In the Dragon’s Teeth - part 1
October 31 1944
The Siegfried Line
“Hey Sarge! Wait up!”
Under his camo helmet, a thin smile creased Saunders’ grimy, weather-beaten face, but he didn’t slow his pace. There had been no tone of urgency in Kirby’s shout. Sarge had served with the garrulous BAR man long enough to recognize when Kirby was simply tired of his own thoughts and craved some conversation. It was just Saunders’ luck (or misfortune, depending on how you looked at it) to be the nearest soldier in their single file march down yet another unmarked road.
He heard the boots behind him break into a trot and then Kirby fell into step beside him, sweeping off his helmet to scratch an itch behind one ear. “Hey Sarge,” he repeated, and then waited while a tank rumbled past. He coughed out the dust that clogged his throat and then asked, “Where exactly ARE we, anyway?”
Saunders raised his face to the sky. Gunmetal gray clouds spread unbroken from Holland all the way to Luxembourg, he supposed. The ridges on the horizon were strung across the landscape like an old nun’s heavy rosary – clumps of fir trees clustered together like so many beads, then thinning to reveal open pastures of outlying farms, leading up to an occasional village. Then the pattern repeated - more woods, more pastures and then another village. The valleys below were dense with dark, secretive forests.
The terrain here held no clues to political boundaries. The farmers and villagers who had toiled there for generations - what did they care what color their land was painted on somebody’s map?
“Sarge?” The private was persistent.
A mess truck roared past, reminding Saunders that he was hungry and his feet hurt. Expecting no trouble yet, his arms were draped laconically over his Thompson, hung centered across his waist. He lifted his left arm to wave away another cloud of dust, and as they crested the hill, he pointed toward the valley far ahead of them. “Look over there,” he said simply. “Dragon’s teeth.”
Rows of concrete pyramids jutted up from the earth in an uneven line, as far as the eye could see. Their jagged edges reminded Saunders of nothing so much as the gaping mouth of a hungry beast, defending its lair. Tanks attempting to breach the line would go belly up, slowing any Allied advance so the Germans could counterattack. As the Americans trudged closer, open gun emplacements loomed before them ominously.
“That’s the Siegfried Line,” he told Kirby. “The West Wall. We’re in Germany now.”
The Krauts had pulled back, driven from the hedgerows of Normandy, hunted across the Falaise Gap, chased through Belgium. And now their very homeland was being threatened. Aachen had been the first German city to fall.
He ought to feel triumphant. Or at least encouraged. Some of the new guys talked hopefully of being home by Christmas. But the truth was, Saunders didn’t have a good feeling about this at all. There was nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal, threatened, protecting its own. They were entering the dragon’s lair. And the Allies’ progress had come at a high price; they were exhausted, depleted of men and supplies; not ready to make this push.
That’s not how the brass saw it though.
He thrust his hands into his jacket pockets and frowned. Why was he filled with such a pervasive sense of doom? Was it simply a case of battle fatigue - too long on the front lines?
Saunders turned his head to study the soldiers around him. So many were new replacements; he had made no effort to distinguish one from another. He knew them by the energy in their step, by their nervous, hopeful chatter. And he had learned the hard way not to let them get too close. You watch out for them. But you can’t count on them to watch out for you. You can only count on yourself. Yourself, and the men who had fought beside you since Normandy.
Littlejohn and Nelson marched silently along the column behind Kirby. Weary and wary. It was an ominous sign when the two of them weren’t chatting. Behind them came Caje, ever alert, his darting eyes combing the woods even when they were part of a convoy. Saunders supposed it was simply habit, and what made him such an effective scout. He paid attention to everything.
Sarge was no slouch at being observant either. He had noticed the swarthy Cajun was clean-shaven for a change. There was a hidden side to the soldier that sometimes slipped out on those rare occasions when they were fortunate enough to be billeted in a French or Belgian village, as they had been the night before. In his native French, the stoic, self-reliant private could put down his M1 for a few minutes and became sociable, suave and charming. It seemed symbolic that Caje had taken that last opportunity to enjoy hot water and a close shave. Today they would move from being liberators to being invaders. It was as if he knew they would not be welcome in any villages again.
The squad rounded a curve and found the mess truck set up. “Hot coffee!” Kirby shouted, and abandoning Saunders to his melancholy, he jogged forward to jostle for position in line.
By the time Saunders got his tin cup filled with steaming black sludge, the rest of the squad was hunkered down on the ground against the trees that lined both sides of the road. German mines were heaped in piles an arm’s reach away, already disarmed by American engineers. Sarge hoped they hadn’t missed any.
Pvt. Dixon, a earnest young fellow whose face perpetually wore the wide-eyed look of someone who’d just walked into a surprise party – and didn’t recognize any of the guests, shared the base of a broad tree trunk with Kirby. He seemed glad to have an excuse to hang around one of the veterans of the squad. Reaching into his jacket, he pulled out a well-worn scrap of paper and a pencil nub. “I promised my mom I’d write when I got assigned to a company,” he told Kirby. “And I don’t even know where we are. Do you have any idea?”
“Me? Of course I know! Don’t they teach you new guys anything back in the States?” Kirby finished his coffee and stowed his gear. “Look down that valley where those concrete shapes are…” he started.
Saunders walked away. That sense of foreboding grew stronger. Cold sweat slid down between his shoulder blades and made him shiver. A few minutes later the rest of the platoon climbed to their feet and they all marched forward, into the teeth of the dragon.
* * * * *
“I do not understand, Herr Oberst,” Lt. Steiniger protested. “Why are we not joining the battalion massing for the defense of Schmidt?” He looked around the long-abandoned school house where one small squad had been ordered to stay behind. There was Mueller, a brawny blacksmith before the war, who cared more about horses than people. Brandl stood meekly in the corner - older, mousy in size and coloring, slow-witted, superstitious, but generally reliable at following orders. And standing at rigid attention was Ungeheuer, the rabid stammfuhrer just graduated from the Hitler Youth. There was nothing soft about him, despite his years. He had the blond good looks that every German mother-to-be prayed her unborn child would have. With those Nordic features, and chiseled arms and shoulders, Ungeheuer was an athlete who had commanded hundreds of younger boys in his Gefolgschaft. He would be an asset to any army…except that… there was something chilling about those icy blue eyes, something not human.
Steiniger could not voice his reservations. One had to be careful at all times, what one said. To whom one spoke it. In what tones. He wondered if he had been…incautious… in his question to the SS colonel.
“Are you familiar with the American holiday called Halloween?” Col. Drache asked suddenly. He did not sound displeased at being questioned, Steiniger decided. More… preoccupied with his own plans.
The lieutenant shook his head.
“The streets of America are filled with ghosts and witches and monsters on Halloween,” Drache explained. His eyes had a far-off look, visions of greedy little evil spirits amusing him. “There, children go to the doors of strangers. Really! They hope to get treats. But sometimes,” Drache smiled, his thin lips curled in a line parallel to the scar that ran under his eye toward his sideburns, “they find an unpleasant surprise.”
What in heaven’s name did this have to do with his question? Steiniger looked at the enlisted men around him. They were equally puzzled by the words of the SS officer, but knew better than to challenge him. The threat of the punishment battalion stifled any questions.
