Based on the ABC Television Series: Combat!
Story Copyright 2004 by Terry Pierce
The German artillery began firing again, thunderclaps of explosions once more jolting Clervaux awake.
Saunders listened to the shells cutting through the gray anvil of sky above him and strained to see anything off to his left in the murky atmosphere. The morning mist swaddled him, swirled around his legs, swallowed his tracks. The air was so heavy with vapor that, gasping for breath, Saunders had the brief notion he’d drown. He looked forward again, wondering if he’d ever spot anything he’d seen on the German map, and flinched when a specter suddenly loomed in front of him.
Startled, Saunders nearly shot it.
But it wasn’t a ghost, he realized, his heart quivering in his chest. It was an angel. Or a statue of one.
He lowered the submachine gun and discovered he’d blundered into some kind of burial plot. The angel stood marbled in ice, hollow-eyed, alabaster tears on its cheeks, its left hand clasping its breast, its right pointing an icicled finger down. Saunders did its bidding, dropping his gaze to the pedestal inscribed in French underneath it and the scattering of snow-covered tombstones spread around its base. More markers lay nearby, roughly circling a gnarled oak spreading a halo of skeletal branches over the angel’s white-mantled head.
Saunders ran a shaky hand over his day’s growth of beard. He must’ve finally reached the cemetery southeast of Reuler. The ground had begun to even out a little ways back because he had made it to the top of the ridge.
The question was where were Kirby and Caje?
Saunders squinted into the creamy fog, wondering what was keeping them. He didn’t want to go on to Reuler until they regrouped. But if they took much longer, he’d miss the chance to collect Doc and Lawson before the Krauts attacked the village.
Saunders glanced around the graveyard again, his eyes sweeping over the lamenting angel before falling back to the half-buried tombstones. He hesitated, uncertain about what to do next. Should he go back for his men? Or stay put and wait for them here? He brushed snow off a few of the monuments’ faces and, stealing a moment to rub his lower back and think, read inscriptions.
Names and dates. Epitaphs in French. All that was left of the dead.
Unbidden images suddenly assaulted his mind. A dying man gasping out his last breath. Charred bodies filling gutted trucks. Torn pieces of corpses strewn about shattered woods. Severed arms and stumps of legs, mangled torsos without heads. Strips of blackened flesh and scorched uniforms blown into trees. Rows upon rows of soldiers lying silent, shoulder to shoulder, lining a long bloody road to Germany.
The Secretary of War
desires me to express his deep regret that your son was killed in action in
McCall had a mother and father and two sisters in Des Moines. A girl he’d talked about too. He’d said he was going to marry her, and maybe even raise a couple kids. Jack and Jill, he’d said he’d name them and laughed. And he’d told everyone he’d run a print shop, put away savings, and retire young. So he could do some traveling. But not overseas. No, no more places with foreigners who spoke cockamamie languages for him. He wanted to see the States. The good ol’ US of A. Where regular folk lived and knew how to speak English.
Littlejohn had asked McCall to come visit him. At his parents’ farm tucked in one of the prettiest corners of his home state. A spread where apple orchards blossomed in sun-kissed springs. Fields of soybeans stretched on for acres, all katydid green. Corn grew tall and stately by late summer, in time for ears of it to be picked, roasted, buttered, and served at his Grandpa’s annual harvest festival. And you want to talk about regular folk? There weren’t any finer than his relatives, friends, and neighbors, who all attended Grandpa’s big hoedown. And his sweetheart would be there too. Not that Irene Peyton belonged to him yet, but she would, sure as crickets sing. He’d make certain of that. Court her right and proper. That is, once he got up the nerve to call on her. When the war was over and he got back home…
Saunders felt for the angel’s pedestal. Blinking rapidly, he let it support his weight. This was the wrong time for this…the wrong place. He was in Luxembourg and had a war to fight. A war to…
Keep it together, suck it up. Push on and not crap out on the rest of the men.
His vision blurring, his throat squeezing shut, Saunders ran his gloved fingers over the pedestal’s inscription. Reposez en Paix. Then as the angel wept over him and howitzers roared in the distance, he let his Thompson dangle, forgotten, and grieved for his men.
