(originally posted Dec 1998 at Purple Hearts website under pen name Anzio Annie)
December 21, 1944.
The longest day of the year.
Maybe the longest night of their lives.
Snow fell, damp and clinging, on a platoon of soldiers who lay in mud-lined fox-holes, hugging their thin cotton field jackets to their ribs and grasping their M1 rifles with chapped and swollen fingers. Dinner had been cold white beans and colder coffee; they hadn't seen hot food in over a week. Hunger gnawed at their bellies, but fear clenched their guts in painful cramps. Watching - until their eyes felt like sandpaper. Waiting - for the whine of a sniper's bullet, for the piercing cold steel of a German bayonet, for the earth-shaking, blinding, nowhere-to-run-from-it artillery to separate men from limbs. Or waiting for nothing at all, but more sleep-robbing cold and hunger and such misery that some of the men prayed for a sniper's bullet after all.
All hopes of being home by Christmas had been crushed in the blood-soaked Hurtgen forest and buried in transient graves. Some men retreated. Some wept and shook and collapsed with battle fatigue. And some held fast. The men in Sergeant Saunders' squad were survivors. But it was a long and miserable night.
December 22, 1944.
For the first time in a week, the guys were going to be camped indoors. The front line ran through a war-torn Belgian village called Esperances and the squad gathered in the vestibule of a ruined church, awaiting orders. Weak ribbons of sun light cascaded through gaping wounds in the field stone walls, where stained glass windows used to be. Dark and dusty shadows in the church corners were lit by the eerie flickering of votive candles. A balding, stoop-shouldered parishioner shuffled over to the church organ to see how it had survived the shelling. Soon, disjointed chords echoed in the stillness, mournful and deep.
After the village had been flushed, Captain Hanley had gathered the NCO's for a briefing at the Command Post. Sergeant Saunders emerged from that late afternoon session with a pallor that wasn't due solely to the incipient pneumonia he was trying to deny. Their assignment was one of the most macabre he'd ever faced.
At L'Eglise St. Sebastian, he faced his men. Too weary for curiosity, they slumped against the shrapnel-scarred walls, hollow-cheeked, dirty, unshaven. Used up. "The chaplain here is holding the company mail of the men who were KIA," Saunders told them. "Our orders are to rummage through it for Christmas packages, set aside anything valuable to send back, and look for perishable food."
"Sarge, you've gotta be kidding!" Littlejohn was the first to grasp the significance of the orders and voice his dismay.
Saunders looked up at the gentle giant who had served with him for so many months. Everyone in the squad was gaunt and weak, but it was especially noticeable on Littlejohn. His uniform hung from him in loose folds these days; he must have lost 30 pounds since Omaha Beach. The farmboy-turned-soldier was unselfish and complacent, always looking for the best in people and situations. Sarge needed to find a way to appeal to that trait.
"Look guys," he said. "I know it doesn't feel right. But other divisions have already gotten orders to burn all the Christmas mail to keep it out of German hands. If we don't get reinforcements soon, we may get the same orders here." He paused for a coughing fit and then went on. "If it's going to end up ashes anyway, we might as well honor the families who sent it, by putting it to better use first. You know they would want that, if we could ask them. And maybe something in here will help keep one more soldier alive, to make it safely home..."
You couldn't argue with a Saunders Patented Pep Talk. So the men stepped carefully over the shards of stained glass and melted clumps of lead underfoot that had once shaped a rose window in medieval times, and settled in a corner near the altar where the floor wasn't covered in snow, dumping their gear and collapsing with fatigue. Sarge found the chaplain and came back with the sack of mail that had been set aside for their comrades who had been killed. Then he perched in a nearby pew, set down his Thompson sub-machine gun, and leaned back to watch, like a father who has sat up all night assembling trains and bikes for the kids to discover under the tree Christmas morning.
Kirby dove into the task with relish, tearing into the mailbag with a bayonet. War had whittled Kirby down to the bare essentials, close-cropped hair, wiry build. A sharp guy - with sharp angles in his features, sharp wit, and above all a sharp tongue. He was a man who liked the sound of his own voice. If it stayed quiet too long you could count on Kirby's distinctive accent cracking the silence with insults or complaints or wildly exaggerated stories. The sleeves of his frayed field jacket revealed shadows of stripes won and lost; at Christmas 1944 he was a private again.
"Well, lookee what Santa brought me!" he crowed, peering down the open end of a box gaily wrapped with candy canes. Whatever it was, the thought of it warmed him enough to thaw his face muscles so he could smile again.
