Friday, July 22, 2011

Short Story Friday: Thesis part 6

VI
INITIATION
24 December 1944
            The convoy moved along at about twenty miles an hour. That was a decent enough speed for the Army’s liking; I’d just rather get there faster. Still, after eight days coming from Ginet, France, we were about to reach the front lines. We were destined for the replacement depot where all 200 of us would be assigned to various units in the 1st Infantry Division, 26th Regiment. Thousands of men had been killed or injured since D-Day, and we were there to fill in the gaps.
            Killed or injured. I looked at the platoon surrounding me in the truck bed. It was difficult to make out their faces in the moonlight – especially traveling in a covered truck, but that was better than having to face the wind and snow.
We all knew the chances of getting killed or injured. Some men washed out of training, or had flat feet, others broke a toe on a march or run. We had to deal with losing one or two and moving on before, but that only meant less help on K.P., latrine duty, or trash detail. This wasn’t L.Z. Martin spraining his ankle or Ben Atkinson getting stuck at the bottom of the swimming hole. This was someone with a family back in the U.S. who wouldn’t be coming home. And one man out, of course, meant one less gun pointing at the guns pointing back at you.
            “When’s our next stop, Loot?” Pike asked, lying next to me, lit up a cigarette.
            “Probably around sunrise.” I held up my watch. Pike flicked his lighter so we could both see. 0335. In the flash, I saw the truck bed with the rest of the men asleep, or something like it. Some men lay on the floor, others on the wooden bench seats. Soldiers laid out everywhere. Corporal Waldrip, the biggest of the men, had four men using his gut as a pillow. Every few minutes, one man or another would let loose a snore or a slurred profanity. Pike and I sat on the floor, our backs to the cab. Thankfully, the exhaust heated the truck frame.
            “I gotta take a leak, Loot,” Pike said.
            “Convoy ain’t stopping.”
            “No worries.” Pike stumbled forward, bracing himself on the truck’s ribbing, doing his best not to step on anyone. He stood at the edge of the truck bed, relieving with one hand, and holding the frame with the other. The truck behind us honked at him. Pike waved back and shouted, “Free car wash, anytime you want it!”
            “Pike!” I yelled. “Quiet down or you’ll wake everybody and have a mutiny on your hands!”
            Pike fixed himself up and started walking back towards me. A soldier let out a scream. Pike had stepped on his hand.
“Cole! Quiet down or you’ll wake everybody and have a mutiny on your hands!” Cole reached up and slapped Pike in the leg as he walked past, laughing the whole way.
Pike sat down and breathed into his hands to warm them up. “Any word on winter clothes, Loot?”
“Probably come in at standard Army speed – just in time for summer.” The warm truck bed was good for my back, but didn’t do a whole lot for the rest of me. “Lemme see that lighter,” I told him. I pulled out my canteen cup and some kindling I’d picked up off the ground back in France. Pike lit the twigs and we had a small fire to warm ourselves. The pine burned hot in the cup. For a moment, anyway, the pine smell overpowered the diesel and cigarette smoke.
            “Coffee can would work better,” Pike said. “Hold more and bigger sticks, and you could punch holes in it.”
            “Next coffee can you get your hands on, we’ll light a fire in it,” I said.
The mess kit fire died, and we sat in dark and silence. The truck’s brakes began squealing and it slowed to a stop. I reached out my watch hand and Pike flicked his lighter. 0442. Pike and I made our way out of the truck, and a Sergeant from the Australian forces met us there.
            “G’day, sir. You in charge of this convoy?” he asked.
            “Lieutenant Brewer, got 200 men going to the front as replacements.”
            “Well then, welcome to Belgium, Leftenant. This is the Liege Supply Depot. You’ve got two hours to rouse your men, get ’em a hot meal and whatever goods you need.”
            “Two hours?”
            “Got another convoy comin’ in, and these trucks have orders to ferry men back off the line. Hope you’re in for a good march, sir. You report to the front lines today. Good news, howeva, the top brass negotiated a Christmas Day ceasefire for tomorrow.”
            “In that case,” I looked at the sergeant, then at Pike, “Merry Christmas.”
            “Merry Christmas to you too, sir.”
            “What’d he call you, Loot?” Pike said, handing my rifle to me. “Left Tackle?”
“It sure wasn’t Loot. And I never knew there was an f in ‘lieutenant.’”
Pike climbed down and I ran up to the cab of the truck. “Lay on your horn,” I ordered the driver. The rest of the convoy – ten trucks in all – followed suit, honking until they ran out of air. When they let off, the air filled with a chorus of groans and groggy-headed orders. Men filed out of the trucks and lined both sides of the road to water the plants.
            “Five minutes, Pike,” I called. “I want every man in formation and these trucks emptied, ready to go.”
            “Sure thing, Loot,” Pike said. “Listen up, men! You have two minutes to be in place with full pack and your trucks emptied! Anything – or anyone – not out of the truck goes back to Ginet with a stack of corpses!”
I laughed at him while I blew the ash out of my canteen cup. It was time for a cup of coffee. This would be a long day.

