This is one of the first ones I had to make almost everything up in. I wrote it for the purpose of including the story of the guys almost hit by a shell, but also to put something in between Pearl Harbor and Belgium.
After three months of training came our first major exercise. All the men of Camp Wheeler, Georgia, loaded a long string of Army busses and convoyed to Camp Croft, South Carolina. Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair was slated to come watch the action. My company arrived at Camp Croft on a Tuesday evening. The men filed out and fell into ranks.
“Much improved,” shouted Sergeant Pike. “But still pathetic.” He looked to me for the next set of directions.
“Sergeant Pike, we’ll bivouac in Zone C.” I pulled out my compass and map of the base. “Zone C is about two miles southwest of here along this road. Sergeant, march these men to their temporary lodging.”
“Yes, sir,” Pike replied. “Able Company, ten-hut! Right face! Forward march!” We crested the hill to see hundreds of tents, men everywhere drilling, doing P.T., setting up camp. I looked across our ranks at sixty well trained soldiers with a full pack and rifle apiece.
At the Zone C Headquarters tent, they gave us a specific location assignment. Lieutenant Pietrzak and I stood inside. General McNair arrived, with Camp Wheeler’s commandant, Colonel Emery, following behind him.
“Ten-hut!” I ordered.
“As you were,” the general said.
“General,” Colonel Emery said, pulling his arm. “These are Lieutenants Brewer and Pietrzak. These are two of my men who fought the Japs at Pearl Harbor.”
“Ah, yes,” he said, shaking our hands. He stood about a foot above me, and even at 30 years older, had much more hair than I did. “So I take it you know what these soldiers need. What do you think of training so far?”
“Not enough, sir,” Pietrzak replied. “It’s never enough, never could be enough.”
McNair seemed taken aback.
“The only thing that prepares a man for battle is battle, sir.”
“So what’s your solution, son?”
“P.T. and more P.T.,” I said. “That and marksmanship. But we only get so many rounds, so we have to improvise.”
“And how do you do that, Lieutenant?” I could tell he was intrigued.
“Football, baseball, slingshots – anything we can to teach ’em to aim. Then we use other training like golf, shot put, darts, and yard bowling to help them understand trajectory, angle, wind speed, and so on.”
“Lieutenant Brewer could fight the Jerries with a truckload of gravel, sir,” Pietrzak interjected.
“All the better if you run out of bullets.” General McNair smiled. “Your men will do fine. They appear to have fantastic leaders.”
Later that night, while sitting in my tent, I heard someone tapping on the outside. “Come in,” I called. Colonel Emery pushed past the flap and walked in.
“Keep your seat, Brewer,” he said. Emery had a bottle of Scotch and two glasses. “Care for a drink?”
“Sure thing, Colonel.”
“What are you working on tonight?”
“Plans for tomorrow. We have a full day of training before exercise begins.”
Emery set a glass on the desk where I was working. I took a sip out of it, not completely sure I’d finish. “What’s on the docket?”
“Reveille, P.T., breakfast, shooting range, orienteering, lunch, camouflage & concealment, exercise overview, supper, area cleanup, some free time and then Taps.”
“Full day, I take it.”
“Thursday is the exercise, and then we’re slated to leave at 0900 on Friday.” Emery poured himself a glass.
“We’re here less than seventy-two hours, sir. Why all the travel for such a quick exercise?”
“That’s how McNair does it, son. He’s not too keen on spending a whole thirteen weeks training to go overseas, either.”
Emery paused, and I had no reply. I filled the dead air with a slightly larger sip from my Scotch glass.
“May I see your company alpha roster?” He took a good few seconds scanning it.
“Where’s Sergeant Pike from?”
“Ohio, turns out we lived ten miles away from each other as kids.”
“Ohio, turns out we lived ten miles away from each other as kids.”
“Pennsylvania, I believe…”
“What about Private Guzman?”
I paused. “New Mexico.”
I had nothing.
“How good of a soldier is Waldrip?”
“He’s the redheaded guy, I believe…”
“New Orleans,” I shouted. Finally, an answer I knew.
“Lieutenant Brewer, you are responsible for every one of these men.” Emery waved the roster in front of me. “Every one. All sixty-five if I include you. Do you remember what I said before you got this class?”
“Yes, sir. ‘Train them like no class before. These are the men you’re taking overseas.’”
“Right. You’re the leader here and you’re responsible for every last one of them. You need to know each one’s strengths and weaknesses, so when you ask one to do a task, you’ll know he can do it.”
“Sorry, sir.” I took a sizeable gulp before continuing. “I’ve been working with these men on their skill and discipline. I’ve done my best to learn their names in the past couple of months, but there are just a few holes.”
