[Excerpt from: Andrews, P. (2005). A Bullet in the Barrel of Your Best Guy’s Gun: Captain America, the Commandos and the Theatrics of War. New York: Columbia University Press.]
Here is the truth about Captain America and the Howling Commandos that every World War II historian must come to accept at one point or another: we will never know everything. We won’t even come close. So much was lost with the untimely death of Captain America. While the man beneath the uniform sunk to the bottom of the North Atlantic, the myth lived on, growing bigger and more unwieldy as the years went by. Now, it is near impossible to tell fact from fiction, to separate out truth from propaganda.
Captain Steve Rogers and his life-long best friend turned wartime right hand man, Sergeant James Barnes, are forever entombed within their respective cold and icy graves. And unlike the surviving Screaming Eagles1, the remaining members of the Howling Commandos rarely, if ever, spoke of their fallen brothers-in-arms.
They have, however, gone on to provide a wealth of influential accounts of their own experiences; the Howling Commandos were never afraid to speak openly about the struggles of coming home after the war was won. The frankness with which Private Gabriel Jones and Private James Morita spoke about racism in the military was crucial not only to the progress of 20th Century Civil Rights movements, but also to the evolution of critical analyses of race and history. Intersectional historical analysis owes a great deal to their efforts.
As a unit, the Howling Commandos have given a grand total of three interviews on Barnes and Rogers. When asked, they've hemmed and hawed before breaking out into that same old story of how Sergeant Barnes, ever the sniper, liked to nap up high in the trees until the day an owl hooting in his face woke him up and he fell right out of the tree, hitting the ground with a thump and a trail of curses.
It’s a fun story, to be sure, a nice reminder that war is more than just the blood and the fire and the hell of it, that it is also made up of the moments in between the fighting. But for hard-hitting, incisive historical analysis, it doesn’t exactly offer up much.
The how and the why of it is a source of never-ending conspiracy for the overactive imagination. Is it because so much of Captain Rogers’s life was wrapped up in highly classified and potentially damning intelligence? Is it because the truth of who Captain Rogers really was would throw a spanner into the well-oiled Captain America propaganda machine?
Or perhaps more poignantly, is it simply because the loss and the suffering endured by the Howling Commandos, as POWs and as soldiers and as brothers-in-arms, proved too much to ever be coherently parsed through and reflected upon?
But this, we do know: every single Commando wrote a goodbye letter upon formation of their strike force. Those goodbye letters were tied together with twine and passed from Commando to Commando with each successive mission. It was a talisman, a good luck charm; it was insurance that those letters never had to be delivered. They contained, I have no doubt, precious insight into the hearts and minds of our heroes.
But as luck and fate would have it, the letters were tucked inside the pocket of Sergeant Barnes’ coat as he fell to his death.
The Howling Commandos have been asked time and time again if they could recall any details from the contents of those letters, but it was many years too late by the time people started asking the right questions. Sergeant Timothy Dugan once claimed, “Sure, I’d tell ya what my letter said. If I could remember it. I was drunk off my head when I was writing mine. Hell, we all were, so good luck with that.” 2
Even so, at the end of the day, we’d still be missing two very important pieces of the greater picture.
Those lost letters are the great white whale of WWII historians everywhere; but unlike Ahab, sooner or later, we all must learn to let them go and push beyond them, to work to draw our own conclusions.
And so, here you have it. Consider this book as my best attempt at letting them go.
1. Ambrose, S. (2001). Band of brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest. New York: Simon & Schuster.
2. Tracy, B. (1998). Going Commando: An Unabridged Collection of Interviews with the Howling Commandos. New York: Marvel Historical Press.
Steve doesn’t turn away from the easel that’s propped in front of him. “Hello to you too, neighbor.”
He’s sitting in front of a wide, open window too, as the bright mid-afternoon sun comes streaming through, and that’s a security hazard if there ever was one. If Sharon has anything to say about that, though, she keeps it to herself.
The size of the windows was what sold him on this apartment in the first place.
His apartment in Dupont was chosen to maximize safety. They made sure that it was in an active, well-lit part of town. They made sure to cover all of the exits and choke points, and he was told that he should pick a place with minimal visibility to deter potential assassins.
But Nick Fury still got shot straight through the wall, so he’ll take his fucking chances.
Sharon hovers behind him, peering over his shoulder at the easel in front of him. On it is a half-finished charcoal portrait of Jim Morita, laid out in broad strokes and bold, black lines.
“You’re pretty good, you know.”
