Like many good men my age, I was in the Big One, and I can tell you firsthand that war is hell. It's day after horrifying day of your worst fears come true. And when it came time to face those fears and be men, I could always count on my fellow leathernecks in the 202nd, without fail, to knuckle under and scatter like frightened little children.
You know, people like to throw the term "hero" around a lot when they talk about my generation. But I don't believe the men of the 202nd were heroes. No sir. The heroes were the ones who didn't stay curled up in their foxholes sucking their thumbs or jamming their fingers in their ears. The heroes were the ones who refused to pledge their complete and unwavering allegiance to Hitler the moment the enemy was in earshot. The heroes were the ones who didn't pretend to be dead for hours and sometimes days after a battle had been decided.
Those were the real heroes.
I don't know if it was fate or coincidence that brought us together, but I can say I served with 39 of the most craven, gutless pussies you ever laid eyes on—every last one of them quicker to cry than a colicky newborn. By God, there wasn't a major battle in the European Theater we didn't flee from like a flock of spooked pigeons. Even "Old Blood and Guts" Patton himself said we were the biggest bunch of lily-livered pisspants ever to disgrace the U.S. Armed Forces, and that's no exaggeration.
Yes, everyone knew our platoon. The Scamperin' Squirrels, they called us. Our girlish, high-pitched screams gave courage to Jerry from Nice to Luxembourg. "That's the Squirrels," the Krauts would yell, and they knew they didn't have a chance in hell of sustaining any losses.
I remember the Battle of the Bulge like it was yesterday: All us young men shoving one another out of the way, tripping over the wounded and dead with our white flags flapping in the frigid winter wind. Those images will be with me forever, even though I was blinded by tears most of the times I dared to open my eyes. We eventually surrendered to a confused Ardennes dairy farmer at the end of that first terrifying day. Boy, you should have seen the look on his face.
But hell, who didn't we surrender to? The enemy, the Allies, each other, it made no difference. One Panzer division refused to take us prisoner out of pure disgust. Can't say I blame 'em, really. We would drop our weapons at the first sound of tanks, planes, jeeps, horses, thunder, or almost any kind of shouting. I don't think I fired that damned gun more than once. None of us did. To be honest, we weren't too partial to loud, sudden noises.
And Normandy. Let's not forget Normandy. We were there, too. If you look closely at some of those old photos, you can just make out our Higgins Amphibious bobbing on the horizon, speeding away from Omaha Beach as fast as we dared until we were forced to turn around because of seasickness and a terrible fear of sharks. We eventually stormed a secluded little cove and waited it out until we were certain we could timidly skulk unseen through the streets of Paris.
No such luck, as it turned out. We were over a week late and the grateful Parisians still showered us with flowers while we cowered in the middle of the Champs-Élysées. I've never been so scared in my entire life, pinned down by that ceaseless barrage of daffodils. I'll always remember what my best buddy, Jimmy Conroy, said to me that day, a single tear—the first of many, many more—rolling down his cheek. "We ain't gonna die here, Phil," he said. "We're going to die old men."
And he was right.
Say what you will about the Squirrels, but every last one of us survived the war. We even got Purple Hearts, though there was some curiosity about how every member of a 40-man platoon could get shot in the foot on the same day in an Allied barrack 200 miles from the front lines.
There may be little talk about our part in the Second World War, but we secured our place in history as the most yellow-bellied, spineless members of the Greatest Generation that ever was.