The Last Jump: Chapter 48
“We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.”
Major General Nathaniel Green (1742 – 1786)
Armed only with his .45, Jake Kilroy led his small band of paratroopers through a sunken lane between two immense hedgerows. They moved quietly and stayed in the moon shadows of the overhanging shrubbery. Planes were still flying overhead and tracers and flares were still sprinkling the sky with deadly colors. The incessant noise masked their movement.
Jake asked Christian to bring up the rear as they sandwiched Goldbacher and Smith between them. At the end of the sunken lane they came upon a paved road. In the intermittent light of the anti-aircraft artillery reflecting off the low clouds, Jake saw a square stone pillar astride the road with brass plaques affixed to the side.
“Stay here,” he ordered Goldbacher and Smith. He waved at Christian. “Billy, on me.”
They looked up and down the road and crossed over to the base of the stone pillar. Jake read the plaque in the moonlight. “This is Route Nationale Thirteen.”
“Yeah, but where on N-13?” Billy whispered.
Jake looked at the second plaque. “Monteberg. Fifteen kilometers.” He deliberated for a moment trying to envision the sand tables. “We’re northwest of Sainte-Mere-Eglise.”
Christian nodded and they scampered back to the shadows of the sunken lane. Jake gathered the small group in a circle and knelt down. Jake looked into the faces of the young men not sure what to expect and saw a look of determined confidence on each man.
“We’re way off the mark. The drop was screwed.” They all knelt down with him. “There’s a village called Neuville-au-Plain about a mile north of Sainte-Mere-Eglise right here on N-13. If we take this main road we’ll have to pass through that village. Or we can go cross-country. Either way we’re staying together.”
Christian spoke first. “I feel a lot better staying off the roads and going cross-country.”
Goldbacher and Smith indicated agreement. In the midst of their conversation the planes suddenly stopped flying overhead. The guns fell silent and their whispers seemed unusually loud. They froze in silence and strained to hear anything at all. Only the dim sounds of small nighttime creatures and the distant sounds of gunfire could be heard. Jake nodded his agreement, got up and began moving down the sunken lane away from the road. The three men followed. They had only traveled a hundred yards when they heard the sound of hobnail boots back on the paved road. The Germans were patrolling Highway N-13. Jake was relieved they made the right decision.
The eerie silence of the night was disturbed by an occasional crack of small arms fire, emanating from every direction. The sporadic bursts of gunfire signaled small engagements and firefights, confrontations and withdrawals, unexpected encounters and clashes in the night as opposing forces of varying sizes stumbled upon one another. Jake knew they would have to get to their objective by daylight when German counterattacks were bound to come in organized units and with considerable force. Christian took the lead. They continued to work their way through hedgerows, across open fields and down sunken lanes. Progress was slow as they zigzagged across the countryside, unable to move in a straight line because of the patchwork of hedgerow protected fields. Christian kept his easterly direction by using the North Star. They moved quietly and alertly, weapons at the ready.
They came to another paved road running northeast to southwest. Christian halted them and signaled for Jake to come to the front. Jake looked up and down the road and tried to envision it in his mind’s eye.
“Wait here,” he instructed Christian and slipped away to find a road marker. A few minutes later he returned. The group gathered around in a small circle and took a knee.
“Ravenoville,” he pointed northeast up the road. “Sainte-Mere-Eglise,” he pointed in the opposite direction down the road. Then he made a chopping motion with the knife-edge of his left hand toward the southeast, perpendicular to the road. “Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. I remember this road on the sand table. We’re about ten miles away from our objective, cross-country as the crow flies. Through more hedgerows and swamps. Maybe a small river or two.”
Goldbacher observed, “We’ll never make it before daylight.”
Jake looked at his watch. “It’s oh-four-hundred. I think we should head up this road to Ravenoville and try to find a causeway exit near the coast.”
“The Krauts are bound to be watching the roads,” Christian warned.
“Yeah, maybe we could hold up here and wait it out?” Smith suggested.
“We have to keep moving,” Jake stood up. “We can’t be out here alone when the sun comes up. If it’s between the coast road or cross-country, I say let’s make for the coast.”
They all stood up. “Ravenoville it is,” concluded Christian and he stepped out onto the paved road to lead the way. The group moved along the roadside in single file. A distant drone could be heard that became increasingly louder. After a few minutes the familiar sound of C-47 engines filled the sky. The men looked skyward. The C-47 Skytrains were towing small American CG-4A Waco gliders. Jake quickly counted six nine-plane V-of-Vs. Shortly the drone of the engines faded into the north as the tow planes slipped their cables and released their gliders onto silent currents of air. It took a moment for Jake to grasp that the distant sound of splintering wood was from gliders crash landing violently into hedgerows, trees and man-made obstacles called “Rommel’s Asparagus”.
In short order the tiny group was once again engulfed in the scattered but muted sounds of the night. Insects and critters chirped, small arms fire erupted and cracked in the distance. Allied bombers barely audible at high altitudes dropped their bomb loads on railroad yards and marshalling areas well inland. Christian hugged the side of the road as he stepped quietly and carefully. The three other troopers followed, eyes and ears searching the darkness.
