Night of Nights

Night of Nights
by Emily Ann Putzke

June 5th, 1944.

The day's clear and bright and the invasion’s a go, dammit. I don’t know what I thought … the invasion can’t be postponed again. Everyone’s too nerved up anyway. Let’s just get the whole thing over with and come home, that’s what everyone’s thinking. Day two of smearing my face with charcoal. Some of the fellas found some paint and streaked their faces like the Sioux. It’s like something from the Wild West. Already signed my GI life insurance at HQ. Some of the fellas joke around, you know. “Don’t want my folks back home to miss out on $10,000.” Signing that really got to us. Our days of training are kaput. The real work’s about to begin and we have a tough row of buttons to shine. Some of our folks will be getting that $10,000 before too long. That’s why we joke, I guess. If we think about it too long … well, anyway. Yesterday, as we were waiting around, some of the fellas shaved their heads and got Mohawks. (Don’t worry, Ma. I still have my hair. I didn’t feel like dishing out 15 cents.) I heard that Col. Sink came around and found the whole thing real amusing. “I forgot to tell you, some weeks ago we were officially notified that the Germans are telling French civilians that the Allied invasion forces would be led by American paratroopers, all of them convicted felons and psychopaths, easily recognized by the fact that they shave their heads or nearly so.”

Ha Ha.

I’m weighed down in gear and armed to the teeth. Hear that Jerries! We’re given American flag patches to sew onto the right sleeve of our jump jackets. We look like a million bucks. In my musette bag I got a blanket, cigs, mess kit, rain poncho, toothbrush, two candy bars, and razor. I stuffed my pockets with K-rations (aw hell), and I’m wearing my belt with ten clips of Garand ammo (80 rounds), entrenching shovel (also referred to by a more sophisticated name, army banjos), gas mask, canteen, bayonet, and first aid kit. Hand grenades hang from my suspenders, and under my shoulder is a holster carrying a .45 semi-automatic pistol. Trench knife is tucked in my boot. In my zippered pocket next to my collar is my switchblade. Compass is strapped to my ankle and on the other is a British Hawkins mine. Got my steel helmet with leather chin strap securely on. Parachute on my back, reserve chute on front. Around my neck is a Mae West life jacket, but with all the gear I’m wearing, I’d be S.O.L. if I landed in water. Some of the fellas were issued a new thing the British thought up, called a leg bag. They stuff everything they can into them—broken-down tommy guns, loads of ammo, mines, radios, medical equipment, you name it. Seems swell if it works, but I’m not volunteering for the extra weight.

At 2030 hours, we line up in groups of eighteen and march to the hangers. No one cheers, sings, talks, jokes. Nothing. The only sound is our boots shuffling against the ground as we pass the British ack-ack boys. They look at us with something like respect and pity as they solemnly nod our way. I thought I saw tears in their eyes, but I can’t be sure. Everything is quiet and somber, as if we’re marching to our graves. Perhaps we are. When we get to the hangers, we’re given two packs of paper, the order of the day from General Eisenhower and message from Col. Sink. One of the fellas reads it aloud:

Soldiers of the regiment: June 5, 1944 - D-DAY

Today, and as you read this, you are en route to that great adventure for which you have trained for over two years.

Tonight is the night of nights.

Tomorrow throughout the whole of our homeland and the Allied world the bells will ring out the tidings that you have arrived, and the invasion for liberation has begun.

The hopes and prayers of your dear ones accompany you, the confidence of your high commanders goes with you. The fears of the Germans are about to become a reality.

Let us strike hard. When the going is tough, let us go harder. Imbued with faith in the rightness of our cause, and the power of our might, let us annihilate the enemy where found.

May God be with each of you fine soldiers. By your actions let us justify His faith in us.

Colonel Robert Sink Regimental Commander, 506th P.I.R, 101st Airborne Division

Tonight is the night. There’s no going back now. We’re all quiet, lost in our own thoughts.

After we’ve been transported to the waiting planes and get harnessed up, we wait under the wings of the C-47s for H-Hour to arrive. I’m ready to give Hitler hell … just as soon as I can stand up. We’re all leaning back on our gear, dragged down the extra weight. Someone comes around with motion sickness pills. Guess they don’t want us hurling over the English Channel. I get up every few minutes to relieve myself. My throat is real dry, and my hands are sweaty. Now we start talking again, just to ease our nerves. But no one has anything reassuring to say. It all goes back to that life insurance as everyone talks about the “$10,000 jump” ahead of us. I find the rosary in my pocket and finger the beads. I close my eyes and start to feel better.

2200 hours, we’re loading the planes. They all start up at once, a deafening sound that rips through my body and rattles my head. Can’t hear myself think. I sit on the left side of the plane between Smith and Hodges. No one feels much like talking. The plane begins to move, rumbling and roaring as it takes off. I’m shoved back against the wall, feeling dizzy and sick in the gut. I can see the faces of the fellas around me in the murky light. Some are drifting to sleep on account of the pills. My heart’s racing. I didn’t think much about it before but, the trouble begins after the jump and how’ll I react under fire? Don’t know. Can only pray I’ll be a good soldier. The door’s off, and all I can hear is the wind as the plane cuts through the dark sky. All of a sudden, the Lieutenant shouts, “Look at this, boys.” I’m near the front, and I look down into the Channel as looming shadows of the invasion fleet storm toward Normandy. Battleships, gunships, destroyers. Makes me feel proud to be a part of something bigger than myself. The krauts have woken up a beast.

0100 hours. It’s June 6th and we just got the order to stand up and hook up. The plane’s going too low and fast to jump. We can see the outline of the coast up ahead, and hear the pounding of anti-aircraft fire. The dark sky’s smeared with hellish colors and sounds and I feel panic squeezing my chest. Ping, ping, ping. Flak grazes the outside of the plane. It’s spiraling into the sky and is so thick I could walk on it. I want to get out of here, and damn quick. Someone voices my thoughts. “Let’s get the hell outta here!”

The red light switches on. We have three minutes until we jump and still the plane is weaving through the air too low and too fast. But we sound off, the fella at the end of stick starting. Ten okay. Nine okay. Eight okay. Seven okay. Six okay …The light suddenly switches to green seconds later. All I hear is the roar of wind and someone shouting, “Go! Go! Go!”

We all surge forward, one after the other, disappearing into the war-torn night.



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