Kings of the Hill
The field was empty except for that old burned-out German half-track armored troop transport, a scattering of charred tree carcasses, and, of course, mud. On the lifeless tree branches sat black birds, fattened by feasting on rotting carrion. The birds didn't seem to mind the rain that was falling in a light but steady blanket that covered the hill and the surrounding valley in its chilling embrace. Singly or in pairs, the large birds would take to flight, circle slowly, and then alight on the blackened limbs that coiled and twisted like tortured arms.
In the past, when Corporal Simon Allenbee thought of Italy, he thought of warmth, beaches, sunshine, and beautiful Italian women. Now, there he was in Italy and all he had seen and felt so far was cold, cold, cold. He couldn't be more disappointed. When Dante Allighieri wrote The Inferno and all of its chilling imagery of his descent through Hell, he must have had this hill in mind.
It was February 1944 and World War II was in its fifth year. In September 1943, the Allies invaded Italy and brought the war of liberation from the fascists to Europe. While the Italians officially surrendered five days after the initial invasion, the Germans recognized that defending and holding Italy was critical to their survival. As a result, the German overall military commander in Italy, Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, led a spirited and very effective defensive campaign that first delayed and then very nearly stopped all Allied advances up the Italian peninsula.
To open a new front and draw pressure off of the hard-pressed Allied soldiers in Southern Italy, American General Mark Clark, ordered another amphibious assault to take place in January to the north at a place called Anzio. It was at this beachhead that Corporal Allenbee as a member of the 179th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division landed.
Following a large scale Allied operation to expand the beachhead in early February that did little more than needlessly spend human lives and war materiel, a period of maneuvering and positioning on both sides persisted. As part of this, Corporal Allenbee's company had moved into a series of stone farmhouses that were built amidst a rolling valley. His platoon was stationed in the largest of the farmhouses that also happened to be the most forward of any of the positions.
The Germans were nowhere to be found. Hell, they weren't stupid. Who but the American Army wanted to be out in such adverse conditions? It was as if all the Top Brass got together, figured out when the weather would be at its absolute worst, scheduled a landing, and then sat around polishing each other's medals and egos. If nothing else, he was thankful for the solid roof over his head and the walls around him that partially shielded him from the elements. The other platoons had been ordered to positions amidst ruins of farmhouses. They had some walls and partial roofs, but nowhere near the luxury in which he found himself.
He had been vaguely aware of someone approaching him from behind, but Sergeant Kellerman's authoritative voice that matched his authoritative manner still startled him. "Where's the 'LT'?"
"I don't know exactly Sergeant. Lieutenants Hodges and Hansen left a bit ago to reconnoiter the ridge to our north. They left while you and Second Squad were on patrol."
"Did they take any support ordinance with them?"
Allenbee chuckled to himself inside. Trying to make a machine-gun sound like some kind of scientific instrument or tool of industry was fairly comical to him. He answered though, stifling any urges to wise crack, "Yessir. They took a machine-gun team, a field radio, and a pair of binoculars. Anything wrong Sergeant?"
The big man shrugged his shoulders and answered as he peered out Allenbee's window, "I'm not really sure yet. We've seen enemy patrols every day and they've seen us. Today, we didn't see hide nor hair of the enemy. Keep a sharp eye. Somethins' just not right."
Allenbee turned back to the window and scanned the fields again. It had already stopped raining. Well, the mist was still clinging, but the heavier drops of condensation were no longer falling. Each morning for the past three, the rain had come and gone succeedingly earlier. But then, the wind never went away and those damned fields just froze up into a slushy, cold morass. What a horrible image. Looking out, he felt cold; colder than he had ever felt. It chilled his insides worse than any rain or wind could ever do.
The rest of the platoon, and hell, most of the company liked him alright, but he was a mystery to most of the other men. He was educated. He had graduated from Seminole College in Indiana and was all set to have a real life"with luxury. He could have had beautiful blonde women with voices of silver, skin of purest spun silk, and golden rays of sunshine for hair. He could have had what they all wanted, but he turned his back on all of it.
And that's what scared all of them and made them leery of all educated men within their ranks. They were a threat to their vision of the good life because the educated men had and could have it, but something made them cast it away...sacrifice it for...for what?..for this?...this death...this misery...? And they all knew and said that if they was educated and had them brains that he gots, well then you wouldn't find them out there in some goddamned crumbling old farmhouse in no goddamned Italy. No sir. And they wouldn't be fightin' no Huns neither. They'd all be curled up in their beds, warm and cozy, with them pretty dames rubbin' their sore shoulders and they'd be drinkin' good hot joe and not that crap that Cookie tried to pass. Half the time it was only hot, rust colored water...