They all heard the challenge from the shadows and froze in their tracks.
“THUNDER,” Christian answered. Three other paratroopers stepped out from the hedgerow alongside the road. The relief in their voices was all too obvious.
“Jesus, we glad to see you guys. What outfit?” whispered a corporal with his arm in a makeshift sling. He was also carrying a .45.
Jake stepped forward. “Hundred and first, Five-oh-six. What about you?” They spoke in hushed tones.
The corporal tapped his arm. “Dislocated my shoulder on landing. We’re Eighty-second, Five-oh-five.”
Jake’s old outfit! He didn’t recognize the trooper in the dim moonlight. Jake’s instincts told him the entire airborne drop had been a complete fiasco and this encounter proved it. Troops seemed to be scattered all over the countryside and nowhere near their objectives and now even the two American airborne divisions were intermixed. “Where are you headed?” Jake asked.
“Our rally point. Sainte-Mere-Eglise. What about you?”
Jake looked up the road toward the coast. “Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.”
“It’s crawling with Krauts up the road,” Corporal Sling answered pointing over his shoulder with his pistol. “We just came from up that way.” One of Sling’s men nudged him and jerked his head toward the brush. “Oh yeah, shit, you gotta see what we found.”
The corporal moved up the road a few yards and pulled back the shrubbery. Lying on the ground, barely visible in the moonlight, were two dead paratroopers. They were stripped naked of clothes and equipment except for a musette bag with some orange panel markers used to identify friendly troops during air strikes. Each soldier had a large hole that almost obscured their faces, the exit wounds from a shot to the back of their head. Both of them had their genitals removed and stuffed into their mouths. It was a horrendous sight. Goldbacher threw up.
Jake recognized the thin wispy blond hair of Sergeant Stockett. He fought off his own revulsion and stepped closer to identify the other trooper. The Mohawk haircut told him it wasn’t Johnny. That was all he wanted to know. He turned to Christian. “Billy, we need to find out what Kraut unit was stationed around here. There will be payback!”
“Fucking-A,” whispered an equally furious Christian. “Who was that with the Sarge?”
Smith answered. “It was Manny. I could tell by the tattoo on his arm.” He recognized assistant squad leader Manuel Sosa.
Jake stepped back from the gruesome scene, tried to contain his outrage and turned to the corporal from the 82nd. “We’ll join your group and head toward Sainte-Mere-Eglise with you. It’s almost sunrise and we’ll never make it to our objective in time anyway.”
The corporal nodded nervously. He seemed more than willing to defer to Jake.
“Okay, then. I’ll take the point. Billy, you bring up the rear. Everyone stay alert!”
Jake led the group back down the road from where they came. Their pace quickened as the sun brightened the eastern sky. Soon they came across the smaller outer buildings of a village. The steeple of a church was visible through the morning haze on the southern horizon.
“FLASH!” Jake heard the loud challenge clearly, even though he could not see anyone.
“THUNDER,” he answered and a dozen fierce looking paratroopers came out of hiding with their weapons trained on the small group. A second lieutenant approached the group and noticed Jake’s Eagle patch. “We got a bunch of your guys in the center of town. Head for the church. Watch out for snipers.”
Jake looked up at the spire of an old stone Norman church some distance away. He led his small detachment toward it as the 82nd members of his small party broke off to find their own units. Corporal Sling nodded a brief farewell, which Jake acknowledged with a thumbs up.
The group picked their way cautiously along a street leading into the town square. Jake noticed the street sign said Rue du Cap de Lain. The shops were boarded up and closed on both sides of the street. There was no sign of civilians as they made their way deeper into the town.
A few hundred yards farther they came across a large two-story building with a sign that read Hotel de Ville. As they neared the building, an American flag shot up the large flagpole in front. It was a nine by twelve foot, tattered, forty-eight star banner. A colonel had personally run the flag up. There were some muted cheers from nearby paratroopers. The colonel then jogged toward the center of town. Jake knew him immediately. It was Lieutenant Colonel Edward. C. “Cannonball” Krause, CO of the 3rd Battalion, 505th PIR. That exact same flag had flown over Gela, Sicily and the main post office in Naples, Italy. Jake quickened his pace to keep up.
The courtyard of the old stone church faced the wide town square of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Jake led his group toward the square. As they walked past the church they saw the bodies of dead paratroopers lining the road. They were wrapped in their parachutes and laid carefully. Jake’s companions stiffened at the sight. The smell of human blood mixed with cordite was palpable. Jake had smelled the wicked brew and seen the dead before. He simply lowered his head.
They continued to walk. Parachute canopies were still hanging from the trees, a few with dead paratroopers in grotesque positions still in their harnesses. Some of the paratroopers were in the process of cutting them down. It was a grisly scene. The cold dark gray stone blocks of the old church were flecked with slashes of light gray shrapnel marks and bullet gashes. An empty dappled green parachute still fluttered from the church steeple. Must have been some damn fight for this town, Jake thought to himself.