            Pike lay back on the freshly-turned dirt. Our foxhole was finally dug, five feet deep through frozen ground. I sat with my back to the side of it and breathed a sigh of relief. A captain appeared directly above me, looking over the side of the foxhole.
            “Hole’s only worth so much without cover,” he said.
            “It’s worth at least a minute’s rest,” I replied. I tried to get up. “You must be Captain Schneider.” He waved me off and jumped into the foxhole, facing me.
“Just so you know, there’s no saluting out here.”
“The man practicing prone position over there is Tech Sergeant William Pike.”
            “Charmed, sir,” Pike groaned.
            “Well then,” Schneider said, “Welcome to Able Company. You’re taking over a platoon that’s been together since Fort Benning by way of Normandy. Their last Platoon Leader was a great guy but careless. Didn’t change his socks, let his boots get run down, marched his feet right off.”
I curled my toes to make sure they were still there. Although a little cold, they were in good working condition.
            “Just one thing I wanna know, sir,” Pike said, rolling over. “What’s with the foxholes? Thought Patton said, ‘Don’t just hold the line, keep moving forward, crap through a goose,’ all that good stuff.”
            Schneider laughed. “Short of cutting down the whole Ardennes forest, we have no natural cover. The last thing we need is to be exposed when the Jerries start shelling the trees. We’ll have limbs falling everywhere. Now,” he pointed over his shoulder, “we’ve got an infantry division about half a mile away to our north. Far beyond that is the 101st Airborne, cut off after Market Garden fell on its face.”
            “What was that, sir?” I asked. “We’ve been on the move straight through since we shipped out of Maryland a month ago, with little or no updates. What happened out there?”
            “Generals trying to end the war too soon. They dropped the airborne along a path designed to cut a straight route into Germany. End the war by Christmas. Didn’t work, as you can tell.”
            “What didn’t work?”
            “The Germans burned every bridge they could, and after the first one went, everyone else was cut off. Right now, we got a bulge in the German lines, and if we do this right, we can punch through. But do it wrong, and they collapse in on us.”
            I was too tired from digging to look at my watch, but the sky said it was nearly dark. In the winter in Europe, it got late a lot earlier than I was used to.
“When does the company return, sir?”
            “They should be coming around any minute.” Schneider got up from his seat. “I’ll send 1st Sergeant Daniel when he returns. You and your replacements will meet up with the rest of the company for chow.”
            “Is your 1st Sergeant Roger Daniel?” Pike asked.
            “Yeah, know him?”
            “Crotchety old corn-fed Texan?”
            “Well, I wouldn’t say that to his face, but your description’s pretty accurate.”
            “Never thought he’d wanna be a 1st Sergeant.”
            “He fought me on it, but I threatened to make him an officer if he refused.” Schneider climbed out of our foxhole. “See you men at chow.”

            I carried limbs back to the foxhole. The roof made it look like a panther trap, but there’s no way someone walking by wouldn’t see it. Pike shoveled snow on top for insulation. I stopped for a breather, then heard the noise of the company returning. I signaled to Pike, then to Pietrzak and Turner, who jumped into their respective foxholes until everybody arrived.
            The men of Able Company walked into our midst and greeted the rest of the replacements. Then we saw him, lighting his cigarette, standing at the edge of my foxhole with his back to us. I could’ve grabbed him by the leg and pulled him in, but I knew better. Pike stuck his hand out of the hole and counted off. The four of us jumped out together yelling, “Morning, Sergeant Dan Earl!”
            Sarge bobbled his lighter in his hands before he turned around and crouched like he was ready to wrestle all of us. Then he grinned and started slapping helmets. “Well, if it ain’t my Hawaii boys!”
            “Whacha you doing out here, Sarge?” Turner asked. “Weather too nice back in Hawaii?”
            “Came back for the toe I left. Let’s see, what do we have here? Two NCO’s and two officers. Not a bad ratio for eight men under my charge, especially since I’m the one who sent you to OCS.”
The branches on top of my foxhole moved. I turned around to see Private Guzman lying beside me with broken branches all around. Throwing sticks at him from above were two of the seasoned men of Able Company, just like a dozen other men throughout the camp. Pike and Turner sprang into action while I sat there in shock.
“Gonna do something, L.T.?” Sergeant Daniel leaned over and said in my ear.
“Able Company, stand down!” I shouted, coming up and pulling myself together. “As you were, men, as you were!” I turned to Pike, Turner, and Pietrzak and told them, “Round up the aggressors – both veterans and replacements.”
With the men in formation, I approached the two who pushed Guzman into our foxhole. Standing toe-to-toe, they were each about six inches taller than me. I glared up at them, “Names?”
“Sergeant Comeaux.”
“Corporal Montevideo.”
“Gentlemen, you just busted up the foxhole Sergeant Pike and I spent a few hours working on.”
They said nothing.
“Corporal Montevideo, what is that armband you’re wearing?”
“A red cross, sir. I’m the 1st Platoon medic.”
“Really?” I said. “And what part of your medical training was that?”
Again, they said nothing. I took the roster from my pocket.
“Gentlemen, my apologies. You’re not assigned to my platoon. Lieutenant Pietrzak, I was going to have these men repair our foxhole. Do you authorize that action?”
“No, sir,” he replied. All eyes turned to him, equally confused by his response. “Gentlemen, you are hereby ordered to swap foxholes with Lieutenant Brewer and Sergeant Pike.” They looked to their 1st Sergeant in disbelief. Daniel stood behind me and crossed his arms.
“Well, men,” I said. “You heard your Platoon Leader. I recommend you get back to work after you see to Private Guzman. The rest of you get back to settling in. And if I hear any more problems with the replacements you’ll be installing plumbing in every single foxhole in the battalion. Dismissed!”
The men breathed a sigh of relief and went about their business.
“One more tip, L.T.,” Daniel said, putting his hand on my shoulder. “These men don’t know one Southerner from the rest, and all they know is they’re scared of us. Feel free to get your hick on when talking to them.”