But that was alright with Corporal Allenbee, because it was Cookie's hot water and only his hot water that could warm him when he felt this cold. And so he sipped his hot water and stared out across the face of hell.
The Sergeant walked back downstairs, away from Corporal Allenbee, where most of the platoon was lounging about. There was only one piece of furniture...well, one piece that was still functional. The usual debris of war, wood splinters, fabric remnants, some rusted springs in a corner, carpenters nails that had been imbedded in the floor, and upholstery staples were scattered all about the floor in each of the three small rooms. That one piece of furniture was a simple, wooden, straight-backed dusty old chair. And nobody ever sat in it.
You see, that first day, when they got there and set up the artillery observation post, they had been preceded by a fairly intense artillery barrage. There was a German observation post already there with its garrison. Just a different group of boys with grey trousers instead of olive drab. And the American Army rained down a shower of artillery shells and its planes dropped a hail storm of bombs. Of horrible bombs that scattered into plate-sized chunks of searing metal upon impact. Pieces of metal that killed and maimed everything in its path, but hardly damaged buildings or real estate short of direct hits.
And when the boys in green arrived and saw the bodies, and the severed limbs, and the dead dog by the ruined porch... They saw the still burning halftrack stranded out on the muddy slope of the hill. They saw all of this, absorbing it all in a reverent silence. They pulled their kerchiefs over their noses and mouths, put on gloves, and cleaned up, trying to forget what it was that they were cleaning. Well, they had cleaned up the yard and were all set to sit down and relax in the farmhouse when they found him. Sitting as if resting himself, fully intact and slumped against the wall was a German sergeant. He was dead and cold and alone and sitting in the only piece of functional furniture in the room. A simple, wooden, straight-backed dusty old chair.
The boys moved the body with respect, treating him almost as they would one of their own. They buried him away from the other German bodies that had been gathered into a simple mass grave. The sergeant they buried in what appeared to be a forgotten garden plot, overgrown with neglect, next to a stable. For him...through him, Corporal Allenbee and the other men of the company held a solemn pause, a moment of silence, a brief funeral commemorating him and the other German boys who were no more simply because their uniforms were grey. And they kept the chair and left it where it was found and no one ever sat there. It had become a monument.
"Sergeant, we're bored," came the voice like a child, who was caught inside on a rainy spring day, virtually trapped in the family house back home. Only the voice came not from a boy of innocence, but from a child of war. And the child was a twenty year old youth forced into manhood from the backyard little league fields around Toledo, Ohio. He was Phillips, a small man from a small town, where he was a hero with a pitching arm from the heavens. He hurled thunderbolts that dazed and befuddled his adversaries, who all fell to his might. In other words, he won a lot of baseball games through high school and had gained quite a reputation for himself, but the attention that baseball received in the rural Midwest made him something more of the thunder hurling Zeus or Thor. He didn't mind the attention at all. He liked being a big fish in a small pond. It suited him just fine. There had been talk of his going on to play baseball in the minor leagues and then maybe even moving on to the Big League. All that was on hold though.
He volunteered shortly after completing high school. He didn't know what else to do. He hadn't taken the time to really consider any colleges and he didn't know what he would study anyway. All he really liked to do was play ball. So, without a better plan, he enlisted in the Army. He really wanted to fight the Japs. He felt like it was those bastards that got America into this mess and they should be the ones who answer for it. But he wasn't much of one for boats or water, so being a Marine just wasn't what he wanted to do. Instead he was here, freezing his can in Italy.
He was lying on the floor under a window that looked out into the farm compound on the top of the hill. Trying to duck under the incoming draft he said, "It's freeeeeezin' this mornin' and it's...." And he suddenly realized what he was saying and where it could lead. He stopped abruptly, but it was too late. He could see that the Sergeant was already irritated by the whine and was all too happy to give him and everyone else in the platoon chores to complete. Of course, Phillips could expect to get a pleasant task like cleaning the latrine because he was the one responsible for the misery in the first place.
Sergeant Kellerman, still standing on the first step, started to say something exactly to that effect, but was interrupted by the report of a not-so-distant rifle and then another and then another.
The Sergeant's eyes suddenly lit up. "Second Squad. Get your asses up and grab your gear. First Squad, upstairs, now! Harris, is that 'thirty' ready?" And in response, big Harris at the top of the stairs in a sandbag reinforced window very deliberately pulled the heavy hammer back on the machine-gun and locked it in firing position.
"Allenbee, make sure that Pullman has the BAR ready to go in the other room. Make sure he and the new guy've got plenty of ammo."
To everyone now standing around him he said, "Check your ammo and find a buddy t'stick with. Keep your heads down and watch out for one another."