Krause jogged over to a group of American officers in the square. Another colonel was sitting in a jeep. Jake walked over to report in.
“First town liberated in France, Ben,” Krause smiled to the other colonel. Jake noticed the colonel had his left leg splinted and it was dangling out of the side of the jeep. He was injured on the jump and the jeep had come in by glider. Jake recognized the colonel. It was Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin H. Vandervoort, CO of the 2nd Battalion of the 505th PIR. He wasn’t happy.
“Right, Ed. Now all we have to do is hold the damn town!” Vandervoort grimly replied. He felt Krause was showboating with the flag stunt. Their personalities could not have been more different. Krause was fiery and loud while Vandervoort was reserved and soft spoken.
“We’ll hold it just fine, Ben, now that your Second Battalion is here.”
Krause’s 3rd Battalion seized the town at 0400 hours after a concentrated drop. The German troops had unexpectedly abandoned the town after they defeated a small group of Screaming Eagles who had been miss-dropped into the center of the town while the townspeople were fighting a fire at 0100 hours. Those paratroopers were slaughtered in their parachutes as they descended into the lighted square.
Colonel William E. Ekman, who succeeded Gavin as the CO of the 505th PIR, was unaware Krause had already captured the town so he ordered Vandervoort to seize it. Now, there was the better part of two battalions defending Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
A small group of paratroopers entered the town from the southwest. Jake could tell by their equipment they were Pathfinders. The men sat down under the shade of a tree while their leader walked toward the command group. Jake recognized him. It was Corporal Danny Peregory. Danny paused slightly to look at the dead paratroopers still hung up in the trees. Just as Jake was about to holler out, Krause noticed the men sitting and immediately challenged them.
“What the hell are you men doing?” Krause screamed.
Danny stepped up to the colonel. He had been in the 3rd Battalion as long as anyone and absolutely despised Krause and his obnoxious behavior and abusive ways.
“This isn’t a rest camp, Corporal,” Krause continued hollering before Danny could say a word. “Turn those men around and set up a blocking position on that road.”
“Yes, sir,” Danny answered and turned to his team who had heard the whole exchange. They started to get off the ground slowly and began laughing at Krause’s behavior. They found it amusing that Danny got chewed out. Their laughter sent Krause into a rage.
“You men, there! What the hell do you think is so goddamn funny? Get your asses in gear you bunch of stupid, yellow bastards!” Krause turned to Danny. “Your men are not taking this seriously, Corporal. See that they get moving and pronto.”
Danny was furious. His men had just successfully completed a dangerous mission and instead of praising them; he was chewing them out. Danny and his team had hauled their lights, signal panels and Eureka sets from the original drop zone south of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, to another drop zone northwest of the town. It was backbreaking work, at night under combat conditions but his Pathfinders had pulled it off. They guided the glider force in exactly where they had been ordered to land them. That the second drop zone was too small and somewhat obstructed was not their fault. The field became a junkyard of smashed gliders and the glider men suffered dreadful casualties. But the much-needed supplies made it in.
Danny stood toe to toe with Krause and had had enough. He did something a paratrooper never did in combat and something that stunned everyone present. Danny stiffened to attention and snapped off a perfect salute. “Yes, sir.” He held the rigid salute awaiting a return.
Krause instantly understood. He was immediately at risk that an enemy sniper would target him. Everyone in the square held their breath expecting the report from a sniper’s rifle. It seemed like an eternity before Krause returned Danny’s salute with a half-hearted flip of the hand. Danny held his salute a few more seconds as if to emphasize the point and then dropped his arm. Krause pretended to be oblivious to the danger and continued to bark out orders.
Jake stepped into the area and was immediately challenged by a major. “Where are you going, soldier?”
“Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.” Jake replied.
“Impossible,” the major replied. “Road south is crawling with Krauts.”
“I have my orders, sir. We’ll try cross-country.”
“You’re not even armed properly, soldier,” the major noticed. “Pick up a weapon and stay with us. We can use you men right here. Better than getting killed or captured.”
Krause and a captain stepped forward. They had been listening to the exchange. The captain spoke first. “Do I know you, soldier?”
Jake took off his steel pot. He recognized Captain Louis Wolff. “Yes, sir. I was in the Five-oh-five, Item Company…in Sicily. We lit the bonfire. Gela-Niscemi Road. Biazza Ridge.”
“Of course,” Wolff acknowledged. “I thought I recognized you. You’re an Eagle now!”
“Got transferred, sir. I’m glad to see the Captain has recovered.” Jake continued.
“More like a stupid injury than a wound,” Wolff answered referring to the broken ankle he sustained on the jump. “But I appreciate the sentiment, son.” Wolff put his arm on Jake’s shoulder. “We can sure use you. Get yourself a weapon. We’ve built a pretty big stockpile from our dead.” Wolff pointed to a pile of scavenged weapons.
