Merridale’s Command

Illustration to accompany "Merridale's Command". Copyright (c) 2017 by John Waltrip. Used under license

Story by Martin Grise/ Illustration by John Waltrip

June, 1925.

You’re probably familiar with the kind of flashback that seems to come through the senses. You smell pork roast and potatoes, and your mind goes straight back to Grandmother’s kitchen during Sunday lunch after church. The sight of a dance club or city park reminds you of everything that happened there in your youth. Taste a particular brand of beer, you remember old pals on summer nights, not that it’s as easy to get the beer these days.

They say that smell is the sense most likely to trigger memories, and I’d say they’re right. I walked into an Army Surplus store last week, and the smell of the canvas tents hit me like a hammer. The guy behind the counter said I looked like I’d seen a ghost. I want to tell you about this ghost.

I graduated West Point in 1915. I wrote my dissertation on “parachute troops,” as we then called them. I was inspired, originally, by a letter that Ben Franklin had written in 1784 about the possibility of airborne soldiers: “Where is the prince who can afford so to cover his country with troops for its defense, so that ten thousand men descending from the clouds might not, in many places, do an infinite deal of mischief before a force could be brought together to repel them?” While Franklin envisioned the unlikely use of balloons to deliver soldiers, I argued that aviation technology had sufficiently advanced that the delivery of airborne troops was now a practical possibility. An infantry force could be carried aboard the largest bombers available and dropped behind enemy lines, instantly creating a two-front battle. Or, on a smaller scale, paratroopers could act as raiders, causing the “mischief” Franklin foresaw, forcing the enemy to divert troops to protect rear-area assets and thus weaken their front line. The only problem in that case was withdrawing the unit before it was destroyed behind enemy lines by superior forces, but I considered that to be a technical problem we’d be able to solve. It was more terrifying than technical when we actually tried it.

As with so much else in life, timing proved the critical factor in my project. About a year after my graduation, President Wilson declared war on the Triple Alliance. It took another year to rebuild the U.S. Army and ship it to France. In the meantime, I pushed the idea of forming an independent company to test the idea of paratroops. Since the Army knew it was waltzing into European trench warfare, I sold the idea as a way to bypass the deadlock that stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea. The Brits and French were already air-dropping spies behind the lines; why not soldiers? General Billy Mitchell picked up the idea and went to bat for me with the General Staff and General Pershing, the expeditionary forces commander. Mitchell received permission for me to set up the company, which would be attached to 1st Infantry Division. I recruited the men, got our commission, and headed for France, eager to prove the concept as well as myself.

Our unit settled down at an airbase outside Paris in March 1918, and proceeded to do absolutely nothing. Command had no idea how to use us, despite everything I’d written. I think General Mitchell’s support might have given me an optimistic view of the Army’s taste for experimentation.

One of the first things you learn in the Army is that you should always appear busy; failure to do so will result in your being given a job that everyone else managed to avoid. It was a challenge at that airbase, but I tried. After five weeks in France, Colonel King, my 1st Division C.O., spotted me along the runway as he was riding back to his office. The car pulled over.

“Captain Merridale!” he shouted.

“Sir?”

“What’s this requisition you sent to the Quartermaster?” he asked, paper in hand.

“Supplies for a training mission, Sir,” I said.

“What training mission?”

“Trying to keep my men in good condition, Colonel.” And stave off the boredom.

Colonel King had the dramatic bent of a failed amateur actor. He lifted his chin and scanned the field as if surveying his personal domain, which included me.

“Give it up already,” he sniffed, as if pondering something vastly more important, and I a mere distraction. “I’m not giving you pampered pets a thing. I’m surprised Pershing still keeps your unit together.”

“So am I.”

“Not for much longer. I’ve got a meeting with Blackjack in Paris next month. I’m going to recommend, again, that your unit be disbanded. Hopefully he’ll listen to sense this time.”

“Seems a shame to disband the unit without testing the idea, Colonel.”

“I don’t need to test the idea, Merridale. It’s a stupid idea. Even if you survived ten minutes behind enemy lines, how would you get back?”

“We could seize an airfield and be picked up by the same planes that dropped us off,” I said.

“That limits you to operations near airfields.”

“Or go down to the coast and be picked up by the Navy.”

