by Mickey S.
This is a fictional story. Most of the characters and events are figments of the author's imagination. However, some of the fictional characters take part in real events and some real characters take part in fictional events. In spite of that, this is a fictional story. My thanks to Tim and Drew for all of their help. The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at NJMcMick@yahoo.com.
It looked like all of those near and dear to me would be safe for a while. TR was in Washington, Terrence, while a pilot, was seeing no action at Biggin Hill, and I was spending part of my time as a wounded dummy and the rest caring for patients in the hospital.
But one thing I'd learned was that in war nothing ever stayed the same. First, there was a letter from TR in early June.
Great news! Ever since I got here last month I've been looking for a way out. It looks like I didn't even have to try. My 'not Robert E.' wasn't here when I arrived. Turns out he was sent elsewhere on a new project just before I got here. I have yet to meet him. As I'm sure you know, Lt. General Eisenhower has been appointed commander of American troops in the European theater. It turns out Ike (that's what everyone calls Eisenhower) and my CO are old buddies and Ike wants him for another assignment. So I'll be leaving here soon. I'll still be stuck behind a desk but maybe I'll get to see you and Mother and Dad sometime soon. One can hope, anyway.
That truly was great news. TR couldn't come right out and say it but it sounded like he might be coming to England. If that were the case, I'd finally be able to see him again after nearly three years, yet he'd still be out of harm's way. I wasn't anywhere near as happy about the letter I got from Terrence two weeks later.
Just as I suspected, now that I have a few more hours in the air under my belt, I'm being transferred to a base where I can be of more use. I'm to be stationed at another field that was very important during the Blitz, but one that still has an active defense role. I can't say where it is but I suppose I may be in my share of dogfights. Somewhat dangerous, but better than escorting bombers to raids on the continent.
Neither option was very comforting to me. Dogfights sounded just as dangerous as escorting bombers to Germany. Either way there was a good chance of being shot down. I had to force myself to stop thinking of Terrence's flights in terms of getting shot down. That happened more often than anyone liked to think about, but most pilots returned to their bases. And even many of those shot down survived. That was why Terrence had had parachute training.
In spite of my efforts I was still in a funk the next day when I took a tea break at the hospital. It must have been obvious I was lost in thought when my friend John Ashwell came into the room.
"You certainly look down, like your best friend died." He caught his breath and gasped. "Oh my god, he didn't, did he? That was so callous of me to speak that way."
"Don't worry, John, Terrence is all right. For now, anyway." I told him about the letter I'd received. "This censorship of the mail is driving me nuts. You can put just enough in a letter to make the other person worry, but no details that might ease the worrying."
"Maybe I can help you there. Didn't you say your parents have a telephone in their house?"
"Yes, but I can't call them from the base."
"No, you can't, but I can stop at a phone box in Guildford when I go home tonight. If you give me their number I'll see what details I can find out."
"That's a great idea! I've told them both about you so they'll know who you are when you call."
The next day I was on edge all morning in class. Even when I went to work in the hospital I didn't get a chance to talk to John right away. I was about to explode when we finally sat down for tea in the afternoon.
"So what did you find out?"
"First of all, your brother. Obviously he couldn't put any more details in his letter to your parents than he gave you, but your father has his own sources. This General Lee is in London right now setting up Services of Supply and is supposed to be stationed there permanently. So if your brother is on his staff he'll be in London soon."
"That's wonderful! What about Terrence?"
"Fortunately, he just saw your parents on leave the day before yesterday so they had some information. He's to be stationed at RAF Tangmere in West Sussex near Chichester. That's very near the Channel, not far from Portsmouth and Southampton."
"Damn! That means he'll be fighting over the Channel."
"You have to stop thinking the worst, Woody. I know you're concerned, but it doesn't do any good to worry so. You have to think positive."
"You mean I should find some good in this new posting of his?"
"That's it precisely."
"But what could be good about him being more at risk?"
"Well maybe not that exactly, but there must be something good about it." He snapped his fingers. "I know, you said he usually goes to London to visit your family while on leave, right?"
"Yes, but what does that have to do with anything?"
"When he goes to London on leave, his train will pass through Guildford. He could stop and visit with you until the next train."
"Except I'm in Pirbright, not Guildford. And the army doesn't give time off to visit with friends."
"There you go, being negative again. There's a bus from here to Guildford. I should know, I take it every day. And once our shift is over at the hospital, your time is your own the rest of the evening. Isn't that what you said?"
"Stop saying but and think about it. He can get a train that stops in Guildford about an hour after your hospital shift ends. You can meet him, talk, have something to eat and then he takes the next train to London. You get the bus back to the base. You can spend an hour a week with your friend. Isn't that better than the way things have been?"