First Squad ran to the second floor, the only positions that really afforded a clear view of the approaches to the farmhouse which all had to ascend the slopes of the hill. Second Squad, who hadn't been back too terribly long from a patrol earlier with Sergeant Kellerman, were gathering their equipment that was still near at hand. They would be a response unit that could be used to plug any gaps. Third Squad would remain on the ground floor and be responsible for actually defending the farmhouse from any Germans who were able to crest the hill and get into defilade positions below the guns of the men on the second floor.
Sergeant Kellerman found Corporal Stuart with his Third Squad and instructed him to set up an ad hoc aid station in what was considered the dining room. This room was the furthest and most protected from approaching enemy guns.
The lack of direction from the officers was quite obvious, but the Sergeant did well in organizing the men and the defense.
"Yes Sergeant!" came the reply from the northern window where he was making sure that Pullman was adequately prepared with ammunition and cover.
"I want you to direct traffic upstairs and keep an eye on things. Make sure you're shouting out what the enemy is doing. Let us know if they're making it up the hill.
"Corporal Stuart, was that First and Third platoons near the stable?"
"Yeah, they came over with Lieutenant's Kemp and Martin."
"And where in the hell are they now?"
Corporal Stuart shrugged and shook his head.
"Damnit! Where in the hell did they go?" All rhetoric aside, the best and only clue he had as to the entire company's compliment of officers was what Allenbee had said. He stepped to the doorway and hesitated for a moment while he decided what to do.
It was then that a high-pitched wail cut through the noise and commotion. They all looked up and then the storm commenced. The first shells dropped out in the field on the foot of the hill, and then slowly walked up toward the farmhouse, stable, and storehouse.
Each successive explosion was a little closer and more deafening and terrifying. And the ground shook a little harder and the house moaned a little louder. And it felt like the end of the world was at hand. For nearly everyone in the company, this was the first true barrage of any kind that any of them had experienced.
When he was younger and he became afraid of a thunderstorm, Private Kirby's mother used to comfort him by telling him that it was only the angels bowling in the heavens. Well that image suddenly leapt into his thoughts as he watched from the downstairs window. And he wondered what his mother would tell him now when he, her little Davey, was about to become one of the bowling pins.
He hated this more than anything. Bombs just falling from the sky. It just wasn't right. That's not to say that he much cared for the fighting either. Afterall, people shooting and dying and screaming and all around you wasn't very pleasant either, but at least then you could do something about it. Either you shot him or he shot you. Anything could happen. But this. All you could do was sit and wait and hope and die or live or whatever. He was just helpless and hoping that the bombardment would be over soon. He hoped that he would live to see the end of it.
The fifty or so men of First Platoon found refuge within the wooden walls and roof of the stable. The front of the building was virtually open, but its walls, though thin, were solid and provided some protection. Some of the men began to dig between shell bursts. They piled up the turned soil to create earthen walls behind which they could find more security. They dug and dug, but some of them started to feel like maybe they were digging their own graves and elected to stop instead.
Third Platoon was a little more fortunate in that they chose to run over to the storehouse. It was a stronger structure made of a combination of hardened mud bricks and timber. It was completely enclosed but smaller than the stable. Due to the lack of space in the storehouse, some of Third Platoon's men actually made their way to the short stone wall that ran along the edge of the hill crest's perimeter.
In short, each of the platoon's of the company were in as good of a position as could be expected under the circumstances. So Sergeant Kellerman, who had assumed the role as company commander given that he was the senior non-commissioned officer present, surveyed the company's disposition. He knew that his boys would do well. They'd do their jobs as was necessary and no one would fail. He just knew he could count on them. He ran his platoon...his men"sure, the Lieutenant had rank on him but who do you think the men are going to respond to, that goddamned East Coast Ivy League kid wearing his bars like a goddamned crown or would they jump when Frank Kellerman's voice thundered. Well he ran his platoon like he did his line back home in Handley's Home Furnishing Factory. Day in and day out he saw chairs, tables, bed frames, bookshelves, and whatever else pass by and he was good at his job and keeping his people moving and producing and he didn't get the job because his father knew the owner from the country club. He had worked there going on five years when he enlisted and now and again he felt a certain satisfaction when he saw a piece of fine Handley furnishings in an office or home, like the desk in the base commander's office desk back at Fort Benning. Yeah, his boys would do alright because that's how he wanted it and that's the way it would be.
And so now, he was going to take Second Squad out and find the officers who were lost and needed to be found. For all of his contempt and distrust of officers and the upper echelon, he wasn't an irrational man. He recognized the necessity for such individuals"decision makers, willing to face the consequences of those decisions whether good or bad. And once in a while, one in a hundred or maybe even a thousand, you would meet one truly deserving of the role of a leader...someone who you really admire and, more importantly, trust. And that's why he had to find them, because everybody saw things differently. And maybe somebody, one of his boys, felt that one of the company lieutenants was just such a person deserving of his admiration and trust.