The guys looked over and Doc drawled, "Ain't that nice. A box of Ritz crackers."
"That's what the censors might think," Kirby grinned. "This boy's brother or daddy is a man after my own heart." He reached into the box of crackers and pulled out a safely cushioned bottle of whiskey, which he quickly tucked in his jacket next to his heart.
The church organist started a song then, one that creaked out of the damaged pipes like a funeral dirge. For a moment, the men were reminded that these were gifts sent with love and hope, by people whose hearts were about to be broken when the telegram from the War Department came. But war doesn't let soldiers dwell on such things. They hadn't had their humanity beaten out of them yet, but they were veterans enough to keep it under control when so ordered.
Caje, who hadn't lost his corporal stripes like his pal Kirby, tore off his brown paper wrapping a little awkwardly. He'd been recovering from surgery in a hospital in Liege four days before, when officers had come through with grim orders that anybody who could be considered walking wounded was needed back on the lines as soon as possible. Without a word, Caje threw away the sling and hopped a convoy truck back. His right shoulder still bothered him considerably, Sarge knew, and the constant shivering kept it from healing.
Underneath the Christmas paper lay a white cardboard box and in the box lay a thick green sweater. Caje's long fingers brushed the wool gently and his hazel eyes grew misty. Hand-knitted; he could tell by the endearing dropped stitches. He'd had one just like it once; now a little orphan named Bijou was proudly wearing it, back in some forgotten French village.
Caje put the sweater back in the box and laid it aside with the valuables, absently rubbing his shoulder.
"Keep it," Sarge said.
"It's not 'perishable'," Caje reminded him. "We're looking for food, right?"
Sarge leaned forward, picked it up and handed it back to him. "Don't argue. It's yours now. Merry Christmas."
Caje shrugged with his good shoulder and handed Sarge a little package. "Okay, Sarge. Here's one for you then."
Sarge was Sarge, no first name, no last name, to the men he led. Father confessor, big brother, teacher, tyrant, he was legendary in the division. He had turned down a battlefield commission. Why? An infinitely private man; no-one seemed to know him well enough to understand what made him tick. His tousled blond hair was as unruly as a toddler's, but his eyes were a thousand years old. Being handed a Christmas present felt almost awkwardly intimate to him.
And anyway, it was too small to have food in it, Sarge thought. But the guys wouldn't let him put it down unopened. So he peeled away the envelope, slit the tape that fastened paper covered with jolly snowmen. And pulled out a big fat yo-yo.
He couldn't help himself. His eyes lit up and he laughed out loud.
"Try it out Sarge," Kirby urged.
Feeling a little silly, and more carefree than he had felt in years, he slipped his middle finger through the looped string, and let it fly. The red wooden wheel spun away and then snapped right back like a well-trained dog. In a moment, he was Walking the Dog, and demonstrating Around the World.
It was a timeless moment. Even the never-ending buzz-bombs rumbling toward Verviers faded into silence. And then the organ began to play softly, slowly, the opening verse of Silent Night, and Sarge jerked back to his senses. He rolled the string off his finger and set the yo-yo down in the pile of valuables.
"No way, Sarge," Caje admonished. "This was meant for you." He pushed it back at his NCO and Sarge thoughtfully caressed it with his thumb and then pocketed it with a guilty grin.
Doc's turn was next. "A book," he predicted, balancing it in his hand as if he were guessing the weight of a fish he'd just caught. Doc was like an old Arkansas coon dog, with an doleful expression to match, loyal and dutiful, mindless of risk to himself. But he didn't hunt coons or even Germans; he was single-minded in his quest to retrieve (and relieve) anyone needing medical aid.
Doc scratched away the colorful nativity scene wrapping paper, and found a new St. James Bible.
Littlejohn, a religious man, began to wonder if some higher power wasn't somehow making sure each man got what he needed most. Doc had carried a Bible in all the months he'd known him; took comfort from it in some dire situations and shared its comfort with others when it was needed. None of them had spent more time with dying men than Doc had - that had to be hard. Two weeks ago Doc's copy had been shredded by a piece of shrapnel. The book might have saved his life. But he'd been without one ever since.
Littlejohn felt a silly smile creep across his face at the thought of Christmas angels hovering overhead, having a hand in which packages were 'randomly' picked.
Doc just looked at the Bible and then at the pile of valuables. His friends shook their heads. So he gave a little nod and kept it.