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Jake didn’t salute. He walked over to the weapons pile. His three cohorts followed him.
The pile contained a few dozen weapons. There were M-1 Garands, M1A1 .30-caliber carbines with folding stocks, a few BARs and a single Thompson submachine gun.
Jake reached down and picked up the Thompson. It was an original M1928A1 variant. He could tell by the Lyman sight, the Cutts compensator and the charging handle on the top of the receiver. It was stronger and more rugged than the later M1A1 version, which was redesigned to be manufactured faster and cheaper. The stock, pistol grip and forward barrel grip consisted of smooth, highly polished wood. Someone had taken meticulous care of this weapon; a weapon usually reserved for sergeants and above. However, Jake shot expert with the Thompson in training and there was no one here to tell him not to use it. He picked up an ammo sling, with five long thirty round box magazines, and slipped it over his shoulder.
“There’s more ammo in the gliders,” the familiar voice said over his shoulder. “They should be bringing in more any minute.”
Jake turned. It was Sky Johnson wearing a huge grin. They grabbed each other’s shoulders warmly and shook each other in elation. Sky spoke first. “Glad to see you made it, buddy. But aren’t you in the wrong place?”
“We’re definitely in the wrong place. We’re supposed to be in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.” Jake introduced his three buddies to Sky. They all shook hands.
Sky looked at Jake. “Johnny?”
Jake shook his head. “We got separated on the jump.”
Sky put his arm around Jake’s shoulder. “He’ll turn up. He’s a good trooper. Right now you got to say hello to some old friends.” Sky motioned to Jake’s companions and they all made their way toward the church where Item Company was gathering.
“I saw Danny Boy a few minutes ago. He had a run in with Colonel Krause,” said Jake.
“I need to kiss him when I see him,” answered Sky. “The Pathfinders did a great job. We were right smack on our freakin’ drop zone. Just like I told you we would be. We had this town captured before breakfast!”
When the group reached the church, a number of the men in Item Company who knew Jake greeted him warmly. There was much backslapping and friendly pushing and shoving. When the small commotion died down, Sky pulled Jake aside.
“What are you going to do? You going to stay here or try for Sainte-Marie-du-Mont?”
Jake looked around. “I don’t know. We probably should hook up with you guys and stay right here. We’d be sitting ducks trying to make our way in daylight.” Jake looked over at Christian, Smith and Goldbacher. “We’re staying here, okay?” They all nodded.
“Who with?” Smith asked.
“Whoever needs us, Homo,” Jake answered. He turned to Sky. “Bancroft still first sergeant of Item Company?”
Sky shook his head. “No. He transferred over to Second Battalion, Easy Company.”
Jake nodded and changed the subject. “Do you know what Kraut outfits are in this area?”
“Not yet, why?”
“Because we came across a pretty gruesome sight. Paratroopers executed, stripped and their bodies mutilated.” Jake leaned in closer to Sky. “The Krauts cut their balls off and shoved them in their mouths.”
Sky nodded. “We’ve been hearing rumors about that but we don’t have any prisoners yet.”
“We need to get some and figure out who did this.” Jake looked over his shoulder and spotted something. “Sure as shit we won’t get any prisoners standing around here.”
A platoon-sized unit was forming up in the square. A staff sergeant was yelling, “Second Platoon, Dog Company, shape up here.” Paratroopers were running into a loose formation. The lieutenant in charge was talking to Vandervoort. They were both reading a map and the colonel was issuing directives. The lieutenant was nodding vigorously as he received his orders.
Jake looked at his small contingent of Screaming Eagles. “Let’s go with them, what d’ya say?” He pointed to the platoon forming up.
“Where they going?” asked Goldbacher.
“I have no idea but they look like they mean business and could use some help,” Jake noted. “Maybe we can bag some prisoners.”
The four men walked over to the sergeant. Jake spoke first. “We’re kind of separated from our outfit. Can you use some help?”
The sergeant called to the officer. “Lieutenant Turnbull, sir. Do we need any help, sir?”
“We’ll take all the help we can get, Sergeant.”
The sergeant smiled. “Fall in, troopers.”
“Jesus Christ almighty. Is that you Jake?” The voice came from the formation.
“Teddy!” Jake shouted back. Private First Class (PFC) Carmine Tedesco broke out of formation and grabbed Jake by the shoulders.
“How the hell are you? We thought you died or something,” said an excited Teddy. He looked at the amused sergeant. “We know each other from Sicily. He used to be Eighty-second.”
“What is this? Old home week?” said Christian sarcastically. “Do you know everybody in this god-forsaken town?”
“Is Johnny with you?” Teddy looked around.
“Not yet. We got separated.”
The platoon fell in and marched north along both sides of Highway N-13 in combat separation. Jake and his small party were on this same paved highway, but further north beyond Neuville-au-Plain, earlier in the morning. This was Vandervoort’s initial objective. He decided to send a platoon north to secure the town and serve as a tripwire for any German advance from the north toward Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Vandervoort chose Lieutenant Turner B. Turnbull and his platoon of forty-three men to capture and hold a town originally assigned to an entire battalion.
