Twenty-Five

As told to Keith by his father Edward Kenny*

January 1945

I spent my first two weeks of the war cooling my heels in Paris at the Chateau Rothschild after escorting cases of scotch to senior staff officers fleeing Brussels ahead of German panzers (For the preceding story see My Night in Paris). I heard about the Battle of the Bulge in daily briefings and watched it on 16mm newsreels. Each morning, I put on my uniform, ate a formal breakfast, and reported for duty.

“Orders on hold,” the Captain at the desk said. When I pressed him, he had me sorting mail. The top brass got a lot of mail, mine was held up until they knew where I’d be based.

I wrote to my wife Phyllis in the evening and toured Paris alone during the day: the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, windswept boulevards, wine in the cafes. An unwashed earthy scent hung over the city. Soldiers and sailors wandered about laughing and pointing, officers and enlisted in every sort of uniform. Parisians swept and carried rubble, fixed doors and windows, and washed red and black Nazi regalia from walls.

My fortune changed quickly. “Lieutenant Kenny, 404th Fighter Group, 508 squadron, St. Trond.” The desk Captain checked my orders, looked up, and smiled. “They’ll be real happy to see you, Lieutenant.” He wrote and circled a big red ‘25’ in grease pencil on the first page, handed me my orders with a train ticket, and pointed to the front door. “Jeep’s waiting.”

The train from Paris to St. Trond, Belgium crossed the path taken by German columns a month earlier and in June 1940, when their swift attacks led to the fall of France. Along the route, I saw broken rail ties and twisted rails, and work teams, sledgehammers and rail spikes in hand. Collapsed buildings and bridges marred the view of rolling, green hills.

A-92 at St. Trond

We passed the great bend of the Meuse River at Namur then continued on to St. Trond, a quiet town of about 15,000 people. The town featured a central square, three-spire skyline, Carmelite monastery, narrow side-alleys, and cobblestones. A jeep met me at the train station and took me directly to the base which was designated A-92.

It had belonged to Staffel 12 of NJG 1. (Night Fighter Wing One). There were three crisscrossing concrete runways and dozens of covered revetments, camouflaged by the Germans to resemble barns and blocks of homes. A few smashed planes, Ju-88’s and Me-110’s, remained on the grounds. A large brick-and-concrete hangar and three-story control tower and operations building had been restored to operating condition. Thunderbolt fighters filled the parking aprons and the area in front of the hangar. Maintenance teams climbed over them, checking bullet holes and missing pieces, revving the engines. It was late afternoon and the squadrons had recently returned.

P-47 of the 404th at St. Trond
A P-47 Thunderbolt with the 404th at St. Trond, Belgium

The jeep pulled in front of operations. I hugged my coat tight and cap down against the frosty January wind, grabbed my B-4 bag, and jumped out.

“Lieutenant Kenny?” A sergeant, standing in the doorway, shouted over the roar of a dozen radial engines. I nodded and showed him my orders. He pointed to the red ‘25’ on the front page, gave a thumbs-up, and pointed to another ‘25’, on a banner inside the operations building. “Major Garrigan—he’s 508’s commander—said to send you in as soon as you arrived. Give him a minute; he’s with Captain Shelton.”

A corporal, overhearing our conversation, went quickly to update the roster in the briefing room. He chalked LT. EDWARD KENNY in six-inch letters at the bottom of the list for 508 squadron pilots. Beside it he wrote an outsized ‘25’, underlining it twice.

Damn friendly group, I thought.

“Major’s ready for you now,” the sergeant said, waving me toward the office.

My heart leaped. I felt excited and a bit intimidated. This was a veteran outfit. 404 Group and 508 squadron had led ground attacks into Germany since D-Day. St. Trond was forward deployed to support attacks everywhere along the German border.

I walked in and saluted. The office was Spartan, old wooden desk, trashcan, two wooden chairs, a low dresser used as a filing cabinet. Garrigan returned my salute without standing and gestured to the open chair. He was the designated ‘old man’ of the squadron, though barely twenty-six.

“Good to see you, Ed. Quite a setup, huh?” He gestured around the room and out the window. “Sorry your orders got held up. Blame the Germans. Two panzer divisions passed fifty miles south of here—last week a recon unit came within twenty-five. We almost pulled out. Anyway, I wanted to welcome you to the 508. Have you looked around? Need anything? Any questions?”

“My driver brought me here first,” I said. “He pointed out the mess hall and officers’ billets as we drove in. I haven’t seen my mail for a month.”

“In good weather, a gooney bird drops off the mail each morning. I’m sure you’ll get a bag full. Anything else?” Before I could speak, Garrigan added, “We’re having a little ‘Hail and Farewell’ drink at the O-club this afternoon. Starts in a few minutes. You’re the guest of honor. If that’s all, Ops briefing’s at 0400.”

He must have seen me hesitate. “Don’t worry, Ed. On your first mission, you’ll be my deputy’s wingman. No slight to you. The Germans are on the run, but they’ve still got some wolves up there … good machines, good pilots, and a lot more flying experience than we’ve got.”

I nodded and asked. “One question.” Garrigan leaned forward. “Being twenty-five is a big deal in this squadron. I guess we’re at full strength—with twenty-five pilots, I mean?”

Garrigan smiled. “Twenty-five’s a special number for us because we’re only authorized twenty-four pilots. That means somebody gets to go home.” He stared past me. “No one’s left any squadron in the 404th for some time, not unless they were in really bad shape. Some of these guys have flown over a hundred missions, and some volunteered for extra missions, did two or three a day.” He took a breath and looked back at me. “Any more questions?”

That thought brought the war home to me, fast. “No, sir. Thank you.” I turned to leave.

“Save a drink for me, Ed. I’ll be over as soon as I wrap up.”

The party that evening was short and spirited—everyone had to fly the next morning. We had a honky-tonk piano and a hot jazz group. Some of the guys took a break off the flight line just to have a beer with twenty-five—me. Local Belgian beer, wine, cheeses, and bread arrived in a horse-drawn cart.

Some of the guys tried to teach the Belgian girls to jitterbug, but a couple nurses from the local nursing school jitterbugged better than the guys.

Toward the end of the party, I met Captain Jack Tueller of Morgan, Utah. Jack was the happiest to see me. Tomorrow his name came off the top of the roster, and mine moved from twenty-five up to twenty-four. Jack was going home to his wife and two little girls.

Beside me, Jack raised his beer and shouted, “I love you guys, and I’ll never forget you, but tomorrow, January 27, 1945, I’m going home.”

Everyone cheered and raised their glasses, and it struck me. Not 25 but 21. Tomorrow was January 27, my birthday. I would be 21 and I was going on my first combat mission.

 

* Special thanks to Andrew F. Wilson, Ex-404th Fighter Group, Ex-507th Squadron S-2, for  much of the background provided in his book, Leap Off the Combat History of the 404th Fighter Group. In Wilson’s forward he writes, “This book is designed to give those who were members of the 404th Fighter Group during the period 1943-1945 some basis of fact around which they can weave their own fairy tales of personal wartime experience.”

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