The Last Jump: Chapter 43
“The antidote for fifty enemies is one friend.”
Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)
The official name of the pub was The Queen’s Bazaar but it didn’t take long for the cocky young Americans to corrupt the name to the Queen’s Brassiere. It was a popular watering hole on Archer Street for GIs in London, due to its proximity to Piccadilly Circus. It was just one of the dozens of pubs within walking distance of the famous London Underground.
Nighttime in blacked-out London was always a busy and vibrant place with reckless young people continuously seeking fun and comfort. If they looked to dance the night away, there were favorites such as the Bow and Arrow, Charing Cross, The Cove and Gardens and the huge USO Club. If it was a special meal and ice-cold beer they sought, The American Bar in the Savoy Hotel was the best place in town.
Piccadilly Circus, the Times Square of London’s West End, was not a circus in the conventional sense and the name confused many GIs. Rather, having been derived from the Latin word for circle, it represented a large circular open space at a multiple road junction. The many roads that led into Piccadilly Circus made it one of the busiest intersections in the world. It was a main center for commerce, shopping, sightseeing, pubs and prostitution. The girls of the night were called Piccadilly Lilies or Piccadilly Commandos, depending on one’s experience with them.
With four tube entrances from the London Underground nearby, it was an easy place to get to. It regularly attracted the troops of many nations for the entertainment and distractions it provided. Troops who were massing for the invasion of Europe and who generally behaved as if there were no tomorrow, regularly swarmed Piccadilly Circus. The Queen’s Bazaar, along with the Windsor Dive, were paratrooper favorites.
Jake and Johnny hopped on a two-and-a-half-ton truck, called a “deuce-and-a-half”, for the nine-mile trip from Aldbourne to the nearest rail station in Swindon. From there it was a reasonably comfortable eighty-mile train ride on the Great Western Railway through the English countryside. When they reached London, they saw uniforms from many nations prowling the streets looking for fun or trouble, whichever came first. There were servicemen from the Allied navies of the world, infantry soldiers, tankers, rear echelon clerks, pilots and crewmen from the air forces and stevedores and drivers from the Service of Supply. Almost every branch from every Allied nation was suitably represented in the masses.
The two young paratroopers found the Queen’s Bazaar without difficulty. It was a large pub, crowded with mostly American GIs. Johnny saw shoulder patches from the 1st, 4th and 29th Infantry Divisions as well as the 82nd and 101st. Young English women carted warm pints of Guinness ale in and around the tables through the smoke-filled, loud and boisterous pub. The smell of cigarette smoke and beer made Jake instantly thirsty.
“Hey, Kilroys!” The loud voice from the back of the pub was distinctively Schuyler Johnson. He was standing on a chair waving his arms. The two men picked their way through the crowd and reached the table in a corner near the entrance to the kitchen. Danny Peregory was standing next to Sky. All four men grabbed each other by the shoulders in turn. There were handshakes, bear hugs and gentle slaps. They greeted one another warmly through broad smiles as they examined each other.
“Wow, you’re a sergeant now,” Johnny touched Sky’s new stripes.
“And corporals, you two,” Sky replied. “Just like Danny Boy here.” Sky pointed to Danny’s chevrons. “We must really be getting hard up in this man’s army.” They all laughed and took seats around the table. There were four air crewmen from the 8th Air Force at the next table and two colored soldiers at a small table beyond that one. The colored soldiers were wearing square blue shoulder flashes containing two white interlocking squares that identified them as part of the 2nd Service Command.
Jake sat next to Danny and slapped him again on the shoulder. His memory of sitting next to an enthusiastic Danny Peregory at Fort A.P. Hill evoked a nostalgic feeling of a time before he knew death. It seemed like so long ago.
Jake grabbed Danny by the scruff of the neck and shook him good-naturedly. “It’s great to see you, Danny Boy. How the hell are you?”
Before he could answer a big soldier walked up to the table and put Danny in a light headlock. The soldier looked at Jake and said, “He looks great, don’t he, kid?”