Littlejohn reached a long arm into the mailbag next. He almost couldn't imagine what an angel would guess his heart's desire would be. The package he grabbed was small but heavy, and he recognized the rich smell of fudge as soon as he had it in both hands. He closed his eyes for a moment, savoring the memory of his mom standing over a hot stove, stirring a pot of thick boiling chocolate. And then he opened his eyes and read the address label. His face froze. "Noooo ..." he keened.
Sarge was on his feet with cat-like quickness. "What is it?"
Littlejohn handed him the box mutely. It was addressed to PFC Billy Nelson.
"There must be some mistake," Sarge said. "Nelson's not even in this company anymore, you know that." Some platoons had suffered more than 90% casualties in Normandy and then Belgium; they couldn't be rebuilt entirely with new guys from the Replacement Depot with no front line experience. So it wasn't unusual to re-assign combat veterans when they got released from hospitals, to balance the experience levels. Somewhere at this moment, fresh-faced accident-prone young Billy Nelson was unbelievably the most experienced soldier in some squad - at least, last they had heard.
The rest of the squad unconsciously huddled closer, protectively. "So they got Billy's mail mixed up with the KIA mail? Well, sure, that's gotta be a mistake," Kirby said reassuringly. "You think HQ never makes a mistake!? Why, one time ..."
"It's no mistake."
The deep voice, the commanding tone, could only belong to Captain Hanley. The heavy church doors swept shut behind him, the gust blowing out several candles. Hanley took off his helmet, ran a hand through his thick hair. He had written a hundred letters to grieving families back home. He'd gotten his last promotion because it was a tribute to his leadership that it hadn't been two hundred letters. But this one he felt deeply. His green eyes were full of pain. "I just got confirmation. His platoon was fighting on Hill 400; some of the men got cut off. Billy was one of them." Hanley swallowed. "He was wounded. They were captured. And he died of his wounds before being transported to a POW camp."
"But ... it can't be true." Littlejohn staggered to his feet.
"That's not why I'm here," Hanley told them, a bitter reminder that there was no time for mourning, in war. "S2 reports that the Krauts have set up a road-block six kilometers south of this village. We need to check it out, just after dawn tomorrow, and take it out if we want any reinforcements in here. I need volunteers." He looked at the sorry group huddled in front of him.
Sarge was flushed with fever and had a hacking cough. Flu, Doc said he suspected, and likely to turn into pneumonia.
Caje was still weak and struggling from that confrontation he had lost a scant week ago with a Schmeisser.
Kirby, who'd complained that his feet hurt ever since D-Day, had a very real limp now and was likely to become the latest victim of trenchfoot.
Doc was a non-combatant.
And Littlejohn was blind and numb with grief.
December 23, 1944.
In the end, they all went. There would be a tank to actually take out the road-block; their mission was to meet up with it two or three miles outside of the village, then scout ahead. If the road-block could be taken with a single tank, they would provide infantry support and secure the objective.
Two miles outside the village, they ran into a Kraut patrol. Caje had the point, as usual. Like an Indian scout in frontier days, he was athletic, capable, stoic, lethal. He trotted back around the curve in the road and waved the Americans into the cover of the hedgerows before the Germans saw them.
They waited then, burrowed in snow six inches deep. It was the sort of snow that crunched underfoot, the kind that brought back for some the fond memories of playing in snow forts as kids back in the States. The kind of snow that was deadly here where the front lines were no game. The squad waited. Waited. Hearing the marchers before they saw them. Hearing the footfalls, and the low murmured voices that even in another language revealed fear and uncertainty.
Sarge indicated that they should let the patrol pass them first and wait for his lead. Littlejohn's hands tightened on his weapon. His mind whirled with thoughts of Billy Nelson, falling wounded to a Kraut patrol like this one. He remembered an earlier time, when Billy had been wounded and captured, but never lost his faith that his buddy would come for him. A cold rage swelled in Littlejohn's chest, making it hard to breathe.
As the Krauts walked past, incautious and undoubtedly young, Littlejohn opened fire. Saunders cast a quick glance his way in surprise and then reacted in kind. The crisp morning air was suddenly lit with muzzle flashes and the sharp reports of automatic weapons as the exposed soldiers dove for cover in panic.
With the advantage of stealth and experience, the American squad hunted them down, one by one, raking the woods with fire from tommy gun and BAR. When the German patrol was eliminated and the bodies swiftly checked for further threat, Sarge led his squad south, where they found a farmhouse in flames, and a disabled American tank, smoldering in the road.