Three thoughts ran through Caje’s mind.
It’s a good thing the sarge isn’t here.
Kirby’s got the Luger…and he’ll get shot for it.
Frozen, he watched as more Germans stepped out from behind trees. Two, four, five more joined the first, a clean shaven, thick-lipped sergeant pointing a 98k rifle equipped with a power telescopic sight at Kirby’s chest. Clad in white padded winter suits, their helmets covered by the hoods fastened at their necks, all the Germans carried the same scoped rifles. And considering they were snipers, they had to be on their way up to the heights.
Caje’s mind raced as he tried to come up with a way to retrieve the Luger. Chances were slim he’d manage it. The sergeant had switched his gaze to him now, no doubt sizing up the bulkiness of his coat. And since it looked like…
Caje realized this was his chance.
“Don’t shoot,” he blurted in French, hoping that one of the Germans spoke the language and that none would notice the lone set of tracks continuing up the slope at their backs. “I’m wounded and bandaged, and that’s why my friend here,” he tilted his head to signify he meant Kirby, “is carrying my bag and bandoliers. We were trying to find an aid station when we got lost on this hill.”
The sergeant’s eyes narrowed, but he looked over his shoulder at a hawkish corporal wearing a toque under his hood and helmet, and sporting a purple bruise on his chin. The corporal stepped up to speak, and Caje waited, his legs rubbery. Sure enough, the sergeant seemed to reappraise Kirby – the juxtaposition of the BAR he carried and the bandoliers holding enbloc clips necklacing his chest – and he spoke to the corporal.
In French, the corporal translated. “For a man seeking medical attention, you have a great deal of ammunition.”
Caje frowned, sweat pooling in the small of his back. “I’m still a soldier.”
The corporal relayed the response to the sergeant who grunted and scrutinized Caje’s darkly shadowed eyes, bruised face, chapped lips, stubbled chin, stitched-up cheek, grimy, bloodstained battle dress, and the M1 he carried slung forward, cradled against his chest. The sergeant grunted again and, raising his own rifle higher, made a reply.
The corporal said, “You’re a prisoner now. You and your comrade put your rifles down – slowly – and get your hands up.”
Caje took a deep breath. Maybe his plan would work. Wondering how long it would be before the sergeant pressed the Luger into his skull, he fought off an urge to empty a clip into him and cautiously began lowering the Garand. “Kirby,” he said, easing the M1 onto the ground and then lifting his arms, “I’m taking care of the gun I gave you. Get rid of the grenades and your BAR, easy, and raise your hands.”
“Tell ‘em they can kiss my…”
“Kirby, do what I said!”
Kirby scowled but let the musette bag drop. He yanked up the BAR’s sling and pulled the rifle off, over his head. Hurling it at the sergeant’s feet, he raised his hands and thrust out his jaw.
Acid churned in Caje’s empty stomach. Kirby would get himself killed even if the Krauts did believe the Luger wasn’t his. But hoping that wouldn’t happen, Caje addressed the Germans again.
“My partner’s also got a pistol that’s mine. I asked him to carry it for me after I…found it the woods last night.” He knew the lie was stupid, but what else could he say? That he’d copped it off a murdering Kraut captain he’d shot point blank in the face?
Caje watched as the corporal translated for the sergeant now glaring at Kirby. The sergeant interrupted to bark an order at another soldier. This one – acne-scarred, swarthy, his nose obviously once broken – jawohled and shouldered his rifle. Slip-sliding forward, he advanced on Caje.
Surprised, Caje tried to clarify, “No, my pistol’s…”
The sergeant shouted and the corporal echoed him. “Merde de taureau!”