“Harley!” Jake yelled.
Harley let go and Danny popped up out of his seat to hug him. “I thought I recognized you sitting here,” Harley chided Danny. “I wasn’t sure. You looked bigger, older. But when I saw Jake come over, I knew it was you.”
Sky and Johnny watched in amusement as the cousins and friends reunited. Jake introduced Harley and he shook hands all around as they sat down. A fat middle-aged English waitress in a dirty white apron took their orders for pints of beer and some fish and chips and the five young men engaged in conversation.
“What do you hear?” Johnny whispered to Sky.
“Same as you. Normandy or Calais. It doesn’t matter because we’ve been really practicing hard with the Fifty-second Troop Carrier Wing and with our Pathfinders for months. So wherever we drop, we’ll definitely have a tight drop.” Sky cocked his head toward Danny. “Our Danny Boy is a Pathfinder now.”
Everyone at the table looked at Danny. He shrugged his shoulders, a bit embarrassed. “Somebody has to be the first one in.” He leaned forward and whispered, “We have this great equipment, a Krypton light and a Rebecca-Eureka radar transponder system. We set up the Eureka beacon in the drop zone and it tells the Rebecca receiver in the cockpit which way to go. That guides the planes right to the drop zone. Easy peasy. Piece of cake.”
“Right. Assuming they drop you in the right place,” Jake joked.
“We get the best pilots,” Danny responded. “If we can’t find the right drop zone then nobody can and we’re all screwed anyway.”
“How are the boys?” Jake looked at Sky referring to the members of their original squad.
“Well, you know Dom and Boots didn’t make it. Lieutenant Klee got it too. Teddy is doing fine. He was promoted and transferred to Dog Company I think.” Sky was squinting, thinking. “Oh, and Captain Wolff is back from the hospital and is leading Golf Company now. Came back in February.” Sky paused. “We got two new green regiments, Five-oh-seven and Five-oh-eight. The Five-oh-four just got in from Italy. They’re pretty worn down and beat up. The word is they’ll probably sit the big one out. They’re really pissed about that. Looks like the Oh-five will be the only veteran combat regiment to make the big jump.”
Sky paused. A thought seemed to pop into his head. “Say, what the hell happened to you guys in Italy?”
The two men shook their heads. Johnny was the first to speak. “Can’t talk about it, sorry.”
“And you should have two combat stars on your wings, like us.” Sky pointed to Danny and himself. “What’s going on?” Sky was persistent.
“Just another Mickey Mouse army foul-up, Sky,” Jake answered this time. “Someday I’m sure we’ll tell you. But for now, just let it go, please?”
Sky cuffed Jake on the forearm. “So, you guys got nothing to tell us? I guess I can live with that.”
“Well, that’s not exactly true,” answered Johnny. “I have some news. Rose is in family way. I’m gonna be a father.”
“When is she due?” Harley asked.
Sky thought for a moment. “So, you guys got home after Italy?”
“We did, Sky,” Jake answered. “And that’s all you need to know right now.”
Sky flashed a devilish smile. “I can wait to hear the story someday. I’m sure it’s good.”
Just then the waitress brought their pints. Sky picked up a mug and held it high. “Congratulations. Johnny’s gonna be a freakin’ father. Here’s to you.”
The boys clinked their mugs and each took a huge gulp.
Harley looked to Jake. “How’s your new outfit? The Five-oh…what?”
“The Five-oh-six.” Jake paused. “You know how it is, Cuz, they’ve all been together for nearly two years. Same CO. They took basic and jump school together. They call themselves “Toccoa Men”, after the place they trained at. They’re like one huge family. It’s rough for outsiders to break in. We’ll never be as close to them as they are to each other, but that’s all right by us.” Jake looked at Johnny and nodded. “We’re doing all right.”
“What are you doing?” Harley asked.
“Right now we’re jeep drivers. We ferry the brass around since we’re spread out all over Wiltshire County.”
“Jeep drivers?” Harley was surprised.
