My family learns a long-lost war secret about my grandfather.
|"I cannot believe this, the pictures will blow you away," began Mom's e-mail, the e-mail that changed my memories of Grandpa.
Grandpa is my hero and always has been.
He jumped into Normandy during D-Day, June 6, 1944, as a 101st Airborne paratrooper. The Germans immediately captured him. Eleven months later, when the Allies freed him from Stalag prisoner camp in Prussia, he weighed only 82 pounds.
I've always known Grandpa's prisoner of war story. I've known about the two Bronze Stars awarded for his sacrifice. And I've known about his time with the 101st.
But I never knew about his membership in one of the most storied and infamous units of World War II. And Grandpa's war buddies never knew he survived the Normandy jump, and many didn't even know his name.
WHO IS PICCADILLY WILLY?
At the end of March, my mother told me a historian, Dave Berry of Pathfinder Historical Consultants, had called my uncle and asked about Grandpa.
Berry believed my grandfather, James F. Green, might have been "Piccadilly Willy," a member of the infamous "Filthy Thirteen."
The unit is best known for a famous "Stars and Stripes" photo of 101st paratroopers wearing "mohawks" and applying war paint. The newspaper also followed the unit through the war, publishing such headlines as "D-Day cutthroats bathed in blood — and plenty of it was German" and "(Filthy Thirteen's) Whereabouts not known but pity the Nazis who meet them."
The unit also might have been inspiration for the 1967 movie "The Dirty Dozen."
Historical accounts, including the 2003 book "The Filthy Thirteen," refer to Piccadilly Willy as William Green, and they indicate he was unable to jump during the invasion and died when the plane exploded.
Berry — and others — questioned whether "Piccadilly Willy" was William Green. And a chat board at ezboard.com delved into the mystery. Evidence quickly mounted that the real "Piccadilly Willy" was my grandfather, James F. Green.
The theory wasn't confirmed until Berry reached my uncle, James A. Green. He, and others in my family, quickly confirmed that pictures of "Piccadilly Willy" were, indeed, of my grandfather.
Mom sent me the pictures.
"The pictures of Grandpa in a mohawk getting ready to go into battle are on D-Day," my mother wrote. "Oh my God ... oh my God."
PICCADILLY WILLY LIVES
My family knew little about my grandfather's time with the 101st before the Germans captured him, but we knew he lived to be 79 (he died of heart trouble in 2002), had four children and five grandchildren. Grandpa's war buddies thought he died on the plane that carried part of the "Thirteen" to Normandy.
Jake McNiece, squad leader of the Filthy Thirteen and co-author of 2003's "The Filthy Thirteen: The Real Story of the Dirty Dozen," recalled in his book that Grandpa had a problem with his parachute and moved to the back of the line to jump last. The last man to jump reported seeing the plane explode before Piccadilly Willy jumped.
A Nov. 3, 1944, "Stars and Stripes" article also reports "Piccadilly Willy" never jumped. Even the Army thought Grandpa died on the plane — Army brass contacted my family to report he had been hit by enemy fire and killed in action.
The Army later corrected itself when Grandpa was freed.
I can't say for sure what happened on the plane (please see "Family Lore" on Page J1).
At the end of this March, McNiece and other war buddies of Grandpa learned he survived the jump and lived a long life.
"I was so surprised to get the call that Piccadilly Willy made it through the war," McNiece said in a May 2 telephone conversation.
"I always thought he blew up with the plane. I thought Piccadilly Willy went down with the ship.
"He was one of the best friends I had," McNiece added. "I wish he would have contacted me after the war."
Grandpa didn't talk much about the war. What little he spoke about centered on nightmarish memories — months as a prisoner of war, being spit on as a prisoner marched through French cities. Mom recalls his speaking a bit about the "Filthy Thirteen."
But Grandpa, as far as I know, didn't talk about being Piccadilly Willy.
Perhaps he didn't want to bring that part of him home. He got the nickname because of his frequent trips to what was then London's red-light district, the Piccadilly Circus.
Perhaps he didn't see the point in sharing old war memories, memories he might have considered much sillier than starving in a prison cell.
Or perhaps his life had just moved on, moved on to four children and five grandchildren. Moved on, as Jake McNiece points out, "to a pretty good life."
For whatever reasons, Piccadilly Willy lay dead for nearly 63 years. Now, he will live forever.
"Your grandfather was a part of history," McNiece told me. "It was a great honor to be a 101ster, known throughout the world.
"You should be proud of your grandfather."
Grandpa is my hero and always has been.
According to accounts passed down through the Green family, James F. "Piccadilly Willy" Green recalled his story this way (please note that he spoke very little about the war):
Green was in line to jump when something happened to his parachute. He stepped out of line.
The trooper who stepped into Green's place was hit by enemy fire before jumping and died.
When ready to jump, Green stepped to the end of the line. He was the last to jump. Green never mentioned the plane exploding, and historical documents show the plane returned to base.
Green landed on "the beach" (not one used by the Allied invading force), and German soldiers immediately captured him.
Green recalled being moved frequently among prisoner camps and often paraded in front of occupied townspeople.
He weighed 82 pounds when he was freed from a camp in Prussia. His recovery was long.