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December 23, 2005

Another small giant has passed..

...and another light of the Greatest Generation dims. Jeff Quinton has the story of Lt. Col. Horace “Sally” Crouch.

A Doolittle Raider. There's a select group of men. The first to strike back at Japan - flying from the deck of the Hornet, made famous when Roosevelt referred to her as the "Shangri-la."

Now is the time at Castle Argghhh! when we dance, In Memoriam.

This all brings to mind something percolating in my head since last night, when SWWBO and I went to eat at a local eatery, the Ten Penny Bar and Grill, just up the road from the Castle.

The place was full of people I knew, from work or Rotary, and SWWBO for some reason was impressed with all the people I know. Bob and Gary from work were there with their families, as was Bill and his daughter, from Rotary. Bill, an active Rotarian for many years, is now in his 80's - still active, but slowing down a bit. They were done with dinner, and Bill doesn't get around as well as he used to once. At least today he didn't need his walker. But Bill was a Soldier once, and young, to borrow a phrase.

And, as they say, "It's not the years, it's the mileage."

Bill jumped into Normandy in 1944. He jumped into Holland in 1944. He was trucked into Belgium, this little town called Bastogne, in 1944. And Bill walked and rode trucks into Germany in 1945. I'm guessing that those were some hard miles.

Like these three excerpts from another Screaming Eagle, Donald Burgett, who fought side-by-side with Bill. From his book Currahee! - a worthy read for anyone who wants some insight into American Soldiery - yesterdays or todays.


The time was 1:14AM, June 6, 1944. Suddenly the green light flashed on.

"Let's go," screamed Lieutenant Muir at the top of his voice, and he, along with Carter and Thomas, gave the big bundle a shove. Lieutenant Muir followed it out: Carter did a quick left turn and following him into the prop blast: Thomas did a right turn and followed Carter. I could see their static lines snap tight against the edge of the door and vibrate there with the force of the outside wind pulling them.

"Go," a voice screamed in my brain, "hurry!" Speed was the most important thing now, so we would all land as close together as possible. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion again, but I knew that it was really happening in just fractions f seconds as I made my right turn into the door and with a left pivot leaped into dark space.

There were thirteen men following me out the door, but I couldn't see any of them. Doubled up and grasping my reserve chute, I could feel the rush of air, hear the crackling of the canopy as it unfurled, followed by the sizzling suspension lines, then the connector links whistling past the back of the helmet. Instinctively the muscles of my body tensed for the opening shock, which nearly unjointed me when the canopy blasted open. From the time I left the door until the chute opened, less than three seconds had elapsed.. I pulled the risers apart to check the canopy and saw tracer bullets passing through it; at the same moment I hit the ground and came in backward so hard the I was momentarily stunned.

Continue reading in the Flash Traffic/Extended Entry.

I lay on my back shaking my head: the chute had collapsed itself. The first thing I did was to draw my .45, cock the hammer back, and slip the safety on. Troopers weren't issued pistols, but my father had purchased this one from a gun collector in Detroit and sent it to me in a package containing a date and nut cake. Captain Davis kept it in his possession for me and let me carry it on field problems. He had returned it to me when we entered the marshaling area.

The pilots were supposed to drop us between 600 and 700 feet, but I know that my drop was between 250 and 300 feet. The sky was lit up like the Fourth of Jule. I lay there for a moment and gazed at the spectacle. It was awe inspiring. I have never seen anything like if before or since. But I couldn't help wondering at the same time if I had got the opening shock first of hit the ground first: they were mighty close together.

The snaps on the harness were almost impossible to undo, and as I lay there on my back working on them, another plane came in low and diagonally over the field. The big ship was silhouetted against the lighter sky with long tongues of exhaust flame flashing along either side of the body. Streams of tracers from several machine guns flashed upward to converge on it. Then I saw vague, shadowy figures of troopers plunging downward. Their chutes were pulling out of the pack trays and just staring to unfurl when they hit the ground. Seventeen men hit the ground before their chutes had time to open. They made a sound like large ripe pumpkins being thrown down to burst against the ground."

