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THE EUROPEAN THEATER OF OPERATIONS
in the summer of 1943 u-boats took a heavy toll of allied shipping, so the 101st Airborne Division would be in peril and out of their element while crossing the Atlantic, but at least the enlisted men now knew their destination: northern Europe, to open a second front against Nazi Germany. That basic mission had been concealed till they reached Camp Shanks, thirty miles upriver from New York City, the division’s staging area for embarkation. They’d had to remove the Screaming Eagle shoulder patch and wear regular GI shoes instead of the distinctive paratrooper jump boots, their pride and talisman. An officer tried to explain the reason: “The Axis has to be kept guessing.”
German spies were thought to have infested New York City, and it was a strategic secret that the 101st would be committed against Hitler rather than Hirohito. Initial betting had been otherwise. It had been the Japanese who attacked Pearl Harbor; Germany declared war on the United States four days later, the only time in World War II they bothered with such a formality.
The stay at Camp Shanks was only long enough for inoculations and inspections before it was time to go, time for “the arsenal of democracy,” as Churchill called America, to push another seven thousand soldiers across the sea to join the Allied counteroffensive that had already reconquered North Africa and knocked Mussolini’s Italy out of the war. Feeling like lemmings, Screaming Eagles jammed onto Hudson River ferries, which converged on a pair of troopships at Manhattan’s piers. At one was the great French liner the Normandie, gutted and blackened by fire. The name meant nothing to most paratroopers, for they’d yet to learn where Normandy was.
Awaiting Joe Beyrle was the HMS Samaria, decrepit and sooty, hardly resembling the cruise ship she had been for the Cunard line. His squad, within an endless walking serpentine, shouldered ponderous duffel bags as they staggered up the gangplank, then descended to search for space below the waterline. They would sleep there in eight-hour, “hot hammock” shifts, as the number of soldiers embarking was more than twice the capacity of the ship. They were accustomed to the tubular constriction of an airplane, but the Samaria’s massive gray perpendiculars were alien and intimidating. Soon they returned to deck, uncharacteristically subdued, some mumbling about the previous night’s send-off by New York girls when they had been allowed a last pass to the city, but for most it was time to just lean on the rail, look down on dockside, take it all in, and think.
Joe thought mostly about the last year, how he had come so far from Muskegon, the pleasant town of his childhood on the east shore of Lake Michigan. From Kalamazoo’s induction center the army had swept Joe away to Georgia, eventually to march him across the state like one of General Sherman’s infantrymen. He was an infantryman, a bullet launcher, but also trained as a radio operator with a subspecialty in demolitions. He spent a few weeks in Panama, then moved on to North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky for large-scale maneuvers, then back to North Carolina again and finally to bleak Camp Shanks. There had been so much travel and training, so much of the school of the soldier, that homesickness had become a memory like an adolescent disease.
With straining hawsers, a cluster of small tugs gathered around the Samaria to tow her from the pier. On the waterfront men in suits stopped to watch a ritual that over the previous year had been so often repeated but was never routine, that of soldiers crammed afloat setting off to war, an army going to sea. Some civilians waved slowly with their hats, igniting a response on board. Under steam, the Samaria made way by the Statue of Liberty, passing a ferry whose deck began to undulate with waving passengers, a further sign that the USA was behind them in support, as it soon would be in distance.
With Sandy Hook still abeam, the troopers were issued life vests to be worn at all times except in hammocks. It was also time to go below; no cigarettes were allowed on deck as a total blackout went into effect while the ship’s engines slowly thumped en route to join a convoy forming off Long Island. Dusk settled into a darkly rising mist as if America were receding into the past.
The past was the civilian world, what it had been for soldiers who were wrested from it, what it had made of them. In June 1942 Joe graduated from Saint Joseph High School with twelve other seniors, who voted him Best Informed, Most Obvious Temper, Class Shark, and Best Dressed. That last title may have been awarded by sarcasm because he owned but one threadbare suit and was color-blind, likely to wear mismatched socks unless his mother noticed. Fortunately she did before the graduation prom held at the Muskegon Women’s Club, chaperoned by nuns. Music was on records, nothing but waltzes and two-steps—jitterbugging was considered too controversial for a Catholic-school dance.
A shark meant an opportunist, and Joe was that. In the Depression, opportunity for him included sweeping out a barbershop for pocket change or fighting for choice discards from a grocery store. Such rummaging became his talent after “standing in line with my brothers, for nine family members, waiting to receive surplus government handouts. At the age of twelve that hit me like a blacksmith’s hammer.”
From then on opportunity meant an escape from ignominy. That’s what the army provided him more than anything else.
As smokers left the Samaria’s decks there was enough room for Joe and his two best buddies, Jack Bray and Orv Vanderpool, to wedge together on the rail, their life vests pressing one another like adjoining cocoons. No doubt there was something Sergeant Duber wanted them to do, but he would have to find them in the darkness among unidentifiable pods of whispering troopers. Vanderpool, a laconic Californian, kept glancing over his shoulder, while Bray had to be muted lest Duber detect his Cajun accent. He was nostalgic, most immediately for last night in New York, secondly for his hometown of New Orleans. It seemed probable now that the 101st would be visiting France, where Bray looked forward to using his French connection.
