A foggy day in London town -
Had me low-
Had me down-
I viewed the morning with much alarm -
The British Museum had lost it`s charm.
How long I wonder-
Could this thing last-
But the age of miracles-
It hadn`t passed-
For suddenly I saw you standing there -
And in foggy London town-
The sun was shining everywhere.
~ A Foggy Day (In London Town)
. 1944 .
In late '43 and the early part of '44 we were being shipped to England. No one told us what was up, but packed in camps in Lincolnshire at RAF Station North Witham, rumors flew. We knew an invasion was coming, a big one, perhaps the biggest in history and we were going to be part of it.
Our colonel knew what was up. He'd take us out to practice low level parachute jumps in the country side nearby. We'd land on fields, next to farmhouses, even in towns and scare the populace half to death. One of our guys was locked in a corn crib until our colonel explained that our guy wasn't a Jerry.
When we weren't practicing jumps we sat and waited, sleeping, gambling, and eating the pig's slop they called food. Being an officer, I had a bit more freedom than the rest and often times I'd catch the train to London and see the sights.
I recollect quite clearly the 28th of May in '44. I was walking down a cobbled London street. Big Ben was in the distance, St. Paul's to my left. It was a miracle they were still there since the bombing of '40 and '41.
It was raining, not too hard, and I reckoned I'd get to my favorite coffee shop before it really started. London weather is unpredictable and it started really raining before I was even half way there. It came down in sheets and rattled through the gutters. Every bit of shelter was taken as people dashed under overhangs and stood on other people's doorsteps until the rain stopped coming down.
I wasn't so lucky as some and I took off at a dead run, aiming for my coffee shop waiting on the corner. I reached it in record time and barreled up the steps, almost knocking a girl who had taken refuge under the overhang back out in the rain.
"Beg your pardon, miss," I said tipping my cap, "I didn't see you standing there."
"It's quite all right," she said smiling up at me. She looked eighteen or twenty, though the innocent expression in her big brown eyes made me almost think she might be younger.
"It's been raining quite a bit lately," I said.
"Not really," she said shaking her head, "It's been far worse before."
"Really?" I said, "Where I come from we don't get rain like this, we hardly get rain at all."
Her eyes widened, as she looked at me, "Where do you come from? The moon?"
"Naw," I laughed, "I'm from all the way across the pond, South Texas actually."
"And that's in the United States, right?"
"Spot on," I said. "Say, why don't we step inside and have a cup of coffee?"
She hesitated for a moment, looking down the street through the pouring rain, then back through the double glass doors at the yellow-lighted coffee shop.
"All right," She said, "But only for a moment, I've got to hurry home, and if you don't mind, I'd rather tea."
Smiling, I nodded and held the door for her. As I followed her in, I heard the strains of Gershwin's A Foggy Day filter through the talk and laughter coming from the booths.
The moment we were inside, she made a beeline for the counter and perched up on a stool. I thought the better of her; she wasn't going to sit anywhere else with a man she didn't know.
I ordered tea and coffee and while we waited for it to come, I asked her name.
"Bridget Walker," she said, "What's yours?"
"First Lieutenant David Whitney, United States Army, 101st Airborne. I command a platoon." I waited for a look of surprise at my rank. None came.
"Aren't you impressed?" I asked out of curiosity and no more.
"I suppose I ought, but I'm not." She said, then smiled as the waiter passed her the cup of tea.
I stared into the milky depths of my coffee and winced inwardly. Bridget saw my face and asked what was the matter.
"I forgot to ask for my coffee black," I said, "You Brits love to stifle perfectly good coffee with cream and sugar."
"I think it's very good that way!" she said defensively.
"Sister, where I come from," I said, "We make it so black you almost have to eat it with a spoon."
This time I did startle her.
"You're ragging!" She said wide-eyed.
"So tell me," I said, "Out of sheer curiosity, why weren't you impressed?"
