Friday, July 29, 2011

Short Story Friday: Thesis part 7

This is the only story immediately following another story.  It's also only the second I completely made up.  I hated that I had to, but it was kinda necessary in order to get from one point to the next.

VII

TAKING THE LEAD

27 December 1944

            Able Company moved forward to set up where the German foxholes had been. From here, there was a forest ahead of us instead of behind us, and an open field safely behind our line. Each foxhole housed two or three men, with blankets on top and underneath, all of which were left behind by the enemy troops.
I was taking an early morning walk to warm up my blood when I saw a few men running around the open field. When I got closer to them, I could see they were throwing something around.
            “Gentlemen,” I called out. They stopped when they heard my voice and turned to face me.
            “It’s alright, Lieutenant,” Pietrzak responded, removing his scarf.
“What’s going on here?”
            “Tossing a ball around between us.”
            “What kinda ball are we talking about here?” I asked as I got close to them.
            “Coffee can wrapped in a t-shirt.”
            I pulled Pietrzak off to the side. “We’re at war here, Pete, and on the front line at that. You wanna give away our position?”
            “Just trying to confuse ’em,” he smirked.
            “This is what you do with a coffee can,” I said, receiving it from him. I punched some holes the bottom and sides with my pocket knife, then started a small fire in it. “Gather around close, you don’t want anybody else seeing this.”
The fire only lasted five minutes, but at that point it was all we needed. The others went back to their foxholes. Pietrzak walked the line with me.
            “You write a final letter to Emily yet?” I asked.
            “I write to her all the time.”
            “No, I mean a final letter. One to send her if you get killed.”
            “Oh,” he said. “Can’t say that I have. Haven’t really thought about it.”
            “I’ve been trying to think about what I’d write to Lou. I thought about saying, ‘I really hope I get to show you this myself instead of sending this to you.’ But that might only make things worse if she has to receive it.”
            “I’ll get around to it,” he said, staring off in the distance. “Lately, my thoughts have been consumed with the attack on Faymonville. That fight yesterday just wet my appetite.”
            “Did you get a kill?” I stopped to face him.
            “Not confirmed. Sergeant Engels didn’t let me take on anything huge. But he showed me how to charge a position, and I’m ready to do that myself.”
            “Just because you’re short doesn’t mean they can’t hit you,” called a voice from beneath us. The cover moved from a foxhole to reveal Sergeant Daniel, who was sitting next to Captain Schneider and Sergeant Pike.
“Wasn’t planning on getting hit, sir.”
“Nobody ever does,” Pike said. “Come on down inside.”
“You go ahead,” Pietrzak said. “I’ll go patrol the lines.”
I slid into their foxhole to find myself the fourth in their poker game. My hand was already dealt to me.
“Five card stud, deuces wild,” Schneider stated.
I was holding a pair of eights with a two, Jack, and four.
“Your go, Lieutenant. You drawing?”
“I’ll take one,” I said, throwing my four back. I could still get another eight or Jack, and have a full house, a higher card for a better pair, or another two and be set. The card Schneider returned to me ended up being another four. What were the odds? The rest traded cards in short statements; the light was still too low in there to see faces, so I had little to go on.
“What’s your wager, son?” Daniel asked me.
“I’ll throw my compass in,” I told him, confident that my two pair would get me someplace. Pike folded. Daniel raised with a bayonet and Schneider called with a German scarf. “Two pair, Jacks over eights.”
“Three Queens,” Daniel stated, “With a pair of fives to go with them.” A two covered one of the queens.
Schneider threw down his cards on top of the wagered items. “Couldn’t do better than three of a kind, even with a pair of deuces.
“Wait just a second,” Pike jumped in. “I had a deuce myself, that makes five in one hand. Now that means somebody’s cheating!”
Nobody moved.
“Well, Pike,” Schneider whispered. “Thank you for fessing up.”
“More like thanks for blowing our cover,” Daniel chimed in. “Well, I guess our secret’s out. You get to keep that compass after all, Brewer.”
“Think you’re the only ones who can a three into a two?” I asked them, holding up my pen. “That oughta make us even. You go on and have that compass.”
“Well, if you insist,” Daniel said. He picked it up, flipped it over, and cocked his head to the side.
“L.T., I don’t think this compass is in serviceable condition.”
“Oh, well something must have happened when the last person before me used it.”
Daniel’s body didn’t move, but I could feel the tension.
“Now, who did I loan it to again?”
“Sorry about that.” The sergeant reached into his pocket and tossed me a new compass. “Picked that one up off a Kraut who was begging for his life. Hey, I wouldn’t want you losing your way in the woods, now would I?”
“I forgive you there, Sergeant. Just remember that moss grows thickest on the north side of the tree and you’ll be fine. My daddy taught me that one.” I picked up my carbine and scooted back up out of the foxhole.
“Not staying for another round?” Pike asked.
“Every card game needs one cheat,” I told him, “and if a mortar shell hits this foxhole, our company will be fresh out.”
Up at ground level, I saw a soldier relieving himself against a tree. “Soldier, what are you doing out here by yourself?” I shouted.
He didn’t respond, just shivered as he stood there. His rifle, slung over his back, rattled against the canteen around his waist.
“Soldier,” I called out again before recognizing him. “Private Dawson, did you hear me?”
Dawson wheeled around and drew a knife from his boot, then pointed it at me. I blocked his arm with the stock of my rifle then kicked him in the stomach. He staggered back and dropped the knife, but then came at me swinging. I got ready to hit him in the stomach again, then saw Pike and Daniel rush past me, grab him, and drag him down to the ground. Daniel had him at the shoulders while Pike secured his legs. Once Dawson lay on the ground, they flipped him onto his chest and pinned him down.
Schneider walked up to Dawson and held his head still. One cheek on the ground, Schneider spoke in his ear, “Dawson, calm down. It’s me, it’s Captain Schneider. That was just Lieutenant Brewer talking to you.”
Dawson struggled for a few seconds, then relented, still huffing and puffing. His breathing slowed, then he blinked a few times.
The captain let go of Dawson’s head. “Now, what were you doing up here urinating by yourself?”
“I…I dunno, sir. Last I knew I was laying down to sleep. I don’t even remember getting up.”
“Sir,” I said. “He doesn’t even have boots on.”
“You gonna calm down?” Schneider asked him.
“Yes, sir.”
“Alright men, get off of him and get him back to his foxhole. Make sure someone big stays with him at all times.” Pike and Daniel released him. Dawson stood up, zipped up his pants, and jumped on Sergeant Daniel’s back.
 “You alright, Lieutenant?” Schneider asked me.
“Well, I know now that my heart works alright.”
Schneider shook his head.
“You just letting him stick around after that, sir?”
“Dawson got out of prison early by joining the Army. He saved my life at Normandy, and I’m just glad to be on the same side as he is.”
“Just how many ex-prisoners you got in your company?”
Our company, Lieutenant. And I’d say only a dozen or so more.”
“Any chance we can get them to sleepwalk across the German line with loaded weapons?”
“Now, that might even be too cruel for the Germans.”