Wordlessly, Sarge gestured his commands. He and Caje went to flush out the house. Kirby, slowed by painfully frost-bitten feet, covered them with his BAR from the woods. And Littlejohn and Doc went to check on the tank.
It was burning when they reached it. Doc scampered on top to check for survivors, without a thought for his own safety. Littlejohn heard a moan from a ditch at the side of the road and skidded across the icy tank tracks to investigate. A young American was lying there, in a puddle of snow and slush that slowly blossomed dark red while Littlejohn watched. And on his knees beside him was a Wehrmacht lieutenant.
Littlejohn raised his M1.
"Nicht schiessen!" the officer begged. He raised his hands and let Littlejohn see that he had been attempting to apply first aid, not attacking the injured American. "I am helping."
For a moment, Littlejohn paused. He stared at the German uniform and his finger tightened on the trigger. Tears burned behind his eyes. And then, slowly, shaking, he lowered his rifle.
Sarge and Caje jogged up. "House is quiet. Some dead Krauts with a panzerfaust," Sarge said. He stared at the man kneeling in the ditch. "What are you doing there?"
"This soldier, he was hanging out of the ... hatch," the lieutenant said, his English accented. "He was badly wounded and cried for help. There was fire. I pulled him out and dragged him here."
By this time Doc had edged him aside to check the tanker's injuries. "This guy didn't bandage himself, Sarge," Doc told him.
Caje yanked the German to his feet and tossed aside a well-worn bolt action Mauser. The little Walther PPK that he discovered while frisking him ended up tucked in Caje's belt.
Sarge looked at Littlejohn. He was still shaking. Then he looked at the wounded American replacement, whose inexperience had confused six kilometers with six miles and led him to misjudge the rendezvous. Who might have died in that tank if the enemy had not intervened. And finally, he turned his gaze back on the German lieutenant. "Do you want to be taken prisoner?" he asked finally. "Or do you want to return to your men?"
"I must return to my comrades," the officer said, his face as weary and sad as their own.
Saunders nodded, expecting nothing else. He gestured to Kirby to let the man pass, heading back toward German lines. "Littlejohn," he added, "follow him 100 yards and keep watch there. Just in case." The lanky private jogged off.
On the ground, the wounded man moaned.
"What's your name, son?" Doc asked, rummaging in his satchel.
"Well, this'll fix you right up, O'Neill." Doc quickly injected him with a syrette of morphine, but the boy's teeth still chattered. "I'm so cold ..."
Caje had already stripped off his jacket to use in making a litter. Now he took off his helmet and pulled the green sweater over his head with a wince, and then knelt in the mud to tuck it in around the trembling soldier. Kirby exchanged a look with Caje and then shrugged. He reached into his shirt and pulled out the whiskey. "Here. This'll warm you up, kid," he said. Putting one arm around the young man's shoulders, he helped him sit up enough to enjoy a swallow.
"Thanks," O'Neill whispered. "Doc ... " he looked over at the corpsman, who was threading broken tree limbs through the sleeves of Kirby's and Caje's jackets. "Am I gonna die?"
"You don't wanna do that." Doc smiled back at him. "I hear there's a bunch of Army Corps Nurses in Liege, just waiting to take care of you. Ain't that right Caje?"
"That's right, pal." Caje grinned. "Ask for a nurse named Debby."
"My wife ... wouldn't like that," O'Neill gritted his teeth around a smile.
Sarge scanned the tree line and then looked down at his ward. "You got a family back home?"
"Wife and little boy," O'Neill said proudly.
"Well, here," Sarge pulled the red yo-yo out of his pocket. "You hang onto this until you see your kid again. Then you can give it to him."
O'Neill's hand closed tightly around the toy and stayed clenched even after he lost consciousness.
It took a long time to bring back the wounded man. Doc and Littlejohn carried the litter back to the village, while Sarge guarded the rear. The wind picked up; frigid blasts that felt like they were flaying the skin off the bones of Kirby and Caje in their shirt sleeves. Those carrying the stretcher were so stiffened by the cold that they stumbled often and had to stop to rest.
Night comes early in northern Europe that time of year. The sky was black as soot when they finally stumbled back into the village and collapsed into the church to sleep at 1630 hours.
December 24, 1944.
Heavenly music echoed around them, waking Kirby from the deepest sleep he could remember. The silhouette of innocent faces swam in front of him; back-lit from the sunrise streaming behind them, there appeared to be halos surrounding them. He blinked and saw two young figures dressed in long white robes. "Angels!" he cried. "Dammit! Am I dead?"
