed to lose any enthusiasm. Each company seemed to march better than the last. The crowd got bigger and louder as more ticker tape and confetti filled the canyon between the tall buildings.
Rose grabbed Jake’s free arm and held it tightly. She was crying and seemed to need his support against the cold as well as the memories.
The Triple Nickels were next through the arch. They seemed to be stepping livelier and more proudly than any other company. Black people in the crowd reacted immediately to the colored paratroopers with screams of joy and elation. A few people ran out into the street to get a closer look and to touch them as if to make sure they were real. Fathers and mothers hoisted small children high overhead so they could see for themselves the dignity and grace of the black paratroopers. They responded to the adulation by standing taller, marching smarter and looking even more noble and self-assured.
“Here comes Lincoln’s company,” Jake pointed.
As the first company came through the arch, Lieutenant Lincoln Abraham ordered, “EYES…RIGHT” and 172 heads snapped to the right as one. They held the position until they were well past.
“Was that for Johnny, too?” Rose asked.
“I think that was for you.”