As you read the following true story you may feel fear, anguish, sorrow, pain, shock, and maybe even dread.
The subject of the story certainly felt those emotions but considered himself to be taking part in a grand adventure on a scale he never imagined while growing up in rural America during the 1930s and early 1940s.
A teenager when he entered service to his country, and not older than 22 when he came home, he had no time to grow up, for he found himself thrust into the depths of a war, the likes of which the world had never witnessed. He rose to his respective challenges without complaint and performed above and beyond what most people today might consider a reasonable expectation.
As Gene Metcalfe boarded a C-47 paratroop transport plane to fly him to a drop zone outside of Nijmegen, Holland, in the first wave of Operation Market Garden, an upbeat British lieutenant handed him an unmarked cardboard box containing 12 dozen condoms. A mere 12 hours later Gene considered them to have been a bad joke as he found himself being interrogated by Heinrich Himmler deep in the bowels of a Charlemagne-era castle, machine gun-toting fanatics of the Reichsführer “SS” on either side of him.
The following are his recollections as explained to Marcus A. Nannini in a series of interviews conducted over the course of several years. The conversations, characters, and scenes set forth in this story are recreated to the best of Gene’s memory. The presence of Heinrich Himmler on the night of September 17/18, 1944, has not proven capable of independent verification. The search for definitive proof of his whereabouts on the night in question continues.
During the course of more than two dozen interviews, Gene was consistent in his recollections and especially with details, down to counting the number of stairs in Belvedere Castle at Nijmegen. Some of the conversations with his German captors are Gene’s interpretation of the original dialogues, most of which were part sign language, part German and part English. He occasionally uses incorrect German words as he pronounces the German language as he heard it in 1944/45, not necessarily as it was actually pronounced. His hearing was significantly compromised as a result of his right eardrum having been irreparably destroyed by a German “88” while at the same time losing some hearing in his left ear.
A special thank-you to First Lieutenant/Flight Instructor, veteran of 27 combat missions, recipient of three air medals, seven battle stars and Market Garden veteran, Harry E. Watson, USAAF (Retired) and Major Robert Bauman, USAF (Retired).
Thank you to my editor, Susanne C. Johnson, M.A.
It was a cold, dreary Tuesday morning, November 10, 1942. Nineteen year-old Gene Metcalfe was attending his much dreaded math class at DeKalb High School in the small teachers college and farming town of DeKalb, Illinois. The class had finally settled down after dutifully handing in their respective homework assignments to their teacher, Mr. Hoppe.
Gene was not-so-patiently waiting for Hoppe to discover his homework was missing. He fidgeted in his seat as Hoppe slowly worked his way through the assignments. He watched Hoppe carefully marking off the names from the class list as he slowly progressed to the bottom of the stack of homework papers. Finally, after what seemed for Gene to have taken far too long, Hoppe, with a flamboyant flip of his fingers, dropped his pencil and looked directly at him.
“Mr. Metcalfe?” There was only the slightest hint of interest in his voice, which was just a notch above his usual monotone. Gene, being respectful, stood in response.
“Yes Sir?” It took all of his willpower to keep from laughing.
“Didn’t you do your homework last night, Mr. Metcalfe?” Hoppe’s tone of voice revealed his annoyance, which provided Gene with a little satisfaction for all the times he had struggled in Hoppe’s class over the last two and a half years.
“No Sir, I did not. In fact, I don’t plan to ever do math homework again.” Gene no longer could hide a smile, aggravating Hoppe all the more. Hoppe stood in response to the unexpected answer while simultaneously raising the level of his voice.
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“Mr. Metcalfe!” He paused to assure himself he commanded everyone’s attention. “Just how do you expect to graduate next June if you don’t do your homework?”
“Sir,” he replied, “I don’t expect to graduate. In fact, I’ve just joined the 508th Paratroop Infantry Regiment and I’m leaving right this minute to report for duty!” He began to move toward the doorway and paused to deliver one final thought: “In a few months they’re going to have me parachuting right down on top of Hitler’s head when he’s at that mountaintop retreat of his so we can end the war!”
Without hesitating, Gene quickly walked up the aisle, right past an uncharacteristically quiet Mr. Hoppe and out the classroom door. Hoppe remained standing, his mouth wide open and a look of complete surprise on his face as Gene made his escape, the door quietly closing behind him.
