Stillness broken by gunfire is not an uncommon thing in a war zone, but somehow this was different. German Schmeissers, maybe a small machine gun, a volley and no returning fire. Odd indeed.
"What the hell was that?" Kirby hissed to the sergeant, the man closest to him. Saunders raised a hand to silence the rifleman. He was waiting, waiting for returning fire. All he heard was a bit of small arms, rifles now and maybe even a pistol crack.
Lieutenant Hanley broke the silence as Saunders trotted over to the tall officer. "Spread out - wide - keep alert. We take a look."
The blond sergeant nodded, signaled silently to his men. They moved out, double time. The barrage had not been far ahead of the patrol, but it sounded like a goodly number of Krauts. Another worry for Hanley.
King 2 was on its way in after a long wearying patrol. The men were exhausted, but none had been wounded. That in itself was very nearly a miracle, and Hanley had been relieved. He hoped they'd make it back without a hitch. Now it seemed that was not to be. Belgium wasn't much different than France, just a spot on a map too far from home. But the Krauts were beginning to panic and a cornered dog is a vicious adversary.
Caje, in the lead, was the first to spot the Germans. At his signal the men took cover, belly down in the long grass, taking protection where they could find it, creeping forward to see what the scout had seen. About fifteen German soldiers, several troop transports, a couple officers. They were loading a pair of machine guns and several ammo crates into one of the vehicles.
Before the Americans could figure out what had happened here, they were spotted.
Kirby, reacting quickly, took out the pair of Krauts trying to bring the machine guns into play. Caje, Littlejohn, Billy Nelson, Braddock, Brockmeyer and the lieutenant opened up with deadly accurate rifle fire, catching most of the Krauts out in the open.
Saunders, in an attempt to stop a Kraut officer from taking off in one of the trucks, opened fire with his Thompson, riddling the truck and its occupant with .45 caliber slugs.
The battle became a running one with Germans attempting to find cover in the open meadow and the GIs trying to stop them before they did.
Saunders was chasing down a last Kraut who could've given up and surrendered, but instead chose to run like a jack rabbit, twisting his body to fire at the pursuing sergeant.
The Kraut had been running parallel to what appeared to be a drop off, maybe a small ravine. Whatever, he was reluctant to go down and cross which left him open and vulnerable to the pursuing Saunders. A burst from the Thompson and the Kraut teetered at the very edge of the drop. He turned his face to Saunders and the look in his eyes was one of abject horror - his
scream piercing the air as he fell.
Saunders, out of breath, jogged over to see where the Kraut had fallen. What he himself saw turned his ruddy complexion a pasty white. His jaw dropped and his pale eyes opened wide. The Lieutenant, running up to the non-com, reached out a hand to touch the stunned man's shoulder. Instead, he followed Saunders' gaze over the slight embankment and down.
"God help us," he whispered. It was almost a prayer.
Saunders reply was not. "God sure didn't help them!" The words were strangled and spit out with vengeance.
For a good fifty yards to the north and to the south, the small gully that bisected the softly beautiful meadow was filled with corpses. Not the bodies of soldiers - that would've been bad enough - but with the bodies of civilians, women and children, tiny babies, old men. Hanley looked at Saunders. There were no words at first. Words would come later.
Saunders' breathing was odd, uneven and he was deathly pale, his eyes still wide and staring. Hanley reached out to the sergeant just as Kirby ran up, out of breath but not observations.
"Hey Sarge, what'd ya do, pee your pants? He chortled, pointing at Saunders' left leg. Indeed it was soaking wet.
Saunders acted as if he hadn't heard Kirby. He reached a shaking hand up to push back his helmet. Instead he knocked it off where it hit the ground with a hollow thunk.
"Sarge! Lieutenant, what's goin' on?" Kirby questioned, leaning over to see what the other men had obviously already seen.
Kirby brushed against Saunders, who began to collapse. Hanley grabbed a fistful of his field jacket, just enough to break the fall and ease the sergeant a bit more gently to the ground.
"Oh shit! Oh shit!" Kirby repeated over and over as he saw what lay in the gully.
Only Hanley's "Kirby! Get Doc fast!" snapped the private out of it. He turned and ran, not stopping to tell the others what he'd seen, only pointing. Again there were no words.
