by Rogue Writer
A WWII Veterans remembrance. Note, this is an upgraded piece that I wrote 8 years ago.
A Walk In The Park
I keep thinking; no matter how badly you want to look, keep your eyes shut, fingers in your ears and face in the dirt. Shells are landing everywhere. I can still see the flashes through my closed eyelids, the concussion shakes me to the bone and sometimes even lift me off the ground. I'm picturing a never-ending line of men, loading those eighty-eights. Even plugging my ears doesn’t help. There’s a ringing and pressure in my head; it’s a feeling of hearing under water.
It was dusk when fifty of us advanced into this park. It was a large grassy meadow that rose to a thick stand of trees. We were spread out in a thin line, walking up the slope in the high grass, when the first round hit. I drop into a dry drainage ditch and watched most of the guys run toward the tree line. In a flash Holliman and Munson disappear. The shelling continues; for ten, twenty, thirty minutes; it seems like an eternity. The last shell impacting some distance away.
I lay there until my hearing comes back and call out to my buddies, “Stengel, you out there?” Where the hell are they? “Beasley, Beez, answer…” Where did they go; I ignore the obvious answer. It’s black as pitch now; there’s still a ringing in my ears, my watch is smashed, time is meaningless. The night air is moist and heavy with the smell of cordite and moist churned up soil. The muzzle flashes and rumble of Gerry’s eighty-eights are on the horizon but the shells aren’t landing here anymore. “Where the hell are those two assholes, this is no time to screw around.”
I can hear the sound of something coming toward me, sounds like a jeep crawling its way around the stream bed, a slow whine of gears meshing. Lifting my rifle; I slide the safety off and level the muzzle in the direction of the sound.
Someone calls out. “Company B… We’re pulling you guys back.” I recognized the sergeant’s voice, it's Gibbs. I find myself buried under a few inches of dirt and debris thrown up by the impacts and crawl out of my hole. Smoke from grass fires clouds my vision; I can barely make out the jeep.
“Sarge, Its Arnold! I haven’t seen anyone…” I point in the general direction of the trees, “Most of them went in there.” I can just make out the two guys in the darkness. “We got hit bad... Don’t think many made it...”
I safety my weapon and approach the jeep. Sergeant Gibbs is in the passenger seat and I don’t recognize the driver.
The sergeant waves me forward, “Hop in, we’ll pull up a little further and see if we can find them.” So I jump up behind him and with a little jerk we start to move, the whine of the transmission shattering the silence.
Gibbs has the driver stop, “If Gerry’s in ear shot we’re in trouble, maybe we reconnoiter on foot.” Gibbs glances at me and points to the left as he hops out and starts to move to the right.
Advancing to a place just beyond my dry stream bed I discover a two foot field stone wall and a gate. There's a brown copper placard reads ‘Bremener Park‘. It’s dark; but small brush fires illuminate the devastation that rained here. The gardens are gone, the entire grove of trees are nothing but broken, ragged stumps, the mist of war drifts up from every shell crater that now pit this once beautiful place. One dilapidated; four-foot sapling still stands in this baron field, it's branches and leaves mostly unscathed. As I move through the maze of smoking craters; I was hoping, but not expecting to find life. I hear the buzz of rifle rounds begin to zip by and skip as they hit the raised mounds of dirt around each hole.
They’re zeroing in on Gibbs and me; I turn and start to crawl back to the jeep. The Pfc has turned the jeep around, I jump into the back and we wait a long two minutes for the Sarge. I’m not one for waiting, when he doesn’t show; I crawl back out and up to the right where he had gone.
The rifle fire let up as I enter the field. “Gibbs, you son-of-a-bitch answer me.” I crawl half way out and see him in one of the shallow craters. His helmet's missing; he waving me over, he found Stengel unconscious, he’s holding a tourniquet on the stump of Stengel’s right forearm. I help him tie it off. I empty my canteen washing out and bandaging the open wound.
The Sarge tells me, “Give him another Morphine and we’re getting out of here.”
Curious about my other friend, I ask, “Beasley?”
Gibbs shaakes his head no. “Not enough left to bring back.” We lay Stengel’s body on a rain slicker and on our hands and knees, drag him all the way back to the jeep.
Of the fifty that waked into that field that afternoon, I was one of only five to return. All my closest friends were gone. The push into Germany continues. Stengel went home and the rest of us were reassigned to different units. I never got to see Gibbs again...
* * * *
A lifetime later, I’m eighty-three years young. My wife and I have two sons, a daughter and seven grand children. The memory of that night, although faded; has never left me. It's neatly filed along with sixty-three good years of fading memories in the back of my mind.
Being one of two WWII veterans in my American Legion post, they ran a fundraiser to send us back to Europe on a remembrance tour. The six-day bus tour will take us from Normandy to battleground after battleground.
So Edna and I hop on the plane and five grueling hours later land at Heathrow. We spend the night in London and in the morning are escorted to a channel ferry (An old troop transport). The crossing is smooth and we meet our young tour escorts, costumed in WWII dress uniform.