30 December 1944

The time finally came to descend on Faymonville. Although we were delayed several days by the snowfall, General Patton insisted on us not sitting still. The Germans had a good hold on the city, but they were also weak in a lot of areas.
“Now, why in the hell you gonna make men carry logs and gather them all up if we ain’t even gonna build a fire?” Private Cole groaned.
“Maybe he’s gonna have us build a log cabin to sleep in,” PFC Fleig threw in. “Or perhaps a bar.”
“I’ll sleep in a foxhole if it means we’ll have a place to drink.”
“I’ll charge Faymonville all by myself if it means we’ll have a place to drink.”
At a clearing, some 250 yards back of our line, Captain Schneider directed men where to place individual logs, constructing the largest stick diagram he’d ever done – a scale replica of Faymonville.
Major Qualls, who had come from the States with our crew of replacements, stood back admiring Schneider’s artwork. The entire 26th Regiment, supplemented by tanks from the 1st Armored and a battery of the 48th Field Artillery would be working together to take the town, each section having a separate objective.
“Good morning, Gentlemen,” Major Qualls shouted.
“Good morning, sir!”
“I’ve gathered you together to brief you on what I call Operation Second Amendment. Faymonville is an industrial town with a munitions plant for the German army. That’s why they’ve kept civilians there and occupied it, in spite of its proximity to the front line. It also means the Jerries will have plenty of bullets at their disposal.”
“Are we gonna bulldoze the city, sir?” Pietrzak asked.
“Absolutely not. Part of winning this war is winning the hearts of the people, and keeping the civilians employed will be part of that. Plus, if we can use all of those munitions for American troops, we’ll end this war just a little bit faster. Faymonville is currently the number three supplier of munitions for German forces.”
“Is there anywhere to drink, sir?” someone threw in.
“There will be in just about every household, provided we don’t destroy them all.” Qualls explained the layout of the town, focusing primarily on the defense works lying directly in between us and them. Our battalion had primary responsibility to take the trenches that lay before the city. He pointed to one particular row of logs and looked straight at Pietrzak and I. “Company A will take out the artillery cannons, which will allow our cavalry to ride in a little more safely. Brewer, you will take the far left flank while Pietrzak will come to the right of you. The whole battalion will be sending companies forward at the same time.”
 “So who’s gonna protect us?” I asked, responding to the worry in Pietrzak’s eyes.
“You’ll advance under covering fire from weapons platoon and mortar fire from the field artillery. Aside from that, you’re on your own.”