The baby-faced kid medic of King 2 had seen a lot since Normandy and Omaha Beach, but the one thing he hadn't seen was Kirby speechless. That scared Jim Walton to his very soul. Kirby couldn't even get out the words that Lieutenant Hanley needed him. He could only point, but by the expression on Kirby's face, the medic knew he'd better hurry.
Doc knelt at Saunders' side. "What happened, Lieutenant?" he questioned as he unzipped the sergeant's jacket.
"He passed out. It's shock, isn't it? What he saw." Hanley crouched down near the two, his own complexion pale, his face haggard.
"It's shock all right, Lieutenant...I don't know what he saw, but it's from this." And the medic showed the officer the blood on the hand he withdrew from Saunders' thigh.
Doc unbuckled Saunders' web belt and kneeling over the sergeant, he tried to pull the canteen away from his side.
"Damn!" The young man swore, most out of character. "A bullet punched through his canteen and into his hip and the metal is pushed into the wound. If I pull too much, I'll cause more damage, but if I don't get the canteen free, he could bleed to death."
"No choice then, Doc," Hanley soberly observed.
"No choice, sir. None."
Keeping the pressure smooth and even, the medic pulled gently. The canteen came free. The metal edges with the bullet damage were jagged, but not lengthy. The bullet would remain where it was until a surgeon could remove, it, but with luck, the medic could get the bleeding stopped.
Sweat ran into the young man's eyes as he worked and stuck his shirt to his skin, but he didn't seem to notice until he was finished with his patient. He pulled a handkerchief from an inside pocket and with a shaking hand, ran it over his face and retrieving his canteen, took a deep swig from it.
He's a good kid, Hanley thought. But to the medic, there was a wordless, grateful pat on the shoulder before the officer rose to his feet.
"Caje, Littlejohn...help Doc mover Saunders over to those Kraut trucks."
"Yes, sir." Both men turned from where they stood at the edge of the gully, staring down at the horror. Both were glad to be pulled away from having to look at, being forced to see and to bear witness to man's ultimate inhumanity.
Littlejohn kept shaking his head, repeating in a whisper to the slender Cajun as they walked over to where the medic still knelt by Saunders.
"But why? Why would somebody do that? Why?"
Caje had no answers. So Littlejohn posed the question Hanley was to hear again and again. "Why, Lieutenant?"
"I'm sorry, Littlejohn. I just don't know." Hanley replied, then to Doc and Caje, his voice soft, "I'd ask for volunteers for this job, but I doubt I'd get any, so Caje...after you help get Saunders moved, I want you and Doc to come with me. We're checking for survivors."
"Survivors?" The medic's face showed his confusion. He had yet to see what the others had seen.
Hanley appeared reluctant to voice what had happened here in those moments before King 2 had arrived. To actually say it out loud would make it all the more real. He lit a cigarette, inhaling the smoke deeply into his lungs, blowing it out, up and away from the men.
"A massacre, Doc. A massacre happened here... civilians."
Doc looked up at Hanley. He was only a medic but the closest thing to a doctor the squad possessed. He would go. It was his job.
"Yes, sir," he replied, "I'll go."
Caje, too, would answer in the affirmative. Few things caused the stoic scout from Louisiana to turn pale, but this order did. To his credit though, the amber-eyed Cajun only nodded, his "Yes, sir," barely audible.
"Braddock! Bring that radio over here on the double!"
Hanley's voice broke through to the stocky company runner. He'd seen the murdered women and kids and of all the men he alone was loudly vocal. He cursed the Krauts, Hitler and the war in general and each and every one of the Germans in particular who lay dead and scattered within the meadow. He heard the lieutenant and stopped what he was doing - checking through the piles of cast-off clothing the Krauts had begin loading into one of the transports that had very recently held the owners of those items.
Braddock knew why these innocent civilians had been murdered. With the radio he brought to the lieutenant a woman's wool coat, worn thin, its once lively color dulled. On the left breast was sewn a yellow Star of David.
"Jews, Lieutenant. All of 'em. Goddamned Kraut bastards!" In the brash private's voice was something Hanley had never heard, hate, and in his eyes, tears. Braddock himself was Jewish. In the dead he saw his mother, sisters, aunts and cousins, his elderly grandfather.
