Guns & Patriots

The Last Jump: Chapter 61

Bastogne, Belgium – December 18, 1944

“I always make it a rule to get there first with the most men.”

Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877)

“Tailgate jump!  Currahee!” one of the paratroopers yelled as another lifted the four-by-four foot gate from the straw-covered trailer bed from which the men began jumping.  It was dark, damp and chilly as the troopers scurried off the flatbed and onto the roadside.

 

“Shush,” admonished Captain Frank West in a loud whisper as he walked up and down the line of troopers forming alongside the truck.  “Why not just yell out your regiment and division while you’re at it?  The Krauts would love to know who you are.”

 

West lent a hand to the last few men off the flatbed.  They complained, stretched and relieved themselves on the side of the road.  When the trailer was empty, West walked to the cab and banged on the door.  The truck pulled the tandem cattle-trailer a few yards up the road, made a wide u-turn and headed back the way it came.

 

The men of Easy Company gathered up in a loose formation on the side of the road.  They were a ragged looking bunch.  Some had overcoats while others wore jumpsuits and field jackets.  There were even some men in dress uniforms having been plucked from leave with no time to change into combat gear.  Most had some sort of weapon but some had none.  Not a single soldier had sufficient ammo or grenades.  Their pockets were stuffed with K-rations and D-bars, the only commodities that were in plentiful supply in their encampment.

 

The headgear ran the gamut from standard issue GI steel helmets to woolen under caps.  If they were on a jump mission they would have all been wearing jump boots but in their haste to depart Mourmelon, many had still been wearing dress shoes or tennis shoes.  They came with whatever they were wearing and looked like a rag tag collection of itinerant hobos.

 

It was just before midnight.  The troopers watched with great interest all along the horizon as the flashing lights were followed by deep rumbles of distant thunder.  Somewhere over the horizon a huge battle was raging.  They were marching to the sound and fury of a thousand guns.

 

“Move out, hubba-hubba, one time, follow me,” West whispered and the men began shuffling their feet and marching.  The captain marched his company toward the town of Bastogne.  This is where the Screaming Eagles would make their stand.

 

 

On 16 December 1944 at 0530 hours, the Germans launched a surprisingly powerful attack across an eighty-five mile front through the Ardennes Forest on the border of Belgium and Germany.  A force of nearly 300,000 men, 2,000 artillery pieces and 1,000 tanks attacked the weakest section of the American line whose troops were outnumbered by ten to one in places.

 

This section of the American front line came under the command of the United States First Army and was thinly manned by only three infantry and one armored division.  Major General Troy H. Middleton’s VIII Corps consisted of the 9th “Phantom” Armored Division, the 106th “Golden Lion” Infantry Division just recently arrived from the States and the 4th “Ivy” and 28th “Keystone” Infantry Divisions.  The latter two veteran divisions had been recently chewed up and worn out in the Hurtgen Forest campaign.  They were assigned to a “quiet” sector to rest, refit and absorb replacements.  The northern boundary of VIII Corps linked up with the southern edge of V Corps within which both the 99th “Checkerboard” and 2nd “Indian Head” Infantry Divisions manned positions in the Ardennes.

 

In the preceding weeks Middleton complained to his boss, General Bradley, that his defensive line was too thinly held.  He had only half the forces required to defend his front.  Due to a severe shortage of American infantry divisions, Bradley decided to take a “calculated risk” since he believed the enemy was also weak in the same area.  He was dead wrong.

 

The reason the attack of 16 December was so powerful and such a surprise was due mainly to the determination and paranoia of Adolf Hitler.  Operation Watch on the Rhine, the codename given to this counteroffensive, was a concoction entirely of his brewing.

 

With his armies in full retreat before the Allies in the west and being systematically pushed back by the Russians in the east, Hitler felt the noose tightening around the Third Reich.  The Russians were on the Vistula River near Poland and the Allies were approaching the Rhine.

 

On 16 September, Hitler listened patiently to General Alfred Jodl, Chief of the Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW).  At the mention of the Ardennes Forest, Hitler perked up and stood over the map.  “I have made a momentous decision.  I will go over to the offensive, here from the Ardennes.”  He pounded the map.  “With the objective, Antwerp!” he pointed to the seaport approximately one hundred miles from the Ardennes.