“That limits you to operations near the coast. And you think the generals are gonna risk all these planes and ships so you can get your men killed for nothing? If that’s what you think, I wouldn’t even give you command of a squad.” He dropped my requisition on the ground, apparently expecting me to pick it up.

“If the training mission is scrubbed, Sir,” I said, “then I wonder if I could take forty-eight hours leave in Paris?”

“Yeah, why don’t ya? Make it seventy-two. Stay out of my way. And stop sending requisitions to my office. I’ve got real work to do.” And he got back in his car and drove away.

Sergeant Jimmy Conklin, an old Army drinking friend I’d recruited into the unit, had watched the affair from a distance and came up as soon as King was out of sight.

“How’d it go there, Tyler?”

“I think you know.”

“That’s what I figured.” He picked up the requisition.

“Since we’re men of leisure,” I said, “we might as well take a trip to Paris this weekend. We’ll invade Bouillon Chartier restaurant instead. At least we’re equipped for that.”

 

Paris wasn’t its happy self in those days, and with good reason. The war had raged for nearly four years by the time we showed up, fat and rested and clean. That magnificent city looked like a refugee camp at the time. Wounded veterans, missing arms and legs and eyes, standing around in the streets, while civilians fleeing German occupation were begging and sleeping in the churchyards. I’d swear that every other woman I saw was dressed in black, in mourning. There were shortages of bread, coal, and milk, and people had cut down old trees along the grand avenues for firewood. Jean, my favorite bartender at Chartier, told me that morale had been going downhill in the last few months. Everyone was tired in their souls. Jean knew everything about Paris, the real Paris, not the one in the Army pamphlets, so I depended on him for news and information, and also for a reliable table at the brasserie, and even, somehow, bottles of good scotch and wine and whatever else we wanted. I didn’t ask how he came by it all.

That weekend, Jimmy and I sat in Chartier, and the mood in Paris matched ours nicely.

“I can’t understand how they keep stonewalling us with Mitchell on our side,” said Jimmy.

“Mitchell’s in the minority,” I replied. “He knows it, too. Most generals don’t like irregular troops.”

“‘Pampered pets.’”

“That’s part of it. And then the generals only know how to line up and attack en masse. They think anything else is too complicated. It’s all about the numbers now. Hundreds of thousands of men, millions of rounds of artillery.”

“They want all the glory for themselves,” he said. “Don’t want any independent thinkers out there stealing their thunder.”

“That may be true.”

“The men haven’t seen action even once. Best marksmen in the Army, and they’re going to waste. And discipline’s not good either. That’s what happens when they’re bored. That’s twice now that Lewis pounded some doughboys on leave.”

“In a month it won’t matter,” I said. “King’s probably gonna get his way. We’ll be disbanded and sent to the front lines as regular infantry.”

“Helluva waste of talent. What difference is a marksman gonna make in the trenches? They’re just gonna get slaughtered like everyone else.”

“That would suit the brass just fine. And I just adore the thought of King chuckling over our obituaries.”

“So what do we do?”

“It’s in Mitchell’s hands now.” I hated when things were in other people’s hands, especially something so important to me. I thought there was nothing for it, though.

“Tell ya the truth, I think most of the men would be happier in combat at the front than sitting around doing nothing,” said Jimmy.

“Probably. I picked ‘em for their aggression, among other things.”

“You’re not that aggressive.”

I smiled. “You have no idea.”

“I know you like to keep your cards close to your vest. You’re hard to know.”

“I’m actually kinda simple.”

“Simple. You tried to form an independent company to experiment with a new kind of warfare and take it into battle behind enemy lines.”

“Simple,” I said.

“What did Kim say about all that, by the way?”

I swallowed the rest of my scotch.

“Not so simple.”

I rather wished he hadn’t brought her up, especially when I was already feeling low. I thought I’d let go of her, but you can’t just order your heart around as if you outranked it. I did love Kim Sutter, at least as far as I knew what love was, and she said she loved me, and so she wanted us to marry, and for me to take a desk assignment in the States for the duration, and we’d have children and live out the rest of our days in suburban respectability outside Kansas City. And I didn’t want that, not at the time, nor in that café in Paris, and so she said I was lying, that I didn’t love her. That felt great, really tip-top. But I didn’t feel too guilty about it, because I’d told her the truth. It’s just that I missed her now, because I did really did love her.

