Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Belgium 15 December 1944

             You stumble your way down the narrow wooded trail to a darkened knoll. Standing there in the misting rain you wonder if you had taken the wrong foot path. Out of the corner of your eye you detect the slightest movement just below the top of the low hill. There is no sound other than the slightest hiss of the falling rain. You move toward the movement you had just seen.
              The distinct click of an M1 Garand safety catch being released stops you in your tracks. "Texas" comes a horse croak from the darkness. You wrack your mind trying to remember the password you heard earlier in the night. The memory doesn't come. You know for sure a thirty caliber bullet is about to find its way into the soft unarmored flesh of your body.
              "Leaguer!" You suddenly shout. How you remembered the all important password, you have no idea. But the relieving sound of the safety of the rifle being reengaged bring the air back into your lungs. You crouch and start feeling with your foot for the edge of the fox hole you know has to be near. In the black of night your sense of touch has fled your frozen, soaked feet, and you fall into the hole amid curses and collapsing mud.
            "Way to go Cherry. Not only did I almost shoot you, but you nearly broke your neck falling. You are going to be bad luck, Mac." Came a horse whisper from the corner of the hole. You shake the stars from your eyes and try to focus on the barely visible shape. Thus far you have been bounced across a continent before the sea sickness of an ocean voyage could wear off. You have been dropped at nearly a hundred camps that you never got to spend more than a couple hours in, no food, little water with a fetid chemical taste. And dropped into the middle of a war with little more than the clothes on your back.
           "Sorry." It's all you can mumble as you untangle the knot that is your webgear, rifle, helmet, and bandoleers.
           "Sorry ain't gonna cut it out here. All that will get you is a Kraut Marksmanship Ribbon and me a wooden cross, Mac."
           In the distance a flare streaks into the darkness. The erie light reflects off the clouds as it pops to life. The usual blinding illumination is dampened as the phosphorus and magnesium mixes with the mist and fog. With the little light provided you gather your meager belongings and try to make heads or tails of your surroundings. The other GI in the foxhole with you has the pallor of a corpse. His stare shakes you to your soul. It is without life, spark, or emotion. It is like he is looking through you. But the glance doesn't last long, he returns to staring at the dirt between his muddy double buckle boots.
           "Schaller, grab your new buddy and get to the outpost." Came a voice from somewhere in the night. So the GI next to you is named Schaller. This is the first name you have heard since the Port of Embarkation in New Jersey, before you shipped over. It seems nothing runs on names any more. Identity has been stripped of everything. You are now Government Issue, Infantry Type, Olive Drab in color. A self propelled rifle, until you become a number marked on a Graves Registration Map or a tag around your neck, either way you would no longer have a use in the machine.
           "Grab your gear, Mac. We're headed to the Listening Post on the Our River."
           "What is the Our River?" You question innocently, having never even heard of it.
           "It's the Belgian-German Border, Mac. But don't worry the Krauts and us have an agreement. We leave them alone, and they'll leave us alone. We send a Recon Patrol, they sit tight in their holes. They send a patrol, we act like we don't see it." This isn't comforting. What happens when one dark foggy night the Germans decide that the agreement is no longer valid and come looking for GIs to kill? Stow the thought, Schaller is climbing out of the hole.
             The walk is long and less than scenic. You don't dare take your eyes off the hells of Schaller's boots as he plods ahead of you. A quick glance at your watch, a present for your high school graduation last summer, tells you it is almost midnight. You haven't even started your first day on "the line." If things keep going the way they have been, the chances of surviving to see your second day are nil.
              Schaller stops near a clump of bushes barely discernible in the pitch. "Sergeant Pettit, we're here." Schaller whispers into the dark. Slowly and deliberately two forms morph out of the black foliage and in a stooped shuffle move towards you.
             "It took you long enough, Whitey. We about thought you rag bags had gotten lost." That must have been Sergeant Pettit. The second man knelt on one knee beside the phantom speaker, looking blankly into the night. "Nothing's moving tonight. That flare an hour ago came from first squad. They called over the field phone saying they thought they saw some Krauts messing around the Dasburg Bridge. Guess it turned out to be nothing."
               Without any further fanfare or talk Sergeant Pettit and his silent companion turned and walked back down the path you had just taken. "They're miffed we're half an hour late. Comp'ny is having hot chow back in Marnach for all the Joes not on LP/OP duty. But don't get any ideas. When we come off this Listening Post in the morning, we will crawl back into our hole we just came from and maintain perimeter security of the strong point."
