Over Europe, April 21, 1945
The poor sods. Their odds of returning alive are about the same as playing Russian Roulette with five loaded chambers one in six.
Lieutenant Arthur Sutton, aboard the C-47 transport carrying him to the drop zone halfway across Europe, remembered the words of his instructor. The pub in the village of Achnacarry had been crowded and noisy after their last day of training at the Scottish commando school. Sutton had been standing behind two of the British training sergeants, trying to attract the attention of the barmaid so he could order a glass of ale. The tough Welsh instructor was on his second pint, and his voice was loud and ragged with sorrow as he spoke to his companion.
Sutton pretended not to have overheard as he pushed to the bar. The instructor greeted him with a grin and raised his tankard in salute, but Sutton saw the bleakness in his eyes, as if he were toasting the deceased at a wake.
Now, as the C-47 shuddered, Sutton tried not to dwell on what awaited him and the five US Rangers he commanded. His battle experience just made the fear worse. He remembered corpses littering the rocks beneath Pointe du Hoc. Two hundred and twenty-five Rangers had climbed those cliffs; Sutton had been among the ninety survivors. However, compared to this new mission, D-Day had been a cakewalk.
His eyes closed as he conjured an image of his girlfriend, Elaine, to replace the horrors of Normandy and the mournful eyes of his instructor. He smiled as he remembered their last evening together before he shipped out in the fall of 1943. Sutton had scrounged some gasoline coupons so they could drive his 32 Ford coupe from Lees Summit into Kansas City. The USO dance band was a third-rate imitation of Woody Hermans, the Spam sandwiches were stale, and Elaines feet hurt. But on the way back, he had parked in a cemetery and the Fords windows soon fogged. Elaine let him unhook her bra. Her carmine lips
tick smeared his face, and her nipples hardened under his fingertips. He had groaned and reached for her garter belt.
No, she gasped, stopping his delving hands. Im not that kinda girl, Art.
Cmon, baby. Who knows how long Im gonna be away fighting for our country? Could be years and well be getting married anyway when I come back ho
The aircraft dropped in an air pocket, jolting Sutton back to the present. He peered up the row of men in canvas bucket seats. The Rangers faces bore a variety of grimaces as the transport bucked through the turbulence. At the end of the bench, an Alabama farm boy named Holcombe nervously transferred grenades from a canvas pouch to cargo pockets in his jump trousers. Holcombes lips moved in prayer while perspiration streaked his cheeks. Sutton knew from his own damp hair and armpits that sweat got cold fast in the cabins thirty-eight degree Fahrenheit temperature.
Sergeant Hugo Roth sat beside Sutton, scowling at Holcombe. Roth unsnapped his safety belt and staggered up the aircrafts pitching deck. He thrust his face at Holcombes.
Leave the grenades alone! he barked. You could blow us up!
Holcombe gulped and nodded. Roth returned to his seat and buckled himself in. He looked at Sutton with frosty blue eyes, mouth twisted in disapproval.
How are we expected to carry out this mission with sad sacks like that? Roth asked in his strong German accent. I dont know how he got into the Rangers.
Can it, Sergeant, Sutton said wearily to his second-in-command.
The kid sets a bad example! I could see that weeks ago when he
I said can it, Sergeant! Thats an order!
Roths eyes blazed defiantly before he turned his glare back to Private Holcombe.
The Rangers transport was named Bouncing Betty. Like the men she carried, the airplane bore a combat veterans scars. Shrapnel from anti-aircraft batteries across Europe had pierced its wings and pitted its fuselage
. Scottish sleet and Sicilian sun had weathered the cartoon of Betty Boop on the transports nose, fading the letters of her name.
Bouncing Betty was part of a formation of ten C-47s from the US IX Troop Carrier Command based near the Essex village of Boreham. At 8:51 P.M. British Double Summer Time, they had rendezvoused with ten British transports over Shoeburyness and formed into a staggered pattern to give German radar and ground observers the impression of an aerial armada.
