Read an Excerpt
1: The Canal
Out of every 100 men, ten shouldn’t even be there. / Eighty are just targets. / Nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. / Ah, but the one, / One is a warrior, / And he will bring the others back. /
—Heraclitus, circa 500 BC
Monday, 0140 hours, September 25, 1944.
Cold, wet, tired, and scared. Why, Baker thought, is war always this way?
The air was heavy with moisture, and a thick fog blanketed the flat, marshy land.
“Let’s get on with it,” Staff Sergeant Matt Baker announced with a grim smile that was more a measure of determination than anything else. Baker stood five feet, eleven inches with the build of a Notre Dame linebacker. His closely cropped brown hair and blue eyes made him look older than his twenty-one years. His youth and confidence belied the fact that he was a veteran of many skirmishes and battles. Now, he was the leader of a small, forlorn group of soldiers facing an impossible task.
“A helluva way to fight a war,” Corporal Tom Zanovitch answered. “But you’ll do okay. Both of you. I know you will.”
Baker took off his helmet and handed it to Zanovitch. The helmet was emblazoned with a white “R” painted on both sides, designating that Baker was a member of the elite Reconnaissance Platoon of the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles.
The rumble of distant artillery interrupted the moment, reminding everyone that there was a bigger war going on than just their personal battle in this small section of Holland.
“We’ll only need our pistols for this mission,” Baker added, and gave his submachine gun to Zanovitch.
Zanovitch took Baker’s helmet and weapon and placed them in the jeep. At the same time, Private First Class Johnny Swanson, a tough New Yorker from the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion, took off his helmet and weapon and laid them in the jeep.
War changes you, Baker thought as he reflected on his short twenty-one years of existence. It compresses time and experience.
Two years ago, he was a civilian. A year ago he was a recruit. A little more than three months ago he was a rookie soldier, jumping into the dark night on D-day. As a squad leader he fought his way across the Normandy hedgerows to Carentan, leading his paratroopers with distinction but unable to save them all. He had earned a Bronze Star for valor for his leadership in the Normandy operation and lost some good friends. He had aged a lifetime in the process.
Baker drew a .45 caliber pistol from the brown leather holster at his side. He carefully looked at the pistol for a moment, read the inscription on its side, and then pulled back the slide and let it jump forward. A .45 caliber round was now loaded in the chamber.
“That pistol has come a long way. The colonel would be proud. Honor and courage,” Zanovitch offered.
Baker looked at Corporal Zanovitch for one protracted moment, searching the eyes of his fellow soldier, looking for a meaning behind the comment. Like a flare in the night, Baker’s glance seemed to say: “Not now—don’t burden me with this now.”
“Well, in any case, good luck,” Zanovitch offered, looking straight at his sergeant’s face. “If it can be done, you and Swanson can do it.”
Baker didn’t answer. He pushed the thumb safety up on the pistol, holstered the weapon, then turned to Private Swanson. “Let’s move out.”
“I’m ready,” Swanson answered.
Swanson, also armed only with a pistol, slung two satchel charges over his left shoulder as he handed two demolition packs to Baker.
Baker took the charges, nodded to Zanovitch. “Be ready with your bazooka, just in case.”
Zanovitch smiled. “No problem. You know I never miss.”
The two men walked away in the dense fog. They moved silently through the cobblestone streets of the village to the fields. The ground was soggy and the movement cross-country was difficult as the mud clung to their boots. They headed east toward the canal.
Baker looked back to see that Swanson was behind him, then stopped to check his compass. He identified an east-southeast heading and quietly moved out on that bearing, hoping they would not accidentally stumble into a German outpost.
The boom of shells, detonating somewhere far to the north, was testimony that the battle for Hell’s Highway was still under way. Maybe there was still a chance for the beleaguered British 1st Airborne and the Polish Brigade at Arnhem? The British 1st Airborne, the Red Devils, had been told to seize the bridge at Arnhem and hold on for two days—three at the most. Now it was already nine days and the tanks of the British XXX Corps had yet to reach them.
It seemed hard to believe that only nine days ago Baker and his men had been safe in England. More poignantly, only a few days ago, all those who had died in battle in the past few days in the towns and fields near Son, Eindhoven, St. Oedenrode, and Veghel were still alive.
Only nine days ago.
