The Last Jump: Chapter 56
Washington, D.C. – March 30, 1997
“In war there is never a chance for a second mistake.”
Lamarchus (465 BC – 414 BC), quoted in Plutarch, Apothegms
“Hello, this is Sky.”
J.P. Kilroy froze in his steps. He was whisking a small bowl of eggs and was about to pour them into the sizzling pan when Sky Johnson unexpectedly answered the phone. He looked at Cynthia Powers who was sitting at his kitchen table in a borrowed man-tailored shirt holding a hot cup of coffee and reading the Sunday newspaper. The article describing former President George H.W. Bush’s parachute jump near Yuma, Arizona, at the age of seventy-two had her complete attention. She was reading aloud to J.P. when the phone call was answered.
J.P. had asked her to hit the speed dial for Sky’s telephone number and set the phone on speaker. He had done that numerous times in the last few weeks. But unlike those other occasions, Sky answered this time. J.P. set the bowl down and moved toward the phone.
“Mister Johnson, this is J.P. Kilroy. How are you today, sir?”
“I know who this is. You’ve left me enough freakin’ messages.”
“I’m sorry about that, sir. I just have a few more questions for you. We really never finished our conversation back in January and you did give me your number.”
“I’ve been out of town…on one of those battlefield tours in Europe. I like going back from time to time. Nobody is shooting at me anymore.” J.P. heard Sky chuckle on the other end.
“Well, thanks for answering my call, Sky.”
J.P. motioned to Cynthia to get his recorder. Sky was undeniably a part of the conspiracy of old soldiers dedicated to keeping the secret.
“I’ll be quite blunt, Sky. I had lunch with Frank West and he all but confessed there was something you men were hiding from me. Some sort of secret you all agreed to keep.” J.P. paused and waited for some reaction. There was none. “I couldn’t help but wonder if I could perhaps bribe you into telling me,” J.P. jokingly probed.
After a moment of silence, Sky responded. “Ah, that Frank always had a big mouth.”
“In all fairness to him, I sort of figured it out for myself. You guys were, well, acting kind of suspicious at dinner.” Cynthia clicked on the pocket recorder and placed it near the phone.
“Really? I thought we just acted hungry.” Sky chuckled again. “I’m sorry, Mister Kilroy, but I’m really not sure what you’re talking about. Frank may have been involved in something with the boys but I didn’t spend as much freakin’ time with them as he did.”
This was the opening J.P. hoped he would get. “But Sky, you never mentioned you ran into Jake at Sainte-Mere-Eglise, either. Or anything after D-Day.”
There was another pause. “I think we actually ran out of time back there at dinner.” Another pause. “But sure, I remember. Jake straggled into that town with some guys from the One-oh-one.” Sky seemed to be dredging up the old memories. “Yeah, I remember and boy we were glad to see each other after one helluva scary night. Then Jake went off on a rescue patrol, I think, with Danny Boy and Sergeant Bancroft.”
“Is that all you remember of that day? Did you run into my father, too?”
“Oh, no. They were separated on the jump.” Sky coughed. “It’s pretty hard to remember everything that happened that day but I know Jake wasn’t with your father when he went out on patrol and Bancroft never made it back from that patrol.”
“What happened to him?”
“Killed. Danny Boy told me a sniper shot him. Hole clean through his head.”
“Isn’t he the one who hated Jake and my dad?”
J.P. glanced at Cynthia and nodded. This might be what he was looking for. “Are you sure my dad wasn’t there? That Bancroft was killed by enemy fire?”
There was another hesitation, and the sound of ice tinkling in a glass. Sky was drinking. Good. “Are you absolutely sure, Sky?”
“Which one? That my dad wasn’t there or how Bancroft was killed?”
“That Johnny wasn’t there. Who could be sure of what happens on the battlefield?”
J.P. believed he was on to something and perhaps he would learn more if he kept Sky talking. “Isn’t it unusual for you guys to run into each other like that? I mean friends from different divisions bumping into one another all the time like that?”
“Not really. The Eighty-second and the One-oh-one were deployed together a lot from D-Day on. We worked together in combat and fought each other like crazy while on furlough. I ran into the boys in Holland, and again in Rheims and one more time when we made our final combat jump in Operation Varsity in March of forty-five. I asked for their help in the last one.”
J.P. reached for a napkin, wrote something down and gave it to Cynthia. She went into the bedroom. “I did some reading on the Holland jump. Operation Garden-Market?”