“Yeah, it’s crazy,” Johnny acknowledged. “But we figure we’ll be plain old infantry when we jump since there won’t be any jeeps waiting for us.” Johnny chuckled at his sarcasm.
Danny touched Harley’s sleeve. “How are the Stonewallers doing?”
“Lotta’ changes,” Harley confessed. “Especially the officers. We got a new commanding general last year. General Gerhardt. Put old Gerow out to pasture somewhere.”
“We got a new CO too.” Jake interjected. “We had a General Lee, which made me feel good,” Jake smiled at Johnny. “Then he gets a heart attack and now we got General Taylor, used to be Eighty-second. He’s got combat experience in Sicily but I’d still rather have a Lee.”
Johnny looked at Sky. He had a big grin on his face. “I keep telling him we’re better off. Robert E. Lee lost the war for the South. If Lee kept his army intact like George Washington did, instead of pissing it away at Antietam and Gettysburg, the South might have outlasted the North.”
Harley rolled his eyes while Danny gave a dismissive wave at the criticism of one of Virginia’s most fondly held legends. Jake shook his head and smiled. “For a smart guy, sometimes you are so full of shit, Yank.”
Johnny was laughing. He took a long pull on his beer, shook his head and shrugged his shoulders at Sky. They were all laughing and having a good time.
Sky looked at Jake. “The Oh-five got a new CO last month too. His name is Lieutenant Colonel Ekman. Gavin was promoted to assistant division commander.”
“No shit,” Johnny exclaimed.
“No shit. Gavin’s a freakin’ general and he’s still in his thirties.”
After a few moments, Jake noticed the Ranger tab on Harley’s right sleeve. The Ranger tab was diamond shaped. The gold border and gold letters were arrayed on a blue field. The letters spelled RANGERS. Harley had his Blue and Gray “S-patch” for the 29th Infantry Division on the regulation left sleeve.
Jake touched the Ranger patch. “I’m really sorry about that, Harley.”
“Thanks Jake. The guys and me were really pissed off at the time. It was a raw deal but we got over it. What else you gonna do?” Harley didn’t wait for an answer. “They don’t like us wearing the patch but fuck ‘em, we earned it. Besides, we’re too busy now gearing up for the invasion. We’ve been practicing amphibious landings for months at a place called Slapton Sands. The word is we’re in the first wave.”
“No shit, Harley.”
Just then there was a commotion a few feet away. The five men at the table turned to see. A group of about a dozen soldiers were walking slowly toward the two colored service troops seated at a table. Most of them were paratroopers. They were chanting, “Nott-ing-ham, Nott-ing-ham, Nott-ing-ham!” The air crewmen at the next table got up quickly, slid their chairs back and hastily scrambled from the area.
“Oh, shit,” whispered Sky. “This is not good.”
“What’s going on?” Johnny asked.
“There’s been friction between the colored troops and the paratroopers in the Leicester-Nottingham area. A paratrooper was knifed in a brawl and rumored to be killed. This looks like payback.”
“Jeez, guys, it’s not our fight!” Jake concluded and turned around.
“Problem is the rumor’s not true. The paratrooper didn’t die,” Sky explained.
“They don’t seem to know that.” Johnny noticed some of the paratroopers with their switchblade knives down by their sides. The two black soldiers stood up and backed against the wall. They were wide-eyed with faces painted in pure terror.
“It’s not our fight!” Jake repeated.
The apparent leader of the paratroopers was a brawny, bald young man with close-set eyes and a scar on his forehead. He led the chanting group deliberately and purposefully, closing the distance between them.
Suddenly, Johnny jumped up. He positioned himself between the paratroopers and the service soldiers. The distance between Johnny and the group was only about six feet. Surprised by this lone paratrooper, the group stopped.
Jake took a deep breath. “Shit!” He jumped up to stand with his friend.
“That’s enough, boys. This isn’t happening. Turn around and walk out the door.” Johnny was holding up his hand like a traffic cop. Despite the odds, he seemed calm and confident.