That was the funny thing about time, he thought. Whether it was nine days or ninety years, dead was dead.
It began nine days ago. September 17, 1944, was the 101st Airborne Division’s second D-Day, and Baker was a part of it. The greatest airborne fleet ever massed for an operation, 35,000 Allied paratroopers, roared across the skies from the United Kingdom and spanned the Channel waters in what was being called Operation Market Garden. The air armada was so large that while the first planes were spewing forth parachutists on drop zones (DZs) and gliders were crash-landing on landing zones (LZs), planes and gliders transporting the division were still taking off from British airfields.
Some genius had decided that this airborne assault would occur in broad daylight, and the German anti- aircraft gunners had a field day. German flak, a term derived from the German acronym for antiaircraft cannon, met the invaders en route, hot and heavy, bursting in bright flashes of orange and red and remaining as black puffs in the sky, but the huge armada droned steadily on. Formations of slow-flying, two-engined C-47 Skytrain aircraft held firm despite the enemy’s fire. Pilots of burning planes struggled with controls as they flew to their designated DZs, but stayed on course as paratroopers jumped from the aircraft and plummeted earthward.
The invasion of Holland had begun with the Screaming Eagles dropped behind German lines as the base of the airborne penetration. Surprise was complete and the Germans were initially caught off-guard. Allied aircraft, parachutes, and gliders filled the skies. On the first day, there was little opposition from the Germans, and Baker began to believe that the intelligence reports might be correct—that they would only be up against old men and Hitler youth. The veteran paratroopers of the Screaming Eagles quickly assembled and marched on their objectives. They had eleven bridges to take in their portion of the Market Garden plan, and the men of the 101st Airborne always took their objectives.
The mission of the 101st Airborne Division was to capture Eindhoven and to seize the bridges over canals and rivers at Veghel, St. Oedenrode, and Son. To attain these objectives the paratroopers of the Screaming Eagles had to seize and hold a portion of the main highway extending over a twenty-five-mile area. Commanders realized that their units would be strung out on both sides of the single road that ran from Veghel to Eindhoven. In-depth security would be sacrificed, and the paratroopers would have to march and countermarch to stop the Germans from blocking the route.
At the same time, the British XXX Corps was charging forward with tanks and infantry along a single, narrow road to link up with the paratroopers. XXX Corps’s goal was to make sixty miles in forty-eight hours, pass through the U.S. 101st Airborne at the base of the airborne carpet from Eindhoven to Uden, link up with the U.S. 82d Airborne in the middle around the town of Nijmegen, and finally reach the British 1st Airborne and a Polish Airborne brigade near the town of Arnhem. Arnhem and the bridge across the Rhine River was the prize. With this gateway into Germany, the Allies could overrun the German defenses along the Siegfried Line and outflank Hitler’s Legions. The daring plan was expected to end the war before Christmas 1944.
The linkup of the armored forces with all three airborne landings was planned to occur within forty-eight hours. It seemed a simple matter to drive the distance, especially since the Germans were so disorganized and demoralized after their traumatic retreat from France only a few weeks before.
Few things in war, however, go as planned.
Baker and Swanson struggled forward in the dark carrying their heavy packs. Movement in fog this thick was agonizingly slow as Baker had to stop to listen for sounds of the enemy as well as check his compass bearing to make sure they were on course. Sight was of little value in these conditions. The fog denied observation until it was too late. Sound became the vital means of locating the enemy. Using his compass and the process of dead reckoning, Baker led Swanson to the western bank of the canal.
This particular canal was a small, tributarylike canal that was a branch of a much larger channel eventually linking with the rivers and waterways in this area of the Netherlands. These canals that crisscrossed Holland made cross-country vehicle movement a nightmare. This was particularly true for the big British Sherman tanks and Firefly tank destroyers of British general Brian Horrocks’s XXX Corps. The canals were even more of a headache for the bigger German Mark IV and Mark V Panther tanks and the German Sturmgeschutz (StuG) assault guns. As a result, any canal crossing site in Holland earned immediate military significance and became prime real estate.
Baker leaned over the side of the canal. He looked back at Swanson. “Ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Swanson whispered.
