Excerpts and stories of war - mostly based during World War II
This will contain my attempts to write short stories/excerpts based/centered around World War II. I think all the fantastic war novels I've been reading lately have influenced this and I'll do my best to keep to the lingo/slang/terms used during that era.
One minute he is crouched in the foxhole, his rifle a companion with the jungle silence his serenade. He's been up for three hours, with barely an hour of much-needed sleep before being kicked awake by the Sarge. He's the youngest of the men, barely nineteen - still a fucking virgin. He resents being treated as a kid; suffers all the jokes the older soldiers make just because he was transferred to recon as a rookie to the Pacific. So what if he hasn't seen combat yet? It didn't mean he wasn't as tough as they were. He knew this platoon had fought in the Tanaka campaign and they were almost revered as heroes for seizing the Japanese base down there. He considered it an honor to be called up to replace one whose legs had been blown off by shrapnel.
And yet they got their kicks by teasing him whenever he tried to make conversation. During a card game one night, he was close to winning, but the Sarge - a man only in his early thirties, although the hard lines of war were now etched on his weathered face - had glared coldly at him, forcing him to fake a losing hand and withdraw back into his tent with shame. He had curled up beneath his damp mold-green blanket, squeezed his eyes shut against the distant sound of flares and gunfire, and winced as the booming sound would shake the very ground he lay on. How he missed his mother and his girl. Hell, he knew he should have taken her cherry that night at the soldiers' send-off. She was practically begging for it. At least it would have put him on equal footing with the guys here, especially when they began to speak of all the women they had slept around with back home.
He does have a friend though. The goy, Goldstein, who is quiet and likes to write in his diary a lot. Goldstein has a son back home and likes to share the only picture of his wife and kid with him. On evenings when they aren't on patrol, he'll talk in that sonorous voice of his, telling of his plans to open a shop in the Brooklyn area and sell candy for five cents apiece. It's a nice dream, but he thinks Goldstein doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell. He does wish him luck though.
He's jerked back to reality at the harsh command, terror seizing his muscles and causing his legs to buckle. He's soiled his pants, since the events had happened so fast, he barely had time to control himself.
A mistake. It had only been one brief moment of weakness. His lashes growing heavier by the second as weariness took control of his body. The blistering trek through the jungle had taken its toll. His young body was still not used to that level of physical exertion and he could have sworn he had sleepwalked several times through the night. He knew his feet had begun to bleed after a while and had winced as Delaney, the medic, had applied some foot treatment to it. It had helped...but only for a few hours. Fat load of good that did.
He cannot understand what they are saying. Panic fills his insides as he falls to his knees and places his hands behind his head in surrender. Hot tears leak from his eyes and run down his cheeks, snot mingling to slip into his parted and moist lips. He sobs helplessly as the men continue to shout at him. How many are there? Five? Six? Ten? Where are the others in his platoon? Have they abandoned him? How long had the Japs known they were right across the river? How long had they been waiting for the Americans to show their faces?
"Please," he begins to stammer, no longer caring if he's going against the code of his country. He can't die here. Not tonight. Not now. He's still a young kid. He's still got a lot to live for. Who's gonna take care of his momma when he's gone? He's got to marry his girl. He promised her that much.
"I'm just like you!" he suddenly screams. Their words are driving him crazy, the brick wall of miscommunication threatening to crush him beneath its weight. The one with the gun pointed at his temple barely looks a year older than himself. He can see the fright in those narrow black eyes, the strain on that pale flesh and realizes that they are in the same boat. Just two kids stuck in the middle of something they'd rather not be a part of. The concept of war had seemed exciting at first - game boys would play on boards with plastic men and battleships. Reality was a whole other story.
"I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU'RE SAYING!"
The click of the trigger and the subsequent press of the cold steel weapon against his temple break his final resolve.
"MY NAME IS PETER BOYD," he screams in terror. "I'M AN AMERICAN! I'M AMERICAN!"
A sudden rapport of gunfire sends his mind reeling into an abyss of despair and quiet resignation. He feels something warm splash upon his face and licks his lips to taste the red fluid even as he finds himself falling to the ground in a faint. There are a mingle of disembodied cries and screams, and he barely feels the strong arms of his comrades dragging him back to safety and away from his now dead captors.
"Fucking Japbait," growls the Sarge as he spits out in disgust. "Get him clean for chrisssakes and let's get the fuck out of here."
It was almost funny.
The way Smitty kept trying to light up his cigarette when the goddamn waves kept splashing over the side of the landing craft, soaking us to the skin. Red shook his head and muttered something about 'the dumb nigger-lover' - and went back to brooding. Just like most of us. Well, besides Smitty, who was as usual, in his own world.
"Gawddamn," he said and laughed at his foolishness, finally figuring that it wouldn't work, before tossing the wasted necessity over the side.
"Coulda saved it," Martinez mumbled through chattering teeth. He was sitting next to me - a guy about my height with pinched, dark features identifiable with his race. He's a sniper and a damn good one from what I've seen. "Coulda..."
"Oh yeah? How's he gonna save sumthin' that wet, eh? Might as well throw all our goddamn equipment overboard this here boat."
That was Snowflake - a nickname given because of his blond hair and fair features. It would have been easy to consider him a 'pretty boy', but he's a man that's paid his dues and has proven himself indispensable in combat.
"Tha's not the only thing that's gonna be going overboard," Copeland replied with a wry smile, shifting his rifle from one hand to the other. Mine was slick with saltwater and sweat and I could barely keep my fingers wrapped around it. I was wet and miserable, trying hard not to sneeze as I stamped my numb feet to get some blood flow into them. Wet, squelching sounds on the waterlogged deck was no comfort and only did more to remind me of our destination.
"Hey, Looftenant!" Smitty called out - having to yell over the crash of the waves and the sounds of mortar shells and gunfire becoming louder with each sickening lurch of the steel craft.
Lieutenant Michael Bradley - leader of C Company and in charge of this motley crew of lowlives (his words, not mine) - cocked his head at the call. "What is it, Smitty?"
