The Bravery, Valor and Sacrifice of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment during WW II
A Novel of Historical Fiction
Written by Symm Hawes McCord
Edited by Linda Strike Reese
Awarded Finalist in the 7th annual Beverly Hills Book Awards
Represented by Jeanie Loiacono of the Loiacono Literary Agency
Reviews from Readers
7/7/2017 - "I just finished The Deuce, and I really enjoyed it. I'm especially impressed with the quality and quantity of research you put into the book. If I didn't know your age, I would have assumed you were actually there! Nice job. Looking forward to the movie!" - Reader in Virginia
7/23/2017 - "Thank you. This week I finished your work. Many that read history know well the European Theatre of WWll but The Deuce brings the history up close and personal in following the individual stories. Congratulations on well told vivid lives of ground pounders." - Reader in Alabama.
8/28/2017 - The Deuce is a heartfelt tribute to the Greatest Generation, particularly the GI’s who fought the Germans in World War II. It’s a story seldom recalled now, details forgotten or ignored by the generations that followed. Place names – Dodewaard, Mourmelon, Elsenborn Ridge, undoubtedly seared into the memories of those who fought there – are now unfamiliar. Features of war – Germany’s Bouncing Betties, bayonet combat, “friendly” fire from both sides – are a reminder of the primitive brutality by which hundreds of thousands of Americans died.
Above all, The Deuce is about sacrifice, the noun and the verb. The main characters in the book are enlisted men who volunteer, but large numbers of America’s servicemen were conscripts who nevertheless paid the ultimate price. And, in these self-absorbed times where missiles and drones separate killers from their targets, one is struck by the willingness of commanders to commit their troops to certain death because it was the only way to get the job done. This war was up-close and personal – men die and deliver death on a daily basis in The Deuce, and there’s no question who’s doing the killing.--PAT
It was 1944 and Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler was well on it's way to taking over the globe with help from the empire of Japan. They occupied most of Europe, including the entire nations of France, Belgium and The Netherlands. Harve Donovan and Jake Sommers, life-long friends, were only out of high school for a couple of years and it came time for them to leave their loving young wives in Alabama and serve their nation in a way to protect freedom there and over the entire world. These young men were part of what would later come to be called "The Greatest Generation".
After their training on the jump towers of Fort Benning, Georgia and dodging the bullets and heat of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, they were placed on the USS Strathnaver and set sail for England. What would happen next and after they arrived? When and where would they have to go into battle? As members of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Infantry Division they would not be lacking in combat time. It all began on June the 6th in 1944 in Normandy in an area just behind a stretch of beach that became known as Utah Beach. They were dropped into that area on the 6th and for the next year, as they fought their way across Europe, everyday would be filled with the possibility of death and never returning to their home and into the arms of their loved ones.
The following is the first three chapters of The Deuce. If you read this and wish to purchase the book, it can be purchased in print through Books-a-Million, Amazon, Barnes & Noble. It can also be downloaded as an eBook from Kindle. Get a Nook book from B&N.
“It`s foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” General George S. Patton
This novel of historical fiction, set during World War II, is dedicated to those from my family and to all the other heroes who served in that great war of the nineteen forties. It was a war that saved the world from two cruel regimes and what could have been destined to be a global dictatorship. Our love and appreciation goes out to those mentioned below, who have all since passed on to receive their reward in a Greater Place.
Wallace Wayne McCord of Augusta, Georgia, who was a part of the Naval bombardment of Iwo Jima; Sim Hillard McCord of Augusta, Georgia, who was drafted into the Navy and took training in 1945 but had to return home before his ship set sail due to illness in the family; Perera Athel Brodie II of Augusta, Georgia, who fought at the Marine invasion of Peleliu; Theron Reginald Woodward of Augusta, Georgia, who was in the Merchant Marines and sailed the Pacific during the war, suffering the uncertainty of the perils of aircraft and submarine attacks; William Farris Brooks from the Augusta, Georgia area, who fought with Patton in the African Campaign and into Sicily, and later, Europe, during the Battle of the Bulge; Charles Douglas Brooks from the Augusta, Georgia area; Carlton Faye Brooks of the Augusta, Georgia area; Henry Virgil Benton from the general area of Claxton, Georgia, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes near Bastogne in December 1944 and early 1945; Jerry Vernon Knight, who fought and was killed right after the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium near the “Bulge”; Alfred Merle Knight, who was a part of the Marine invasion of Iwo Jima; and Jack Ardell Knight.
A very special thank you to Linda Strike Reese, my editor, who added so much to the creation and completion of this novel. Her expertise helped turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.
Many years ago, in the nineteen thirties, forties, and fifties, there was a breed of men and women who refused to be subjugated to any country, person, or government other than to God and the United States Constitution. These citizens respected authority, raised the American flag with pride, and sincerely pledged their allegiance to that flag. They achieved their income “by the sweat of their brow,” rejected welfare, except under extreme economic conditions, and have often been called “The Greatest Generation” of our country. Of all generations in modern times, these men and women, in their youth, went through the calamitous economic disaster called “The Great Depression” of the nineteen thirties. The despair and pain of those days lived in their hearts and minds until the day they died, and many of them died defending freedom in the fields and forests of Europe, in the jungles and on the waters of many South Pacific islands. They went to war in foreign lands and on foreign oceans to protect our country and our way of life.
During the nineteen thirties, there arose from Austria a madman whose ultimate goal was to rule the world. He was a genius in his intellect and a maniacal demon in his ability to manipulate the masses. Within a ten-year period, he rose from an obscure failed artist to the powerful leader of the German Nazi movement, a feat unparalleled in the modern history of man. This was Adolf Hitler, a name that will live forever in the written annals of atrocities and inhumanity to man.
His quest, within his concept of “The Final Solution,” was to destroy an entire race of people, the Jews. Before the end of the Second World War, his National Socialist movement had removed the lives of six million of these human beings from the face of the earth. His pursuit to rule the world came so close to success that mankind should never lose memory of Europe, Asia, and the United States, under attack. During this same time period, another attempt was being made to take over the world by the Empire of Japan. Adolph Hitler ultimately joined with the Japanese in order to attempt to accomplish his goals.
