Tuesday, December 14, 2010

15 December 1944

        Belgium, 15 December 1944...
        The weather had turned sour. Low dark clouds filled the sky preventing the protective blanket of air cover that had been enjoyed by the allied forces since their landings in Northern France over 6 months before. Men of the bloodied 28th Division had been moved from actions in the Hurtgen Forrest only a few short days before. The senior commanders of VIII Corps had decided that the quiet sector between Lutzkumpen and Weiler would be a good place for the division to lick its wounds and receive new replacements fresh from RPLDPL (Replacement Depots) in the First Army rear area. Many of those new replacements had been in the United States only a few short weeks ago. They had read the accounts of the fierce fighting in the Bocage region of France, the stunning breakout of St. Lo, and the flanking move of the allies during Operation Cobra. Many of these new Soldiers quietly thanked the Army G-1 (Personnel Management) in sending them to the Northern European Theater. Other Allied Forces had become bogged down in Italy north of Rome. And now seemed to be fighting a war of attrition in the muddy, mountainous reaches of Mussolini's failed Empire.
        Imagine how it felt. You have taken a nail biting ride across roads still pitted with bomb craters in the back of drafty "Red Ball Express" 2 1/2 ton trucks. Most of the people you had gotten to know in the boat ride across the Atlantic had been sent to other places. The only person you knew was the voice inside your head. You haven't slept in over 3 days, unless you call dozing on and off against a duffel bag in the back of a truck with busted shocks, sleep. The kidney bursting ride comes to an end at a camp, of sorts, in the middle of a sea of green army tents. A gruff Sergeant calls your number. A number given to you as you stepped off the landing craft on Omaha Beach nearly three days ago. You grab your meager belongings and follow the NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) to an nondescript tent sitting along a muddy, well traveled road. Without an introduction or even an idea of what to do the Sergeant points towards the door as he quickly walks away. Everything here seems to be temporary and anything not standing still is in a massive hurry.
        You enter the tent to see it is almost filled to capacity. There is only one cot left open and it is closest to the tent flap. This is the worst place to be bunking. The drafty air never seems to let up and with people constantly coming and going you will almost always catch a tie down rope in the head. You look around at the bored, solemn faces of the other Soldiers. There aren't any smiles, greetings, or even acknowledgement of your arrival. Again it is a sea of faces that are as unfamiliar to you as the land you have found yourself in. You stow your gear quickly and decide to take a look around your new home (or as much of a home as you have had over the past month.)
        A short walk down the muddy lane brings the sounds of revving engines and grinding breaks. The smell hits you first. It is a copper, almost sweet scent, that pervades everything around. You see the red crosses that cover the top of the large tent. Field ambulances are rushing in and out and blood stained nurses and orderlies hurry to the blanket covered stretchers left on the ground. It is a field hospital, but not like the ones you had read about in Life Magazine back in the states. Here the groans of the wounded are as loud as the ambulances that brought them from the battle lines. Where was the sterile conditions that graced the pages of newspapers? Sitting outside a flap to the hospital tent are several wounded Soldiers, smoking in silence. They are all covered in mud, their shoes held on by shreds of laces. Gone are the leggings issued by the quartermasters. All of them wear bandages that stand out starkly from their tattered, filthy, appearance. None of the Soldiers seemed to have shaved in weeks. None of them talk, like other groups of Soldiers with nothing to do. They just sit and stare into nothing with blank expressions. An orderly notices you staring at the group and mentions that they are the lucky ones, the walking wounded. After a brief stay in the hospital they will be given an opportunity to shower, get issues new uniforms, and be returned to their units. He goes on to say that you are even more lucky, this sector of the front is quiet. The only real actions are reconnaissance patrols and occasional shifts in position.
        The news from the orderly doesn't quite calm your fears of the unknown. So you return to your tent to be alone with your thoughts... your only source of comfort. Night is falling and the cold is setting in earnest now. You consider pulling out your field jacket or maybe unrolling your thin sleeping bag. But before your rear end hits the canvas of the cot, the hard bitten Sergeant from before enters and barks out a list of numbers. Yours is the second one called. You have five minutes to pack your gear, grab your rifle, and helmet, and be at the truck ready to be taken to the front. The realization sets in that you don't even know where you are. Are you in France? Belgium? Germany? Forget what town is close by, you don't even know what country you are in.