I didn't have to think about it very long. In the past eleven months I'd seen Terrence twice in October while he changed trains and then had that one great visit at home in April. One hour a week sounded like heaven.
I immediately wrote to Terrence with 'my' idea. He loved it, so once he was transferred later in the month we started our weekly meetings. Of course, dinner in a public place wasn't very intimate, but that was all right. I loved the physical intimacy we shared at home but even more than that I loved just being with him.
Since that first letter from TR saying he'd soon be coming to England I hadn't taken any leave, saving my time for when he arrived. He was due the beginning of August and when I got word from my parents that he'd arrived, I immediately arranged three days off to overlap Terrence's usual day in London so we could all be together. I was a bundle of nerves on the train into the city. In another month it would have been three years since I'd seen my brother. I knew how much I'd grown up and changed in that time. How had he changed? Would we still have the same close relationship as before?
At Waterloo I took the underground to Green Park station and walked the rest of the way. I was nearly home and was waiting for a light to change when I saw a military officer on the corner diagonally across the intersection from me. It was the uniform that caught my eye. London had been full of them for the last two years and I was surrounded by them every day. I was used to British and Canadian uniforms, even the odd Australian now and then, but this one was different. It wasn't until I was nearly across to the next corner that I realized it was American.
I got to the corner and stopped and watched as he crossed toward me. When he was halfway across the street I realized why I was so fascinated, why he looked familiar even though I hadn't seen an American uniform on the street before. It was TR!
Instinctively, I yelled "Horse!" and ran toward him. I had no intention of jumping on him, especially approaching from the front, but my yell got his attention. He'd been walking lost in thought but he looked at me and recognition spread across his face. He wrapped his arms around me, lifted me off my feet and swung me around in a couple of complete circles before setting me down. He put his hands on my shoulders and held me at arm's length, looking me over.
"I can't believe it, Woody. You're a man. What happened to that scrawny kid I left behind?"
"Just as you promised, I grew up and filled out. Well, a bit anyway. And look at you! Talk about grown up!"
"We'd better get out of the street before we're run down."
Cars were passing us on both sides so we carefully moved our reunion to the sidewalk. As we walked, TR threw an arm around my shoulder much like Terrence used to. A middle-aged couple on the corner had been watching us and as we passed the man said, "Now that's what I call allies."
"So what are you doing here? I don't mean in London, I mean, imagine running into you this way."
"It's not so hard to believe. The house is right up the street. I'm just on my way home from the office."
"Home? You mean you're staying with Mother and Dad?"
"Most of the higher ups are living in the same building as our headquarters, but there isn't room for everyone, especially those at the bottom like me. They've been scrambling to find billets for us all around the area. When I told them my parents lived in Mayfair, they had no problem with me staying there."
"So your headquarters are nearby? Where is it?"
"Sorry, that's top secret. We don't want the location to get out, although it's hard to keep completely secret. If the Germans find out, one well-placed bomb could wipe out the whole high command."
"You can't even tell me? I don't talk to Germans. I barely talk to anyone."
"I haven't even told Mother and Dad. My CO was quite concerned when he found out Dad was a reporter for the New York Times. I convinced him I could keep a secret, and so could Dad, if it came down to it."
"That's the famous General Lee?" I asked.
"Not Robert E," we said at the same time, laughing.
"Yes, I finally met him. He's a good guy, for an officer, that is."
"But you're an officer and a great guy. By the way, I suppose I should have saluted you when we met. Isn't that what military courtesy demands?"
"Yes, it does, but I'll overlook it this one time. Next time, however ..."
As we walked into the house Mother was coming out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. She stopped for just a second, staring, then rushed to us, throwing an arm around each of us in a three-way hug. When she finally pulled back there were tears in her eyes.
"I can't believe it! I have both of my boys at home."
I saw Dad standing in the doorway to the parlor. Even his eyes looked moist. He crossed the hall and hugged us each.
Supper was ready so I left my bag in the hall and TR and I washed up while Mother and Gran put the food on the table. Dad said grace, something we didn't usually do, but as it was the first time in three years the whole family had been together it seemed appropriate. It was a lively meal, with TR telling stories about Yale and his brief stay in Washington and me relating what few army stories I had. Since he'd been home for a week the others had heard some of these stories before and of course they'd heard of most of my experiences, but no one complained of the repetition.
We had after-dinner drinks in the parlor. I didn't have alcohol very often but I joined Dad, Granddad and TR in having a brandy. Mother and Gran had their usual port.