Colonel Drache looked around the room, like a headmaster appraising his students. His smile turned into a smug sneer. “We,” he concluded, “are planning an unpleasant surprise for anyone knocking on the fatherland’s door.”
* * * * *
November 1 1944
The Siegfried Line
First squad and third squad marched intermingled along another muddy road. Dixon was concentrating on keeping ten feet between himself and the soldier in front of him, when he noticed a couple buddies from the replacement depot fall into step, one on either side of him.
“Hey yourself, Harry. Didn’t they teach you what “single file” means, back in Basic?”
Harrison was tall and thin, with an aristocratic bearing that made him cocky beyond his years. He shrugged, as though rules didn’t really apply to him. “Nothing’s gonna happen to you and me. We’re in the lucky squad.” His eyes shone behind wire-rim glasses, specs he hated because they made him look bookish. He was eager to see some action. “Now, Tommy, here, is in third squad. He might have cause to worry."
“Lucky? What do you mean?” Dixon asked. Tommy just gulped.
“Lucky - sure. Didn’t you hear? Sgt. Saunders is charmed.”
Dixon lowered his voice. “Charmed? I heard he’s got so many purple hearts he’d get a hernia trying to wear them all. That doesn’t sound very lucky to me. And he’s been captured – more than once – too!” He felt a little smug that he’d been privy to such information, courtesy of tagging along after the voluble Kirby.
Tommy’s eyes grew round as his freckled face gleamed with awe.
“That’s what I mean,” Harrison said. “Saunders walks into situations that would spell the end for any regular GI, and he always comes out alive.”
“They don’t come any braver than Sarge, that’s what I hear,” Dixon conceded.
Self-doubt was written all over Tommy’s face, but looking around at his fellow replacements, he swallowed his fears, unspoken.
“I’m not afraid,” Harrison boasted with a grin. “I figure serving with Saunders is a sure thing for bringing home a medal!”
So intent were the three on their private conversation that they didn’t notice Sarge coming up behind them. “Don’t bunch up,” was all he said, and they quickly dispersed, Tommy nodding his compliance so vigorously that his too-big helmet rattled around his ears.
Saunders shook his head as they fell back in line. He had been lucky so far. But that was the thing about luck - there always came a time when a man’s luck simply ran out.
* * * * *
The Americans were deep in the Huertgen forest, near a place called Todten Bruch on the map - Deadman’s Moor - when the dragon woke with a roar.
There was no shelter. No foxhole. No one to shoot back at.
All you could do under the hail of artillery was run back the way you had come, or pray.
One of the replacements, wild-eyed, helmet-less and unarmed, ran screaming past Saunders. Sarge opened his mouth to yell at him and realized he didn’t know the boy’s name. So he lunged at him as the kid whipped past, wrapped his arms around the soldier’s knees and brought him down with a well-timed tackle. The kid’s hands clawed desperately at the mud, mindless of the man now sitting on his back, clawed until his fingers bled. Saunders rolled off, hauled him to his knees and then dragged him to the nearest tree. He stood the boy up against the trunk of the fir and growled, “Grab this!”
A shell exploded nearby and the boy dove for the ground again, shaking uncontrollably, his eyes screwed shut.
“They’re exploding above the trees,” Sarge shouted in his ear, grabbing him under the arms and pulling him upright again. “Standing up makes you a smaller target for falling shrapnel. Just keep a helmet on.” He looked around; there was no sign of the boy’s helmet.
The damn kid was so young, so scared. Even his freckles were pale with fear.
Sarge shook his head, took off his own helmet and put it on the boy’s mop of toffee-colored curls.
Another mortar exploded, thirty feet above them.
Then the air was filled with the shrill whine of incoming shells and the deafening roar of German artillery exploding all around them. They were trapped in a maelstrom of shredded tree limbs, broken bodies, blood-curdling screams.
A canopy of razor-sharp splinters fell over them like a sudden downpour. One soldier, sprawled in a ditch, cried out as a severed branch impaled him through his thigh. More cries of “Medic!” floated through the yellow, smoke-filled air between explosions.
“Stay here,” Sarge ordered, and scrambled off to help the nearest victim.
He didn’t know this kid’s name either, just that he was new to second platoon. Replacements had been rotating in faster than he could keep track of them. Saunders knelt in the wet moss and discovered blood spurting from the soldier’s leg, a pulsing little geyser that soaked his uniform in seconds. Without waiting for help, Sarge tore off the man’s belt and wrapped it high around the injured leg. His knuckles whitened with the strain of making it tight enough… tighter… the gushing ebbed… stopped.
Mud splattered over them as someone skidded to a stop beside them. Doc.
Saunders leaned back on his heels, his hands shaking, and realized the shelling had stopped. No more deafening, concussive blasts. Just thin cries for help. And the acrid smell of burnt powder. Squinting through the smoke, he sought out the men in his squad.
Littlejohn, as usual, was the easiest to identify in any mass of bedraggled soldiers, camouflaged with filth. He stood head and shoulders above the three youngsters he had gathered with him at the base of another fir tree nearby. He had a firm grip on one private’s sleeve, making sure the panicked kid wouldn’t bolt out into the open.
Kirby had been caught in the open, crossing a bald patch of earth created by an errant artillery shell from an earlier battle. He lay curled in the bottom of the shallow crater now, his tightly coiled body sheltering the Browning as if protecting his best friend. For a moment he lay motionless; then Saunders saw his helmet move. And then Kirby stood up and shrugged off a cloak of scorched pine needles, with all the distaste of an alley cat shaking off the effects of a sudden cloudburst. A cat with nine lives, Saunders thought, as Kirby scrambled nimbly out of the crater and went to check on another soldier who was lying nearby, head buried under his arms, shaking.
It took a little more effort to find Caje. The woods-savvy scout had apparently found a massive fallen tree and melted under it when the shelling started. He emerged now, unfolding himself limb by limb, and suddenly broke into a run as he discovered a fallen comrade.
It was Billy.
Sarge took a step in that direction himself before he saw Billy sit up groggily and wave Caje off with a familiar “I’m all right” gesture. Relieved, Saunders turned back to Doc, and watched the tired medic place a gentle hand across the man’s unseeing eyes. The corpsman looked up at Sarge and shook his head.
Saunders stared at the man on the ground, and felt a familiar numbness start to wash over him, a self-defense mechanism that lately seemed to rise without warning, to isolate him and protect him from the threat of incapacitating grief. Sound faded away to nothing. Color leeched away. Doc moved in slow motion, climbing wearily to his feet….
Then Captain Jampel’s hoarse voice reverberated through the silence. “Move out!”
Adrenaline banished the numbness. Saunders gripped his Thompson.
The platoon milled together, some men kicking the ground nervously, some standing still rooted in shock. One of the new men, Dixon, was losing his lunch after stumbling over a boot on the trail and discovering that it wasn’t empty. No one stepped forward at the command. Sarge looked back, where the captain was tapping his compass and conferring with Lt. Hanley. Hanley caught Saunders’ eye, a silent communication honed by months served together, and the sergeant nodded. Without a word, he checked his weapon and started off again. One by one the men in his squad fell in behind him - Caje and Kirby exchanging looks and then setting off in his footsteps. Littlejohn held out his hand and then hauled Billy to his feet; they followed. Harrison was the first of the newbies to fall in, with all the false bravado of a high school football player taking the field again, pumping himself up with a muttered pep talk. “C’mon! Let’s go get ‘em!” One by one, the other men in second platoon staggered after them. In a minute everyone was on the move again, deeper into Germany.
