THE BOND OF HONOR
Based on the Combat! episode “The Eyes of the Hunter” written by Esther and Bob Mitchell
Story Copyright 2000 by Terry Pierce
A Customized Challenge Story and Alternative Scene
Note: What follows was inspired by the Armed Forces’ Code of Conduct signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on August 17, 1955. While the code is quoted in the story, it (obviously) didn’t yet exist in written form at the time of World War II.
"Well, you know what I think, P-F-C Paul LeMay?" Vogel taunted as he put his hands on his knees and leaned forward to make sure he had his uncooperative prisoner’s full attention. "I think you were foolish enough to want to get too close a look. Now you look around. Is this close enough for you?"
Billy’s eyes shifted to the man beside him. Caje was rigid with anger, his features mirroring the raw hatred on the face of the German. Somewhere over the course of the last hour, these two men had begun a private battle of wills that it was obvious neither intended to lose. Caje wouldn't compromise his integrity, and Sergeant Vogel wouldn't be defeated in front of his lieutenant. The atmosphere in the room crackled with their hostility, and Billy flinched when Vogel abruptly straightened up.
Something bad was going to happen. Billy just knew it. He watched Vogel talk to the German commander and then walk to the bunker’s entrance. Vogel called in another man, a burly corporal he addressed as Mehler. As Mehler received orders, Billy watched him pull out a bayonet and affix it to his rifle.
Billy’s anxiety increased, and he stole another look at his squad mate. Caje appeared to be studying his hands, but sensing Billy’s attention, he turned toward him. Despite the tension lining the scout's face, Caje offered an encouraging smile along with a careless shrug of his shoulders. Billy knew it was meant to reassure him that whatever was about to happen, they would get through it together.
It had been like that since they’d been captured. Caje had taken on a relaxed and casual attitude designed to put him at ease – not to mention, to annoy their captors – and Billy had responded by following suit. But carrying on with that pose wasn’t going to be easy. Caje was in his twenties and knew how to deal with trouble. He wasn’t easily rattled. Billy, on the other hand, didn’t consider himself to be much more than a kid, an inexperienced teenager outfitted in fatigues. How was he supposed to cope with this?
Vogel approached again, and standing in front of Caje, he barked commands at Gerste and Fruehauf, two other guards present. They hustled forward, Gerste immediately jabbing his rifle at Caje. Caje reacted with irritation, frowning and pulling away, but uncrossed his legs and stood as the sergeant growled, "On your feet."
Billy climbed off the crate serving him as a seat and watched nervously as the guards began herding Caje away from him to stand with his back to one of the bunker’s stone walls. Caje raised his arms to ward off their poking and prodding but otherwise offered no resistance. When Caje was in place, Mehler retrieved a chair from a nearby table and placed it in front of the wall, facing the scout. Caje looked confused and angry but remained still as Gerste and Fruehauf held him at bay.
Vogel turned to Billy and, with a sweep of his arm, directed him toward the chair. Billy swallowed and got moving as he noticed Mehler coming around to collect him. Vogel waited until Billy was seated, then took a position a few feet away. Folding his arms across his chest, Vogel cleared his throat and began to speak.
"Gentlemen, I’m afraid your lack of cooperation today is going to make it necessary to become more firm with you. Since you seem to lack sufficient motivation to answer my questions, I’ll provide you with some. Granted, it might not be pleasant, but it will be effective. And since we’ve already wasted enough time, we’ll get started."
Billy stiffened, licked his lips, and broke into a cold sweat. So finally, the Krauts were going to get rough. It wasn’t a surprise, really. He’d heard about the things they did to prisoners sometimes. And it was only natural they’d pick him to be worked on first. He was obviously the younger and less experienced man the Krauts had grabbed. They’d figure he would have the harder time taking whatever-it-was they were going to dish up – and that he’d talk.
The question was, would he? Billy didn’t think so, but he’d never been through anything like this. What if he couldn’t handle it?
And Caje. What would happen to him? If he were forced to watch, it would tear him up. The guy might even lose it and try to intervene. But if he did, he’d only get himself killed before Sarge and the rest of the squad could pull off a rescue – that is, if they were even still around. Billy’s pulse picked up. What if they weren’t? How were he and Caje going to get through this?
"Now I realize that you," Vogel directed this to Caje, "are a hardened veteran and would undoubtedly view unnecessary suffering as some kind of…" he raised a hand to bat carelessly at the air as though shooing away a bothersome insect, "…imagined requirement of one’s military duty."