"I hope you don't mind, Woody, but we've given your room to TR." Dad seemed a bit discomfited. "I know we should have asked first, but he's here full-time now and both you and Terrence are only here a couple of nights a month."
"I didn't mean to evict you, little brother. If you don't mind sharing the bed, I don't."
"That's all right, TR. It makes sense for you to have the room. I'll sleep in the cellar. I'm used to being down there."
When I went upstairs to the room to get a few things I took the jar of petroleum jelly from the drawer of the nightstand. I hoped TR hadn't seen it there.
I met TR for lunch at a café on Pall Mall the next day. It must have been near his office because there were a lot of Americans in uniform there. As he'd only been in the country a week he was still getting organized and couldn't take any leave, but his superiors knew he was having a bit of a family reunion so they kept his hours to a minimum.
Terrence arrived the next evening just after TR got home. Dinner was a repeat of the night before, this time with Terrence taking center stage. TR was fascinated with his flying stories, even though he hadn't yet been in battle.
The next day we met TR for a quick lunch at the same café and then spent the rest of TR's lunch break walking around the area. We must have been a sight, the three of us in three different uniforms. In spite of all the time that had passed, it had the same feel as that first summer when Terrence was acting as our tour guide.
When we parted TR gave Terrence a hug as they wouldn't be seeing each other again for a while. Terrence had to leave for Tangmere that afternoon before TR would get home. At least I got to spend the rest of the afternoon with him and another evening and day with TR before I had to go back to Pirbright.
When it was finally my turn to leave, TR and I hugged.
"I may not like being stuck with desk duty, but as long as I get to see you now and then I'm glad I'm here."
"So am I. Have you written to Grandfather to thank him?" I asked mischievously.
"I don't want to rub it in. I saw our cousin Tom a couple of times in Washington and he's trying to get out in the field also. I'm sure Grandfather is gnashing his teeth."
I didn't mind at all that things had worked out the way they did. As long as Terrence could stay out of combat, I was very pleased with the situation and hoped it would last throughout the war. Terrence and I resumed our weekly dinner meetings. It felt a little odd that he was seeing more of TR than I was but I was glad the two most important guys in my life got along so well.
A couple of weeks after my reunion with TR there was finally some big news in the war. The Allies launched a raid on Dieppe, a port city in France. It looked like we were finally trying to get back on the continent. The initial news was exciting at first, but soon it became apparent that the raid was a disaster. Thousands of British and Canadian forces were killed or captured and dozens of aircraft were lost. I felt lost, not knowing if Terrence had been involved, and if he had, if he survived.
I kept my fingers crossed as I rode the bus into Guildford a few days later, hoping Terrence would be there. He was, thank god, but his mood was very solemn. It reminded me of the days following his father's death.
"I've been praying that you'd be here, that you weren't involved in the fiasco at Dieppe."
"Well, I'm here, but I was in the air battle over Dieppe. It was an experience I couldn't even imagine before. I shot down two Messerschmitts and took a couple of bullets in one wing, but managed to get back. I can't say the same for many others. Half my squadron didn't make it."
I was horrified to think that Terrence had come so close to being killed. I was speechless as he told me about the battle in a steady, emotionless voice.
"Thank god you made it back." I finally found my voice. "I read in the newspapers about all those who didn't. It was a horrible loss of life."
"I'm hoping some of the flyers survived and were captured. Most of the battle was over land or close to the coast. A couple of guys in my group parachuted into the Channel close enough to our ships to be picked up."
"I hope you don't have to be in something like that again."
"I daresay I will be in more air battles, but nothing like that again for a long time. If we learned anything from it, we now know we're not anywhere near ready to invade the continent."
Shortly after my September two-day leave in London I was called to my commanding officer's office. I felt like a student who was being punished, not that I'd ever been bad enough to be sent to the headmaster's office, either at DeWitt or Bancroft's. But all the way to the office I wondered what I'd done wrong.
I saluted and stood at attention when I entered the office. Major White looked up from a file he had open on his desk, returned the salute and told me to take a seat.
"You've been here in your present position, what, about eight months, Cooper?"
"Yes, sir, just about,' I answered, knowing that if that were my file he had open there was no need to ask. "But with basic and medic training before that, I've been here on base over a year."
He nodded and looked past me for a moment before focusing in on me again.
"Well, it looks as though you're going to have a change of scenery. You're being reassigned to the 11th Infantry Brigade."
'Reassigned? And to the infantry?' That didn't sound good at all.
"Have I done something wrong here, sir?"
"On the contrary, you've done an excellent job. But something big is brewing and we've been told to get as many medics ready for combat as we can. And you're one of the best we have, of those that had no prior medical training. We'll miss you but you're needed elsewhere."
