A few of the Angels who made the charge were so sick and weak that they had to be helped down the hilltop on the other side. Several Bronze Stars resulted from the operation, including one soldier who many believed should have received the Medal of Honor for charging the enemy's main line, firing his machine gun from the hip as he ran.
With a sigh, Captain Cavanaugh turned his head to study the steady stream of 2nd Battalion's paratroopers that were marching towards Ormoc Bay, some barefooted as their paratrooper boots had rotted away in the constant rain and mud. While some other units in the 11th Airborne's column looked relatively fresh due to their "far from the front" natures, the paratroopers of the 511th looked haggard due to their nearly 40 days of combat and 2nd Battalion's column stretched out over a half a mile.
While Cavanaugh was proud of his company and all the others within the regiment, he sighed at the heart-wrenching scene of 250 troopers carrying stretcher after stretcher of their dead and wounded down the hillsides towards Ormoc. 40% of the 511th's strength was gone, either dead or wounded by the enemy or the jungle's dangers. When D Company had entered the mountains on November 23, Cavanaugh had 117 men under his command. 21 of them were now being carried out on those stretchers, either dead or too wounded to walk out themselves.
Soon it came time for D Company to get on their feet and begin their own march down the slippery mud trail. Cavanaugh had Lt. Carrico and his other platoon leaders get the men onto their tired feet. Cavanaugh and Carrico, who called each other Rusty and AC, shared a look. It was time for a rest and while the regiment had completed every assigned task they'd been given, the cost had been high and although they were too young and exhausted to know it, the nightmares would last for years to come.
Forming up by squads and platoons, Cavanaugh moved his men down the trail towards the beach. A depressing fog enshrouded the hills around them, one that Cavanaugh and Carrico felt matched the mood of the men who marched forward with one aching foot in front of the other. The young paratroopers were quiet, lost in thoughts of loved ones back home and shadows of former lives that felt so foreign now.
Said T/4 Rod Serling, the future creator of the Twilight television show, said, "(It) was not the weather, it was the mood, I remember--the kind of mood that is the province of combat and is never fully understood by those who have not lived with the anguish of war."
Suddenly, someone at the head of their column stopped and turned to whisper to the man behind him. Instantly the paratroopers shook off the mental cobwebs and went to full alert as whispers meant that the enemy had been spotted. And this close to the end, no one was taking any chances.
And then the message roared down the line like wildfire as paratroopers passed the words along: "It's Christmas."
The quiet of the jungle was soon broken as one Angel began to sing there in the clouds:
"O come, all ye faithful
Joyful and triumphant
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem..."
Other broken voices soon joined in and a warmth began to fill the hearts of the men who had felt frozen by war.
"Come and behold Him
Born the King of Angels!"
Sing choirs of Angels, indeed.
The magic of Christmas had found its way into the souls of D Company and 2nd Battalion on that rainy, cold, muddy Christmas day in 1944. Gone were the fears, the pains and the difficulties of war. Instead, the battle-hardened paratroopers felt their hearts made light and the spirit that filled their beings after so many dark nights of combat can only be described as Heavenly.
T/4 Rod Serling noted, "...suddenly I wasn't aware of the cold rain or the mud. I gave no thought to the sickening ache deep inside the gut that had been with me for so many days. Someone had transformed the world... We sang as we led the wounded by the hand and carried the litters and looked back on the rows of homemade crosses we left behind... It had come indeed--the Holy Day. The day of all days. It was Christmas."
Pondering that Christmas morning so many years ago, my grandfather, my hero, 1st Lieutenant Andrew Carrico III simply and with deep emotion said, "I remember."
Most of the 511th's Angels have now passed from this life, but their legacy of courage and the freedoms they fought for still remain. This Christmas season I pray we can all honor their sacrifice and service by increasing "goodwill towards men" and by spreading peace. May we open our hearts in love to those around us, may our words by kind and uplifting, may we forgive quickly and serve without selfishness. May we be Angels in our nature and our daily living. May we be the hands that lift, the cause of hope, the bright lights that shine when the world feels dark.
Merry Christmas, my dear friends.