As the platoon headed northwest along N-13, the stone buildings of Neuville-au-Plain shortly came into view. The road was as straight as a rod and the two towns were only a mile apart. Patches of farmland separated by pastures bordered by thick hedgerows flanked the road. With scouts forward and flankers out, they spread out and marched off the side of the elevated road in a drainage ditch. They moved quickly with the precision of experienced, combat-hardened veterans. No orders were given. None were necessary. Every man knew his job and what to do when they encountered side trails, small walls, undergrowth and other obstacles.
Jake cradled his newly found Thompson submachine gun in the crook of his right arm with his left hand on the pistol grip. Scattered thoughts raced through his mind as he scanned the roadside for movement. So much had happened in the last twenty-four hours. From the safety of his bivouac in England to the maelstrom of liberating occupied France were the most contrasting of emotional extremes. The jump was harrowing and excruciatingly disorienting. One moment he was lost and the next he was in the company of friends, although the one that counted most was still missing. Jake was tired and hungry but most of all he was angry with the Germans for the desecrated bodies of men he trained with, ate with, laughed with. Finding out which German outfit perpetrated that atrocity became a personal obsession and there would be a measure of violent revenge. He was also annoyed at not being dropped where he was supposed to be. Nevertheless, if he couldn’t fight with the Five-oh-six, he would fight with his old friends in the Oh-five. At least he wouldn’t die among strangers.
Turnbull was gratified to find the town unoccupied by the Germans. He knew his small force would not be capable of holding the town against a determined German attack with artillery and armor. But he would put up a delaying fight and provide the alarm to his superiors in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. He was confident he would at least be able to hold back the enemy for a little while.
As the American force moved cautiously into the town, Turnbull deployed most of his men on the far side where some slightly elevated ground gave them clear sight lines and good fields of fire. They could see out in three directions to a distance of about 600 yards. Two of his squads dug in to the right of the road behind a small hedgerow and one squad was deployed to the left of the road behind a low wall.
Turnbull set up his CP in a small château just north of the old stone church at the crossroads of the town. He had a good vantage point from the upper floor. The church steeple would have provided better visibility but the lieutenant was sure it would be the first structure shelled when the Germans attacked. The small group of Screaming Eagles was assigned to CP security and Jake and his buddies manned the north side second floor windows. The first thing Jake did was to break the glass completely out. The other Eagles followed his lead. Veterans knew the shock wave from the first artillery rounds would shatter the windows and send deadly shards of flying glass in all directions.
Jake pulled a small couch up to the window and set himself in a comfortable position with a good field of vision. Turnbull’s communications section had strung wire from Sainte-Mere-Eglise as they marched to Neuville-au-Plain. He established contact with headquarters and reported his status. His men were in position and dug in. It was 0900 hours on D-Day.
As Turnbull’s force awaited the inevitable counterattack, some of the paratroopers spotted supply bundles that were scattered over the fields to their rear. They retrieved the bundles and were rewarded with extra ammo for their machine guns, rations and bazooka rounds. The troopers immediately began to dispense the supplies among their squads. A few hours went by and still no sign of the Germans.
PFC Tedesco came up the stairs with his arms loaded down. He dropped a pile of K-rations on the floor. “Come and get it! Breakfast is served.”
Most of the men hadn’t eaten since the afternoon before and many of them lost their rations when their leg bags were ripped off during the night jump. The K-rations, for all their monotony, were greatly appreciated.
Teddy walked over to Jake. He dropped two canvas cartridge belts with five box magazines each on the floor next to Jake. “I noticed you were carrying the Thompson. Three hundred rounds…all I could find.”
Jake smiled. “Hey, thanks Teddy.”
“I wouldn’t want you telling everybody that the All-Americans didn’t treat you well on your little visit here.” Teddy handed Jake a K-ration box. “Mind if I join you?” He took off his helmet and sat down.
“The hospitality’s been great, Teddy! Sit down.” Jake took the wax-wrapped carton and broke it open. It was the size of a Cracker Jack box. That same company manufactured the K-rations for the military.
They ate in silence for a few minutes, looking out the window up the highway. Teddy broke the silence. “Remember that night in Sicily when we almost burned down that farm?”
“That family was scared shitless. I still dream about them…the fear in their faces.”
Jake nodded again. He wondered why Teddy was bringing this up.
“Dom and I talked about it a lot before he bought it. We agreed that civilians are the ones who get the shaft in a war.”
“That they do,” agreed Jake.
“If it wasn’t for you and Johnny that night, I think the lieutenant might have burned their home down and shot them if they got in the way,” Teddy confessed. He was staring down the road, shaking his head ever so slightly and looking further than he could possibly see.
Jake studied his face. Some of what happened in the past was bothering Teddy. That was the problem with combat veterans. While they were physically proficient at the craft of killing, they were emotionally vulnerable to the memories of the waste and carnage they had already seen. They were somewhat diminished as human beings by what they had already been exposed to.
