"I said I would walk out through the front gates when the tanks rolled in. I'm not going back on my promise." Colonel Robert Hogan struggled to his feet. Weeks of illness and starvation level rations in the last months of the war had taken its toll on the commanding officer. "And there's still too much to do before we leave."
Hogan looked at the four men standing before him. Newkirk, LeBeau, Carter and Kinchloe had insisted on remaining with the Colonel until all other prisoners were safely evacuated. Weak and sick themselves, they had still managed to successfully refuse Hogan's orders to leave. After three years of constant danger and fear, half-hearted threats of court-martials and demotions were definitely not enough to persuade them to abandon their leader at the very end. Their last order was to blow the tunnels and destroy all evidence of their secret operation. They were determined to follow these orders and complete this mission as a team.
"We've taken care of everything, Colonel. The charges are ready. All we need are your orders." Carter sounded uncharacteristically quiet and unenthusiastic.
"All our stuff is packed and loaded on the last truck, Colonel," said LeBeau.
"I want to take one last look." Hogan headed for the tunnel entrance under Kinch's bunk. Kinch was now sleeping on the other side of the barracks. There was no need to hide the entrance any longer.
"Let me help you, Sir." Kinch offered his hand and assisted the Colonel down the ladder.
Hogan accepted his help. Stepping off the bottom rung he began to take a look around the tunnel. He could see the explosives were in place. Hogan did not bother to check the wires. After three years, he was fully confident in Carter's abilities to handle a demolition. He slowly and wistfully worked his way through the passageways. It's almost a shame we couldn't leave these here. All this work, all those lives. But orders were orders. Hogan sighed. Nah, it's safer this way. Confident that all traces of the traveler's aide society, as he liked to call it, would be erased. Hogan made his way back to the entrance under Kinch's bunk.
Looking at Carter, Hogan quietly asked, "How much time do we have?"
"Ten minutes," Carter replied.
"It's a go. Let's get out of here."
Several tanks, a few jeeps and a medical evacuation truck were waiting outside the Stalag. There were only a few men left from the original battalion that had liberated the camp. Orders from General Eisenhower's staff had informed them that Colonel Hogan, the ranking POW officer, was in command and that the camp was to be demolished. No questions asked.
They waited for the last five prisoners.
Hogan, Newkirk, LeBeau, Carter and Kinchloe stepped up to the front gate. Hogan addressed the American lieutenant standing at the entrance. "We have ten minutes."
"I understand, sir." Instinct told the lieutenant that offering assistance to any of these men at this stage would be pointless.
He stepped aside.
Newkirk, LeBeau, Carter, Kinchloe and then Hogan walked out of the Stalag through the front gates. They never looked back.
Ten minutes later, from a safe distance, they heard the explosions. The medic riding with them jumped. None of the five former prisoners moved a muscle. None of the five former prisoners made a comment. It was over.