“All that can be done with the soldier is to give him espirit de corps,
a higher opinion of his own regiment than all the other troops in the country.”
Frederick the Great (1712 – 1786), Military Testament, 1768
“It’s a damned suicide outfit, Jake,” exclaimed Sergeant Harley Tidrick as they hurriedly walked across the parade ground toward the Regimental Day Room. “Everybody knows it. Those guys are all fucking crazy!”
“If you believe that Harley then why are you here? Why don’t you go have a beer or something?” replied Jake.
“I’m trying to talk you out of this, kid. Why the hell would you want to join this outfit anyway?” Harley had seen this stubborn look on Jake’s face before.
“Why the hell don’t you mind your own business, Harley?” Jake blurted it out before he could catch himself. He was instantly sorry. Jake liked and respected his cousin. Harley had always looked out for him but especially since Jake joined the Stonewallers of the 29th “Blue and Gray” Division. Jake didn’t make it easy for Harley. His frequent disregard for regulations resulted in numerous minor infractions, all of which were maddening to Harley.
After basic training, Jake was sent to Fort Meade, Maryland, halfway between Baltimore and Washington D.C. Discipline was lax. There were not enough weapons to issue a rifle to each infantryman so whatever little training they did, they did with broomsticks. Stovepipes served as mortars and baseballs as hand grenades. The morale of the once-proud division plummeted.
Then the draftees began arriving in April 1941. Their negative attitude was poisonous. They were already counting the days when their one-year term of service would be completed. Any unit cohesion that existed based on hometown friendships began to unravel. The War Department sent in regular army officers to “shape up” this former National Guard division. The resulting churn only served to further deteriorate morale.
Sergeant Harley Tidrick was a squad leader in the 2nd Platoon of Able Company of the Stonewallers. He arranged to have his cousin Jake assigned to his squad so he could keep an eye on him. All during the tumult and instability of 1941, Harley was a constant. He remained calm and focused and provided attentive leadership to his squad. They tried to stay out of trouble mostly because of their loyalty and friendship to him.
In September 1941 the 29th Division moved to Fort A.P. Hill, halfway between Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia. Jake continued to get home to Macie as often as he could.
Macie was tall at five feet eight inches and somewhat awkward and gangly. Most of the time she kept her long black hair in a ponytail. Her eyes were nearly as dark as her hair and the only minor imperfection to her otherwise flawless face was a small mole on her upper lip. Jake thought it gave her face character.
She found a job in a boarding house cleaning rooms and serving meals. It didn’t pay much but she always had something to eat and a roof over her head. Nothing in the orphanage had prepared her for life on the outside. As a consequence, she remained shy and withdrawn. However, she was a hard worker and took pride in whatever she did. Jake was the center of her young life and she adored him. He would take a room at the boarding house whenever he got home. It was all very convenient and respectable. He realized before long that although he always loved her, he had fallen in love with her. She became the focus of his life. They would take long walks holding hands or go to the movie house or have a float at the soda fountain in Green’s Drugstore. It was just understood that they would someday marry.
Throughout the fall of 1941, getting home made Jake’s military life tolerable. He was not at all interested in the war in Europe or the brutal war the Japanese were waging in China. He rarely read the papers and was oblivious to American politics and the tension building between America and Japan. He was in the army only to stay out of jail and as long as he could get home to see Macie his military life remained bearable.
Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and everything changed. One could almost sense, if not envision, everyone in the young nation simultaneously wiping the milk-mustache of naiveté from their upper lip and setting their minds to the terribly fearful job ahead of them.
“I didn’t mean that, Harley.” Jake stopped and looked at his cousin. His remorse was sincere as it usually was once he regained his temper. “I have my reasons for doing this,” Jake continued. “It’s complicated.”
Harley smiled. “Dames do have a way of complicating things.” Jake ignored the comment and started walking again, this time faster. Harley trotted to catch up.
“I don’t understand how joining the paratroopers can make things any better?”
“Well, it can’t get any worse,” Jake answered. “This goddamn War screwed everything up.”
“For a lot of people, kid,” Harley observed soberly.
Harley was alluding to the reality that America was in a virtual panic. Rumors were rampant the Japanese were about to invade the West Coast. There was barely a United States Navy left in the Pacific to stop them and everyone knew it. On 11 December, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States and within weeks German U-Boats began sinking ships right off the American coast. The shelling of an oil refinery in Santa Barbara, California by a Japanese submarine on 23 February served to emphasize how vulnerable America was.
On 1 April 1942, American soldiers began systematically rounding up Japanese-Americans. They were plucked from their homes and businesses on the West Coast and relocated to detention camps, complete with barbed-wire fences and armed sentries. The government was terrified at the prospect of a potential subversive element within the populace. A frightened and unprepared nation behaved desperately as it tried to shake off years of indifference and apathy and engage in global war.
Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the 29th Infantry Division received new orders. They deployed various units to a number of different places along the coast from New Jersey to Virginia to guard warehouses, rail lines and bridges to thwart any spies who might attempt sabotage.
Jake would never forget Christmas Eve, 1941. His platoon was assigned to patrol the beach area just south of Atlantic City, New Jersey. He walked his post alone on that freezing night as the surf pounded the shoreline and the biting wind whipped the beach sand into his face. He wore a long trench coat and a World War I style dish shaped helmet. He had his M1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle slung on his shoulder with the unsheathed bayonet fixed on his rifle and only one magazine of five rounds of ammunition. What the hell was he doing here? He shook his head in disgust, tugged on his rifle sling, lowered his head, leaned into the frigid wind and continued to walk his post. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!
The 29th Division finally reassembled at Fort Meade, Maryland in March of 1942 and the men were astounded by the changes that were announced. The division shed one of its four infantry regiments and got a new Commanding Officer (CO); Major General Leonard T. Gerow, a Virginian and graduate of the Virginia Military Institute. Jake watched these changes with a critical eye and concluded the division was preparing to ship out overseas. He decided it was time to transfer into another outfit.
“Jake,” Harley interrupted his thoughts. “Ever hear that saying about jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire?”
As much as Jake didn’t want to talk about it, he knew he owed Harley an explanation. “It’s not just about getting out of the division before we ship out, Harley,” Jake began. “Macie wants to leave Bedford and move to a place near Norfolk, called Newport News.”
“Really?” Harley was genuinely surprised. He knew Macie and was shocked she would strike out on her own and out of her comfort zone.
“Yeah, really,” Jake confirmed.
“To do what?”
“Build ships!” Before Harley could respond Jake continued to explain. “I know it sounds crazy, Harley, but a few weeks ago some people from the Newport News Shipyard stopped at Bedford. They’ve been recruiting workers and with the shortage of men they decided to hire women.”
“No shit, Harley. The head guy was a shipyard construction foreman and the gal with him was a riveter or welder or something,” Jake explained. “Macie said that the guy talked about how much the navy needed these ships and how great the pay was and the gal explained how she was trained, that there are a lot of women doing this and it wasn’t so hard and they were really needed to finish building those damn ships.” Jake paused to let it sink in. “Then they offered everyone a fifty-dollar sign-up bonus and a train ticket to Norfolk.”
“And Macie signed up?” Harley continued, half asking.
“And Macie signed up,” Jake stated emphatically.
“And you don’t want her doing this, I figure. Right, kid?”
“Of course not,” answered Jake. The thought of Macie alone in a big city scared the hell out of Jake. “So I need time to talk her out of it and it won’t hurt if I can make more money so I could help her out more. Maybe she won’t feel like she needs to take this job.”
“And the training will keep you in the States a little longer,” Harley finished the thought and he finally understood Jake’s motives. “I get it. And if you don’t mind my saying so, I think you’re a perfect fit for the paratroopers because you’re a section-eight too.” Harley was smiling as he said it. Jake smiled back.
Just then Private Danny Peregory ran up alongside them. Peregory was from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, but he knew Jake from the regimental boxing team. Despite the fact that he was small and wiry, no taller than five feet six inches, nobody messed with Danny. He was a curious kid who was interested in everything that was none of his business. He also had an effusive personality. Born in Charlottesville, Virginia, most everyone called him Danny Boy. “You guys signing up?”
Harley answered first. “We’re going to listen to what they have to say. Right, Jake?”
“Listen for what?” Danny asked. “This is the best outfit in the whole damn army and if I’m going into combat I want to go with the best.”
“They’re going to have to put lead weights in your pockets just to make sure your parachute opens, Danny Boy, ” joked Harley.
“I hear the only size that matters in the paratroopers,” Danny responded, “is the size of your heart.”
Jake simply nodded. Danny was the featherweight champion of the 3rd Battalion.
As they neared the building that housed the day room, they converged with other small clusters of soldiers. They came together in groups of twos and threes from every direction, bunching together just prior to funneling through the single door. The soldiers knew the drill since Solicitation Boards were constantly visiting the post. Last week it was Army Intelligence and the week before it was the Signal Corps. Army specialties with critical skill needs were allowed to send teams of recruiters to any post to seek out uniquely qualified individuals. Today it was the United States Army Airborne Command looking for volunteers to join the paratroopers.
All the card tables were pushed against the walls in the day room and in their place were over fifty wooden folding chairs. The room still smelled of raw wood and fresh paint like so many of the newly constructed buildings on the post. In the center of the room a sergeant was threading a sixteen-millimeter projector. A captain was leaning over him offering assistance. Among other decorations they both wore airborne jump wings, which consisted of a silver metal badge in the shape of a fully deployed parachute with the shroud lines forming a V. Powerful eagle-like wings emanated from the base and curved upward to touch the sides of the canopy with their wingtips.