“If any one of these men dies,” he waved the paper again, “You have to write his parents and tell them what a great soldier he was. Don’t dishonor their deaths with a generic form letter.”
I readied my glass for a refill. “How many letters have you written, sir?”
Emery slumped back on my cot. “Thirty-one. I was one of a few company commanders in the Great War to come back with most of my unit.” He stared away from me like he was reading fine print on the opposite tent wall. “It was the last days of the Great War, and we were hit by a mortar. Our shelter collapsed inside the trench.”
I received the list back from him and stared at it for a moment. I looked at each name and tried to see the man’s face. Colonel Emery stood up to leave.
“Learn their names,” he said.
I walked out of the tent with him and watched the men playing football in the dim light coming from the Headquarters area.
“These are brilliant men, Brewer. You see that football?
“They marked it with reflective tape, spiraling from end to end, so they can see it better in the dark. Nobody told them to do that, they just figured it out on their own. Even in the moonlight they can see how it spins, and how fast it’s coming.”
I finished my second glass and handed it back to him.
“Know your men, Lieutenant.”
Pike and I stood on the edge of the practice battlefield. The steam rising from my coffee danced with the mist rising from the ground. Early morning light peeked over the hilltops, slowly melting the frost in the valley, which had already taken the fresh shine off of my boots.
“Orders, Lieutenant?” Pike asked.
“The men are mustered?”
“Since 0545, sir. Platoon Sergeants are ensuring the area is policed and the men get to breakfast and back on time.”
“Fifteen minutes, fed, and back in formation. We move out at 0630 sharp.”
“Yes, sir.” With that, Pike turned and ran back to camp.
We had been briefed and rebriefed on the exercise, but its exact location had been kept a secret. They wanted to test how well we could operate turning a map from an imaginary place into a physical location we had never seen before. Of course, we all had our speculations. And now, each of us owed Pietrzak five dollars.
I removed the compass from my left breast pocket. Three hills stood before me, more or less in line from my left to right. The 105 mm artillery would be set up on the northernmost hill, the 60 mm mortars on the middle hill, with the infantry advancing south from the north side to the objective on the south side of the third hill. 1st Platoon would lead on the east side of the hill; 2nd Platoon was to follow, taking the west, and cutting off the enemy’s escape; 3rd Platoon would stay on the second hill, covering our approach with live artillery fire from the 60’s.
The rumbling of boots approached from behind me. I turned around, returned my compass, and there came Company A, double-timing, with weapons in hand. The men fell into formation ten feet away from me and stopped on each Platoon Leader’s command. Officers filed in beside me. Platoon Sergeants took their places in front of their respective units.
Pike centered himself in front of me and turned to face the men. “Able Company, report!” he yelled.
“1st Platoon, all present and accounted for, sir.”
“2nd Platoon, all present and accounted for, sir.”
“3rd Platoon, all present or accounted for; two men absent: Private O’Malley and PFC Notariano.”
Pike did an about-face. “Sir, Company A all present or accounted for. Sixty-three present, two absent at medical tent.” Pike raised a salute.
“Sergeant Pike,” I said, returning his salute. “Please reassign two men from 2nd Platoon to take their places. I can’t have my artillery units without their radiomen.”
Pike faced the troops again. “Haslauer, Cole, you are reassigned to augment radiomen Davidson and Martin. Radiomen, please ensure these troops are trained to assist you.”
“At ease,” I ordered. The men relaxed, still panting from the morning jog. “Lieutenant Pietrzak, weather report please.”
“Partly cloudy, east wind five to seven miles per hour. Rain chance thirty percent.” Other units began to show up. Jeeps full of observational personnel arrived, each one sporting the white armbands to distinguish them from us in blue and our “enemies” in red. Other support personnel were setting up along the tree lines – medics, cooks, communications.
“Gentlemen,” I called out. “You’ve heard the battle plan so many times I’m sure you’re sick of it. 1st Platoon takes the left flank, east side of the hill. 2nd Platoon, right flank, west side. 3rd Platoon, fire 60 mm mortars over their heads as directed. Lieutenant Shanahan!”
“Sir!” he replied.
“Do you have the plans for 3rd Platoon’s support?”
“Factor in the wind?”
“Very well, Shanahan. 3rd Platoon, you listen to this man. Check and double-check your figures and settings. No excuses.”
“YES, SIR!” They replied in unison.