Caje’s eyes flamed at the sergeant’s casual dismissal.
"But you…" Vogel turned his attention to Billy and hunkered down to get on eye level with him, "…you are still a thinking, feeling human being. One who understands that people come before flags and glory.”
Billy was mesmerized by the German, much as a frightened bird would be, staring hypnotically into the eyes of a beguiling snake.
"If you were able to save a comrade from pointless suffering – perhaps even death – you would do so without hesitation, knowing that that’s the more honorable obligation of a man."
"No!" Caje’s voice suddenly rang out. "Billy…"
"Silence!" Vogel shouted.
Gerste rammed the muzzle of his rifle into Caje’s throat, pushing him backward. Caje gagged, his eyes wide with pain and surprise, his hands instantly at his neck to dislodge the weapon. Gerste jerked it away, and Caje collapsed forward in a violent fit of coughing.
Fruehauf quickly shouldered his rifle and grabbed Caje by his jacket. Yanking him up, Fruehauf spun him around and threw him against the wall. Caje sagged, and the German clamped a hand on the back of the scout’s neck to hold him in place on the stone. Gerste stepped forward to wrench Caje’s coat off his shoulders and down his arms, then tossed it to the side of the room. Caje was pulled back around and left to stand, dazed and bleeding. The guards moved a short distance away to get rid of their weapons.
Billy stared at Caje, horrified. Already a darkening patch of skin could be seen through the open collar of the soldier’s shirt, the angry red mark steadily expanding even as Billy watched. Understanding what the Krauts were going to do now, Billy was afraid.
He was afraid for Caje.
"Your friend is in trouble," Vogel calmly resumed his talk, "because of his stubbornness and pride. He seems unable to grasp that we’re not playing games. But perhaps you know better?"
Filled with dread, Billy turned toward the German.
"You must realize that your comrade is in serious danger." Vogel momentarily shifted his eyes to Mehler before smiling kindly and offering, "But you can protect him from further harm if you’ll simply tell me what unit you men are with."
Billy swallowed again and sat mutely. Even if he’d wanted to answer the sergeant’s question, he didn’t think he could. His mouth was so dry he doubted any sound would come out. Not that he could give the Kraut any information anyway. He couldn’t! It would go against everything he’d been taught, everything he believed in, everything he knew to be right.
But if he didn’t say something, he’d be responsible for letting these guys take Caje apart. And how could he do that? He’d wind up with Caje’s blood on his hands. Unconsciously wiping his sweaty palms on his pants, Billy fretted over what to do and remained silent.
Vogel sighed. "Very well, Private Nelson. We will proceed." He stood up and signaled his men.
Billy could hardly breathe. He didn’t want to look at the wall, but he couldn’t keep his eyes from it. And he decided this was worse than anything he’d imagined might happen. Where were Sarge and the rest of the guys?
Caje still seemed shaken but watched warily as Fruehauf and Gerste advanced. They moved cautiously, as though approaching a dangerous animal, and Caje’s eyes darted back and forth between the two men. He tensed, the muscles lining his neck and overlaying his jaw rigid beneath pale skin now glistening with sweat. As Billy watched, Caje brought up his hands and hunched forward in a fighter’s stance.
Billy couldn’t believe it. Caje was going to resist? He’d be shot!
Fruehauf made a grab for the scout. Caje lashed out with a sudden right hook. Fruehauf spun away, reeling, just as Gerste pounced. Staggering under Gerste’s weight, Caje swung up his arm and slammed his elbow into the guard’s jaw. Gerste grunted, his legs buckling, as he clawed to get an arm around Caje’s neck. Caje twisted and ducked sideways in an attempt to throw him off. Shouting for help, Gerste hung on for dear life. Caje latched onto Gerste’s arm, flipped him over his shoulder, and flung him off his back.
Fruehauf, bleeding from his nose, dove for Caje’s middle. Caje crashed into the wall but threw out his arms to catch himself. Fruehauf reared back, feinted to the side, and grabbed for Caje’s left wrist. Caje swung it out of reach, then thrust his hands forward to clamp them around Fruehauf’s neck. Surprised, Fruehauf found himself fighting for his life as Caje tightened his chokehold.
Alarmed, Mehler raised his rifle. Billy’s heart leaped into his throat and he nearly came out of his chair, but a hand slammed into his shoulder, pushing him down again. Vogel shouted, "Nein! Schiessen Sie nicht! Benutzen Ihr Bajonett!"