"There were rumors about this...this happening, mass murders, death camps....I never really believed it. Not even the Krauts were capable of such cruelty. I was wrong." Hanley took the radio from Braddock and added, "Go keep an eye on Saunders while Doc comes with me. Go on."
In his beefy fist, the private kneaded the thin wool. "Lousy Kraut bastards," he spat before adding, "Yeah, Lieutenant, sure."
"King 6, this is King 2, over. King 6, this is King 2, over."
"Go ahead King 2, over."
Hanley related, in clipped sentences, using code words whenever possible, what the squad had discovered and where. Captain Jampel radioed back to say G-2 would be arriving at their position by 0800 the following morning. King 2 was to check for survivors, stay put and nothing else.
"Do you believe in God, Sarge?"
The medic's voice was a close whisper. It was almost as if he really didn't want to rouse Saunders from his semi-sleep. He didn't and yet he very much did.
Saunders was unwilling to be roused. He knew what he had to say was not what Doc wanted to hear - or needed to. But it was Saunders' truth and he had to be truthful, didn't he? It was one thing to lie to a soldier who lay dying. It's okay, you'll be all right. Was it okay to lie when a person's spiritual life was at stake? Doc was young, but he was not gullible and he had his
own mind. Saunders would tell him the true answer to the question.
"Do I believe in God?" Saunders' voice was weak, but the conviction behind the words was strong. "If you would've asked me this morning, I still would've said yes...but after what I...what we saw this afternoon...my answer is no. I don't believe in God. No God could be so unmerciful, so cruel. No God could cause men to do the thing I saw today, or allow it to happen." Saunders stopped a moment to catch his breath and wipe a grimy hand back across his
"Men are responsible for their own acts. No puppet is pulling their strings - no God - and no devil either. No Doc, I don't believe. Not anymore."
Saunders half thought the young man would argue with him, say something at least, but Doc said nothing. The steel gray of the medic's eyes seemed harder, grayer, cold where there had been only gentleness and warmth before. Saunders needed no verbal answer to his own question. The expression in Doc's eyes and the set of his jaw showed him his answer. Doc, too, had lost his
faith and this saddened Saunders.
Night drew on and the sky turned dark and foreboding even before the sun set. A storm was coming. Already thunder rumbled in the east and lightening tore ragged lines across the sky.
Lieutenant Hanley, lost in thoughts of his own, was brought back to the present by a severe crack of thunder. The storm was closing in on their position.
The scout turned toward the lieutenant at the shout of his name. He ground out the cigarette he'd been enjoying, and rifle slung, trotted over.
"I want you to make sure Billy and Braddock get everything out of that first truck and stored in the other two. Then tell Doc I want Saunders moved into the empty truck. Got it?"
Caje nodded, flinching at the sudden bright flash of lightening, now nearly over their position. "Yes sir, Lieutenant."
Saunders lay momentarily untended. Doc had gone to refill his canteen and look through the cast off possessions for anything he could use to make Saunders more comfortable. There was nothing at all of warmth or usefulness among the murdered victims' things. Even if there had been, the medic doubted he could've brought himself to use it. There had been no survivors
among the many dead and the soldiers' melancholy had only deepened at the news.
A crash of thunder brought the sergeant awake - not wide awake, but sort of a dreamy half state. He had dreamt of his mother and sister, home alone, waiting for his return.
At first they were all smiles and laughter, but as Saunders came more to wakefulness, the smiles changed to frowns and the laughter to tears.
They were in rags, prodded and pushed by gray coated Nazis along with a large group of other women and children. All were crying. Thunder and lightening crackled around them. Terror in the air was as palpable as the lightening. They were made to line up along a small ditch in a clearing, the women clinging desperately to one another and to their children. Saunders' mother and sister turned their eyes to him, silently pleading for help.
Another clap of thunder and Saunders sat bolt upright. Sweat ran into his eyes and his breath came in deep gasps.
To his left stood two men, neatly silhouetted against the ever darkening sky. Soldiers! Krauts!
The sergeant grabbed for the Thompson lying close by and with difficulty, pulled it over and into his grasp. He tried to rise, but his hip injury effectively crippled him. Biting back a groan, the sergeant brought the Tommy gun up. He pulled back the bolt.