"Well, it's natural, really." She said shipping her tea carefully. "My father's a rear Admiral. He was on the battleship HMS Prince of Wales during the search for the Bismarck. My oldest brother is a commander, captain of the destroyer, HMS Java. My younger older brother is a squadron leader in a fighter squadron in the RAF. I've an uncle who is a commodore of a squadron of submarines. I have a cousin who is a first lieutenant on the HMS Illustrious. My oldest sister is an army nurse corporal. My younger older sister is a war correspondent and my sister-in-law is an air raid warden." She took another sip of her tea, "Oh I forgot, my mother checks parachutes."
I winced, I could tell she enjoyed saying all that. No wonder she wasn't impressed with my rank. Mine was a good two ranks below that of her lowest ranking brother. Her father was a rear admiral was he? That was two steps below full admiral. Her brother was a commander. That was equal to lieutenant colonel, my commanding officer was a colonel and that was a rank below general. Her other brother's rank was about equal to major and here I was still dreaming of becoming a captain.
I laughed and took a sip of my coffee, "I'm sure you're proud of them."
"I am, very much. I have the best father and the best mother and the best brothers and sisters anywhere. I'm just sad they won't let me leave school to join the wrens and be in on it too."
"You're still in school?" I asked.
"I'm sixteen," She said, "But the moment I turn eighteen, if the war is still on, I'll join the wrens, though I think the war will be over by the time my younger brother is old enough to join. He's only eleven."
"There are six of you?"
"Yes, though I think my younger brother and I were an afterthought. We're six years apart, and I'm five years younger than my youngest older brother."
I stared out the rain-streaked window. Brits are sure tough nuts to crack. Here was a whole family fighting for freedom, fighting for their homeland. It was only their patriotism and fight that had kept them from being overrun like the rest of Europe.
"When I was younger, I always felt rather left out, because no matter how hard I grew I was always a bit too young."
"I know how you feel," I said. "I'm the youngest of three brothers. They all went into the Navy, and I, black sheep that I am, decided to join the army."
"That sound like Roger- my younger older brother-" she added quickly, "there's a tradition of everyone joining the navy, but he joined the RAF instead."
"Well, an airplane is a ship of the air," I said helpfully. "At least he wasn't as far off as me."
"That's what he always says about his aeroplane!" she exclaimed.
"Well," I said, tipping the last of my coffee down my gullet, "I see that the rain has let up and the sun is thinking about coming out."
"So it is," Bridget said. She stuck out a hand, and I shook it. "Thanks for the cup of tea and the conversation, but I must be getting home. I oughtn't have stayed away as long as I did."
"Mind if I walk you home?" I asked.
"Oh, I'm sure you're going the other way."
I decided to ignore her hint, "Not at all," I said, "I haven't got anything to do now, except return to base, and I don't have to be back until 2400."
She seemed slightly flustered and glanced out the window. The sun was shining through the rainwater on the glass almost too brightly and I was fairly certain that once we got outside we'd see a rainbow.
Bridget seemed to decide that I was reasonably safe and finally agreed to my coming along.
"Bet we'll see a rainbow," I said as I held the door for her. We looked up, and sure enough, there, arcing over the gleaming white dome of St. Paul's, we saw one.
"It reminds me of the day after a great storm when I was very small," Bridget said, looking up at it, "we were near Shotly, Pin Mill actually, and my mother and I were standing on the hard, watching the boats come in. There was a rainbow just like that one across the sky."
She laughed suddenly, as if she'd just remembered something.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Oh, I was just thinking." She said. "It was two days before that rainbow, that my four older siblings were onboard a little Bermuda cutter. They slipped their cable in the fog and drifted out to sea."
"Really?" I said, mildly interested.
"They sailed across the North Sea in a gale. At the time my oldest brother was a year younger than me, only fifteen."
I whistled. "That's something, across the North Sea, you say? No wonder he's a Commander. How old is he now? He can't be very old."
"He's twenty-seven, actually. He was with Vian's destroyers during the Altmark episode and the search for the Bismarck and he helped evacuate Dunkirk. He's been in the Mediterranean since 1941. He's proudest of the fact he never lost a man, even though the Java's bow was blown off by a torpedo off Crete. He said they were towed back to harbor stern first." She grinned, "My father thinks he might be promoted to captain before the end of the war. That will mean he'll get to command a cruiser."