In May of 1945, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, described the men and the battle on Iwo Jima, saying that “Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Looking back, this can be said about all who fought in the numerous battles around the globe, against Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. When the future of that globe was hanging in the balance, these heroes were willing to sacrifice their all for this, the greatest country in the history of man.
If such a conflict were to arise today, would the willingness to sacrifice be there among our people as complete as it was among those responding then? And would our leaders be strong enough and care enough about our country, our way of life, and our Constitution to direct our military into war? Above all, would the political leaders let the military men and women decide the methodology of carrying out the war? If Roosevelt had truly micromanaged World War II, I think most historians would agree that the war would have had a different outcome, because even though the individual soldiers, as always, were willing to sacrifice, the rules of engagement given by the politicians to the military leaders could have doomed them to failure. We cannot send our young men and women, future leaders, our husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers into an impossible situation.
In this year of 2016, for the first time in my lifetime, I see that the leadership among the national liberal political elite are reluctant to use or even maintain our military in the protection of our country and its citizens. The leadership apologetically addresses the world in what appears to be a fear of maintaining our reputation of “American Exceptionalism.” Our country could not, at this time (2016), take on and win a military conflict with a reasonably well-trained and well-armed military. To be attacked by a major power would be disastrous to our way of life. We have not been so devoid of adequate military defenses since the late 1970s, some say WWI, and other major powers are aware of this fact. In recent months, new leaders are coming to the forefront that offer hope to the future of our Representative Republic.
Often, I search for and watch movies about World War II. Many bring tears to my eyes, and my chest fills with pride as I watch the images of those men and women. We had real leaders then, who turned over the war and its management to the military leaders who knew how to manage the fighting men. The politicians rarely interfered. Our troops respected their leaders. This is a time when rogue nations are developing nuclear weapons and designing them to be placed on rocketry capable of reaching our mainland. How will future administrations react?
The 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment became a part of the 101st Airborne Division, the same as the 506th PIR, which was celebrated in the movie Band of Brothers. All of those warriors fought, and many died valiantly during WWII. Their stories need to be told. This is a story of those times when the greatest war in the history of man took place.
The main characters in the story are mostly fictitious, but the sequence of events, as well as the political and military leader’s names, which will be familiar to the reader, are elements of history. For that reason, this novel is categorized as historical fiction. The main actions are based significantly on the activities and movements of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment.
I have attempted to make much of the data and history of the “Five-O-Deuce” as accurate as possible. The characters are non-fictional down to the Regimental and Battalion Commanders. The Company, platoon and squad level members and leaders are mostly fictional names. The dates and sequences of battles and movements are as accurate as possible. This is the story of the fictional 1st Squad of the 3rd Platoon, B Company, 3rd Battalion, of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 101st Airborne Division which had been created out of the 82nd Airborne Division in the very early 1940s.
After his first day as greeter at the local Bayville, Alabama Walmart, Harve Donovan drove home to his wife, Lucy. “Miss Lucy, I think I’ll hit the bed early tonight.”
“Is that new job too much for you, Harve,” she teased.
“Nah, I just need to get used to workin’ again.”
He grinned, and headed to the bedroom, falling off to sleep fairly fast. He was later joined by Lucy, who slept in bed beside him as she had done all of their married life, despite his snoring episodes. About three or four AM he bolted upright in bed, his body rigid and his gray hair askew; he was drenched in perspiration, and there was a look of fear, pain, and even madness in his eyes, which stared off into the distance as if in a trance. He breathed rapidly, as if he had just run a difficult race.
“Here they come again,” he screamed, shaking with terror, “fixed bayonets…they’ll kill us all.”
“Harve, wake up. You’re okay, you’re dreaming. You’re home in bed. Wake up, Harve.”
Lucy could feel the fear in her husband’s tense and trembling muscles as she tried to calm him. She had woken earlier as he began to toss about. She knew what was happening but was afraid to wake him then. With this dream, his entire body would tighten until she would finally give in and take hold of him, gently awakening him. Afterwards he always shook uncontrollably.
His voice broke, and he continued to tremble as he spoke. “Oh God Lucy, I thought I was about to die. They were getting so close. They never got that close before.” He took his bed sheet and wiped the building sweat from his forehead.
In recent years, Harvey Donovan had these night terrors maybe every six months. When he first returned from the war, back in 1945, they happened every night, and he would be totally exhausted when he finally stopped shaking. He always referred to his fear as “they”. He had never told Lucy who “they” were, what had happened during the war, or what was happening in his dreams. She had never pressed him for answers; although she pretty well knew who “they” were and what was happening in his dreams by his actions and vocalizations, and, of course, knowing that he had spent those years in the Army during that great war.
“Do you want to try to go back to sleep Harve?” she asked, knowing he wouldn’t. He never did for fear of the terrors returning.
“No, let’s go to the living room and sit for a spell.” He shook his head as he answered. “I don’t want to go through that again anytime soon.” He was shaking less now but his hands were still unsteady.
She gave him a cool damp wash towel and watched as he sat down and wiped the perspiration and tears from around his aging eyes. “I wonder if it would help if we talked about it,” she asked as she sat near him, “you know you’ve never done that before.”
“Oh, God, honey, even if I tried to explain it, I don’t think you could understand. I just can’t put it into words, and if I made an attempt, I don’t think I would know how. It was like a horror movie. A man ought not have to witness those things. I just don’t know why people would do such things to each other. They just become animals during war.”
She had tried this before, but he always avoided any talk of what had actually taken place. He once told her to never mention the war, but when the terrors, as he called it, would happen, it always brought it out in the open again.
“I’ve always thought you would feel better if you would talk about it and get it off your chest, but I understand, Harve, if you ever want to get it out, I’ll be here.”
He smiled. She had been with him since before they graduated from high school. They had eloped the weekend after graduation. Two fine boys had come from their marriage after he returned from Europe from the war.
“You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, Miss Lucy.” He often called her “Miss Lucy” rather than just Lucy. “I love you dearly, and I hate having put you through so much with these terrors over the years.”
“I love you too, Harve. Don’t worry about me, but maybe we’d better try to get back to bed before you go and get all romantic on me.”
“You may be right,” he agreed and winked at her. “I don’t think I could handle that too.”
As he got into bed and turned off the bedside lamp, he tried to settle into his pillow. He knew there would be no sleep tonight. He could never make himself sleep after the terrors struck him.
