The characters are not mine. I am not profiting from this and am writing for entertainment reasons only.
This is the first Combat fiction I have written. It is a result of a comment made on a Combat site asking for what happened after they came down from the hill in Hills are for Heroes. This is one of my favorite episodes. I love the character study done through out the series and in particular this episode. This is my thoughts on what may have happened.
Please send me reviews.
This story was previously published but during publication the entire story was underlined. I have since been able to fix this problem and am republishing it. Sorry about the inconvience...
Hills are for Heroes Revisited
…Kirby had finally come off the hill, I wasn't sure if he really understood or not. Hell, I don't know that I understand. We give orders and we get orders. For as much as I want to be mad at Kirby how can I? I feel the same way. I came here today with 24 men. I am leaving with 14. Too many men, men I didn't really know. Men I sent out on missions that never came back. He thinks it's easy to sit back and give orders but… How will I ever be able to return to the real world after doing the things I have done? How can I ever look in a mirror and not see the faces of the men I sent off to die… But does he understand no, none of them understand. How could they?…
Lt. Hanley sat next to the cot holding his friend and his sergeant. You weren't suppose to be friends with the people you were suppose to lead but Saunders and he went back to before D-Day. Back to a time where he had been innocent and not marred by the ugliness of war. Besides the men that were lost on the hill others had been wounded. Saunders was among the wounded. He had been shot during the first retreat from the hill. Doc said the hole was big enough to hide a grenade in. Saunders refused the morphine believing he might be of some help. But who did he think he was going to be able to help? I'm sure he thought he was going to help me. And I guess he did. Like always when I feel I am going to go astray he is there to put me back on the straight and narrow. Just when I started to let Kirby get to me there was Saunders throwing everything I had just said right back in my face and then offering me a cigarette.
Hanley's mind wandered. Jampel had given them some time off to regroup. To get new men to replace the ones killed and to give the ones left a moment to get themselves together. It would be another couple of weeks before Saunders and Kirby would be able to return to the squad. Caje and Littlejohn were trying to keep Kirby in good spirits and talked to Saunders often as well. But none of them had talked to Hanley. He understood but he himself was having a rough time with the events that brought them here.
Saunders had been sleeping when Hanley entered the room. Because of the number of wounded a small house had been turned into a evac hospital. Saunders had been placed in a bed room due to the raging infection he developed. It wasn't until he made it to the hospital that he finally accepted the morphine. The pain and fever had cause him to become delirious. He had been moved to a small bedroom so he would not disturb other patients.
At first the episodes were mild and Saunders was not clear in what he screamed. But as the hours passed and the fever raised his delirium and nightmares were becoming more personal. Hanley and the Doctor had agreed to keep visitors away while Saunders was in this state. Although his men wanted to visit him, Hanley had explained to the Doc how private a person Saunders was and how much it would affect his recovery if he were to think his men had heard him in his weakened state. Only he and Doc (their Doc) would be allowed to visit.
Hanley sat by the bed side and spoke to his friend. He spoke of the hill and the men lost. He spoke of the fear he had of losing Saunders. He ordered Saunders to fight, to get well and to wake up. He needed his friend. The friend that always seemed to understand. But how could he?
The nightmares were taking over and becoming real. Saunders struggled to make sense of them. He could hear Hanley's voice but at other times it was not Hanley's voice but more a ghost from the past. A past he had never talked about, a past better forgotten. But the events of the hill had brought them to the foreground. And now he could not deny them. He had tried.
Covered in sweat, Saunders tossed his head back and forth. Hanley tried to calm his friend but couldn't. He listened to the ravings of his friend and found a new understanding.
Doc , "sure glad I'm not wearing those bars."
Saunders had to agree but did Doc see the momentary glance in Hanley's direction. Could he have read the pain the comment had brought to his face. The pain of knowing what those bars could cost a man.
The darkness was consuming. Past and present continued to mix. Saunders tried to keep them straight but it was too close.
A second time he fell back in to the make shift bunk. Littlejohn was concerned. He acted like a new kid but he knew better. Saunders defended Hanley's actions and offered words of encouragement. Words he didn't believe but knew that as a sergeant you had to back your Lieutenant. He knew what would happen if he didn't backup Hanley. Personal experience had taught him those horrible lessons.