"You reckon we're gonna take this here beach, sir?"
We all held our breaths - even though we did not look at both men in the face - and within our hearts, hoped for an answer that would alleviate the feelings of weariness, the inevitable and cold, hard FEAR.
"Well, I reckon if you keep your goddamn trap shut, Smitty, and do as yer supposed to, we just might win this fucking thing," came the faintly amused response.
That sent us into helpless laughing fits - more hysterical than actual mirth. For some it was laughter of desperation, only heightened as our leader stiffened and suddenly became more alert.
"All right, fellas," he said, in a tone that shook us out of our stupor and into readiness for whatever lay ahead. "This is it. See you on the beach!"
The loud clanging sound of the latch thrown open, and the roar of the sea and waves rushing in and nearly causing us to drown, barely registered as I stared at the looming piece of land before us. We were only a few hundred yards from shore and yet it seemed like an eternity away. Smoke billowed from the rugged cliffs as more mortar shells, artillery from above and inland, reconstructed the landscape. I caught Martinez kissing the silver cross around his neck before tucking it into his shirt, gave him a nod of good luck before nearly diving into the expanse of water that separated us from shore.
Screams filled my ears, unaware they were mine, as the icy waters pierced right into my bones. I could not afford to get my rifle wet and held it above my chest even as the weight of my gear threatened to pull me under. I longed to take off the extra burden, but knew I would be powerless without them once on shore...if I got on shore.
"Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!"
More curses and screams as bodies, once standing or rushing against the force of the sea, toppled back with bullets through them. Smitty, who was ahead of me, got his head blown off in a most spectacular fashion. I would have no time to mourn him, but knew I had to do something to survive. Begging for forgiveness, I dragged a body floating next to me and held it as a shield, wincing as more bullets pummeled it like a rag doll. My legs were becoming tired, the ocean now crimson with bloodshed as I struggled against the elements. It seemed to go on for hours, while frustration slowly crept in. No matter how much progress I thought I made or how many bodies I used as shields, I would never get to that godforsaken piece of land.
With a final push and a strangled cry, I finally felt the soft and muddy sensation of sand beneath my feet. Two more bodies fell beside me - one of which was Copeland's. I could not control my reaction to his remains and vomited all over myself in horror. He was such a good kid too.
"McKinley!" someone yelled. "Get yer ass up here, goddamn it!"
Never had anyone's voice sounded so sweet, as I staggered to the sandbank and collapsed beside the Lieutenant. Red fell in place next to me and Martinez soon after, out of breath and yet wired in readiness to begin what we were sent here to do. We would have no time to help the dying behind us, no time to say a proper farewell to our fallen comrades.
"At my command," came the sharp cry from our leader. "Ready....steady....fire!"
He has the corporal stripes of a gunner.
After nineteen weeks of training at Fort Knox (including two weeks of gunnery school), Corporal Dave Baldwin is more than ready to head to the and kick a few asses - Hitler's included if not exclusively. He holds on to the romantic notion of being a hero in battle, bright-eyed and eager to display his talents as best he can. He's only eighteen years old and the world is his oyster - the concept of death, something that happened to other people and not him. That bubble of immortality is his shield and cannot be dented...yet.
They are driven across France and Belgium in '40s-and-8s (a World War I vintage) and dumped somewhere in Germany called Stolberg. The depot is a claustrophobic room with barely enough space to move one's legs, where sleep comes fitfully on sleeping bags, bulky equipment and filthy floors. The air is choked heavy with smoke and he can barely breathe. For days, they are left to wait for instructions, rumors of towns and villages being overtaken their only source of entertainment. At this point, they welcome any news at all - or at least a chance to taste combat.
Redemption comes when their convoy is finally called, excitement coursing through his veins as he realizes he's close to the real thing. The wreckage along the German countryside does not really register in his mind - a turned over tank or shot down plane, bloated bodies in various stages of decomposition, or abandoned artillery. After several hours of traveling, they arrive at an extensive countryside; its ground full of frozen mud and yet littered with various tanks, most of them armored. Several Sherman tanks form a column and all around are doughboys, walking, talking, and leaning against them with cigarettes in their mouth - all waiting to be assigned.
He joins them with hands stuck in his pockets, in a feeble attempt to keep warm. There's a sense of urgency in the air, only intensified as the commander blows his whistle and orders them to attention. He now belongs to the 3rd Armored Division with the 1st Army and as the Captain stops before him; his corporal stripes noticed, he's all but forced to be a leader.
"You'll be in charge, and who among you is a driver?"
No one says anything for a long time, until a reluctant response is heard. "Ah guess ah am, sir."
"Good," the Captain barks and assigns two others to the tank. "You're all going for the ride and I'm in charge of the convoy until we get to the 33rd Armored Division. You roll out as soon as the mechs say your tank is set to go. The rest of us will make the most of daylight and move out; you catch up in twenty or thirty minutes. Remember, you are in hostile country. There are still SS about ready to create diversions! There are to be no lights, get it? N-O-N-E! Even a cigarette light is more than enough to draw fire. Any questions?"
He dares to ask, "Will we have to shoot, sir?"
"I hope to goodness not, especially not with that cannon, for God's sake. Any other questions?"
None are forthcoming and they are left to watch the mechanics work on their tank in glum silence. He tries to make conversation with his comrades, but it's rather fruitless. Johnson, the driver, is from Georgia, and seems rather jittery and unable to comprehend the weight of now driving an armored tank across hostile territory. The other two, Pirelli and Wayne, seem more content to smoke quietly beside the tank without saying a word.
In forty-five minutes, the tank is finally ready for action, and he and his crew begin the arduous journey to catch up to the others. With Johnson in the bowels of the tank and fear his companion; the warnings of no lights and the sudden fall of darkness over the land, the trip is a tricky one. They can barely see two feet before them, and in no time, they come to a fork on the road. Which way are they to go now? He's sure the Captain had said left, Johnson swears it's the right. Pirelli and Wayne offer no help and as leader, Baldwin decides they are to stay put for tonight and wait until morning for assistance. There was sure to be another armored tank heading their way too.