In the brief lull between thunder cracks, Hanley and Caje heard the snap of the Thompson being cocked. They spun simultaneously.
Saunders sat, Thompson braced to fire across his knees, eyes burning in a pale face. "Kraut bastards," he growled.
"No! Saunders!" Hanley brought up his own rifle, but whether he could've fired it became a moot point.
The Thompson was kicked out of Saunders' shaking hands by Kirby, who made a grab for the weapon before Saunders could recover it. He needn't have bothered.
Saunders was incapable of any further action. He lay exhausted, disoriented, again bleeding heavily from his wound.
As Kirby knelt by his side, the BAR man saw something he wished he hadn't - Saunders crying. He wanted to help, but didn't know how. In seconds, Doc was there, edging the Irishman out of the way.
"Thanks, Kirby." It was Hanley's voice and looking up, Kirby nodded at the tall officer as he stood over the little group.
"That's okay, Lieutenant...but what the hell? Sarge thought you and Caje was Krauts, I guess."
"Delirious. He's losing too much blood, Lieutenant. We've gotta get the bleeding stopped or he's not gonna make it till help comes." The medic was using a towel and pressure to try and staunch the flow. The bandages were soaked through; the towel soon would be.
The rain began in earnest, and Saunders was lifted into the back of the German transport. He was barely conscious, so far out of it that for the moment, there were no more bad dreams. Childlike, he clung tightly to Doc's hand, hampering the medic as he tried to work.
The worst of the storm had come and gone, but the rain remained - steady and soaking. The men on guard, Littlejohn and Billy, walked the perimeter in silence, both lost in thought, lost, sad, depressed.
Luckily there was no moon to light the final resting place of the murdered women and children. They were there, Littlejohn knew, but he was very glad he couldn't actually see them. He hated the fact that they were uncovered against the chill and wet. Of course he realized, blessedly, that they could no longer feel, but it would've comforted the big soldier if they could
have been covered somehow.
As he walked the perimeter his mind began to play tricks on him in subtle, insinuating ways. He thought he heard voices whispering, calling, crying; the shaking of leaves on the nearby bushes, in the trees, was eerie and frightening.
"Only the wind," he told himself. "Only the wind."
Then there were footsteps. Littlejohn turned to see Billy Nelson coming up on his position.
"Hey, Billy, you aren't supposed to be here! The lieutenant'll be mad...but boy I'm glad to see you! I been hearin' the darndest things. I..."
"Littlejohn - shut up, will ya?! I heard somethin' too! First I thought it was just the wind and rain, but it ain't! It's voices and once...once I heard a baby cry!"
The youngster's eyes were wide. Rain dripped off his helmet in a steady patter. And between sentences he sniffled and paused to wipe his runny nose.
"Where, Billy? Where'd you hear a baby?"
Billy pointed with a shaky finger towards the sector he'd been patrolling. To Littlejohn, the only thing visible in the deep gloom was a thick black copse of bushes at the beginning of the woods.
"Let's check it out, huh, Littlejohn? Let's!"
"No, Billy. One of us had better go for the lieutenant. We can't both be leavin' our posts. You go and I'll wait here...listen and see if I don't hear anything else."
Nelson was scared green, but nodded once and trotted off to find Hanley within the cluster of captured German trucks.
Littlejohn heard nothing else, but the next gust of wet wind sent a shiver up his spine the likes of which he'd never felt before.
Hanley returned with Billy and Braddock, both trying to keep up with the lieutenant's long strides. Littlejohn couldn't see Hanley's face to figure if he was angry about being called out. But his voice held no anger.
"Billy, show us where you heard, uh...voices." Hanley gestured forward and the young man nodded, leading the way, the beam of his flashlight barely illuminating a path before him.
Hanley had the men spread out. Could be a trap. Could be they hadn't wiped out all the Krauts. Could be....
Billy stopped and played his flashlight on the bushes directly in front of him. Hanley did the same. A sudden mewing sound made the men catch their breaths and strain to hear.
"Come out of there!" Hanley commanded. "Come out now!"
A rustle of brush and a young man crawled out from beneath the bracken. Clutched against his chest was a bundle of dirty rags and within that bundle mewled a tiny baby.
"Schiessen sie nicht!!" The youngster pleaded, climbing slowly, painfully to his feet, the bundle squirming against the dirty dampness of the German soldier's chest.
