I'd just like to add a bit of clarifying information before you begin to read the following story. It concerns incidents that occurred during one patrol in the winter of 1945 and seen from the viewpoints of four of the soldiers concerned. These views are expressed in the form of letters home and I've taken the liberty of giving one of our heroes a name, in the case of Doc, also I've given them families and addresses. I tried to stick to facts given in "Combat!" If I've strayed or been inaccurate or in the case of Doc's name, you hated it, please forgive my artistic license, and do feel free to let me know! Also, I originally published these letters in different fonts to give the impression of the various handwriting. Didn't work out here. Sorry!
P.S. Check out the copyright date at the very end of the letters! I didn't realize how long ago I originally wrote these. I took them from my geocities website since geo is going the way of the dinosaur. If you've read these before at my site, I still hope you'll enjoy reading them again.
Thursday, 25 January 1945
Mr.& Mrs. Armand Lemay
Dear Mama and Papa,
I hope you don't mind, this letter isn't like ones I usually write, but I need to talk to somebody. No, I need to talk to you, tell you what happened today. It's eating me up inside.
We were on patrol, Lieutenant Hanley, Sergeant Saunders, myself, Doc, Kirby, Littlejohn and Billy. It was just supposed to be a regular patrol, but things went wrong from the start.
It was bitter cold, snow a foot deep and no hot chow. We weren't out an hour before the lieutenant fell and wrenched his back. He could barely walk so Sarge sent Doc back with him. That made us short two men. That wouldn't have been a problem if the patrol had stayed what it was supposed to be, a recon, no enemy contact.
An hour or so past noon we came to a clearing. There were bodies everywhere, frozen solid, arms and legs sticking up out of snow dyed red , eyes wide open staring at nothing. They weren't soldiers' bodies. They were civilians, men, women, little kids. Sarge even found a baby. Billy couldn't take it and got sick. Sarge told us he'd heard about this happening other places. He said the people were Jews. The Germans had killed them only because of that. There was little talking from then on.
The day only got worse.
I was on point, being careful, cautious, I thought, like always. Germans were dug in deep, low behind a clump of bushes that looked like any of a thousand others. I led the squad into an ambush.
Billy was hit straight off, but he didn't die, not clean, not easy. During the battle he lay next to Sarge crying, calling for his mother. We could hear him even through the gunfire. There was no time to comfort him, only time to try and get us, all of us, out alive.
Saunders was hit when he tried to move up. It was the weirdest thing. I was covering him, me and Kirby. He raised up just enough to throw in a grenade and like a movie in slow motion I saw him get hit. A machine gun bullet caught him in the right shoulder, up high, went straight through, knocking him back off his feet. Blood sprayed the snow behind him, a hundred tiny red dots.
The grenade went off and it got real quiet. Littlejohn went to Billy and I tried to get to Sarge, but my legs wouldn't move. I tried to yell at Kirby that I couldn't get up but he was already with Saunders. Kirby was yelling for me to come, he needed help. The sarge was bleeding and Kirby couldn't stop it. He kept yelling. His face was white, almost as white as Sarge's. Somehow I got there, but I don't remember how.
Billy died in that clearing. Littlejohn carried his body all the way back, alone.
Kirby and I brought Sarge home.
We're behind the lines now in a little village. The people try their best to make us welcome.
Sarge might live. The doctors are hopeful, whatever that means. Littlejohn, he won't ever be the same. Him and Billy were pals, best friends. He hasn't said a word since it happened, not to me, not even to the lieutenant. I don't blame him.
I wish I was home talking to you instead of having to write this all in a letter. But maybe it's best this way. I don't think I could say out loud what I've written down.
Thanks for listening. I miss you both. I miss home. I love you.
January 26, 1945, Friday, 2:30a.m.
Mr. & Mrs. Evan Halsey
Halsey Farm Road
I know it's late to be writing but after what happened today, tonight, I couldn't sleep with it all on my mind.
What happened is bad, so bad maybe you should stop reading now and just tear this whole thing up. Heck, maybe I should do that myself.
We, the whole squad, were sent on a mission this morning, early. It was colder even than it gets at home this time of year.
First off Lieutenant Hanley takes a nasty fall and twists his back. Sarge, Sergeant Saunders, sends me back with him. Hanley's bad off, in a lot of pain and can't hardly walk at all, but I feel funny leaving the men without a medic.
The squad goes on, Sarge, Caje, Kirby, Littlejohn and Billy. I get the Lieutenant back and settled into his quarters after the doctor takes a look at him. Bed rest for a week recommended. I bet Hanley gives it two days, three at the most.