Caje stopped speaking as the swarthy soldier stepped up and grabbed for his helmet, bandolier, and cartridge belt. The German pulled them off and dropped them into the snow. He thrust meaty hands into Caje’s coat pockets, helped himself to two sticks of gum and a fruit bar left over from Caje’s K-ration, and yanked open the coat. Tugging on Saunders’ scarf, the German grinned as he noticed Caje pressing his lips together, obviously in pain. Caje looked away, his eyes narrowing, and the German, realizing the scarf was tied in place, ran his hands beneath it and over Caje’s shirts. He found Littlejohn’s dog tag, pocket-sized Bible, and photo of his parents, pulled them out and let them fall. Caje’s cigarettes and lighter he pocketed. Finding nothing else worth taking, the German sneered, “Danke, gangster,” and clapped a hand against the right side of Caje’s face. Then taking two steps backward, he shook his head at the sergeant and moved over to frisk Kirby.
Caje, tree branches wavering in his graying periphery vision, gulped air, dizzy, his shoulder and the cut on his cheek throbbing. Despite getting roughed up, he decided it was a good sign the Krauts thought he’d been concealing a weapon. Surely that meant they’d bought the story the gun was his.
He hoped Kirby wouldn’t repeat his craziness of yesterday. For things to work, the guy had to cooperate…
Kirby had seen Littlejohn’s things and did the opposite.
“Keep your hands off me, you filthy Kraut,” he snarled, taking a step backward.
The German reached for him.
“Kirby, don’t figh…”
“I said keep your hands off!”
The German struck Kirby, and Kirby punched him.
Chaos broke out. The sergeant’s men rushed forward, swinging rifles, shouting curses. They pushed Caje out of the way and battered Kirby as if he were a door to be broken down. As Kirby fell, sliding backward, lashing out, trying to defend himself, they surrounded and began kicking him. Kirby curled into a fetal position, clamping his hands over his head, and tried desperately to protect his face and stomach.
Caje halted his own backward slide and watched the sergeant recovering from being trampled. Caje knew that if he tried to jump him and failed, he wouldn’t be around to convince the Krauts the Luger was his. On the other hand, if they kept kicking Kirby, it wouldn’t matter. The guy would be dead in another five minutes.
The sergeant finally managed to gain his balance and bellowed orders, his voice hoarse. Startled, his men broke off their attack and backed up, sobered by their leader’s outburst. The swarthy German, tonguing a loose front tooth, waited for them to get out of the way, then moved in to complete his task.
Kirby lay on his side, bleeding from his nose and mouth. The swarthy German booted him over onto his back, and this time Kirby kept still when the German struck him, then yanked off the bandoliers and unfastened his belt. When the German discovered and pulled out the Luger, Kirby looked over at Caje.
Caje suddenly understood what Kirby was doing. The man wasn’t crazy…just working out a plan of his own. Kirby was trying to get the Krauts’ anger focused on him so that when they found the Luger, they’d kill only him instead of both their prisoners – one of whom was wounded and, by contrast, seemed very cooperative.
Caje felt something catch in his throat. At the same time, he saw the tree branches move again. Tiny bits of snow rolled downhill, increasing his vertigo, but struck by the sudden realization of what was going on, he dove for Kirby.
Startled, none of the Germans had a chance to react before a submachine gun opened up. Dropping rifles, their equipment rattling, they jerked and danced as round after round ripped into them. First one, then another German fell, tumbling down the slope, arms and legs thrashing through splintered pine branches and powdery snow.
Caje stayed on top of Kirby, shielding him, until the firing ceased. When it quieted, he looked up the slope and shuddered in relief.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes.”
Saunders slid down the slippery hillside. “You’re late getting to the top of the ridge.”
Kirby groaned. “What happened?”
Caje looked down. “The cavalry rode in, to the rescue.”
Saunders pulled the empty magazine out of the smoking Thompson and slapped in a fresh one. “Better get out of here before more Indians show up.”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth when an MG42 roared. Caje ducked and Saunders belly-flopped forward. In seconds, MG43s buzzed, Schmeissers burped, and the sharp reports of Mausers popped between their bursts. Semiautomatics answered them, joined by the throaty chugging of BARs and the detonating of grenades. Battle cries, German and American, sounded in the distance and, from the east, tanks continued to roll in.
After a moment, Caje and Saunders cautiously raised their heads.
