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The Longest Wait by Robert Kurson, Part 4, WWII Soldier Extraordinaire

At Jacquelyn’s dorm in Tuscaloosa, the postman slipped notes into her mailbox telling her to come collect her mail – her pile of letters would not fit in her personal slot.  Jacquelyn dated dozens of men in college, but she got involved with none of them.  Late at night, she would write to Randy and describe her dates.  She did this to make certain that Randy knew she had no intention of getting serious with anyone.  When Randy sent white orchids to her sorority house, Jacquelyn’s sisters swooned and giggled and looked at Randy’s photograph and told Jacquelyn that living with her was like living with a movie star.

RANDY had it better than many in the army – as a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps stationed in England, he likely would see no combat. One day, a crippled B-17 bomber made an emergency landing at his field.  Randy rushed out to see medics unload a wounded top turret gunner – the man had been shot through the chest with a 20-millimeter cannon and he was dead.  At that moment, Randy decided he needed to be actively involved in the war, that he would never be comfortable in life if he didn’t dig in and participate.  He requested a transfer to the front lines.  The captain told him he was nuts.  Randy insisted.  The army shipped him to the 92nd Mortar Battalion – if Randy wanted to get his ass shot off, that would be the place.

Three weeks after D-day, Randy and his men landed at Utah Beach (Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, France).  He was a lieutenant in charge of the Third Platoon, Company C and it didn’t take long for soldiers to realize they were in the company of a budding war hero.  On the first day of action, Randy climbed an observation post looking for Germans, aimed his mortar and knocked out five tanks – unheard of with that weapon.  On another day in Normandy, Randy and several platoons of  U.S. soldiers found themselves trapped in hedgerows and surrounded by Germans.  An American colonel ordered the men out.  “I crawled to Randy’s position and said, “Let’s get the hell out!” recalls Amerigo “Bank” Bianchi, another lieutenant and Randy’s best friend overseas.  “And Randy says, ‘I’m staying.’  I have to admit, I took off, and so did the rest of the company.  Lots of men, brave men, took off.  It was suicide to stay. Five hours later, we got orders to go back in…there was Randy with his 30 to 40 men – they stayed all night, fighting the Germans off.  He was a soldier, man.  He did things.”

Randy in Germany 1944

During quiet, Randy wrote Jacquelyn 250 letters from late 1943 to early 1945.  In his wallet, he carried Jacquelyn’s calling card, inscribed with her name in fancy script on the front and a handwritten note on the back along with a wool scarf.  The note said,  “When you wear this around your neck think of me and pretend it’s my arms.  I love you.  Brown Eyes.”

In February 1945, Randy and six other members of his mortar battalion took up position on the front line of the Rhine River; their job was to use radio and binoculars to guide troops to a sunken barge filled with German mortars and machine guns.  Before Randy and his men even settled, a German artillery shell landed among them.  The six other men were killed and the shell blew off Randy’s clothes.  Bianchi rushed to his friend’s side.  Randy’s body was riddled with shrapnel – a pile of hamburger meat attached to a head.  Randy’s face, however, seemed untouched, except for a tiny droplet of blood trickling from each eye.  As Bianchi held him, Randy stared forward and said, “Bank, I hurt.”  Medics rushed him to an airstrip.

On his way to an English hospital, he had two thoughts.  First, that he could not wait to get into a pair of pajamas. Second, that he needed his .45 pistol – not to shoot himself or to take out another German, but because he had placed Jacquelyn’s picture inside the handle, and he couldn’t abide losing something like that.

To be continued.