A minute after that, the mortar barrage began again.
* * * * *
“There are many ways to break a man.”
Colonel Josef Drache’s mouth curled up in a satisfied smile, like a man remembering the sweet aroma of warm cinnamon strudel, fresh from the oven on a cold winter morning. A hungry man, the lieutenant thought, who wanted that taste again, and soon.
Lt. Franz Steiniger squirmed inside, at having the SS officer attached to his company. Himmler had recently begun inserting many of his men into the regular army troops, to ferret out any hints of Wehrkraftzersetzung - an attitude of weakness that might lead, unchecked, to withdrawal or surrender or desertion. The SS punished such thoughts with swift reprisals. When he was last in Berlin, Steiniger had been appalled to see a soldier – a decorated soldier! - swinging lifeless from a lamppost, a rope around his broken neck. For what indiscretion, Steiniger wondered. A placard had been pinned to the dead man’s chest that read “I hang here because I am too cowardly to defend my fatherland”.
The SS “black shirts” had no mercy.
“Yes,” Drache repeated softly to himself, one long finger absently stroking a scar that ran under his left eye toward his ear. “There are many ways to break a man….”
Steiniger hoped the SS Colonel’s enthusiasm for intimidation would be directed at the prospect of new enemy prisoners, and not at the war-weary veterans and sickly old draftees who were awaiting his command.
* * * * *
Saunders groaned. The brass had finally, reluctantly, called a retreat and what was left of the company had collapsed back at the point of departure, beside a weed-choked, abandoned cemetery near Richelskaul, just beyond the Krauts’ artillery range. Sarge had lost track of Hanley in the melee, and he wasn’t about to go looking for orders now. The lieutenant, he figured, was probably holed up with Capt. Jampel, calculating how many casualties they’d incurred per yard gained or lost. Saunders wanted no part of that kind of meeting. So he had found a nice solid, unshakable hunk of marble - a tombstone in fact – and let himself sink to a position of semi-comfort against it and had just now closed his eyes, shutting out the day’s horrors, letting his mind search for that blessed state of numbness again. This time, it was the deep, lightly accented voice of the Cajun soldier interrupting his stupor. But unlike some of the men in the platoon, Caje wasn’t one to strike up idle conversation on the front lines. If he had something to say, it was worth listening to. The fact that he seemed out of breath merely confirmed Sarge’s judgment.
Saunders raised his head to find the man in front of him bent over, hands on knees, blood on the front of his jacket. “Caje?” He reached a hand out to steady his friend, but it wasn’t necessary.
Caje saw the source of his concern and waved it off. “Not my blood. It’s Lt. Hanley.” He straightened, his breath coming more slowly now, condensing in small puffs of mist in the cold November air. “He took some shrapnel. Doc and I got him back to Battalion Aid. He’s gonna be okay. But they want to see you there, right away.”
That was a half-mile back. A helluva long way to hike, Sarge thought, when he felt like crap. But he couldn’t complain in front of a man who had just helped haul nearly 200 pounds of officer and gear that same distance and then apparently run all the way back. Just once, Saunders mused, he’d like to hear Caje complain. But then again, he supposed Kirby griped enough for the whole squad.
Using his Thompson as a crutch to climb to his feet, Saunders pushed off from the carved headstone. “Have the guys do an ammo check and get re-stocked while we can. Don’t want anyone running short tomorrow.”
“Right Sarge.” The weary soldier slumped down into the spot Sarge had just vacated, deciding it wouldn’t hurt to check his own rifle and ammo belt before summoning up the energy to check on the others. As Saunders walked away, Caje noticed that his NCO’s sleeve was frayed and streaked with blood. “Hey, Sarge?” Caje started to climb back to his feet, but Saunders just ignored him and trudged off down the darkening road. He appeared steady enough. Caje shook his head, eased himself back down, and thumbed back the magazine on his M1 to check his clip.
* * * * *
Outside Battalion Aid, a couple of litter bearers were hard at work with scrub brushes and a bucket, trying to scour away the dark stains on a vacant stretcher. The redhead looked up when a soldier approached - another walking wounded, he sighed.
“Lieutenant Hanley here?” Saunders asked them, ambling to a stop and weaving slightly. The shorter man nodded and shrugged one shoulder toward the tent. “They’re fixin’ to send him to the rear,” he said. “But he ain’t left yet. They took the worst cases out first. So that’s a good sign.” The corpsman paused. “Leastways, it’s a good sign if you like officers.”
Saunders dipped his head in a short nod. A lot of the new officers were nothing more than 90 day wonders, who learned what they knew from a book and had no patience to listen to someone fresh from a foxhole. But Hanley wasn’t one of those. He was a good officer, respected, and more than that, a friend. All Saunders said aloud though, was “We could use more like this one.”
Then he stepped inside the olive drab tent. The canvas walls kept out the worst of the biting wind, but there was no heat. He shivered. Doc materialized at his side. “Let me take a look at that,” he said, taking Sarge gently by the left arm.
“Looks like you got those stripes shot right off,” Doc answered, with a rueful smile. Saunders looked down and saw it was true; underneath the muck, his left sleeve was torn and bloodstained and the chevrons of rank were dangling by a thread. He shrugged. “It’s just a crease. I’m here to see Hanley.”
“Well, he can wait two minutes while I patch this up,” Doc said. When it came to his patients, Doc didn’t care what anyone else said. He was in charge. And with a speed sharpened on body-strewn battlefields, he was as good as his word. In two minutes he had the sarge’s jacket peeled off, sulfa powder and a field dressing slapped on, the bandage ends tied into place, and then the field jacket eased back on.
“Now, you can see the Lieutenant,” he said.
Gil Hanley was propped up on a cot in the corner, his face pale but his green eyes alert. He held a clipboard on his lap, and set down his pen when Saunders approached. “Your squad all okay?” he asked. It wasn’t what he had summoned his platoon sergeant there to say to him, but there are few times in battle for social pleasantries. When an opportunity presented itself, Hanley was one who felt there was value in observing the niceties. He knew just what each man in his command needed to hear – to focus – to forget. Certainly, Saunders seemed to relax a little at the question.
“Yeah, yeah. Live to fight another day,” he quipped. “How about you?”
Hanley winced and put his left hand to his side. “Piece of shrapnel had my name on it today,” he said. “It won’t keep me down long. But they want to do X-rays before they let me back up here.”
They both knew he wouldn’t be back as soon as he implied.
“Did you know Eddie Dugan?” Hanley asked suddenly.
Saunders looked at him blankly.
“Kid from third squad; just came up from the repple depple last week. Got hit by a tree burst today.”