Steve grunts, rubbing the heel of his hand across the paper, smoothing away excess charcoal dust. Jim never did smile in photographs. Not in newsreels, either. He used to say that he wouldn’t give them the pleasure of faking it, not when he didn’t have anything to smile about.
But every once in a while, when a day was going a little better than usual, when a joke landed just right, Jim would smile real bright and wide, dimpling both cheeks.
Steve’s been trying to get that smile right for days. Every time he tries, it comes out a lopsided, insincere mess. He’ll have to start over again. Jim deserves better than this.
“How was the HYDRA op?” Steve asks, tearing the portrait off the easel and placing a blank, new sheet in its place. Looking at that white space, it’s easier to believe that he’ll do better next time.
“A bust, mostly. It looked like it’d been abandoned for years. Anything that wasn’t tied down was taken in for evidence but it’s mostly just a bunch of outdated crap. Except for this -- this may be outdated but it’s definitely not crap, not if it’s what I think it is.”
Sharon tosses a small, round tin can at Steve.
Steve turns it over in his hands, giving it a little shake. It barely makes a muted, thumping sound. Papers, then. “So, not a HYDRA piggy bank, huh?”
“Yeah, you know me, Steve, I get a real kick out of stealing lunch money from Nazis,” Sharon says. She kicks out and nudges at his shin with the heavy toe of her left boot. “Open it, Rogers.”
Steve pries open the top, setting the lid aside and pulling the papers out. They’re envelopes, at least ten in all, tied together with fraying twine, and spattered with blood and water stains.
“Is it what I think it is?” Sharon asks, but it’s softer this time, so he must look as sideswiped as he feels.
Steve swallows around a lump in his throat and his hands shake, causing his fingers to fumble as he unties the thin twine holding all of the envelopes together. “Yeah. Yeah, it is.”
“HYDRA must’ve taken them off Barnes when they found him and stored the letters as evidence,” Sharon says. She pauses, waiting for the flinch, but it doesn’t come. Steve won’t let it.
Sharon nods, pressing on. “There was too much turnover within HYDRA over the years, though. The letters probably got lost and shoved aside until nobody could even remember where they came from in the first place.”
Seventy-something years ago, the stationary that Dum Dum had snuck out of Colonel Phillips’s desk had felt thick, weighted, the paper heavy and decadent. He remembers thinking that it had to be the most expensive paper he’d ever held in his life. Now, it is yellowed and brittle beneath his fingertips.
Steve tamps down the urge to pull them closer to his chest, afraid that he might tear something. “Can I keep them?”
Sharon shrugs. “Technically, no, because I was supposed to submit everything I found to the CIA for evidence. But what the CIA doesn’t know won’t hurt them.”
“What if they find out?”
“Then they find out. They’re not gonna toss me out on my ass for this. It’s not exactly a high security breach and I know too much. Keep the letters, don’t keep them. Do with them what you will. They’re yours, neighbor.”
Steve ducks his head so she doesn’t see the tears gathering in the corner of his eyes but he guesses maybe she sees them anyways. “Thanks.”
“Hey, a question to satisfy my own curiosity -- is there a letter to my aunt in there?”
“A letter? No. I….she was angry with me when I sat down to write this.”
“Let me guess: the fondue thing?” Sharon asks.
Steve grimaces. She knows so much more about him than he does her. It’s funny, how he keeps thinking he’ll get used to that. “I wasn’t sure what I could say, to make it right, so I drew instead. I drew a portrait of her. It’s….I guess I thought, if the last thing she ever got from me was a portrait of her exactly as I saw her, then she would know that...that I didn’t really mean it, what I said, then she’d know that I’d always thought the world of her.”
“But she never saw it.”
“But she never saw it,” Steve confirms. “Forgave me anyways, I guess. I hope.”
“She did,” Sharon says. “You know she did.”
Steve huffs a laugh, but it is a small and bitter thing.
Sharon reaches out a hand but then pulls it back just as quickly. She’s bad at this. That’s okay, though, because he is too. “Take care of yourself, Steve.”
“You too, Sharon.”
“And seriously. At least change your fucking locks, they were embarrassingly easy to pick.”
Countdown to the Winter Soldier Trial - where do you stand?
FOX NEWS @FoxNews
BUCKY BARNES A TRAITOR, SHOULD BE PUNISHED AS SUCH. Tune in tonight for more, 9 ET/8 C.
Think you’ll see an innocent verdict in the Barnes trial? Think again. Here are the odds: http://tinyurl.com/5brlr6
Jonah Jameson @JJameson
How much do we really know about Sergeant Barnes? Not enough, that’s what I say. It’s a guilty as charged for me.
