The end was in sight. Finis. That had been LeBeau's mantra now for the last several weeks. The fiery corporal swept away the tension and managed to keep his irritability in check, while tempers flared throughout the rest of the camp.
Convinced that his new found attitude would boost his bunkmate's immune systems, he focused on being a mother hen, coaxing them to go outside for air, mixing meager rations together in unrecognizable combinations to get them to eat, singing French tunes as he worked.
He visited the sick in the infirmary. He inventoried every scrap of food. LeBeau volunteered for every rescue mission outside the Stalag. Although now few and far between, it kept him busy and focused.
LeBeau could tell that his good humor was rattling the men in his barracks. They were unused to this behavior and it made them slightly suspicious. This encouraged the Frenchman even more.
He was puttering around the common room, humming to himself, while the other men were attempting to stave off boredom.
"Hey, LeBeau, stop that blasted humming! It's getting on my nerves." Garth covered his head with a pillow.
"You just don't know what is good for you, mon ami. Wine, music and women; that's all a Frenchman needs to be happy!"
"Well, we've got none of that, LeBeau."
"Certainment. We have music, Olsen. It relieves tension." LeBeau took out his harmonica. "How about a round of Frère Jacques."
"Cor Blimey." Newkirk headed for the door, while several prisoners pummeled LeBeau with pillows.
Hogan staggered out of his office. "Anything?"
"Non, mon Colonel. Kinch is down below. Tea?" LeBeau headed for the stove.
The Colonel rolled his eyes. "No, I'll float away if I drink anything else." He turned and headed back for his office. "I'm going back to bed. I hate tea," he grumbled.
Later that evening, LeBeau snuck into Klink's office and pilfered every scrap of paper that he could find. He was sure Klink wouldn't miss inventory lists and supply requisitions from the previous year. Stuffing them in his pocket, he made his way back to the barracks and prepared to start on his next project.
Morning roll call was an unusually subdued affair. The usual bantering seemed somewhat half-hearted. Several of LeBeau's bunkmates were now sick and the Colonel had worsened during the night. Schultz finished as fast as possible and hustled the prisoners back into the barracks. LeBeau hung behind and grabbed the Sergeant before he could take off.
"Schultz, any chance we can get something to make some soup?"
"Cockroach, if I had anything to make soup, you would be the first one I would tell."
The rest of the morning continued to be quiet. Prisoners were coming up with numerous ways to keep busy, without driving each other crazy. Olsen hopped down from his bunk and went over to LeBeau, who was sitting in the corner of the barracks, humming. "Louis, what are you doing?"
"Writing my recipes down." LeBeau had managed to scrounge up bits and pieces of paper from every corner of the barracks. He added that to the supply of paper stolen from Klink's office. "In case there's a fight, I don't want them lost. That would be tragic."
Moments later, LeBeau watched as Kinch came flying through the bunk entrance to the tunnels with the news that the troops were on the way. A short while later, he sighed in relief when Hogan returned from his meeting with Klink with news of a planned peaceful surrender.
"Hey Louis, your recipes will be safe!" Carter joked. "We can all sleep tonight!"
"Très amusant." LeBeau rolled his eyes. "I need these for my restaurant." He started shoving the papers into his foot locker.
Later that day, LeBeau watched as the American battalion started loading the guards into the trucks. He walked over to the last truck in the convoy where Klink and Schultz were waiting to take their place among the defeated Germans. For some reason, LeBeau's eyes were tearing. He quickly wiped them and then walked up to the Sergeant.
"I want you to have this, Schultz. Here, take it." He tried to hand Schultz a piece of paper.
"Go on, take it." LeBeau stepped back. Hogan was now heading towards the convoy.
"What did you give ol' Schultzie, LeBeau?" Newkirk had also been watching the proceedings.
"My recipe for apple strudel."
"That was nice of you, Louis." Carter said.
LeBeau shrugged. "It's the least I could do. After all, he saw plenty and didn't say anything."
"Good point." Carter agreed. "Come on. Let's go, we've got work to do."
Carter and Newkirk headed for the tunnels, while LeBeau walked over to the Battalion medics to discuss the food situation. He had volunteered to help organize the food rations and distribute them to the camp population. Truthfully, he was actually hoping to get a first peek at the rations in hopes that he could whip up something edible.
He did. After his lunch was rebuffed by a sick Colonel Hogan, a rejection that saddened the Corporal, he made his way to the Kommandant's office, where Kinch was working. Thankfully, Kinch complimented the chef and LeBeau walked away happy and vindicated. Later that afternoon, LeBeau bade his French compatriots' farewell. Thanks to an agreement between General Eisenhower and DeGaulle, French prisoners were given the first opportunity at evacuating the liberated camps. They waited for the sick to leave and then checked in at the mess hall.
"You should come with us, Louis." A French barracks chief was supervising his chatty and overexcited men. "It's been too long."
"Non. I need to help with the final closure, Didier." Louis had long ago made up his mind to stay till the bitter end. After years of being a member of Hogan's main team, he would not abandon them now. "They'll be eating sawdust if I leave," he joked.
"But that would be an improvement over the last few months!" Didier laughed. "Seriously, Louis, I think the Colonel would understand."
"No." The Colonel was still sick, and Louis was concerned. But he didn't want to discuss it here. He was also anxious to find out if all of his relatives were safe. Last he heard, the ones in the South of France were fine. In fact they had offered to play host to the Colonel, when LeBeau and the others thought he needed a vacation. However, he had his immediate family in Paris and cousins scattered all over the country that he had not heard from in ages. No, his decision was still made up. "Didier, what's another 3 or 4 days after 5 years?"