Maybe Miss Lucy was right about this. He had kept it inside of him all these years, and it did seem to never go away. God, how could he describe the memories in his head…the blood and gore of those many years ago, when the whole world was at war and the monster called Hitler refused to surrender.
Bayville, Alabama – Fall 1941
“Here Harve, hit me with it!”
It was a Friday evening in the fall of 1941. As the crowd roared, and the cheerleaders screamed, Jake Sommers waved his arms and yelled across the football field to his quarterback and best buddy, Harvey “Harve” Donovan. They had played sports together since grammar school when they gathered their teams in the field behind Jake’s house on afternoons and weekends, but tonight, it was the 1941 regional 4A high school football championship. It was being played on their home field in Bayville, and the high school football fans of the entire state of Alabama were watching. It was still a little warm there near Mobile Bay but the cooling breezes of the approaching season were definitely in the air.
Harve was a quiet sensitive, kind of guy. He had good friends, but he skirted the party folks. His handsome looks and his shiny black hair kept the girls charmed and filled with chatter when they were around him. The guys all looked up to him because of his athletic abilities on the football field and his natural leadership characteristics. Jake, on the other hand, was very outgoing and equally as handsome as his best friend. He had a unique and bright blondness to his hair, which he had to constantly comb to keep in place. Harve always teased him about getting it cut a little shorter so that he wouldn’t have to brush it all the time. Jake, however, thought the girls liked it long, especially one pretty young lady named Betty Lou Wilson.
“Here Harve, here...,” Jake screamed again as he waved his arms in the air. He was in the open, free of defenders and only fifteen yards from the goal line.
Harve found him and put the ball right in front of him as he headed for the goal. It was a perfect pass, as he was so capable of doing. Jake snared it with one hand, pulled it in, and cradled it in his arm as he rushed into the end zone. The extra point sailed between the posts, which put them a touchdown ahead with only three seconds to play. On the ensuing kickoff, the team from Birmingham didn’t make it more than ten yards. Bayville had become the state 4A champions.
After the game, Coach Miles stood before his team of young men in the dressing room as they prepared for the showers. “Men, tonight you are champions. You played hard, followed the rules and worked together as a team. You know, life is a lot like football. You’ll get roughed up like you were at the first of the game, and there will be those who will try to interfere with your victory, but if you treat life like you played tonight, with a little luck, you will be champions there also.” He looked out at the team and smiled. “Seniors…we will miss you next year but, you have left a legacy of winning for your predecessors to follow. I wish you the best of luck as you go forward to become the next leaders in our community and our country. See you fellas Monday night at the annual football dinner.”
“Leaders?” Jake questioned as they stood under the showers and washed away the mud and sweat of the game. “I don’t know what or who I might be leading, and right now all I want to do is take my Betty Lou to the soda shop.”
“Coach is right,” Harve said as he soaped up his hair. “We’ll be graduating in the spring, and it’ll be time to go find a job. You have any idea what you’ll be doing, Jake?”
“Wow, I haven’t given it a thought,” he answered with a look of wonderment on his face.
Harve chuckled. “You haven’t thought of too much of anything since you got brave enough to ask Betty Lou for a date.”
“Ha! You should talk. If it weren’t for football, I doubt if I would be seeing very much of you. Lucy Winters has taken my best friend from me,” Jake taunted as the two left the showers, drying themselves with towels.
“Yeah,” Harve agreed in a soft and thoughtful voice, “I can’t seem to find time for anything, except being with her.”
“Well,” Jake added, “there won’t be any Betty Lou or Lucy if Hitler keeps up his killing. Roosevelt says he doesn’t want war but there has to be a limit to what we can take or might expect from that Nazi fanatic.”
“Jake, neither of us can do anything right now. We’re at least a year too young.”
“You’re right. It all depends on whether England can handle him and maybe with a little help from the Russians, they will. I know some older guys who have signed up to fly fighter planes for England. Maybe they can help stop him.”
“You know the Japanese are acting crazy too,” Harve reminded him. “They’re battling the Chinese right now and taking over islands down in the Pacific.”
“Time will tell, Harve, time will tell. I keep listening to the news reports, and it seems like Germany is raising hell in England and in all of those countries in central Europe. I don’t hear any positive reports of their stopping anytime soon. The Hitler guy’s a madman.”
“I’m ready,” said Jake. “Did you ask Lucy to go with us down to the ‘Hog’n Whistle’ for a coke and burger?”
“Yep, she’s coming, but her parents want her back home by eleven. Sure wish they’d let up on that.”
“They’re good church going people Harve. Lucy and Betty are both well brought up young ladies. We’re lucky.”
“Yep, Mr. Sommers, we are,” Harve said as he popped him with the snap of a towel. “Let’s go get those beautiful ladies, and have us a Coke. Maybe Miss Betty will even give you a kiss before we go home.”
“I doubt that. Her Dad caught me trying to get a goodnight kiss last weekend when I took her to the front door before heading home.”
“Oh boy. You’ve gotta be sneakier than that, Jake. Get a quick smack just before you let her out of the car.”
Fort Bragg, North Carolina – May 1943
Harve Donovan strolled along the walkway near the quadrangle. He had been a member of B Company, 3rd Battalion of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment for a month or so, and he was especially proud of belonging to the elite club of the Airborne. After enlisting, getting in, and being assigned to a unit, he was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he went through Airborne training. Airborne training at the time was one of the most rigorous and difficult training schools to go through. It hardened a man physically and mentally. To become Airborne Infantry was celebrated as a feat few were capable of completing. The drop from the parachute towers there at Benning sealed his confidence at a high level.
As he headed toward the battalion PX, in the distance he saw a familiar sight. That stride, the profile, he couldn’t believe his eyes, but as he drew closer, he saw it was for real. It was his best buddy, Jake Sommers.
“Airborne!” Jake yelled as he approached and recognized his friend.
“Airborne yourself, Jake, you old son-of-a-bitch,” Harve said as the two shook hands and had a friendly hug. “What are you doing here? Holy hell…you don’t look right. What happened to all that beautiful blond hair that the women loved?”
“Well I lost my hair and all of my sex appeal back at Benning, and I just got in from there, Harve. They told me that you had gone Airborne, and I just had to follow up. If I hadn’t called our senator’s office to try and get into your unit, there’s no telling where I would have ended up.”