******* The Africa campaign. Lt. Saunders met the enemy and engage them. His sergeant was wounded and the odds were against him and his men. But he had his orders. Take the house and the barn. Do not fall back. The advancing line depended on all companies fulfilling their obligations.
Lt. Saunders knew his men had had it. They were worn, tired and hungry. It had been a long battle with multiple wounded, including his sergeant. Sergeant Watson was young and inexperienced but he held the respect of his men. He worked with them and shared a friendship with them. When it came time to assign duties and patrols he was fair. His men would have gone through the fires of hell for him.
But Saunders knew he had not yet earned this blind faith. He was newly promoted and wanted to do the right things. He had been in the war for what seemed like forever and still he saw no end in site. His men respected him for his fairness and his ability to read situations. He was quiet and private. Some took this to mean that he thought he was better than them because of his rank. That was far from the truth. It was a means of self-defense.
The battle raged on and his orders never changed, take the house and the barn and do it yesterday. In the first hour 5 men were lost. 3 severely wounded including the medic and his sergeant. Over the course of the next 4 hours the remainder of the men lost hope, lost faith and then they lost their sergeant. By the time the house and barn were taken only Saunders and one man remained. The others had all perished.
He sat for hours trying to write the letters. His mind fought to understand how a house and barn were worth so many young lives.
Replacements were given to the young Lieutenant and they fought several battles with minimal losses. But that one day still haunted him. He couldn't get the faces of those men out of his mind. It was a Sunday afternoon when it all came to a head.
It was suppose to be an easy patrol. He and two men were to scout the outskirts of the town they were living in. 45 minutes into the patrol the enemy was found trying to infiltrate the area. A brief battle ensued and Saunders was wounded. He was brought back to the evac hospital and treated for a mild concussion and a shoulder wound.
He laid in his bunk thinking. Always seeing the faces. He couldn't get them out of his mind. The words he had written to the families repeated in his head. He hated being a Lieutenant and wanted nothing more than to go back to being a Sergeant. He called for his Captain. They had been working together for 3 months. He respected Captain Jameson. He knew his decision would disappoint the man but he couldn't continue on as a Lieutenant.
"Capt. Jameson. I want to thank you for coming to see me." He continued to look the man straight in the eye. He knew he needed to face up to his decision and see where things led from there. "Captain. I formally request a demotion. I have thought about this for weeks. I know this will kill any chance I ever have of advancing again in the future but, sir, I do not wish to continue on as a Lieutenant. I was a good sergeant. I would like to be again. I want to see an end to this war and sir…I want to do it as a non com."
Captain Jameson had suspected something like this was going to happen. He had already made inquiries as to where he could transfer Saunders. He would have liked to have kept him in Africa but the European Theater needed good, competent men. Saunders was a decorated soldier. He had proven himself repeatedly. He already had more medals than most and yet he didn't care about the medals. "Saunders… Chip. I understand. It was hard to lose your whole patrol. But I would like you to reconsider. You are the type of man we need to win this war."
"Thank you sir. But I formally request a transfer and a demotion. I would prefer to keep what happened under wraps. I would like to get a chance to prove myself to my new men without the stigma… Sir…I…" He couldn't continue. He didn't know what else to say.
"I understand. Sergeant Saunders you have been awarded a Purple Heart for wounds received during combat. You are also being recognized for your…"
Saunders didn't hear the rest of what Captain Jameson said. He heard the words he had wanted to hear. "Sergeant Saunders" They were magic to his tired ears. After having fought to stay awake he lost the battle. When he awoke he found a new field jacket next to his bunk. It already had sergeant stripes on it. There were two velvet boxes sitting on top of it but Saunders didn't pay attention to them.
************** Return to the European Theater.
Hanley continued to sit vigil by his friend. He wiped the sergeant's face with a cool towel. He hoped he could help to break the fever and help his friend find a little peace. But Saunders didn't find peace. He mumbled, he screamed and bits and pieces of the past and present were clear.
"Hanley… Have to have faith… He did it… He saved my men…. I couldn't…. Dead…. All Dead…. To hot …. Barn…. The fire got Friedman…. Snipers… Lieutenant…. No…. all dead…. The sergeants' dead .. Couldn't save them… all dead…. Jameson….Captain Jameson…. They're dead… my fault…. Hanley managed… failed.. Dead… don't want to be …. Lieutenant …… don't want…. Want to be sergeant…."