Baker exhaled, hard and still, slowly lowering himself over the concrete wall of the canal and into the chilly water. The current was not strong, but the canal was deep and the water was cold. For a brief second, Baker felt a flash of panic shoot down his spine as he felt the weight of the satchel charge pull him down. Brief as a thought, his mind shot back to the time when he had first learned to swim. He remembered the icy fingers of fear he had felt as the water lapped around his neck. He might have let the water take him that day had it not been for the sternness of the man at the side of the pond who had challenged him to go on in spite of his fear, the same man who had given him the pistol he carried.
Baker held on to a crevice in the wall of the canal. The sides of the Willemsvaart canal were steep concrete and stone.
Swanson slid as quietly as he could into the water next to Baker.
“Now all we have to do is get to the other side without getting shot,” Baker whispered. “I’ll go first.”
“Understand,” Swanson said as he found a handhold in the wall and held on while Baker prepared to swim to the other side.
Baker couldn’t see the other side of the canal. It wasn’t that the distance was so great, it was simply that the impenetrable fog limited visibility. He stopped for a moment and listened carefully. He didn’t want to think what would happen if the Germans were waiting for him on the other side of the canal.
Hearing only the sound of the water flowing in the canal, Baker unwound a length of rope that was tied to his web belt. He handed the rope to Swanson. “Take this so we don’t get lost in the fog. I’ll swim across and you wait here. When I tug on the line, follow the rope and swim across to me.”
Baker pushed off the western bank of the canal, glided for a moment in the chilly water, quietly swimming toward the other side. His heavy load of explosives tugged at him and pulled him down. He struggled to keep above water by moving forward. In a minute, he was across the canal, reaching the wall of the eastern side.
At the far wall he treaded water while desperately searching for something along the wall of the canal to hold on to. Stretching as far as he could reach, his right hand found a metal mooring ring. He held on to the ring and tugged on the rope. After a while Swanson appeared in the fog and came up beside Baker.
Baker listened carefully for sounds of the enemy. With the fog and the countryside as flat as an anvil’s face, every sound seemed loud and close by.
Somewhere to the east a dog started barking.
“That damn dog is going to give us away,” Swanson whispered.
“Nothing we can do about that now,” Baker replied quietly. “The crossing must be right in front of us.”
As he moved through the water along the eastern wall of the canal, he heard the sound of the Germans working on the crossing point.
Swanson heard the noise, too, and pointed up ahead.
“Yeah,” Baker whispered. “We must be close.”
Swanson took a deep breath as he looked toward the crossing point. “Damn, I can’t see it.”
Baker slithered through the murky water to a better vantage point to observe the crossing site. Quickly, he searched for a handhold in the concrete wall. His hand found another barge ring.
The dog was barking louder now.
“It’s ten feet in front of us,” Baker whispered. “Start placing the charges.”
Swanson handed a spool of det cord to Baker. “Hang on to your pack charges. I’ll be back after I place these two.”
Surrounded by the fog, Swanson swam forward. Baker waited patiently, listening to the German voices on the bank above him. After a few minutes that seemed like hours, Swanson returned.
“Hand me your packs.”
As Baker handed Swanson the explosive charges, he heard the grinding of tracks against steel road wheels.
“Kraut tanks,” Swanson whispered, reinforcing Baker’s observation. “They must be moving to the crossing point.”
“We’re running out of time.”
Baker handed his two demolition packs to Swanson.
Swanson took the charges and swam forward once more, carefully searching the side of the canal for a place to tie down the charges.
The dog became more agitated and barked incessantly. Baker felt his heart beating hard in his chest.
The minutes ticked by in endless anticipation as the dog’s barking seemed to be coming from just above him.
Baker’s heart froze at hearing more German voices. In the thick fog he couldn’t tell where the Germans were, or how many, but he could hear their footsteps up above.
“Schieben Sie hoch. Lassen Sie uns gehen!” a gruff voice shouted from above.
Baker held his breath for a moment. Holding on to the mooring ring, he held his pistol ready.
Tense seconds turned into anxious minutes as Swanson worked to place the last two charges.
Baker waited and clicked down on the thumb safety of his .45 caliber Colt automatic pistol.
“Okay, they’re set,” Swanson whispered.
Suddenly, Baker looked up and saw a German soldier pointing a rifle down toward the water.
“Wer ist dort?” The German screamed and then fired his rifle.
From the Paperback edition.