Tom Raymond @ToroR
Oh c’mon, they’re not gonna really execute a national hero, right? Right??
Steve tucks the phone between his ear and his shoulder, moving to strain the pasta that he’s been cooking. “I see you and Sharon have been talking behind my back again.”
He left the pasta boiling for too long, though, and the noodles look limp and wan in the colander. Steve heaves a sigh, dumping the pasta into a bowl and pouring out the heated up jar of sauce over it.
“You make it sound so sinister,” Natasha teases. “What are you moaning and groaning about over there?”
“Nothing, I just…” Steve trails off, trying and failing to find a clean fork before settling on the nearest spoon as good enough. “You know, I’m ninety-six years old and I still can’t cook worth a damn.”
“You’re not ninety-six, you’re twenty-seven. That makes you ten years younger than Clint and he routinely eats Chef Boyardee out of the can,” Natasha says, and then she pauses, filling the space between them with a pointed silence. She'll never just come out and ask what’s really bothering him -- it’s not her way -- but she must know by now that if she waits it out long enough, he’ll come around to it.
“I haven’t read the letters yet,” Steve admits, before shoveling a spoonful of pasta in his mouth so he doesn’t have to keep talking.
“Are you going to?”
“D’you think I should?” Steve mumbles around his pasta.
Natasha’s only answer is to scoff into her phone.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, Nat,” Steve says, dumping the bowl of pasta to the side and tipping his head back against the kitchen cupboards with a soft thump. “The trial is next week. Bucky’s in a high security detention facility outside DC and they’re not letting me see him. If I tried to break in, it would only hurt his case. And at the end of the day, I gotta make peace with the fact that this is what he wanted. He turned himself in. So, what now?”
“Maybe now you do nothing.”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed this but I’m not all that good at doing nothing,” Steve says.
“Your problem is, you think that turning himself in means that Barnes has given up. But maybe he hasn’t. Sometimes you have to throw yourself straight into the fire just to see if you can come out the other side unscathed,” Natasha says. “You can understand that, at least.”
“Do you think he’ll lose?” Steve says. The words barely make it out of him, coming out scratched and worn and barely louder than a whisper.
He’s been afraid to say it out loud. He’s been afraid to so much as think it, for fear of making the possibility real because it cannot come to this, it cannot come to Bucky locked away and rotting in a cell for the rest of their unnaturally long lives. Or worse, executed for treason. Not after everything they’ve lost, not after all the blood they had to spill just to find each other again.
“You know what, Rogers?” Natasha says. “I wouldn’t bet against him.”
He sits on the couch with today’s paper and draws doodles into the margins of the box scores. He goes for a run.
He does not read the letters.
It is seven days and twelve hours until the Winter Soldier trial.
Steve’s stomach groans in protest; he hasn’t eaten since breakfast. His phone is lit up with four missed calls from Sam and a handful of unopened texts.
It is six days and nine hours until the Winter Soldier trial.
He runs twice a day every day for three days straight. He runs all the way across the bridge and through Manhattan until he hits Harlem and then loops around and comes right back, only to run a ring around Prospect Park a couple of times for good measure. He runs until he is drenched with sweat and his hair sticks to his head and his lungs start to ache and burn like they did when he was young and small with a will too big for the bones that contained him.
He runs until his sneakers give out on him and he trips over the loose flap at the front of his right foot, falling to the cold, hard cement with an unceremonious thud.
He’s at a busy intersection in Prospect Heights and several people have their phones out, taking pictures. Steve eases himself to his feet and walks the whole way home, shamefaced, and when he walks through his front door, the first thing he sees is that misshapen portrait of the Howling Commandos.
Jim deserved better. That was the thought that had started that project in the first place. That Jim deserved better.
They all deserve better, every last one of them.
Jesus, he’s been such a fucking coward about this. Sooner or later, you gotta learn how to look your ghosts in the eye dead on.
Steve picks up the packet of letters from his kitchen table, and opens up the first one at random, and finally starts to read.
It is three days until the Winter Soldier trial.
Do you remember that time when I was 12 and you were 8 and Dad took us on that trip up to San Francisco. How he didn’t give us any warning about it beforehand, just woke us up one day with all our bags packed and a couple of bus tickets clutched tightly in his hands. Some days, I still wonder if I hallucinated the whole damn thing -- the sight of him standing there in the dim morning light, this curious expression on his face, like he was angry about something but didn’t know how to show it. I’d never seen him angry before, not even when Mom died, and I know you hadn’t either. Our father, the strong, gentle doctor -- I didn’t think angry was in his vocabulary.