I hesitated to ask any more questions. The major had already given me far more of an explanation than I was due. But I liked the word combat even less than infantry.
"Do you know what kind of operation we're in for, sir?"
"I haven't the foggiest. Nearly every operation is kept secret until the last minute for obvious reasons. You'll know when you have to know, that's all I can tell you."
"When does my transfer happen, sir?"
"Monday morning. You'll be given more information before then."
I immediately wrote to Terrence, TR and Dad. Using careful wording, I asked if any of them had heard of a major combat operation coming up. Dad wrote back that there were always rumors, but lately he'd heard of possible invasions of France, Norway and even North Africa. After Dieppe, he doubted it would be France. TR said he had no information but his response seemed vague and evasive. I had a feeling he knew something but couldn't tell me. I thought maybe if an invasion of France was being planned Terrence would have heard something as he would be involved in providing air cover, but he had heard nothing.
I spent the week saying goodbye to the few casual friends I'd made on base. The only one I'd really miss was John. He was worried when I told him and gave me his home address in Guildford so I could write him and keep him posted on my adventures.
By late the next Monday afternoon I was nearly settled in with the East Surrey Regiment of the 11th Infantry Brigade. Even with all I'd gone through since leaving New York, I was a bit stunned by how fast my world had changed. Compared to Pirbright where I spent my days in classrooms and hospital wards, I was back in the real army. It wasn't quite as bad as basic training had been, but a lot of the things we were doing were similar.
We hiked for hours with full rucksacks, practicing setting up and striking camp so that we could do it in no time at all and took lots of target practice. Shooting was the one thing I had done well in in basic training. It seemed simple to me, just aiming and carefully squeezing the trigger. In less than a week I had regained the expertise I'd developed in training. Not that I would get much of a chance to use it. Medics were only allowed to fire a weapon in self-defense. The cross on my helmet was supposed to keep the enemy from firing directly at me, although in the heat of battle I believed that anyone would shoot at anything they saw move. But at least I knew that if I were fired on I could probably defend myself.
No one in my new troop had any more idea where we were going than I. Before I arrived I was afraid I'd have trouble fitting in. In basic training we had all been newcomers. I assumed that here they had all been together for some time, and some of them had, but there were a couple of recent transfers and new recruits as well. If anyone questioned the appearance of an American newcomer in their midst they didn't make an issue of it. Our squadron doctor told me most soldiers wanted to be on the good side of their medics. One never knew when one's life might depend on it.
I found that in the infantry the men seemed to have an aversion to using first names. Everyone usually went by last names, or nicknames based on a striking physical attribute. Medics were often called Doc but Captain Hewitt, the squadron doctor, had that name taken. In the field all one had to do was call 'Medic!' but on base in regular conversation, a name was needed. At Pirbright, most everyone just called me Corporal, except John when we weren't working. I thought Woody might pass muster, but most of the guys started calling me Cooper, so I shortened it to my old nickname from DeWitt - Coop, that is, not Nancy.
By the second week of October it was clear that whatever operation they were getting us ready for was getting near when they started giving each of us 24 hour leave to go home and say goodbye to our dear ones. As the most recent arrival I was one of the last ones to get leave.
At home I again asked Dad and TR if they had any news of where I might be going. Dad said there were rumors circulating that something big was up but nothing definite. TR said pretty much the same thing but sounded a lot more vague saying it. Later, after I'd gone to bed in the cellar, TR came downstairs. He sat on the edge of the bed.
"You've probably been able to figure out that I have some idea what you're going to be up to."
"I thought so. You sounded evasive when you denied knowing anything."
"It's top secret and it's killing me not to be able to tell you, especially since I can see how concerned you are about it."
I was very worried but I was trying to act casual around the family. I didn't want them to worry too much. It looked like I hadn't succeeded in hiding my apprehension.
"I can't tell you where you're going, but I can say I don't think you have a lot to worry about. You're definitely not headed into another Dieppe. And while we're still working on it behind the scenes, it's possible there won't be any fighting at all. I can't promise you that, but we're all hoping."
"I don't know whether I feel better now or not. You've reassured me somewhat but you've really peaked my interest with that last part."
"You'll know soon enough so don't waste your time worrying about it."
"That's easier said than done."
The next day I met TR for lunch at the café on Pall Mall. As I entered I saw that a pretty, young blonde woman was sitting next to him. That didn't surprise me. Through his letters I'd been following his dating exploits for three years. He'd now been in London over two months. Of course he would have found a girl to date.
"Sarah, this is my brother, Woody. Woody, Sarah Jones."
"It's so nice to meet you. TR has told me so much about you. He's not only fond of you but quite proud as well."