The projector was aimed at a sheet tacked to the wall over a makeshift stage. There was a poster on the wall, adjacent to the jury-rigged screen, of a tough looking young soldier holding a carbine with parachutes billowing in the sky-blue background behind him. Under the picture, it read:
Become A Paratrooper
Jump Into the Fight
As the men found their seats, the room filled with the background noise of voices and chairs scraping along the floor. Jake, Harley and Danny took seats in the front row. The unintelligible murmurs were punctuated by an occasional loud laugh and continued after all the chairs were taken. A few men, mostly officers, stood along the walls in the rear near the door. The sergeant walked to the rear to close the door as the captain stepped up on the stage.
“At ease, men,” bellowed the officer and the room immediately fell silent. “My name is Captain Louis Wolff and I’m here to tell you men about the Army’s newest and most elite unit, the paratroopers.” He pointed to the poster and then paused to let his words sink in. “My assistant Sergeant Coleman and I will describe the particulars about the newest and finest outfit in the army. Then we have a short training film and finally we’ll answer any questions at the end.” The sergeant stood up briefly and nodded to the room. Wolff continued. “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!”
Captain Wolff was well over six feet tall and was in superb physical shape. He moved and spoke confidently. His overseas cap was tucked neatly into his belt with the paratrooper insignia facing outward.
The insignia was an open white parachute on a circular patch of blue cloth. The nametag over his pocket was the first one Jake ever saw.
“First and most important of all, we’re an elite outfit,” Wolff began. “We only want the best so if you’re not fearless, don’t bother to volunteer.” Danny nudged Jake and smiled.
“Like everything else in this man’s army,” continued Wolff, “there are pros and cons. Let me first talk about the benefits. If you qualify, enlisted men will receive an additional fifty dollars a month and officers will get an extra hundred dollars.” There was an immediate subdued but affirmative buzz in the room.
“Everybody likes that part,” Wolff went on. “And we have our own special equipment and uniform. A lot of our uniform accessories are necessary but I will confess that some of what we wear and what we do is for show. As I said before, we’re an elite outfit and we want our men to feel that special espirit de corps which is so important to elite units.” The captain reached down and picked up a helmet. “M-One helmet with chinstrap. The helmet is standard, the special chinstrap is strictly airborne.” Then he picked up a battle dress uniform from the top of the table. “This is a brand new model M1942 battle jacket customized for airborne troopers.” He held up the uniform. “Extra reinforced pockets on the sleeves and the shirt pockets cut on a slant so we can get to them with our chutes on.” He explained the other special features of the jacket and the trousers before dropping the uniform back on the table.
“And these are Corcoran jump boots,” he lifted his foot on the table so everyone could see his highly polished boots. “Steel toe, high cut and a beveled heel so we don’t trip on the deck rings as we exit the plane. All necessary to our mission.” He placed his foot back on the floor with a loud thud. “And we’re the only unit in the entire army authorized to blouse our pants legs into the tops of our boots. Not necessary,” he smiled, “but it sure looks sharp.”
Jake really wasn’t interested in all of this. He just needed to hear how difficult it might be to qualify. As if Captain Wolff read his mind, he began to discuss the training.
“The physical and mental pressure of jump school is enormous,” continued Wolff, “and half of you that volunteer will wash out in the first week. The other half will wish they never volunteered.” The room was silent as Captain Wolff took on a more serious tone. “You really have to want this badly, and I think you NCOs especially know what I mean.”
“What do you mean?” asked a voice from the back.
“Everyone who enters jump school gives up his rank and enters as a private,” answered Wolff. A negative murmur burst out in the room. Most of the NCOs were older men who had been Guardsmen through the lean inter-war years when promotions were difficult to come by. They were not inclined to voluntarily surrender their stripes after waiting so long to get them. About a dozen sergeants and corporals spontaneously got up and left the room.
“Not a problem for me,” whispered Danny pointing to the single stripe on his sleeve, “or you, Jake,” looking over at Jake’s bare sleeve. Then he looked at Harley’s three stripes and rolled his eyes. Harley didn’t move as the other NCOs crowded toward the exit.
Captain Wolff expected this reaction. He had seen it many times before. “Let me just say that the rumors are strong that there will eventually be over a dozen new airborne regiments formed and prior NCOs will be given special consideration to fill out the open leadership positions.” He was speaking to the backs of the NCOs walking out the door. It didn’t change anyone’s mind.
“How about officers?” a different voice called out.
“Officers keep their rank,” answered Wolff, “but during jump school they will be subordinate to their instructors who are all NCOs and they will be extra hard on you.”
“Why?” asked the same voice.
“It’s the custom in the airborne that officers are last in the chow line and first out of the airplane door. Airborne officers lead from the front.”