Hanley listened to the ramblings. He didn't understand what Saunders was talking about. He didn't want to be a sergeant? How could he blame himself for what happened on that damn hill? Hanley knew that when the fever broke he was going to have to sit down and talk with Chip. He didn't want to lost him.
2 days. Multiple ice baths and antibiotics later. Saunders' fever broke and he was becoming alert.
Saunders shook his head. He hadn't dreamed of Africa in a life time. Or so it had seemed. But the hill had brought it back, with a vengeance. He stared at the walls of the small bedroom and wondered what he was going to do now. His perception of past and present had mixed and he believed again his men were lost to him.
When he opened his eyes he found Lt. Hanley sitting anxiously by his bed side.
"Welcome back. How are you feeling?" Hanley smiled. He was relieved and happy to see Saunders make a turn for the better.
Coughing Saunders croaked out "Wa--wa---water. Plea- please." Hanley helped Saunders raise his head to take a small drink. "Thanks" It was still gravely but much improved.
Hanley knew the time to talk was not now. Saunders needed his rest and Hanley believed that more than anything he needed to see his squad. Kirby was on crutches. Doc, Littlejohn and Caje walked into the room with Kirby. They were all excited and happy to hear their Sergeant was doing so much better.
The visit with the men was short but it seemed to help everyone. It was a time for healing for all of the men. Saunders began to tire and the men left so he could rest. They wanted to see Saunders return as soon as possible. As they left Saunders began to dream again. Horrible dreams of death and men he had commanded. Hanley stood in the doorway. He hadn't meant to listen but he wanted to try to ease the sergeant's mind. He spoke softly and commanded Saunders to rest. He explained that the men were safe. He didn't understand. He knew so little about Saunders past that he wasn't sure he was helping or not.
Hanley thought back to his first impressions of Saunders. He had heard the Sergeant had been busted down in rank. He knew he had just gotten his sergeant's stripes back. He had heard rumors of fights. He heard Saunders had struck a superior officer. Saunders had a reputation for not putting up with BS and for laying it on the line. He also had a reputation for being a good soldier in the field. He had been in Sicily and in Africa. And then he was stationed in England awaiting the big invasion. Hanley didn't want to like the handsome young sergeant. He didn't want to admit that Saunders could teach him a thing or two. When they crossed on the boat and he was given a choice of NCOs he choose Saunders.
His intention for choosing Saunders was to break him of his bad habits and turn him into a real soldier. A soldier that followed orders. He would not take crap off this sergeant who had just gotten his stripes back after having been busted down. He would make Saunders into a good sergeant.
What Hanley hadn't counted on was how good of a Lieutenant Saunders would make him into. Saunders began teaching him as soon as he had hit the beach. He had been there every step of the way. Hanley hadn't needed to give directions or orders. Saunders had an understanding that he had not possessed. He was a puzzle and Hanley set out to unravel the puzzle.
As time passed, Hanley gave up on trying to understand his friend. They had truly become friends and had learned from each other. Hanley believed he had learned more from Saunders but he thought he had taught some things to Saunders as well. Now here he sat and again he wanted to unravel the mystery of who Saunders really was and what made him into such an incredible sergeant. He wanted to confide in him and needed him to lean upon when the going got tough.
Saunders caused trouble but it was only for the enemy. All of the rumors Hanley had heard had not come to fruition. He wanted to help his friend return to the squad.
The next afternoon Saunders again awoke to find Hanley sitting next to his bunk.
"Have you slept at all?" The weak voice of Saunders caught the Lieutenant's attention.
"Yes, I just got her a couple of minutes ago. How are you feeling today?"
"Better… should be ready to return in another day or two."
"Let's let the doc decide that why don't we?" Hanley couldn't help but smirk at his sergeant's remark. Saunders hated hospitals and doctors. He tolerated Doc but as he had in the bunker, he made it perfectly clear he was directing all of his own medical needs. "You've been pretty sick. Give yourself time to heal up."
"Yes sir. How are you doing?"
