Doc leaned wearily back against the grubby tiled wall behind him. It had been a long day. He and Caje had spent the last 24 hours of their recuperative leave in London. Deemed recovered enough from wounds suffered several weeks before, they were to ship out in a couple more days, back to the front lines. The ominous wailing of an air raid siren had interrupted their underground train journey back to their billet in Essex. The train had lurched to a screeching stop and its passengers spilled out onto a dimly lit and crowded station platform.
That had been four hours ago. Too restless to sleep, Doc glanced anxiously at his companion. Caje dozed fitfully beside him, right leg stretched out. Despite Caje’s stoic “I’m okay” when questioned if his leg was bothering him, Doc knew by his friend’s occasional wince and clenched jaw that the just-healed wound was throbbing. Back at the hospital, Caje had insisted that he was ready to return to the squad. Doc understood his need to get back to their buddies and had not tried to persuade him otherwise. They needed the feeling of confidence the Sarge gave them. They had missed the easy camaraderie with Billy and Littlejohn and even found themselves wishing for Kirby’s constant griping. Doc knew without asking that Caje felt much as he did himself. Somehow they sensed that as long as the squad was together, they’d all be okay.
All around him ordinary families, mostly women, children and the elderly, had bedded themselves down for the night. They slept on carefully laid out blankets or in the rough wooden bunks built along the station’s walls, their poor belongings in small piles beside them. Doc could barely see the stone steps that led up to street level through the faint light, but he could hear the blessedly muffled sound of high explosives and felt the walls around him shudder as bombs rained down nearby. The civilians seemed oblivious to the continuous cacophony of noise and slept on. Here and there someone coughed or a child whimpered, and a tin-hatted air raid warden gingerly picked his way through the sleeping forms.
Doc found himself reflecting on what he and Caje had seen that day. The sights of Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square had paled in significance against the backdrop of the devastated East End. The dull grey skies had accentuated the bleakness of battered little streets, with their many rubble-strewn bombsites and blackened skeletons of blasted warehouses around the dock areas of Canning Town and West Ham. They had paused, awed, in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which miraculously stood alone and inspiring amidst a wasteland of burnt-out buildings. Roped-off craters in the middle of roads had forced them to take detour after detour to get back to Charing Cross Underground Station for the return journey to Essex.
They had marveled at the cheery Cockney who, on being asked for directions, had answered in rhyming slang like “go down the apples and pears”. Doc chuckled to himself at their attempts to figure out what that had meant. They had finally realized that they were being told to ‘go down the stairs’. They had laughed on seeing a sign posted above a shattered shop window that said MORE OPEN THAN USUAL! He and Caje had felt humbled by the fortitude of these unassuming East Londoners. Four years of bombing raids, food shortages, tens of thousands of civilian casualties – all that Hitler could inflict on them – had not diminished their legendary cheerfulness and courage in adversity. Here in this dim and crowded place, Doc understood why ordinary guys like he and Caje and all the other GIs were fighting this war. Why they had to help win the battle against Kraut tyranny. That these indomitable people ever be subjected to the indignities of living under Hitler’s thumb was unthinkable.
“Wakey-wakey mate!” Caje was jolted awake by a Cockney voice in his ear. Before him stood a short, slightly built man. A tin helmet bearing the initials A.R.P. sat at a jaunty angle on his head. “The raid’s over, mate. Yer might as well go up top `cos the line’s blocked daan at Barking an’ this train ain’t moving `till it’s cleared.”
Surprised he had slept, the dark-haired Cajun smiled his thanks and climbed stiffly to his feet, aware of Doc automatically helping with a gentle hand under his arm. Most of the throng of shelterers had disappeared. The jam-packed platform of last night was now almost deserted and only a few stragglers tiredly climbed the long flight of stone steps to ground level.
Caje looked at Doc questioningly, “We’ve gotta get back, Doc. We’d better go up and have a look around – maybe there’s a bus or a cab about.”