The officer who asked the questions got up and walked out along with some other officers.
“We have too many officers, anyway,” joked Wolff after they exited. The remaining GIs laughed nervously.
Wolff sensed he was losing what little enthusiasm was left in the room. He decided to lay it on the line and challenge those remaining. “The rest of you can leave at any time. We only want men who want a challenge and want to prove they’re good enough to hang with the best. Let me tell you why.” He folded his arms and began pacing slowly back and forth.
“The airborne soldier drops behind enemy lines,” he began. “We’re always surrounded by the enemy. Being surrounded usually puts the fear of God into a normal soldier, but that situation is where our job begins. We need to be mentally and physically tough and we need to know the guys on our right and left are just as tough as we are. There are no re-supply depots behind enemy lines so we have to bring in everything we need. When we go in we expect to jump with well over a hundred pounds of supplies, weapons, ammo, food and whatever else we might need. Our troopers must be able to navigate, read maps, figure out where they are and where they need to be and act independently to complete their mission. If we have wounded we have to take care of our own. There are no aid stations or field hospitals. Because we’re behind enemy lines, there is a good possibility that some of us might be captured although most of the paratroopers I know won’t be taken alive. And we have to do all this after jumping out of a perfectly good airplane at night as well as in daylight.” A few other soldiers got up and left the room.
“Jump school is very demanding. It’s four weeks of pure hell,” continued Wolff hardly noticing the men who got up to leave. “The first week, A-Stage, is all physical training. You’ll run five miles before breakfast and then you’ll get into some really intense physical training. You’ll run everywhere! There’s no walking in jump school. The instructors will be in your face all the time demanding pushups for the slightest mistakes!” Wolff hesitated for just a moment. “You all can do fifty pushups?” Some more men got up to leave.
“Rather than me talk about it,” Wolff explained, “let me show you.” He nodded to Sergeant Coleman who flicked on the projector. He motioned to the windows and some of the soldiers stood up and pulled down the shades. The room was dark except for the projector’s shaft of light, which caught the swirls of cigarette smoke floating about the room. Almost immediately there was the scraping sound of chairs moving across the floor as some soldiers used the darkness to exit the room, which brightened for a few seconds as they opened and closed the door.
The picture was grainy and the sound scratchy and uneven as the film began. Wolff was silent as the narrator described the action in the film. A-Stage was depicted as Wolff had described it. Trainees in T-Shirts and shorts were running everywhere in formations or performing physical training such as jumping jacks, rope climbing, tumbling and pushups.
Danny watched intently and occasionally nudged Jake. He wasn’t intimidated in the least and rather enjoyed that he was still there while so many others had already weaseled out.
“B-Stage begins the specialized training for paratroopers,” the narrator went on. “Now you will learn the skills necessary to earn your jump wings.” The screen showed men jumping from a mock-up of an airplane door into a sawdust pit. Instructors were showing the men the correct body position in the door. The picture then shifted to a tower that was thirty-five feet off the ground. Men were jumping out of the tower while their harnesses were connected to a guide wire. They slid down the wire a fairly long distance before they came to a sudden and rather violent stop in a sand pit. “Another technique called a Parachute Landing Fall,” the narrator went on, “is practiced over and over until the trainee learns how to land properly.” The noise of chairs scraping across the floor signaled some additional men had left the room.
“In C-Stage every trainee will learn to pack his own parachute.” On the screen the trainees were folding the parachutes methodically into small bundles. First they folded the risers, then the shroud lines followed by the bottom of the silk chute and finally the apex. This package was then carefully packed into their canvas covered, metal-framed parachute pack tray.
The scene then shifted to men jumping from a 250-foot tower and perfecting the landing rolls and tumbles necessary to break their fall. The drill always ended with boys on the ground struggling to collapse their parachutes as a wind machine blew and billowed the parachute. Some men were dragged along the ground as the narrator warned how dangerous it could be if the parachute was not brought under control immediately upon landing. A shaft of light from the door announced that more men had left the room.
“And now the final exam,” the narrator exclaimed. “Everyone who has made it this far will complete their qualifications by making five parachute jumps from heights starting at 1,200 feet to 800 feet with the final jump being a night jump from 1,000 feet.” On the screen the men, all wearing their jump gear and football helmets, were filing out of a plane one at a time. The chutes popped opened in sequence as they descended slowly to earth.
The next clip had the trainees standing proudly at attention in formation, having their jump wings pinned on. The narration concluded. “This is the moment you have worked so hard for, when your instructors and your officers recognize your accomplishment and present your jump wings which acknowledge you as a paratrooper in the United States Army Airborne.”
The music faded and the screen turned white as the training film ran off the feed reel with a loud snapping sound. Sergeant Coleman switched on the room lights.
There were only five soldiers left in the room.