Hanley saw the genuine concern in Saunders face. He didn't know if now was the time to bring up the things he had heard from the delirious man. He thought maybe he could prevent the inevitable by talking about it but not directly. "You know you were a lot of help to me out there. I've told you this before but I want to reiterate it. I always know I can count on you. You're the best NCO around. I'd hate to fight this war without you."
"Lieutenant, I'll be fine. Just need a couple more days of rest."
"I just wanted to tell you that. I wouldn't want to see you leave…"
"Lieutenant, I'm not going anywhere."
"Saunders you've… you've been real sick. The Doctor and I kept the men out but… but I stayed with you. You said some things that we need to talk about…later. Chip. If there is anything you need to talk about or… I'm here to listen, if you want to talk."
When Hanley looked back at Saunders he did not see what he expected. He had expected anger but instead Saunders was pale and if he didn't know better he thought he saw a look of fear. Hanley reached out and placed a hand on Saunders shoulder. He could feel a slight tremble. "Saunders, are you alright. Should I get the Doc."
"No…no…I'm…I'm alright. Give me a minute. I…ah…I just need a minute. Please, sir." Saunders closed his eyes and began to breathe deeply and slowly. Five minutes passed before the color returned and Saunders opened his eyes. "Can…" He coughed and reached for the glass of water next to his bunk. "Can you tell me what I said that brought all of this on?"
"If you are sure you want to hear it." Saunders nodded and Hanley gave his interpretation of what he had heard. He had no idea what can of worms he was about to open. "You said you felt guilty about what happened on the hill. You kept saying it was your fault the patrol was killed… you thought everyone was killed. You talked about resigning from being a Sergeant. I'm sure this was brought on by the fever…I just wanted to talk to you about it to make sure you weren't thinking about doing it now that you were better. It wasn't your decision or your fault what happened."
Before Hanley could continue, Saunders interrupted. At first his voice was low and Hanley had to struggle to hear him. "It was my fault. They were all killed." Saunders turned to look at his Lieutenant a silent plea in his eyes. "Sir, what I am about to tell you is going to change your opinion of me…and probably your desire to keep me on. I'll put in for a transfer without hesitation if that is what you want."
Saunders turned to look at the wall. He didn't want to relive the nightmares but now they had invaded his wakeful hours. He didn't know if telling the Lieutenant would do any good but he felt he owed it to him. "It was a long time ago back when I was in Africa. I lead a patrol to take out a farm house and barn. I followed orders and took the area but… I lost my patrol. My sergeant… God it's been a long time since I thought about it. My sergeant was wounded in the first round against the house. He and the medic were pretty seriously wounded and in time they died because of a lack of help. We tried to help them but there was nothing we could do. The sergeant's name was Fred…Fred Watson. He was a good guy the men liked him. They respected him. I was… I was new to the unit when it all began. I had experience fighting and knew what I was doing…or so I thought. Anyway Fred bled to death. He was sick, hurt and agitated. He knew he was going to die and wanted to make damn certain I knew it was my fault. It took hours of repeated unsuccessful attempts to take the area. In the end I took it, but I had lost my men in the process. We had…I was assigned new men and continued on. Continued on…I dreamed of their faces…the letters I had written…I dreamed of… I was wounded in a later battle and when I was up to it I talked to my Captain. I resigned and requested a transfer. I was given a two week leave and then sent to England where I met up with you. It was my fault they were killed. I will never…I couldn't see another way out and because of orders I continued to fight as directed." Saunders took a deep breathe and Hanley thought he was finished but he wasn't. "I'll submit my transfer this afternoon."
"Let's hold up on the transfer. Chip. I…you referred to your sergeant. You weren't the sergeant?"
"No sir. I…I was a…I was a Lieutenant. I resigned my commission and requested a demotion to sergeant."
Hanley sat back in shock. He had always assumed when he heard Saunders had 'just gotten his stripes back' the men were talking about him having lost them and regained them. Now, he had to rethink everything he had imagined. "But, I thought…"
"I know what you and the others thought. I didn't feel the need to correct you at the time. But… well, now you know. I'll understand if you…"
"You do understand. I didn't think there was any way you ever really could without having been there. But you have, you have walked a mile in my shoes. Or I guess you could say I have walked a mile in yours. I need to know something…Do…Have…You were faced with the same odds and the same orders…How have…how do you keep going out there? How can you stand to listen to me give those same orders?"
