1: The Canal
Out of every 100 men, ten shouldn’t even be there. / Eighty are just targets. / Nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. / Ah, but the one, / One is a warrior, / And he will bring the others back. /
—Heraclitus, circa 500 BC
Monday, 0140 hours, September 25, 1944.
Cold, wet, tired, and scared. Why, Baker thought, is war always this way?
The air was heavy with moisture, and a thick fog blanketed the flat, marshy land.
“Let’s get on with it,” Staff Sergeant Matt Baker announced with a grim smile that was more a measure of determination than anything else. Baker stood five feet, eleven inches with the build of a Notre Dame linebacker. His closely cropped brown hair and blue eyes made him look older than his twenty-one years. His youth and confidence belied the fact that he was a veteran of many skirmishes and battles. Now, he was the leader of a small, forlorn group of soldiers facing an impossible task.
“A helluva way to fight a war,” Corporal Tom Zanovitch answered. “But you’ll do okay. Both of you. I know you will.”
Baker took off his helmet and handed it to Zanovitch. The helmet was emblazoned with a white “R” painted on both sides, designating that Baker was a member of the elite Reconnaissance Platoon of the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles.
The rumble of distant artillery interrupted the moment, reminding everyone that there was a bigger war going on than just their personal battle in this small section of Holland.
“We’ll only need our pistols for this mission,” Baker added, and gave his submachine gun to Zanovitch.
Zanovitch took Baker’s helmet and weapon and placed them in the jeep. At the same time, Private First Class Johnny Swanson, a tough New Yorker from the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion, took off his helmet and weapon and laid them in the jeep.
War changes you, Baker thought as he reflected on his short twenty-one years of existence. It compresses time and experience.
Two years ago, he was a civilian. A year ago he was a recruit. A little more than three months ago he was a rookie soldier, jumping into the dark night on D-day. As a squad leader he fought his way across the Normandy hedgerows to Carentan, leading his paratroopers with distinction but unable to save them all. He had earned a Bronze Star for valor for his leadership in the Normandy operation and lost some good friends. He had aged a lifetime in the process.
Baker drew a .45 caliber pistol from the brown leather holster at his side. He carefully looked at the pistol for a moment, read the inscription on its side, and then pulled back the slide and let it jump forward. A .45 caliber round was now loaded in the chamber.
“That pistol has come a long way. The colonel would be proud. Honor and courage,” Zanovitch offered.
Baker looked at Corporal Zanovitch for one protracted moment, searching the eyes of his fellow soldier, looking for a meaning behind the comment. Like a flare in the night, Baker’s glance seemed to say: “Not now—don’t burden me with this now.”
“Well, in any case, good luck,” Zanovitch offered, looking straight at his sergeant’s face. “If it can be done, you and Swanson can do it.”
Baker didn’t answer. He pushed the thumb safety up on the pistol, holstered the weapon, then turned to Private Swanson. “Let’s move out.”
“I’m ready,” Swanson answered.
Swanson, also armed only with a pistol, slung two satchel charges over his left shoulder as he handed two demolition packs to Baker.
Baker took the charges, nodded to Zanovitch. “Be ready with your bazooka, just in case.”
Zanovitch smiled. “No problem. You know I never miss.”
The two men walked away in the dense fog. They moved silently through the cobblestone streets of the village to the fields. The ground was soggy and the movement cross-country was difficult as the mud clung to their boots. They headed east toward the canal.
Baker looked back to see that Swanson was behind him, then stopped to check his compass. He identified an east-southeast heading and quietly moved out on that bearing, hoping they would not accidentally stumble into a German outpost.
The boom of shells, detonating somewhere far to the north, was testimony that the battle for Hell’s Highway was still under way. Maybe there was still a chance for the beleaguered British 1st Airborne and the Polish Brigade at Arnhem? The British 1st Airborne, the Red Devils, had been told to seize the bridge at Arnhem and hold on for two days—three at the most. Now it was already nine days and the tanks of the British XXX Corps had yet to reach them.
It seemed hard to believe that only nine days ago Baker and his men had been safe in England. More poignantly, only a few days ago, all those who had died in battle in the past few days in the towns and fields near Son, Eindhoven, St. Oedenrode, and Veghel were still alive.
Only nine days ago.
That was the funny thing about time, he thought. Whether it was nine days or ninety years, dead was dead.
It began nine days ago. September 17, 1944, was the 101st Airborne Division’s second D-Day, and Baker was a part of it. The greatest airborne fleet ever massed for an operation, 35,000 Allied paratroopers, roared across the skies from the United Kingdom and spanned the Channel waters in what was being called Operation Market Garden. The air armada was so large that while the first planes were spewing forth parachutists on drop zones (DZs) and gliders were crash-landing on landing zones (LZs), planes and gliders transporting the division were still taking off from British airfields.
Some genius had decided that this airborne assault would occur in broad daylight, and the German anti- aircraft gunners had a field day. German flak, a term derived from the German acronym for antiaircraft cannon, met the invaders en route, hot and heavy, bursting in bright flashes of orange and red and remaining as black puffs in the sky, but the huge armada droned steadily on. Formations of slow-flying, two-engined C-47 Skytrain aircraft held firm despite the enemy’s fire. Pilots of burning planes struggled with controls as they flew to their designated DZs, but stayed on course as paratroopers jumped from the aircraft and plummeted earthward.
The invasion of Holland had begun with the Screaming Eagles dropped behind German lines as the base of the airborne penetration. Surprise was complete and the Germans were initially caught off-guard. Allied aircraft, parachutes, and gliders filled the skies. On the first day, there was little opposition from the Germans, and Baker began to believe that the intelligence reports might be correct—that they would only be up against old men and Hitler youth. The veteran paratroopers of the Screaming Eagles quickly assembled and marched on their objectives. They had eleven bridges to take in their portion of the Market Garden plan, and the men of the 101st Airborne always took their objectives.
The mission of the 101st Airborne Division was to capture Eindhoven and to seize the bridges over canals and rivers at Veghel, St. Oedenrode, and Son. To attain these objectives the paratroopers of the Screaming Eagles had to seize and hold a portion of the main highway extending over a twenty-five-mile area. Commanders realized that their units would be strung out on both sides of the single road that ran from Veghel to Eindhoven. In-depth security would be sacrificed, and the paratroopers would have to march and countermarch to stop the Germans from blocking the...