“I don’t remember it that way, Teddy,” Jake replied. “You and Dom decided not to burn that family out. You stood up for them. You gave the lieutenant another option. Johnny and me just stuck up for you and it all worked out. But it was you guys who saved that family.”
Teddy reflected for a moment. “I’m not so sure we could have pulled it off without you…and I just wanted to say…thanks.”
Jake laughed. “Sure, no problem.” He looked down the road. “It’s funny the things that stick in our minds. I almost forgot about that family.”
“They remind me of my grandparents back in the Bronx. It’s hard for me to forget them.”
Teddy tossed an empty food tin out the window. “Whatever happened to you guys? You two just disappeared.”
“We got transferred. Simple as that.”
“Nothing that happens that fast is simple,” Teddy commented. Suddenly he jumped up. “What the hell…”
Jake stood up too. In the distance a column of German soldiers was marching down the center of the road. They had their hands on their heads. Walking alongside them were two paratroopers guarding them, one on each side of the column. One paratrooper was holding an orange cloth identification panel.
“Where’s the lieutenant?” Jake shouted.
“Down in the street. He’s meeting with the colonel,” someone in the room answered.
Jake slung his Thompson over his shoulder and flew down the stairs and into the road. He found Turnbull staring down the road with his binoculars. Vandervoort was sitting in his jeep doing the same. The colonel had just delivered a .57-millimeter antitank gun that came in by glider. He drove out to get a first-hand look at the tactical situation and provide more firepower. While the paratroopers were unhooking the artillery piece from the jeep, a French civilian rode up on a bicycle and told the officers a large collection of German prisoners were coming down the road from the north. The two officers were scanning the road as Jake came out the door.
“What do you make of it, Lieutenant?” Vandervoort asked.
“Looks like our guys bagged some prisoners, Colonel.”
“I make it a few hundred or more. More than a company,” observed Vandervoort.
“At least,” agreed Turnbull.
“But what’s that at the end of the column?”
Turnbull strained to see. “Looks like two vehicles of some kind. Can’t make them out.”
Vandervoort turned quickly toward the French civilian who reported the column. “What are those vehicles?” The civilian was gone.
Jake stepped in between the officers. He addressed Turnbull directly. “It’s a trick, Lieutenant. They’re just trying to get closer to our positions.”
“What makes you so sure, son?” Vandervoort asked.
“Well sir, we were up that way this morning. We found some of our guys stripped down naked. They were carrying those orange panels.” Jake paused. “The bodies were mutilated, sir.”
Vandervoort nodded knowingly. He raised his binoculars. “Sure seems like a pretty small guard for such a huge captured force, Lieutenant.”
“Those guards are Krauts, sir. They’re wearing the uniforms they took off our guys,” Jake persisted.
“Tell you what, Lieutenant. Fire some machine gun rounds off to the side of the road. Let’s see what we shake out.”
Turnbull gave the order and the .30-caliber light machine gun opened up. Suddenly the column of prisoners pulled their rifles from their backs and scattered to both sides of the road. They took cover in the natural folds in the terrain and began firing on the American positions.
Turnbull turned to the antitank crew. “Take out those vehicles on the road,” he yelled.
The crew aimed, fired and scored a direct hit on the first vehicle. They were obviously some type of self-propelled artillery as the armor on the heavy German Panzers was not susceptible to the .57-millimeter antitank rounds. Before they could target the second vehicle, it began to fire smoke rounds onto the battlefield. This shielded the movements of the German infantry and defeated the visibility of the sole American antitank gun.
“Good job, son,” Vandervoort slapped Jake on the shoulder. He turned to Turnbull. “It’s show time, Lieutenant.” There was concern and urgency in his voice but no panic. “Hold on here as long as you can and then fall back to help defend Sainte-Mere-Eglise. I’m not interested in another Custer’s Last Stand!”
The driver started the jeep and turned it around heading back south down N-13. “Watch your flanks, son. They’ll try to outflank you,” Vandervoort yelled over the noise of shellfire as his jeep sped away. It was 1300 hours on D-Day.
Turnbull turned his attention to his positions. He knew he was outnumbered and immediately began issuing orders to keep his force compact and mobile. He ordered the men in the CP out of the building and into the streets where he would set up a mobile CP. No sooner had they left than a towed .88-millimeter artillery piece began shelling the chateau and the church. The unique high-pitched sound of a German .88 high velocity round was easily identifiable on the battlefield. The noise was deafening as stone splinters showered down onto the street.
German mortars started laying down a barrage making movement difficult. Turnbull knew he had to put up a mobile defense and try to suck the advancing Germans into favorable fields of fire before withdrawing further. He was concerned about his right flank where the woods came right up to the town. If the attackers got in among the buildings they could easily cut off his escape route. He pulled back the two squads defending along the low stone wall on his right, the east side of the highway, and deployed them facing east toward the woods. Turnbull took a huge risk by abandoning the defense of his center along the axis of N-13 in order to keep most of his force deployed to the flanks. Perhaps the Germans didn’t have adequate forces to try to envelop him and attack his center at the same time, he wished more than reasoned.
