Mercy Is Its Own Reward

I was a paratrooper with the 17th Airborne Division at an airfield in France awaiting Operation Varsity, the Allied airborne invasion over the Rhine River on March 24, 1945.

The afternoon before the drop, I had received a letter from my mother that upset me greatly. She sensed that I was going into battle. "Son, I want you to be merciful," she wrote. "Never forget that the young man you are fighting has a mother who loves him and prays for him, just as I love and pray for you."

Infuriated, I thought: "Mother, what are you trying to do, bring about my death? I am trained to kill or be killed!"

At 3 the following morning, we were fed a last meal before the long, rough flight. The Germans were expecting our attack. The flak and groundfire were the most intense of any airborne invasion in the war. Once on the ground, I was pinned down in an open field by machine-gun fire from distant farmhouses. A group of our paratroopers coming out of the woods saved me by causing a pause in enemy fire. I then joined in charging the farmhouses, only to find that they had been hastily abandoned.

Bringing up the rear as we passed the last farmhouse, I heard noises coming from a cellar. Convinced that some of the enemy were hiding there, I lifted the slanted, wooden cellar door cautiously and was about to toss in a grenade when I remembered my mother's plea: "Be merciful!" Instead, I shouted down for the Germans to surrender and come out with their hands up. There was silence.

My second shout brought stirring.

The first to come up was an elderly grandmother. Then another woman appeared, followed by four or five little children, until 14 women and children stood before me. I shuddered at the thought of what I might have done, and the burden it would have placed on my life, had I not received my blessed mother's letter.

-- John Kormann, Chevy Chase

Parachute silk belonging to John Kormann, along with his dog tags, a pin signifying a combat jump, and various patches.