Saunders turned toward Doc. The medic nodded; Dugan was the kid who had bled to death in the road while they were helpless to save him. “No, sir,” Saunders turned back to Hanley. “I know which one he was, but I can’t say I know anything about him. Why don’t you ask Murphy?” Ed Murphy was the tech sergeant who mother-henned the newbies in third squad. Tim MacAllister shepherded second squad, while Saunders led first squad.
“Murphy didn’t make it,” Hanley said simply. “I’m writing his folks after I finish this letter.”
Oh. So that’s why the interest. “Well,” Saunders scuffed the ground uneasily. “You can tell Dugan’s family that Eddie… wasn’t afraid. And he didn’t suffer.”
That was a lie. They were all afraid. But he didn’t suffer…long. Saunders wished he could offer more. Some reassurance that Eddie had friends who cared what happened to him. But he didn’t even know if Dugan had friends. Getting to know the men more deeply, just cut you more deeply when they fell. You had to stay a little detached, didn’t you, to survive?
What would they write his own mother, Saunders suddenly wondered, if it had been him caught in that tree burst?
“Tell them,” he said impulsively, “that Eddie wasn’t alone when he died.” Somehow, it seemed important that his family know that. He blinked, and then looked away, staring out the open tent flap, not wanting anyone to read the thoughts in his eyes. A truck pulled up outside. Soldiers leapt to their feet to help unload the wounded. And then they fell back when they saw that the bodies in the truck were already cold and stiff.
Hanley broke into a coughing fit and Saunders’ jerked his head back to offer him a sympathetic look. If there was anything more miserable than a cold, it was a cold when you had a hole in your chest. “Why don’t you rest, Lieutenant?” he said. “You don’t have to write those letters.”
“Yes. I do.”
And Saunders knew he would. Whether it was for the grieving family back home, or solace to ease his own conscience, he wasn’t sure, but he knew Hanley would write those letters. Saunders was glad he didn’t have to.
“A word of advice.” Hanley’s voice was getting weaker, his eyes starting to look unfocused. “Don’t be such a stranger to your men. Especially the new ones. Be patient. Let them …. ” he broke off in another coughing fit.
Saunders frowned. He knew he was tired and hurting; knew his brain felt as thick as that sludge they called coffee. But he sensed that Hanley was trying to tell him something more than those words of advice. He just couldn’t make out what. Was it possible that the lieutenant knew he had just collapsed, there in the cemetery, without even checking to make sure everyone in the squad was safe first?
When had that started happening? When had he given up hoping that everyone would make it back unscathed? When had he started acting like it didn’t matter?
But the lieutenant couldn’t read his mind; couldn’t know what Saunders was feeling. It had to be something else… but what?
Hanley sagged back against the cot. His fingers lacked the strength to hold the pen any longer, and it rolled out of his hand and onto the floor. Doc quietly picked it up and pocketed it.
“Captain Jampel… wants to see you, right away,” Hanley rasped. “We don’t have a single officer left. Every one got hit.” He coughed, and winced again. “He’s going to give you a field promotion to second lieutenant, Saunders. Congratulations.”
Sarge rocked back on his heels. “Whoa! I don’t know about that, sir.” Sending his men off on missions without him. Writing their parents when they didn’t make it back. He wasn’t sure this was an opportunity he wanted to take.
“Saunders. There isn’t anyone else. You don’t really think you have a choice about this, do you?” Hanley’s words were slurred; his eyelids fluttered shut. Doc took the clipboard from his lax hands and laid it on the floor beside him.
“No sir. I guess I don’t,” Saunders said softly.
Hanley had the last word, his voice no more than a whisper. “And get yourself a fresh jacket before you go back.” There was the ghost of a grin. “That blood tends to scare the new guys.”
Saunders ducked his head in a nod. Nothing got past Lieutenant Hanley.
“C’mon,” Doc said, “I’ll show you where the captain has his CP,” and led him out of the tent.
* * * * *
Steiniger listened to the sounds of an artillery barrage off to the north. Peering through the broken window, it looked as though some giant hand had dropped splashes of orange paint on the broad canvas of the lead-gray sky, and then the clouds slowly absorbed the color until the canvas was left bare again. Steiniger knew the 116th Panzers were preparing to face off against the Americans, and his own 89th Infantry Division was there to support them. He still did not understand why the SS officer had ordered this one squad to stay behind in the hamlet of Simonskall.
But Herr Oberst Drache did not seem to like direct questions.
Mueller and Brandt and Ungeheuer had evacuated the handful of civilians who had remained, and the soldiers were now rotating watch over the dirt road that led into the village. Lt. Steiniger and Col. Drache were alone in the one-room schoolhouse; Drache studying his maps in the fire light cast by the wood-burning stove; Steiniger watching the orange fade to the north and rise to the west. The artillery was silent now; the color was the hand of God drawing the curtain on another day. That was what his grandmother used to call sunset. But Steiniger could not share that whimsical thought with the colonel. SS officers renounced all religion.
Drache looked up to see the lieutenant watching him. The young man didn’t look young any more, he thought to himself. Steiniger was 22 but looked twice that age now. Drache had a son the same age. Or he would be 22 - if he hadn’t fallen on the Russian front two years before. Franz Steiniger reminded him of Erik in some ways. Each was tall and slender, wore glasses, and would have chosen an academic career if the war had not intervened. Because of this resemblance, Drache allowed himself to be more tolerant of the lieutenant’s questions than he would have been of any of the enlisted men.
It was perhaps, an out-of-character indulgence.
Drache’s swift rise in Himmler’s favor had not come about because he was soft, or sympathetic. He had first come to the attention of the SS two years before, when he was a member of Reserve Police Battalion 101, assigned to Poland. Drache had distinguished himself in the Judenjagd, the Jew Hunt, where he had tracked down over 100 of the vermin who had tried to hide in the Parczew forest. He had personally executed dozens of them, coldly - man, woman and child - with a single economical bullet to the back of each head.
Actually, he had nothing in particular against the Jews. They were untermenschen, less than human. There was no challenge to hunting them. Since being recruited into the SS, Drache found it more stimulating to be ruthless against his fellow Germans. After all, in this very part of Germany, he had recently captured and interrogated suspected members of the Red Orchestra, the German resistance. He had not proven their guilt, but suspicion was enough to banish them to the KZ - the konzentrationslager. Before that, he had hanged a teenage civilian caught looting a radio during a bomb raid. The colonel had even ordered one Hitler Youth to the firing squad for voicing concern about a German defeat. No one could say Herr Oberst Drache was not vigilant against Germans.
But Herr Leutnant Steiniger had said and done nothing yet to warrant such retaliation. And he did remind the colonel of Erik. No, if Drache was hungry to administer further punishment, he would have to look forward to turning his special talents on the enemy, instead. He looked down at his watch. Soon. Very soon.
* * * * *
Most new officers, especially anyone who wanted to make a good impression on the man who had recommended him for a promotion, wouldn’t contradict that superior on his first briefing. But Saunders wasn’t like most men.
“Captain, pushing through the Huertgen Forest right now is suicide,” he said. “We’ve got to get some air support to take out that Kraut artillery on the Brandenberg-Bernstein ridge first.”