"I'll stay guard," he offers, seeing as Johnson has withdrawn into the tank with no effort to assist him. He has plans to survive this war as long as he can and that includes saving his ass from possible SS fire. Baldwin swallows his resentment, but since he's in charge of this crew, he has to take the brunt of responsibility. It's a cold and miserable watch, but he keeps his eyes open for as long as he can. By dawn, he's cranky and groggy and yet immensely grateful at the sight of two TDs approaching. Unfortunately, the GIs are not heading the same way, but are able to give him directions to the elusive 33rd Armored Division. The journey begins again, even slower than before as Johnson's battle with his terror overwhelms him. For hours, they trudge along the muddy road, the heavy machine's wheels grinding and groaning at a measly twenty miles per hour. By nightfall, Baldwin is frustrated again as there seems to be no end to this trip. He wishes they would have at least given him a radio to communicate with the others in his Company.
"Hold it!" he suddenly cries out in excitement and relief as a few buildings come in view. Most are rubble and ruins, but there's no denying the armored tanks in the distance or the welcome glow of the lone-lit house. Baldwin is sure that the Captain's in there and can't wait to report to him. "I think we're here."
Pirelli sticks out his head from the turret and glances around with a doubtful eye. "You sure?"
"Sure, I'm sure," Baldwin replies with mild irritation. "You just wait here and I'll come back and get you guys."
He hops off the deck of the Sherman and walks up to the house, words ready to tell his command about his reasons for arriving late. He does find it a bit odd that there are no GIs loitering around. It would have been a familiar sight to see a few doughboys on patrol duty, or fixing the tanks or smoking or something. It isn't until he stops before the window and peers through the thick layer of grime and past the lace curtain, that he realizes just what he's looking at. Several German officers lying around in broken down chairs or on the floor with looks of boredom or resignation on their features. Baldwin feels his insides shrivel with fear, his throat suddenly dry and in need of moisture. With his heart somewhere in the pit of his stomach, he takes an unsteady step backwards, trying to be as careful and yet as fast as he can move to his tank. Now, he sees the panzers quite clearly and curses his ill luck at not being more observant. Wasn't that one of the reasons he flunked school a lot? He could never concentrate on one thing without screwing up. Jesus! He's barely in the war and he's already going to be killed or worse taken as prisoner.
"Ah! You American?"
A terror so acute seizes his body and almost causes him to pass out at the sound of the voice so close. He turns around slowly with hands raised to his head in surrender, staring at the smiling face of a handsome young German soldier a year or two older than he is.
With a mouth that seems filled with cotton balls, Baldwin replies with what he hopes is good enough German. "Eh...ja?"
"So sprechen Sie Deutsch?" He looks pleased and begins to rattle off a series of sentences that make no sense to the American.
"No, I sprechen English," Baldwin mumbles.
The German soldier looks smug. "Well, I speak great English."
Yay, for you, Baldwin thinks. Why don't you just get this over with and make our lives easier.
"I take you to my leader now, yes? And please do not try to escape or I will be shooting you."
Thoughts of how he'll be treated runs through Baldwin's mind in jerks and snatches. He wonders if they'll torture him slowly, or just shoot him - at least that will be quick and he won't have to suffer so much. His only regret is that he won't have enough war stories to tell his best pal, Mikey, in the Navy, or share his heroic escapades with his parents and sister back home.
The room is much smaller than it looks from the outside and Baldwin stands at attention as the leader of the group (who doesn't look at all threatening) speaks quietly to Baldwin's captor.
"My leader," the soldier says after words have been exchanged, "would like you to take us to your commander so we can surrender. He does not want to surrender to you of the lowly ranks and wants to do it in the...." He seems stumped for a word, so Baldwin helps.
"The proper way?"
"Ach, the proper way."
Baldwin has to be sure he's not hearing things. The Germans are actually surrendering to him and not the other way around! Excitement and triumph fills him as he imagines the looks on the faces of his captain and fellow GIs when he shows up with so many Krauts and panzers in tow. He's going to be hailed as a war hero and he's not even tasted combat yet! He stands a little taller and tries to look in control...and then realizes with a flood of embarrassment that he still doesn't even know the way to the 33rd. With great humiliation, he has to ask the leader of the German platoon to help, which he's all too willing to do (with no hint of ridicule at the clueless American before him).
When Baldwin explains the situation to his crew, they are wary and justly so. Wayne assumes it's a trick and doesn't trust them, but Baldwin is convinced that the men do not intend to attack at all. If anything, they seem willing to help the Americans in anyway they can. It's almost surreal. By morning, they are leading the way, an unlikely parade of captured German soldiers at the mercy of one lone Sherman tank.
By mid-day, the first signs of American tanks come into view, and several GIs rise to their feet from whatever they're doing, staring with mingled looks of amusement or bemusement at Baldwin and his companions. Baldwin, who expects a barrage of hollers and congratulatory remarks, is slightly upset at the silence that greets him. He leaps down from his tank and walks up to the nearest GI.
"Where's the captain? I need to report to him."
The GI smirks and nods towards one of the ruins. "Be my guest. I'm sure he'd love to see you."
Still confused at the reaction he's getting, Baldwin walks into the Captain's office.
"Corporal David Baldwin, 1534127, reporting, sir."
The captain, who is busy working on the logs, barely looks up as he asks dryly. "Those your prisoners out there?"
"Yes, sir!" He can barely contain his smug sense of victory.
"That's nice," the captain murmurs. "Now what do you propose we do with them?"
"Well, Corporal," the captain says, finally looking up with barely restrained irritation on his features. "They are your prisoners, aren't they? You captured them, didn't you? Therefore, you have the honor of figuring out how to dispose of them. Now hurry up with it, I've got roll call in a few minutes."
Baldwin looks stumped. His mind whirls with conflicting thoughts as he stammers weakly. "I...I don't understand...sir. What am I supposed to...?"