       The five minutes is up and you are standing next to a worn, mud spattered, schrapnel scarred truck. Without any direction or hint of your destination the tailgate is dropped with a clank and the other Soldiers begin to climb on. Feeling like a sheep you follow your new flock. A voice from the front of the truck bed asks if everyone should load their rifles. You look down and remember you haven't been issued any ammunition. Add that to your ever sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach.
       You endure another severely rough ride that twists and turns through pine filled forrest dotted with clearings churned up by battle. The hills and streams you pass could be pictures from a post card in the dying light. By the time night has truly fallen the truck picks up speed and starts taking the twists and turns at bone jarring angles. You have lost any and all sense of direction. The clouds blank out the stars and the moon, if there was one. A slight rain begins to fall. The shreded canvas tarp covering the bed leaks like a sieve. A trickle of frigid water runs down your neck and along your spine adding to your exhausted misery.
       By the time you are completely drenched in freezing rain the truck screeches to a sudden stop in the middle of a copse of pine trees. The lack of ambient light keeps you disoriented as a shape calls out your number. You grab your barracks bag and rifle and climb off the battered truck. You land in a heap at the bottom of the tailgate. You haven't even regained your sense before the truck speeds away throwing mud in your face. You collect yourself and stand in the middle of two torn tracks that is passing for a road. There is nothing and no one around. It seems you have been dropped off in the middle of nowhere to fend for yourself. You don't have any rations, your last bit of food had been your breakfast... two days before. You have become the embodiment of lost and abandoned. And you are close to the front lines.
      A voice brings you out of your bout with self pity. It isn't a loud shout, almost a whisper. You move to the sound of the voice. Beneath a low hanging pine bough you see a shape half sitting, half laying in the needless. The voice asks your number and begins to rise. In a moment of clear night vision you see the man addressing you. He is as disheveled as the wounded Soldiers you saw in camp. He isn't wearing any web gear and the netting on his helmet is torn to the point of being almost non existent. Without direction the owner of the voice begins to walk deeper into the trees. You stumble over fallen branches, unseen holes, and discarded ration and ammo boxes as you try and keep up.
     After a few minutes walking you see a light up ahead. It is faint and only is visible for a short minute. You focus on where the light had been and hope the Soldier you are following heads that way. Another voice out of the darkness suddenly asks who you are. You stop in your tracks and try to find the source of the question. After a moment of trying to remember your name, you respond. They only reply you get is a brusk "Welcome to Baker Company, 110th Infantry." Someone grabs you by the arm and takes you to a pile of boxes. You are handed four bandoleers of ammunition, two hand grenades, and two boxes of rations. Your barracks bag is taken from you and thrown into a pile of others. The Soldier that gave you your ammo and rations, motions for you to follow him. Another 10 minute walk ensues. You try and get the lay of the land but one hill looks like another, and a low spot in a field might look deep at night won't look that way during the day. The rain starts again and your boots gradually become soaked and pick up a pound of mud each.
      The little energy you have conserved over the trek across France and into whatever muddy, forrest you you are in now, has faded into nothing. You feel you can't go on. But a new voice in the night challenges with a whispered word. The guy you are following replies with a single word and you are directed to continue on the trail. Not even 10 steps beyond the challenge you see a helmeted head in a foxhole. For the first time in over a month you hear a name. "I'm Sergeant Drake, your new squad leader. Your hole is 50 yards down the trail you are walking. Keep your feet dry and don't do anything stupid and get someone killed."
     You have "entered the line." Freedom and Democracy ends at the heels of your boots. To your front is the enemy. An enemy that has been fighting since 1939 and knew his business well. His only desire is to kill you and go home. But you are "Lucky" you have landed yourself in an inactive sector... or so everyone thinks.    

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