"Loyalty is important as well." His friend obviously understood. "We will see you in France, then."
"I will see you in France." LeBeau said good-bye and again, humming to himself, headed for the kitchens to check on the food supplies.
LeBeau spent the next few days continuing to help with the food supply and trying unsuccessfully to get the Colonel to eat. He was headed over to the mess hall when he was interrupted by Kinch who informed the Corporal that the Colonel wanted to see him immediately. "Is he all right?" LeBeau asked anxiously. Wilson had gotten his hands on the Colonel and the last time he had checked, Hogan appeared to be a bit better.
Several moments later, LeBeau was standing in front of the Colonel. He looked at Kinch. Kinch had no idea what Hogan wanted, so he just shrugged.
"Why are you still here?" Hogan asked.
Now, that was not what LeBeau expected to hear. From the look on Kinch's face, it was not what he expected to hear, either.
"Excuse, me, Colonel?'
"You should have gone out with the first group."
"I was busy, with the food, you said…"
Hogan interrupted. "The French were ordered out first, in the first group, after the guys from the infirmary."
LeBeau realized he was in trouble. He knew he had disobeyed orders and so he began to nervously shift from one foot to another, but then stopped. He didn't care. He would not leave now. And what could the Colonel do? Demote him to private? He chuckled at the thought. He couldn't, could he? Two different armies.
"Something funny, Corporal?"
"No, sir." While LeBeau stood there, puzzled and with nothing to say in his defense, Hogan quietly moved towards the closed door and opened it without warning, surprising Newkirk and Carter as they fell into the room.
Kinch let out a small laugh, then quickly shut up.
The Colonel took a seat and motioned for the men to do the same. "Now that I have you all here, I just want to say…you can leave with the rest of the barracks."
Kinch protested. "They're leaving this afternoon, Colonel. We're not ready."
"I'll stay. The wires are set. I can start the fuse. I've got some stuff to clean up here. Besides, I won't be alone. They'll be some guys left from the battalion."
Next, the men all started volunteering to stay while the others went before them.
"I want to stay, Colonel. Once I get to France, I'm almost home." LeBeau was almost in tears. "Kinch should go. He's been working real hard."
"You've all been working hard. I've been kind of out of commission lately, and well, it's time." Hogan looked down at his hands. "That's an order," he whispered. "Besides, I'll see you in France. It won't be long. The debriefing will probably last as long as the war."
Kinch could not let this continue. "Sir, you can have me court-martialed, but I'm not leaving."
Louis stood up. "Moi, aussi, Colonel."
Carter and Newkirk also stood their ground.
Hogan looked at all of them and smiled. "There won't be any court-martials. You win." The men didn't move. "Go on, get busy. Go!"
The four men made a hasty exit out of Hogan's office, then held a pow-wow outside before disbursing.
"I thought I was in for it." Louis started laughing. "That man is as stubborn as…as…"
"As you?" Newkirk chimed in.
"Nah, worse." Carter chuckled. "Louis, I never thought I'd see you sweat in front of the Colonel like that."
"I almost lost it when you two fell through the door when the Colonel opened it."
"You 'ad us come up, Kinch," Newkirk reminded him. "Remember?"
"Yeah, well, who told you two to listen at the door! You could have knocked!" Now Kinch started to laugh and it was contagious. The four men laughed until it hurt, and with the laughter went three years of almost constant terror and tension. The fear had always been hidden underneath a blanket of jokes, diversions, and the idea that the operation was a big game. But the men had always known better and now the stress had nowhere to go but out. The last few months had been the icing on the cake. Inactivity created time to think and ponder the what-ifs and the hunger and illness that had cast a pall over the camp overwhelmed the former espionage unit. Then their seemingly indestructible commander had also fallen victim to the deprivations and had taken ill when the end was in sight. They hid their deflated morale from the rest of the camp and from each other. Now, the time had come for release.
"Phew," Carter was wiping the tears from his eyes. "I haven't laughed that hard since, well, I don't remember. No wait, it was after you three dressed up as women."
Newkirk gave him a dirty look. "Since Louis danced with Hochstetter. I 'ad to hold me self back when we set that up."
"Louis, you two made a nice couple." Kinch laughed again and then started to choke.
"Non, mon ami, the best was when you went to Paris with the Colonel and you said he was a mute!"
"You're right. Man, you should have seen the look on his face! I was afraid I'd wake up the next morning as a Corporal." Kinch recalled.
"Having a laugh at my expense?" The four men hadn't noticed that the door to the barracks had opened. The Colonel had quietly snuck out and had heard the last part of the conversation.
"Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir." LeBeau and the rest quickly snapped to a not-quite-perfect form of attention.
"We were just going over our next step, Colonel. Stuff to do, right guys?" Kinch attempted to take the heat off.
"You were just letting it out." Hogan smiled. "It's okay. Look, years from now, you'll be telling these stories to your kids and the rest will fade away. At least I hope it will." He wrapped his arms around his bomber jacket, then looked at Louis. "LeBeau, you think you can swing something for me to eat?"
Elated, the Frenchman swung into action. "Oui, mon Colonel. Right away!" Joyfully, he headed towards the mess hall kitchen to whip something up.
"All our stuff is packed and loaded on the last truck, Colonel," said LeBeau.
Hogan went to check on the tunnels for the last time. The men waited patiently for him to finish and for Carter to set the detonator.
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.