"Tad young, isn't he?" I said.
"Yes, he really is. When he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1939 and was given command of the HMS Amazon he was a bit bothered that most of his subordinate officers were older than him." Bridget smiled, "With the war on, good officers climb the ranks. That's why Roger is a squadron leader. He's one of the only ones left from the 1940 squadron. When the new men come in they promote the old ones."
I nodded. "It happens the same way with us, though not as fast."
"Well, I'd say it's because there are more of you Americans than there are of us British. Roger says there are plenty of fighters like spitfires and hurricanes, there just aren't the men to fly them."
"War is certainly a costly creature," I said.
She laughed, bitterly I thought. I knew with her, same as me, was the fear that someone dear would die.
"Don't fret, sister," I said. "I believe the war is almost over. The Jerries can't hold much longer. I wouldn't be surprised if the war was over by the end of this year."
While we were talking, we reached one of the nicer districts of London and I recognized it as St. John's Wood. Neat rows of houses lined the streets, interrupted now and then by a blackened hole that used to be a house. There were flowers planted around the bomb shelters and the lilacs, though very nearly finished blooming, filled the air with a drowsy perfume, heightened by the smell of the fresh fallen rain.
Bridget turned off at an elegant white house, set back some from the road, and crowded 'round with lilacs and waving lilies. A glossy black coupe sat in the driveway, still radiating heat from being driven.
"Oh good!" Bridget exclaimed, "Daddy's just back from the Admiralty!" she looked over her shoulder at me, "Roger's here too, he almost always comes down for the weekend. You must come in and meet my family."
I followed her up the steps, and this time, she held the door for me, ushered me in and took my hat and overcoat. I felt odd about being there somehow.
We heard voices coming from down the hall. Bridget opened a door and I followed her through, still feeling like bolting for the door and leaving. I'm glad I didn't though.
The room I found myself in was large and circular; three large bay windows adorned the far walls. I decided that the whole family was in that room. The admiral was in the center of the room, I recognized him by his gold braid. He was a tallish, thin man. He was the first to see me and he looked as if he had expected no one else to come trooping in after his daughter.
Roger, the squadron leader was to his father's left. He was an inch or so taller and a good deal heavier and he didn't have that quick, wiry look. I felt as though I'd seen him before.
The commander was to his father's right. I was rather surprised to see him and Bridget must have been too, for with a shriek of, "John!" she hurled herself at him. He was an inch taller than his brother, but was not so big. He looked more like his father then his brother did, had that same calm, sure look, though he tended to be more imposing, because he was taller.
There were plenty more people in the room. There were at least two nurses in full uniform and I was baffled as to which one was Bridget's sister. There was a young woman with blonde hair that looked very much like the Commander. There was a boy astride the arm of the sofa of eleven or twelve. I knew him to be Bridget's younger brother because he was the spittin' image of his father. There was woman I took to be Bridget's mother, though I almost dismissed her as too young. She didn't look a day over forty. A young woman with dark auburn hair sat on the other arm of the sofa balancing a squirming toddler on her knee. A little girl, I reckoned to be four or five, sat next to her on the sofa, staring in the general direction of the commander with a look of total awe on her face.
It takes a while to tell, but all this I saw in a couple of seconds.
"Why are you back?" Bridget exclaimed as her older brother tried to hold her at an arm's length, "You aren't due back until July!"
"I've been recalled." He shrugged, "Every ship that can be spared is being recalled."
"It's for the invasion," Roger said, "We've been softening it up in France with bombing and strafing since the beginning of the year."
"Bridgie," Bridget's mother said, "Will you introduce us to your friend?"
All eyes turned to me and I felt even more out of place then before.
"Yes, of course," Bridget came to stand next to me, "This is first lieutenant David Whitney, United States Army, 101st Airborne division. I met him at a coffee shop and he bought me tea. He's very nice."
Mrs. Walker raised an eyebrow at this last comment, and there was silence for a second as they all assessed me carefully.
The Admiral stepped forward and shook my hand warmly.
"I'm Theodore Walker," He said, "Very pleased to meet you."
"You're stationed at RAF North Witham?" Roger Walker asked.