However, he barely gets finished when the captain tears into him like a rabid dog on a short leash. A slew of very colorful language, some of which Baldwin's innocent ears have yet to be exposed to, fill the small room as he's given one of the longest and toughest lectures in his life yet. Apparently, the Americans had no intention of keeping or taking any prisoners, since there was no place to put them within a hundred miles. They had gotten word about the German platoon willing to be taken hostage and that location had been avoided for that particular reason. Their capture would only slow down the movement of the GIs and tanks.
Baldwin feels humble and wishes the ground would open to swallow him whole. The captain, now spent (and somewhat glad for some reason to let off some steam) goes easy on the new kid when Baldwin finally mumbles an apology.
"Fine, fine, just be more careful next time, Corporal. I'll just have to call up headquarters to figure out what we're going to do with this situation. And don't look so fucking scared, soldier. You're not in trouble. Just learn a few facts of life, got it?"
Baldwin more than gets it as he steps out of the building and is accosted by curious GIs, who are in awe that he's able to survive one of the captain's infamous shouting tirades. However, all he wishes to do is crawl into a Sherman tank and hide until the war is over. It's a bitter lesson learned, and only one of so many more to come.
She was chosen.
It was an order directly from General Douglas MacArthur, said Head Nurse Merrill. She and forty-four others would be shipped to the Bataan Peninsula to set up two hospitals for the fighting taking place there. They would be even closer to the battle front, ready to take on the wounded as fast as they could come in. It was MacArthur's plan to take hold of that area and their services were needed immediately.
She told herself she was ready and prepared for this. Working in Corregidor and coming face-to-face with death so many times had conditioned her for whatever lay ahead. Throughout the journey, she read her pocket book of the New Testament, marveling at God's words and His ability to keep her safe from any major dangers so far.
Back home, her long black hair and matching eyes had garnered the nickname of 'Black Bella'. At twenty-five, she was the oldest of five children, following in her mother's footsteps as a nurse in the Brooklyn area. She considered herself a tough gal - able to stay toe-to-toe with the boys, especially since she dealt with her delinquent younger brothers on a daily basis. Her father had passed away when she was ten due to a severe case of tuberculosis. It was a turning point in her young life; having to watch the once strapping man slowly wither away before her eyes. Mother had been powerless to stop the deadly disease, and had retreated into the shadows, quitting her job at the hospital to stay home for her children. Bella had refused to give up, and took to attending the classes given to young women who were interested in helping the sick and the elderly. If Mother approved of her decision, she never mentioned it, which was fine with Bella. As long as she kept sending home a part of her paycheck each week, it was bound to work its magic on the growing rift between mother and daughter.
Signing up for the war effort had been a totally different matter all together. She had done it for purely selfish reasons. The man she loved had joined the war, training to become a bomber pilot with promises of returning to marry her when it was all over. Days and nights rolled into one, endless hours spent wondering and praying for his safety. Finally unable to deal with the silence of not knowing, she had jumped at the opportunity to sign up as part of the first contingent sent to Europe. She knew her man would be there and looked forward to searching for him and perhaps surprising him with her presence. Besides, it would also be a wonderful chance for her to see what Italy was like. She had heard it was quite romantic.
However, all romantic notions were thrown to the wayside once they landed. From small time hospitals and dealing with sick children or old men and women, absolutely nothing could have prepared her for the sight of young men dragged into makeshift hospitals with limbs torn off or entrails hanging off the side of their stretchers. She had fought the urge to scream in horror, gathering herself quickly as the head nurse forced the women to stop gawking and get to work. For hours, she was on her feet, moving from one stretcher or cot to the other, bandaging, cleaning, injecting, and praying. There were more nurses than there were doctors and crash courses to soldiers became the norm. Sometimes they'd have to improvise when supplies ran out, using anything from ugly green tarp, to taking chances and relying on local herbs to form some sort of healing paste. Time had no meaning, as days and nights bled into one. All that mattered were the men who clung to her for dear life, who came screaming in terror, longing for either a chance to survive or for their suffering to end quickly. The stench of blood, human waste and death filled her nostrils, and stuck to her like a second skin. She had long given up knowing what 'real' fresh air was like. There seemed to be no end in sight to the wounded soldiers she met everyday. Their faces eventually became a blur and she was almost grateful for it.
And then came the news of an air raid gone awry in the skies. She had yet to hear from the man she loved, even though she had requested information about him from his superiors, and had been overseas for almost a year. She held her breath and watched the bodies come in; dark eyes filled with fear and yet hope that she would not have to see him amongst the dying.
She was lucky in that regard, for she learned he had died instantly. The German plane had nosedived into his, a split second before he could make his escape. There would be no body to recover.
She had no time to mourn. She felt she could not mourn. She wasn't even sure she cried when Nurse Duckett pulled her aside to tell her the news. Like an automaton, she had gone back to work, smiling at the men who welcomed her with open arms as she sought to rescue them as best she could. The tears would come a week later, while doing her rounds and standing before the bed of a young man who didn't look any older than twenty. She could not remember his name. Nurses were not required to look at dog tags as each soldier would become more 'personalized.'
"Say, Nurse Bella," he gasped with a weak smile. One of his eyes was heavily bandaged, and the blue of the good one was startling against his pale countenance. He looked frail within the narrow cot, his breathing shallow before a fit of gut-wrenching coughs over took him. He bled from his mouth and she wiped it away, almost absently but in a gentle manner.
"Don't try to talk," she said with a warm enough smile. "I'll just give you your shots and you'll be all better, hmm? Some rest is what you need."
He shook his head and tugged at her sleeve gently. "Just...you know that song? 'Don't Fence Me In?' huh? You know it?"
Her smile became more genuine. Of course she knew the song. It was one that was played on the radio a lot back home. She had a thing for Bing Crosby. "Yeah, I know it."
The soldier grinned, revealing a crooked set of teeth. "Could you...maybe sing it for me? I haven't heard it in a while...my dad loves to play it. Please? Just one time?"
She blushed and looked around the crowded tent. A few of the soldiers were listening in with attentiveness, while others moaned in pain or slept away the horrors of the war around them.