A squadron of P-51 Mustang fighters joined the formation over Dunkirk, pacing the lumbering transports above and alongside to protect them from the Luftwaffes new jet ME-262 night fighters. Bettys pilots grinned as the Mustang jockeys filled their headphones with wisecracks.
The transports teenaged flight engineer ducked inside the cockpit. Radio operator just picked up a weather report, he said. Severe electrical storms northern France, southern Germany. Low cloud ceiling.
It might screw up the Kraut radar a bit, the copilot remarked, but its going to be hell dropping those boys at low altitude.
No shit, said the pilot, frowning.
Sutton kept looking at his Hamilton wristwatch, a gift from his grandparents after he graduated from the University of Missouri. His grandparents had raised him since he was six years old after being orphaned by a tornado. Grandpa, a retired dentist, had grumbled when Sutton chose to study history and German instead of re-opening the little office on Market Street in Lees Summit. Still, he had shared Grandmas happiness when Sutton strode across the stage in his spanking new US Army uniform to accept his college diploma. After the ceremony, Grandpa had joked that Art would be catnip to the ladies thinly disguised pride from an old man who still had a twinkle in his eye.
Sutton hoped he wouldnt be catnip to the Germans.
He looked around the dimly lit cabin, wondering if his men had written ju
st in case letters and left them with the chaplain, as he had. Sergeant Roth appeared to be asleep. Another Ranger talked with the jumpmaster. The remaining men rubbed black camouflage greasepaint on their faces and checked equipment.
The aircraft lived up to its nickname as it bounced through patches of disturbed atmosphere from the storm front. Sutton touched the breast pocket of his tunic, feeling the outline of a folded letter from Elaine. It had arrived the day before he left Achnacarry. He had read it a dozen times already, trying to extract nuances from her bland sentences. Elaine was working in the big ordnance factory at Lake City, making more money than she had ever dreamed of, but complained that rationing provided little opportunity for her to spend it.
He sighed and again withdrew the letter, imagining her fingers folding it, tongue licking the envelope. A tiny round object fell from the envelope onto the aircrafts metal deck. It rolled towards the tail as he desperately fumbled with his safety belt. Bouncing Bettys flight engineer picked it up and walked toward Sutton.
This belong to you, Lieutenant?
The flight engineer opened his palm, displaying a button with President Franklin Roosevelts image surrounded by the red, white and blue words Carry On With Roosevelt. Sutton grinned, feeling sheepish, and plucked it from the young sergeants hand.
Yeah, thanks. Its, ah, my good luck charm. Ive had it for nine years now and this would be a hell of a time to lose it.
The flight engineer nodded. Know what you mean. Had me a rabbits foot up until I got drafted. He pushed a fatigue cap back on his crew-cut head. Names Jim Ward. Homes back in Springfield, Missouri.
Sutton introduced himself as a fellow Missourian and held up the campaign button so Ward could see.
Would you believe old FDR himself gave this to me.
The flight engineers eyebrows rose. No shit?
Bet your life. The President c
ame to Kansas City in 36 to give a speech. A bunch of us kids from the high school got to shake his hand afterwards. He had this box of buttons on his lap and he pinned one on each of us. When my turn came, I wished him good luck, and he said he hoped the same for me.
Ward squatted beside him. Did you have good luck after that?
Sutton laughed. Hell yes! The next night I got laid for the first time and Ive had nothing but good luck since.
Cant believe hes gone.
Yeah, Sutton shook his head. He was president for more than half my life.
Sutton and Ward exchanged anecdotes about Missouri childhoods and marveled that a one-armed man had been signed to play major league baseball for the St. Louis Browns. Sutton sensed Roth listening as they talked; from the corner of his eye he saw the sergeant sit up as they began discussing the Rangers mission.
I knew you guys was Rangers from your badges. Ward pointed to the blue lozenge-shaped insignia on Suttons left shoulder. So I figured this was some kind of special mission. What are...