They both laughed. They had been apart for over a year. Right after high school, Jake had gotten a job on the railroad and spent most his time on the rails. They’d both married their high school sweethearts.
“How’s Betty? You two made any babies yet?"
“She’s great, I can’t believe I was so lucky to get her to marry me. No, no babies yet. What about you and Miss Lucy?”
“Same here, we hope to get started on a family when this war is over. We hate to bring a baby into a world as messed up as this one is right now.”
“They tell me we’re now a part of the 101st Airborne Division,” noted Jake. “We need Coach Miles here to tell us what to do.”
“Right,” said Harve, “we’re now Screaming Eagles, but there’s a sarge out there that’ll be happy to tell us what to do.”
Jake turned toward him with a smile, “It sounds like you know Sergeant Cooper. I just met him this morning when I reported in.”
“Oh yeah, I’ve gotten to know him well since I got here. You can’t forget Sarge once you’ve met him,” Harve said with a chuckle. “And don’t dare call him ‘Sir’ or you’ll hear about it. That’s the first thing I did back when I reported in. By the way, he suggested this morning that we might be moving out soon.”
“Where do you think we’ll be going? I’ve been bouncing all around the southeast since I joined up.” Jake said. “I’m sure the next move will be across the ocean.”
“We’re headed to Europe, Jake, I have no doubt. “
“I don’t know, there`s a lot taking place in the Pacific right now.”
“But that’s mostly on islands, and it would be a little dicey to take a whole division and drop us over an island. There would be a lot of troops that ended up in the water on both ends of the drop zone.” He chuckled as he finished. “I think they’ll let the Marines handle that, and I’ll still bet we head for Europe, and very soon,” Harve had correctly predicted the destination, but not the time. It would be several months before they would ship out.
September 4, 1943
“I hope you don’t have a red king in that hand,” Harve said as the two sat on their cots playing cards in the B Company Quonset hut barracks at Bragg. The entire regiment was under orders issued at 0600 hours. It was now 1030 hours, and an air of uneasiness was in the building where Baker Company was waiting. The same was true throughout the entire regimental barracks.
“I’m not thinking too much about cards right now,” Jake replied. “I’m wondering why we were ordered to stay in this morning, but I guess it`s better than the 20-mile hike that Sarge had planned for us. We’ve been here for quite a while now, and it`s been one exercise after another. I haven’t been in this good a physical condition since we played football back home.”
“I think….” As Harve was about to agree, the door to the barracks flew open and the Company CO stepped in.
“Attention, officer on board,” alerted one of the troops, and the entire group stood at attention, awaiting further instruction.
“Baker Company, as you were,” ordered Captain James. He looked around, concern etched on his face. “You men need to gather all your weapons and your gear, and be ready, in one hour, to take a trip to the port at Wilmington where we`ll board a troop ship. The Five-O-Deuce are about to join the war. I do want to say that, sadly, some of us won’t make it back. That’s war. I know the training that you’ve had, and if you do what you were trained to do, you’ll stand a better chance than Fritz at coming back home.”
Jake looked over at Harve with eyes wide open. “Who the hell is Fritz?” He whispered.
“That’s one of the names they call the Germans. They have lots of names for ‘em.”
“I’ll be back here in about an hour,” instructed Captain James, “and I’ll want the NCOs to have everybody ready to march out of here. At this point, we’re no longer in training. We are under deployment to a destination that you will learn after we are in route and prior to our arrival.” With that the captain turned and left.
“That means we’re headed for Europe,” Harve concluded. “If we were going to the Pacific, we’d be catching a plane to California.”
“That’s what it sounds like, buddy.”
The next hour was filled with a quick gathering of gear, and then most of the men sitting around on their cots, writing final notes to their families.
“I hope Miss Lucy doesn’t get too upset. Maybe I can write something to help.”
“No Harve,” Jake added, “I doubt there is anything you can say to help. Our gals love us too much to be calmed by simple words. Only time and our return will make things right. Just tell her the truth. We’re packing up to leave for the war, and you have your best buddy with you.”
Harve looked back at him and grinned. “Damn right.”
Lined up on the dock the men of the 502nd were being moved onto the SS Strathnaver as quickly as possible. After boarding, they were led in mass into the belly of the ship, where they viewed their living quarters for their trip across the Atlantic.
“Oh hell, Harve…you ever slept in a hammock before?” Jake asked as he looked into their new living area, “and it’s really hot down here. Glad it’s not July. We have an entire ocean to cross and this is what we’ll be calling home?”
“It’s better than your future foxhole, Sommers!” Jake looked up into the steel blue eyes of Sergeant Cooper, who held his gaze for a moment before putting his gear down. “You’ll wish you had these hammocks in January or February while you’re inside a foxhole trying to keep warm.”
“Yep, you’re right Sarge. It can always be worse,” Jake agreed, nodding, with a solemn look on his face as he watched the sarge turn to leave and head out to escort another group into the hold.
At 1800 hours, those of the regiment that could get on top were out watching the good old U.S.A. disappear in the west as the SS Strathnaver moved northeastward toward the next port wherever that might be. Some guys lay on the deck watching the land fade away writing letters home. As the last glimpse of it dissolved, Harve thought about his loving Lucy. He knew she would be missing him as much as he was already missing her. He pulled out his pencil and a piece of paper and began to write. He guessed it would be a while before he could actually mail it.
“Don’t try the water this morning, buddy, and the coffee is awful,” warned Jake, smiling as his friend opened his eyes. He had woken earlier and gone topside for coffee. “Colonel Cole said the fresh water storage is contaminated with salt water. They don’t know why, but they plan to head for Newfoundland to try to make repairs before we can go on towards Europe.”
“I wonder why or how that happened,” asked the guy in the next hammock, Jack Anderson, from their squad. They hadn’t yet made friends with him. “We’ve all been together since after we arrived at Fort Bragg, but we’ve been too busy training to jaw a lot. I figgered you two must be close friends, the way you’re always hangin’ out together.”
“Yep,” said Harve, “we grew up together in Alabama, played ball in high school together and were lucky enough to work out a way to get into the same unit. I’m Harve Donovan and he’s my buddy, Jake Sommers.”
They reached out and gave each other the customary handshake.
