Joigny, France – August 15, 1945
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
Plato (c. 428 BC – c. 347 BC)
Finally, there was something to celebrate.
July had been a depressing and frustrating month for Jake and Johnny. After being denied their appeal to be sent home, they had to incur the indignity of saying goodbye to friends and acquaintances on their way back to the States. Over 800 of their fellow paratroopers and over 500 officers were transferred to the 501st PIR, which was to serve as a vehicle to transport all high-point men back to America for discharge. These fortunate troopers were to be replaced by low point men from other airborne divisions and newly trained replacements.
The word had come down the 101st Airborne Division had been classified as Category II, which meant they would be redeployed to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. Soon after, General Taylor announced the division was going back to the States into Strategic Reserve. The first move would be back to France. The men considered the most recent plan good news but unreliable. Circumstances had a nasty habit of changing drastically and rapidly in the army.
At the end of July, most of the 101st Airborne loaded onto “forty and eight” railroad cars and left Austria. The rest left by truck convoy for the three-day trip to the ancient Roman towns of Auxerre, Sens and Joigny. After the relative comfort of the hotels and billets in private homes in Austria, the paratroopers were appalled by the squalid conditions in France.
The 506th PIR was assigned to garrison the town of Joigny, the smallest of the three towns situated on the Yonne River between Sen and Auxerre. They bivouacked in abandoned French barracks and did their best to repair the broken windows and doors and clean up the area to make it passably livable. Their barracks were run down and the plumbing was inadequate and unsanitary. The impatient airborne troopers were already in a resentful mood and the living conditions did not help. Their officers initiated a stepped-up training regimen and an accelerated organized sports program but could not completely remedy the anxiety and disappointment of their men. They had survived the War thus far and just wanted to get home.
Given the circumstances, there was bound to be trouble and it manifested itself mostly in brawls in taverns in the towns. There were frequent fights among troopers and between the military and civilians. Divisional command acted promptly to squash the unruly violence. Passes were restricted and additional Military Police were assigned to patrol the towns. Airborne paratroopers were conscripted into military police duties, as rowdy paratroopers were slightly less likely to pick a fight with one of their own. It was not unusual for the number of duty MPs to be equal to the number of passes issued on any given night. Predictably, the violence subsided.
The news on 7 August garnered the attention of the world. A new super weapon, an Atomic Bomb, was dropped on Japan. The entire city of Hiroshima was destroyed. This news did not elicit any sympathy from the paratroopers. They had passed through Munich on their trip back and it was nothing more than one huge bombed-out ruin. There was no compassion for the foe who started the War and who killed so many of their friends. There was only astonishment that one bomb could demolish an entire city and thankfulness that America alone had it. When a second bomb destroyed the city of Nagasaki, the veteran paratroopers were confident they would never have to invade Japan. The survivors of North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, Holland, Bastogne, Alsace and Germany had no way of knowing America had already used all the special bombs it had manufactured. When news of the Japanese surrender circulated through the ranks, the mood of the troopers was pure euphoria. They had survived the damn War and would make it safely home. Letters were hastily written, plans were solidified and celebrations abounded.
Jake and Johnny were drinking cognac as they celebrated the end of the War. Johnny was more enthusiastic. He had a family waiting but he tempered his delight so as not to make Jake feel any worse. Jake had been more subdued since Macie left him but appeared much happier tonight. Johnny assumed Jake feigned a measure of cheerfulness so as not to spoil the celebration.
Johnny tapped the bar and ordered two more cognacs. They already had too much. “I can’t wait to get home to see my kid.”
Jake downed the last of his drink and slammed the empty glass on the bar. “We made it, Yank. There were times I wasn’t so sure.”
“Yeah, we had some close calls, brother. But I think I’m going home the same guy who came into this War.”
“You think so? Because I’m sure not the same,” Jake disagreed.
“I’m pretty sure I didn’t let anything I saw or did change me a whole lot.”
“Well, Johnny, you’re a better man than me. I can’t wait to get back home and start over. There is way too much I don’t know or understand so, like I said, I’m going back to school on that GI Bill.”
“Good for you, Jake. You’ll do great!”