Doc shook his head, “I dunno, Caje. I doubt if anything’s running after that raid! C’mon, let’s get up there and see, huh?”
Followed by the air raid warden, they emerged from the sandbagged station entrance to discover the early dawn. The damp smoky air was filled with the smell of explosives and brick dust. Fires still smoldered in several places around them and a fire truck tore past, careening wildly around debris strewn across the roadway. Opposite, several men appeared to be digging in a pile of bricks and wooden beams. A camouflaged ambulance waited quietly nearby. Rows of small, dilapidated houses and shops running down the hill on either side of the station were bathed in the cold light of morning, revealing cavernous gaps where bombs had obliterated both home and occupants often since the blitz of 1940. There were people about though, seemingly unaware of the destruction around them, hurrying to start their day as usual. There was even a house-drawn milkman’s cart winding its way towards them, the horse skillfully avoiding the obstacles in his way. Nowhere, however, was there a sign of a bus or cab.
“Looks like we’re in for a long walk, Doc, grinned Caje.
Doc, eyeing with concern his friend’s pallor and awkward stance, and recalling the lack of a location sign in the station, shook his head and answered in his familiar Arkansas twang, “I don’t know where we are but I don’t think you’re gonna be able to walk as far as Essex with that leg of yours, Caje.”
Glancing up and down the street, Caje saw the familiar warden, now sporting a cloth cap on his head and with his helmet hanging from its strap on his shoulder. The man was about to mount a battered old-fashioned bicycle at the curb. Caje called out to him, “Sir, can you tell us if there’s any transport running?”
The Englishman shook his head ruefully, “Not arter last night, mate. Roads `re blocked. Might be a while before they get the main road clear.” Seeing the two GIs look uneasily at each other, he added, “Can I `elp yer, then?”
When Caje explained their predicament, he thought for a moment and said, “Look, me name’s Joe Lane, and I live near `ere, daan Ilford way. Wot about comin’ `ome wiv me ‘till the buses is runnin’. Me wife ‘ll give yer a nice cuppa tea and somefink ter eat.”
Doc and Caje were both aware of the information booklet they’d been issued prior to landing in Britain. It advised GIs to avoid accepting invitations to meals from English civilians for fear of depleting their already meager food rations. They began at once to politely refuse his offer, but Joe seemed to understand their hesitation and interrupted.
“Yer’d be welcome. Me Gracie’s good at stretching the rations.” Without waiting for their response, he gripped Caje’s arm lightly and started walking. “C’mon, foller me. We’ll soon be `ome!”
“Well, thanks a lot, Mr. Lane. That’s awful nice of you.” Thrusting out his hand, Caje said, “My name’s LeMay, Paul LeMay. My friends call me Caje.” Caje grinned at Joe’s quizzical look and explained, “I’m a Cajun from Louisiana. This is my buddy, Doc. He’s from Arkansas.”
Shaking hands with both Americans, Joe answered, “Nice ter meet yer, I’m sure. Mr. Lane is me dad. You call me Joe, awright?”
Doc and Caje followed Joe closely as he wheeled his bike around a corner and along a lengthy street that was bordered on both sides by narrow two-storey terraced houses, many of which had boarded-up windows and tarpaulins covering damaged roofs. Waist high brick walls and dense privet hedges partially hid small square front gardens where, Doc thought, rose bushes and snapdragons had grown before the war, but now held only evidence of sparse vegetable plants. Occasionally a garden was practically non-existent but simply a pile of brick and jumbled timber or a cavernous hole – the remains of what had once been a family home.
A few times someone hailed Joe with a friendly wave, and he explained in his broad Cockney accent that he was fairly well known on the street because he was the District Chief Air Raid Warden. Doc and Caje listened, interested, as he told them that before the war he had worked in a ‘reserved occupation’, that of a wood machinist, and hadn’t been eligible for call-up into the Armed Forces. Instead, he worked in the East London dock area of Plaistow making ammunition crates during the day, took his turn at fire-watching on the roof of the factory several nights a week, and performed his warden duties in the area surrounding his home the rest of the time. This meant he patrolled the local streets and parks after dark, looking for any glimpse of light showing through the requisite blackout curtains. He took charge during air raids, helped to fight fires or rescue those who had been buried, and directed the newly bombed-out homeless or traumatized to evacuation centres. It was obvious that Joe took pride in ‘doing his bit’ and seemed to think nothing of the fact that he must never get enough rest. When Doc said as much, he shrugged slim shoulders and answered, “I’m lucky … at least I’ve got an `ome ter go `ome to. Lots of me pals don’t `ave anyfink left. I’m glad I can do me bit to `elp out.”
After only a few minutes, Caje was consciously willing himself not to flinch each time his sore leg touched the ground. He stifled a sigh of relief when Joe finally led them through the front gate of a diminutive smoke-grimed brick house with the number 97 beside the shabby door.
“Right O, c’mon in wiv yer,” said Joe. He ushered the two men into a tiny entrance hall that led into a narrow galley kitchen at the rear of the house. To the right an uncarpeted stairway climbed steeply, its thick wooden banister disappearing into the darkness of the second floor. Joe turned into the front room on their left, and they saw they had entered a cramped living room. He motioned for them to sit down on the sofa. “Make yerselves at `ome. I s’spect Gracie is still daan the shelter getting the twinnies up. I’ll go get `er.” With a smile he vanished back into the hallway, calling “Gracie, yer’ll never guess `oo I’ve brought `ome!”
Caje lowered himself gratefully onto the slightly threadbare sofa, stretching out his aching leg with audible relief. A few feet away a small coal fire burned in a black-leaded iron fireplace and its faint warmth felt good to the chilled and tired Cajun. The room was not very large and seemed overcrowded despite only a few pieces of furniture. Faded linoleum and a multi-coloured rag rug covered the floor. Heavy blackout drapes hid white net curtains over cracked windowpanes. On the mantel stood a lovingly polished wood-cased clock, and beside it sat a small radio. The papered walls were damaged and discoloured in places where rain had managed to leak through broken or missing roof slates. It was obvious that Joe’s home had not escaped the ravages of war entirely.
Doc, taking a seat in the overstuffed armchair beside the fireplace, looked over at his friend. “How’s the leg feel, Caje?”
“It’s okay, Doc. Glad to be sitting down though,” he admitted ruefully.
Doc grinned his agreement. He knew from past experience that was all the comment he was likely to get on the subject of Caje’s discomfort and fatigue. He was grateful that his own injured arm had healed completely and was no longer painful. The two men sat quietly, savouring the relative ease of the pleasant little room after their uncomfortable night in the underground station.
Drowsy, neither of them noticed at first when a young woman with a small child clutching her skirt appeared in the doorway. Caje’s sharp instincts made him the first to sense she was there. He saw that she was comfortably plump, with blond hair tied back from a pretty and slightly flushed face. Friendly cornflower blue eyes showed concern when he quickly reached out to touch Doc’s arm and both men struggled to their feet.
Addressing Caje, she smiled kindly, “Oh no, please don’t get up. Joe told me you’ve got a bad leg,” then adding as an afterthought, “Me name’s Grace.” As she spoke, her husband and another tiny child, identical to the first, joined her. At the bemused expressions on their guests’ faces, Grace laughed and continued, “…and these two little monkeys are our twins, Bebe and Barbara. They’re two years old.” Dressed in matching blue, one-piece siren suits under woolly knitted cardigans, with similar big floppy bows in their straight dark hair, the toddlers shyly edged around their parents, two pairs of hazel eyes staring with mild apprehension at the uniformed strangers.
To put them at ease, Doc bent down to their level. “Hey, you know what? In my country we’ve got a beautiful lady who’s called Bebe too – Bebe Daniels. She’s a movie star. I think you two are as pretty as she is! Which one of you is Bebe?”
Bebe, thumb in mouth, smiled happily and pointed to herself, while Barbara continued to clutch her sister’s hand, silently watching this big strange man with the fair hair and soft voice.
Joe, pleased, laughingly explained that his favourite movie pin-up was Bebe Daniels, and he had managed to persuade Grace to name one of the twins after her!
An hour later, Doc and Caje had eaten their fill of steaming bowls of porridge and several huge slabs of bread, as well as drunk a couple of mugs of hot sweet tea, all speedily produced by Grace.
Joe had gone out on his bike, explaining, “I’m goin` daan ter the warden’s post ‘n I’ll try ter find out abaat the buses if I can. You blokes just `ave a rest, awright? I’ll be back fer tea, Luv,” he added to his wife, giving her and his small daughters a quick hug and kiss before closing the door behind him.
After their initial reluctance to leave their mother’s side, it had been easy to coax the twins to come closer. They cheerfully chatted away, their often-nonsensical baby language interspersed with happy giggles when the entranced GIs spoke to them. Caje caught Doc’s eye more than once, his relaxed expression mirrored on his friend’s face. The war seemed very far away to both of them just then. It was easy to allow theirselves to think that their world contained only this humble English room and its two tiny inhabitants.
Seeing how effortlessly Caje and Doc related to her daughters, Grace busied herself in the kitchen, laughing delightedly when Doc, with Bebe shrieking with glee and perched on his shoulders, jogged passed her through the back door and on into the garden.
It was mid-day when it happened.
Caje had been sitting by the front windows reading a story to Barbara. Toting her storybook, she had shyly climbed up onto the sofa beside him. Obviously remembering her mother’s quiet admonition to `be careful of Caje’s sore leg’, she had guilelessly snuggled up on his left side where she sat quietly and listened, rapt, as he read the words in his mellifluous French-accented speech. She had fallen asleep and, reluctant to wake her, Caje had remained still, enjoying the picture of the slumbering little girl.
The sudden distant drone of an aircraft’s discordant engine drew Caje’s attention to the window. Looking out, he could see a uniformed messenger boy on his motorbike a few yards away, but otherwise the slim roadway was deserted. A split second later, the black shadow of a German fighter-bomber came into view. So low he could read the squadron number on its side and see the pilot’s face in the cockpit, it was flying towards him at rooftop level, machine guns opening up and blazing. It was CLOSE! In front of the American’s shocked eyes, the messenger boy was thrown to the gutter as the murderous fire caught him. Simultaneously, Caje saw a single bomb leave the plane’s belly. Instinctively, he shouted a warning and turned to grab the sleeping child beside him.
A deafening whoosh of acrid air from the explosion flung him, spread-eagled, into the back of the sofa. He was vaguely aware of something heavy pinioning him to the floor and then he was suffocating in a thick cloud of blinding smoke and dust. Stunned and struggling to breathe in the filth-choked air, he knew he must be under a pile of debris. Fighting down the threatening panic, he warily tried moving his arms and was relieved to find he could. Frantically he felt around in the shadowy darkness for Barbara. A faint cry reached his blast-deafened ears just as he felt something pliable under his outstretched hand. His fogged brain registered slowly. The sofa! The child must be somewhere nearby!
Inching his way under the scanty protection that the overturned sofa afforded, Caje was painfully aware of the broken glass and jagged mortar he was crawling through. Ignoring his badly aching leg and the sting of multiple new cuts and bruises, he groped carefully in the murky space, flinching involuntarily as his trembling fingers found the softness of Barbara’s knitted cardigan.
At Caje’s touch, the youngster let out a loud wail of distress and then crawled unhesitatingly into his arms. Relief washed over the Cajun in a huge wave as, with a confidence he didn’t feel, he tried to comfort the whimpering child. “It’s okay now, ma petite, you’re safe now, it’ll be okay.” He couldn’t see her features in the gloom, but he could feel she was shuddering with fright. Absently stroking her dusty hair, he realized that his hand was becoming wet and sticky. The all-too familiar smell of fresh blood assailed him. She was hurt! Almost more frightened than at any time since D-Day, he drew her tiny body to him, cuddling her close, long gentle fingers seeking the source of the bleeding on her head. It was impossible, and he settled for letting her console herself by nestling tight against his shoulder. “It’s going to be okay, sweetheart.”
In the back garden, Doc had heard the ominous sound of the German aircraft and the burst of machine gun fire. Swinging the still chuckling Bebe from her seat on his shoulders and into his arms, he had dashed the few yards into the safety of the family’s half-buried Anderson air raid shelter. A tremendous explosion followed within seconds and he could feel the flimsy corrugated iron structure quiver alarmingly with the force of the blast. Around him, the stale air within grew hot and stifling. Something heavy clanged loudly against the rounded roof and clattered noisily away. Faintly Doc heard the sound of the aircraft’s engine as it flew off into the distance. Then, momentarily, there was only an eerie silence.
Doc emerged slowly from the refuge, Bebe gripped tightly in his arms, to be met by billowing smoke and the overpowering smell of cordite. A lone chipped and cracked paving stone sat leaning lopsidedly against the shelter, and grey slate roof tiles dotted the grass. Once the dust had settled, he could see the rear wall of #97 again. At first glance it appeared undamaged and, carrying Bebe, he ran to the back door. It wouldn’t move until he shoved it hard with his free arm and then it slowly slipped from its shattered hinges and fell against the pile of rubble behind it. Incongruously, the door’s double paned window was completely without damage despite its splintered frame.
Heart thumping, Doc scrambled back into the clearer air of the garden. Reality struck him then. Barbara and Grace were still in there somewhere! And Caje. Caje was in there too!
Adrenalin pumping wildly, Doc handed his small burden to a woman who had appeared in the next door’s garden. Holding her own youngster in one arm and Bebe in the other, she recognized the trepidation in his eyes as he looked at the devastated house.
“Wait `till the rescue squad get `ere, Luv. They know wot they’re doin’. They’ll get `em out, don’t yer worry.”
Doc hesitated only briefly while he answered her. “Yes, ma’am, but Gracie and one of the twins are still in there. And my buddy. They may be hurt – I’ve gotta try to get to them fast!” Distracted, he didn’t notice the doubtful look she gave him as he turned back to the wrecked kitchen.
Fearful of dislodging the cracked ceiling beam that drooped precariously above him, Doc started carefully pulling chunks of rubble and tumbled bricks away from the pile, covering his head quickly as dust and mortar cascaded down at every movement. “Caje! Can you hear me?”
No answer came.
Choking on the smoke and dust that swirled about, Doc determinedly renewed his cautious efforts. In a few moments he had managed to clear a space around what had been the kitchen table. It was still standing, wobbly legs askew – and peering from underneath its dubious shelter was a dust-covered and disheveled Gracie.
“Are you hurt, Grace?”
“I don’t think so, Doc. Can you get me out of here? I’ve got ter get ter me babies!”
Doc replied comfortingly, “Bebe’s outside with your neighbour. She’s fine.”
“But … what about Barbara!”
Doc could hear the panic rising in her voice as she realized her other daughter must be still in the house. He tried to calm her, answering with as much assurance as he could manage, “I’ll get to her. Caje will have her – they’ll be okay. We’ve gotta get you out of here now, okay?”
As they staggered back into the garden they were greeted by the welcome sight of several uniformed rescue workers. Gracie was taken quickly from Doc’s supporting arm into the comforting clasp of a lady wearing a Red Cross uniform. Sobbing, she had tried to struggle back into her damaged house, but was firmly prevented by willing hands. Clutching the cup of tea someone had put into her hands and hugging Bebe close, she sat on the offered chair and stared at the frenetic activity around what was left of her home.
Doc put a soothing hand on her shoulder and then quickly joined the rescue workers as they ran through the back alley and into the street in front of #97.
The scene before him momentarily stopped Doc in his tracks. The detached house across the road was just a pile of rubble, with flames still licking at roof timbers and out from under the fallen brickwork. Only the chimney and stairwell still stood. A woman was being carried on a stretcher out of the ruins of the building to a waiting ambulance. Further along, the tarp-covered body of the young messenger lay lifeless and temporarily alone while the more immediate work of rescuing the still living was tackled.
The bomb had collapsed the front walls of numbers 97 and 95 and blown their shared tiled roof to pieces. Smashed window frames and crumbled brick lay jumbled together with broken furniture and splintered wood in a huge pile. Doc stared, shaken. No one could be alive under that lot!
Doc’s face must have mirrored his horror because the worker beside him spoke quietly, “We’ll find `em, Yank. Never yer fear. They’ll be awright.”
Hardly hearing his well-intentioned words, Doc clambered after the crew already doggedly moving the wreckage, desperately hopeful.
Notified at the Warden’s Post of the incident, Joe came rushing home within a few minutes and, white-faced, had joined the rescue efforts alongside the other grim and sweating men. Plied constantly with cups of tea urged on her by hovering neighbours, Gracie paced up and down in the road, her pale features pinched with worry.
To Doc, their progress seemed excruciatingly slow. After an hour of digging, they had managed to clear only a small area. He knew that even if Caje and the child were still alive, time was running out. Their air supply, if they had any, would not last much longer. And, if they were hurt, perhaps bleeding … well…. He pushed the negative thoughts from his mind and forced his tired arms to lift yet another chunk of wood.
They began digging with renewed vigour when one of the men, relieved voice hoarse, yelled, “I fink I’ve got the Yank!” He called down into the hole he was peering at, “Blimey, mate – I ain’t arf glad ter see you!” And, a second later, he triumphantly shouted, “An’ the nipper’s wiv ‘im!”
In no time at all Caje’s dirt covered head and shoulders were visible and he was being carefully eased clear, Barbara still firmly wrapped in his arms. Dizzy and unable to see in the sudden daylight, Caje automatically fought against the willing hands which reached to take his precious burden until his dazed brain cleared and he recognized Doc’s familiar features. Barbara’s dusty blood-streaked face bore a bewildered expression that soon crumpled into loud wails when Doc gently passed her to her parents’ joyful embrace. He’d let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding when her only injury seemed to be a slowly oozing cut at her hairline.
Doc glanced at Caje who, absently rubbing his leg and sipping the steaming tea which had immediately been thrust into his hand, seemed none-the-worse for wear, and he offered up a silent prayer of thanks.
Back at First Squad’s farmhouse bivouac in France a week later, Caje and Doc were enthusiastically welcomed with firm handshakes and hearty slaps on the back from their elated squad mates. Glad to be home, they answered Billy and Littlejohn’s eager questions about the sights of London and reassured the Sarge when he quietly asked if they were both okay.
Kirby, being Kirby, was more interested in whether they’d met any females.
“Well, Kirby,” grinned Caje, hazel eyes twinkling, “You shoulda been there. We met up with two adorable English babes. Dark hair, big green eyes … petite but round in all the right places … nice `n cuddly too….”
Kirby’s eyes widened, “Ya don’t say! Lucky sons of guns, ainch ya? How come I don’t never have that kinda luck?”
Doc, trying hard not to laugh, chimed in, “Yeah, Kirby. Got to spend the night with `em. Even got taken home to meet their parents an’ all….”
Note: ‘Double Trouble’, my first fanfic story, is a little different in that I have borrowed Caje and Doc to mix fiction with fact. The bombing of #97 Staines Road, Ilford, a suburb on the eastern edge of London, really did happen as depicted in the story, albeit in early 1943 instead of late 1944. The then three month old Barbara was rescued from under the wreckage of her crib, a little bloodied, but basically unhurt.
My parents’ names were Joe and Grace Lane and my twin sister’s name was Bebe.
Barbara G. Boudreau