He picked up his Thompson "Tommy" submachine-gun, checked the load in the magazine, and walked out the front door followed by a green line of ten different faces.
Allenbee saw these men perform yet again one of life's twisted mysteries. With the same basic mentality as that of firemen who, as everyone else rushes out, storm into a burning building, ten young men"ten of the fifty or so closest people in his life for the past year"follow a man from the relative safety of a stone and wood building for the open and unsheltered outside in the midst of a mortar barrage. He was shocked each time he witnessed it and even more stunned when he found himself doing anything similar.
Now, the Germans had obviously not had a whole lot of time to plan and stage this little attack, because the smoke screen the first shells provided had already dissipated and drifted off in the winds. There wasn't anything left to mask their approach. They were faced with a relatively steep climb made even steeper with the weight of American bullets flying into their faces.
But so far all the Americans had seen were Wehrmacht mortar rounds. Hell, with any luck that's all they would see. Maybe Ole Adolf's boys were just bored and shaking things up a bit. And then Allenbee saw them.
A bunch of guys in grey with twisted, angry, bloodthirsty faces (okay, Allenbee just imagined that. It made it easier to shoot at them if he saw them as non-human beasts...a legion of dark spirits descending on his mind. How prolific. Actually, he never let them close enough to see their faces.) And he saw the tank; a great huge beast painted a variety of black, greys, dark greens, and browns. It was quite an imposing and intimidating array of hues; the colors of a nightmare. It was probably painted those colors more for impact than for camouflage.
Anyway, the Germans had a tank, a Panzerkampfwagen Mark IV, and an armored car, which shot ahead of the tank reconnoitering the road. Allenbee gritted his teeth together until it hurt waiting for the...
Explosion! The car jerked wildly around as its front right tire triggered one of the mines on the road. The tail end swept around and exploded another mine which in turn ignited the car's fuel tank. The blast was terrific, a great yellow, orange, and black eruption of heat and smoke that lit up the still grey morning. The shock wave, which was almost visible, swelled out from the explosion and spilled across the German infantry that were trying to keep up with the vehicle. Several of the men were thrown from their feet, with many of those not getting back up afterward. And so it really was beginning.
Allenbee could sense the tension from all the men upstairs with him, so he shouted, "Okay! Wait until they reach the range markers before you fire. Let's hit that big bastard's support first. Drop the infantry!"
Allenbee thought to himself that the German tank was the biggest that he had ever seen. It was huge, but with a very low profile. With its armored skirting along its tread and additional armor over its rear stowage compartments, this tank was an ideal tool of war. But it was trapped. The road was mined and the fields were impassable. He watched in complete disgust as the great armored beast lumbered off of the hard-packed road into the field. But this couldn't...that's why General Lucas hadn't continued the offensive...it was supposed to be...
Too soft for tanks. At first, it was just slow moving, but gradually the heavy vehicle sank deeper into the mire and stopped dead in its tracks. The fields were the greatest front line defense the Allied beachhead could muster. It was also the single most important reason that the Allied strike had faltered.
Private Phillips breathed a premature sigh of relief and then the tank fired its main weapon, the short-barreled seventy-five millimeter turret mounted gun. A section of the compound's low stone wall shattered into a thousand pieces of stone and mortar that exploded into a deadly hail scattering in a thousand different directions. The blast struck near to a Third Platoon position. Phillips thought to himself, wasn't there a man there just a moment ago? Maybe it was just his imagination, but he thought for sure that someone...maybe that guy from Queens in Third Platoon who everybody thought was funny because of those stupid stories he told. No, probably just the shadows and Phillips' imagination. Christ, that would have been horrible. Is that a helmet? Oh my God, that's a boot. But where was the rest of him?
The range markers were nothing more than wooden stakes with blue bandanas tied around them. The intent was to save ammunition and make each volley deadly accurate and effective. And so they waited, with anxious rifles bearing down on the ever approaching German wave. They hid their faces behind the inadequate protection of mortar and lumber trying to remain invisible and safe from the German tank's deadly cannon.
It was becoming apparent that the majority of the mortar and tank rounds seemed to be focused on the auxiliary buildings occupied by First and Third Platoons. Watching from his window as yet another explosion shook the stable's thin wooden walls, Phillips was disgusted with himself for feeling relieved that he wasn't the one under those goddamned bombs. He just couldn't stop thinking it, despite the guilt that was starting to rack up within himself. He just couldn't tear his eyes away. He could feel the anger begin to well up and supplant the guilt. Couldn't They do something to help? What about Their mortars and artillery and tanks? And what about the American-fucking Army? What a goddamned disaster. Do They really think that Phillips and the rest of his company would realistically stop a German offensive? He just didn't think that it was even a possibility. And that's probably what They expected and thought too. He could just imagine the General Staff sitting around reading situation reports while they sipped their brandy out of crystal snifters. As they swirled the fiery liquid, they might say things like, "Those brave soldiers sacrificing their lives...expendable...dutiful...pitiful." Philips thought to himself, to Hell with them. Not a one of them knew nothin' 'bout nothin' no how. And Second Platoon's gonna kick some ass anyway.