25 December 1944

About 100 yards back from the line, a group of us stood around while Captain Schneider laid out a battlefield model made of twigs. Today, his map represented the entire southern end of the German bulge.
“Now, gentlemen,” Schneider dusted off his hands. “The 26th Regiment’s objective is to break through the line and separate the German 5th and 78th divisions. Once we push the line back, we’re in charge of taking and holding their supply route. Our goal is to be in position before Faymonville.” This town was represented by an ammo can.
“What are our orders, Captain?” Pietrzak asked.
“When we get up to the line, you’ll see for yourself what I’m about to tell you.” In one sweep, he tore down the map and reformed it to show our local area. “3rd Armored is coming in for backup. We surround the company in front of us, Baker Company on our right and Charlie Company in reserve. It’ll take until tomorrow for the tanks to get here, but after we isolate the company ahead of us, the tanks will surround them, then we force them to fall back.”
“And if they don’t, sir?” I asked.
“Charlie Company comes up to flank them on our left. Now, for our replacement officers and NCO’s, this is very important. You’re all unofficially on training status for this engagement. You’ll be following the lead of the senior veteran in your unit, even if you outrank him.”
“Excuse me, sir,” I interrupted. “A few of my leaders have seen conflict before in the Pacific. We’re perfectly capable of leading these men. We have, after all, been commissioned by the U.S. Army.”
“We can do this, Captain!” Turner shouted. “None of us are green recruits here.”
“My decision stands,” Schneider said.
“Captain,” Sergeant Daniel stood up. “I did bring these men up through Pearl Harbor and Midway. I can tell you they all fought admirably.”
“Thank you for the recommendation, Sergeant Daniel. But, like I said, my decision stands. You don’t want the same thing happening to them that happened to Lieutenant Muntz.”
“No, sir, I don’t,” Daniel sighed.
Captain Schneider looked back at the rest of us. “You’re not the first set of replacements we’ve had here. You probably won’t be the last. Fact is we couldn’t have landed on that beach with every man experienced, so we lost some. The men in this company have seen the Germans in action, and you would be wise to heed their advice.”
None of us said a word.
“Don’t get killed or injured out there, and you’ll get the chance to lead.”

That night saw us bedded down early so we could wake up before dawn. Pietrzak crawled into our foxhole on the opposite side of Pike from me. The three of us huddled beneath a wool blanket. I was busy reading my Bible, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Pike sat there and smoked his cheap, government-issued cigarettes, making the whole foxhole smell like a dingy bar. I zipped the cover on my Bible and stuck it back in my shirt pocket.
“Quiet with that!” said Pike. “You’ll give away our position! Light and noise discipline!” We all laughed just loud enough not to wake anybody.
“We’ll be fine,” I told him. “Just as long as they don’t understand smoke signals.”
Pike elbowed me in the rib.
“What do you two think?” Pietrzak asked. “Anything like what we’ve seen before?”
“No, this time they’ll be on the ground,” Pike replied. “No looking at them flying overhead while we cower down and wait for them to go away. These guys will be just as vulnerable as we are.”
“But will they be ready?”
“Let’s hope not. Let’s hope they like to sleep in on Tuesdays.”
“Just think, not a whole lot of people will get all three campaign ribbons. Those other boys from Pearl are probably island-hopping in the Pacific right now. And as of tomorrow, we get another battle star.”
Pike and I sat speechless.
“Well, at least I’ll have something to write home to Emily. She loves hearing these war stories so much I have to make some up!”
I took out my Bible again and tried to unzip it more quietly. Lou’s picture sat inside the front cover. Right by my heart, watching over me.
“Remind me again,” Pike said, “is Emily your wife?”
“Nah, not yet. But did you see those last pictures she sent me? I can’t believe she was able to get those developed!”
“Who do you think took those pictures, Pete?” Pike asked. Pietrzak didn’t respond. They hadn’t stopped talking for 30 seconds when I heard one of them, then the other, start snoring. I put the Bible away and turned off my flashlight. A little bit of moonlight shined in from time to time. I was pretty sure I’d be alright.