"Well...only a little," she finally gave in and cleared her throat. Her voice was low and rich, growing in momentum as she reached the chorus and a few soldiers, who knew the lyrics, joined in.
Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above,
Don't fence me in.
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love,
Don't fence me in.
Let me be by myself in the evenin' breeze,
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,
Send me off forever but I ask you please,
Don't fence me in.
She was unaware of the tears that coursed down her cheeks, that she had stopped and the men were now singing in her place, or that the young soldier before her had taken his final breath with a smile of gratitude on his lips. She thought of her man's smiling face, of how big and strong and brave he had looked as he walked away in his brand new uniform. She thought of his kisses and his touch, of the stolen nights of passion and promise of a future together. She thought of the fear he must have experienced in his final moments, of his bravery in making sure his crew had escaped before he did. Had he thought of her one time during the flight? She would like to think that. She really would.
Inwardly, she cursed the war and the havoc it caused. She looked at the men that surrounded her, noticing them watching her in silence and understanding within their battle-weary features.
"We love you, Nurse Bella!" one of them cried out and it elicited laughter and a few cheers.
She couldn't help giggling through her tears. They were all special in their own ways. With a deep breath, she tried to pull herself together, knowing now that she was their only ray of light in a world so bleak and dark. She would love them all in place of their mothers, wives, and daughters. She would be as strong for them as they were trying to be for their country, and if she could end up saving one more life at the end of the day, that would be the greatest reward.
He was fighting two wars.
One against Hitler and the madness he had wracked upon the world, the other barely two feet away from him.
"You need your ears waxed, boy? I said, you can't come in here. No nig...folks of your kind allowed."
It was easy to allow the flames of rage within him to flare to the surface. He could almost see the dare in the officer's narrowed green eyes, mocking him - Come at me, boy, it seemed to say, and I'll have you court-martialed so fast, it will knock the black off you.
"What you looking at?" the officer sneered and took a step forward.
"Nothing...much," Robert mumbled beneath his breath. "I ain't here for no trouble. I jus need to speak to the Cap'n."
It grated on his nerves that he was in higher rank than the PFC and yet he was treated as if his stripes meant nothing. He hadn't spent nine months at the Tuskegee Institute for nothing. As if that wasn't good enough, they had made him take a series of 'intelligence' tests. You know, just in case he wasn't smart enough to fly the goddamn plane. He was tired, not just of the hours he had spent working on his P-51, going over co-ordinates and flight plans with the captain, but also of the simmering stench of prejudice that seemed to follow him wherever he went.
We're fighting the same fuckin' war, he thought bitterly. You'd think they'd at least show us some form of respect.
The officer snorted and eyed the patch on Robert's flak jacket. "One of them Red Devils, eh?"
For a moment, Robert allowed a feeling of smug superiority to fill his insides. He could barely restrain his smirk. "Sho am."
Being a member of the 332nd Fighter Group was a big enough task as it was. They were to escort several B-17s, whose role was to bomb a Daimler-Benz company in Berlin. It was going to be a long excursion and one that had many of the pilots nervous even though they did their best not to show it. Having cold feet at this point, was definitely not an option.
"Ah, Robert, you're here," came the familiar voice of Captain Wilson as he stepped out of the officer's quarters with a pipe stuck in his mouth. He saluted and patted the younger man's shoulder. "Ready for combat, son?"
"As ready as I can be, sir," Robert replied with a small smile, grateful that Wilson had at least ignored the PFC in a show of solidarity. Captain Wilson was a nice enough fella. He didn't treat Robert like an object and was willing to work with the young pilot. It also helped that Robert's fighter would be on Wilson's tail throughout the flight. Robert was determined to protect the Captain at the cost of his life.
They marched towards the waiting deck, where all the planes were assembled, engines running as the WACs, mechanics and details made sure the machines were ready for flying. Robert spied members of his squadron and excused himself to have a last smoke with the crew.
"There he is," Left Foot Joe cried out from his hunched position. "Figgered they'd beat the tar out o' you. Didn't tha' incident teach you nothin'?"
That incident was in reference to the hundred plus pilots who had tried to get into the mess hall - the 'white' mess hall - and were arrested. Robert wasn't there, but the news had filtered into their camp. There was a quiet resentment in the air, bottled up and held as their leader, had called them together for a 'briefing'.
"We'll let our planes do the talking," the Colonel had said. "We'll show them how important we are and how much they need us."
Robert's cheeks heated at the light-hearted reprimand and accepted a cigarette from Smoky, a man who could pelt out the Blues like no man's business. Robert enjoyed listening to him on evenings when they had a little downtime. He leaned against the side of the plane and watched the white officers...and the Colonel convene in a huddle as maps were opened and final details hashed out.
"Las' nigh', I prayed to ma Lord Jesus," the 'Reverend' piped up with a heavy sigh, "an' I had me a vision."
"Again?" someone drawled, eliciting a few chuckles. Reverend, whose real name was Jerome Baker, liked to talk about his parish back in South Carolina. He was still upset that he hadn't been made chaplain, even though he had shown his 'credentials'. He bitched and moaned about it to anyone who cared to listen.
"This one ain't no joke," he insisted while tugging on his flak jacket.
"What was the vision?" Robert asked, curious in spite of himself. The Reverend looked pleased at the question - at least someone gave a shit about his stories.
"Well, look here, Robert," he began, but was mercifully cut off as the Colonel approached with a firm wave of his arm.
"Let's roll out, boys," he ordered as the men threw away their cigarettes and stood at attention. "Remember your formation and keep your eyes peeled for those Me's. Got it?"
Robert felt his hands become damp with sweat - a familiar sensation he had whenever it was time for another stint in the air. This was his twentieth mission, so it was nothing new to him. He had been in combat before, had almost been hit by a German fighter, but was otherwise successful in whatever task assigned to him. He climbed aboard his plane - the 'Sweet Caroline' - a name he had given after his mother, and gave a thumbs up sign to Captain Wilson who was settling into the larger bomber with his crew.