As he waited and watched, he pulled three eight-round clips from his bandoleer and set them on the window sill. The Germans soldiers stomping through the soft, dark, wet soil of the field and slope were still approaching, firing as they did, though their bullets were largely random and ineffective. Each soldier half"ran, half-crawled a few yards and then fell heavily into a shell hole, behind rocks, or behind the larger clumps of overturned earth.
In the silences between explosions, when you could hear the wind howl, the sound of rifle fire from a distance floated to each man's ear. It was not scattered and random like probing skirmish fire, but was more intense and directed. A battle. Close. Closer than any other Allied outpost. Where could it be coming from?
The officers. And by then everyone knew that all of the officers; each of the three platoon leaders and the artillery forward observing lieutenant, along with ten soldiers from First Platoon were trapped on the ridge to the north. It was about a quarter of a mile away with an open, tilled field separating it from the farmhouse hill. Allenbee and the other men on the second floor of the farmhouse strained to see any movement at all on the distant ridge, trying to espy the officers or their attackers. It was to no avail. There was too much distance, too much ground cover for concealment, and the German guns to his immediate front were getting closer, louder, and more accurate.
Sergeant Kellerman, crouching next to Corporal Allenbee at an upstairs window, watched as the German troops spread out on the hill below him. There were about two hundred so far, with more approaching up the road. They were obviously intent on taking the hill and the Sergeant just wasn't prepared to let them do it. He originally intended to lead a relief force over to the ridge to retrieve the officers, but the pending threat of the German attack forced him to abandon that idea. Officers or no officers, they had to defend and hold the hill. It was a hill that sat adjacent to the only road that ran through the valley. On a clear day especially, you could see down the road in either direction for miles. Any approach by either friend or foe through the valley could be observed from the farmhouse, making it an invaluable position to be held. The Germans wanted it and Kellerman had absolutely no intention of letting them have it.
A flash and a roar to his left startled him and immediately drew his attention back to the tank. If that tank sat down there and continued to blast the hell out of the walls, buildings, and his men on the hill, there just didn't seem to be any realistic possibility of holding the position. So, he decided that the tank simply had to be eliminated. Immobile as it was, the tank's main gun was still a lethal threat and was proving so. It was a simple decision really; one that didn't require reflection or consideration. The tank simply had to go.
He descended the stairs in two great leaps and shouted, "Miller, Johnson, and you, Kaczynski, let's saddle up. Kats, grab the bazooka. The rest of Second Squad, grab ammo and frags. We'll need you guys to cover us so that we can get back."
Kaczynski, gathering the bazooka tube and a satchel that contained several anti-tank rockets, asked hesitantly, "And what in the Hell are we gonna be doin'?"
"We're gonna bag us a tank, boy."
Kellerman pulled the hammer back on his submachine-gun and thought just a moment longer. Okay, we take one shot...hell, that's probably all the time we'll have and then we get the hell outta there. No pissin' around tryin' to be a hero. We just have to get close enough to get a decent shot. And that may mean.... No, that wasn't gonna happen. Not this time. Not right now.
"Okay boys. Let's stick it to em."
And they were up and over the wall heading down the northern slope of the hill. They moved slowly from shell hole to shell hole, trying to use the commotion all around them to mask their movement. The majority of the squad stopped after just so many paces and spread out in three different holes. The Sergeant and the other three soldiers continued on down the slope in the general direction of the stuck German tank. Everything seemed to be moving very smoothly; thanks in large part to the swath that Harris' machine-gun from the second floor of the farmhouse had cut.
They continued as quickly as the cumbersome bazooka and heavy anti-tank ammunition would allow them. Suddenly the air was filled with speeding, screaming bullets all around them, like a swarm of angry hornets. First a pair, then a handful, and then a cool dozen German soldiers had spotted them. They were firing their K98 rifles and re-chambering rounds with their bolt actions as fast as they could. The steady staccato cracking of the German rifles was sign enough that Sergeant Kellerman and his boys had gotten close enough.
"Okay! Hit the deck!" he bellowed.
They dropped into a shallow hole and ducked their heads. Bullets passing overhead snapped in the air menacingly. The Sergeant yelled above the din, "Kats, get that thing loaded. Miller...Johnson, let's give those bastards somethin' to worry about. Let's shut 'em down."