His senior military staff was stunned.  They began to raise questions about the source of this new attack force.   Hitler was prepared.  He had been nursing this idea for months.

 

The Wehrmacht (all of the German Armed Forces) was ordered to eliminate all rear-area non-combatant jobs.  The administrative troops would be assigned to these new divisions.  In addition, the draft age was increased from the range of eighteen to fifty years to sixteen to sixty years of age.  Light duty personnel recovering from wounds would go into fortress battalions to free up more capable men to serve in the attack force.  Hitler would then cherry-pick the best divisions on the western and eastern fronts, secretly withdraw them from the line, re-equip them and let them spearhead the attack.  He planned to raise twenty-five new divisions he called Volksgrenadiers, or People’s Infantry, and supplement them with ten new or rejuvenated Panzer brigades and three revitalized veteran infantry divisions.  This new force would be given priority on all new tanks and artillery coming off the assembly lines.

 

Germany’s losses had been severe in five years of war.  They had lost 3,250,000 men.  But Hitler had reason to be optimistic since there were still 10,000,000 men in uniform, including 7,500,000 in De Heer (The Army).  Surely, OKW could carve out 300,000 men for this counteroffensive from all of these units!

 

The Luftwaffe promised to throw 1,500 planes into the battle, including one hundred of the new ME-262 jet fighters.  Newly built medium Mark V Panther and heavy Royal Tiger tanks would be provided and self-propelled assault guns would make up any shortfall in armor.

 

Hitler reasoned if he could drive a wedge between the American and British forces and seize Antwerp, he might achieve a negotiated cessation of hostilities or even a separate peace.  Then he could turn his forces to the east to face the Russian horde.

 

His generals argued the Ardennes was virtually impassible to large formations.  It was mountainous country with few roads and deep snows in winter when biting cold and harsh winds swept the few plateaus.  The heaviest rains came in November and December and the foggy mists were frequent, heavy and unpredictable.  The Germans had proven it possible on two previous occasions, in 1914 and 1940, but those offensives were not undertaken in the winter months. The generals pointed out the soil permitted heavy vehicle movement only when the ground was dry or frozen.  Snowfall often attained a depth of ten inches in a twenty-four hour period and lingered for a long time in the Ardennes.  The winter conditions would not favor an attack based on speed.

 

Hitler brushed aside all of these objections.  It was for all those reasons the Allies would not anticipate an offensive from the Ardennes.  Besides, the thick forests on the German side of the Ardennes, known as the Eifel, would provide adequate cover from the prying eyes of the Allied air forces and allow the buildup to proceed undetected.  In no other place could Germany secretly collect such a massive force close enough to Antwerp.

 

Hitler then explained the extraordinary security measures he was prepared to implement.  First, no communications for this operation were to be made by wireless or telephone lines.  All dispatches and orders were to be sent and acknowledged by courier.  Second, the officers selected to lead the attack would not be notified until weeks before the operation.  Ever since the failed bomb plot to assassinate him on 20 July, Hitler held a considerable mistrust of his army.  He would wait until the last moment to pull in some of his finest generals to lead this offensive.

 

To augment the plan and improve its chances of success, Hitler issued some rather extreme and unconventional orders.  He ordered Lieutenant Colonel Otto Skorzeny to organize a force of English-speaking German soldiers.  Dressed in American uniforms, the members of the 150 Brigade, as it was named, would infiltrate the American rear and disrupt communications and pass along false and misleading orders.  Skorzeny recruited a few hundred German military personnel to mount Operation Greif (“Griffin” in English) in captured American vehicles.

 

Hitler dispatched orders reminding his commanders the upcoming battle would be a life or death struggle and must be fought with brutality and all resistance must be broken in a wave of terror.  Many took these orders to mean no prisoners would be taken.  For the SS troops who were veterans of the Russian front, prisoners were rarely taken anyway.