“Market-Garden,” Sky corrected. “Dumbest airborne plan ever invented and the worst execution of an armored advance in the history of tank warfare.”
“How so?” J.P. recalled how Sky cleared the table and used ashtrays and saltshakers to describe the Sicilian campaign when they had dinner. He prepared himself for a long explanation.
“Well, there were these three groups of bridges that Monty had to have so he could push his armor up this highway and into Germany. He only had to go sixty miles and he would be over the Rhine. The Screaming Eagles had the first group of bridges near Eindhoven, the Eighty-second was assigned the second group of bridges at Grave and Nijmegan and the first Limey airborne division had the last bridge at Arnhem. We were supposed to surprise the Krauts and push through to the Rhine in two days and sneak into Germany before they knew what was up.”
Cynthia returned with a book. It was A Bridge Too Far by Cornelius Ryan. It was considered the definitive work on Operation Market-Garden when it was published twenty-three years prior. J.P. opened to a marked page with the map of the battlefield. “So what went wrong?”
“Depends on who you ask. In my opinion we surprised them all right but the Krauts reacted faster than we did. We had the initiative on day one and maybe day two. Jerry took it from us and had it the rest of the way. Of course, it didn’t help that we dropped the Limeys on top of two SS Panzer Divisions that weren’t supposed to be there…but we could have overcome that if we had a better plan and moved faster.”
J.P. settled back on the couch. “By a better plan you mean that the First British Airborne Division dropped too far from the Arnhem Bridge?”
“Mister Kilroy, I’m impressed. You have been doing your homework!”
“I’ve been doing some reading,” J.P. replied as he sat back.
“Of course you’re right. It took nearly seven hours for one British battalion to seize the northern side of the great Arnhem Highway Bridge. Before they got there, a recon battalion of the Ninth SS Panzer Division crossed the bridge and went south. It was those guys who made up the bulk of the defenders on the north side of the Nijmegan Bridge eleven miles south of Arnhem. If the Limeys closed off their bridge an hour sooner, those Krauts would never have gotten out of Arnhem and we could have walked over the Nijmegan Bridge on day one. As it turned out, they got a strong force to the bridge before we did.”
“And the British drive north moved too slow,” J.P. encouraged.
“As slow as shit,” Sky agreed. “They were supposed to be in Arnhem in two days but they just reached the outskirts of Nijmegan by that time and we hadn’t taken that last bridge before Arnhem yet. We were too freakin’ slow. And our Air Transport Command decided it was too risky to make two drops on the first day. Hell, we still had them by the freakin’ balls on the first day. We could have brought in more men and ammo while the weather was still good. It turned out by the next afternoon, the Krauts had moved up more anti-aircraft guns and brought in more planes from the Luftwaffe and they were ready for us. Chopped up our re-supply flights pretty good. After that the weather was never good enough to allow enough flights to supply us.”
Another clinking sound of ice on glass. It was pretty early on the west coast and J.P. wondered what Sky was drinking so early in the morning.
“Bloody Mary,” said Sky over the speakerphone as if reading his mind. “Breakfast of champions!” J.P. couldn’t hold back a smile. Sky continued. “Where was I? Oh, yeah. So, by day two, the Krauts were all over us like roaches. They came out of the Reichswald Forest and cut the highway in a couple of places. We had to beat them back time and time again. It was like cowboys and Indians. The road quickly got the nickname “Hell’s Highway”. We lost a lot of guys trying to keep it open. And by the third day we still didn’t have the main Nijmegan Bridge and that single Limey battalion that made it to the bridge couldn’t be reinforced because it was surrounded and getting the living shit kicked out of it.”
“Is that when the Eighty-second crossed the river?” J.P. asked. Cynthia quietly brought him a cup of coffee and nestled up next to him on the soft suede couch.
“Yup, the Eighty-second had to make a river crossing of the Waal River in canvas boats to attack the bridge from both sides. H and I Companies of the Oh-four made the assault. It was pure hell!” Sky paused. J.P. could imagine him choking up. “We lost a lot of guys that day.”
J.P. sipped his coffee. He decided to let Sky tell the story without interruption.