“I thought that first one was for us.” Caje appeared shaken.
“Sounds like action on the road.” Saunders also looked pale.
“2nd battalion making a move?”
“Caje,” Kirby interrupted, his face turning red, “get off me.”
Caje pushed up, grimacing due to the pain in his shoulder. He began pulling on gear as fast as he could. “We going down there?” He clipped on his belt and eased his way into two of his bandoliers, looping the third over his bayonet.
Saunders looked up the hill and then down before reaching for the musette bag. “Could be time to knock out a Kraut gun.”
Kirby spat blood and wiped his face on his sleeve. “But what about those tanks?”
“They won't fire up at their own positions.”
“They’d better not. I don't wanna be added to the company's rate of attrition. We still got that stand to make.” Kirby looked around. "Anyone seen my helmet?"
Caje pointed with his chin while pulling on his own helmet. “It rolled down the hill. It’s probably in the ravine by now.”
“Great.” Kirby straightened his jeep cap, fastened his belt, and staggered to his feet.
Saunders retrieved the BAR and handed it to him. “You gonna be all right?”
Kirby took the rifle, wincing. “If you and Caje’ll stop jumpin’ me.”
“I’m okay. My coat and sweaters gave me padding.”
Saunders palmed the soldier’s elbow, passed him a handful of grenades, and turned to keep an eye on the woods. As Kirby stashed the grenades around himself, Caje dug in the snow, found Littlejohn’s possessions, and pocketed them. Moving on a bit farther, Caje located the Luger where it had fallen when the swarthy German was shot. He lifted it to his coat, but a hand immediately clamped itself over his.
“Thanks, Caje,” Kirby said, leaning over and keeping his voice low.
Caje looked up. “I can carry it until…”
Kirby shook his head. “But thanks,” he repeated.
Caje hesitated, then let Kirby take the pistol. When Kirby reached down again, Caje crooked his lips into a smile and clasped his hand. “Yeah, pal,” he said. “Thanks.”
Kirby nodded and pulled him up, both men hanging on to each other until they managed to gain their balance.
“You two ready?” Saunders asked over his shoulder.
Wiping snow off weapons, they turned his way and painfully straightened up. “Yeah, Sarge,” Kirby said. “Rarin’ to go.”
Amusement briefly lit Saunders’ eyes but just as quickly faded as he started down the incline. “As soon as we get close to the machinegun nest below us, Kirby, you’re on me. We’ll hit it with grenades while Caje gives us cover. But nobody shoot unless you have to – I don’t want the Krauts that might be on the gun’s flanks knowing we’re behind ‘em.”
“Don’t they already know with all the shootin’ you just did?” Kirby pitched and rolled in the snow alongside the sergeant.
“Maybe. But with the fog and woods and distance, it could be they didn’t pick up on the direction my firing came from.”
“But when we start throwin’ grenades…”
“Our guys are in front of them, so maybe they’ll think they’re the ones doing the throwing.”
Kirby grabbed at the spidery roots of a felled tree to slow his descent. “I hope there’re a lot of our guys in front of ‘em.”
Caje, right behind him, lifted his rifle higher to keep it from snagging on spiny fingers of downed tree limbs.
Saunders warned, “Don’t forget – with our guys firing up the hill, we’ll be backboards for their targets. So keep your heads down.”
“I hope there aren’t too many of our guys in front of ‘em.” Kirby wrinkled his nose, his lips crimped.
Saunders angled right, skirting bomb craters, zig-zagging his way through mazes of shattered firs. He passed the twisted corpses of the German snipers, two of them hung up like grotesque scarecrows staked on the splintered ends of evergreen branches. Gritting his teeth, he dug his heels into the slope to slow down, and Kirby and Caje did the same, all three men staring into the dense fog, trying to determine whether each of the shapes materializing in front of them were pines or more of the enemy. The firing of the machinegun grew louder and louder. Finally, Saunders signaled his men to halt their descent.