“I shore like the way you guys shake a hand,” said Jack. “My daddy says that you can tell a man by the way he shakes your hand…a loose, weak hand is a man that you need to watch, and a strong grip is a man that you can someday call your friend. Glad to know y’all. I growed up on a farm outside Valdosta, Georgia, and all I ever knowd about is farm’n. Since I been in the army, ever body jokes about the way I talk. I just always talked like this, and I hope it don’t bother y’all none.”
“No Jack, we’ve got more to do than tell somebody else how to talk,” Jake said with a chuckle. “You know, we talk a little like you, too. Us Alabama boys say y’all a lot like you do down around Valdosta.”
“So, I guess we better be lay’n off the water,” Jack confirmed.
“Yeah, and we might get a bit thirsty by the time we get to Newfoundland,” Jake said.
“I guess I might better hold off my chew tobaccy till we get near some good water.” Jack pulled a golf ball size wad of tobacco out of his cheek which caused a sudden and definite change in his facial profile and a lot better definition in his speech. “It makes me spit a lot,” he explained. “That means I’d need to be a drinkin’ more water and I ‘magin that salt water don’t taste too good.”
Harve laughed. “Jack, I thought you had a tumor there for a little while,” he said.
“Ain’t you boys ever chewed no tobaccy?”
“Oh yeah,” Jake answered, “but you almost had the whole pack of Redman in there. I guess I only stick a pinch in. I did it a lot when we were in sports back home, but my Betty don’t like for me to chew, so I mostly quit it..,”
“Well, I guess I don’t have to worry about no lady yet,” Jack said with a smile.
“They sure don’t like it,” Harve agreed.
St. John’s, Newfoundland – October 4, 1943
The SS John Ericson had arrived in port the evening before, and the regiment was ordered to board her to continue their deployment. It was a cold day this far north, and the winds coming across St. John’s Bay were harsh, cutting right though their clothing as they walked the gang plank into the ship.
“Must not have been able to repair the Strathnaver,” Harve concluded as they walked along the upper deck, making their way toward the sleeping area. “Damn,” he barked, pulling his collar tight as he shifted his duffle bag over his shoulder. “This is one cold country. I sure hope it’s a little warmer wherever we`re going.”
“I wonder how long it’ll take to get to Europe on this boat,” Jake said shivering.
“It’s a ship not a boat,” lashed out a passing deck hand as they headed toward the innards of the ship.
“There you go, Jake. You’re a land lubber for sure,” Harve joked, shaking his head.
For the first time in many days they could see land in the distance. Harve, Jake, and others in the squad were leaning against the railing as they passed it.
“You’re looking at Ireland.”
It was Sergeant Cooper, their squad leader, who had sidled up between Harve and Jake, peering out toward the distant land. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes and offered one to each of them. Flipping open his black, windproof Zippo, he lit their cigarettes, then his own, and tucking it back in his jacket pocket without a smile. “We still have to skirt this coast to get around to England, and Captain James says that we’ll be headed for the Liverpool docks after that,” Cooper said as he took a deep draw. “You two seem to hang with each other a lot. I know you’re both from Alabama; were you friends back home?”
“Yeah Sarge, we grew up near each other,” said Harve. “We were a pair on the football team. I was QB and Jake was my number one receiver. Our team won the 4A Regional Championship two years ago…Bayville Alabama High School. Not long after that the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor and here we are.”
Cooper nodded, his eyes moving back toward the land. The two friends were beginning to see how serious their sergeant took life. So far, they had not seen a smile on his face in the two weeks they had spent crossing the Atlantic. Coop, a thirty-two-year-old squad sergeant, had sandy hair and a rugged face that sometimes appeared to reflect thoughts a million miles away. They had no idea why he was like that, but in reality, the man had good reason. He had seen battle at the Guadalcanal invasion in August of 1942 when he was part of a special detachment from the U.S. Army to assist the Marines in the airborne part of the invasion. His platoon jumped at the battle of Gavutu, which was across the Nggela Channel from Guadalcanal, a little to the north on Florida Island. It was mostly a Marine’s battle, but he had seen enough there to understand death and the horrible events and consequences of war. One of his friends standing beside him after the battle was thought to be over, took a sniper bullet to the forehead and fell dead at his feet right after they had declared the Jap base on Gavutu “captured”. Cooper was holding a Thompson submachine gun, and took a Jap out of the top of a coconut palm about thirty yards away. The sniper fell and made a resounding thud as his skull struck the ground.
A month after he arrived on Gavutu his wife took ill, but before he could make the trip back home, she died. The next week, tragedy struck again when his older brother was killed fighting with Patton. Life had become depressing for him, and the memories of his wife and their good times often came into his mind. The war would be an acceptable release.
After he was sent home to bury his wife, he was reassigned to the 502nd at Fort Bragg.
The regiment was often referred to as the “Deuce,” taken from the affectionate description “the Five-O-Deuce” which reflected the regimental number. Harve and Jake came into the regiment a little after he had, and they had built up a considerable level of respect for him which he recognized.
Denford, Berkshire England – October 1943
After disembarking from the SS John Ericson in the middle of October in 1943, the Deuce were trucked to Denford in Berkshire, England to be quartered for the next seven months. During those days, they were sent out on daily fifteen to twenty-five mile hikes where they learned basic map reading, close combat training, basic first aid, chemical warfare and introduced to basic demolition. They were even instructed in the use of German weapons, in case the need ever arose.
Later, in May of 1944, the regiment went through Exercise Eagle Drop, a large airborne exercise and parachute drop. There were many injuries during that exercise, which ended up totaling about four hundred men. Most of them couldn’t make it back into action. All of this seemed useless at first, but then the troops began to realize that there would soon be an attack on the European Continent to go for Hitler’s jugular. What they were learning could save their lives in battle.
One morning, during one of their twenty-mile hikes, Sarge gave them a five-minute rest and cigarette break. Sitting under a tree near Cooper, Harve leaned toward him and cautiously asked, “Sarge, we keep hearing that we’ll be attacking somewhere in Europe one day soon. Is that true? Do you know anything about it or where it might be?”
”None of us know, Donovan. If we did, it would be best if we didn’t talk about it, especially when you go into town. They tell us that there are Kraut spies all over, and they can speak better English than we can. I guess one day we’ll wake up and get our orders. When that time comes, they’ll load us up with full gear, weapons, packs, and chutes and fly us to a DZ or drop zone. No one knows when or where, and right now, I’m sure they’re trying to make plans.”