"Bright and sunshiny. We're in God's country," came the voice from the radio intermingled with static as, under his expert touch, the small plane lifted into the air and right into formation. Robert snickered at the familiar voice of Smoky and glanced outside his window. He reciprocated the good luck sign shown to him and settled back in his seat with a prayer on his lips. He could see the B-17 before him like a giant black bird...several giant black birds actually. The Mustangs looked like dots beside them.
Someone began to sing, and the Colonel was quick to interrupt it. "Cut the shit, Baker. We've got..."
Then a flash and bang so loud, it had Robert nearly pissing his pants. "Goddamn! They're here!"
Grappling with the .50 cal machine gun, Robert's peripheral vision caught sight of the German Me-262's approaching. They seemed to form a solid impenetrable wall, and flak from their machines whizzed past the Mustangs.
"Oh Lawd, oh Lawd!" someone prayed, but Robert was past caring whose voice it was. All he could see was the plane that contained Captain Wilson and his crew and their response to the sudden attack as bombs and artillery fire erupted from within. Robert weaved and dived beneath the bomber and set off a slew of shots that made him go deaf with its racket. He could barely make out Left Foot's fighter flying past him.
"Cover him!" the Colonel yelled into the radio and Robert did as he was told. Together, he and Left Foot took the lead and seemed to be right in the line of fire from the German jets. Machine gun fire enveloped them from all sides. It was a goddamn miracle nothing seemed to touch 'Sweet Caroline'.
"Ah've been hit!" a voice, eerily like that of Smoky's, was heard. "Fuckin' sonsofbitches! Ah'ma kill someone!"
"Don't do anything rash," came the sharp reprimand, "Keep your heads together, men!"
Target in sight, Robert's mind whirled as he locked in on of the Me's. With a calmness that seemed to come from nowhere, he fired and watched in mild amazement as it made a direct hit with a wing. The explosion was almost beautiful - a wild flare of orange and red before black smoke filled the skies.
"Nice shot, boy," Wilson's voice came over the radio. "We're almost there. Time to give 'em hell."
With most of the Me-262's now incapacitated, the B-17s had a clear shot of their original mission and dropped the bombs onto the buildings below. The rest of the Mustangs continued to fire at opposing Luftwaffes, time losing all meaning as they focused on the task. Eventually, a radio signal from their leader told them the good news.
"Mission accomplished. Good job, men," the Colonel praised with undeniable pride in his voice. Not one bomber had been lost in this long and seeming endless flight/mission and he reveled in the exhausted but enthusiastic whoops from his crew.
Back on solid ground, Robert got a bad case of the shakes and had to close his eyes for several minutes to control himself. The last thing he needed was his crew to see him in this state. It was all well and good in the air, when his mind was blank and he could focus on his mission, but when out of combat, his muscles would cramp up, the fear and knowledge that he could have been killed seizing him and almost bringing him to tears. A knock on the pane of his fighter, had him looking up quickly and into the weary, but smiling visage of Captain Wilson. He waved a cigar before the younger man's face.
"You okay, soldier?" Wilson asked as Robert stepped out of the plane to accept the congratulatory offer.
"As well as I can be, sir," came the quiet reply.
"Never seen anything like it," Wilson said with admiration in his voice. He pounded the pilot's shoulder and grinned. "You'll get a damn medal yet, boy."
"Hey, Wilson! Get yer ass down here! We're having a party at the mess hall!"
"Up yours!" the man replied jovially at the excited navigator, before sobering up a little. "Ah..."
Robert smiled and nodded in understanding. "You go'n, sir. Me and my boys, we celebrate in our own way."
The captain looked apologetic, but said nothing else as he gave another salute and walked away. It's a darn shame, Robert thought as he shook his head and made his way towards the singing group of black men who, he believed, had saved the day. Woulda loved to share a drink with you, Cap'n. Maybe someday, but I ain't holding my breath.
She could do it.
"Momma, I'm hungry."
Never mind she had worked the graveyard shift from 12a.m to 8a.m, and that her legs and arms were sore as hell.
"Okay, Benjy, give momma a minute."
Still she lay prone of the narrow cot, an arm over her closed eyes to block out the harsh July sunlight that filtered through the lace curtains. She could hear Mr. Barley's radio blaring out 'Retreat' - that song that was used to help motivate and encourage the boys overseas - from the next apartment. She felt her throat tighten with sadness and remorse, knowing that when she opened her eyes again, those dreams of sitting with her David and just holding hands beneath the moonlight would be just that. Simply a dream.
"Momma." The whine was incessant and only emphasized as Baby Sarah began to wail from her crib.
Still half-asleep, she swung her legs out of bed and shuffled to her feet, nearly falling to the floor as a muscle cramp seized her right calf. She held on to a chair and bit her lower lip hard, not wanting her children to hear her cry out loud in agony. Her hands were raw and blistered, though she wore those thick heavy gloves at the factory, and even holding the chair was a lesson in tolerance.
"Mrs. Snow, didn't give us breakfast, momma," Benjy informed her as he tugged on the hem of her skirt. "Momma..."
"I said I was coming!" She immediately regretted raising her voice as Benjy took a step back and then ran to a corner of the tiny apartment to bury his face against his raised knees. "Oh, hon," she began, only to wince as a heavy knocking on the door signaled a visitor.
Lifting Sarah into her arms, shushing her at the same time with soft words of comfort, she limped towards the door and opened it - only a crack. She was wary of the government workers who came asking her to buy more war bonds or sell her false ads. for the war effort. There were so many scams out there, one couldn't tell where truth and fiction merged to become one.
"Mr. Helms," she gasped in surprise as she noticed the man standing in the corridor. He took off his hat to reveal his well-coiffed white hair.
"Mrs. Melvin. I came at a bad time, didn't I?"
She blushed and shook her head, now embarrassed at how dirty and unkempt she must look. She dared not invite him into the apartment, which was cluttered and untidy. She had no time to keep things in order.
"Oh no, it's...it's fine." Actually it wasn't. Seeing the owner of the factory was not a good sign at all.
"Well, I won't take up too much of your time then, Mrs. Melvin," Helms said with a warm smile. He pulled out a piece of paper from his jacket. "We just got an order from the government, you see."