“I’ll lead the left flank, Lieutenant Pietrzak will lead the right.” My legs got stiff, so I started walking around. “First squad in each platoon will take point. Left will advance on the enemy and encircle them. Right will keep them from escaping on the other side of the hill. Remember to flank out wide to cut off their retreat. 105s from the artillery company will fire for fifteen minutes, 60s will fire for ten minutes after that, and that should be all the cover we need to reach the objective. Any questions?” The men stood silently, having finally caught their breath. “Sergeant Pike, time?”
“Perfect. Able Company, roll out.”
We began the march towards our starting place on the north face of Hill #2. A Jeep rolled up beside and three men with white armbands jumped out as the car moved on.
“Lieutenant Brewer?” an officer called, approaching me. I raised my hand and he trotted up. I popped a salute to him, which he returned. “Major Qualls, I’m here to observe you.”
“Well, then, welcome to Able Company, sir.”
“Thank you. So tell me, Lieutenant, how confident are you in your men?”
“I have absolute confidence in them, sir.”
“Would you take them into a real battle with you?”
“Trust them to do whatever’s necessary, in spite of anything that might happen?”
“Well, I don’t see why not. What are you getting at?”
“Good.” The major unfolded a sheet of paper and handed it to me. “All experienced officers are hereby moved off of the primary attack and placed into support functions. McNair wants newer officers to have a chance to lead.”
I read the paper: an order by McNair and then a list of our unit’s reassignments handwritten by Colonel Allen. There it was in black and white: Brewer – 3rd Platoon, Shanahan – 1st Platoon.
“Major, this isn’t what we trained for.”
“I’m well aware of that, Lieutenant Brewer. But what happens if you go down? Are these officers prepared to cover for you?”
“Should be, sir.” I paused. “Guess we’ll just have to see.”
“Don’t worry, he can get in contact over the radio if he needs anything. I’m sure it’ll do your company better for its commanding officer to be at the rear by McNair.”
I stopped in my tracks.
“What was that last part again?”
“McNair’s gonna be up on Hill #2.” The Major took off running ahead of our company. “I’ll let him know you’re here, Lieutenant.”
“Thank you, sir.” I stopped and waited until 3rd Platoon marched past me, then took Shanahan by the arm.
“What was your last experience leading infantry?”
“Practice exercises at West Point, why?”
“You get another chance today.”
“But Lieutenant!” he lowered his voice. “Cecil, the Weapons Platoon is what I know. I know them, they know me, we work well together.”
“Hell, I know that, you know that, and apparently Emery knows that too. But what happens if I,” the words choked me. I realized what I was saying. “What happens if I go down in battle?”
“You can do this, Kevin,” I said. “Here’s my map. If you need anything, Pike will be right beside you. You’ve got your radioman, too, but I better not hear you using it unless it’s a real emergency or else you’re slap out of ideas. Got it?”
Shanahan hesitated, then pulled his calculations out of his pocket. “You gonna be okay on mortars, Cecil?”
“I was Coast Artillery before I came to Infantry. I’ll figure it out.”
We arrived at the north face of Hill #2 and took our ready positions. 1st and 2nd Platoons waited at the base of the hill while 3rd took their mortars to the top. 3rd Platoon set up their cannons in record time. Then we all waited. Across the countryside, other units filed into position and sat waiting.
A siren went off in the distance: 0700, the official beginning of the exercise. We synchronized our watches and the 105’s began firing over our heads from Hill #3. 1st and 2nd advanced towards Hill #1. The artillery fired for the allotted fifteen minutes. I walked around checking and double-checking every position.
“Lieutenant Brewer!” I heard from behind me. Corporal Randolph and Private Barker waved me over. “Sir, a leg just came off of our cannon.”
“Randolph,” I shouted, jogging in their direction, “you know you’re not supposed to be smoking out here. Put that cigarette out.”
“Sorry, sir.” He tossed the cigarette over his shoulder. “We had everything together back at camp last night, but now it’s missing.
I inspected the cannon. “Looks like you’re missing a bolt. Go see Sergeant Turner, he has a few to spare.”
“Yes, sir,” they both said, and picked up the cannon to run to Turner’s position.
I looked at my watch: 0710. “Five minutes! Five minutes, everyone!” I followed the cigarette down the hill to where it stopped, about ten feet from McNair.
“Nice outfit you got here, Brewer,” he said.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Your platoon sergeant has spare parts on him?”
“Just the ones we can carry easily. Better than being–”
The sound of a freight train filled the air. McNair and I hit the ground. An artillery shell blazed over us and hit Randolph and Barker’s vacated position. McNair picked his head up and turned his attention on me.
“Recover!” I yelled, jumping up. The men scrambled back to their positions. “Randolph, Barker, new position, follow me!”