Sarge looked at his men and spoke up in a voice that all could hear. “Gentlemen, any talk about battles or invasions could do great damage to future actions and may very well put your lives or those of your friends in considerable danger. Remember what you’ve been hearing out of Captain James, ‘Loose lips sinks ships.’ That goes for airborne and grunts too. Okay, up and at ‘em.
“One more thing,” Coop said as he slung his Thompson over his shoulder, “When you’re in town here at the bars or wherever, keep a tight lip. Some of these Limeys are turncoats and spies for the Nazis. They can speak and understand English as their birth language. There are also German spies out there that are so good with the English language they even have an English accent.”
RAF North Witham, England – June 5, 1944
“Well, here we go, Harve,” Jake muttered with nervous trepidation in his voice. The two were in line with the rest of the Deuce and the 101st Airborne to board one of the many C-47 drop planes on the tarmac, their engines revving, being readied for the big drop. The tarmac was still wet from the recent rains, and it was late night. Midnight was not far away. The men knew what they had to do and how to go about it. Most were talking and nervously lighting up cigarettes. The low hum of conversation permeated the night. The knowledge of the coming battle was definitely on their minds. Combat was about to be real.
Plans were to take off soon after midnight. Sergeant Cooper stood at the head of the squad, constantly checking his men, who were in full combat gear including dark face paint, knapsacks, tents, small spades to dig foxholes, and parachutes. Each man carried about 70 pounds of gear and was holding a weapon. Most were holding M-1 Garand .30 caliber rifles, with the exception of one member of each squad who carried a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) with its stabilizing bipod hanging from the end of the barrel.
Sergeant Cooper had a Thompson submachine gun strapped across his shoulder, hanging on his back, barrel pointed to the ground as he moved amongst his men. Coop leaned over to Jake who was carrying the BAR for 1st squad, 3rd platoon, B Company and gave him a little advice. “Jake, make that bipod as inconspicuous as possible. The Kraut snipers will want to take out any automatic weapons they see as soon as they spot ‘em. I don’t have much of a choice. It’ll be hard to conceal my Thompson.”
“Now you tell me, Sarge.” Jake reached out toward the muzzle end of his M-1 and folded the bipod tightly inward.
Those not carrying a BAR were also bringing an extra bag of gear strapped to their leg. They knew that would add to their difficulty as they got onto the plane.
“Gentlemen,” Coop turned to his squad and said in a tense voice, “this is our D-Day. We are headed into German controlled France…a place called Normandy. Whether we are successful or not, this day will always be remembered in the history books, and you are a part of it. Our ultimate goal is to take back Europe and rid the world of Hitler as we do it. This won’t be easy. The Kraut have had several years to create and prepare their defenses, but we’ve used the latest reconnaissance and radar technology to study it before we start out. Let’s hope the big shots have done their jobs well. Now it’s up to us. You men with leg bags full of gear and ammo don’t forget to reach down when you are about a hundred and fifty feet or so above the DZ and pull the strap to release the leg bag. You could be seriously injured if you keep it on till you land.” With that challenge by Sarge, the squad gave a loud cheer lifting their rifles high above their heads.
“Harve, we’re about to see if we can do what we’ve been training for all these months. I sure hope the Kraut don’t get a leak of this operation.”
“They have to know we’re planning an invasion or something, Jake. I doubt they know exactly where we’ll be going ashore. That’s something even we don’t know. After tonight it’ll all be out in the open.”
They reached their drop plane as Harve finished talking. They were all loaded down with their supplies and parachutes that were hanging off their backs and legs. Their bulky gear and weapons made them so heavy and off balance that they had to have an assist from behind to help get up into the plane.
Later, closer to midnight, they were flying over the coastline of England and the English Channel. They could hear the drone of the plane’s engines, and outside there was nothing but darkness. The troops were seated on two benches located on either side of the plane, which held nineteen men each. The inside of the plane was quiet and completely dark except for the occasional cigarette being lit, but even that only gave off a dim red glow since the men were practicing covering the flames with their cupped hands. Most of the time, one cigarette was lit from the red ash of one already burning. They had already been warned of the dangers of flipping open their lighters and exposing its flash once they were on the ground. The war-time Zippos had all been plated with a black crinkly skin to prevent corrosion of the inferior quality steel that they had to use after the war started, but that also cut down on the reflectiveness of the surface, which would be helpful in combat.
It was known that it took only a few, short seconds for an enemy to zero in on a soldier lighting a cigarette at night or even the brightening ash that glowed when they drew on it. They had plenty of practice on bivouacs, covering themselves when they lit up and when they smoked. Many of them planned to lay off the cigarettes as long as they could. Once the fighting started there would be little time to smoke.
When the main body of the airborne assault group passed over the beach area, which was the main naval assault location, they could see the bombs exploding below. The bombers flew low, using their bombs to try and soften up the enemy positions in preparations for the amphibious launches that would bring in the infantry divisions from the ships.
Approaching the DZ, the first plane to drop reached its objective, and history records that the first jumper from the Deuce was Captain Frank Lillyman at 12:15 AM on June 6th 1944, leaving the plane with a cigar clinched between his teeth as was his regular habit during most of his work day – lit or unlit. He landed in the dark and soon found that they had been dropped in an area other than the intended DZ. It would cause a delay, but they would tend to business and get their mission completed.
“Damn,” cursed Lillyman. “We missed the drop zone. Now we gotta go find it,” he mumbled as he bit on his cigar and pulled out his map and compass.
Finding their destination would definitely slow them down. All the troops in the 502nd had the following mission: to block approaches into amphibious landing areas at Utah Beach that could be taken over by Kraut, capture causeway exits to allow safe passage by the troops of the 4th Infantry Division, and establish crossings over the Douve River. They were also to destroy a battery of 122 mm howitzers near St. Martin-de-Varreville.
Mistakes occurred and some drops turned tragic, including missed DZs. There were some drops that even occurred prematurely over the English Channel, resulting in the loss of all the men. Their loads were too heavy to float. Many missed their DZ, dropping into an area that had been previously flooded with water by the Germans. There were drownings in that group also.