"Yes," I said.
"What a coincidence!" he exclaimed, "I'm stationed only twenty or thirty minutes away! At Wittering."
"I know that one," I said, "That's the one the Greenwich meridian passes through."
"No, that's RAF East Kirkby," Roger said.
"Oh," I said.
They were all very friendly and even asked me for dinner even though I had evidently come galloping into a family reunion.
"That's very thoughtful of you, but I really can't accept," I said, "I have to be back to my base."
"When are you due back?" The Admiral asked.
"2400, sir," I said.
"Oh, you'll make it in plenty of time."
I really couldn't refuse, in fact, they made it impossible for me to refuse. That's how I found myself seated between Commander John Walker and Squadron Leader Roger Walker. The Commander was very reserved, but not unfriendly, though he spent most of his time talking to the auburn haired girl who sat next to him. I learned that she was his wife, Nancy. She had a sincere interest in paratroopers and, while not keeping her three-year-old son, Teddy, from crawling under the table, she pestered me with questions about the proper way to land and other things like that.
Mrs. Walker wanted to know where I'd grown up and when I'd told her, Nan, the Commander's five-year-old daughter, wanted to know if I'd ever met any Indians. When I told her I was part Cherokee, she eyed me with a mix of awe and alarm for the rest of the evening.
Dinner was excellent. It was the first really square meal I'd had for a long time. It wasn't like most English food I'd had in the past- some sort of pasty goop between two crusts, the ingredients remaining strictly confidential- it was certainly more edible.
It was around seven o'clock that I explained that I should be getting back to base.
"I have to, too," Roger said. "Tell you what, Whitney, I'm driving up in my car and I'll be going right past your station on my way, how would it be if I dropped you? It won't be quite as fast as the train, but I'd like the company."
"Swell!" I said.
It wasn't until seven thirty that we really left even though we'd been leaving since half an hour before. There was a bit of a delay while Roger found out that the Admiral's car was in the way and instead of going in to get the key, he tinkered under the hood for a few minutes, crossed the wires, then hopped in and moved it himself.
Then everyone came out to say goodbye again.
Bridget thanked me again for the tea. Mrs. Walker took me aside and told me to keep Roger from driving too fast. Nancy Walker asked me one last question about parachutes and the Commander gave her an uneasy look.
Finally, I shook hands with the Commander and the Admiral, though somehow I felt more like saluting. The latch on the door of Roger's dinted Austen had jammed, so I had to climb over the door. He careened out of the driveway, while looking over his shoulder and waving. I began to wonder if I'd made a mistake agreeing to go along with him.
By train, the trip to London from RAF North Witham was normally an hour and a half, by car it was normally two hours. The top was down on the Austen and the noise made talking virtually impossible until we hit the dirt roads in Lincolnshire.
Then, Roger told me some stories about the early years of the war, and the battle of Britain. He'd learned how to fly when he was fifteen, so his training was cut short and he finished just before the fall of France. He had flown three or four sorties a day to provide air cover for the evacuation at Dunkirk and in his spare time, flew under the Eiffel Tower. Then the battle of Britain had come and every day he'd had to go up, never knowing whether his plane would hit the ground a burning wreck or land on the runway to be serviced, ready to fly again.
"It was hard to get back into the old areoplane," He said, "we were almost in a numb daze, dragging ourselves into the cockpit, taking off and intercepting the enemy. They were only sending over the Bf 110's in those days because they were the only ones with the range, so we had the upper hand because our planes were better. But there were so many of them! You'd try to shoot down a bomber and two or three fighters would come out of nowhere on your tail and follow you about like horseflies no matter how you tried to shake them off.
"In '42, my squadron was flown off the US carrier Wasp in the Med in an attempt to save Malta. My word! The fighting down there was really hairy. It was like the Battle of Britain, only ten times worse."
"What kind of plane do you fly?" I asked.
"I flew a Supermarine Spitfire then," He said, "Now I fly a Hawker Tempest."
"I know the animal you're talking about," I said. "We often see them flying over our base."