“FOLLOW YOU!” they yelled. I took out Shanahan’s calculations and my compass. Randolph came back carrying the cannon. “Adjust firing five degrees left, two degrees up.”
“Time, sir?” Turner shouted.
I checked my watch. “Thirty seconds, men! Commence mortar firing on my mark.” The men readied their first rounds and waited. “Fire at will!” They fired mortars for ten solid minutes.
“Good recovery, Brewer,” Major Qualls said.
“Well, I couldn’t just lay there, not right beside McNair, after all.”
“Care to see how the rest of your men are doing?” He passed me his binoculars and led me to the western side of the hill. 1st Platoon had reached the eastern side of Hill #1 and were moving around by squad. 2nd Platoon had their squads flanked out, holding the line together as they advanced, like the spoke on a wheel.
“Call for you, Lieutenant,” radiomen Davidson and Cole said, approaching me.
“Blue-2-Able-C.O.,” the radio crackled, “This is Blue-2-Able-1.” Lieutenant Shanahan.
I took the handset from Davidson. “Go ahead, 2-Able-1.”
“2-Able-1 has reached the objective. Looks like a hundred-something wooden soldiers still intact.”
“Good job, 2-Able-1. Stand by for cease fire to proceed.”
“3rd Platoon, cease fire!” I shouted, waving my hands. “Cease fire, cease fire, objective reached!” 0722 – three minutes ahead of schedule.
“Cease fire,” the men called one at a time.
“Sergeant Turner, ready rifles for backup if necessary, and stand by.”
“Standing by, sir,” Turner replied.
“Blue 2-Able-C.O., this is Blue-2-Able-2, we need backup now!” This time Pietrzak was on the radio. I grabbed the binoculars again. Red Army forces came out of the woods and started firing – blanks, of course – on 2nd Platoon.
“Blue 2-Able-2, take cover, stand by!” I looked to the Major. “What is this, sir?”
“Ambush, Lieutenant. Entire company on your 2nd Platoon.”
“2-Able-2,” I yelled into the handset. “Hold the line, we’re coming for you!” Looking out again, I could see men with white armbands randomly tapping out men as casualties. The Red troops took ground, forcing 2nd Platoon to fall back.
“By the way,” Major Qualls said, tapping me on the shoulder, “You just sprained your ankle. You will not be able to advance with 3rd.”
I glared at him. “You have the best timing, Major.” I sat down and faced the third hill. “Sergeant Turner, on me!”
He ran up as fast as he could.
“Take 3rd, rifles only, and engage the enemy. Corner them on their left flank and get to them before they destroy 2nd.”
“Yes, sir!” Turner took off running toward the Red Army, calling over his shoulder, “3rd Platoon, rifles only, Follow me!”
“Blue-2-Able-2, hang in there,” I barked into the radio. “Help is on the way.” Davidson and Cole stood beside me. “Cole, you go off with Turner, Davidson take cover.”
“Blue-2-Able-C.O., this is 2-Able-1,” Shanahan called. “Orders, sir?”
“2-Able-1, encircle and defend the objective. Do not – repeat – DO NOT surrender the objective. Encircle and assist as able but do not surrender. Do you copy, 2-Able-1?”
“Encircle and assist, do not surrender, roger!” he replied. 3rd Platoon charged forward at full speed. They made up twenty-five minutes of 2nd’s advances in six minutes of full on running.
“Lieutenant, this is 2nd Platoon, Corporal Waldrip.”
“2-Able-2,” I corrected, “didn’t you pay attention during the class on radio etiquette?”
“Sorry, sir. Pietrzak’s been tapped out. We’re really low on men, sir.”
“Stand fast, and do not, repeat, do not let them advance on 1st Platoon.” Behind me, McNair had his eyes on me, hands on his hips. Emery stood beside him. I tried not to look exasperated. The Red Army was about half gone, thanks to 3rd Platoon’s arrival, but were still making progress towards 1st’s position.
Emery ran up behind me, map in hand. “Brewer, this is where your men are, this is where the Red Army is–” he started whispering, “and this is where help can’t come from unless you ask for it.”
I looked off to Red Army’s right flank. Through the binoculars I could see camouflaged Sherman tanks in the woods. “Blue HQ, this is Blue-2-Able-C.O. requesting backup – repeat – backup in sector G-6.” Emery took the radio from me.
“Roger that, Blue 2-Able-C.O.” he said, then instructed Davidson to adjust the frequency. “Blue Stallion this is Blue Razor, execute Birnam Wood, deploy Blue 5-Easy in sector G-6 to cut off Red Army’s advance. Do you copy?”