The 502nd’s Regimental Commander, Colonel Moseley, also known as “Old Mo,” broke his leg as he landed. After preparing the regiment for two years, he was forced to relinquish his command to his executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel John (Iron Mike) Michaelis.
When the Third Battalion, which included Harve and Jake’s squad, approached their DZ, they lined up inside the plane and hooked onto the drop line. Some were still smoking; others were standing wide-eyed as if in awe of it all. The Catholics were holding their rosary beads and praying, others were holding their hook straps, heads bowed as if in prayer.
The anxiety was at high levels as the drop man looked above the drop door, waiting for the navigator to give the word that they were over the DZ. When that happened the light over the door turned from red to green, and the parachutists began their descent.
Harve was the third man back from the door of the plane, and he could hear and see the flashes as the flack lit up the sky. Flares bombarded the darkness and reflected on their faces as Harve turned to Jake, who was right behind him, and extended his hand. “Good luck, my friend. I hope to see you on the ground in France; if not, I hope there is football in heaven.”
“If there is,” cracked Jake, “I’ll look for you every night at the front gate.” Both men grinned and had a quick handshake as Harve was turning to make his jump into whatever lay ahead for him. He reached the door and took the big step into a sky strewn with explosions, flack, and flashing lights as the surprised Jerries sent up flares. Falling and floating, he dropped, the wind whipping against his face, which lit up with the nearby explosions of Anti-Aircraft flack. He could look around and see the coast line of Utah Beach in the distance behind them, where the bombers were emptying their loads in preparation for when the amphibious group would arrive later, near dawn.
As they descended, the anti-aircraft fire illuminated the air around them and tracer rounds zipped past. Some men were hit by flak and fire from the explosions. When they got closer to the ground, the Germans began taking shots at them with rifles and heavy machine gun fire.
Harve glanced up as the explosions brightened the sky and saw a hole in his chute that was most probably, based on its smaller size, from a rifle. He talked out loud to his Maker as he studied the open parachute, “Dear God, please let me land safely.”
To his left, Harve saw a member of his squad drop past him. His legs had been blown off by flak and the loss of blood had killed him. His head was slumped forward, and his arms hung limply by his side. The chute was slowly tearing open at the sites where it had been hit by flak. Harve could tell by the light from the flares that it was Pfc. Morrison, who had just gotten word from home that he was a new dad.
“Damn sad,” Harve said out loud.
To his right, he could see Sarge using his Thompson at the machine gun nest that was firing up at them. The gun stopped for an interval and then resumed.
Moments later, they found the ground and properly hit with their feet and legs to guide them into a protective roll. Quickly, they gathered their parachutes in their arms. Using their shovels, they made shallow holes, stuffing the chutes into them, and whether they fit or not. Pitching a little dirt on top, they grabbed their weapons and began hunting for their squads.
The First Battalion moved out to secure St Martin-de-Varreville. Elements of that battalion planned to go on to take the German barracks at Mesiers and develop a line of defense from Fourcerville to Beuzeville. The Second Battalion was moving on in from their DZ.
The Third battalion, that of Harve and Jake’s, had missed their DZ and had to move further inland to begin their mission. They hustled to stay up with the squad as flares and air explosions flashed through the area. They had to crawl much of the way. Tracer rounds from German machine guns were filling the air just above their heads, and they could hear the swoosh of the rounds as they passed too close to them for comfort. It was much like the infiltration course they had gone through during training, that was now becoming helpful in dealing with the Nazis. It was okay, Harve thought, when he remembered that the veteran soldiers had said that if you could hear the rounds go by, it meant they didn’t kill you since the bullets traveled faster than the sound from the gun firing them.
“Get your asses on up here. We have a job to do,” barked Coop. German rifles and machine guns cut loose on the assaulting Americans and those, who wanted to stay alive, hugged the ground as they crawled. Prior to the drop, the men had been given a finger operated “Cricket”. It sounded much like a cricket chirping when they used them, which gave them the name. Rather than call out, the men began to use them to gather up with the troops. The chirp was more difficult for the enemy to zero in on and take aim on because the sound lasted a shorter time than any words that would be spoken to call them in. Many became separated from their group and ended up joining with other squads. Some ended up wandering into enemy hands.
Harve and Jake found each other early after the drop and stayed close. They were now on the ground crawling in the direction they had last heard Sergeant Cooper. “He was a little to our left,” whispered Harve, and he gave a chirp which was answered seconds later.
“We have to hold down the access to and from Utah Beach,” Sarge said to his squad in a quiet voice. “The 4th Infantry Division will be coming here after they fight their way through the bunkers on the beach. We want it to be as safe as we can make it, but first, we have to find it. I’ll get with Lieutenant Harrigan to see where we go from here. Sergeant Stokes, I want you to take over while I’m gone.”
“Right Sarge,” Stokes replied as the battle sounds intensified.
As Coop left, the German machine guns started up again. They fired in short bursts, each time, redirecting their fire, which suggested to the men that they weren’t sure of the exact location of the American troops.
The squad lay glued to the ground while they waited on the return of Sergeant Cooper. Stokes seemed a bit less confident than Coop, most likely because this was his first entry into true combat. He had become a Sergeant back in the U.S., and now he was learning active warfare as he went. Harve thought he was doing okay so far.
“We need to move to our right,” said Coop in a soft voice when he returned, still hugging the ground as he crawled. “The amphibious landing will be a while, and we have to secure the area and keep it open. We can’t let the Kraut take it over, and we gotta clean out any that we find. Move on your bellies until we find the rest of our Company. The Lieutenant said we landed spread out mostly to the east of the DZ.”
A sudden burst of machine gun fire came from the German emplacement to the left of the squad. It had been firing over them since their arrival in the area. Harve could see muzzle flashes in the darkness about thirty yards away, and they could feel the thump on the ground as the rounds struck nearby.
‘Sarge,” Harve called out in a loud whisper, as lead began to kick up dirt all around them. “I see the gun. Let me take it out with a grenade.”
“Okay Donovan, but be damned careful.”
“I’m going with him, Sarge,” said Jake. “He’ll need cover while he’s readying to throw.”
“Okay, you too, Sommers, but Anderson you stay here with me. Too many going gets risky.”
“Okay Sarge,” Jack replied.