“What about you, Jimmy?” I asked. “How’d you end up in the Army?”

“Out of money and luck in Camden, New Jersey.”

“Sorry things haven’t gotten much better for you.”

“The Army feeds me. That’s something.”

“It’s prison fare.”

“No, it’s better. I should know.”

I never heard it coming. It was a concussion, more felt than heard despite the volume, and the curtains jumped and the bottle hopped off the table. There was smoke outside, sliding in through the broken windows, soon followed by the sounds of shouting people and wailing sirens.

“What the hell was that?” I said to Jimmy.

“We’re fifty miles from the front!”

“Jean!” I called.

“Are you alright, Captain?” he said, coming around the bar. He’d hit the floor; it hadn’t even occurred to us to do that.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Missed us – again,” said Jean. “But I’m getting tired of sweeping the windows off the floor. Third time.”

“What was it?”

“The Paris Gun. Giant Hun artillery in the Coucy Forest.”

“That’s gotta be…”

“About a hundred twenty-five kilometers away,” he said. “Very big gun.”

“Very big shell.”

“If we know where it is, why doesn’t the Royal Air Force bomb it?” Jimmy asked.

“Very thick ack-ack. That’s what the generals all say. The mayor has been trying to get the generals to do something about it, but they always say the same thing. Too much ack-ack, can’t risk the planes.”

“Bouillon Chartier is a valuable strategic asset, Jean,” I said. “We can’t risk it for the sake of a few flyboys.”

“Couldn’t agree with you more, Sir.”

“You’re more valuable than Foche, Jean,” said Jimmy.

“Please inform the generals of this before they get me killed for the sake of a few kites.”

And then…hell, it was just as sudden as the explosion. The idea, like most good ones, popped into my head unbidden. It was so simple.

“Jean, can you call us a taxi?”

“Certainly, Captain.”

“Come with me, Jimmy. I’ve got an idea.”

 

We got back to the airbase only twenty-four hours later, and it was a different war for us now.

“Assemble the men at fourteen hundred hours for the briefing, Jimmy,” I said.

“You got it, Captain!”

I walked over to the HQ building and went in the front doors, ready for this.

“Merridale!” yelled the Colonel from his office when he heard my voice in the foyer.

“Sir!”

“Get in here right now!”

“Good morning, Colonel,” I purred as I closed the door behind me. I was tempted to leave it open to allow all and sundry to eavesdrop.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” His face was flush and his pupils dilated, his dramatic veneer in tatters.

“It looks like I went over your head,” I offered.

“How dare you! You went and talked to the mayor of Paris?”

“I did.”

“I’ll bust you down to private!”

“Not with General Pershing’s orders on your desk you won’t.”

That sobered him considerably.

“Well, that’s true, isn’t it?” he said. “The mayor was appalled to hear there was an option available the military hadn’t told him about. So the only thing Pershing could do was give in. Too much political trouble otherwise. Therefore, you’re ordered to parachute behind German lines and destroy the Paris Gun. And I’m ordered to give you whatever you need to accomplish your mission.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“And this, too. If you survive, which I doubt, I’m gonna transfer you to a logistics post in Paris. Word from Army HQ is that your unit will be disbanded in weeks and you’ll be pushing papers for the rest of your career. Enjoy your little schoolboy ramble, Captain. It’s your first and last. Now get out of my sight.”

“Happy to see ya, was he?” Jimmy asked brightly outside the front doors.

“He’ll be praying for our ‘chutes to fail. Doesn’t matter. In seventy-two hours we’ll either be heroes or dead. In either case, we’ll be outside his reach.”

“By the way, you haven’t explained how we’re gonna pull this off.”

“Oh, it’s simple. It’s just extremely dangerous.”

Two hours later, Jimmy had the men assembled in the briefing tent. We had a map made from aerial photographs set up on a stand at the front of the room. The men were very attentive.

“Be seated, gentlemen,” I said as I began. “As you can see, there are only eight squads assembled here, but you are the very best of the U.S. Army, so I’m not concerned about our numbers. We’re leaving in the morning on the first mission of the Special Air Unit. Our objective is to destroy the German rail gun in the Coucy Forest to prevent further bombardment of Paris.

