“The real man smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress,
and grows brave by reflection.”
Thomas Paine (1737 – 1808)
[More info about the WWII novel “The Last Jump” is available at TheLastJump.com]
Johnny Kilroy looked in the mirror in the second floor men’s bathroom of the Armed Forces Induction Center in New York City. He repeatedly wet his hands with cold water and massaged his reddened face and back of his neck. He had smart-mouthed a gunnery sergeant and was about to be inducted into the United States Marine Corps.
He stepped outside the bathroom into the hallway and sat down on a thick, sturdy wooden bench along the wall. He needed a moment to collect himself and clear his head. The temptation to walk out the door and take the subway back to his apartment in Washington Heights was overwhelming. The physical act would be easy. Just walk out the door, down into the subway and take the train to his apartment on 165th Street and Fort Washington Avenue directly across from Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. He could be home in thirty minutes. As much as he wanted to stay out of the Marines, however, he could never willfully avoid serving his country in her time of need. But at that moment, the comfort of home was beckoning him.
Johnny grew up in “The Heights”. He was raised in a working class family of Irish immigrants from County Cavan, Ireland. His father held jobs as a bricklayer and a laborer while his mother worked for a doctor cleaning his office and house. Johnny helped by working a newspaper route after school.
Although the family struggled to make ends meet during the Great Depression, Johnny always felt well taken care of. His parents placed great emphasis on education and he was conditioned at an early age to attend college.
The neighborhood was as close-knit as it was diverse. The east side of Broadway, known as the “shanty” side, was a mixture of ethnic groups which included Irish, Italian, German, Eastern European and small but growing Hispanic and Black populations. All shared the same problems and challenges of survival and the same hopes and dreams of a better life for their children. Shared activities strengthened the already strong sense of community. Saturday afternoons were spent in the local movie theatres where a nickel would buy two B-Western movies, twenty-five cartoons and a cliffhanger serial which kept the kids coming back week after week. Among Johnny’s favorites were the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials with Buster Crabbe. It was at one of these Saturday matinees he met Rose Scalise.
The west side of Broadway was an affluent middle-class Jewish community. Johnny’s mother often referred to it as the “lace” side of the tracks. Many of the residents on the “shanty” side aspired to someday move to the “lace” side. Someday.
The Heights was a thriving, bustling community. On any given day, trucks could be seen delivering coal on shiny chutes into the basements of the tenement buildings. Vendors in horse-drawn wagons flocked the crowded streets selling ice, vegetables and sharpening scissors and knives. The sounds of children playing were ever-present. It was a neighborhood where people watched out for each other and everyone felt safe.
Johnny’s parents were not thrilled when he married Rose but they eventually accepted it. In time they actually became quite fond of her even though she was of Italian decent at a time when Irish-Italian marriages were frowned upon. When his parents moved to New Jersey, Johnny and Rose took over their apartment. There they began their lives in earnest. Rose worked as a nurse’s aide at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and Johnny attended CCNY while working part-time as a taxi cab driver. They were planning to start a family when he graduated. Like so many others, their plans went to hell when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Johnny and Rose often discussed the possibility of him joining the military. He gave the Army Air Corps serious consideration but Rose was not keen on him flying. To most, the navy seemed like a reasonable choice, but Johnny was prone to getting seasick and was not a good swimmer. Besides, if he were going to serve on ships, the Merchant Marine paid much better and he would be assured of getting back home to New York about every six to eight months. The army seemed like the logical choice. If only he could get into a specialty that took advantage of his intellect. They probably didn’t need a history major but he was conversant in French, fluent in Italian and could get by in German. Languages came easy to him because of his photographic memory. He was hopeful he might leverage those skills into a relevant military occupational specialty.
They discussed, contemplated and mulled over all these questions until finally time ran out. The orders for a pre-induction physical were followed by orders for induction by only a few months. And here he was, induction letter in hand and just a few minutes away from being impressed into the United States Marines.