It was obvious to the entire class Gene’s response was the last thing Hoppe expected to hear. In fact, they were all shocked, for he hadn’t spoken of his enlistment with any of his friends. A fellow senior, Betty, didn’t want to believe what she had just witnessed. She was confused, furious, and devastated. She hesitated a few moments, and before Hoppe could regain his composure she bolted out the door and down the hallway in pursuit of Gene.
She caught up with him just as he was pushing open the heavy wooden door he’d sooner never pass through again, frantically calling out his name. Gene considered for a moment whether he should wait and decided he owed her at least some explanation.
He turned to look at her for what he considered to be the last time. Betty’s haystack-colored hair was pulled back into a long ponytail. Her blue eyes were the unspoiled accent to her perfectly oval-shaped face, her nose turning up ever so slightly above what had become a set of quivering, red-lipsticked lips. Those quivering lips had been Gene’s weak spot since early in their relationship but now he was duty-bound to the Army. Quivering lips or not, he wasn’t going to be caving in to her desires.
With tears streaming down her cheeks, she expressed some understanding of his need to join the war effort. She told him she was under the impression they had agreed he would wait to enlist until after graduation Homework • 3
so they could get married. She wanted to know what had happened to their plans to go to the local teachers college, graduate, get teaching jobs, have children, and spend their lives together.
As gently as Gene knew how, he explained the plans she spoke of were her plans and he had never agreed to them. He felt it would be better if he volunteered now and let fate dictate what happens to them. Her tears continued to flow as they embraced and shared a final brief and gentle kiss. Gene turned and quickly slipped through the heavy door. Betty blocked it from slamming shut with her foot. She stuck her head through the door and, sounding more hopeful than certain, she called out to him: “Gene, I’ll write you!”
Gene turned his head and paused just long enough to say: “That’d be swell, if you want to.”
Gene was due to report for duty at Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois, the following morning and was focused on getting himself there on time. Rockford was about 40 miles away from his old clapboard home in DeKalb. Given it was mid-November, the distance was too far for him to cover on foot and he knew his folks wouldn’t help either. Though they had adopted him as an infant, his experiences told him his parents were not particularly supportive of any of his efforts.
He was a sports star at DeKalb High School, having lettered in basketball, but his parents never revealed much interest in his high school efforts, let alone attend even one of his events. Now and again he would share with his pal Jimmy the fact his mother on numerous occasions had make it painfully clear to him: “Although you are my only child, you are not necessarily my favorite.” In fact, when he was about eight years old one of his mom’s friends lost her only child, a boy, in a freak accident. At his own mother’s suggestion she sent Gene to live with the woman and her husband for an entire year, allegedly to help them overcome their grief. He barely ever saw either of his adopted parents during his year away.
In addition to being a naturally gifted athlete, Gene was an accomplished piano player. But no matter how hard he tried, and he gave it his best, he never could seem to elicit very much in the way of loving emotions from his mom. Her fondness for the piano had motivated him 4
to learn the instrument in the first place. Unfortunately, his piano playing never appeared to have much in the way of an emotive effect on her. Still, he had a love for music and thoroughly enjoyed playing at home and at the homes of his many friends.
Art was another of his talents. A naturally gifted artist, he possessed the unique ability to beautifully recreate any scene, or person, from memory. If he noticed an interesting individual or location, he could recreate it on canvas many months later as if the subject were still directly in front of him.
He shrugged off the disinterest of his parents and applied himself to sports, the arts, and school, except for math, a class he believed to be the epitome of boredom. He considered himself to be pretty much on his own in life and seldom looked outside of himself for help.
About a year earlier he had been on a double-date at the local theater where the exciting Edmond O’Brien movie, Parachute Battalion, was the main feature. From that point forward he decided he would become a paratrooper, even though America had not yet been drawn into the war. He appreciated the fact paratroopers packed their own ’chutes and were responsible to themselves.
He had missed an entire year of school with a severe illness when he was very young, making him a year older than most of his classmates. He originally decided he would stay in school until he graduated but found it impossible to wait any longer and enlisted in the paratroopers on the afternoon of November 9, 1942. He would be reporting for duty on Armistice Day, November 11. However, his first order of business consisted of finding a way to get himself to Rockford as quickly as possible.