"Bitte...Ich habe keine waffe! Bitte!" He begged again.
"Kraut sonofabitch usin' a baby to protect himself," Littlejohn growled.
Hanley held up a hand for silence. He beckoned the German forward and motioned for him to hand over the child. This the German did, reluctantly.
Hanley took the infant, peeled back the rags and gazed into the child's face. Even in the dimness he could tell it was new to this world - still red and blotchy, its skin peeling, minute hands clenched into fists. To Billy Hanley ordered, "Get Brockmeyer - fast!"
Billy nodded, turned and ran.
Through Brockmeyer's translation, the squad heard the young man's story. One had only to look at him while he spoke to know it was the truth he was telling. His words, as well as his voice, trembled with the remembering. More than once his eyes filled with tears.
The group sat around the small fire built between the trucks, sipping at the coffee Braddock had brewed.
Inside the nearest truck Doc held the baby as he kept watch near Saunders. He listened to the story as related, haltingly, by Brockmeyer.
The interpreter held his coffee between both hands, the steam rising to encircle the broad face. His blue eyes were focused on the young German's lips as if to not miss a word. He told the story as accurately as possible.
"Yes, Lieutenant, I knew what was going to happen to those people. I knew...but I am a coward. I did nothing to stop it. Maybe I did not believe in my heart we would actually kill women and children - murder them. Please...I did not want to believe."
At this, the German broke down into sniffling tears. Hanley realized he was little more than a child, no more than 16 or 17. In silence, the men waited for him to continue, watching his lips as intently as Brockmeyer; switching interest from him to Brockmeyer as the GI translated.
"I stood at the end of the row, nearest the woods. There was a girl...a young woman and her baby. She begged me in whispers...save my baby. Please! Please save him! She had no clothes and it was so cold. Even the baby had only rags. I could not look at her - only at her face - her eyes. They burned me. They did not accuse - did not blame - only pleaded for her child!
The order to shoot was given. In all the confusion, I grabbed the baby from her and ran into the brush. I crawled as quickly as I could, all the while knowing I must have been seen, that I, too, would be shot.
"I held the baby against my chest. If it cried, we would both die. In only moments the shooting was over. I heard some moans and crying - a few more shots and then nothing, until I heard your gunfire. Still I was afraid to come out, afraid you would also shoot me." The youngster began to sob in earnest now. "I was so very afraid!" He buried his face in his hands. His body shook. When he raised his face, it was wet with tears. "But she begged me! What was I to do?! It was wrong!"
The only sound was the boy's hiccoughing sobs.
Hanley rose to his feet, walked over to the German and patted his shoulder. "You did right, boy. You did right."
Inside the truck, the tiny baby shivered from cold. Doc had wrapped him in the cleanest bit of cloth he could find, then in a shirt one of the GIs had offered. Still the tiny boy shivered.
In contrast, Sergeant Saunders burned with fever. His mind filled with more insidious nightmares and all Doc's comforting words had no effect. He was restless and uneasy. The medic would've prayed, but hadn't he forgone all that? There was no God, right? Right?!
In desperation, Doc laid the baby in the crook of Saunders' arm, beneath his jacket, against his chest. The sergeant was too weak to move much so the child was safe. His feverish body soon warmed the infant and it slept against the injured man.
Outside, voices returned. The men spoke in hushed whispers. Often their words were lost in the soft sighs of the breeze that heralded the end of the rain and the beginning of another day.
Doc dozed, waking fitfully. He was being watched by the young German who sat in the far corner of the truck, back against the wall, knees drawn up protectively to his chest. Kirby also watched, but the German, his BAR resting across his lap. He was at ease and considered this Kraut no threat. Kirby flashed a smile at Doc and motioned to Saunders and the baby.
Doc reached over and laid a cool palm against Saunders' forehead. The fever was still there. The bleeding had stopped though, and Saunders seemed to be resting easier. The baby, too, was comfortable, warm and cradled. Doc Walton looked over at the German, nodding his head in approval. Shyly, the boy smiled.
The medic leaned down close to Saunders, checking his pulse. Quietly, he confided, "you were wrong, Sarge...this once...you were wrong. There is a God."
Copyright October 1997, Susan Balnek-Ballard. All rights reserved.