“The Limeys brought up twenty-six canvas boats. They were about nineteen feet long and had these plywood floors and canvas sides. Paratroopers weren’t ever trained in amphibious river crossings but we were the only ones there. So, two hundred and sixty guys jumped into those crummy boats and paddled across this four hundred yard wide river, the Waal. The Krauts opened up on us with everything they had. Mortars, machine guns, eighty-eights, the kitchen sink. They were helpless out there paddling with oars and rifle butts and the tide pushing them around like little rubber ducks in a bathtub. Men were getting hit and falling overboard and they sank like stones. Boats were blown out of the water by direct hits and they still paddled their hearts out. The noise was deafening, the river looked like it was raining there was so much small arms fire. I watched from the shore as one GI in a boat just disappeared, blown away by an eighty-eight shell, I think. The smell of gunpowder and burning flesh was everywhere. The river ran red with blood. The screaming and yelling of the wounded could be heard above the din of the battle.” Sky paused. “I couldn’t get that day out of my system until I went back fifty years later.” He paused again. J.P. envisioned a tortured old man on the other end of the line.
“After what seemed like an eternity, they finally made it to the other side, about half the boats made it. The engineers rowed the boats back to bring over the rest of Third Battalion while the first wave attacked the Kraut positions on the shore. I don’t know why any of them even tried to surrender. After slaughtering our guys who were helpless in those boats they thought they could just put up their hands and say ‘Kamerad’? I don’t think we took many prisoners that day. The men were on an adrenaline rush and a fierce rage that was almost uncontrollable. We were up against soldiers from the Ninth SS Panzer Division. They were brutal soldiers and our guys knew it. After we took them out, we still had to capture the north side of the bridge.”
Cynthia and J.P. exchanged troubled glances. Sky was struggling with these memories.
“To make a long story short, we captured the bridge. The Germans failed to blow it for some reason. Some think the Dutch sabotaged the wires. I wouldn’t be surprised. They’re great people. They love their freedom and they never forget. Every day the schoolchildren still put fresh flowers near the granite slab monument in memory of the Waal River crossing. Wherever an American GI is buried in Holland, someone puts fresh flowers on his grave every day.” Sky hesitated. “Every freakin’ day for over fifty years! Imagine that. And our kids never even learn squat in school about what Americans did during the War.” Sky hesitated. “Tell me, Mister Kilroy, what’s wrong with that picture?”
Cynthia got up and took their coffee cups to the sink. She picked up making the scrambled eggs where J.P. left off.
“And the plan still failed,” said J.P. in a matter of fact manner.
“Of course it did,” Sky answered. “Because after we spilled all that blood and lost all those guys taking the freakin’ bridge, the Limeys refused to push on to Arnhem. They crossed the bridge, pulled over and had tea! We were furious. If we knew they were going to wait until the next day, we would have made a night river crossing. But the main thing is they hung their own paratroopers out to dry in Arnhem. If it was Patton, that son of a bitch would have been in the first tank charging up that highway, balls to the wall, and he would have broke through and relieved those poor guys. Anyway, it was already the fourth day by the time the Limeys finished their tea and got ready to go. By then the Krauts in Arnhem took back the bridge and reinforced their positions. The Limeys couldn’t push through any more. They evacuated around two thousand of their paratroopers from Arnhem across the Rhine at night, lost over seventy-five hundred Brits and Poles, and it became a stalemate. We couldn’t advance any further north and they couldn’t push us further south. We end up with a fifty-mile salient to nowhere. All that for nothing!
“History records it as the airborne liberation of Holland,” J.P. suggested.
“History is the fable most believed, Mister Kilroy,” Sky retorted. “Spin it any way you want, it was a waste of the best troops the Allies had. In addition, the two American airborne divisions were kept at that front for another two months in stinking cold and wet conditions and getting bled again. Mud all over. Couldn’t find a dry place to sleep. Hadn’t had a freakin’ bath for two months. It was like World War I trench warfare all over again. Anyone caught out in the open could expect to draw artillery fire. We were still eating lousy British rations because Monty wouldn’t give us back. Imagine the brass balls on that guy. He begs Ike for paratroopers for his masterstroke to end the War by Christmas. Then Ike gives him an airborne army and priority on supplies. He hatches this half-ass plan and then his own freakin’ armored forces drag their feet to execute it. It falls on its face! Then he has the gall to refuse to give back two airborne divisions so he can waste us as leg infantry. For two months. I tell you, if that Limey son of a bitch wasn’t getting paid by the Krauts, he should have been!”
“That’s a bit harsh, Sky.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. If he wasn’t such a pompous ass I might cut him some slack but Patton would have made better use of the supplies and the airborne divisions.” There was a moment of silence before Sky continued. “Hell, I always get upset when I talk about Monty.” J.P. allowed a few seconds for Sky to recover before asking his next question. “You said you ran into my father in Holland,” J.P. reminded Sky.