“As you can see on the map, the gun is twenty-five miles behind enemy lines…here, at the end of this rail line. Lucky for us, there’s a German aerodrome only ten miles away. That’s how we’ll get out. The brass could only spare us ten Handley-Pages, so we can only bring eighty men, eight per plane. We’ll have to ride outside on the wings like we did in training, but it’ll only be a twenty-minute flight.

“We’ll jump in two groups. Sergeant Jimmy Conklin will lead the first group, with thirty men. You’ll drop about two miles from the aerodrome and seize it. Hold it against counterattack. I’ll lead the second group, fifty men. We’ll jump into this field…here, only a mile and a half from the gun. The gun is in the middle of a field surrounded by trees. We’ll take up positions on two sides of the field. They’ve got ack-ack emplacements in the area, but only one will have line-of-sight on us. Too many trees. From the size of their bivouac, there are probably eighty to a hundred men working the gun, so we’ll be outnumbered. On the plus side, there’s no way in hell they’re expecting us. At a predetermined time, I’ll fire the first shot. That’s your signal to open fire. Make it quick. We’ll have some of the new Browning automatic rifles with us, so that’ll help. When the field is secure, Barrett and his demolition team will blow the gun in place. Barrett, you’ll have to figure out how to take it out permanently — the thing’s bigger than three locomotives.”

“We’ll be ready, Sir,” said Barrett. He looked downright happy. Then again, he was a man who handled high explosives without the slightest trace of anxiety.

“After the gun is destroyed,” I continued, “we’ll use their trucks to drive to the aerodrome. So make sure you don’t shoot them up in the fighting. If all goes well, Conklin and his platoon will have the aerodrome secured when we show up. The planes will arrive at the aerodrome exactly three and a half hours after we jump in. It’s not safe for them to wait on the ground, so this is one appointment we can’t afford to miss. That’s the long and short of it, gentlemen. In the morning, we jump into the history books. I’ll see you on the field at oh-five-thirty hours. Dismissed!” The men jumped up and saluted, rather jauntily, I thought, as if I had just given them a locker room pep talk before a football game. I wondered if it was just their training.

“Jimmy, make sure Sondheim brings his camera on the jump,” I said as the last of them left.

“You want him to bring his camera? The thing is huge!”

“We’re gonna need it. Make sure he finds a way to pack it safely and jump with it. The tripod, too.”

“Ok, Tyler.”

I tried to sleep that night but of course I couldn’t. I played the entire operation over and over again in my head to see if I missed anything. I couldn’t imagine that I did. I checked out the weapons and chutes again. We would carry only combat gear, the Springfield .30-06 rifles, Colt M1911 semiautomatic pistols, and grenades. Each squad also had one Browning 1918 automatic rifle; this was their first use in combat, I believe. Parachutes all packed, static lines neatly coiled.

The good news was that everything was ready. The bad news was that there was nothing left for me to do but think, and sometimes that’s not good. Finally, Jimmy was up and about, looking through the kits.

“Morning, Tyler.”

“I checked them all three times, Jimmy.”

“You couldn’t sleep either?”

“Course not.”

“Some of those boys are snoring like they’re back in their own beds in the States. I dunno know how they do it.”

“Me neither.”

“So…you’re finally getting what you wanted, Tyler.”

“None too soon, either.”

“And I suppose it’s occurred to you that your dream might get you killed in a few hours?”

“Why even start with that?”

“It’s true.”

“Of course it’s true. But I have to do it. Dying in your bed for nothing – what the hell is that? We pull this off; we can change the course of the war. We can make history. Every West Pointer from here to forever will study what we did.”

“Or they’ll laugh at us and call us fools if we fail.”

“If that happens, we won’t be around to see it. You wanna be remembered forever, doncha, Jimmy? You don’t get that by staying safe. That’s the best way to be forgotten.”

“I see what you mean about your aggression. It’s just a different kind from most guys.”

“Let’s see if we can get a cup of joe in the mess,” I said.

“Okay.”

The men were in good spirits when they formed up along the taxiway. Anything’s better than just sitting around.

“That’s not a lot of dynamite, Barrett,” I pointed out.

“I plan of using the German’s stuff, Sir. They should have a lot of powder laying around with a gun like that.”

“Okay, I’ll leave it to you. Got the camera, Sondheim?”

“Packed up and ready to go, Captain.”

“Good. Looks like the pilots are ready, too.”