 

On the night of 15 December, the Germans had twenty divisions, and nine in reserve, poised and ready to roll out of the cover of the Eifel and smash into the thinly held line in the Ardennes.  Hitler’s paranoid security precautions had worked beyond his wildest expectations.  The Americans were not remotely expecting any trouble.

 

The German plan called for three Armies to attack abreast.  In the north, the Sixth SS Panzer Army, the main attack force, would break out for the Meuse River.  In the center, the German Fifth Panzer Army would surround the Americans on the Schnee Eifel, a heavily forested plateau on the American side, and charge for the road hubs of St.Vith and Bastogne.  They would guard the left flank of the main attack force.  The German Seventh Army, made up of mostly Panzergrenadier Divisions, had only one job; secure the southern flank of the penetration and protect the flank of the other two mobile Armies.

 

The artillery barrage began at 0530 hours.  With the low clouds bathed in the harsh glow of huge German searchlights, nine divisions of surging Panzers and infantry troops attacked!  Fierce battles were fought under the eerie glow of this artificial moonlight.  The Germans smashed against the American outposts like white water rapids crashing down a raging river, bypassing rocks and sweeping everything before it.

 

Hitler gave the Sixth SS Panzer Army the main task of seizing Antwerp.  He only trusted the SS whose loyalty was unshakable.  As a result, he placed half of his striking force strength under his old friend and crony, Oberstgruppenfuhrer der Waffen-SS Josef “Sepp” Dietrich.

 

Elements of the Sixth Panzer Army poured through the Losheim Gap, the six-mile wide flat plain that served as a historic invasion route, into the heavily wooded Ardennes.  It was their mission to brush by resistance and make haste for the Meuse River.  What the Americans called a “line” was in many places nothing more than a series of widely spaced outposts anchored in small hamlets or villages.  The thin defenses in the Gap were badly battered and gave ground.  The tide was overwhelming and units that stood firm were either swallowed up or bypassed.  By nightfall of 16 December, the first of the Panzer elements, Kampfgruppe Pieper, the 1st SS Panzer Regiment of the 1st SS Panzer Division, was behind American lines.

 

The Fifth Panzer Army in the center, commanded by General der Panzertruppen Hasso von Manteuffel, attacked alongside the left flank of the Sixth SS Panzer Army.  It was not easy country for tanks to negotiate and Manteuffel had to clear the Schnee Eifel of Americans before he could capture the two key road-towns.  Elevated plateaus and high gorges cut by fast flowing rivers and twisting, winding roads were the norm in this part of the Ardennes.  The elevation of the land changed quickly further inhibiting mobility.  The topography would become more suitable for mobile operations once Manteuffel breached the thin crust of the American defenses and broke into more hospitable tank country.  His force of four Panzer Divisions, one Panzer Brigade and five Volksgrenadier Divisions was a formidable one and he was anxious to get his forces out into open country to keep up with the Sixth SS Panzer Army on his right flank.

 

These simultaneous attacks took the Americans completely by surprise.  Communications immediately broke down all along the thin front.  Telephone lines connecting front-line outposts with their headquarters were severed by the enemy artillery barrages.  Many small groups were left to fend for themselves without orders.  Units became confusingly intermixed and effective command and control impossible.  The weather precluded air support and long range artillery was useless without communications.  In isolated villages and outposts all along the front there were more than a few repetitions of Custer’s Last Stand.  Many junior officers made the decision to stand and fight until they ran out of ammunition and disbanded into small groups to work their way back to friendly lines.  Some men simply bugged out and still others naively surrendered.  The situation was one of overall chaos in which small pockets of courageous troops, cooks, signalmen, bandsmen, drivers and engineers skillfully resisted the enemy to the last round while at the same time long lines of retreating soldiers choked the roads west.

 

Some isolated American units had enough towed artilley or tank destroyers to make the Germans pay dearly in blood and time for every inch of ground.  They lowered their muzzles and fired anti-personnel cannister rounds into the charging infantry.  Though lightly armored, the high velocity guns of the M10 and M18 Tank Destroyers wreaked havoc on the Panzers as they approached.  There were so many targets that shells were expended at a rapid rate.  But eventually the Americans had to withdraw.  There were simply too many of the enemy and they kept coming.