Soon troopers from the “first seating”—a euphemism from the Samaria’s cruise-ship history—surged on deck grumbling and still hungry after their first meal of fish that tasted like it had been pickled during World War I. What went with the fish smelled worse; the oily stench so pervaded the ship’s interior that the first seating brought their blankets on deck. Advice for the second seating was break out your K rations, as those tasteless bricks would be the best food for the next couple of weeks.
The first week at sea was one of sullen nervousness, with officers seething against the inability to exercise, except for calisthenics, and train, except for target practice at crates thrown overboard. They saw their men as Olympic athletes at the peak of fitness, losing their edge during the listless transit to venue. Preparation for combat had emphasized how scattered they would be after their parachutes drifted apart; now the troopers were suffocatingly crammed together. There had been a cadence chant when they’d run in formation back at Fort Bragg: “GI beans and GI gravy. Gee, I wish I’d joined the navy.” No such envy anymore.
Nevertheless, the 101st was in the war now while not yet into it. U-boat alerts put the convoy into zigzagging maneuvers. Day and night, like overworked sheepdogs, destroyers wove between the lumbering transports. One of them developed engine trouble and turned back for Newfoundland with a regiment of paratroopers aboard. Watching ships change position was one of the few things for men to do, but the main relief from idleness was interminable gambling as the weather cooled over iron-gray seas that rocked so slightly that dice rolled true when bouncing off bulkheads. As constant as the thumping of the ship’s engines was the clickety-clack of crapshooters wherever three or more could huddle.
They themselves were chips in the greatest gamble taken by the U.S. Army to date, that of creating airborne forces made up of paratroopers and glider riders. In 1940 General George C. Marshall had been stunned by the success of German paratroopers in capturing the island of Crete from a larger force of first-rate Commonwealth troops. German losses were so high that Hitler, hardly the type to count his dead, never again attempted a large-scale airborne operation. Nor did Stalin, for whom loss of life meant even less, though he produced more such units.
While the dictators saw only prospects of airborne disasters, Marshall would not let fear distract him from high hopes. During construction of the Pentagon he sent his planning staff a quote from prescient Benjamin Franklin: “Where is the prince who could so afford to cover his country with troops for its defense as that 10,000 men descending from the clouds might not in many places do an infinite deal of mischief?”
Marshall was a man of great humanity—author of the postwar plan that saved Western Europe—and the army’s all-time greatest chief of staff. He was also godfather of the American Airborne, convinced like Franklin that “vertical invasion,” as the press would call it, offered too much potential to be rejected because of anticipated casualties. Marshall set the minds of two of his best and brightest generals, Omar Bradley and Matthew Ridgway, to the task of creating a satisfactory trade-off between losing soldiers and taking the enemy’s from the rear.
The result was that in 1942 the 82nd (“All-American”) Infantry Division, with battle streamers from World War I, was split in half to form two small airborne divisions, the 82nd and the 101st (“the Screaming Eagles”). To bring the 101st up to strength, a glider regiment was attached, along with what was to be Joe’s parachute regiment, the 506th, whose cadre gathered at Toccoa, a remote National Guard camp in the mountains of northeast Georgia.
When told he would be sent to Toccoa, Joe had asked, “To what?” It is a Cherokee word, as is Currahee, name of the mountain overlooking Toccoa. Currahee means “stand alone.” Till it was attached to the 101st, the 506th would indeed stand alone, so “Currahee” became their motto, shouted when they jumped from airplanes. The second parachute regiment to form at Toccoa, the 501st, coined the famous jump cry “Geronimo.”
At Camp Custer, Michigan, with twelve other recruits ordered to report to the 506th, Joe was the alphabetically ranking man and so was given a big official envelope addressed to the regimental commander, Colonel Robert F. Sink, their first and only wartime commander. He had a tabula rasa to create his outfit, to test organization and practices with minimal oversight, to help write the U.S. Airborne manual as he went along. Sink had plenty of officers to help. An initial expectation was that Airborne fatalities would be so high that each platoon was assigned two lieutenants, not just one as in the rest of the army.
Facing the draft that swept up every teenager in Muskegon, Joe volunteered for the Airborne, inspired by its recruiting poster of a tommy-gunner dangling from a parachute over the slogan jump into the fight! But he had to tell the recruiter of his disqualifying color blindness. The sergeant nodded, affirming that troopers jump when a light in the fuselage flashed from red to green. Had Joe ever gotten a traffic ticket for running a light? No? “Then don’t worry, Beyrle,” he said, stamping “Approved” on Joe’s application. “A dozen guys will push you out when the light changes.”
Joe and his cohort from Camp Custer were the last passengers at the last stop of a mile-long steam train, earlier full of GIs bound for other destinations, arriving at the Toccoa rail spur after three days of stops and switches. They were met by a sergeant from the 506th, who took Joe’s envelope, then trucked the Currahee candidates up Georgia Highway 13.
He was unexpectedly friendly, pointing out a casket factory off the road and noting that the 506th’s camp had originally been named for a Confederate general, Augustus Toombs. Caskets and a name homonymous with tombs were not good morale builders, so Sink had revived the name Toccoa. Besides, the sergeant said, Toombs had been just a so-so general and Sink didn’t want anyone’s name connected with the camp unless he was a great soldier. Whatever the symbolism of its name, Toccoa was in the hills of nowhere. There Joe was housed in tar-paper barracks that had been hastily constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps.