Baptism of Fire
(The Bridge at Chalons)
by Anzio Annie
The shooting had finally stopped.
The rural French cemetery had been a place of peaceful repose before the soldiers had come. Now it was littered with fresh bodies and the smell of cordite and blood hung thickly in the air.
Doc glanced up at Saunders with an anxious look. This was just his second trip out with the squad and he wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone but he had been worried how he would do, whether he would fit in, how he would face up to his eventual baptism of fire.
That morning, he had been sitting unobtrusively by the camp fire, watchful, not yet invited into the camaraderie of the squad, when Sgt. Turk had arrived with news of their mission. Doc had figured to follow along quietly, keep his eyes and ears open, stay out of trouble, maybe learn something about the men he would be serving with, and hope his medical skills wouldn’t be needed.
Not that he didn’t have faith in his training, but as all good combat medics would tell you, a day when you’re useless is a generally the best kind.
This hadn’t turned out to be that kind of day. No, sirree. One dead and two wounded already, and now Sarge was leaving him behind, responsible - in all his inexperience - for getting Littlejohn and Caje back through Kraut-held territory to the safety of their own lines.
Doc read volumes in Saunders’ own glance back at him. Worry flashed across the man’s rugged features, quickly replaced by a decisiveness honed through long combat experience. Doc could see that Sarge was distressed at Wilkerson’s death, concerned about Caje and Littlejohn, anxious about how to complete their mission to blow the bridge at Chalons when they were now so shorthanded. But the face he turned to the squad was composed and resolute as he ordered the men to move out. He turned back to give Doc a short nod of confidence, which did help settle Doc’s jittery stomach a little. He was a good NCO, Doc thought; he had faith in his men and even more important, he tried to let them know it.
Doc watched the squad, his squad, as they filed out. Young fresh-faced Billy took point – and from his uneasy step, Doc didn’t think the boy had ever taken point before. Heck, he didn’t think the boy had ever shaved before. But Billy had more experience in battle than Doc did – and he had proven himself there. He belonged.
Kirby followed; Kirby who had a complaint for every occasion. But he wasn’t complaining now, even though he was struggling to disguise a limp. Doc figured that Kirby might whine to let off steam, but when you needed someone you could count on, Kirby would be there for you.
After all, it was Kirby and Caje that Sarge had called on to help him clear the cemetery – good soldiers who were agile, lethal, and knew what to do without being told.
And there was Littlejohn, who had now eased himself to the ground and sagged back against a tree trunk, his eyes shut. He’d insisted that he wanted to go all the way to the bridge and see the mission through, but it was clear that his strength was waning. He wouldn’t have been able to keep up with the pace that Saunders and Turk set. The bullet had gone clean through Littlejohn’s shoulder. There was an entrance wound and an exit wound to worry about, and it was tricky applying pressure to a shoulder, especially when the injured GI was ambulatory. But it looked like the bullet hadn’t hit an artery and that bloodstain wasn’t getting any bigger. Littlejohn was lucky.
Doc wasn’t so sure about his other patient, sitting on the ground beside him. Caje’s face was pinched with pain; one hand clenched white-knuckled above his left knee to slow the bleeding. The bullet hadn’t gone through and Doc was worried about the damage it could still do to the joint, with the jostling that was bound to occur if they tried to head back.
If only they could put together a litter to carry him. But Littlejohn couldn’t carry the other end of a stretcher, not with that arm in a sling. For a moment, Doc felt a flush of anger that Sarge hadn’t left Kirby or Billy behind too – so there would be someone besides himself. Someone able-bodied. Someone with more combat experience. How did Sarge expect him to get the three of them back safely?
But Doc’s frustration quickly fled. He knew the engineers had expected a full platoon escort on this mission. A squad was barely enough, and now they weren’t even at half-strength. Saunders couldn’t have spared anyone else. It was probably a tough enough call deciding to leave Doc behind, instead of dropping off Caje and Littlejohn to fend for themselves. What if someone else got hurt?
Doc was glad he didn’t have to make those kinds of decisions. All he had to do was follow orders. And orders were to take care of Caje and Littlejohn.
He winced as he examined the torn flesh and muscle under his steady hands. He thought he had glimpsed the edge of something small and dark through the oozing blood – maybe the bullet had ricocheted off the bone instead of passing though and wasn’t lying too deep.
It occurred to him that he should probably try to remove the bullet.
Doc sat back on his heels and flexed his fingers nervously.
“We should get ready to move out,” Caje said, his breathing ragged as he exhaled around the last of his cigarette and then ground out the stub. “Those Krauts might have had a scheduled radio contact. They might be expecting reinforcements. We don’t want to be here when company comes.”
“We can hide,” Littlejohn suggested, brushing a beetle off his trousers with an annoyed flick of the wrist. “Wait here till the Sarge gets back.”
That prospect was very tempting to Doc. Just hide. The trip back was going to be agonizing on the wounded men, and they would be vulnerable to attack and unable to defend themselves. He didn’t know if he could keep them safe on the move. And the Krauts were retreating – even if Sarge and Turk didn’t come back, other Americans would be bound to be coming this way soon.
Sarge had said if they couldn’t make it all the way, they should hold up and wait.
The new medic was faced with his first real combat decision. He thought about his two options and whether he was making a decision based on avoiding his own fears, or based on what was the right thing to do. What would Sarge say to do if he were here?
Doc looked at Caje. Caje knew. Sarge would say they weren’t safe there; they should start back. And when he spoke, his men would believe in him and feel certain that it was the right thing to do.
Doc tried to put the same conviction in his voice that Saunders always conveyed. “No, we’re gonna try to make it back to our lines,” he said. “Littlejohn, you think you can keep going?”
“Well, yeah.” Littlejohn wasn’t about to admit to the weakness he felt. “But what about Caje?”
Caje’s face was pale and damp with sweat, but his eyes glittered with determination. He nodded.
Doc reached for his medical kit. “Caje…” he paused and swallowed nervously and then continued more strongly. “I think I should try to get the bullet out before we move out.”
Caje blanched. “You sure?”
You sure you know what you’re doing, is what Doc figured he meant. “I think it’ll do more damage if I don’t get it out,” Doc said, feigning a confidence he didn’t feel. Caje sighed heavily and then fumbled in his jacket for another cigarette. Doc took that to mean he had Caje’s assent and he began to rummage through his canvas pouch for the forceps and surgical sponges he carried.
“You gonna give him some morphine Doc?” Littlejohn asked, his brow furrowed with concern.
“Can’t,” Caje answered for him. “It would knock me out.” His hand trembled as he pulled out his cigarette pack and found it empty. Littlejohn shook his head with regret. He didn’t smoke. Neither did the new medic.
Caje let his head fall back against the bark of the tree. One hand groped around the tree for the assurance that his M1 was within reach. “You better get your rifle, Littlejohn,” he said. “I think Wilkerson was carrying it.”
Littlejohn looked over where the dead man lay, and then climbed awkwardly to his feet. Doc watched as he lumbered off and wondered what Caje was thinking. He probably didn’t want an audience while enduring what was going to be a painful procedure. Or maybe he was worried that having Littlejohn hovering around would make Doc nervous and clumsy? Or maybe he thought that Littlejohn needed something to do, to feel useful.
Or maybe, Doc thought, he himself just thought too much and Caje didn’t have any ulterior motives at all, other than the fact that they were behind enemy lines and needed all the protection they could get. Thinking too much could be a dangerous thing, he scolded himself. Just get on with it.
Doc tried to imagine that the leg he was probing was just plastic and this was just another training exercise. But the fake disembodied limbs that they had practiced on in Camp Barkley didn’t flinch like this. He glanced up, saw Caje staring stonily ahead, one hand tight around his M1, the other scrabbling against the sticks and pebbles that littered the hard earth beneath them.
Doc dropped his attention back to the gaping wound. He couldn’t see the glint of bullet any more and tried to swab away the fresh pool of blood. It was by touch and not by sight that he finally found the foreign object but it was too slick with blood to grasp so he scissored the forceps into position. A guttural French curse was torn from Caje’s throat as Doc yanked out the forceps. Blood spattered on Caje’s pants leg and a twig in his hand snapped in half.
Doc nearly grinned with relief as he dropped the bullet into the grass. Breathing fast himself, he shook sulfa powder on the wound and tied the sterile dressing tightly in place. Satisfied that he had done what he could, he wrapped both hands loosely around Caje’s injured knee for a moment and simply bowed his head.
He looked up as a shadow crossed over him, and saw Littlejohn’s silhouette blocking out the sun. “We just gonna leave Wilkerson here?” Littlejohn asked, his voice rough with remorse. Doc didn’t know how long Wilkerson had been with the squad; didn’t know if the men had been close. He knew they couldn’t bring the body, couldn’t bury it, and couldn’t stay behind with it. But he didn’t know just what words to use to say that to Littlejohn.
Caje did. “We leave him,” he said. Unsentimental and terse. “Give me a hand up.”
Littlejohn reached down with his good arm and took hold of Caje’s left hand. Caje used the M1 in his right hand to help push himself upright. Littlejohn steadied him and then looked down at his palm and wiped it on his thigh. “Your hand’s bleeding,” he pointed out.
Doc looked over; realized that the skin had probably torn when Caje snapped the stick he’d been clutching. “Want me to wrap that up?” he asked.
“No,” Caje answered. “It’s okay. We need to get going.”
Doc pulled Caje’s arm around his own shoulders so that he wouldn’t have to put weight on his bad leg. Taking a deep breath, hoping he’d made the right decisions, he led them in the opposite direction of the rest of the squad. He wondered if he would see Saunders and the others alive again.
* * * * *
They hadn’t gone nearly far enough, Doc reckoned, when he called a reluctant halt. Littlejohn was shuffling along beside them, head down, dragging his rifle. If they didn’t stop to rest, Doc figured it wouldn’t be long before Littlejohn would be falling face first into the dirt.
So he waved Littlejohn to a stop and
carefully lowered Caje to a sitting position, one leg stiffly extended.
Littlejohn’s knees buckled and he sank down to the grass beside them, dropping
his rifle so he could better cradle his arm in its sling, relief washing across
his broad face.
Caje glanced around critically. “There’s not much cover here,” he said. They were sitting on the middle of a hillside, surrounded by tall weeds that weren’t tall enough to hide them. A small clump of trees breasted the top of the hill and Caje eyed its shelter longingly.
“Littlejohn can’t go further. He needs - you both need - water and rest first,” Doc answered simply. He helped Littlejohn unfasten his canteen. With his size, he needed a lot of fluids to stay hydrated and what was left in his canteen wouldn’t be enough to replace the blood lost. Without a word, Doc handled the big man his own canteen too.
Littlejohn was in a garrulous mood. “A Purple Heart!” he said suddenly. “I’ll get a Purple Heart for this, won’t I Doc?”
The medic grinned back at him. “Sure. You both will.”
Littlejohn looked pleased and then turned thoughtful. “Hey Caje,” he asked. “Did you write home about it, the first time you got hit? I mean, on the one hand, I think the folks would be proud to hear I’m getting a medal. On the other hand I don’t want them to worry….”
“You already have a Purple Heart?” Doc asked Caje.
The scout didn’t seem as happy about his medal prospects as Littlejohn was. He didn’t look at them but continued to scan the hillside, rubbing his knee absently. “One would have been plenty,” he muttered.
“It was a machine gun,” Littlejohn explained to Doc. “In some village - what was it called, Caje?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “That was before we lost our medic,” he added somberly to Doc. His voice was rough with weariness, and Doc thought fleetingly that maybe Littlejohn was talking in order to stay alert. Doc also wondered what had happened to the last corpsman – but he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answer.
“So?” Littlejohn turned back to Caje. “Did you write home about it?”
“No. Shhhh….” Caje tensed and the others fell silent. At first Doc heard nothing but the call of one bird to another in the distant trees. And then he caught the sound of voices, faint, too faint to make out the words. Not too faint to make out the language.
The voices were German. They were growing louder. Closer. Laughing.
Caje sank into a prone position in the weeds and Littlejohn and Doc followed suit.
Against the horizon they could see half a dozen soldiers emerge from the far side of the hill. In a moment it became clear that their enemies were setting up a machine gun nest in the cover of the trees.
Two minutes ago Doc been feeling relaxed, chatting with Littlejohn, confident that they were safe and that he’d made the right calls. Now … now, there was no time for second guesses. “What are we going to do?” Doc whispered.
Caje glanced around them, ending his study of their surroundings when his eyes met Doc’s. They both knew that Littlejohn couldn’t crawl – and that they weren’t going to leave him behind.
“Littlejohn – gimme your grenade,” Caje said softly. It was quickly passed between the two men and Caje clipped it beside his own grenade. Then he gestured over toward the east side of the hill. “See those boulders? From there, I think I can hit ‘em.”
“But – your leg –” Doc protested in a murmur.
Caje shrugged. A very Gallic shrug that said “ça m'est egal” – it doesn’t matter. He took off his helmet; Doc realized that he couldn’t risk the sun reflecting off it to give his position away.
“I’ll cover you,” Littlejohn said. The words rumbled in his throat as he tried to keep his voice down. “Make some noise against the rock when you’re in position, and I’ll open fire.” Caje nodded and Littlejohn rolled onto his belly to get ready. He winced as he slid his arm out of the sling to brace the rifle.
Doc bit his lip as he saw the patch of blood on the front of Littlejohn’s jacket darken at the movement. He turned back; to see if Caje’s leg had started bleeding again too, but the other soldier had already disappeared.
Minutes crawled by, as slowly as the black bug that crawled across the earth toward them. The sun beat down on them, and sweat dripped down Doc’s neck. He watched the bug. Watched and waited. Watched the bug inch past him without veering and continue its deliberate path toward Littlejohn.
Doc’s shirt clung to his shoulder blades, clammy with sweat.
The bug crawled up to Littlejohn’s hand and, after pausing a moment, decided that the motionless body was just one more rock in the road and began to climb over it.
In the next instant, two things happened. The echo of metal on rock announced that Caje had reached the boulders. And Doc realized that Littlejohn had passed out.
He didn’t think; he just reacted.
Doc grabbed up Littlejohn’s M1 and emptied the clip at the clump of trees.
Machine gun fire blindly raked the weeds in his vicinity, but Doc kept low to the ground.
He heard the explosion of a grenade, screams, a second grenade and then the machine gun fire again, but this time not aimed at his direction.
Damn! Caje might have done some damage but there was at least one Kraut survivor and the gun wasn’t damaged.
He didn’t hear any return fire from Caje’s position. Was he…?
Bullets sprayed the air over Doc’s head and he slung the rifle over his shoulder and scrambled closer to Littlejohn, to protect him if he could.
And then a miracle occurred, as the saying goes.
The sounds of a Browning Automatic Rifle drowned out the Kraut weapon and in a moment, there was silence.
Doc quickly checked Littlejohn. The exit wound looked no worse for wear. Then he rolled Littlejohn onto his back and frowned at the large damp stain on his shoulder. But he had a steady pulse; he was breathing. Doc pulled another field dressing out of his satchel and laid it on top of the first one, which had soaked through. He leaned into the injured shoulder, applying steady pressure; glad Littlejohn couldn’t feel it.
There was a rustle in the weeds and he jumped up, fumbling to pull the M1 off his shoulder.
Two men limped up, supporting each other like some crazy three-legged race at the county fair.
It was Caje.
Caje’s face was white under the dirt but he had a crooked grin to echo Kirby’s, until he saw Littlejohn lying unconscious on the ground. “Is he…?”
“No, no,” Doc answered, dropping back to his knees beside his patient. “Just a little too much excitement,” he said. “I think he’ll be okay.” He looked back at Kirby, remembering the limp. “What about you?”
“Just twisted my ankle,” Kirby waved him off. “Sarge wouldn’t let me stay with them.”
Doc swore he was pouting!
“Good thing for us,” Caje said, the grin back. “Doc, can you get Littlejohn back on his feet? There’s a grotto on the other side of this hill where we can hold up. Better cover.”
“I think so.” Doc fished out the smelling salts and was gratified to see that Littlejohn roused fairly easily. It wasn’t as simple to get three injured men off that hill, but they finally accomplished that too.
The grotto was a large cave in the side of the hill, filled with religious statuary, some shattered by bullets. He eased Littlejohn onto the floor and looked up to see Kirby and Caje watching him. “Better watch out, Doc,” Kirby said. “Don’t want anyone to catch you carryin’ a weapon.”
With a start, Doc realized that he still had Littlejohn’s M1. He snuck a glance at Caje and saw his question answered there – Caje knew he had fired it too. “Don’t worry Doc,” Caje said. “I don’t think you hit anything!”
Doc nodded ruefully and, being the only healthy member of the party, started giving orders. “Kirby, you leave that boot on,” he said, catching Kirby in mid-reach. “It’s keeping the swelling down and you’ll never get the boot back on if you take it off now. Caje, your leg is bleeding again. Sit tight and I’ll check it out as soon as I finish with Littlejohn here.”
He needed to get more liquid into Littlejohn and reached for his spare canteen, glad that medics were issued two. Behind him, he heard Kirby speaking softly to Caje.
“So – how’s the new medic workin’ out? We wanna keep him or should we toss him back?”
Like he was a fish, Doc thought with a huff!
“Kirby,” Caje said in all seriousness, “we are lucky to have him.”
Doc sat back on his heels and looked in wonder at the images around him. There was a painting of Jesus baptizing John; the canvas riddled with holes from another day’s firefight. But the grotto survived.
And he too had survived his baptism of fire. And he knew that he was where he belonged.
- - the end - -