The bartender poured two glasses. Jake picked up his. “Here’s to all the guys who won’t be going home.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
They downed their shots and both slammed their glasses down. After paying the bill they headed back toward the barracks. It was a warm night and they were in no hurry. They talked about things soldiers talked about since the beginning of warfare. They talked about the chow, they talked about their friends and they talked about home.
Johnny noticed Jake was in an exceptionally good mood. Gone were the mood swings that dominated his personality since Macie left him. Whatever it was that changed his outlook and attitude, Johnny was confident he would hear about it soon enough.
As they neared the barracks compound, a paratrooper MP stepped out of the guardhouse.
“Let’s see your identification and passes!”
Both paratroopers were taken by surprise. “Hey Mac,” Johnny answered. “Aren’t you supposed to keep guys from getting out? Not prevent us from getting back in?” He laughed at his own joke. Jake giggled along with him. They made a move to walk around the guard.
“Hey, I gave you an order. Show me your ID.” The guard stepped in front of them.
“Okay General Patton, let me see what I can find,” Johnny joked while he fumbled around with his pockets on unsteady feet.
Jake held Johnny up. “I’m with him.” There were childish grins on both their faces.
After a moment Johnny turned to the guard. “Nope, I seem to have misplaced all my shit.” He turned to Jake. “Do you have any shit to prove who we are?”
Jake shook his head vigorously. “We just need to get some sack. Check us in the morning.” He took another step and the guard blocked him, placing his hand on the flap over his pistol.
Both paratroopers stopped laughing and tried to gather themselves. Jake noticed the guard was wobbling a bit. “Have you been drinking soldier?” Jake asked.
“You guys are drunk,” the guard exclaimed.
“We’re supposed to be drunk,” Jake shot back. “But you’re supposed to be sober.” He pointed a finger in his chest. “Now get the fuck out of the way before I rip your arm off and shove it up your ass.”
The guard stepped back and pulled out his .45.
“Whoa, slow down,” Johnny pleaded. “No need for that shit. Call the duty sergeant. He can vouch for us.”
The .45 was pointed down. The guard looked nervous and confused. He got himself into something he didn’t know how to get out of. “You guys think you’re so damn tough? You’re not all that tough! You’ll see. I’ll show you!”
Johnny recognized the words. He studied the guard’s face. He was a replacement but Johnny suddenly recognized the harelip.
“Didn’t we meet in Bastogne?” Johnny asked.
The guard stepped back a half step to look at the paratroopers’ faces. “Maybe.”
“We know this guy?” Jake asked.
“Yeah, we do. Bastogne.” Johnny kept his gaze on the guard. “He was going in the other direction. From the Golden Lions. Took off and ran out as I remember. Tom, isn’t it?”
Tom English became indignant. “No I didn’t. My regiment surrendered. Everybody knows that.”
Jake answered. “Yeah, everybody knows they surrendered at noon on 19 December. But not everybody knows you were already in Bastogne with us at noon on 19 December.” Jake was making quick calculations in his head. “So it seems like you had a pretty good head start getting back. Maybe you left the day before?”
English began to sweat nervously. “Yeah, maybe, but I stayed in Bastogne and fought. And I joined the paratroopers and that proves I’m no coward.”
Jake became angry. “It proves nothing, you stupid one-day wonder. The bravest men I ever knew worked for months to earn that patch and jump wings and you sneak in the back door and get it all in one day? That’s bullshit. And you think you’re equal to us? You may wear the patch but you’ll never be airborne to me, you candy-ass little pussy!”
Tom English raised the pistol but it was not the deterrent he had hoped for. He had angered Jake far too much. “And another thing you chickenshit, rat-bastard coward. Why the hell are you playing cop and hassling real paratroopers? I’m going to my captain and report what a sorry son of a bitch you are for drinking on duty. We’ll see how long you keep that patch!”
Tom English raised the pistol and Jake lunged to disarm him. Before they came together, Johnnysaw what was about to happen and leaped in for the pistol. The three struggled for a moment,twisting and turning in a tight scrum until the deafening crack of a pistol shot stilled the night.