They got the Handley-Pages fired up. Biggest planes in the Royal Air Force — wingspan of a hundred feet, could run a hundred miles an hour, and they still looked like box kites held together with piano wire. One of the nice things about flying as a paratrooper was that you always had an emergency exit on your back if someone went wrong. We hung onto the wing struts and the planes got us up on schedule — keeping the speed low, for the sake of the men on the wings. It was only a short flight anyway. The sun was coming up, which was good for navigating and jumping, and bad for hiding from enemy patrols. At least we didn’t need to fly near ack-ack.

Jimmy’s group parted company with ours shortly after takeoff. It was a cool, clear morning — a lot cooler up there, I can tell you — and I could pick out all the landmarks on the ground, so I knew we were on-course. Soon the pilots gave us the signal that we were approaching the drop zone. We clipped the static lines to the wing struts, and when the pilot gave us the signal to jump, it was as easy as taking one step back.

I was a little worried about the men landing; we hadn’t practiced an airdrop since arriving in France. Everyone made it down with nothing more than scratches and quickly assembled. We kept out of sight of the nearby ack-ack batteries and didn’t see a soul until we reached the edge of the woods. The sun was still low and it was dim in the shadow of the trees.

I tapped Sergeant Erickson on the shoulder. “Take two squads around the western edge of these woods. Turn east and advance to the edge of the field. I’ll give you twenty minutes to get into firing positions. Don’t give yourselves away or we’re screwed. When I fire the first shot, that’s your signal to fire at will. When I blow my whistle, that’s the order to cease fire and advance into the field.”

“Yes Sir.”

“Sergeant Durry, the other three squads will follow us forward to the edge of the field, line abreast. Hold fire until I shoot. Stay out of sight.”

“Yes Sir.”

We crawled through the woods until I could hear the Germans in the clearing. Then through the trees I could see them — and the Paris Gun. The thing was incredible. It looked like a black two-story factory building on the railroad tracks, the barrel like a long chimney tilted at a forty-five-degree angle. The barrel had cables slung along its length like a suspension bridge to keep its great weight from drooping. The carriage was so big that it required staircases up the sides so the gunners could get to the controls. And it was swarming with gunners. Beyond the gun were tents, trucks, and an anti-aircraft emplacement. The last of those bothered me.

“Durry, when I fire, you kill that ack-ack nest. I know you can shoot.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Look at their uniforms,” I whispered. We were lying prone, only fifty yards from the gun.

“Those are naval uniforms, Captain,” said Durry.

“You remember that intel specialist who got us the photos? He said the gun looked like naval artillery.”

“Maybe they’re sailors. It would make sense. And look, barely anyone is carrying a gun.”

“We’re far behind the lines,” I said. “Why would they need them?”

“We’ll show ‘em why.”

I kept a close eye on my watch until the last few seconds. There were about eighty German sailors milling around, completely ignorant of the danger. I couldn’t see Erickson or his men so I could only assume they were in position and ready. If the Germans got the chance to grab their guns, things could go terminally badly for us. And it occurred to me in that moment, with a thin smile, my heart banging against the forest floor, that I had never actually fired a shot in anger.

I leveled on an officer and pulled the trigger of my Springfield, and the report blossomed into a continuous peal of thunder as the rest of the unit joined me, as if I had fired dozens of rifles as once.

The Germans went down fast in the crossfire, and I could see the smoke and flame to my left from Erickson’s detachment. Some Germans ran for the tents but didn’t make it. Durry was on the ack-ack emplacement; the crew managed to swing the gun towards us but they were all dead before they could draw a bead. It was only a few seconds before the shooting stopped for want of targets. I blew my whistle somewhat needlessly.

“Poor bastards didn’t have a chance,” I said in a strange sort of awe. “Christ, what a turkey shoot! Nice shooting, Durry. Owe you a few beers for that one.”

Erickson and his men advanced into the field and met us by the gun.

“No casualties to report, Sir,” he said.

“Well done. Set up security around the perimeter of the field. Durry, check those tents over there.”

“Yes Sir.”

“Barrett, it’s your show now.”

“We’re on it, Sir.”

“Sondheim, set up your camera here. Give us a nice shot for the history books.”