My day is pretty normal. I work around the field hospital helping the doctors with the wounded. I check the lieutenant a couple times, eat a hot supper, get the men bedded down for the night.
I'm dozing off in a chair by the pot bellied stove when the door is kicked in. That scares the daylights out of me and I jump up, trying to get the sleep out of my eyes.
Standing in the doorway is Littlejohn and he's holding Billy Nelson in his arms like a baby. Before I make if over, calling for Captain Jaworski, I can see Billy's dead. His face is pasty white and there's no expression on the boy's face. I feel sick, like I'm going to throw up but I don't. I try to take Billy from Littlejohn but he won't let me. He pushes past, a gentle giant of a man, and sits on a bench in a far corner, the body cradled against his chest. He sits and stares straight ahead.
Caje's voice from outside pulls me back and I run outside.
Kirby is sitting on the ground next to a rigged up stretcher looking down at his hands like he's never seen them before. Caje is crouched at the foot end, talking fast, all his words running together. He doesn't even realize he's talking French to me.
The man on the stretcher is Sarge. All I can see is his face. He's covered with wool German coats, almost buried in them. His face, like Billy's, is pasty white, but when I lean close I can see tiny puffs of breath coming from his mouth. I thank God he's alive.
I signal Caje to pick up his end and between us we get Sarge inside. I yell at Kirby to get up and follow. I guess he hears because he follows us.
Doc Jaworski pulls the coats off Saunders. He's awake, looking up at me but not seeing it's me. Jaworski cuts away Sarge's coat and shirt and the bandaging and Saunders cries out, weak, more like a kitten mewling. I don't know where Kirby's been but all of a sudden he's right there in the Captain's face, yelling "Give him somethin' for pity's sake! Give him somethin' for the pain!" His voice goes real low and soft then and he says "Sarge was so good...never said a word...all the time we was carryin' him...never complained. Give him somehin' now. For God's sake!"
Before me or Caje can do anything, Kirby drops right down to the floor, out cold. We get him onto a cot and I start getting his wet boots and socks off checking for frostbite, then cover him with blankets. When I get his gloves and liners off I feel sick all over again. His glove liners are stuck to his hands. The palms and fingers are nothing but broken, bleeding blisters. I have Caje take off his gloves and they're almost as bad.
Those two guys carried the Sarge nearly 12 miles over snow a foot deep in places, through woods, up and down hills, dodging German patrols. They deserve medals for what they did, but I doubt they'll get any. It's that sort of bravery that happens all the time over here but is so quiet and so personal it just never gets noticed at all. But I noticed and I'll never forget.
The orderlies can't get Billy away from Littlejohn. They have to wait till he falls asleep, give him a shot to keep him out and take the boy's body.
He's sleeping now. I can see him from here. I don't know how he'll be when he wakes up. Caje and Kirby are asleep too. I got their hands cleaned and dressed and some hot food into them.
Saunders is hooked up to a couple IVs. One's giving him blood, the other, fluids. We were lucky we had a couple guys with his type willing to donate. He's a little better...not so pale. He was hit in the shoulder. Captain says if he makes this night, he'll live. I'm sitting next to him. When he wakes up he'll want to see a friendly face.
Lieutenant Hanley came in a bit ago, on his feet against orders, to see the men for himself. I told him the story as I saw it. He looked as sick as I felt. He wanted to stay in the hospital too for the night, in case of any changes, but the Captain forbid it and sent him back to his quarters. He stayed long enough to take my place so I could get some coffee. He's a good man. They all are.
I hate to say this but I've been so concerned about the living, I almost forgot about the dead.
Billy was a fine youngster, full of life and fun, a happy kid who should've been home, going to parties, walking with a girl of a warm summer evening, going fishing. Not here, not dying. He was a good soldier. He came to do a job. He did it just right. God keep him.
Like I told you at the beginning of all this, maybe you should just tear this letter up. Maybe you did and this is all for nothing. Maybe I won't even mail it but I sure feel better having put it down to paper.
I keep the Bible you sent in my field jacket, in an inside pocket so I won't lose it. It brings me comfort. I'll read some tonight before I try to sleep. I guess I should say morning; the sun's coming up now.
I love you both. I miss you. God bless,
Lee (or as the guys all call me, Doc)
January 27, 1945
Mr. & Mrs. James Kirby
250 South Main Street
Dear Mom, Dad and George, (Hiya Kid)!
Got a few minutes and a sheet of paper and pencil so thought I'd write. What a surprise,huh? I'll try to be better about answering your letters but it's hard sometimes, heck, it's hard all the time! Sorry the writing's so messy. I got a bad blister on my thumb!