 

The GIs on the front line positions killed thousands and still more came.  They came with tanks and self-propelled artillery.  Endless streams of German soldiers marched across the woods and fields or rode on the turrets of their Panzers.  On their shoulders they muscled mortars and Panzerfausts, the self-contained infantryman’s anti-tank weapon.  They gripped their sub-machineguns, called a Sturmgewehr 44, with suicidal determination.  And they kept coming.

 

The American GIs distinguished themselves in the cold, foggy mist.  Despite being placed in indefensible locations and assigned untenable positions with insufficient numbers they disrupted, delayed and otherwise frustrated the timetable of the surging German forces.

 

Back at VIII Corps Headquarters in Bastogne, the first few scattered reports started coming in.  The front line divisions had thrown all of their local reserves into the breach to stabilize their situation.  They had nothing left!  Two regiments of the 106th Division on the Schnee Eifel were in jeopardy of being cut off and surrounded.

 

All across the front lines, small units were fed into the battle piecemeal.  It was like throwing pebbles into the huge grinding gears of powerful machinery.  They might slow the gears down for a moment but eventually they would be crushed.  By nightfall of the first day the American forces on the front line were spent.  Powerful reinforcements were needed to stop the German onslaught.  It would take days to bring additional reserves to bear.  The only question was how long could the outnumbered and embattled American foot soldiers keep their finger in the dike while reinforcements in sufficient quantities could be brought up?

 

Sunday, 17 December, dawned murky and cloudy with the smattering of a cold, chilling rain.  SHAEF became aware of a captured enemy document distributed to the German forces by Field Marshal von Rundstedt.  The message exhorted the troops to “give everything” in the offensive to protect the Fatherland.  It proclaimed “large attacking armies” have begun pressuring the Anglo-Americans and “we gamble everything” on this bold stroke.

 

All during the day, reports filtered back to SHAEF.  Captured enemy documents not only revealed the German orders but also plans for Operation Greif.  English-speaking German soldiers in American uniforms infiltrating behind the lines was alarming news.

 

The most disturbing news, however, came from the northern front.  Kampfgruppe Peiper, a German Panzer unit of the Sixth SS Panzer Army had succeeded in breaking through American lines and was massacring civilians and American prisoners.  They had already moved into the rear supply area.  The Americans were in serious trouble in the north.

 

In the center, the veteran 28th Infantry Division and the 9th Armored Division provided stiff opposition.  As a consequence of this dogged resistance, the Fifth Panzer Army fell behind schedule almost immediately.  The Germans still had a number of rivers to cross and harsh terrain to deal with.  The few twisting roads in the deep cut gorges and river valleys were not conducive to tank warfare and massive traffic jams materialized almost immediately.  Bastogne was only twenty miles from the jump-off point and Fifth Panzer had planned to capture that strategic town on day two.  They were already late.

 

The situation all along the front quickly became desperate at the end of the second day.  Isolated American forces were running low on food, medical supplies and ammunition.  The weather remained bad enough to ground Allied air forces and the German Panzers roamed the fields and roads without fear of attack from the air.

 

As desperate as the situation was for the Americans, Hitler’s aggressive schedule was falling apart.  The Sixth SS Panzer Army still had only two of the five roads they needed to support a push to the Meuse.  The Fifth Panzer Army had not breached the formidable Clerf River valley in their front due to difficult geography and tenacious résistance.

 

Middleton was fully aware that his front was crumbling. He was staring down the barrel of the Nazi juggernaut.  The roads were choked with the rabble and refuse of defeated American formations and frightened civilians.  So great was the retreating exodus that relief forces, meager as they were, had great difficulty getting up to the front lines.  As the reinforcements were being directed to Bastogne and St. Vith, the remaining American formations in the path of the Panzer steamroller were ordered to hold their positions “at all costs”.

 

On Sunday, 17 December, Eisenhower placed a call to the headquarters of the XVIII Airborne Corps.  The situation was so desperate he needed to call on his only strategic reserve; both of his beat up, battle weary, under supplied and unprepared airborne divisions; the All-Americans and the Screaming Eagles.