They slid to a stop, and Saunders waved Kirby behind a tree scalped by an 88, on his right, Caje, another one missing its crown, on his left. As the soldiers got into position, Saunders, conscious of the blood beginning to trickle into his boots, carefully made his way to a mangled pine a few feet ahead.
Getting behind it, he peered into the mist, listening carefully. He looked back at Caje who pointed off to the right. Agreeing, Saunders signaled both the scout and Kirby to move up to decapitated trees on either side of him. He waited until the two soldiers were in place, then he crept forward to the next row of pines. He listened and watched, silently conferring with Caje, and continued to lead the way down the slope.
Soon the bursts of the German gun sounded very near. Saunders scanned the timber resembling gigantic broken matchsticks burned black. Swathed in gun smoke, his eyes tearing, he opened his mouth to breathe and immediately regretted it. With burnt gunpowder clogging his throat, he picked his way between more battle-scarred tree trunks.
He suddenly spotted a muzzle blast and ducked behind a pine. Quickly wiping his eyes, he peered past the tree trunk to pinpoint the emplacement. Within seconds, he saw blocky, helmeted figures hovering behind the sandbagged machinegun dug in less than thirty feet away.
Looking back, Saunders pointed at Kirby and waved him up. Caje, he directed to stay put. As Kirby picked his way forward, Saunders considered the set up. Four Krauts…a gunner and three assistants…were in view. No one was visible on the gun’s flanks. Not that that meant there weren’t other Krauts around, but maybe they were far enough away to leave the gun easy to take. It’d been firing a couple minutes now too, meaning its barrel would be red hot. When it was changed, he and Kirby could make their move.
Saunders glanced his way as Kirby flattened himself against a nearby tree. The sergeant pointed out the Germans, lifted a grenade from the musette bag, and mimicked throwing it high toward the position. Kirby cautiously peered at the nest, looked skyward, and shook his head.
“Too many trees,” he mouthed.
Saunders motioned him to move on.
Kirby surveyed the field of fire from the next tree over. He gave it a thumbs down. Too many branches blocked the way to the gun there too. He snuck to another pine, and Saunders grew anxious.
He wanted a back up. Already aching from yesterday’s tangle with the Panzerschreck, he knew he might not pull off a good throw. Miss the nest and they’d all end up sitting…or more likely, dead…ducks.
Kirby tiptoed around the pine, glanced up, and then nodded. That spot would work. Relieved, Saunders pulled the pin from the grenade and mouthed, “Barrel change.” As Kirby nodded again and turned toward the Germans, Saunders kept a firm grip on the grenade’s lever and waited for a break in the machinegun’s firing.
The MG42 chewed through the last of a belt. Its steady sawing noise stuttered, buzzing, to a halt. The German gunner, waving off more ammo proffered by his bearer, rose with another assistant to hunch over the weapon. Moving in quick choreography, the two Germans began swapping barrels.
Saunders allowed the grenade’s lever to pop out. He had five seconds to detonation. Five seconds before the Krauts got the gun back into action.
Saunders flung himself from behind cover, snapped up his arm, and let the grenade soar. Kirby did the same, his grenade tumbling through the air alongside the sergeant’s. The grenades followed a rainbow trajectory, arcing high overhead, missing fractured and crazily tilting conifers, and dropped right on target.
The Germans disappeared in a flash of fire and smoke.
Saunders and Kirby ducked back behind the trees and yanked up their weapons. Caje, his rifle raised, waited motionless, alert.
An earsplitting screaming began, the screeching of an apparition helmetless, horrible, no longer whole. Smoke mushroomed up and out of the emplacement, billowing over the ghoul flopping half in and half out of it. His wretched cry filled the forest, nearly drowning out more distant shouts of alarm, the booming of a halftrack’s 20 mm cannon, and the squealing bogie wheels of tanks, but no medics appeared, no Krauts to check the gun, no officers sounding the alarm that Americans were attacking from the rear. Only the screaming continued.
Until it stopped abruptly.
Caje scanned the view another few seconds before signaling ‘all clear’. Saunders pushed off from the pine and churned his way back up the slope. Kirby thrashed through the drifts behind him, Caje still ready to fire cover.