And he hadn't even fired a shot yet.

Let's fast forward to "blooding officers" or the odd sense of humor one develops in a combat zone...

The Lieutenant ask him if there were any more troopers around and he said, "Sure, there's a bout eight or nine of us here."

"Any officers?" queried the Lieutenant.

Thomas nodded his head and told Muir that he would find a couple in the stone house across the field. Muir said thanks and started walking toward the building. When he'd gotten about halfway there, a machine gun hidden at the far end of the field burst out in a long fast chatter and clouds of dust rose around the Lieutenant's feet. For a moment he was too stunned to do anything but look pop-eyed at Thomas. A second burst sent him into a dancing jig as bullets rocketed around his feet and went whining and screaming in different directions.

"You dirty son of a bitch," screamed Lieutenant Muir, as he saw Thomas rolling on the ground with laughter. "You knew that German was there."

The humor was catching and I lay on the ground next to Thomas laughing till my sides hurt. A third machine-gun burst and Muir was running hell bent for election toward the stone house. He made it O.K., and Thomas told me that Kraut couldn't hit the broad side of a barn and that he himself had made several trips across the same field under the same conditions.

"You're a regular joker, aren't you?" I asked. We both started to laugh again. The Lieutenant sure was funny.

Ah, battlefield humor.

But it wasn't all funny, either. Hard, hard work lay ahead.

Hard, hard work lay ahead.

Halfway across, the enemy opened up on us with rifle, machine-gun, mortar, and 88 shells. Our artillery, which had been pasting the hedges in front of us, lifted and started falling father back in enemy territory. It was impossible to go back or to either side. We had to take the shortest route, straight into the enemy fire, to try and reach the safety of the hedge in front of us. The one that held the enemy. Men were being killed and wounded in large numbers, some of the horribly maimed, with limbs and parts of their bodies being shredded or shot away. I could feel the muzzle blasts of the men behind me as they fired from the hip. I was nearly as concerned about getting shot in the back by a fellow trooper as I was about the Germans in front.

Mortar shells blanketed the field. As least six machine-guns were cross firing on us and that terrible 88 was shredding everything in sight. Bounding Bettys leaped into the air to sow their seeds of death on the ones who disturbed the3m. These were ingenious little devices of the enemy that were triggered when a man stepped on them. The bombs would spring into the air and explode about belly high. The explosion would send steel balls rocketing out in all directions, like the spokes of a wagon wheel. They were very effective. Men were being torn almost in half by them. We kept running straight at the enemy. It was like a dream - no, more like a nightmare. We were running for all we were worth, but standing still, getting nowhere. The hedge at the far end of the field seemed as far away as before.

We were being annihilated, our ranks disintegrating a we ran. Glancing at my comrades around and behind me to draw courage and strength from their presence, I saw that the field was being littered with dead, our dead. A trooper in front of and to the right of me was hit in the chest by an 88 shell. his body disappeared from the waist up, his legs and hips with belt, canteen and entrenching tool still on taking three more steps, then falling. Another trooper went to his knees, ran a couple of yards in that position, tried to gain his feet, stumbled and went down face-first. Other men were falling, but as the same time others had gained the hedge and were lobbing grenades over it. We had been telling and screaming like animals at the top of our lungs all the way. The Germans were falling back. But the next hedge was a duplicate of the first. Each time we gained a hedge, the enemy left a delaying force and pulled back to the next one and were waiting for us when we crossed the open fields with nothing but two inches of grass for cover. I don't know how many hedges we crossed in this bayonet attack but they seemed endless. Our attack finally slowed and came to a stop. We had to reorganize before going deeper into enemy territory.

This one passage alone makes the book worth the price.

Tomorrow, I'll cover Bastogne.