Johnson shouted back, "Already on it!" and began firing wildly.
"Miller! Miller! Godamnit, Miller!" Kellerman grabbed hold of the back of the boy's olive blouse and pulled his face away from the side of the hole. Miller's eyes were tear filled and vacant. His mouth was hanging agape, trying to gasp for a breath. In the middle of his chest, just below his muddied neckline, was a gnarled and bloody wound. There were flecks of white around a still smoking sticky hole that appeared almost black. Kellerman swore that he could even hear the breath that was still escaping from the wound. It was a wet wheezing sound that was not wholly human. His eyes were open and the tears were still spilling down his cheeks, but the boy was already dead.
Kellerman felt it rise up in him, like a storm, and then he exploded in a fiery ball of rage. "FFFFFUUUUUCCCCCKKKKKKKKKK YOOUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!"
His "Tommy Gun" jumped and kicked against his shoulder as he sent out burst after burst of fire against the approaching Germans. There seemed to be targets all around him. He emptied one magazine of forty-five caliber rounds, slammed another in to the gun, and continued to shoot. At first erratic and uncontrolled, his anger and gunfire quickly came under control. His bursts became shorter and better targeted. He created an effective screen that masked Kaczynski while he aimed the bazooka. Johnson too was doing his level best to keep the Germans at bay. His M1 Garand rifle, while not able to produce the same volume as the Sergeant's Thompson, could be and was effective at longer distances and with single bullets.
The German tank fired again at the farmhouse, apparently unaware or unconcerned with the potential threat that the American infantry could pose to it.
"Kats, goddamnit, what's the fucking hold up!?!" demanded Johnson as he reloaded.
Kaczynski, the quiet Jewish Pole from Chicago, raised up, took but a moment to sight the tank, and fired. The screaming rocket shot out across the field, leaving a smoky path in its wake.
A dull thud of metal against metal and an immediate smoky, black explosion followed. A hit! His first tank and a hit. He got the son of a bitch.
The smoke cleared a little and he was horrified. The tank wasn't burning...wasn't smoking...hell, the turret was still coming about to face directly at them.
Almost in tears, he shouted, "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"
Johnson looked down at him for just a moment, but that was all it took. A German
MG-42 machine-gun, "Hitler's Saw" as all the GIs had taken to calling them due to their distinctive sound, found him. The powerful bullets hurled the young American soldier across the shallow hole. Kaczynski watched in horror as a veritable garden of scarlet flowers blossomed all over the young boy's riddled body and uniform.
Kellerman and Kaczynski ducked lower into the hole. The Sergeant pulled two grenades from his belt and took a breath. He pointed at Kaczynski to do the same from his own belt.
Kaczynski pleaded, "Sarge, you gotta give me another chance. I gotta have another shot. I know I can get 'im."
"No time," came the response.
"But Sarge. Johnson and Miller? I can't let them down. Not now."
The words began to sound more and more sorrowful and guilty, "Sarge, ya gotta let me. I mean...," and he peered over at the two dead bodies lying so close. And maybe they weren't actually dead, but just playing like he and his friends used to back in Chicago when he was a boy. And pretty soon they'd stop counting to a hundred or a thousand or whatever number it was. Olly Olly Oxenfree!!!
The Sergeant could see the confusion and the doubt and knew that those feelings could only get them killed. He had to shake it from both of them. Like a father he said, "I said, 'NO!' Now I'm gonna give a three count and then we're gonna bust our tails outta here. You got that soldier? Leave the bazooka. It's too fucking heavy. Grab Miller's rifle and his bandoleer.
"Now stick to my ass...I mean it. Right in my hip pocket, you got that?"
With Miller's rifle in hand, he followed Sergeant Kellerman's lead. They each tossed a grenade over their shoulders in the direction of the oncoming German infantry. As the grenades exploded, the two American soldiers leapt to their feet, fired a terrifically desperate volley, and then ran like hell. They each dropped their second grenades on the fly. These two were smoke grenades and created a temporary cloud that covered their flight.
Their uphill climb slowed them considerably, but the white smoke helped to keep them out of sight of German guns. It very quickly seemed that for all their running and dodging, they weren't making any progress. It felt like they were in a nightmare in which they were being chased by some horrible monster and the ground is soft...too soft and their feet were sinking deeper into the sucking mud with each step and the monster is just behind them, almost close enough to reach out and grab them. And just as the ugly beast is about to grab them...
Second Squad opened fire. The beast melted away from the heat of the American guns. They were safe and back among friends. They crawled back to the hill's crest and behind the low stone wall.