“Right. I think it was day two or three. We were still near Grave. We just took the bridge over the Maas River. We were under pressure from the Germans who started to probe our flanks. We’re up near Groesbeek Heights near Gavin’s CP, guarding the road and bridges. We were waiting for a resupply drop that was late coming because of the damn weather in England. Around noon, a jeep convoy comes up from the south. Four jeeps, three had a general each and the forth full of armed troops for security. All the jeeps had thirty-cal machine guns mounted in the rear. The jeeps pulled up and they all got out and started talking to our battalion commander, Major Julian Cook. Generals Brereton, Ridgway and Taylor are all in this small convoy. I never saw so many generals in one place at one time. So anyway, Taylor, Ridgway and Brereton, he’s the CO of the First Allied Airborne Army, spread this map on the hood of Ridgway’s jeep and Major Cook starts pointing at stuff and doing all the talking. That’s when I recognized two of the drivers, your dad and Jake. So I scoot over. We’re really glad to see each other. We’re catching up on what we missed. I remember your dad was injured and had a real hard time sitting down. I scrounged a few cans of .30-caliber ammo for my light machine gun. We were running low. Mooched some grenades, too. After a few minutes the briefing was over. Ridgway stayed and the other two generals started back to their jeeps. My outfit is ordered to head for the Nijmegan Bridge. Taylor notices something and he pulls the boys over to the side. I don’t know what he was talking about but he seemed to know them and it looked like he was bawling them out. At the time I thought they were being chewed out for giving me the ammo. Generals usually don’t take the time to speak to privates but he spent a good few minutes with them and he was doing most of the talking. Then we heard the distant sound of thunder in the skies. We look up and see this huge air armada heading north. There were miles and miles of transports, towing gliders and carrying supplies. At first I think it’s for us but they just keep going. They’re headed for Arnhem. The roar was deafening. Everyone stopped to look up. German flak batteries opened up from the Reichswald and planes start falling out of the sky. German fighters jumped a bunch more. A full-scale aerial battle erupted overhead. With that, I took my platoon to the bridge and Taylor and Brereton mount up and head back south to the Hundred and first sector.”
J.P. asked a question as Sky paused. “Any idea what Taylor said to my father and Jake?”
“I asked them when I saw them next on leave in Rheims. They said he was pissed about them possibly being captured. Seems they were on some sort of hush-hush mission with him.”
J.P. deliberated for a moment. He already knew about the Rome Job. That makes no sense. Why would he care? J.P. nodded toward Cynthia. This episode also sounded suspicious and he wanted to discuss it with her after the call.
“Made no sense to me either. Especially since when we met in Rheims, they’d been transferred to Easy Company, Five–oh-six.”
“Interesting.” There was a long silence. J.P. sensed Sky was done talking. He took a shot. “Can you tell me how Jake died?”
There was another pause. “I wish I could but I can’t. And I really have to go. It’s time for my morning walk on the beach.”
“Well thanks for…” The phone clicked dead before J.P. could finish.
Cynthia brought a steaming plate of scrambled eggs to the table. She spooned some in a dish for each of them. J.P. joined her and poured two cups of hot coffee.
“What do you make of that?”
“Sky is sort of a character,” she answered. “He’s definitely hiding something.” She paused. “But then again, they all are. We know that much.”
J.P. nodded. “He knew Jake and my dad well. Even though they spent a lot of time in different units, they started together, met whenever they could and spent lots of time together. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he kept in touch with my dad after the War.”
They ate in silence for a few moments, J.P. contemplating his options.
“I’m convinced this secret has something to do with Jake. We know now they were in Rome with General Taylor so the discussion in Holland may be important. We also know they both hated Bancroft so his death may be more than meets the eye. I know I sound like I’m reaching but some of these stories we’ve been hearing have too many discrepancies.”
Cynthia put her cup down. “Don’t drive yourself crazy. You’re a trained interviewer. Keep talking to them. Eventually one of them will slip and reveal something relevant.”
He contemplated her advice. “You’re right, Cynthia. I know what I have to do.”
“Besides jumping back into the bed with me, what would that be?”
J.P. smiled. Her aggressiveness turned him on. And he could see the outline of her erect nipples through her shirt. “After finishing these great scrambled eggs and spending more time with you…” he reached across the table and held her hand. “I have to arrange a visit with Lincoln Abraham. Can you get an address for me?”