“Copy that, Blue Razor, sending out Birnam Wood.” The tree line shook. A dozen Sherman tanks emerged from the tree line and cut off Red Army’s advance. In only three minutes they went from a hidden position to blockade formation. Red Army threw their hands up in surrender. A siren signaled the end of the exercise for our area. Time: 0800.
A Jeep arrived at the base of the hill to ferry Colonel Emery, Major Qualls, Private Davidson, and me to where the center of the action had been. A soldier from the base newspaper walked around snapping pictures of the men. Medical units saw to the “injured” troops while a couple of privates arranged the “dead” soldiers to spell out GO U.S.A. 1st Platoon escorted their wooden prisoners into the back of a truck to go back to the P.O.W. camp, which was actually just a shed. 3rd Platoon’s available men retreated to Hill #2 to pick up their mortar cannons.
That night, Able Company joined the rest of the men from Zone C in the mess tent. This included the Artillery from Hill #3, the Blue Cavalry who saved us, the Red Army who ambushed us, and all of the support troops. The officers threw in together and bought beer for the troops. O’Malley and Notariano, the men who spent the exercise in the medical tent, were pushed around the party in wheelchairs. Both men sported a leg cast made of cardboard, which the rest of the men signed. After about an hour, General McNair showed up with Emery and Qualls behind him.
“Room, Ten-hut!” Pietrzak called.
“At ease, men,” McNair ordered. “Congratulations on a well-executed war game.”
“Thank you, sir!”
“Major Qualls has the final report. Will you do the honors, Major?”
“Gladly, sir.” Qualls stood front and center. “Charlie Company, Artillery, successfully fired for the prescribed time of fifteen minutes. Put bombs on target, one misfire, no casualties.
“Able Company, 3rd Platoon, 60mm mortars, successfully fired beginning as prescribed and ended at the cease-fire order. Put bombs on target, fixed one equipment malfunction, recovered from misfire, and adjusted position successfully. As directed, routed enemy troops under their Platoon Sergeant. 1st platoon captured 110 out of 300 soldiers, of which all but one has been returned to the P.O.W. camp.” Qualls glared at Lieutenant Shanahan.
“We had a defector among the P.O.W.s, sir,” shouted Pike. “He’s paying his debt by holding our hats in the corner.” The entire room laughed.
“2nd Platoon, you defended the objective and held off the enemy. I’d say you did pretty dang good for losing everybody above the rank of Corporal.” Waldrip and his men raised their glasses, cheering. “Red Army, you successfully executed the ambush, inflicting twenty-five casualties on Blue Army forces, and maintained your concealment until the moment of your attack. Blue Cavalry responded in due fashion the moment you were called upon. Did not give away position. Separated advancing Red Army troops from friendly forces of Able Company.
“Base-wide, Red Army prevailed in the majority of the scenarios.” A groan went up from the men, with the small section of Red Army troops cheering, still wearing their armbands. “Blue Army, however, inflicted considerable damage upon Red Army forces.” My men cheered once again.
“I’m very proud of you, men,” General McNair said, stepping ahead of Qualls. “I’m highly confident in the forces Colonel Emery is raising at Camp Wheeler. Eisenhower wants us to come join the Fighting First on their march into Belgium. He wants the best we have to defeat the Huns.” McNair paused. The men waited on his next words.
“When you return to Macon,” Emery spoke up. “You will all get two weeks of leave. You will report to Baltimore no later than November tenth. There we will regroup and prepare to ship out on the fifteenth for France. It’ll take us a month to get there by boat, but we have to make sure everything’s ready to go first. Preparing to deploy will be your first order of business when we return to Wheeler.” Emery didn’t wrap up his speech. He just quit talking. Nor did the men say anything. They looked to their superiors for answers.
“Gentlemen,” McNair piped up, “I saw a great display of ability and skill today. You adapted to circumstances, didn’t mess up, and didn’t give up at all – no matter which side you were on. Every one of you, I’d be proud to have you around me in the heat of battle. I don’t care what else happened elsewhere. What I saw out there was first string offense against first string defense. I’m not sending practice squads over to Europe, not under my watch.” The General shifted his attention to Emery. “Colonel Emery, what is it you teach your Wheeler boys to say?”
“Follow me,” he replied uneasily.
“Follow you!” came our echo.
“Follow me!” McNair repeated.
Emery looked up with resolve in his eyes. “Follow me!” he shouted.
“Come on,” McNair slapped Emery on the back. “All the officers together – ready? – Follow me!”
“Here’s to – someone hand me a beer!” McNair shouted. “Here’s to you, men. Hitler won’t know what hit him! U-S-A!”“U-S-A!"