 

Major General James M. Gavin was standing in for Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgway as the acting CO of the XVIII Airborne Corps.  He received orders to immediately move the two airborne divisions toward the Ardennes.  His own division, the 82nd Airborne, had been out of the line longer than the 101st and was better positioned to move out first.  He sent out orders to cancel leaves, revoke all passes and prepare the divisions for immediate movement.  He led a team to the SHAEF motor pool in Rheims to commandeer the required motor transport.  The 101st would follow in whatever transport could be scrounged and head for the town of Werbomont.  After issuing the orders, Gavin, his operations officer and his temporary aide-de-camp and driver, Second Lieutenant Schuyler Johnson, hopped in a jeep and set out for the long drive to Spa, Belgium, the headquarters of the U.S. First Army.  But first he would stop off at the SHAEF main motor pool in Rheims.

 

 

As Jake and Johnny Kilroy stepped off the bus from Rheims, Camp Mourmelon was a beehive of activity.  MPs were directing traffic as jeeps and small trucks shuttled between the barracks and the supply sheds.  The streetlights and vehicle running lights were shining vividly.  The inside barracks’ lights were burning brightly throughout the camp.  Men were moving about with a sense of urgency.  The excitement was palpable.  Captain West was standing near the exit door of the bus, hands on hips.

 

“You two,” West pointed at Jake and Johnny.

 

“Crap,” whispered Johnny.  “We’re busted for sure!  That major must have identified us.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Jake answered.

 

“Get in those jeeps over there.  You’re driving me to Rheims.  SHAEF motor pool.”  He pointed to a pair of parked jeeps.  In the rear seat of each jeep were two armed paratroopers.

 

Johnny breathed a sigh of relief.  “Yes, sir,” he echoed.

 

West jumped into the jeep with Johnny.  The two jeeps headed out of the camp toward Rheims.  The road was filled with traffic in both directions.

 

“What’s going on, sir?”

 

“Big breakthrough.  We’ve been ordered to move out.  Some place up north called Werbomont.  I’ve got to secure some transport.”  West spoke loudly to be heard over the noise of the engine and the blast of wind over the open jeep.

 

Johnny turned his head toward the captain and jerked it toward the armed troopers in the rear.  West nodded knowingly, smiled and said, “Most of our officers are still not in camp.  General McAuliffe sent me.  I don’t have any written orders.”

 

Johnny smiled again.  Captain West was about to seize some army transport by force.  Casper never ceases to amaze me!

 

The jeeps navigated the country roads carefully until they reached Rheims and approached the motor pool.  As they neared the entrance, West stood up in his seat.  A steady stream of two-and-a-half-ton trucks were exiting the main parking lot and turning south on the main road out of town.  The motorcade seemed endless.  The two jeeps waited for a break in the column, scooted into the motor pool and parked outside the main garage next to another jeep with a large SCR-300 radio set in the back seat.  West led his men through the doorway and stopped suddenly.

 

The motor pool officer, a young lieutenant, along with a rotund master sergeant and five MPs were standing facing the wall with their hands over their heads.  Behind them, brandishing all manner of weapons, were four paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne.  One of them was Sky Johnson.  Standing next to the paratroopers was General Gavin.  A small group of black truck drivers were sitting on a bench directly outside the small office. They stood up and saluted as Captain West went into the office.  West was surprised to see General Gavin.

 

“Good evening, Captain,” Gavin smiled.  “Seems like you had the same idea we did.”  Trucks continued to drive out of the motor pool as they spoke.

 

“Yes, sir.  However, it seems we’re a bit late.”

 

Gavin nodded.  “The Eighty-second is moving out first, Captain.  We’ve been in camp the longest.  I’m taking five hundred trucks.  It’s a mess up there.  We don’t have time to wait for written orders in triplicate.”  Gavin pointed to the motor pool personnel he had under guard.  “Our master sergeant here insisted on having those written orders before he let us have any trucks.”

 

The sergeant overheard the conversation.  “General, sir.  I’m sorry but I got my orders, sir.  Nothing leaves here without written orders from SHAEF.  My ass is grass now, sir!”