One of the young airborne troopers noticed the Screaming Eagles patch and yelled out, “Hey guys, what do Eagles scream?” A few others yelled out with a high pitch, “Help!” It was a rehearsed ditty that members of the 82nd Airborne sang loudly to antagonize members of the 101st Airborne.
Sky rose to stand beside Johnny and Jake. “I’m Eighty-second. Five-oh-five. If you want them, you got me too! What unit are you?”
“Five-oh-seven,” someone said from the back. “Five-oh-eight, Red Devils,” said another voice. Danny got up and flexed his fists.
“Shit, look at the combat stars,” someone else whispered loudly. The group appeared to lose some of its enthusiasm at the sight of four resolute paratroopers with six combat jumps and an Army Ranger ready to join them.
The bald sergeant wasn’t intimidated. He looked directly at Johnny. “This is none of your goddamn business. These niggers knifed a fellow paratrooper. You’re a paratrooper. Why the hell are you defending them?”
“Because you don’t know these are the guys who cut your friend.” Johnny stood defiantly in front of the sergeant.
“He didn’t die.”
“You don’t know shit, get out of the way!” Sergeant Scar ordered.
“I know for a fact he didn’t die,” Sky bellowed back.
“No matter, we’re gonna kill these niggers and set an example. Nobody fucks with the airborne.”
Harley got up and stood beside Danny. “Any Twenty-niners in this group had better leave right now. If you don’t, I’ll find out who you are and make your life a living hell, especially if you’re a Stonewaller.”
A few soldiers slipped out the back door. Harley wasn’t surprised some of them had joined the group. There had been some racial trouble in the small town of Ivybridge, where the 29th Infantry Division was based. There were a number of fights between the black service troops and the white infantrymen. While it was not that common, it was not altogether unexpected in a segregated army.
Sky continued. “They’ll be enough fighting and dying to go around in a few weeks. Save your attitude for the Krauts.” A few more left but the seven or eight paratroopers remaining seemed determined.
“Out of the way,” Sergeant Scar repeated. “You’re not going to stop us.”
Johnny turned to look at the black soldiers. They were backed against the wall. One was a huge man, well over six feet tall and about 250 pounds. His eyes were wide with desperation but he looked willing to fight. The other soldier was wiry and rangy, a lot smaller by comparison and had the look of a cornered wild animal.
“Have it your way, Sarge,” Johnny turned back to Scar. “Put those blades away. If you get by us, then you can have them.”
Scar smiled at the challenge. He looked down and began folding his safety knife. That’s when Johnny hit him with a roundhouse right that splattered his nose. Blood gushed everywhere and a stunned Sergeant Scar staggered back and fell to the floor. Everyone jumped in and the mêlée began. While the rest of Johnny’s friends kept Scar’s group at bay, Johnny grabbed the smaller black soldier by the arm.
“Follow me.” He pulled the soldier through the kitchen door. His friend followed. Johnny pointed toward the back of the kitchen. “Out that door.”
“I want to fight them,” the smaller man answered.
“For Chrissake, stupid! They’re not here to fight you. They’re here to kill you! Now get the hell out of here.”
The smaller soldier became indignant. “Now I owe a white man something. I don’t like to owe a white man nothing!”
Johnny shook his head in disgust. “Now that’s thanks for you.” He pushed the smaller soldier toward his friend. “You don’t owe me shit.” Then he spoke directly at the bigger soldier. “Get him out of here!”
“Yassuh,” the larger soldier grabbed his friend’s arm in his mammoth fist. He pulled him toward the back door.
Johnny already regretted his decision to stand up for the two black soldiers. The raucous sounds of the brawl he started beckoned to him. In a few short moments he would join his buddies but his curiosity got the best of him and he yelled at the backs of the fleeing soldiers. “Hey, who the hell are you guys, anyway?”
The small one, still in the clutches of his larger friend, stopped and turned. He still had a defiant look on his face. “He’s Chauncy Gibbons and my name is Lincoln Abraham!”