I'll tell you right off I'm fine, but the squad's in pretty sorry shape. On a patrol a couple days ago, we lost Billy Nelson. You remember me telling you about Billy. He was a good kid, a good soldier. It was awful. Pure god awful. He was a lot like you, George, a goofy kid some of the time, but mostly just a good joe. He was 20 years old. His favorite band was Harry James' and he had a huge crush on Dorothy Lamour.
I don't know why I think it's important to tell you that, but it feels less lonely when I remember things about him. I wish now that I'd told Billy I thought it was an all right guy. I'll miss him.
I tried to talk to Littlejohn about Billy, but he clammed up tight. They were close. Caje is tore up too, about Billy, but about Sergeant Saunders more, I think.
Sarge got it after Billy did. It was clean, a bullet through the shoulder, but I couldn't get it to stop bleeding. Finally between Caje and me we did. We made a stretcher out of two dead Germans' coats and a couple saplings. Sarge nearly died on us before we made it back. It was blue cold and he'd lost too much blood.
At the field hospital the doctor let us take turns sitting with him. First they weren't sure he'd live, but Sarge is stubborn as they come. He was awake today. Caje told me. It was the first time I'd seen Caje smile since before we left on that lousy patrol.
Between you and me and the lamp post I think maybe Caje thought it was his fault we got caught in the ambush. It wasn't. There's no way he could've seen those Krauts. They were hidden too good. Nobody could've seen 'em.
We saw something else the day of that patrol. I can't tell you about that, not yet. I can't even talk to the other guys about it. Someday I hope I'll be able to, someday. I wonder if anybody will believe it.
So Mom, how are things in Ma Kirby's kitchen? Hope you're baking up a storm. I can eat anything you send and I guess I could maybe share some with the guys. My stomach's growling just thinking about that care package!
Dad, don't mess with the transmission on my Chevy. Just leave it, okay? Not that I don't think you can handle it, but the war will be over soon and I, well. Just wait for me, okay?
George, be a good kid. Hey, no laughing! Take care of things till I get back and keep me posted on the newest music and all. Hubba hubba! Or is that old hat now? You're my lifeline, kid. I'm counting on you.
Gotta go. I want to get some chow before I sit my watch with Sarge. Maybe he'll be awake tonight. Wouldn't mind talking to him. Won't expect answers, but the sarge, he listens real good. I sure do miss you all, yup, even you, kid. Write me. SEND FOOD!
p.s. George, if you get into Chicago any time soon, eat a Flukie's hot dog for me, will ya? Get the works on it too! Don't forget the hot peppers! B
January 29, 1945, Monday
Mrs. Laura Saunders
Miss Louise Saunders
1323 Crain Street
Dear Mom and Louise,
Sorry it's taken me so long to answer your last letter. We've been on patrol daily and totally out of touch, no paper and no place to mail anything anyway.
I promise, you will be hearing from me more often for a while. We've settled in behind our own lines in a small town, very provincial, very French. We spent a day here last month. There's a good bakery and decent tobacco shop, but I don't think I'll ever really enjoy a French cigarette.
In the center of town there's a fountain. It's sort of a gathering place for the townspeople. Kids splash in it. Women do small pieces of laundry there by hand. Reminds me of Grandma Schroeder and her old washboard. Old men smoke and talk. There are no young men here. They're either in the Maquis, that's the French underground, or dead.
We get hot meals twice a day, a warm water shower and a soft bed. Lots of sack time. Not a bad life. Feels funny though, like I'm sloughing off, not doing my job or something. Guess I'll get over that feeling when I get used to being off my feet.
By now, who am I kidding, by the first line you realized this isn't my handwriting. It's too neat. I put off telling you this because I just didn't know how. I was wounded four days ago in a skirmish. A bullet clipped the top of my shoulder so my right arm is in a sling. No surgery or anything since the bullet went clean through. At first it burned, now it's mostly an achy throb. Don't worry! I'll be fine.
The worst part is, we, I, lost a man. Actually he was more a boy, 20 years old. He'd been with the squad since right after Omaha Beach. His name was Billy Nelson. His death hit us all hard, but especially Littlejohn. Those two were inseparable. Brothers couldn't have been closer. Littlejohn's not the same guy I knew. Something's gone out of him, a bit of his heart maybe, or his soul. I don't know.
Doc says he's running out of space so I'll finish this up. I think he's just tired of me running off.
Take care of each other. Know I love you both and write! Getting mail means more than you can know. Doc says send cookies, any kind! Kirby just came in. He says make 'em macaroons!
Love and miss you,
Copyright 1993, Susan Balnek-Ballard. All rights reserved.