Corporal Guillard, known to everyone as Gill, crawled over to the still gasping Sergeant Kellerman and Private Kaczynski. . He was grinning from ear to ear and beamed with awe and gratitude. His mood changed to somber as he said, "We saw Miller catch it on the way down and then Johnson. Hell, it's a miracle Miller made it as far as he did. He got hit in mid-stride halfway down the slope. Damned big lug just didn't want to let you guys down."
Kaczynski could actually feel his stomach knot. "Poor bastard. He deserved better." And of course he was speaking of his own pitiful performance. Miller hadn't dropped the ball; Kaczynski had. He'd had his moment...his chance to really deliver and show that he could be the "Go To Guy." He thought of his mother and her disdain for failure. He thought of his father as well. He remembered the poverty and privations of his youth. He could remember his father's daily search for work in Chicago. He was educated and proud, but because he was a Polish Jew no one would hire him for anything other than base occupations. He worked at the stock yards where cattle were slaughtered, he worked as a street cleaner, and, despite the fact that he was a qualified attorney, the closest he got to practicing law was working as a janitor at the federal courthouse. His father and mother emigrated from Poland so that they could take advantage of the boundless opportunities of the New World. And when jobs were impossible to find, money was becoming more and more scarce, and success a bitter, fading dream, his mother had taunted and incited his father until, one day he went out to the rail yards of Chicago to find employment and never came back. She resented him and their situation. She made it very clear that it was his father's own shortsightedness and incompetence that forced them to the point of absolute ruin and not the fact that discriminatory attitudes prevailing in Chicago were actually to blame. He watched his father, a broken man, as he dressed that last morning and prepared to leave. He declined on a slice of bread for breakfast, the only food in the house, and left without a word. Of course, his mother was going at him again asking if he was going to make enough money that day to actually put a real meal on the table. Over the years, his mother taught him to hate failure and, in turn, his father who became the symbol of failure. Her new marriage to an insurance salesman further alienated the memory of his father until then, that day, Kaczynski cursed himself for having the bloodline of a foolish and ridiculous loser.
He began to weep, quietly and to himself.
Gill pat him on the back and said, smiling again, "Hey mon ami, it's okay. At least they didn't die for nothing. You got that bastard and good too. How did you know where to hit it? I mean that rocket...it was a long shot that it would actually penetrate the tank's heavy armor plating and to hit the track...that would've done nothing. How did you know?"
Sometimes Kaczynski was unable to determine when Gill's slight Cajun accent, which was damned near a foreign language to the Yankee from Chicago, was mocking or speaking in earnest, but right then, the Cajun's eyes could not have spoken with a more firm sincerity or truthfulness.
Kaczynski was stumped. Could they not see from way back here? He had proven, once and for all, that he was indeed his father's son. He thought.
"Gill, can I see those glasses?" asked Kellerman who had listened and watched silently. The Sergeant took the glasses and peeked up slowly over the edge of the crater. He peered beyond the German soldiers who had stalled to regroup at the base of the hill, through the thin cloud of grey smoke, and at the tank. His expression never changed. He just handed the binoculars to Kaczynski and said, "Have a peek killer."
He accepted them hesitantly. He didn't want to look, but he couldn't help himself. He did as instructed. The tank looked the same to him"intact. The turret was slowly coming about to bear upon Second Squad's position. Why the hesitation? Why didn't they just use that horrible tool of war to punish Kaczynski and his failure by killing him and all those around him? And then he knew why. He had pulled the beast's fangs. Now what Gill had said about choosing the right place to hit all made sense. After all, it was one in a million that the rocket would have actually found its way into one of the very few soft seams of the tank's armor, especially from the angle from which he was shooting. The funny thing was that he had been aiming for the tracks. And what a dumbfounded mistake that would have been. The tank was already immobile. He took the glasses away from his eyes and said almost with the tone of a question, "I hit the barrel."
"But of course you did, mon ami. And it was a brilliant shot," Gill said reassuringly.
Kaczynski lowered himself back down behind the wall. A sense of satisfaction and redemption welled up in him. He wasn't a failure as he had suspected. He had been lucky, and he realized that sometimes luck and happenstance played a far greater role than he had suspected than a man's abilities in determining a man's success or failure. And maybe, just maybe, Teodore Kaczynski, the immigrant from Poland"his father, had just been...unlucky.
The Germans had, by that time, reached the range markers, and the farm compound, until then quietly waiting, erupted with a hail of suspended aggression. Great pockets emerged in the scattered grey line which had just begun moving forward again as Americans bullets tore into it.
Allenbee shouted between shots, "Pour it on fellas! Tear into 'em!" But no one could hear him. Each was in his own world.
A few enjoyed this ultimate release of anger. They liked the inflated sense of power that they felt as they rained terror down on those below. They could smell the blood and confusion and terror, like sharks in the ocean. And they reacted the same way, feeding on the carnage; absorbing the moment. It was almost sexual, the sensations of anticipation followed by immediate and complete gratification. They were like mad dogs in heat.