I remember your small hand clutched tightly in mine, the way you shivered as a cold breeze went right through us as we stood by the Bay, overlooking the water. I didn’t know what we were supposed to be looking at for the longest time, so I kept squinting in the distance and pretending like I could pick out shapes in the clouds. That was the day that Dad told us about Angel Island, about the time that he spent there. About the awful things that he saw there. I remember how it felt like he spoke for hours, you know how it is when you’re a kid and you get impatient, how seconds can turn into hours. I remember looking up at him, the way his whole face was haloed by the hazy sunshine, how it was foggy and grey and then the sun broke right through it. I was surprised to see tears streaming down his face, as quiet as he was about it. I don’t think you even saw it. You were a little too young, I think, to really get what he was trying to say.
I’m about to do a stupid fucking thing, Tommy. It’s a real stupid fucking thing and I know it walking in.
War may be lot of shitty things but at least it’s not an internment camp. At least it’s not a detention facility and at least it’s not a fucking Nazi prison for POWs.
If I’m gonna die here, if I’m gonna die anywhere, it’s gonna be on my own terms. It’s not gonna be behind bars.
Try to remember that when you get angry with me for this.
You’re never going to get this letter. I’m writing it as a promise to myself that I will say all of the things that I’ve never said to you before when I see you next.
So here goes nothing.
Thank you. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you. I wouldn’t be anywhere if it weren’t for you and I didn’t see it, not really, not until I saw myself staring down the barrel of a Kraut gun.
I’ll never forget the look on your face the first time I hopped on that bus to DC. Me, the first one in the family to ever go to college and you looked at me like you were just as proud as you were terrified, like you weren’t sure if you were ever gonna see me alive again. I remember how I thought that you were just being silly. I was going further north, not further south, why the hell does she look so scared?
I remember how you had that same exact look in your eye the day I shipped out. I didn’t get it then either.
I do now. I’m sorry that I didn’t before.
Here’s another apology: I’m gonna do it all over again. I’m gonna get home and I’m gonna tell you all of these things and I’m gonna walk right out that door one more time and scare the hell out of you all over again and I’m sorry for it, Ma, I am, but I’ve got this burning in my veins like I can’t stop moving, can’t stop doing.
There’s a lot of work to be done and I guess I figure that if I survived that camp, if I can survive this war, then hell, maybe I can survive anything.
That’s my promise to you, Ma. That I can survive anything.
PS: There’s a fella here, Dernier. Weird little man, obsessed with explosives, you’ll absolutely hate him, but he’s promised to show me France after all this is done. When he does, I’m going to find a way to take you with me, just like you’ve always wanted.
Do you remember the first day we met? We were paired together so that I could practice my French with another student. That was the first day we met but it wasn’t the first day I ever saw you.
The first day I ever saw you, you were standing out in front of a lecture hall arguing with a professor in loud, angry French. It must have been your French literature professor, I remember how you always said you couldn’t stand him. Too fussy, you always said. Fussy and old fashioned, that’s what it was.
Your cheeks were flushed red and your fists were balled at your sides and you didn’t look like you were gonna give a goddamn inch, not for anything. I knew right away that I had to meet you.
I’ve never told you that before. I’ve never told anyone that before. I was scared to, all this time.
You know, I switched to French because of you. I’d like to think that it’s because of you that I’m here, that it’s because of you that I’m still living and breathing and planning to go out there and enter this war all over again.
I don’t put much stock in God, not the way my Ma does, but I have to admit that in this, God’s grace was working in my favor the day I first saw you.
You gotta know that you don’t owe me anything, Loretta, but when I get back, I’d like to buy you a drink in thanks.
I’ve known since the day you were born that you’re a fighter. That one day, you will grew up strong and beautiful and resilient and capable of terrifyingly grand things.
Knowing that should scare me. It should scare any father. It scares your Mum sometimes, I know, because she gets this look in her eyes like she’s sure one day you’re going to break her heart.
I’m doing enough of that as it is, so do try not to break her heart anymore than I already have; and if you must, do so gently.
Take care of her. Take care of yourself.
Know that I’ve done it all for you. Not just to keep you safe but to keep you fighting.
All my love,
Si je dois verser jusqu'à ma dernière goutte de sang dans cette guerre, je le ferai en te libérant. Je le ferai dans la certitude de la victoire, parce que je ne veux pas être un nouveau foutu Roland, ma chère France, je ne donnerai pas à ces enfoirés de Nazis la satisfaction d'un autre martyr futile.