26 December 1944

The moisture from the snow soaked through my pants legs. The first light hadn’t even come up yet – as though the clouds would let it. Through my binoculars I knew where the machine gun nests were located. This German unit had only been on the line for three days, so they hadn’t reinforced their positions. We had a quarter mile of open ground to cover in the snow. After the mortars started firing, the Germans would wake up pretty quickly.
Pike, behind me, tried to shake off sleepiness. Half the men in 2nd Platoon were doing the same. The seconds ticked down until the first round of mortars went off, and then I heard what an earthquake must sound like.
“Stay low, Follow me!” Sergeant Daniel shouted.
“Follow you!”
As I got to my feet, I heard a stampede surrounding me. We had exactly two minutes to be on site before the mortars stopped firing. Already, I could see Germans scrambling from their foxholes. But they weren’t running back from the line. They ran towards us. A German officer ordered his men to charge the line. They ran forward from their foxholes and hit the ground, firing at us.
“Get down, spread out!” Daniel shouted. “Get down or get shot, newbies!” He dove to the ground, yanking a private down along with him. Less than a hundred yards separated the two opposing lines now.
“Sergeant Daniel,” Private Cole shouted. “Schneider on the radio! He says press forward, don’t fall back!”
Some of our men had been hit and called for a medic, but I didn’t risk getting up.
“Low crawl, follow me!” Daniel ordered.
“Follow you!” – this time more broken and sporadic. 2nd Platoon inched forward, firing as often as we could. We didn’t get very far.
“Cole, get up here!” called Daniel. “And Brewer, your compass please?” Orienting the map, he shouted into the headset, “I need mortar fire bearing 3-5-2, distance 4-5-0!” Mortar fire began to rain on the German line. Daniel jumped up from the ground. He started running as soon as he got up. As we neared the German position, I saw one turning to run, who pointed his rifle at me. Without thinking, I fired my carbine from the hip. One bullet hit the German’s shoulder and he fell into the snow. What was left of their line stumbled over their bombed-out comrades and fell back.
“Take cover in the foxholes,” Daniel ordered. We jumped down and continued firing on their retreat. The air filled with the roar of diesel engines. Behind us, 3rd Armored rolled across the open field.
“WOOO!” shouted Pike, finally able to breathe.
I kept an eye on the Germans and kept firing.
 “Lieutenant, look!” Pike called, spinning me around. A tank was headed straight for our foxhole.
“Get out!” I shouted.
Pike and I scrambled out, rifles held high to show we were friendly. The hatch popped open on the tank headed for us, and a hand came out waving.
“Didn’t see you down there, sir,” the tank commander shouted. “You in charge out here?”
“2nd Platoon, Company A. I’m the Platoon Leader, but this is our first battle in country; Sergeant Daniel is leading our mission, Captain Schneider is Company C.O.”
“You guys do recon, we’ll chase the Jerries back.”
“Well if we didn’t scare ’em enough, I guess you finished it off.”
He waved as he drove off, navigating around other foxholes as he went.
“Private Cole,” I said. “Radio Schneider, we’re doing recon.”
I stepped forward and tripped over a body. It was the German soldier who nearly shot me. He was just a private. His face turned to the right. He was definitely dead. He couldn’t have been any older than twenty. Both German and American bodies littered the battlefield, all killed or injured.
That could’ve been me.
I reached for my Bible to kiss it – thanks for another survival. My chest pocket was empty – no compass, no Bible.
“Hey Loot,” Pike shouted. “You okay? Look like you lost something.”
“My Bible, it’s gone.” I checked inside the foxhole and the ground around it. “Bible and compass, both missing.”
“You gave your compass to Dan Earl, didn’t you?”
“Yeah…” I stopped searching. “Musta fallen out back there.” Pike tossed me his flashlight as we walked back to our former position. I saw Pike stop, bend down, and pick up the Bible, about three inches from the tank track. Another ten feet away, I found the compass inside the tank tracks.
“I think Dan Earl owes you a new one,” Pike said. “Kinda sad that your favorite compass didn’t survive.”
“At least we did.”
“L.T.!” Sergeant Daniel yelled. “Incoming! Get down!”

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