               What little excitement you had at hearing the words "hot chow" faded into the fog and cold. Schaller grabs your collar and pulls you into a crouch. He turns and starts into the bushes. You stay stooped and follow obediently.
                 You are on the front now. No one in front of you is friendly. On the other side of the silver streak known as the Our River is Hitler's Germany. This is the end of the line. You have no more camps, depots, or jarring truck rides. From here on out, your view of the world will be brought to you by your boots. This is also the place you can get shot. If some homesick German gets bored or hears a sound, he just might let fly with an 8mm bullet. That bullet might just find its way to you. Or that enemy guard could call his Sergeant and they send a mortar round in your direction. The worst part is you'd die without a soul within a thousand miles that even knows your name.
               Another hole and another stumble to the bottom greets you as you arrive at the listening post. This time there is no response from "Whitey" Schaller. He just drops in and leans against the back of the hole like he had done this routine a thousand times. You watch as he pulls two pineapple shaped grenades out of his field jacket pockets and places them on the rim of the hole. You do the same.
               Now begins the hardest part of Soldiering, waiting. You try and find something to occupy your mind. Thoughts of home are best left behind. It only makes your heart ache and the desire to just walk away grow by the minute. You don't stare too long in to the darkness. After about a minute every shape starts to move and every sound gets amplified. Not a good thing when you are supposed to be listening for bad guys looking to cut your throat or worse.
               "You're taking the first watch, Mac. If you hear anything, pull out a flare from the box behind you and let it fly. Then get on the field phone to let the platoon know what you heard and what you are seeing. Don't fall asleep or I will kill you myself." Whitey just slides down the edge of the hole and is snoring before you can shift your weight into the stock of your rifle.
                How long have you been on watch? The sleep monster keeps pulling at your eye lids. Nothing is happening. The only thing you hear are rain drops falling from the trees around you, the gurgling of the Our to your front, and the soft snoring of Whitey in the muddy bottom of the hole. You've sung, in your head, every song you can remember. Maybe you'll try and name the kids you graduated school with.
                In the distance you hear something. It sounds like music. Who would be playing music in the middle of the night. You think your mind is playing tricks on you. Maybe this is your brain's defense mechanism against going mad with boredom. It's 4 am, you are at the end of your watch. You nudge Whitey from his sleep.
              "Whitey, Whitey, wake up. I think I hear music."
              "Who told you you could call me Whitey? And the music you hear are the Krauts. They play records over loud speakers when they move vehicles. It's nothing, Mac."
              "Ok, well, it's your watch. Get up." Whitey doesn't even stir. What can you do. This guy has been on the line a while judging by the mud, stubble on his weathered face, the tattered collar and cuffs of his GI shirt, the holes in his trousers. You turn back to the river and just stare back at nothing.
               The music keeps getting louder. Something is going on. You pick up the field phone and crank the handle. The Soldier manning the Platoon Command Post answers. You explain the music you have been hearing for an hour and that it is getting louder. The Soldier on the other end of the line is less than impressed. He explains in a quiet but angry voice that the music is being played to cover the sound of the Kraut trucks bringing up the new guard shift and chow to the old shift. Without regard for procedure the line goes dead. "I guess this happens all the time." You tell yourself.
               No sooner than you hang up the field phone the horizon lights up. The mist and fog reflecting the yellowish light. If it was the sun, for sure it would have been blue first, right? But this light seems to be moving. It looks like the search lights you saw in the movies from the London Blitz. Could the Germans be looking for planes in this weather?
               The answer comes in the ripping sound in the sky above your position. As you look into the clouds above you, the world behind you rips into explosions. The flashes illuminate the forrest around you. In the din of the barrage you feel the field phone next to you shaking. The voice on the other end of the line is screaming. "KRAUTS!!! KRAUTS ARE EVERYWHERE!!! THEY ALREADY HAVE HALFTRACKS ON THE DASBURG BRIDGE!!! INFANTRY ARE BEHIND US!!" The line goes dead.
               Whitey is on his feet grabbing the grenades off the lip of the foxhole. "Come on, Mac. We gotta shake a leg and get back to Marnach. This is for real."
                You had barely gotten out of the hole as the barrage begins a new. The strange lights you saw are now illuminating the road leading out of the Dasburg Bridge. You have entered hell incarnate....    

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