With only one primary road leading to Rockford, Gene began hitchhiking as soon as he reached the two-lane highway stretching out across miles and miles of harvested corn fields. He’d been trying to hitch a ride for nearly an hour when a black, two-door Ford businessman’s coupe pulled over. As he ran up to the car the driver pushed open the passenger door. Gene noticed a cloud of cigarette smoke pour out of the little coupe. He didn’t smoke and rationalized to himself: “A ride’s a ride.”
He hopped into the front seat, thanked the driver, and introduced himself. The driver offered him a cigarette and stated his name was “Johnson, just Johnson.”
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“So where ya head’n Gene?” Johnson asked.
“Rockford, Sir. I’ve joined the paratroopers and need to report for duty at Camp Grant first thing tomorrow morning.”
Gene recalls Johnson said to him that was “downright fine.” He told Gene he felt the paratroopers sure must be brave jumping out of perfectly good aircraft like they do. Johnson also told him: “I admire your courage.”
Johnson went on to explain there was no way you’d find him jumping out of a plane or even find him in a plane. He told Gene: “It ain’t natural.”
Johnson snuffed out the butt of his cigarette and immediately lit another; Gene soon discovered he was a chain-smoker. As he was about to return the cigarettes to his shirt pocket, he stopped and offered the pack to Gene.
“No thanks, Sir, I don’t smoke,” Gene responded.
“Take my word, kid, you’re better if ya don’t take up the habit; it may damn well kill you someday.”
After about 20 minutes of silence Johnson slightly let up on the gas pedal and asked Gene if he knew where he was going to spend the night, especially since it was below freezing. Gene had been pondering exactly the same question and explained he’d never given it much thought until then. He said his only concern was to be on time for reporting to Camp Grant in the morning.
Johnson drove a few more minutes when Gene noticed he was smiling. He told Gene he had an answer to his problem. Before explaining himself, he paused to light another cigarette. After taking a couple of puffs he proceeded to say he was buddies with just about everybody on the Rockford police force and was “damn near-certain” they’d be honored to put Gene up for the night. He said they’d probably feed him too.
Gene considered the offer for a few moments and responded: “Well, so long as they don’t lock me in a cell, that’d be just swell. Thanks!”
Gene relaxed and gazed out at the nearly barren farm fields, his mind wandering to the days he had hunted pheasants and rabbits in similar fields as the annual season opened in November each year. This November, however, there’d be no small game hunting, as he had only one thing in mind: joining the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Johnson proceeded to drive Gene to the Rockford police station.
After thanking Johnson, Gene introduced himself to the desk sergeant;
a balding, older man Gene thought looked like a grandfather he never had. He immediately took a liking to him and told the sergeant he was reporting to the 508th Paratroop Infantry Regiment the following morning and needed a place to sleep.
The sergeant greeted him with a hero’s reception. After vigorously shaking Gene’s hand, he directed one of his officers to triple up the mattresses in their “best cell.” When Gene thanked him, he addressed the sergeant by his rank. The sergeant immediately replied: “Just call me Frank. You’ll have your own sergeant soon enough!” Frank went on to say the Rockford Police Department would be “right proud” to put him up for the night. He told Gene they’d also feed him and drive him to Camp Grant in the morning. Gene was hugely relieved as the alternative would have meant sleeping on a sidewalk.
Frank motioned toward a pair of officers sitting nearby and ordered them to lend him a hand setting up cell eight. The two men jumped to their feet and were immediately on Gene’s heels as the group proceeded through a doorway and deeper into the building.
Upon arriving at cell eight, Frank directed the pair of officers to carry in a padded armchair. Frank, a quizzical expression on his face, was looking over the cell as if something was missing. “That’s it!” He turned, looked at one of the officers and said: “Go fetch a couple of extra pillows. We don’t want Gene to spend his first day as a paratrooper with a kink in his neck.”
Gene took a seat in the armchair as Frank motioned to the remaining officer and ordered him to call down to the Tic Tac Diner and order up a full steak dinner for their guest of honor. He told him to make sure they send over one of their cherry pies too. He made it clear to tell the diner they had a “VIP” guest and not to skimp on what he called, “the fixin’s.” The officer quickly disappeared toward the front of the station.
Frank returned his attention to Gene and told him to “Just sit back and relax while you can, son.”
Gene made himself comfortable in the easy chair and replied: “I plan to do just that.”