Since the return of Sgt. Rock to comic shop racks will by way of the Normandy Invasion, I’ve been researching the hell out of the battle and more importantly, the men who fought it. For The Lost Battalion, I’ve had the pleasure of working with dozens of “living history” reenactors in an attempt to truly grasp the visual authentication of the US and Germans armies during the Second World War. Many of these men and women have since become friends and I cannot help but admire their dedication to history and the people of our “greatest generation.”
I've also had the great honor of meeting and befriending many of the veterans themselves, and being former paratrooper and a fanatical 101st/82nd Airborne buff, I jumped at the chance when asked to participate in a public event at the American Air Power Museum’s C-47 D-Day Flight Experience Event this past weekend on Long Island, NY. Some of you might have seen the press release sent out a few weeks ago of me “getting scalped for Sgt. Rock” and donning WW2 paratrooper garb, well, I want you all to know that it is all part of my own individual creative process and is something I’d like to share with you all.
The more I learn about these veterans, the more compelled I feel to relate their stories to the casual observer who otherwise wouldn't pick up a book on World War II. The sad truth of the matter is our valiant friends and relatives are now in the late 70s, 80s and 90s and dying at a rate of 1000 or so a day…
And I’m so saddened that so few really know or care about what they did.
Every year actual Normandy veterans attend the museum’s D-Day Flight experience – that is until this year, the ones who were supposed to come couldn’t. This struck me very hard, as I wished I had started this book a decade ago. So what better way to inform “John Q Public” about these men than doing stepping into their very boots and relate the stories I’ve learned to them myself? Since I am fortunate to tell stories for a living, and love to ham it up, I took up the Museum’s offer, but only if I could "all the way" for the event.
Amongst the hundreds of spectators who attended the event, over sixty generously paid a tax-deductible donation to actually fly in a World War 2 ear C47 aircraft. The D-Day Flight experience also included, gearing up in period uniform, helmet and “parachute,” while attending a very authentic mission briefing. These guests were also instructed by myself and several other paratroopers as they stepped back in time and onto the aircraft to learn what it was like to fly over the English Channel and embark on the “Great Crusade” of June 6, 1944. Each “trooper’s” M1942 jump jacket was emblazoned with nametag of a soldier from Lt. Dick Winters’ #67 “stick,” These were the men of 2nd Platoon/Easy Company /506 PIR who were made famous in the book and HBO series Band of Brothers. A stick is the name for the 10 to 15 soldiers in each aircraft at the time. All together we had six plane loads of “troopers” for each flight over Long Island and get this, our aircraft was an actual veteran of the D-Day who dropped paratroopers that “Night of Nights!!!”
But I had one personal request before signing up, and that was to not come as a member of Easy Company, but of my own personal heroes, the infamous “Filthy Thirteen.”
Led by Private Jake McNiece, a Native American from Ponca City, Oklahoma, the “Filthy Thirteen” were the inspiration of the film The Dirty Dozen. Who, according to author/historian Mark Bando, were demolitions saboteurs from HQ/506 and took solemn Indian vows not to wash or shave until they had returned from battle. Since the vow was taken around December 1943, the men were “pretty ripe” by D-Day, living apart from the rest of the 506th by “mutual agreement.”
These were the men, who though never convicted as criminals, spent most of their stateside and English training time drinking, brawling (with other soldiers and civilians) and well, in the stockade. These true bad bastards were perhaps the worst barracks soldiers the army ever had, (they never saluted officers) but when it came to combat, they proved to be the some of the toughest and most feared sons a bitches in the world.
Part of their notoriety is due in part by some famous photos taken of the “Filthy Thirteen” ‘chuting up for D-Day. This small group of men gave themselves Indian scalplocks and applied “war paint” to their faces from their aircraft’s black and white invasion stripes. But their reputations as warriors were constantly solidified by their valorous actions, and several, including McNiece and Jack Agnew actually ended the war with four combat jumps (Normandy, Holland, Bastogne and Germany). Both are still alive to this day and have written books and continue delighting audiences with their incredible stories.
Well imagine the surprise of my fellow troopers when I showed up 7am in the morning in full “Thirteen” kit and sporting war paint and a Mohawk!
I stayed in character the whole day to the delight of all by scaring kids, spending time alone (constantly sharpening my knife and checking and rechecking my Thompson submachine gun in plain sight of the visitors) and even going so far as to threaten a 506th officer with “whipping his ass in front of everyone” if he didn’t walk away while I “chuted up.”
In all seriousness though, I, along with the other Easy Company reenactors spent all morning and afternoon reflecting and relaying many personal, horrific and hilarious stories of those brave men of Normandy. We got into very detailed and intimate conversations during the 45-minute flights with the guests about the specific trooper they each represented. We told them about the soldiers’ hometowns, their families and pets, and to reinforce the fact that these were more than just nametags but that most were real 18-20 year old boys. Upon landing the guests were all directed back to the briefing room, where they received a “jump certificate” and learned the fates of “their” soldiers. Some were so moved by the experience, (hell I got teary eyed for them) that they cried upon learning that their particular sky soldier didn’t make it.
Overall I'd like to thank Easy Company officers Jim Michaud, Mike Glick and all the others who helped me out with the impression. Jim loaned me much priceless equipment and weapons from his private collection and really showed me the ropes the whole day through. He’s become a great friend and I’ve learned so much from him and the others about the weapons, uniforms and soldiers of the war that Sgt. Rock – The Lost Battalion would truly be “farby” without his guidance.
Avery special thanks must be made to pilot Jim Vocell and Bill Caporale’s grounds crew volunteers aka “the Ramp Rats” who did such an admirable job all day long. The American Air Power Museum (www.americanairpowermuseum.com)is located in the last of the hangars that produced the legendary Republic P47 Thunderbolt fighters, in Farmingdale, NY, and museum boasts a impressive flying fleet of WW2 fighters and bombers, including an F4U Corsair, P40 Warhawk and of course a P47, and hundreds of military, artifacts, uniforms and displays. They’re open every Thursday through Sunday and, weather permitting with the vintage aircraft flying.
I also want to make it clear, that yes, I am still married and my beautiful wife Deborah has forgiven me for the Mohawk. At least until later on this week when I give our sons ‘hawks as well! I also promise that when and if I get the chance to do Batman or God forbid Wonder Woman, I’ll leave the bracelets and Underoos at home.
Seriously, though, some may ask why I would do such a thing as I did. I have to admit that by engrossing myself in the life and times of the 1940s it takes my writing and art to new personal levels. I love the men of the 506th PIR and am in awe of them and their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who saved the world from such tyranny.
It’s also that if I’m doing Sgt. Rock and having a torch passed onto me by a legend like Mr. Kubert, I must go all the way. After all, you the audience deserves it, and those soldiers, like the brave men and women serving today, deserve our appreciation.