In October of 44, my buddies and I were went in as replacements and were never involved with the D-Day invasion. The last time I saw these beaches they were a jumble of supply trucks and equipment to resupply the guys up front.
The tour guide is an old German gentleman, who is very well versed with anecdotes and detailed stories about all the well-known battles. We all sit in that cushy air-conditioned bus and quietly listened to him rambling on. The tour winds it's way through France and into Germany.
We stopped every so often to stand where we once stood as young men. I would look around and remember how my four friends and I had survived through those times. Town after town, farm after farm; we seemed to be untouchable, walking away with nothing more than scratches.
My friend from the Post pared up with a long lost friend at the back of the bus and Edna sleeps most of the time.
The third day we encounter a detour that diverts us through a small farm community. The road is just wide enough to handle the width of the bus. A white haired man sitting by himself in the front seat, asks the driver to stop, he wants to get out and stretch his legs The bus driver finds a flat shoulder wide enough to park. Some of us pile out, Edna, as usual is sound asleep. We seem to be in the middle of nowhere, a shallow stream follows the curve in the road and on the other side is an open grassy field.
The bearded, white haired old man gets one of the younger escorts to help him; he wants to go over into that field; with a little sense of adventure a couple of us follow. It is better than sitting in that damn sterile bus.
We all wear our Veterans caps, VFW, Legion and Amvets. So about seven of us geriatrics carefully cross that shallow stream and begin to explore the field. As I look down stream an old rusted iron gate catches my eye; it seems to draw me away...
“Hey you... give me a hand…” Looking over my shoulder, the old guy that started this escapade is hobbling up behind me. As he comes closer I see something familiar about him… Tears are streaming down his cheeks… He seems to be about ninety years old.
“You old fart, don’t you recognize me?” Much heavier, with a white beard and mustache; it’s Sergeant Gibbs. Tears start to well up in my eyes as well and we hug each other. Two old fools remembering.
He wipes his eyes on his sleeve saying, “We’re on that damn bus for three days and don’t recognize each other?” He bows his head and points, “The guys bought it…over there,” His hand shakes badly as he points down the path, “Its there!”
“You think this is it?”
“I’m pretty sure…”
Two of the escorts help us to continue walking down the gully. We move into another field that we could not have seen from the road. I almost stumble over a bramble of twisted vines and am confronted by an overgrown short field stone wall. Walking along that wall I see the gate and a copper placard; nowcorroded green. ‘Bremener Park‘
Most of the shell holes and pits have been smooth over and the grass is short and neatly mode. There's that one tree standing in the middle of the field. We wandered about; I look back at the spot where I'd taken cover that day. At the top of the rise is a stand of young saplings; not more than ten or so years old.
I stand and stared for the longest time, then close my eyes. Even the mold and mustiness instantly bring back the memory of that night. Early in the shelling Munson dropped in to check on me.
I asked him if he had a death wish running around the field like he was. He answered me ‘Piece of cake, A walk in the park. They’ll never catch me.’ Then he gave that weird laugh. He jumped up and went to check on Holliman. It was less than a minute later, I watched him drop down near the tree line and in a flash he and my other friend were gone.
I hear Gibbs calling, waking me out of my stupor and I hobbled over to him. He holds up an old rusted helmet with a deep ding in it. “When we separated that night a round skipped off my helmet. Knocked me down and I lost this old pot. I went stumbling around looking for it and that's how I found Stengel. Looking for this pot.”
We stood staring at it, rusted; the webbing just fell out of it. He tucked it under his arm and we started back to the bus.
“I lost track of all the guys, what ever happened to Stengel?”
“We met after the war at a county Legion meeting about three years before he died. He became a teacher and lived to be seventy-five. Good thing he was a lefty.” Gibbs chuckled.
I stopped and turned to look at the tree, “Seems like a good living monument to this place. Wonder if it's that same one?” We both stand there, with lumps in our chests and moisture welling in our eyes.
Gibbs said something to his escort and handed him the rusted helmet. I watched as he took a marker from his breast pocket and wrote something across the side. The escort goes and places that rusted old piece of iron between three branches. Gibbs elbows me, “Now it’s a real monument.”
Back in the bus we sit for a while and tell everyone our story. It wasn’t much of a tale but it was one of the everyday experiences of the time. The old German Tour Guide recorded our story and told us he would make this one of the official stops. Meanwhile the whole bus emptied out and everyone took a walk in that park and looked at our little impromptu monument.
Two years later, Gibbs has passed. Our Post has received a citation from Bremener Germany thanking us for our part in liberating that town. They included photos of the tree and the helmet still perched between those branches with all six of our names Munson, Stengel, Beasley, Holliman, Arnold and Gibbs. They had also erected a stone edifies that lists all the names of the fifty men in our unit. There’s a bronzed helmet on top with a placard, on which is written our little story of that night. If I live long enough, I hope to go back and see it one day.