She felt her stomach churn at the news.
"They need more landing crafts for the invasion, you see, and we need all the help we can get." Mr. Helms looked sorry. "I sure wish I could find more hard working people like you, Crissy. And I know you've got them kids to take care of, but..."
Crissy held up a hand to stop him from going any further. "I understand, Mr. Helms. When do you want me to come in then?"
He looked relieved. "Well, I reckon we could use you in about three hours. That should give you plenty of time to get ready, eh?" He reached out to tickle Sarah's chin, and the baby seemed to approve of it.
"All right, Mr. Helms." She thought of bringing up the topic of a raise in her pay - the twenty-odd dollars a week she was getting was barely enough to feed her children, buy more war bonds, and pay Mrs. Snow for babysitting when she was gone - but she held her tongue. If the other women at the plant weren't complaining, why should she? It was all for the war effort after all.
For all her misgivings, she held the romantic notion that for each bolt she fixed into a machine or welded, her husband would eventually ride in it. She would love to imagine that he was benefiting from all the endless hours she put in at the factory, and that her products would keep him safe and sound. She wrote him letters about it when she could, letting him know of her decision to sign up for the program, take the night classes and crash courses offered. She could now build anything from machine guns to tanks. He would be so proud of her.
After feeding Benjy and Sarah, she reluctantly dropped them off at Mrs. Snow's apartment. She explained her new work shift to the elderly woman and promised to pay her as soon as she had saved up enough. She wished there was someone else she could rely on to take care of the children, but Mrs. Snow had proven to be invaluable help over the past few months.
She dressed quickly in a pair of old jeans and plain print blouse, tying her black hair in a ponytail, before grabbing her lunch box and heading out to the bus stop. She recognized several other women who worked at the factory, and they chatted about the news of the invasion at the ETO.
"My Frank's there," Cecile Miller gloated proudly of her husband who had been promoted to Major during his tour of duty overseas. "He says they'll take the beach for sure."
"Well, my Joey's going to be Lootenant," Maggie Smith countered with a smug smile. "He told me that in his letter. What about you, Crissy? How's David?"
Crissy smiled weakly. Her husband was still only a Corporal, but she knew how proud he had been the day he had gotten his uniform. "He's okay...I think. The last letter I got, he says they're going to be shipped out to Normandy." She gripped her lunchbox tightly, struggling not to break down into tears before the women. She knew that despite all their talk and loudness, deep down they missed the presence of their men just as much as she did.
Sometimes, while working, she'd notice a few of them wiping their eyes, not from the stress of the work or the grime and grease from their foreheads, but from the silent tears they shed over the ones they loved. Several of the women had even received letters of condolences, having lost their husbands, fathers, brothers or uncles in the war. Whenever a fellow worker got the news, all the women shared in her grief and would do their best to cheer her up. Last week, Sally Polanski had the misfortune of learning about her husband being killed in the line of fire at some unpronounceable German town. Her wails of anguish had torn through Crissy's heart. Sally was simply unable to work any more and had to be taken to a hospital. Crissy couldn't help wondering if there'd come a time when her name would be called; so much so that she began to dread the sight of the mailman even though she longed to see him at the same time.
The familiar choking smell of soot, hot metal and smoke filled her nostrils as she punched in and picked up her gloves. The loud talk from the bus stop and ride had dwindled into quiet murmurs. It was time to work for a cause they all believed in, no matter how difficult and tedious it was. Mr. Helms' assistant called all the women together and ran through a list of things they were to do today and what machines they were assigned to.
Crissy picked up her blowtorch and placed the protective visor over her head and face. She stared at the bottom of the steel deck for a long moment, willing the weariness and thoughts of her children to be replaced by the determination on her husband's handsome young face. He was an ocean away, but still and always so very close to her heart.
"This is for you, darlin'," she whispered and fell to her knees to begin her job; the fiery sparks of her equipment, now matching the fire blazing within her.
'Silent Night' filters into the forest.
Its faint sounds drifting over the huddled figures in their foxholes as they wait. All around them, winter is evident in its startling beauty, the naked trees barely able to stand as branches snap from the pressure of the ice chunks that form. Snow is the perfect camouflage, and yet they would have welcomed the presence of anything warm at this moment. They stamp their feet and rub their hands together, conserving what precious body warmth they can get from their companion.
A week ago, Corporal Donald had suffered a severe case of frostbite and was taken to nearby Hünningen to get treatment. For the others, they manage through changing socks as often as possible and keeping dry.
The now 17-man platoon of the 99th Intelligence & Reconnaissance has been at this post for the past month; their initial mission of gathering intelligence on the German's next major attack to the Americans' line of defense, now becoming a last minute decision by command to hold off the incoming (and unforeseen) avalanche of Krauts. It's almost a ridiculous situation, one that has the young leader of the platoon, concerned for the meager weaponry in their arsenal and their ability to hold back so many Germans.
His desperate attempts to get back up from the artillery battalion has been met with mixtures of disbelief and the command's inability to understand how German paratroopers could have organized themselves so quickly without the Allied's intelligence knowing. The nearest battalion is several miles away, but before they can arrive, the I&R platoon are on their own.
Lieutenant Bailey, who will be twenty-one tomorrow, peers through his binoculars at a sight that sends his heartbeat racing a little faster. His worst fears are confirmed and he stiffens as Sergeant Williams comes crawling towards his foxhole as fast as he can.
"How does it look?" Bailey asks.
"Not good," comes the breathless reply. "Me and Sherborn saw about a hundred or so of them coming from the left flank." He pulls out a hastily drawn map and holds it out in the fading light, both men peering at it as Williams points. "There. There, there and there. They're surrounding us, sir."
"We can hold them back with what we've got," Bailey says with an inward grimace. He ignores the incredulous look on Williams' face. "We've got the .50cal and our M-1s and hand grenades should be enough until the artillery battalion shows up. Tell the others to get ready. We don't fire until I say the word."