Casualties began to mount as the small force executed a textbook fighting retreat through the town. Turnbull could tell the axis of attack by the direction of the sounds of the gunfire and the unique sounds of the various weapons. The heavy ripping sound of the German MG-42 on his left flank indicated the squad defending that area was under intense pressure. The rapid-fire sounds of M-1 Garands and Browning Automatic Rifles along with the melodic chugging sound of the .30-caliber Browning Light Machine Gun told him his right flank protecting force had ambushed some Germans trying to work their way around his position.
This cat and mouse game played out for a few hours as the paratroopers fired and maneuvered toward the rear of the town. The Germans fired their mortars as they moved their circling forces around the flanks. All the while, Turnbull was pulling his CP back while staying in touch with Vandervoort’s headquarters on the field telephone. The Screaming Eagles and a few All-Americans provided security and kept an eye on the open center down N-13.
“Let’s pull the CP back to the next street,” yelled Turnbull.
“Ready?” One of the sergeants yelled. “Now!”
Every paratrooper in the small group fired their weapons as the lieutenant and a few men pulled back to the next cross street. It was the last cross street in the town.
There was a low stone wall just off the road outside the rear of the town. A nearby drainage ditch provided additional cover. Turnbull eyed it as his last stand position from which he might gather his men and hold out while still having the option of withdrawing. He was already gathering his wounded there; Goldbacher and Smith being among those being treated. As he considered his options, his telephone went dead. Now he was isolated as well as nearly surrounded.
“Trooper,” he called to Teddy. “I need a runner to get word back to the CO.”
Teddy hesitated. Jake saw the frightened look in his eyes. Teddy wasn’t a coward. He’d been through some rough combat and acquitted himself well. But every so often an otherwise brave man would lapse into a paralysis of fear. Teddy could stand at the corner of the stone house and fire his weapon all day long but he could not step out in the open and expose himself.
“I’ll do it, sir,” Jake slung his Thompson on his shoulder and stepped forward. “Just take care of my boys.” He nodded toward the wall where the wounded were being gathered.
Turnbull looked at Teddy and back to Jake. He sensed what was going on. “Very well, Private. Tell the colonel we have six dead, a dozen wounded and we’re being enveloped on both flanks.” Turnbull cleared his throat. “Unless we get some help it’ll be difficult to disengage. In that case, we’ll just hold on here as long as our ammo holds out.”
“Yes, sir.” Jake began to move out.
“One more thing. Trace the wire. If you find the break, see if you can repair it.”
“Yes, sir,” Jake acknowledged.
“Get ready.” Turnbull ordered. “Wait for our covering fire.”
Jake nodded and Turnbull gave the order to open fire. Everyone in the CP security detail aimed their weapons at suspected enemy positions in the town and let loose a fusillade of small arms fire. Jake slipped out and ran down the road in a low crouch until he reached the drainage ditch alongside N-13. His Thompson at the ready, he picked up the field telephone phone wire and resumed running in a low crouch as he let the wire slide through the fingers of his empty hand. He had almost a mile to go and had to pace himself.
After a few minutes and a few hundred yards, the wire slipped from his fingers. It was broken clean. Jake stopped in his tracks. Usually when an explosion tore a wire, the ends were frayed. Not only was this end clean, the other broken end was ten feet away and also cut clean. Someone had snipped the wire in two places and removed the middle piece so it could not be easily spliced back together. Krauts! He thought. But so far in the rear?
He heard the crackle of the brush in the hedgerow behind him at the same instant the shadow flickered across the ground in front of him. His reaction was instinctive. He fell off to the left and spun around quickly depressing the trigger of his Thompson. The bullets started flying in an arc before he completed his turn. By the time he spun fully around, the .45-caliber slugs had nearly torn the German scout in half. The German fell with a surprised look on his face and was dead before he hit the ground. Jake pulled a grenade and flipped it over the hedgerow. He didn’t wait to see if his grenade took out any more Germans.
So, the Krauts already had some forces between Neuville-au-Plain and Sainte-Mere-Eglise. He would have to be extremely alert in case that German soldier was not alone.
Jake alternately jogged and walked as he made his way back to Sainte-Mere-Eglise. The drainage ditch offered some protection but he had to leave it at times when it became too shallow. He darted from one concealed position to another, resting only briefly, but not long enough to fully catch his breath. The adrenaline was flowing, his heart rate was up and he was sweating profusely. His encounter with the German scout had pumped him up.
He finally saw the buildings of Sainte-Mere-Eglise and was challenged at an outpost and passed through to Vandervoort’s headquarters. Jake gave his report. Vandervoort put his hand on Jake’s shoulder. “I’ve got one platoon that I can send. Can you show them the way back?”
Jake nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Vandervoort turned to his aide-de-camp. “Get Lieutenant Peterson and First Platoon up here pronto. Get those Pathfinders, too!”