The two crawled toward the machine gun, artillery flashes flooded the sky overhead with light as the Germans fired their anti-aircraft guns at the planes. Flares continued to blaze above them, making it uncomfortable for Harve and Jake as they gradually made their way toward the emplacement. They would stay low, crawl when the flares burned out, and freeze when the next one went up. Harve had advanced about 3 yards in the dark when he bumped into something. At that moment, another flare ignited, and he found himself looking into the disfigured face of Sergeant Stokes, who had taken a round there. He was dead.
“Oh God, Jake, Stokes took one in the head,” he whispered, “in the face.”
“Let’s go get the bastards, Harve.”
“Damn right, my friend.”
Moving around the body of Stokes, they inched ever so slowly toward the machine gun until Harve stopped. Reaching for a grenade from his belt, he pulled the pin and held the safety clip in until he could localize the muzzle flashes. The explosions from the bombings on the beach and nearby covered the sounds of his movements.
“Okay,” he whispered into Jake’s ear, “cover me, but don’t fire unless you have a target. They don’t know we’re over here yet.”
He let the safety clip fall off, counted to three, quickly pitching the grenade into the nest. A loud explosion ensued, and the gun went silent.
“That’s for Sergeant Stokes you sons-of-bitches,” Jake muttered.
“Right,” Harve agreed.
They crawled back to the squad, stopping on the way to grab Stokes dog tag.
“Sounds like you got him, Donovan,” Sarge noted as they approached him.
“Yeah Sarge, but Stokes didn’t make it. He took a head shot from the machine gun. Here’s his dog tag.”
“Stokes? Dammit, he was doing so well,” Coop said in a low voice as he shook his head. “He’d never seen combat before today. He left a wife and two fine little boys. I met them all back at Bragg. Well, Donovan, your date of rank puts you next in line,” Coop said. “I don’t plan to give you my spot though; I hope to outlast you.”
Harve chuckled under his breath. He understood what the sarge meant. “I hate command, Sarge. I’ll try to keep you alive and in charge.”
“That sounds like a good plan, Donovan. That’s why I told you.”
“Shucks,” said Jack. “I was jest gettin’ to like old Stokes. He was a good man, and he was beginning to grow on me. I hate that happened to him.”
“We’ll see more of that, Anderson,” Coop warned.
Their crawl toward the DZ was interrupted by the sound of a German half-track moving toward them along what appeared to be a recently created drive through the woods. When it came into view in the distance under the light of a flare, they could see four occupants. One in the back seat appeared to be an officer who was fumbling with something in his hands.
“He’s been out all night with the ladies, and now he’s in a hurry trying to get back to his station,” Coop said, speaking slightly under his breath. “The war seems to be making him nervous.”
“Let’s change his plans, Sarge,” added Harve.
“It seems like the machine guns have been mostly wiped out right around here, so we can get off our bellies and handle this a little better. Sommers, you and Anderson go over there about ten or twelve yards and find cover. Donovan, stay over here. We need to take the officer alive if we can.”
Coop looked at Jake and said, “Don’t fire or let them see you when we stop ‘em,” he said. “Donovan and I’ll try to take them, and if we can save the officer’s ass we’ll need you close enough to put the fear of God in him so he’ll give up.”
“Yes, sir,” Jake replied.
“I told you I’m no damn sir, Sommers.”
“Sorry, sir, I mean I forgot, Sarge,” he said, shaking his head as he moved toward the other side.
The half-track, which had been moving slow, began to pick up speed and when it approached them, Coop took his Thompson and cut loose on the two men in the front seat taking them both out. Using his M-1, Harve took aim on a sergeant in the back seat who was sitting next to the officer, a colonel, and he was able to take him out with one shot to his head.
The Kraut colonel jumped out on the opposite side and landed about five feet from Jake. Since he didn’t see him, he started firing with the luger that he had pulled out, toward Coop and Harve, halting as he felt the muzzle of Jake’s BAR in his back.
“Halten,” barked Jake in his fiercest voice.
The colonel immediately dropped his luger and raised both hands.
Harve and Coop came around the half-track to see the prisoner. As they did Harve chuckled nervously and said, “I didn’t know you could speak Kraut, Jake.”
“I can’t, Harve. This damn guy is an SS Colonel, Sarge,” exclaimed Jake.
Sure enough, there they were, the lightening looking SS patches on the right lapel of the collar of his coat.
“Well, he sure is,” said the sarge. “You speak English?” Coop asked as he grabbed him by the collar with one hand.
“Nein,” the German answered.
“Hell, he wouldn’t tell us if he did,” Jake said.
“How the hell did he know to say nein,” added Harve.
“We don’t have to worry about this guy,” Coop said. “We’ll move him up the line to battalion and let the intelligence boys work him over.” As Coop finished his statement Lieutenant Harrigan and about three more men approached them.
”What do we have here, Sarge?”
“We found this guy and three more coming toward us in that half-track over there and took out three of the non-coms, but we were able to take this guy prisoner. He’s an SS Colonel, sir.”
“Damn sure is,” Harrigan said as he focused on the SS emblems. “We’ll get him to battalion, Coop. Good work. The guys in S-2 will be excited to get their hands on him.” He and his men began to leave, but he paused, turning to Coop, “You and your guys find a safe place. Get out your C-rations, and eat. We’ll be moving on in about an hour, and when the 4th Division makes it here, we’ll be heading south toward our next mission.”
”Yes, sir, Lieutenant,” Coop replied. “Okay, you men heard him. There is a bomb crater over there,” he said pointing to his left. “Get some grub in. We’ll probably find the action too fast to stop and eat later.”
The squad could still hear the explosions and see the flashes of the bombs being dropped on Utah Beach. The nearby Kraut continued to send up flares into the sky above them, constant distant bursts of machine gun fire filled the very early morning air, soon to be silenced by an exploding GI grenade. They continued to fight off Germans on into the morning as the early light in the eastern sky struggled to break through.
Sarge gathered his squad, and as they lay in a crater, he began to update them. “Our mission is to stay here and clean up whatever Germans are still around. When the 4th Division makes it through, we’ll head a little southwest to join up with the rest of the 101st Division and the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment. We have a little job to do over there in a town to the south of us.”
There were no questions, but the apprehension on their faces was obvious, each of them anticipating what might lie ahead. As the sound of silence was broken by the bombs and guns of war, they suddenly knew.