Mehler lunged forward and rammed the bayonet attached to his weapon into Caje’s right leg. Caje stiffened instantly, his face registering shock, his body paralyzed by pain. Fruehauf took advantage of the moment to wrench himself loose. Sputtering for air, he seized Caje’s left arm and slammed it into the wall. With his free hand Caje suddenly clawed for the bayonet, but Mehler drove the blade in deeper. Caje cried out and jerked his head to the side, his face chalky, his eyes wild. Battling to breathe, he was pinned in place by the knife in his thigh.
Billy turned away, repulsed.
Gerste climbed to his feet, and Vogel barked at him to keep watch over Billy. Furious, Vogel strode toward the wall. He shouldered his way in between Mehler and Fruehauf and struck Caje.
Caje groaned and Vogel snapped, "Very clever, Paul LeMay. And how noble to try for a swift execution to spare your friend the ordeal of watching what happens to you. But he can avoid that by his cooperation, not by you forcing my hand."
Billy was stunned. Caje had wanted to be killed? To protect him? Directing his eyes to the scout, Billy read the truth of the German’s words in Caje’s face and felt panicky. It was bad enough he had to sit by and do nothing while this was going on, but to know Caje had almost gotten himself killed on purpose was too much.
Vogel’s voice rose. "So I’m warning you now that if you offer any further resistance to my men – any! – I’ll have the two of you exchange places. Immediately! Do you understand me?"
Sickened, Caje looked away.
Vogel kicked Caje’s leg, still impaled on the bayonet, and shouted, "I said do you understand?"
"Yes," Caje gasped in anguish.
Vogel smiled coldly. "Well, you can answer a question. Perhaps with a bit more of such coaxing you’d be willing to talk?"
Caje’s face was drawn, but his eyes narrowed at the sergeant’s words. “Enough...to tell you…you’re a son of a bitch."
Vogel’s smile froze. He stared at Caje, whose ragged breathing had belied his apparent capacity for defiance, then shook his head. Stepping back, Vogel spoke to Mehler. Mehler nodded, braced himself, and yanked the bayonet free from Caje’s leg.
Caje arched backward, his cry of pain sending shivers up and down Billy’s spine. Fruehauf pushed forward to secure Caje in place on the wall until the scout’s muscle spasms subsided. Blood, which had been seeping into the material of Caje’s pants surrounding the knife, now spilled freely down his thigh, soaking his fatigues to the knee. Billy feared that if something weren’t done to staunch the flow, Caje would bleed to death.
Vogel also noted the blood loss. Turning to Gerste, he told him to take care of the problem. Gerste affirmed the order and made his way across the room. Vogel resumed his place at Billy’s side.
Caje appeared apprehensive at Gerste’s approach, but he didn't move, having been told what would happen otherwise. Fruehauf shifted sideways to give Gerste access to Caje’s waist. Caje tensed as Gerste reached for the belt there, then he looked away while the German fumbled with its clasp. Billy could see Caje’s distress at being subjected to this, and his own face flushed with anger.
When Gerste finally got the belt unfastened, he jerked it off Caje and knelt to pull it around his thigh. Caje clenched his teeth as the strap was positioned a few inches above his wound. He groaned as Gerste grasped him by the knee and yanked the belt back and forth to tighten it down. By the time the makeshift tourniquet was secured in place, Caje was trembling and drenched in sweat.
Gerste stood and wiped his bloody hands on Caje’s shirt. He took hold of Caje’s right arm and stretched it out along the wall to match Fruehauf’s hold on Caje’s left. Caje shifted awkwardly to balance his weight on his good leg and fought not to react as Mehler came toward him once more.
Billy’s stomach flopped.
"Private Nelson," Vogel began again. "Surely you don’t wish to see your friend die this way. This is really all so unnecessary. Simply answer my questions and he’ll be spared. Why were you men sent into this area?"
Billy squirmed in his chair, trapped and tormented over whether to preserve honor or Caje’s life. How to choose between the two was simply beyond him. Confused and frightened, he hugged his elbows to himself and said nothing.
Impatient, Vogel spoke to his men. Caje’s breathing became more and more erratic as the guards pulled his arms taut and Mehler stepped closer. Mehler raised his weapon so that the butt of the rifle faced forward. Looking to his superior, he waited for a signal.
"Well?" Vogel queried. "Your answer, Private?"
Billy bit his lip, looked into Caje’s eyes, and remained quiet.