"Ye...yes, sir." Williams looks like he's about to say something else, but seeing the determined look on the younger man's face has him biting back whatever comment he would have made. He has to admire the kid's guts. It has taken him almost three months to reluctantly approve of the natural soldier in Lieutenant Bailey, and the more time he spends with the kid, the more he's come to appreciate his leadership.
The silence, broken only by the surreal sound of Christmas songs from the village, is so ironic; Private Gilbert - a German-American, whose parents had defected in 1938 to flee the oppression faced from the Third Reich - can only shake his head in wonder. He's scared out of his wits, but knows that this is what he has spent all those months training for. He's glad for his companion, a tough former linebacker for his high school team, Private J. Stewart. The older man's a natural with the gun and if last week's shot at the passing deer had been any indication, Gilbert figures he's in good company.
"Merry fucking Christmas," Private First Class Maloney grumbles from his foxhole. He's pissed, but holds his water. Sure, he listened to the Lieutenant's instructions for them to stay put and guard this godforsaken hellhole, but he sure as hell doesn't appreciate the sudden turn of events. His job is to detonate land mines and spy on folks, not to engage in actual combat. He sniffles and curses again, his M-1 now moist within his hands. "It's goddamn two degrees below zero and I'm sweating like a hog."
"We all are," PFC Kowalski replies with a weak smile. He's a quiet, unassuming man who would rather spend his time buried in books, than be in the army. He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose and peers through the narrow slit in the dugout. It's the calm before the storm, except that the calm is gradually becoming louder each passing second with the sound of seemingly a million footsteps marching towards them.
They're unprepared for the barrage of mortar shells that begin to rain on them. They dive into their foxholes, hands over their heads and ears as the thunderous sound cocoons them continuously. The darkened sky lights up with the flare, an almost beautiful spectacle if watching from a distance and not in the line of fire. The trees fall around them with each blow, shrapnel and hot metal scalding the cold earth. Their phone lines are severed, radio communication no longer existent. They are now completely isolated and only have Providence on their side.
After ninety-minutes, the shelling finally stops and with fear now their companions, the platoon slowly raise their heads, all accounted for much to Lieutenant Bailey's relief. However, he knows it's not over yet. He's now sure that the Germans do not know their hideout, so they should be able to hold them off with no problems.
"Kowalski, Maloney," he calls. "I'm gonna need you two to head off to 1st Battalion headquarters for reinforcements. Tell them we need it now!"
With instructions on how to get there with least resistance, the privates head off; Maloney with his M-1 and Kowalski with a Browning automatic rifle, which is quite cumbersome to say the least. Deciding to go through the North side, they arrive at a steep incline with a railroad to cross, but unfortunately, approaching (and at a leisurely pace) are German troops dressed in white camouflaged ski suits. Without warning, they open fire, forcing the two Americans to dive into a nearby pine thicket for cover. Maloney fires back with his M-1, felling several soldiers, while Kowalski lets rip with his BAR, hitting at least one German. In retaliation, there's a barrage of light machine gun fire and the crackle of a Schmeisser machine pistol.
"Ah, fuck!" Kowalski screams in pain as he's shot in the calf. The white snow is quickly blood red, while Maloney does his best to hold back the German troops with his M-1. However, a searing pain in his right shoulder tells him that he too has been shot, but he does not drop his gun until he runs out of ammo. Knowing that the Germans would be quick to seize their medications, Kowalski swallows all eight tablets of sulfa issued to GIs to control any infection to a wound. To substitute water, he swallows handfuls of snow, just as the Germans scream for them to surrender. Resisting now would be futile, as both he and Maloney raise their hands and allow themselves to be taken away.
Back on the hillside, the fighting has begun in earnest. Bailey and the rest of the platoon are doing all they can to stop the seemingly endless and relentless German troops. Like automatons they just keep coming, hardly backing away even as their comrades fall to the ground before them. The expanse of snow-covered countryside is now littered with bodies, and Bailey is hopelessly aware that their ammunition is running low. His feeling of overwhelming helplessness is tenfold as Sergeant Williams gives a small cry and pulls away from the .50cal. The large machine gun has burned his hand, since it's become so hot, and is now bent at an awkward angle as it triggers off on its own before falling silent.
"Gilbert's been shot!" Private Stewart yells, just before he nearly blacks out at the loud explosion that shears the right side of his face. He rolls around the ground in agony, barely feeling his commander running to his side to apply a quick first aid. Sergeant Williams takes care of Gilbert, wincing at the horrific sight before him. Gilbert has taken five or six shots to the face, his jaw nearly shattered with teeth stuck to the roof of his mouth. It's a miracle he's still alive.
"Am I dying? Am I dying, sir?" he asks in a trembling voice that nearly breaks the older man's heart.
"What are you talking about? You're doing just fine, kid," Williams says, pouring as much sulfur powder in the wound. There is no morphine available so he can only imagine -
"Ah fuck!" Bailey suddenly cries out and falls to the ground, sending a flood of panic in Williams's heart. "I'm okay," the Lieutenant manages to gasp as he stumbles to his feet again to attend to his fallen comrade. "Just shot in the leg."
They can hear the Germans approaching with orders for them to surrender. Williams grits his teeth, trying hard to fight down the rage that boils within him. They have exhausted all options. They are out of ammo and the men they sent for reinforcements might even be dead for all he knows. Little does he or his platoon know that their gallant effort and bravery has slowed down the German advancement considerably.
As for Bailey, it's all he can do not to scream in frustration and disappointment. Although he knows it would have been impossible for them to defeat so many Germans, he still feels he has let his platoon down. He has come to know all eighteen men in the past three months, and almost considers them brothers. Had his six years in the army all been for naught? Had he any other option in rescuing his men from this inevitable ending?
Fuck it all. Fuck 'em all to hell!
"Wer ist der Commandant?" a German soldier screams as he points the muzzle of the gun against Bailey's temple.
Bailey and Williams share a look - an understanding flowing between the two men without words ever being spoken. They are in this together until the bitter end - wherever it may take them, and raising his hand slowly, First Lieutenant Drew Bailey finally answers firmly and with conviction.