Jampel rubbed the bandage that swathed his head like a Hindu turban. “Saunders, we can’t wait for the weather to break. It could be weeks! Maybe you aren’t aware of the strategic value of this territory. It is imperative that VII Corps break through to the Cologne Plains; get our tanks across the Roer River and onto open ground. Do you realize we are less than 40 miles away from the Rhine?” The captain stabbed a finger at the map in front of him.
“Yes sir, I know….” Saunders stared down that the map. The push was east along the Germeter-Huertgen road. To the south of Germeter lay the villages of Vossenack, Kommerscheidt, Schmidt, connected by a dotted line, and then the Roer dams. “Sir, has Battalion considered the possibility that we could be marching into a trap?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, sir, look there. What if the Germans have set demolitions here at the Schwammenauel Dam? They may be just waiting for us to get half our battalion across the Roer River. Then, they blow the dam. The flooding would take out our men and equipment, worse than their artillery does. And it would cut off the forward companies, east of the river, so they couldn’t pull back. They’d be lost.” Saunders’ finger traced the dotted line that represented what was, at best, a dirt road. “If the Krauts could mass a counter-attack from Schmidt, they could box in any of our troops trapped west of the Roer River too.”
He looked up then, meeting the captain eye-to-eye. “We would be wiped out, sir.”
Jampel didn’t answer for a long moment. He frowned as though his head hurt. Then he nodded. “We need to take Schmidt, to protect the right flank. But we aren’t pushing off till the day after tomorrow – gives us a day to lick our wounds, and hope the skies clear enough to get finally get some air support. You’ve got tomorrow, Lieutenant. Send a recon patrol out to see what we’re walking into.”
The new officer was stunned. It hadn’t occurred to him that he’d be given the responsibility for making sure the division wasn’t walking into disaster. He didn’t want the job. It was force of habit that made him the words leave his lips without thought. “Yes sir. I’ll do it.”
“Not you,” Jampel clarified. “I said send a patrol, not lead a patrol. I can’t risk losing any more officers.”
Saunders swallowed; his mouth felt dry. He didn’t want to go – but even more strongly, he didn’t want to order his men to go in his place. Should he feel relieved that he was spared the risk? But there wasn’t time to dwell on it – Jampel was explaining exactly what he wanted done.
* * * * *
The sky was black when Saunders finally left the command post. He stopped at the Aid Tent, but Lt. Hanley had already been evacuated to the rear. Leaving the tent, he found a vaguely familiar face, pale and freckled, framed by short ginger-colored colicky hair. The boy looked lost. He was one of the trio of newbies in the platoon that had all arrived on the same day last week – the one who’d been assigned to third squad. Not my problem, not my squad, was Saunders’ first reaction. And then he remembered that the entire platoon was his problem now.
“Yes… yes sir?”
“You looking for somebody?”
“Well, for something, anyway.” The boy smiled weakly. “Doc told me to come up here to get this looked at.” He waved a freshly-bandaged left hand a little proudly. “So I did. But I just realized that I left my helmet there somewhere. Actually … ” a look of guilt flashed across his face. “I think I left your helmet there. I lost mine in the barrage this morning, and you gave me yours.” He gestured at the helmet that now hung from the bayonet sheathed on his belt, his third helmet in 24 hours. “I picked up another, but, gee, I’m sorry….” He looked positively miserable.
Saunders remembered then – this was the kid from the tree. He hadn’t thought anything of it at the time, but suddenly, it seemed a dark omen now. That camo helmet had seen Saunders through all those impossible situations that had made him a legend. Indestructible. It was gone now. And if it was pure luck that kept him alive, maybe that was gone now, too.
“Anyway,” the boy was saying, “it’s so danged dark now, I take two steps away from the tent there and I can’t see a thing. I don’t have any idea how to get back to my foxhole.”
Saunders banished his reverie. “Come here,” he said. “What’s your name son?” Son? Sheesh, he was even starting to sound like an officer.
The boy shouldered his weapon and stepped forward. “Private T.J. Thomas, sir. Folks call me Tommy,” he added a little sheepishly. “Everybody except my Mom.”
“I’m your new CO… Lt. Saunders.” It sounded strange. He wasn’t sure he liked it. “You ever hear of military braille … Tommy?”
“Uh… no sir…?”
Saunders took the soldier’s right hand and placed it on the telephone wire that ran along the ground from the command post. Then he picked up the strand and straightened, so that the line was held hip high. “Military braille,” he repeated. “Even when you’re blind, you can feel your way.”
“Wow.” The single word from Tommy resonated with unadulterated hero worship, and Saunders shook his head and turned his back on the recruit, to lead the way. A trek that had taken 15 minutes in daylight took four times that now. The deeper they went into the woods, the more Pvt. Thomas slowed. Soon his teeth began chattering like a Kraut schmeisser.
“You cold, Tommy?” Saunders whispered. Who wasn’t? But a man who couldn’t keep silent when it counted could lead to a lot of good men getting killed.
“No, sir. I…uh…I guess it’s nerves, a bit.”
Even worse. It was bad enough to have a green recruit or two in the squad. Now he had a whole platoon to worry about, and he didn’t have time for molly-coddling. He remembered Hanley preaching patience to him, though, and resisted the impulse to just boot the kid out of his way and leave him behind. It was tempting though. Instead, he reached into a pocket and drew out a pack of gum. “Here.”
Thomas couldn’t see it. Saunders groped forward along the telephone wire, found the boy’s hand, and put the foil wrapped package in his palm. “Chew on some gum,” he told him.
The anxious private did as he was ordered, and the taste of spearmint seemed to soothe his nerves, as well as muffle the chattering teeth. “Thanks, Lieutenant!” He paused. “I – uh – ” his voice dropped to a shameful murmur. “I don’t think I’m cut out for this soldiering business, sir.”
“Oh, kid, none of us are,” Saunders muttered. Once upon a time Sergeant Saunders might have taken a moment for a much-needed pep talk, but Lieutenant Saunders couldn’t remember how. He sensed Tommy stumbling along on his heels like a clumsy puppy and they inched their way forward.
It took nearly an hour before they were back at their line. Tommy was hauled in by a shivering friend who welcomed more body heat in the half-empty dugout. The phone wire led beyond them, to Sgt. Tim MacAllister’s foxhole. Saunders staggered there, briefed MacAllister about the new chain of command, and then collapsed, spent, and slept like the dead.
Like the dead that haunted the Huertgen Forest, lifeless bodies hugging the cold damp earth, whose restless spirits were not at peace.
November 2 1944
West of Vossenack
MacAllister woke when the soldier beside him stirred and crawled out of their damp foxhole. He squinted at his watch. 0700. The sun may have risen, but it was hidden behind a cloud blanket, an infinite expanse of blue-gray, as though the whole planet was wrapped in the wool of the German uniform.
Just what Hitler had in mind, he thought with a shudder.
Saunders reappeared, silent as a ghost. “Gather the platoon – what’s left of it - have them met me at the south cemetery wall at 0730. We’ve got a mission,” he said, and tersely filled the sergeant in.
“Yes, sir!” MacAllister hadn’t served with Saunders long; the lanky Texan had been with a different unit when he’d been wounded in the foot at Melun, just a week before the Allies liberated Paris. That was followed by two months in a hospital in England. He’d been back just a week, re-assigned from the Replacement Depot to K Company. Hanley’s platoon.