Vogel nodded, and Mehler slammed the rifle butt into Caje’s upper left arm. Caje recoiled in pain, twisting sideways while his handlers fought to hold on. Mehler raised his weapon to deliver a second blow, and sickened, Billy dropped his gaze into his lap.
"I can stop this right now, Private Nelson. Surely you wouldn’t turn your back on your comrade at such a time as this."
Billy’s eyes blurred with tears as he stared at his hands. They were shaking uncontrollably, and he thrust them between his legs in shame. Some soldier he’d turned out to be. Not only was he cracking up, but he was doing it in front of the Kraut. Desperate to regain control of himself, as well as to shut out the sounds of Caje being brutalized, Billy struggled to focus on the code of conduct he’d learned in basic.
I am an American fighting man. I serve in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.
"I want to know if you men are with the 361st Infantry Division."
I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender my men while they still have the means to resist.
"Surely that’s a simple enough question for you to answer for the sake of your comrade, is it not?"
If I am captured, I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will never accept parole nor special favors from the enemy.
"If you do answer, your friend will be released and receive immediate medical attention. And it would appear that he’s in some need of it."
If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information nor take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.
"Of course, if you don’t identify your unit and explain what the two of you are doing here, it’s likely he’ll not survive the evening."
When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am bound only to give name, rank, service number and date of birth. I will avoid answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.
“So what will you do?”
I will never forget that I am an American fighting man, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and the United States of America.
By now Caje had become quiet, and worried by that, Billy dared to see what was happening to him. Caje was slumped against the wall, his chest heaving, his eyes glazed and unfocused. Gerste still had a hold on him, but Fruehauf had moved a few feet away. Billy hoped Caje would pass out and grieved at the sight of the soldier’s left arm.
Vogel became angry. "You have no compassion for your friend?"
Billy had no response. In despair, he only wondered how he had gone from working a detail to sitting in hell.
"I pity him then," Vogel snapped. He looked to his men and barked an order in his own language.
Fruehauf stepped up to grasp Caje by the left shoulder. Gerste forced Caje’s right arm out straighter. Caje blanched and, moaning, attempted to pull his arm back in. The guards jerked him into position, incapacitating him with pain. Mehler closed in to deliver another blow, and Caje, stretched over the wall, resumed writhing.
"One must wonder how much damage your comrade can suffer before he’s no longer worth saving," Vogel commented. "Much like the horses used in the service of our army, it may become more expedient to dispatch him."
Mehler lifted his weapon for another strike.
Billy could bear this no longer. "Caje…"
Immediately calling off Mehler, Vogel leaned forward. "You need only to answer my questions to save his life."
"Billy," Caje gasped from the other side of the room, "it’s…all right."
Startled, Vogel turned toward the wall. "Well, now," he said after a moment, a satisfied smile spreading across his face. "It would seem your friend has finally come to his senses. At last he realizes a man can only be expected to endure so much." The sergeant turned back to Billy. "After all, one’s life is precious. Even in war, patriotic duty has its limits."
"My death," Caje interrupted, his voice hitching with every breath, "is all right." He looked into Billy’s eyes, conveying what he’d already chosen, what he wanted, what he was asking for in spite of the price he would pay. "It is right."
Billy stared at him and finally remembered what Caje had intimated earlier – that whatever was about to happen, the two of them would get through it together. Together. It had been Caje’s expectation then; it became Billy’s resolution now. Caje would die – Billy would allow him that – but the two of them would remain soldiers, brothers-in-arms, fighting the enemy. It was how they’d started the mission and how they would end it.
By now realizing he had misunderstood Caje’s declaration, Vogel bellowed, "Enough!" Glaring at Billy, he thundered, "You will answer my questions, Private!"
Billy straightened up and folded his hands in his lap. Still looking at Caje, he answered, "My name is William Nelson, Private." His voice was clear and steady. "My serial number is 4375436.”
Caje smiled and closed his eyes.
Vogel stared at the boy in front of him, unable to comprehend what he’d just heard, what the Americans intended, what he now knew would be the outcome of this interrogation. No one in the room moved or said anything. Reddening in fury, Vogel snatched the sidearm from the belt at his waist and, bounding forward, thrust the gun into Caje’s face.
Billy closed his eyes and held his breath.
Startled, Vogel jerked around at the sound of the lieutenant’s voice. “Ja, Herr Leutnant?"