That was probably the longest night of my life. I was the first one in the foxhole, and I had been there two hours already. There was no sign of Pike or Pietrzak yet, and nobody else volunteered to stay in our foxhole for the night. Aside from the inescapable cold, I had the weight of the next day’s operation on my shoulders. For the first time in four years of service, I would be responsible for other men while under fire.
I thought back to our lessons in OCS on World War I, and I couldn’t help but think this sounded too similar. Daddy and Squirrel never talked much about the war, but then again I also heard their unit didn’t make it to France until the fighting was already over.
I thought back to Sergeant Daniel’s leadership at Pearl and Midway, and his example just days earlier. Worst of all, now both Daniel and Engels, my platoon sergeant, would be looking to me to lead.
A few minutes with Engels was all I needed to see he was a go-getter type. He and Pietrzak were a lot alike. Pike seemed to be the natural fit for me, but they split us up – Engels with me, and Pike with Pietrzak. But then again, maybe they split us up to balance us out.
I tried writing to Lou. After the last battle experience, I didn’t want to be caught without a final letter like Pietrzak seemed determined to do. Without anyone else in the foxhole, I had only my own body heat for comfort. Now I know what our dogs felt like when we left them outside at night. First, the pen didn’t work, then the paper was too wet, and all the time my hands wouldn’t stay still long enough to write. I buried my face in my shirt and breathed in there. It provided a little bit of heat for my body next to wrapping up in all the blankets.
What would I do about Pietrzak? For all my effort, I couldn’t protect him. Sure, I outranked him, but I would have to worry about my platoon and my objective while he took care of his objective, his men, and himself. Schneider being Company Commander meant he was responsible for Pietrzak after we got galvanized into the Fighting First. My responsibility ended when we got out of the truck in Ginet, even though I got him all the way here from Georgia.

31 December 1944

I guess I did sleep a little, because I remember Pike waking me up in the morning. Curling up in a ball took its toll on my back. 0500 came early. All platoon commanders and platoon sergeants were supposed to arrive first, but there were plenty of men in position already.
“Ready for this, Loot?” Pike asked.
“Ready as I could ever be. What’s our time frame?”
“Fifteen minutes and then we wake everyone else. We move out in one hour under mortar fire and take our objectives.”
“Pike,” I said, breaking his speech. “Look after yourself and Pete. Don’t let him go too crazy.”
“You got it.”
“I’m serious. I think he’s likely to get himself and others killed out there.”
“Yes, sir,” Pike said. His eyes were set on the town, and there was nothing I could do to break his concentration.