As he sat on the bench, hunched over with his elbows on his knees, his hands on his temples and staring at the floor, a pair of boots stepped into his line of sight. Olive drab military trousers were tucked up into the boots, which were the shiniest he had ever seen. Johnny sat back to look up at an army officer standing above him. He was immediately impressed by the stature of the soldier. He was well over six feet tall with wide shoulders and a broad muscular chest. Johnny noticed the thick neck of a football player and the single silver bar of a first lieutenant on his collar.
“I overheard your little chat with the sergeant,” said the officer. “Maybe I can help.”
Johnny was about to stand up when the officer sat down beside him. “I can get you into the army.”
“What?” Johnny was surprised by this unexpected turn of events. “How can you?”
“My name is Lieutenant Wolff, and I have priority here,” he replied. “Just sign this form and I’ll walk you up to the desk and you’ll be inducted into the army. Just like that!” The lieutenant snapped his fingers and smiled.
“What am I signing?” asked Johnny.
“It doesn’t matter, you’ll be out of the Marines,” replied Wolff holding out a piece of paper. “Just sign it.”
Johnny hesitated for a moment. “I just need to know what I’m getting into. If you wouldn’t mind taking a minute to explain, I’d appreciate it.”
Wolff let out an impatient sigh. “I’m a recruiter for Army Airborne Command. My job is to recruit volunteers for the paratroopers.” Wolff pointed to the jump wings pinned above his pocket. “The reason I can get you into the army is simple. Volunteers for the airborne have priority over every other branch. The reason I can’t spend all day answering your questions is I’m about to leave New York for my next recruiting assignment.” Wolff glanced at his watch. “But I have about five minutes so you have that much time to decide. Even though it really doesn’t matter.”
“Thanks, Lieutenant,” Johnny replied. “I read an article in LIFE Magazine about this experimental outfit of parachutists. I’m not so sure I want to jump out of a plane and I’m pretty damn sure I don’t want to be in the infantry so why would I sign up?”
“As I said, it doesn’t matter but let me tell you a few reasons why this is a good deal for you.” Wolff again glanced at his watch and went into abbreviated sales mode. He held up one finger. “There’s jump pay. An extra fifty bucks a month.” He held up two fingers. “All paratroopers are trained as combat infantrymen but we also have medics, combat engineers, signalmen and artillerymen. You seem like a smart guy so perhaps your primary job won’t be as a rifleman. Finally,” he held up three fingers, “I don’t think you really want to go to Parris Island with that gunnery sergeant. I don’t know what you said but you managed to really piss him off. You sent him into a rage in just a few seconds. I think he hates your guts.” Wolff smiled and held out the form.
“What’s in this for you?” Johnny asked.
“I told you, I’m a recruiter. I have a quota.”
Johnny had to think quickly. If he did nothing he was sure to be drafted into the Marines. That meant he would be a rifleman for sure. If he signed the form and volunteered for this new airborne outfit, there seemed to be some slight chance he might do something other than just haul a rifle around. However, if he had to become a rifleman, he might as well take the extra pay. The additional money would help in supporting Rose and justifying the decision to her. Finally, Lieutenant Wolff was right. That sergeant definitely hated his guts.
“Let’s do it,” he said and took the form and scribbled his signature. Both men got up and walked up the stairs to the fourth floor. The line was still queued up in front of the main desk and the gunnery sergeant was standing a short distance away.
Johnny stopped at the end of the line but Wolff grabbed his arm and led him to the front. “I told you son, I have priority.”
Lieutenant Wolff took the brown envelope with Johnny’s orders and the form he just signed and placed it on the desk in front of the army clerk. “Yes, sir,” the corporal began collating, stapling and stamping the various forms.
The sergeant glared at both of them. “Sorry, Gunny,” smiled Wolff. “This one’s mine! Better luck next time.”
The clerk handed the forms back to Johnny. “Right through there,” he pointed to a doorway. Johnny took the papers, avoiding the eyes of the sergeant and walked toward the door.
“Thank you,” Johnny whispered. “But just one more question before you go?” Wolff nodded. “When you asked me to sign the form, you said a number of times, ‘it doesn’t matter’. What did you mean?”
Wolff hesitated for a moment. He put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and leaned over so only Johnny could hear his answer. “The paratroopers are an elite and a very selective outfit.”
“And?” Johnny asked.
“And you won’t make it.”