So I’m a Few Days Late
…celebrating the supreme heroism and sacrifice of our brave men and women in uniform.
But, my heart is always bleeding red, white, and blue as evidenced by a short story I wrote a couple of years ago.
Hope you enjoy this work of fiction, based on real events.
I didn’t know if Christmas was coming or had gone unnoticed. I suspected it was the latter.
I hadn’t felt my feet in days, but they were there at the end of my legs; a frozen testament to the endless marching in the coldest winter I’d ever known.
How many hours a day did we move, single file, through rubble, bodies, and the vacant stares of survivors?
How many towns had been laid waste by the incessant bombardment of our superior forces?
The Ardennes had been tough, cold, brutal and vicious, but this was sad…town after town…empty and sad.
The ugly facts of war lined my face. At the ripe old age of 22, I was battle-hardened and battle-weary.
Nights were for the snipers, and even in this part of Belgium there were still many. You didn’t move much at night, lest you become a white cross in a field that no one would remember in years to come.
No one but your family back home.
Our objective was Bastogne as relief for troops that had been holding the town’s vital road junction for far too long.
I’d recently been promoted to Corporal as part of Patton’s Third Army. There was a prestige that went along with being under the most brilliant, albeit abrasive, military strategist of our time.
I was proud to serve under the General, and knew that each inspection could be one he’d attend. I tried to keep my uniform as clean as possible, carefully checking it for lint each morning, but my boots were a lost cause; held together by a coveted blanket ripped into long strips and tied around each foot to help insulate them from the cold. It didn’t really work, but I wasn’t going to take the strips off, either. Damn the military regulations.
The Battle of the Bulge was swinging in our favor, and our march into Bastogne was quiet.
Some of the guys relaxed, fell out of line, and entered a shell of a structure in Houffalize one sunny, frigid, morning.
Within seconds we heard shouting, shots, screams, and a grenade going off inside the building.
German soldiers and American soldiers ran, side by side, from the flaming building, each firing at the other.
Suddenly, they were everywhere…elements of Hitler’s “Watch on the Rhine” troops had laid in wait for us in the ruins of the city. No doubt they were aware of our objective, and had been told to stop us at all costs.
A bullet whizzed by my head, and I remembered a key element in survival – keep your head down at all times!
In doing so, I couldn’t see where I was running, but I ran anyway. Nearly tripping over fallen bricks and pieces of twisted metal I managed to make my way into what once was probably a nice corner pub. Inside I could make out the remnants of a bar, but the back of the building was completely gone.
I felt exposed, but not nearly so much as out in the open.
I saw Pvt. Charles (“Chuck” or as we called him after a few too many “Upchuck”) Johnson running in front of what once had to have been the establishment’s front door.
“Chuck! Get the hell in here, before….” I shouted, but it was too late, a grenade went off at his feet, and what had been the goofy blonde kid from California a moment ago was an ugly, blackened mass of flesh.
I turned away, and fought the urge to vomit.
The ringing in my ears from the explosion made the world a surrealistic muffle of sounds, so I didn’t hear the Kraut sneaking up behind me.
I don’t know what tipped me off to his approach. Maybe it was instinct, maybe it was the hand of God. I’ve often wondered why I turned at just that moment.
I suppose it’s enough to say that I did, and in such close quarters it was my bayonet that dispatched the German to the next life.
He fell as I withdrew the blade, and it was then that I noticed how young…how impossibly young…the boy was. His uniform was much too large for him, his helmet overwhelmed his head.
I was sick, physically and emotionally.
I turned my back to the dead man and this time I couldn’t stop the inevitable. I vomited….repeatedly.
When I could finally steady myself, I turned back to see that the dead boy-soldier was holding something in his un-weaponed hand. It was a few small coins, the Reichsmark of Nazi Germany. I picked up one of the coins and looked at it. On one side, a military church in Potsdam, and on the other a bastardization of the American eagle perched atop a swastika. It enraged me, and I threw the coin against the far wall. It clattered to the floor and fell silent.
How twisted this boy’s world had been, how utterly futile his sacrifice.
I desperately wanted to be somewhere, anywhere, else at that moment.
I slumped to the ground and as my hearing slowly returned I could tell the fighting was getting more and more sporadic.
I ventured outside, taking care not to look at what was left of Chuck.
Re-joining other members of my platoon, we were informed that our leader – Sgt. Mason Billings – had been killed.
“Guess that makes you our leader, Corporal.” Pvt. George (Skeeter) Robinson said, grinning like a lunatic at me, “What are your orders for the men, Boots?”
“First, Private Robinson, call me Corporal Patterson.” Boots was a nickname I didn’t care much for, and since I had been forced into this leadership role I didn’t think it fitting for a Third Army platoon leader to have such a name.
“Have the men muster in front of that church over there, “ I pointed to what was left of a church, oddly enough the steeple was intact. “we’ll need to take inventory of weapons, ammunition, water, and rations. Then we’ll see if we can’t get medics to help our wounded.”
“Aren’t any, Corporal, sir.”
“What do you mean there aren’t any?”
“Sir, we only took two casualties, Sgt. Billings and…Pvt. Amberson.”
“No one else was even injured?” I asked, not believing it after hearing and seeing the bullets and grenades fly.
Robinson shrugged, “No sir, not a one.”
“Well, we lost Pvt. Johnson, too.” I sighed, heavily.
“Damn.” Robinson said, kicking at a pebble with his ratty boot.
“Prisoners?” I asked.
Robinson grinned, “Well, you see sir..there ain’t any of them either.”
I stared at Robinson, but he just grinned wider.
Finally, I said, “Alright, then, we’ll march at first light.”
“Yes, sir.” Robinson turned and ran across the street to the men assembling near the church.
I let out a long sigh, and sat down on a pile of bricks.
Now I’m a platoon leader…I hope, and pray, I’m up to the challenge.
No one ever said it better than Mark Twain, I guess, when he said “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear”.
As 1945 was ushered in, I prayed I could remain master of my fear.