We were a couple minutes ahead of schedule, which meant I had nothing to do at the moment. Sometimes it’s like that when you’re leading good men who don’t need close supervision. Out of curiosity I had a look around their command tent, pistol in front of me, of course, in case I met someone. I found a lot of documents: Order of Battle, quartermaster inventories, even diagrams of the gun for the maintenance crews. I found a barracks bag and stuffed in as much as I could carry, starting with the diagrams. I figured the intelligence guys would be interested in it. I also found the keys to the trucks.

“Ready here, Sir!” called Barrett.

He and his team had stacked cartridges and shells for the gun next to the railroad tracks along the entire length of the gun. Their dynamite would be the blasting cap. I figured he meant to knock over the gun with the explosion. I checked to ensure everyone was clear.

“Go ahead, Sergeant!”

Another thunderbolt – this one sent a geyser of earth skyward and blew a long crater in the ground next to the gun, which didn’t budge.

“Uh, nice hole, Sergeant,” I said.

“Give it a moment, Captain.”

The explosion had undercut the railroad tracks. It took a moment for the gun’s incredible weight to shift; then it slowly banked towards the hole; then keeled over like a brontosaurus falling into its grave with a ground-shaking thud, followed by cheers.

“Let’s see ‘em lift that out!” said Barrett.

“There’s your shot, Sondheim!” I called out.

He took two photographs of the men with the capsized gun and packed up.

“We’re done here,” I told the NCOs. “Pull in the security. Everyone to the trucks, we’re headed for the aerodrome!”

I had no idea if Jimmy had captured the aerodrome; there were no field radios back then, so the fog of war was thick. We drove ten miles through the forest without encountering the German patrols which could have disrupted our tidy schedule to say the least. When we arrived, a smiling Jimmy Conklin met us at the entrance.

“It’s ours,” he said.

“Scratch one German gun,” I added.

“Oh, we heard it, alright.”

“I was worried the explosion would bring patrols around.”

“Maybe they thought the gun was firing.”

“You have any casualties?” I asked.

“Two men wounded, one walking.”

“The planes will be here in fifteen minutes. Have the men find some aviation fuel. There should be drums in those hangers. Dump them out in the buildings and hangers. We’ll set the place on fire when we leave.”

“Ok, Tyler.”

While the men worked I entered the base headquarters and repeated my intelligence gathering: picked though their documents and orders and stuffed them into whatever courier bags I found lying around. I also raided the commander’s liquor cabinet and took three bottles of schnapps. It briefly occurred to me that I was stealing a dead man’s liquor before his corpse was even cold. I felt a little odd, nothing more. I also realized that I had felt nothing when I killed several men during the ambush. Maybe I was too busy with my command responsibilities. Maybe I really didn’t care. Well, that’ll all become clear with time, I thought. Stick to business now.

That was the longest fifteen minutes of my life. To the pilots’ credit, we heard the big engines arriving exactly on time. We waved the American flags we’d brought with us to signal the all-clear, and they came in for their landings. I’d never seen men that happy, and I include myself in that. Sondheim even got a good shot of Jimmy and I chatting in front of the German HQ. We had a little trouble loading the wounded into the planes; that was something we’d fix in the future by adding the side doors. Everyone else climbed onto the wings — a bit more worried this time without their parachutes. I ordered a few men to set fire to the buildings, and the aerodrome was engulfed in flames as the last plane took off.

 

 

When we landed, dear Colonel King wasn’t around to welcome us home.

“Erickson, get the wounded men to the hospital,” I ordered.

“On the way, Captain.”

“Sondheim, how long do you need to develop those plates?”

“Maybe two hours, Sir.”

“Get on it right away and bring the prints and plates to my quarters when you’ve finished. Jimmy, got those barracks bags?”

“Right here, Tyler.”

When I returned to my quarters I found my bags packed and waiting on my cot. King wasn’t kidding when he said I was being shipped out as soon as I got back.

“Captain Merridale?” Corporal Zanna had his cap in his hands, looking apologetic. “Colonel King ordered me to pack your gear and drive you to your new quarters in Paris as soon as you arrived.”

“I see. Not even time for a meal after returning from a mission?”

“I’m awful sorry about this, Captain. Look, the Colonel won’t be back until late tonight. If you want, we can wait until after dinner to go. He won’t know the difference.”

“Could you give me just two hours or so, Corporal? Just to say goodbye to the men.”