Orders were shouted and repeated down the line and paratroopers began to assemble on the double. Jake stared down the length of N-13 towards Neuville-au-Plain. He could barely hear the gunfire nearly a mile away. That there was still firing was encouraging. The terrain to the left and west of N-13 was fractured and broken by hedgerows and fields. It would take longer to reach Turnbull by this off-road route. However, they would not be as easily observed moving through the bocage country.
“Well. I’ll be damned,” Jake heard the familiar voice behind him. “If it isn’t my old friend, Enema.”
Jake turned slowly. It was Sergeant Gene Bancroft and he seemed as surly as ever. Jake walked up to him and whispered through gritted teeth. “I should have killed you where I found you in Sicily, crying like a little baby in the night.”
Bancroft didn’t react. He just stared at Jake. “I surely thought I was rid of you, boy. You and your friend, Yank. And here you are, like a bad penny.”
Suddenly a paratrooper wedged himself in between the two soldiers. It was Danny Peregory. He looked at Bancroft. “Leave him the fuck alone, you sadistic bastard!”
Bancroft took a step back, surprised at the aggressive move from Danny. “We’ll finish this another time,” he said to Jake. “If you make it through the day.” He turned to Danny. “You too, you little bitch.”
Danny grabbed Jake’s arm and pulled him away. “Jesus, Jake, I thought that was you. What the hell are you doing here?”
“Long story,” Jake replied as he hugged Danny playfully around the neck. “I saw your little flare-up with Cannonball this morning. What are you doing here?”
“Me and my team are in this relief force.”
Lieutenant Peterson approached Jake. Bancroft backed off as if nothing was wrong. “What’s the situation up there, Private?”
Jake explained the tactical situation of the remnants of the 3rd Platoon and how Turnbull, against orders, was intent on making a stand rather than abandon his wounded. He described the terrain to the west of the highway as best he could and suggested that approach to get to Turnbull. They would be easy targets for the Krauts if they took the road back.
“The Krauts seem to be making a wide swing around Lieutenant Turnbull’s left flank, sir.”
Peterson nodded. “They may be so intent on encircling him they won’t be looking for us. We may be able to surprise them.” He handed Bancroft a handi-talkie radio and addressed them. “You three scout up ahead. Let us know if you run into anything. I’ll take my platoon on an end run to the left and try to intercept the Krauts. If you see anything I ought to know, use the radio.”
Bancroft replied, “Yes, sir.” The three men headed out down the highway for a few hundred yards before they slipped into the hedgerows to the left of the road.
Peterson moved his platoon into the bocage country. They navigated through the hedgerows quickly and ready to fight. The radio remained silent; a good sign the scouts had not run into a German formation.
Nearly an hour went by when Peterson finally found what he was looking for. In a large open field to his front, a force of about one hundred Germans were gathering to attack the unsuspecting rear of Turnbull’s small force. Peterson brought up his mortar crew. When all the preparations had been made, he gave the order. His mortar crew opened up with a barrage that caught the Germans in an open field with no cover. The paratroopers opened up with everything they had. Bits of vegetation flew in all directions and dirt kicked up from the ground as the troopers mowed down any Germans who survived the mortar barrage. It was all over in a few minutes. The small victory had been overwhelming. Peterson suffered no casualties. With this enveloping force out of the way, he struck out for the road to get to Turnbull faster.
Turnbull was being pressed hard on all sides. He had less than twenty men left and was about to be surrounded. When Jake and Danny miraculously came out of the hedgerow to his rear, they advised Turnbull a relief force of paratroopers was on the way. It was not large enough to stop the Germans but was powerful enough to disrupt them so he could disengage and withdraw.
“Well done, trooper.” Turnbull knew this would be his last chance to withdraw his men.
Twenty yards behind, Peterson’s platoon crashed through the hedgerow onto the highway.
“Time to go, sir,” Jake pleaded when he heard the commotion. “Those are our guys.”
“All right,” he yelled. “Covering fire on my command. Everyone who can walk head back down the road.” Then he yelled, “Fire!”
Every gun let loose with a high volume of accurate fire. Under the cover of the small barrage, Turnbull led his remaining force on the quickstep back down N-13 firing as they retreated. The relief force added their volume of fire and successfully extricated the remnants of Turnbull’s platoon from Neuville-au-Plain.
As the combined force worked their way toward Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the lone body of a paratrooper lay off to the side of the road. Lieutenant Peterson recognized the stripes and flipped the body over using his foot. It was Sergeant Gene Bancroft. He was dead, a neat hole between his eyes. Peterson looked at Jake and Danny. Danny spoke. “Sniper,” he curtly explained. Peterson nodded and the men continued back toward Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
Turnbull had held off a much superior force of the German 1058th Regiment of the 91st Airlanding Division. He limped back into Sainte-Mere-Eglise with only sixteen men of his original force of forty-three. But they held all day and now dug in along with the rest of their paratrooper and glidermen brothers to hold Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
Jake finally learned what German unit was in the area that day and he would never forget it. It was 1900 hours on D-Day.