 

Sky answered.  “You must be hallucinating, Sergeant.  There’s no general here.  Just me and these boys got the drop on you.”  He winked at Gavin.  His men would go to their graves swearing General Gavin was not present and had nothing to do with hijacking five hundred military transport vehicles.

 

Gavin smiled and looked at West.  “Your division will follow the Eighty-second at fourteen hundred hours tomorrow.  By then there should be enough transport for you.  After we’re done here you can take what’s left in the depot.  Ike has ordered every truck in the theatre to drop their loads wherever they are and drive here.  By morning this place will be crawling with transport.  I just can’t wait until then.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

Gavin looked at Sky.  “We have to leave now, Lieutenant.  You’ll drive.  We have enough reinforcements now to keep them under guard.”  He looked toward the motor pool contingent.  “I’m sure those written orders will show up here any time now, Master Sergeant.”

 

As Gavin stepped toward the doorway, Jake caught his eye.  Gavin stopped.  “Do I know you, trooper?”

 

Jake flashed a big grin.  “Biazza Ridge, sir.”  He pointed to Johnny and then Sky.  “With Johnny and Sergeant Johnson.” Sky was still wearing his sergeant stripes even though Gavin had accelerated his promotion due to the crisis.

 

Gavin smiled and looked around.  “I thought so.”  He tapped Jake on the shoulder.  “Looks like we’ll have another story to tell our grandkids.  This will be a big one.  Good luck, troopers!”

 

“Thank you, sir,” Jake replied as Gavin stepped out and into his jeep.  Jake and Johnny exchanged a few words with Sky before he joined Gavin.

 

The jeep feathered into the line of trucks leaving the motor pool and began the long overnight road trip to the First Army Headquarters in Spa, Belgium.  The trucks would turn off to Camp Suisse and Sissonne and load up the 82nd Airborne Division before proceeding to Bastogne.

 

As Johnny, Jake and West exited the motor pool, Johnny lagged behind.  He recognized a large Negro soldier among the small group of drivers sitting on the bench.  He couldn’t remember the big guy’s name, or if he ever knew it, but he did recall the name of the scrawny young kid sitting beside him.

 

“Well if it isn’t Abraham Lincoln,” he held out his hand.  He knew the name was Lincoln Abraham but Johnny chose to screw around with the young black soldier.

 

Lincoln Abraham looked up at him through disinterested eyes.  “I know you?”

 

“Queen’s Bazaar Pub, London.  I saved that huge mob from getting killed by you.”

 

A flicker of a smile crossed Lincoln’s face.  “It’s Lincoln Abraham…and you probably did save all those guys…from him,” Lincoln jerked a thumb at his perpetual sidekick, Chauncy Gibbons.  Lincoln looked at Johnny’s name stenciled over the breast pocket on his combat jacket.  “And you’re Kilroy?”

 

“That would be me.”

 

Chauncy grabbed the outstretched hand and almost swallowed it up while shaking it.  “I’m Chauncy and excuse Lincoln here.  He ain’t got no manners that he was born with.”

 

Lincoln took Johnny’s hand and shook it unenthusiastically.  “Kilroy, like in … ‘Kilroy was here’?”

 

“I’ve got nothing to do with that though we get blamed for that crap all the time.”  It became sort of a mysterious happening in the army that the first troops into a town or city would scrawl the words “Kilroy Was Here” in chalk or paint on anything and everything.  The words were found on buildings, bridge abutments, knocked out tanks, road signs and even staff cars and command vehicles.  Nothing was sacred.  It was a universal prank every GI reveled in and many participated in.  No one actually believed there was a single mythical “Kilroy” who got to every place first and left his unique calling card.

 

Johnny paused and looked around.  “So what are you guys doing hanging around here?”

 

“Relief drivers,” explained Chauncy.  “We’ll bring you boys to wherever you be heading.”

 

Johnny nodded.  “We’re heading for trouble, for sure.  See ya around.”  Johnny turned to head back out to the jeeps.