The lieutenant spoke quietly – and unexpectedly – in English. "The soldiers under my command will contend with defeat at the hands of superior forces in an honorable manner. To do otherwise is detestable and a disgrace to the uniform. You will return to your duty."
Vogel looked as if he’d been struck.
"Feldwebel," the lieutenant’s voice was firm, "your duty."
"Ja, Herr Leutnant." Vogel immediately holstered the pistol. His face remained flushed but became devoid of all expression as he turned away from Caje and moved stiffly to the other side of the room. Resuming his place at his desk, he buried himself in radio transmissions.
Caje and Billy, each drawing in a shaky breath, exchanged relieved looks.
Speaking in German now, the lieutenant issued orders to the other soldiers present. Mehler crossed the room and disappeared outside. Gerste and Fruehauf went into action gathering rifles, several lengths of rope, and their captives. The lieutenant watched them for another moment, then returned to his work.
Billy was prodded from his chair and toward a darkened passageway leading deeper into the bunker. Nearing Caje, he saw the battered soldier pulled from the wall and forced to follow him. Caje was limping badly and had to struggle to keep up. When he reached the tunnel’s entrance, he stumbled and Gerste shoved him forward. Caje collided with Billy and, gasping at the pain tearing through his arm and leg, nearly fell. Billy managed to catch him in time to prevent it and helped him the rest of the way through the passage.
They entered a cramped chamber that seemed little more than a juncture leading into another tunnel. Fruehauf reached for Billy and forced him to the floor. Billy stiffened in resistance but wound up sitting against the chamber’s rear wall.
Fruehauf brandished his rifle, motioning at Caje to get down. Gerste, carrying the rope, knelt off to the side. Caje awkwardly began lowering himself, but impatient, Gerste pulled the wounded man’s left leg out from under him. Caje fell against the wall and slid to the floor. In complete misery, he couldn't suppress his moans as his ankles were lashed together and his wrists bound.
"Hey, he can’t go anywhere,” Billy protested. “Why are you doing that to him?"
He was rewarded for his concern by being ignored.
Gerste finished tying Caje and moved on to Billy. Grasping Billy’s ankles, he wrapped a short length of rope around them. Bringing up the end of the rope, he looped it over Billy’s wrists several times, then knotted it in place. Gerste got to his feet and nodded at Fruehauf. Both guards exited the chamber, finally leaving the prisoners alone.
Billy glared after them before turning his attention to Caje. Caje was leaning against the wall, his eyes closed, his left shoulder held lower than his right to relieve the pressure the bonds were putting on his broken arm. Blood still oozed from the wound in his leg, and Billy wondered if the Krauts were going to supply a medic and, hopefully, some morphine soon. Caje needed both.
Almost as though knowing Billy’s thoughts, Caje spoke. "Hey, kid. You figure they went to get Doc?" His voice sounded strained and uneven, matching the quality of his breathing. He paused as he was wracked by more muscle spasms, then managing something like a laugh, he added, “Well, let’s hope not…for Doc’s sake.”
Billy didn’t know what to say. Caje was in such bad shape it hardly seemed possible he’d be trying to take the edge off what had happened to put somebody else at ease, but that was exactly what he was doing. And considering how he’d let Caje suffer, Billy couldn’t bear it.
"Billy? You okay?"
Overcome by emotion, Billy blurted, "Caje, I’m really sorry."
"Sorry?" Caje shifted himself carefully to see the younger man. "What for?"
"For what they did to you. And…I don’t know," Billy groped for words, "for just sitting there and doing nothing. I couldn’t help you."
"Help me? Are you kidding?" Caje seemed genuinely surprised. "You saved my life."
"Gosh, I didn’t do that!" Now it was Billy who was surprised. "If it hadn’t been for that Kraut lieutenant…"
"Yeah," Caje murmured, "and the lieutenant." A faint smile appeared at his lips, and closing his eyes, he leaned against the wall again. "But don’t…sell yourself short, Billy. If he hadn’t seen you…that you…" Caje mumbled something else Billy couldn’t quite make out, then he seemed to relax, his head tipping forward as his body slumped sideways.
Billy grabbed for him and managed to latch onto the unconscious man’s shirt. Caje was heavy and hard to hold on to, but Billy was determined not to let him fall. He hauled the scout back in toward himself and propped him up with a shoulder. Then as Caje settled into Billy’s side, Billy leaned into him to provide more support. It wasn’t a big thing to do, but it was something.
And Billy was glad for it.