"A Tempest isn't as elegant and refined as the spitfire," Roger said, "but they have an odd kind of charm about them. I rather like them, they're as solid as a rock. you feel as if you could jolly well go anywhere in them."
As Roger spoke, he waved his cigar in the air and the red-hot end of it glowed in the gathering darkness. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can still see that glowing end spinning in circles.
"What's it like to fly?" I asked.
Roger said nothing for a moment, then began to recite a poem:
"Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun split clouds and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of, wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace,
Where never lark, or even eagle flew
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God."
"Who wrote that?" I asked after a moment.
"John Magee." Roger said, "He was a yank, like you. Died in a midair collision over Lincolnshire. He joined even before the United States did, because he knew there was a war worth fighting."
"Did you know him?"
"A bit." Roger said, then added as an afterthought, "He was a good bloke."
Roger was only twenty-two, about my age, but I felt he was a good deal older in some ways. He was an example of a boy that had been grown up by the war. War is a horrible thing, but it makes men out of boys, brings both the best and the worst out of a man and knits people tighter than anything else could.
It was about 2100 when we reached RAF Station North Witham and I went clambering out of the Austen. He saluted me instead of shaking hands and I had little doubt that I would never see him again. It gave me an odd feeling somehow.
I flashed my ID at the guard and he let me past.
"Who was that?" he asked.
I looked back at the dark shadow of the Austen as it roared away into the night. The headlights were out, observing black out regulations.
"Some British guy." I said.
War is an odd thing.
It's such a profoundly big thing that it makes you feel real small somehow.
At 1800 on June 5, 1944 we were getting ready to go to war. The light was golden, the shadows very long. We were standing out on the tarmac in long lines waiting to board the big C-47s. The 82 airborne division was a veteran of Italy and Crete, a lot of their boys had seen action, actually fired off their rifles at an enemy target. The 101 airborne division had never seen combat before and that included me. We were determined to prove ourselves just as good as the 82.
My pack weighed about eighty-five pounds, but I hardly felt it. I wasn't nervous, I felt very calm, even invincible. Another lieutenant in my company standing behind me was trying to light a cigarette, but his hands were shaking so hard he couldn't do it. I lit a match and did it for him.
"Snap out of it," I said, "everything's going to be great."
There wasn't any reason to talk to the men. I had been talking to them for days, months. Our whole training had revolved around this moment and we were ready. Even General Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander and at this moment the most powerful man on earth, had dropped in and talked to us. The tall, lanky mid westerner had almost seemed larger than life as he shoved his hands deep in his pockets and looked at us from under his cap. I was struck by how humble he was, his uniform was nothing special and no ribbons adorned it, the only things that told of his rank were the five silver stars that seemed to weigh down each of his shoulders. He seemed to actually care about us, it was comforting to think that the man who was about to make the decision about whether you lived or died cared about you.
I looked around at my men and saw that they were all grinning at me. I grinned back and gave an 'OK' sign. Most of them were just kids, eighteen or nineteen years old, fresh out of high school. One of them, Spikes, a skinny, freckled kid with an infectious grin, I knew for a fact was not a day over seventeen. In comparison, I was twenty-two. To them I was the 'Old Man.'
I don't really remember getting into the C-47, I just remember sitting down on the cold metal bench, listing to the dull drone of the engines and watching the others file in. There were 6,638 paratroopers in the 101 and each C-47 held only twenty-eight men, the number of my whole platoon. It was a long process.
Finally the last man was aboard, the engines revved, the plane moved. We gathered speed, bumping down the tarmac. Then suddenly I felt that wonderful freedom and elation as the plane became airborne. I glanced at my watch it was 1830. I was sitting by the open door and as RAF North Witham fell away beneath us, I saw the hundreds of other C-47, lined up and ready for takeoff, glowing in the setting sun. The ship banked to starboard and I grabbed anything there was to grab to keep from falling on the guy opposite me.
It rained a bit that night, and our ship climbed to get above the clouds. Our ship that had seemed so large on the ground looked like no more than a speck of sand against a huge cloud formation. It made you feel real small.