Saunders’s platoon now.
It wasn’t a hard mental shift for him to think of the man in front of him as Lt. Saunders. MacAllister lingered, waiting to see if the other man was expecting a salute. But Saunders turned away, checking a stack of short-wave radios. Satisfied, MacAllister scurried out into the dawn, to tell the men about the mission and the new promotion too.
The first foxhole he came to belonged to a pair from first squad. Littlejohn and Nelson. The big man was already awake and working on a small campfire. It seemed to MacAllister that he’d heard Littlejohn was a farmer in Nebraska before the war. Probably used to waking up with the roosters. MacAllister gave him the message, left him to wake up his buddy, and moved on.
Thomas and Dixon shared another man-made ditch. It didn’t matter that they weren’t in the same squad - the platoon has been decimated to the point where squad distinctions no longer mattered. The new guys had gravitated to each other, dug in, and now they were both sound asleep, although how anyone could look so uncomfortable and remain asleep was more than MacAllister could figure out. The two men were lying in a puddle of cold water, and the foxhole was neither long enough nor deep enough to adequately shelter them. I ought to split the new guys up, the sergeant thought, pair them each up with someone a little more experienced. But he knew that would be hard. When they’d come into K company from the Repple-Depple with Harrison, the old-timers had kept to themselves, and hadn’t exactly welcomed them with open arms. They’d nicknamed the newcomers Tom, Dick and Harry - generic names for three more anonymous bodies in GI uniforms. Lumped together, the three teenagers had clung to each other, survived their first battle together, and had already begun that unshakable bond that MacAllister had seen so often develop in combat.
MacAllister squatted beside Thomas and Dixon, shook the nearest shoulder and passed along the order.
He looked for ‘Harry’ next. Harrison was a cocky kid from a prep school in New England, temporarily billeted with platoon medic. MacAllister hadn’t learned the corpsman’s name yet, but no one else seemed to either. Everyone just called him Doc. As the sergeant approached, he stumbled a little on the uneven terrain and hissed as his recently healed ankle objected to the sudden strain. Doc was alert in an instant, even in his sleep sensitive to the sounds of men in pain. The sergeant reassured him that he was fine and told him to wake Harrison and meet at the rendezvous.
Then he paused a moment, counting, and decided there were only two more soldiers left from second platoon - the BAR man and the scout. Their dugout made a statement about their experience in the ETO, suggesting an attitude favoring creature comforts and a willingness to exert a little effort in that quest too. The foxhole was deeper than most, and the base was lined thick with pine boughs. Across half the top, fallen tree limbs were woven together to form a makeshift roof. Someone had pilfered some empty flour sacks from the chow truck and positioned them across the top, where they peeked out underneath an insulating layer of dirt and moss. A German canteen was wedged near the opening, with a bit of charred rope peeking out to reveal that it didn’t carry water any more, and had been turned into a lantern instead.
Be it ever so humble, MacAllister murmured. Too bad it was obviously built by a pair of small guys; he could never scrunch his own six feet four into it, he thought ruefully. He was able to appreciate it in such minute detail at that moment because it was unoccupied.
Mac looked around, and saw one of the missing men coming toward him from what was, he suddenly recalled, the final tour at the night’s scheduled outpost duty. The soldier yawned widely and his BAR hung loosely in one hand. Kirby. MacAllister looked around to discover the other missing soldier - the one who spoke with a slight accent - had already joined Littlejohn and Nelson at the campfire, where he was squatting on his heels and inhaling the aroma that steamed from his tin cup.
Twenty minutes later, they were assembled around Sergeant MacAllister when Saunders strode up, Thompson held in his right hand, helmet with a lieutenant’s bar tucked under his left arm, his fingers wrapped around the straps from three portable radios.
“How’s Hanley?” Kirby’s jaw cracked as he tried to stifle another yawn. “He get hisself a million dollar wound?”
“No, he’ll be back,” Saunders told them.
Billy Nelson leaned forward. “What’s the plan?” he asked. “Battalion’s not gonna try it again, are they?”
“Not today.” Saunders rubbed the back of his neck. “They’re gonna give it a day for the weather to lift and then drop some bombs on those big guns on the ridge first. Soften ‘em up.”
“Hallelujah!” Dixon whispered under his breath, exchanging a relieved smile with Thomas and Harrison.
“So – then – why’d you get us out here at the crack o’dawn?” Kirby griped. He’d been hoping to crawl back to sleep after his turn on sentry duty.
“Because we don’t get a day off,” Saunders said. He spread out a map, and the men clustered around, Kirby still muttering. Littlejohn gave him a good-natured cuff on the side of the head to shut him up. MacAllister peered over Saunders’ shoulder.
“S2 wants to make sure the division isn’t in for any big surprises from the south. So we’ve got a little recon patrol.” Saunders drew his finger down the line to Vossenack. “That’s the village just ahead. South of that is the Kall gorge. We need to find out if the terrain there, the road and bridges, would support tanks and heavy equipment.”
“Ours? Or theirs?” Billy asked.
“Both,” Saunders said. “S2 wants to know whether they’re staging a build-up, and they also want to know if we could stage an offensive ourselves, on the dams, here.” His finger followed the curving line south on the map to the Rurstausee reservoir.
“Item company and the rest of K company are going to follow behind us, take positions just outside Vossenack. But we’ll go on ahead to do a little reconnaissance. We go down the Kall Trail, evaluate the terrain, and set up a base at the sawmill at the bottom of the gorge. We’ll leave a couple men there as a radio relay back to division. The rest cross the river and back up the gorge and push on to Schmidt. You can see there’s a crossroads there.” He looked at Sgt. MacAllister, who nodded.
“I need a squad to check it out, see if the Krauts are using that as a supply route through the Monschau Corridor,” Saunders continued. “Stay in radio contact. If the Krauts aren’t there yet, hold the road junction. While you’re doing that, I want half the men to hightail it over to the reservoir, here. Keep a low profile. Don’t let them know we’re in the neighborhood. Just check out their defenses; see if you can get any sense of what they’re expecting. Any signs of a build-up? Any signs of explosives at the dam?”
“Explosives? You think they’d blow their own dam?” Littlejohn frowned. “Hell, in ’43, the RAF tried bombing their dams, and barely made it back. Why would the Krauts blow it for us?”
“Because this time they could catch us in the floodwaters,” Saunders said simply.
Littlejohn nodded thoughtfully.
“Time is critical here. We’ll drop our packs at the sawmill. It’s a lot of territory but we want a quick strike. In and out. Rendezvous back at the mill before dark.”
MacAllister studied the men around him. In his week back, he’d made some snap judgments about the caliber of men he’d be fighting with; now he would find out how close he was.
* * * * *
Franz Steiniger was a conscientious soldier. He made sure his men had rations to eat, that the night’s watch rotation was fair. Brandl, who was skittish after dark, was assigned the evening shift. Ungeheuer, who was frightened of nothing, stood guard during the blackest hours of night. Mueller, a farmer and a blacksmith before the war, was accustomed to rising before dawn and to him Steiniger assigned the last shift. He knew his men. Satisfied that they understood his expectations in return, he stepped back inside the schoolhouse, the bitter November wind gusting and tossing a flurry of dead leaves in after him. A fallen horse chestnut rolled across the floor and came to a stop beside the desk, while Steiniger latched the door securely shut.