Donnez cette lettre à M. de Gaulle, si vous devez la donner à quelqu'un, sinon brûlez là, et dispersez les cendres dans les rues de Paris, ça suffira.
- Jacques Dernier
If I’m to spill my last blood in this war, I will spill it freeing you. I will spill it in certain victory because I will not be your next fucking Roland, dear France, I will not give those Nazi fuckers the satisfaction of a futile martyr.
Give this letter to Mister de Gaulle, if you must give it to someone, or else burn it and scatter the ashes in the streets of Paris and call it done.
- Jacques Dernier
I’m supposed to write you a goodbye letter. That’s what Jim says, that’s the rule. It’s for good luck, he says. I don’t know where he comes up with this shit. He’s from California, go fucking figure. They must think up all kinds of crazy ideas out there, I guess.
But I’m the one sitting here, seven beers deep and writing out this letter with my chicken scratch, so maybe I’m a little crazy too. I’d have to be to do what I’m doing.
Sometimes the right thing to do is the crazy thing. That’s what my Pappy used to say. Born and bred in Boston, so he doesn’t even have the fucking California thing as an excuse.
Hell, neither do I.
If you’re reading this, that means I’m dead.
I’m so sorry that I went and died on you, darling.
And for swearing in my last letter to you, I’m sorry for that too.
It’s not the first time since he woke up here that he’s cried and it won’t be the last, but it’s the first time that he just lets it happen. Steve hunches forward, as hot, wet tears slip through his fingertips and finally, finally lets himself mourn.
He mourns celebrations that could have been. He mourns weddings that he never got to see and mothers that he never got to thank and sweethearts that he’d always heard so much about but never got the chance to meet face-to-face. He mourns Jim’s dimpled smile and Monty’s stupid jokes and everything else in between that he should’ve been there for but wasn’t.
Steve mourns for himself, for once, and it feels a little like his insides have been scooped out and replaced anew.
There are just three letters left: his own and Bucky’s.
Steve bypasses his own letter to carefully pluck out the two that Bucky wrote; one to his eldest sister and one to Steve, both written in the same, familiar neat handwriting that Steve would know anywhere.
Steve takes a deep breath, as if the very act might pull strength into his lungs, and opens the first letter.
He had a hard time seeing eye to eye with his parents in his later years; they were always on his case about moving on, about getting married to a nice girl. It was an argument that came up often enough that in a lot of ways, Bucky saw joining the Army as a reprieve, as a chance to forge something new that they couldn’t find fault with.
He loved his sisters, proudly and fiercely and with a dedication that could be as freeing as it was smothering. He taught them how to read and write and multiply and he woke up early every day for years to help them get ready for school, work or hangover be-damned.
He talked in his sleep and sometimes he lied to his Ma about keeping kosher and he had this really annoying habit of humming out of the blue without ever realizing he was doing it.
He was a sloppy, affectionate drunk and he never shut up during sex and he kissed Steve like he could spend the rest of his life doing exactly that and never get bored of it.
This is what the world knows about Bucky Barnes:
Not much, really.
And that’s the whole problem, isn’t it?
He dresses quickly and stands over the sink eating a frozen pizza, giving little thought to how it tastes. Everything in his world has narrowed down to what needs to happen next.
He finally knows what needs to happen next.
Monty died in ‘96. Jim, a year after that. Gabe passed the week before the Chitauri Invasion because time is ruthless and cruel and always working against him.
Dum Dum still lives in Boston with his children. Dernier couldn’t be pried away from Paris if the world depended on it.
Steve has their contact info. They’ve exchanged stilted letters and brief phone calls that Steve always ended just as the lump would start to form in his throat.
It was easy to tell himself that they didn’t need him intruding on their lives. The truth is this: forming connections was never all that easy for Steve. But with the Howling Commandos, he found friends and he found brothers and he found men that he would die for.
He found men that he would kill for if just to keep them safe and happy and whole.
He’s proud of them. The five of them, they went home and they accomplished something that he’s not sure he knows how to do just yet: they lived. They did a whole lot more than just go home and make do; they went home and they thrived. They worked to build where others sought to tear down and they never, ever stopped fighting.
God, he is so fucking proud of them.
He’s never told them that but maybe it’s time that he start.
Steve picks up the phone and starts dialing.
“You told me the letters were mine to do whatever I wanted with them. Did you really mean that?” Steve asks, diving right in before Sharon gets the chance to speak.
Sharon rolls with it, as usual. “You know I did. What are you planning, Rogers?”
“I’m going to leak them to the public.”