Our destination was Normandy and we had to cross the channel to get there. There was a break in the clouds and from my position by the open door, I could see the gray channel water, breaking into white caps as it rolled toward England. We were passing over ships now, the hugest armada I had ever seen, English, American, thousands of them. Landing craft, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, liberty ships. They seemed to go on forever. Some of them were signaling us, three dots and a dash, over and over again. 'V' in Morse code. 'V' for victory.
I sat back on my seat, feeling like just one unit in something larger, something massive. The minutes ticked by and the guy next to me was nervously rechecking his chute. If there was any flaw in the chute, you were dead, that's why it was so important to look at it, that's why our chutes were checked and rechecked. The inspector that checks a particular chute, initials it, just to prove he's done it and as I looked at the initials on my chute I was startled.
Memories that seemed old, but really weren't, came flooding into my head. Just over a week ago, I ate dinner with a family I'd never seen before and never expected to see again. Now I was wondering where they were and what they were doing. As I thought about them, I realized how much we depended on each other.
How? Well, to begin with, Wing Commander Roger Walker had for months been flying bombing missions over France to soften it up over there for us…
We were near the drop zone now, a red light was blinking near the cockpit. Bright tracer bullets crisscrossed the air like geysers, then exploded in bright clouds. The shrapnel hitting the fuselage sounded like hail, the ship was bucking. The man next to me was speaking, his eyes were wide, I couldn't hear what he was saying. I patted his leg. Outside the window a C-47 next to us blew up, hit in the engine by flak. Bits of burning metal shot into the air like fireworks.
I made my way to the cockpit, stumbling over legs and grabbing knees every time the plane bucked. I leaned between the pilot and copilot.
"Sir, we can't jump now!" I shouted into the captain's ear, "We're too high, moving too fast."
"Can't help it, lieutenant!" he replied, "The next burst of flack might be our last! Then what good would you be?"
I stumbled back into the fuselage.
…Admiral Walker and Commander Walker were out in the channel somewhere, their big guns trained on the Normandy beaches, ready to open fire so the army could land and relieve us paratroopers when the time came…
"Stand up!" I shouted and grabbed the doorframe to steady myself. "Hook up!"
They were lined up now, ready to jump. We hooked up our static chords and inspected each other's packs. There was a heavy blast of cold wind coming through the open door. We were too high and moving too fast to jump, but we were going anyway. With the steady call of "go!" from the jumpmaster and the blinking of the green light, a paratrooper was going to jump into the bottomless night.
…Mrs. Walker? …
The red light next to the cockpit went out and the green one came on, glimmering brightly. I heard the ring of metal against metal as my static chord followed me to the door. I jumped into the cool darkness of the night, was hit by the blast from the engine, fell for a second, then my parachute opened with a jerk and billowed above me, ghostly in the darkness.
…Mrs. Walker? Why, her name was on my chute.
Operation Overlord was the largest invasion in history. Nothing like ever was or has been since. Over five thousand ships and over a million soldiers took part in the operation. Thousands of tanks and field guns, millions of submachine guns, grenades and other explosives were stockpiled in England for the operation. Americans, British, Germans, French, Canadans, Poles, Czechs, Australians, New Zealanders, Dutch, Belgians, Norwegians, Greek, Luxembourgers met Germans on the fields of battle.
The operation began on June 5th, or D-day minus one. Two American Airborne divisions, the 101 and the 82, along with British Airborne and Commandos in gliders, jumped or landed in Normandy. They took key bridges and roads and worked toward the beaches to meet the great waves of soldiers coming ashore on Gold, Juneau, Sword, Omaha and Utah, covered by the five thousand ships that had opened fire on the beaches at dawn.
The Allies had air superiority, thousands of Mustangs, Thunderbolts, Spitfires, Hurricanes, Tempests and other aircraft held the skies, unattested by German aircraft. Even General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, watched the invasion from the backseat of a Mustang. Churchill wanted to go, but he was flatly ordered by the king to stay put. The Germans were expecting the invasion in Italy or at Calais, not Normandy, and defenses were down. A division of tanks could have been deployed, but Hitler had taken a sleeping pill and was not to be awakened.
A little more than a year later, World War Two would end, exactly six years and a day after it had begun.