"It's nice to meet you as well, although TR hasn't had much opportunity to tell me about you."
I looked questioningly at TR, wondering why he hadn't mentioned her the evening before. He must have read my mind.
"I didn't say anything about Sarah last night because you were so concerned with your new assignment. Besides, I knew you'd be meeting her today so I thought I'd leave it as a nice surprise."
And a nice surprise she was. She was charming and easy to talk to. While quite feminine, she came across a bit like of 'one of the guys.' In fact, she reminded me a little of Mother. I was glad to see TR's taste in women had improved since our crossing on the Queen Mary. The only thing I found at all disconcerting was her final comment when we parted.
"Next time we meet I'll bring along a friend for you, Woody. A fine young soldier like you should have a steady girl back home to write to."
A few days after I got back to base we packed up and were on the move. The whole regiment was boarded onto a train that then headed north. Once on the train we were informed that our short-term destination was a British Navy base on the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. That made me think our ultimate destination was Norway. Why would we travel so far north if our goal was to the south?
At the naval base I was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of everything - arriving trains, troops disembarking, and transport ships lining the docks. Men were moving straight from the trains onto the ships. I could see by the uniforms that there were far more American soldiers than British, although everyone on our ship was British. When I saw our personal possessions, thousands of bedrolls and barracks bags, being loaded onto the ship I wondered how they would ever match them up with their owners.
Somehow I was reunited with my gear and my troop was assigned our space in the hold. I had assumed that once we were underway we would be told where we were going. After all, we were all stuck on a ship at sea. Who could we tell except each other? But the first few days, nothing was said. When it became clear we were sailing south, Norway was ruled out. France was still an option but that had never been high on the list. And I kept remembering TR's cryptic statement that maybe there wouldn't be any fighting at all.
Every day new rumors spread through the ship. We were bound for southern France, or Egypt, or French North Africa, even the Bahamas. Or maybe we were just a big smokescreen covering up the real mission. Finally, after more than a week at sea, they started to brief us on our mission.
North Africa it was, and Algiers was our specific target. There was a huge convoy sailing across the Atlantic from America heading to invade at Morocco. And a part of our convoy was to invade at Oran. A slower convoy carrying supplies, tanks, other vehicles and materiel, had left a few days before us. We would catch up to them as we neared landing.
For most of the trip my constant companion was a young soldier named Peter Wingate. He reminded me of a younger me. He was 18, somewhat short and scrawny, and like me, not very outgoing. He must have also felt the affinity as he had been one of the friendliest in my section right from the day I arrived. Although I was only a year older and had no battle experience, he looked up to me as though I were a veteran soldier.
"I can't imagine how we're keeping this a secret from the Germans. Look at the size of this armada," I said as we stood on deck one day. Within our sight were at least two dozen ships.
"The brass say they're spreading false rumors, that we're a convoy to relieve Malta or bringing supplies to Egypt."
"Even so, someone must suspect something's up."
"There haven't been any U-boat sightings or attacks, so maybe they're just unaware of us. How long do you think it will take to get to Algiers, Coop?"
"Geography was never my strong suit so I don't know exactly how far it is, but I would have thought we'd be there by now. I know we're traveling a lot slower than the liners I've been on, but the Queen Mary crossed the ocean in four days. We've been at sea for nine and we haven't even come to Gibraltar yet."
Peter's eyes lit up when I mentioned the Queen Mary. I knew there was a bit of hero worship in his feelings toward me. I was older (slightly) and from another country. I'd traveled quite a bit and, while I hadn't mentioned my family's wealth, he rightly assumed I was from more comfortable economic circumstances than he.
"Did you see all of the Americans at Clyde? Why do you think there are so many more of them? I know the British Army is pretty big and we've got more experience fighting."
"I think it's because the French like Americans more than the British. From what the brass has said, and my brother said as well before I left, they're hoping the French won't fight."
"The French are supposed to be our allies. I can't imagine why they'd fight us. We're on their side."
"It's complicated, Peter. Dad had to explain the whole concept of Vichy France for me to understand. Basically, the Axis occupies northern and eastern France, with the rest of the country and northern Africa supposedly independent and neutral. In this case, neutral means doing whatever Germany wants. One wrong move and the Germans and Italians will invade and take over the rest of the country."
"So shouldn't the French look upon us as liberators?"
"Of French Africa, perhaps, but at the expense of the rest of the country."
"Well, I'm hoping the French soldiers at least remember we're their friends, regardless of what their leaders say."
"I hope so too, but remember, we both know troops are trained to follow orders. What the leaders say is what counts. So let's hope the leaders also remember we're their friends."
To Be Continued