Sarge woke next, laughing. "You're in a church, Kirby. Remember?"
"They're altar boys," Caje explained. "And that's Panis Angelicus," he added, cocking his head to hear the music better. "I haven't heard that since I was a boy."
Sarge sneezed and Kirby lay back and shut his eyes with a relieved sigh. He figured people didn't sneeze in heaven.
The children moved away, giggling, and Littlejohn stretched and came fully awake. "What's this about being dead?" he rumbled.
"I'm not, you know." The speaker moved into view, and Littlejohn rubbed his eyes with disbelief. The soldier was still there, rumpled and dirty, flesh and blood.
The squad had never seen Littlejohn move that fast. He grabbed Billy in a bear-hug that swept him off his feet. When Sarge and Caje and Kirby and Doc joined in, they all tumbled to the ground.
"What the hell do you mean, scaring us like that," Littlejohn demanded.
"Well, it's all Sarge's fault," Billy answered.
"My fault?" Sarge protested. "How ..."
"It's like this." Billy sat up, rubbing his elbow. "I was second to Goldman, our squad's BAR man. We got separated from the platoon on Hill 400, and Goldman was hit. I couldn't leave him." Unconsciously, he scrubbed his hands against his knees, as though wiping Goldman's blood off them. "We got captured. Goldman was hurt bad, and I tried to get the Krauts to get him some medical aid. The SS officer just looked at his dog-tags, saw he was Jewish, and said it didn't matter; he'd be dead sooner or later anyway. Well, that pissed me off! So, I said to myself, what would Sarge do?"
"What WOULD Sarge do?" Littlejohn asked.
"Goldman was out of it much of the time. I swapped dog-tags with him when he passed out. Then they marched us some more, and I was half carrying him by this time. When they passed us along to another German squad, I asked the new officer to let a doctor treat him, and this time they agreed." Nelson reached behind him for his canteen to get a drink before embarking on what promised to be a long story, but found the water frozen. He shrugged.
"That's what I would have done?" Sarge asked.
"Heck no, Sarge," Kirby said. "You'd have overpowered the Krauts single-handedly and stolen a Tiger tank to bring Goldman back!" He grinned.
"I didn't say it's what Sarge would'a done," Billy said. "I said it's all I could come up with when I tried to think of what Sarge would'a done. But I guess Goldman didn't make it anyway."
"And Graves Registration was uncommonly efficient in updating their records," Doc observed.
"And commonly inefficient in correcting them," Kirby added.
"So," Caje interjected, "how did you get away from the Krauts?"
"And how did you end up here today?" Sarge wondered, smothering another cough with the back of his hand.
"Well, I came in with the reinforcements at dawn," Billy answered the short and easy question first. "Once somebody knocked out the road-block ..."
Just then Captain Hanley stuck his head in the church. He grinned, having already been alerted to the paperwork snafu. "Is anybody interested in breakfast?" he asked. "Chow truck just set up."
"It's been so long since I've had a hot meal I forgot you were supposed to eat oatmeal hot," Littlejohn exclaimed. "C'mon." He hauled Billy to his feet. "You can tell us all about your miraculous escape from the Krauts on the way!"
That evening they once again enjoyed the luxury of sleeping indoors. It would be the last time for a while. On Christmas morning Hanley's platoon would move out in one direction; Billy's platoon would take off in another. Littlejohn and Billy ended up stretched out side by side behind the altar. From there they could see the night sky where the stained glass windows used to be, and drift to sleep to the familiar lullaby of ack-ack guns in the far-off distance.
"Hey Billy?" Littlejohn's low whisper rumbled in his throat. "You asleep?"
"Yes," Billy answered, recognizing with a smile the reversal of their old conversations.
"You know how I started telling you about the Christmas mail, and everybody ending up with something they really needed?"
"If you'd a been there, what do you think you would have found in the mail bag?"
Billy lay still, staring at the sky. For the past twenty minutes he'd been counting the silver bombers and fighters soaring overhead, droning eastward, relentlessly toward Germany. He'd counted 600 so far. "What I want wouldn't be in the mail bag," he said. "What I want for Christmas is up there."
"Angels overhead. B-26's and P-38's..." he said dreamily. "A push to end all pushes. I want to take Berlin and go home."
"Amen," Littlejohn said. Then he reached in his pocket and handed over a small package. "But just in case that doesn't happen tomorrow morning, here's some fudge your mom sent you for Christmas." There was a guilty pause. "I only ate a little."
*** The End ***