Yes, he thought. The enlisted men knew what to do. But what of his own role in this play? He turned to face his superior. “Herr Oberst,” Steiniger began, patiently. “I have received orders to remain here in Simonskall. As long as you require our services. But my orders do not explain our assignment.”
Drache put down his book. He was seated behind the schoolteacher’s desk; Steiniger faced him, balancing his weight on the lid of a student’s desk in the front row, hands folded on his knees, waiting attentively. Perhaps, Drache thought, he will make a good pupil.
“Why do you believe we will win this war, Herr Leutnant?” he asked.
Steiniger’s eyes flickered with uneasy surprise. He did not answer. He had no answer.
“The Americans outnumber us, significantly,” Drache prompted. “Why do you think we will triumph?”
“Because…” Steiniger’s voice came out shakily and he drew a breath to steady it. Because we must have something to believe in, he thought. War gnaws away at our humanity, deadens our hearts. It threatens to turn us into hungry wolves - vicious - mindlessly following the pack. Hope - that is what we feed those last flickering flames, the tiny fire of humanity deep inside that keeps the wolf at bay. We must believe in something. Even in a hopeless cause.
Such thoughts could lead to a placard and a noose. So they remained unspoken. Instead, he answered carefully, “Because the Fuhrer tells us we will succeed,” Steiniger said, straightening his posture and trying to sound confident. “The Fuhrer is a great military strategist, he knows of matters I can not know. He says Germany is developing a new weapon that will bring our enemies to their knees.”
“Yes. We will see them crawl on their knees.…” the SS officer murmured. Then he looked up at his companion. “We already have the weapon we need,” he said, “and it is no rocket. That weapon is discipline. Our soldiers have been training for this moment all our lives. Look at young Ungeheuer out there,” Drache added, gesturing toward the window where the ex-Hitler youth was standing watch. “He has known nothing but the Nazi regime. He has been a soldier since he was seven years old.” The colonel nodded proudly. “But the Americans. They are soft. They do not have discipline. They do not even want to be here. They want to go home. Yes?”
That is all any of us want, Steiniger thought. He said nothing.
Drache continued enthusiastically, “Himmler is interested in my theories, in exploring the most efficient ways to break the spirits of the Americans. I think, with the right encouragement, the Americans would throw down their weapons and run away, without a thought for their orders, for their comrades. Thinking of nothing but their own safety. Can you picture that, Steiniger?” He rose to his feet, and began to pace behind the desk.
The lieutenant frowned. He had seen brave men, and cowards, on every battlefield. On every side. True, the German army was defending their homeland now, they would fight to the last man to protect their families. But he didn’t think the Americans would so easily panic. “What do you mean, Herr Oberst?” he asked, not for the first time.
“Our objective,” Drache said, turning to face the lieutenant, “is to take some prisoners. And then we will conduct some most scientific experiments. Like experimenting with rats, do you see? We will determine what the most effective methods are to make them turn on their friends; abandon their comrades to save themselves.”
He stopped pacing at the edge of the desk and brought his hob-nailed boot down sharply on the chestnut on the floor. With a loud crack, it burst open, the shell still trapped beneath the officer’s heel. “You see? Everything spills its secrets, if you just apply the right pressure,” Drache said.
* * * * *
Vossenack seemed to be a ghost town of abandoned homes, extending along a narrow strip of road atop a bald ridge, with the steeple of St. Josef’s Church the principle landmark. The dark woods and the Kall trail waited, 200 yards of open ground away.
“What if … what if the Krauts are in those trees? Watchin’ us?” Tommy couldn’t keep the tremor out of his voice. The platoon, barely larger than a squad now, huddled behind the cover of the outermost building, awaiting word to move out.
“We’ll be a lot less conspicuous than the whole division,” Billy said. “That’s why we’re goin’ out ahead of them.”
“Yeah. And we’ll send Caje first. If they don’t shoot at him, then it’ll be safe for the rest of us.” Kirby added.
Caje swatted him amiably. “You wanna go first, pal, you go right ahead.”
Sgt. MacAllister stepped up, shutting off the banter. “Caje, take the point.”
Kirby shook his head ruefully at his foxhole partner. “Sorry – you heard the man. Maybe next time.”
With an exasperated look back, Caje took off across the meadow. Tommy held his breath until the nimble scout disappeared into the trees.
The next man took off at a jog.
“Uh …. What if … what if there isn’t any bridge over the river when we get to the bottom of the gorge?” Dixon stammered.
Kirby snorted. “Now, what good would a trail be if it came to a dead end? The Krauts ain’t that stupid, kid.”
Dixon gave the older man a look. “I know that. But they might have knocked out the bridge themselves, huh?”
“Then our engineers will build a new one,” Littlejohn said calmly.
“So – we’d go back and report that …”
“We don’t go back.” Saunders didn’t lift his head from the map he was checking. “We radio back. and then you cross the river anyway. And continue to Schmidt.”
Fear settled across Dixon’s bookish features. “I’m, uh, not much of a swimmer.”
Kirby tapped Dixon’s helmet. “Worry about that when the time comes. You’re up next kid. Go!”
One by one they darted across the open field and then began their descent, single file, down the Kall Trail. Soon the path dropped sharply into the dark gloom of the forest. At times it seemed barely more than a 6-foot-wide ledge between the shale wall of the gorge on their right, and a steep drop-off on their left. At one point a rocky outcropping jutted across the trail, partially blocking their way and forcing them toward the slippery edge of the muddy trail. When they came to a switchback, Caje held up a fist and the soldiers froze. Saunders trotted up and the two conferred a moment.
Harrison, the man next in line behind Caje, joined them. “Want me to go check it out, Lieutenant?”
Caje stared at the gung-ho replacement, then shifted his gaze to Saunders, who met his look with a sigh. “Harrison – is it?”
“That’s right sir. Private Benjamin Harrison. Like the president. I came here to fight the Germans, sir. We got our butts kicked yesterday and I’d like to get a Kraut in my sights and get some payback!”
“Our mission isn’t to engage the enemy, Private Harrison,” Saunders reminded the soldier, making an effort not to let his impatience show. “This is a recon patrol. No firing unless MacAllister or I give the word. With any luck, there won’t be any firing at all. You got that?”
The boy glared sullenly for a moment, his fingers tightening on the stock of his M1. Then he nodded.
“Tell MacAllister to have the men take five,” Saunders said, and dismissing the boy, he turned back to Caje.
Harrison passed the order along, and while Caje went on ahead, down the hairpin turn and out of sight, the rest of the squad pulled out their canteens and sagged to the ground.
Dixon started to drop down beside Harrison, but his friend was sulking and wouldn’t meet his eyes, so Dixon turned to Kirby for some chatter. “Does Caje always take the point?” he asked. “What is it – he’s got a better sense of direction than everyone else?”