"Because Lieutenant I do understand. I hated being a Lieutenant. I was a good sergeant. Being in the field I am effective. I hated the paperwork. Dealing with the brass and listening to their orders knowing they had forgotten that the numbers and pieces on their maps were men. Young men that would never get the chance to grow up. I don't want to hear from them any more. I listen to you and follow orders and when I am in the field I know I am doing the best I can for the men I have with me. My goal is to bring them home. It…when faced with incredible odds I just try to figure a way to face it and avoid committing suicide. I won't lose another patrol because I couldn't find a way out. I will keep looking until I find one. And if I can't then…I'll try to create one."
"Lieutenant, you do that…you look out for your men. When given the impossible I always know you are looking for a way out. Like you did on the hill. You tried everything in your power to create opportunity. You tried to bring us all home but the Germans had other ideas and not all of us came back. That wasn't your fault. You did the best you could with what we had available."
"Saunders, I always knew there was something about you that didn't fit the bill. You always seemed to understand and offered suggestions without prejudice. I have no doubt you were a good Lieutenant. I wish I had known you then. But now I have to think…you know I always believed the rumors that you had struck a superior. I had figured it was called for because you had such a level head. You've seen a lot of action. You've commanded men and you have brought more men out of impossible situations that any other I have ever heard about. I will not accept your transfer request. This squad…these men…we need you. I never thought I would admit it to you but… I still have a lot to learn from you."
"Sir, I think we bring the best out of each other. Our styles of command may be different but we work well as a team. Thank you for not holding it against me for not being upfront with you before…Captain Jameson and I agreed it was no one's business as to what happened. I never would have told you. I never wanted to revisit… I guess I'm glad you know now. But sir, I don't want the men to know. I can't have them know…"
Hanley reached for a cigarette and lit it. He passed it to Saunders and lit another for himself. They sat in silence each thinking about the other, about the past and what the future may hold.
"Sergeant, this conversation never took place. You and I have a new understanding but I will not mention this to any of the men. I want you to think about this though…you say it wasn't my fault. I had orders and I followed them. We did the best we could with what we had… How can you blame yourself for having done the same? I know you better now than before but even without knowing your past I have no doubt that you did the best you could with what you had and you followed orders. You've told me it wasn't my fault and I shouldn't feel guilty for what happened. How can I accept that if you haven't?" He took a deep breathe and looked to his friend again. "Chip, you did your best of that I have no doubt. Think about it and quit blaming yourself. If you want to talk about this later we will but for now rest and hurry back. And that's an order."
The smile on the Lieutenant's face eased the words. Saunders would think about the past, the men he had lost, the decisions he had made and finally he found peace. It wasn't easy but he looked to the future. 2 more days would pass before Saunders felt up to walking around. Because of his rapid healing he was not shipped back. He remained in the camp. It was late evening when he entered the Lieutenant's HQ. The corporal was manning the radio and Hanley sat at the desk doing paperwork.
Quietly he spoke. "Well, that's one thing I will never miss."
Hanley smiled as he looked up. "Levins, why don't you go get yourself some dinner. Saunders and I need to talk."
"Yes sir thank you." He quickly left the office. He was only too happy to be able to get some food.
"Lieutenant, I should be ready to return to the squad in a couple of days according to the doc."
"I heard. Glad to hear you are healing so fast. The men have missed you. So have I."
"I've thought about what you said. I can't change what I did and I wouldn't want to be a Lieutenant again. You were right. I did the best I could. I couldn't see it then but I can now. Maybe if my sergeant had lived he could have knocked some sense into me. But, he didn't…it took you to do that for me. What I said about you hasn't changed. You're a great Lieutenant and I would follow your orders into the fires of hell. I think I have upon occasion. I'm happy about where I am now and I wouldn't change a thing. I've never been very open with you in the past…don't expect that to change. I think the pain medication and other drugs they have been giving me has loosened my tongue. Maybe I'll forget we ever talked this through. But…then again maybe I won't."
"Glad to have you back Saunders." With a twinkle in his eyes he added, "I don't know what we talked through…but I'll never forget. Thanks Saunders."