 

Chauncy stopped him.  “Like I said, my friend here sometimes forgets his manners, so let me say thanks for getting us out alive from that bar in London.”

 

“You’re welcome.  I just didn’t like the odds.  I think my buddies are still pissed at me for getting them into it.  Some of us lost stripes because of it.”  Johnny looked at Lincoln for some reaction.  There was just an angry expression of defiance.

 

Finally, he spoke.  “See ya around Kilroy.”

 

“No good deed goes unpunished.” Johnny slipped out the door into the waiting jeep.

 

Back in Mourmelon the camp was still bustling with activity.  Troopers were showing up from cancelled passes and leaves.  More showed up as each hour passed.  Few slept as every man tried to scrounge weapons, ammo and rations.  Armorers worked through the night repairing broken or malfunctioning weapons.  Foot lockers belonging to men on extended leave or in the hospital were opened in an effort to find a coat, wool cap or boots that were better than what some of the men had.  The divisional mess hall opened early and began serving a huge breakfast of eggs, ham, rolls and butter.  It was another one of those “condemned man” meals that the paratroopers had become accustomed to.  The men ate their fill.

 

The officers ordered the troopers to cover their shoulder patches.  Many didn’t bother.  The Germans always seemed to know whenever they showed up.  Not that it made any difference to the men.  They were going to “stack bodies” and who cared if the Krauts knew they were coming!

 

Dawn broke gently under a damp cloudy sky and the trucks began to arrive.  A few at first and then some more and finally by noon a flood of transport descended on the camp.  MPs stacked the trucks in an orderly manner so they were lined up to embark their human cargo expeditiously.  There were the ubiquitous two-and-a-half-ton trucks that hauled everything on the battlefield, and tandem trailers normally used to ferry cattle.  The trucks had come from all over the vicinity in response to Eisenhower’s emergency order.  The Germans had no such volume of transport and could never have imagined the Allies could command such mobility during a crisis.  Before the first truck left Mourmelon, 380 of them were fueled, warmed up and queued to move over 11,800 anxious men of the 101st Airborne to the heart of the crisis.

 

By mid-afternoon the division was ready to leave.  Truck engines growled to a start and the troopers helped each other mount up.  Crew-served weapons and ammo were loaded first followed by the paratroopers helping one another with a hand up, the distinction between veteran and replacement slowly diminishing.  They were becoming ‘comrades in arms’ heading into a vicious battle.  They would rely upon one another, protect each other and die for any one of their brothers.

 

With the grinding of gears and the whining of transmissions, the first trucks pulled out for the one hundred mile trip.  The caravan twisted its way out of Camp Mourmelon and headed east toward the city of Verdun.  From there it would turn north toward Belgium and the Ardennes.

 

Drivers kept their regulation separation but there was still some bunching up as the convoy made its way up and down the inclines in the road.  In the fading light of day, all trucks were running with full headlights and taillights.  From the air it must have looked like some giant fiery, slithering snake.

 

Onward they traveled through the damp, misty night.  The stream of vehicles turned north at Verdun and passed through the city of Sedan.  Before they reached the city of Bouillon, the front of the 101st convoy caught up with the tail of the 82nd column.  At that point the column of nearly 900 trucks stretched out for twenty miles.

 

Just before midnight, after passing through a village called Neufchateau, the convoy stopped at a small crossroads in the tiny hamlet town of Sprimont.  There was an MP on the side of the road talking to a senior officer of the 101st.  The MP pointed, the officer nodded, they saluted and parted.  Jake and Johnny watched as the last of the 82nd Division trucks drove off to the left.  There was immediate trouble in the north and the 82nd Airborne was rerouted to Werbomont in a desperate effort to defend the road hub at St. Vith.

 

Jake and Johnny could see way up ahead in their own column as the trucks began making a hard turn to the right.  As truck after truck turned right, they watched the red taillights head off into the distance marking the road they would soon follow.  But the word on their destination was out and it was already being passed from truck to truck like wildfire.

 

The Screaming Eagles would make a stand in a small Ardennes town to deny its precious road hub to the advancing enemy.  The Germans pushed west while the Americans hurried east.  The race for Bastogne was on.

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