With Sergeant Engels beside me and thirty-three soldiers behind me, the mortars started firing on Faymonville. I jumped out of my foxhole and yelled “Follow me,” tripping as I got on solid ground. I could hear Engels running beside me the whole time, but I kept my focus on the trench line. It would only be a few seconds before their big cannons started firing back on ours. German soldiers scrambled out of their trenches to fall back, but they were still too far away to shoot with any precision.
“Get down, take cover!” Engels yelled. To our right, a German 88 started firing.
“Keep moving!” I heard in the distance from Captain Schneider. Unfortunately, we were pinned down without much cover. To my left, Dawson crouched behind a lone tree.
“Dawson!” I shouted. “Open up on that gunner!” Dawson dropped and rolled over on his stomach. He squeezed off three quick rounds and had one of the gunners dead. As soon as the 88 finished shooting, our M1919 moved forward and set up their position.
“2nd Platoon, move out!” I ordered. With the machine gun set up, fewer German soldiers fired back. At fifty feet out, I hollered, “Ready grenades!” About twenty feet out, we all threw one at the trench and hit the ground to avoid shrapnel. The German artillery fired back at ours. I ran up towards the trench and a German soldier popped up. He had just enough time to stand up before a bullet went through his stomach. Dawson ran past me shouting, “Got ’em, sir!” He and another soldier jumped down in the trench, facing opposite ways, fired a couple shots, and signaled when the trench was cleared.
“Engels! Take Dawson and knock out that cannon!” I called. Engels rolled down in the trench and picked off two Germans while the others took off running. Dawson got to his feet and kept low, moving towards the cannon. Engels took out his demolition kit, ran past Dawson, and hopped up on the cannon platform.
“Sarge, get down!” Dawson said. He reached up, intending to grab Engels and pull him down. Halfway through taking the back off the cannon, Engels was shot in the hip and fell on top of Dawson.
I looked over the ridge. Behind a downed tree back of the line, a German squad fired on our position.
“2nd Platoon, knock out those Krauts!” I ordered. “Get mortars on that location now!” While a medic attended to Engels’ wound, Dawson picked up the demo kit and jumped up on the platform. “Dawson, watch out!” He juked and jived a little bit, then tied a grenade to the base of the cannon. Dawson leaped off the platform, landing on top of Engels and the medic right before the grenade went off. None of them were hit by shrapnel, but Dawson did get in a bit of a shoving match against Engels and the medic.
The German squad continued firing, in spite of our efforts to neutralize them. They were two hundred feet away from us, and we needed something bigger to attack with. Private Cole sat beside me with his radio on his back.
“Cole, weren’t you on the Camp Wheeler baseball team?”
“Yes sir, left field.”
“How far out could you hit the catcher?”
“Twenty yards past the wall, sir.”
“2nd Platoon, listen up!” The orders started flying out of my mouth. “Give this man all your grenades. Machine gunners lay down suppressing fire. And Cole, you get something back behind that tree.” Cole stood up in the trench, took off his helmet, and pitched one high that flew past the German position. His second went way up but fell short, then his third exploded in the air. The last caused them to stop firing, but they resumed whenever the shrapnel quit falling.
I grabbed Cole by the collar, brought him down to my eye level, and got in his face. “I’m not gonna have them put one in you, too, son. You put a grenade on those Germans before they put one in you, or I’ll make you a running back!”
Cole backed up, dropped his web belt, shook off, hopped up, and as soon as his left foot hit the ground, he swung his body around and pitched a line drive to the German position. When it landed in their midst and went off at the same time, five Germans jumped up and ran.
“Fire, fire, fire! 2nd Platoon, fire at will!” I shouted. Our men lit them up. Once they had all either run away or been shot, I found Cole lying on the ground shouting for a medic. “What happened? You get hit?”
“I landed funny on my ankle. I can’t get up.”
“Is that a fact?” I shook my head. “Cole, you just lay there and man your radio. Report in to Schneider that we have destroyed our cannon.” From the side of the trench, I looked back to see our tanks on the way across the field. We had cut a hole in the German line for them to break through. They wouldn’t have it easy once they got into Faymonville, but for now they had a clear path.
“Lieutenant, Captain’s on the radio for you,” Cole called out.
“Brewer here.”
“Lieutenant, I need you to move over and take 1st Platoon’s objective. They got cut down and haven’t destroyed their cannon yet.”
“I got just the man for it, sir. 2nd Platoon is on the way.” Cole lay there with a sad look on his face. “You’re gonna have to play hurt, son. I can’t go over there without my ears.”
“2nd Platoon, on your feet! Let’s go, plow your way down the trench to the second cannon and take it out!”
Dawson took the lead in navigating the network of trenches. He encountered resistance less than twenty feet down the line and they were forced to take cover.
“We can’t stay here, sir,” Dawson told me.
“I’m well aware of that, Private. Ready grenades!” We inched forward, tossing one and firing after it landed, until the cannon was in range. “Machine gunners, get on top of that trench and lay down a blanket of fire,” I ordered. With the M1919 in place, the sharpshooters took aim and knocked out the German soldiers on the cannon platform.
“Ready for me, sir?” Dawson asked.
“Get three men and take care of that cannon, soldier!”
Dawson ran forward, opened the back of the cannon, then filled it with charges. When he hit the ground, he landed between the three men guarding him. The charges went off and filled the air with smoke. I made my way over there to inspect the damage before reporting back in.
“We get ’em, Loot?” Pike asked. He lay against the wall of the trench, covered in mud, almost unnoticeable.
“Yeah. What happened to you?” I asked. He had a knife wound in his left side, which he was trying to hold down. “Cole, go check in with Dawson and call in when the cannon’s destroyed.”
“Pete charged ahead and got a lot of men shot,” Pike said. “We made it into the trench, but the Jerries were waiting on us down here. I threw a smoke bomb and a grenade either direction. They were gone by the time the smoke cleared.”
“So where’s Pietrzak?”
Pike said nothing and looked right. A G.I. lay face down next to him, exit wounds in his back.
I didn’t want to get any closer. I didn’t want to know it was him.
“Did he ever write that letter to Emily?” I asked.
“Probably not.”

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