“Hey – I’ve been a cab driver in Chicago – you don’t get any better at not getting lost than that! I could take the point just as well,” Kirby said, easing his BAR strap off his shoulder, “if it weren’t for this here weapon.” He patted the barrel fondly. “Point men run extra risk. And with this ol’ BAR, I’m just too valuable.” He grinned.
“So – “ Dixon glanced sideways at Harrison and then back to Kirby. “I guess I wouldn’t want to be a point man then. I don’t want any extra risk of not getting home.”
“Then you don’t wanna carry the radio either,” Kirby added. “Krauts love to make a target out of them.”
Dixon looked around nervously. Billy was carrying the radio.
“Tell you what,” Kirby added. “I’ll ask the LT to make you my Number Two man. Carry the extra ammo. That oughta make you ALMOST as valuable as me.”
Dixon grinned. He was starting to feel like he might just fit in. He looked around for his fellow replacements. Thompson was sitting at the feet of their lieutenant, but Dixon knew it wasn’t from any desire to be noticed, or in the hope of getting some assignment that would give him a chance to earn medals and impress the folks back home. Not like Harry. Tommy was just a nervous kid, a little in the thrall of hero worship, who clearly felt safer in the circle of their “lucky” leader.
Before their five-minute break was up, Caje had soundlessly returned. “It looks clear all the way down to the river. I could see the mill and an old stone bridge at the foot of the trail.”
With a look from Saunders, MacAllister rose to his feet. “Let’s go check ‘em out,” he said.
* * * * *
The “mill” was actually a cluster of three or four empty buildings. The largest, as big as a dance hall back home, had the date 1667 engraved over the heavy door. A water wheel still turned outside one of the smaller buildings. A two-man search of each building revealed that they’d been deserted for a while.
Saunders set up an outpost in the second floor of the main building, where windows on each side of the room gave a view of the trail on both the north and south sides of the gorge.
“Two men stay here,” he said. “The rest head up the trail to Schmidt. If it’s not occupied, half the patrol hold that position at the crossroads and the others check out the dam as quickly and quietly as you can. Radio the team at Schmidt – they’ll relay it back to me. Then, re-group at Schmidt and be back here at the mill before dark. Unless there’s a change of plans, the rest of the company will catch up with us here tomorrow.”
For a moment there was silence. Who was going where? More important, who was staying? No-one spoke the question but it was on everyone’s mind.
MacAllister glanced at Saunders, deferring to his superior. Saunders’ eyes swept the veterans from his original squad first. Man for man they met his silent query with a look that conveyed a sense of resignation, but also faith in their leader. They were ready.
But the replacements?
Dixon was looking at the ground, eyes closed, lips moving as if in a silent prayer to find the strength and courage to face his first real test and to not let anyone down. Tommy returned the Saunders’s appraising look with a fresh-scrubbed face that gleamed with confidence in his lieutenant. With Saunders in charge, everything was going to turn out all right. Damn him, Saunders thought. He was acting just like the kid brother who used to tag along after him … and he couldn’t afford to look at Tommy and be reminded of that. Saunders turned to Harrison, and found the lanky young GI fairly quivering with excitement, bordering on bloodlust. Saunders had seen that before and it usually ended badly.
“Harrison stays here at the mill with me.” Before Harry could sputter a protest, Saunders ticked off the names of the men who were the fastest in the squad. “Caje, Kirby, Doc,” he paused, sized up the rest of the men and added, “and Dixon, will check out the dams. MacAllister, Billy, Littlejohn and Thompson hold the crossroads outside Schmidt.”
MacAllister noticed the veterans exchanging puzzled looks. It wasn’t like Saunders to send his men off into something dangerous ahead of him. But he also knew Jampel had ordered Saunders to stay with the OP. And he knew from the look on Saunders’s face when he told MacAllister that, that he wasn’t happy about it.
* * * * *
Less than two miles away, Colonel Josef Drache was concluding his own mission briefing. “Time for a little hunting party,” he said, smiling. “Move out!”
* * * * *
Dixon held his breath. It was deathly quiet, until the sound of Tommy unwrapping a stick of gum made him jump.
Ahead of them on the trail, Kirby was on his hands and knees, scouring the mud for more mines, like the one that MacAllister had seen that had prompted the halt. Mac sent Caje off into the woods to see if there was a smaller trail that would take them up to the main road that fed Schmidt; and the rest hunkered down in nervous silence to watch Kirby.
Kirby came back, sweat dripping off his brow. He hated being the one sent to look for mines. He knew he was good at it, but it wasn’t fair to be punished for being good at something! Then again, Caje was good at scouting, and as a reward, he usually got picked to take the point, equally dangerous. Doc was good at fixing up the wounded, so he got to run out into open fire all the time. It just didn’t pay to be in the army, he sighed. The best soldiers always got the worst assignments.
“Yep – they’re gonna need the engineers up here,” he told MacAllister. “They’ve laid a bunch of mines along this stretch. Anti-tank mines.”
“There’s no way we’re gonna get tanks up this narrow track,” Billy said. “So what’s the point of mining it?”
“Maybe they’re not meant to stop tanks,” Littlejohn said. “Maybe they put them here to stop wild boars from attacking them.” He grinned amiably.
“A bore – like you?” Kirby asked, sitting on the ground beside him and giving him an elbow in the ribs.
“Wild boar, Kirby,” MacAllister said, gesturing to Billy to hand him the radio. “Like huge furry hogs, bigger than you, and with tusks as long as your arm. They roam in these forests – there’s good hunting around here. That’s why there’s a forester’s lodge on the map. For the game keeper.”
Caje jogged up then, and overheard the end of the discussion. “I found the lodge. Looks deserted. There’s a trail runs parallel to this one a couple hundred yards west. The trail looks like it leads to the main road from Monschau to Schmidt.”
“We’ll take that then,” Mac said. “Leave these mines to the engineers.” He reported the update to Saunders and then signaled the men to move out. Tommy gulped, accidentally swallowing his gum. Dixon gave him a nervous smile and they followed the rest of the squad into the woods.
* * * * *
Saunders tried willing the second hand on his watch to stop, but to no avail. Time crept on.
He had already radioed Capt. Jampel about the state of the Kall Trail. It was narrow, uneven, crumbling, and full of muddy switchbacks that could send a tank sliding off into a ravine. The hillside that lined the west side of the trail was studded with rock outcroppings that would have to be blown off before tanks could pass. Even the mobile little weasels would be blocked.
But at the bottom of the Kall gorge, he’d reported, the stone bridge still spanned the river near the mill. If they could get a company of engineers to clear a way, they could get the heavy stuff across the Kall River. Then they’d need to clear the mines before they could get up the other side, to Schmidt.
But was Schmidt already occupied by the Germans?
If only they’d had aerial reconnaissance to report if there had been any enemy movement in that
sector. But then, if planes could have flown, he wouldn’t have gotten this recon assignment. He wouldn’t have had to send his men out without him to check.
And now – nothing.
No contact from MacAllister, in Schmidt. Or from the soldiers who’d plunged even deeper into German territory on his orders.
Saunders looked at his watch again and frowned. There was ‘late’ and there was ‘missing in action’, and his squad - no, make that MacAllister’s squad - had passed ‘late’ hours ago.
His men were out there – alone. Lost.
And he’d been ordered to stay behind.
* * * * *