“Certainly, Sir.”

I waited until I had Sondheim’s photographs. Then I took Jimmy by the arm, and the Corporal drove the two of us to Paris – not to my new station, but rather to the offices of Le Temps, the Paris daily newspaper. Jimmy and I gave the editor the photos and the story, which we’d written in the car on the way over. He couldn’t believe it; there had been nothing but bad news for weeks, and now this, complete with photographs? He was so happy he could’ve cried. Then we grabbed a cab to the Expeditionary Force’s Military Intelligence Branch offices and delivered the captured documents. They couldn’t believe it either and made us tell them the story over and over. Diagrams of the German super-weapon, hand-delivered right to their door! Our taxi next delivered us to Bouillon Chartier, where an incredulous Jean passed around our captured German schnapps. Once he heard the story, he told it to every person who came in that night and people were buying us more champagne than we could possibly drink, yet somehow did. We were out on the Montparnasse all night, officially AWOL at this point. The next morning, Le Temps carried the story on the front page under the headline, “Paris Saved!” Sondheim’s now-famous photograph of the capsized Paris Gun took up a third of the page, and instead of reading our obituaries; Colonel King was looking at a photograph of Jimmy and I in front of the captured aerodrome HQ, looking ever so nonchalant, with the caption, “Heroes from the Heavens.” Those photos were our ace in the hole. How could they bust me down to private and disband the unit after the press had made us into heroes? We were reading the paper over breakfast in Chartier and we hadn’t slept in two days. It was a little difficult to eat because people recognized us, and they all wanted to thank us and get our autographs on the newspaper. If they didn’t recognize us at first, Jean was sure to point us out. And at eleven, two American MPs came through the door.

“Captain Merridale?”

“That’s me.”

“The General wants to speak with you.”

“General who?”

“General Pershing, Sir.”

“Oh. Stay here, Jimmy.”

“The General wants both of you, Sir.”

“Well, it was fun while it lasted,” said Jimmy, with his gallows smirk.

Outside we stepped into the back of a staff car, and in the front seat was General John “Blackjack” Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Force.

“Good morning,” he said over his shoulder.

“General,” we said, saluting. I thought, am I supposed to sit at attention back here? There’s no protocol for this. . .

“My congratulations, gentlemen. That was quite a job you did on the Paris Gun.”

“Thank you, Sir,” I said.

“This morning, I gave orders for your unit to be detached from the 1st Division and be placed under direct command of General Mitchell. Your orders will come straight from his headquarters.”

“Understood, General.”

“The mission turned a lot of heads. People are starting to understand the potential of your unit. It’s not just the gun or the aerodrome you burned. The intelligence officers were amazed at the documents you brought back. They’ve requested your unit for a few missions already.”

“That’s wonderful, Sir!”

“Yes, and damn good for the two of you. Otherwise you’d be on your way to Leavenworth right now. From now on, Captain, I’ll handle relations with local politicians and the press, is that understood?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good. Now we have an appointment to keep. You’re being decorated at City Hall by General Mitchell and the Mayor of Paris.”

An hour later and still with no sleep, General Mitchell awarded me the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Mayor presented me with the Croix de Guerre; Jimmy was awarded the Silver Star and promoted to Lieutenant. The other officers involved in the raid would receive the Silver Star, and each paratrooper on the mission awarded the Bronze Star. The entire airborne company also received a Distinguished Unit Citation from General Pershing. Correspondents from all over the allied world were there to cover the event. At that point I was so tired I could barely stand. Jimmy and I were offered a short leave for sleep, which we gratefully accepted.

And that, dear readers, is the end of the beginning. The Special Air Unit was now in the war. What I didn’t know, until we began receiving missions from headquarters, was that the destruction of the Paris Gun was the easiest battle we’d ever fight.

— ♦♦♦ —

END


Next Week: Thumbnail Illustration to accompany "Dirty Hands". Copyright(c) 2017 by Jihane Mossalim. Used under license

Dirty Hands.  By Tracy Falenwolfe , Art by Jihane Mossalim

Sully H. Maguire had spent 5 years looking for Nelson, who turned out to be a ghost of sorts.  Nelson’s wife Trixie had hired Sully to find him after he had been declared a missing person.  It smelled…like a dead skunk.  The question was…who had dirty hands?

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