There were others who were horrified. This was senseless slaughter, not that far removed from murder. To hell with politics and history and whatever else that have been used to justify war and killing. These were boys, just like themselves, who didn't deserve such a violent end. It was an appalling crime against humanity.
But most sat somewhere between the two extremes, convincing themselves that the bloodshed was necessary and short-lived and hoping that the nightmares wouldn't come again. Not tonight and not when they got back Stateside. They could do their duty and go home and leave all this behind. It was for somebody else to decide who was right and who was wrong; who lived and who died. But it was never the decision makers who were sacrificed. No. So all they wanted to do was get through the madness and make it home alive and not be one of the empty chairs at the family Christmas dinner. And not have things like "he did his duty and died a brave boy defending his nation...but he was so young," said about them. And not the Brass nor the goddamned German Army were going to stop them from getting home; no matter what. So they fired their rifles and ducked their heads down as best as they could. And they could sense the dark shadows that crept out of forgotten corners of their minds and became even darker each time they closed their eyes. So the nightmares were going to return after all. Maybe this war would end soon.
While the tank's main gun had been silenced, its turret mounted MG-42 machine-gun still worked. It sent a lethal hail of fire up at the compound. The intense pelting took its toll on the structures and personnel alike, especially the second floor of the farmhouse. One burst caught Harris as he was removing a defective and jammed shell from the firing port of his Browning machine-gun. He screamed out his wife's name as he was flung across the second story room. He was dead before he hit the floor, a pool of blood forming around him immediately and a streaking crimson fresco left on the wall where he had hit.
Another storm of bullets found its way into Phillips' window. They shot high above his head and hit a support beam which disintegrated and released a sizeable portion of the ceiling and roof. An impressive section of timber framing gave way and hit him on his shoulder, knocking him from his feet and crushing his right arm"his pitching arm. The pain was terrific, almost numbing, but the only thought that crossed his mind as he faded into unconsciousness was that he would never make it to the Big League now.
A fire started when a stray bullet struck a kerosene stove which exploded. The winds howling through the window helped to stoke the blaze which spread to the front door frame and so on and so on until the whole front of the farmhouse was ablaze.
Allenbee saw the blaze and shouted, "Fire team! Fire team!" He ran to the bottom of the stairs and began to organize. He did as Sergeant Kellerman had instructed. He directed traffic. He had Corporal Stuart get all the wounded out of the burning rooms and into the front yard. No simple task considering that in order to get the wounded men out, you had to go through a burning doorway. Slowly though, the fire was brought under control by the few men that could be spared from combat.
As soon as the fire seemed to be getting under control, Allenbee shouted back upstairs, "Harris! Haaaaarrrrrrrisssssssssss!"
Another voice, that of Buehle, one of the new replacements in the platoon who arrived about two weeks ago, answered, "He's...he's dead Corporal. He's...he's just dead."
"Shit! Stuart, get things wrapped up down here and then get these men back on the line. We're gonna need every gun we've got."
Allenbee went back upstairs and was saying before he even got to the top of the stairs, "Okay Buehle, calm down." He asked almost hoping that Buehle was mistaken, "What happened?"
"He was trying to fix the machine-gun. I...he...was right there and next thing I know he's dead on the floor. He was the only guy who was ever nice to me. I mean, you fellas ain't never been mean or nothin' but he really talked to me, ya know. And now..." he gazed over at the corpse. His eyes betrayed the confusion and fear that had gripped him.
It was kind of a tradition amongst the veterans of their company to adopt the new recruits and help them through the acclimation process. Double-back for them. Watch out for them. Tell them what was really important and what could be ignored. Harris had adopted Buehle. He said that the young recruit reminded him of himself in his younger days, before the war. He had said that it was something in the boy's eyes and his demeanor. And for just a second, as Allenbee studied the young man, he could see Harris too.
"Okay kid. It's okay. We'll help ol' Harris in a bit. For now, we gotta get this gun firing again." He looked at the boy again. How old was he? Eighteen? Nineteen? Not much younger than himself, but Allenbee had fought in and lived through a campaign already and that made him ancient. He felt like one of the heroes from old...maybe one who fought in the Hellenistic wars of ancient Greece. He felt like Home was a notion from the past, not even a real place anymore.
Allenbee, controlling his fear, fed the belt of thirty-caliber ammunition back into the Browning machine-gun, closed the aperture, pulled back the firing hammer, and began to spray a bitter fire into the oncoming ranks of Germans. By then, an entire battalion of German Panzergrenadiers, close to five hundred men, had spread itself across the slope and was all but to the top of the hill.
Allenbee was getting more and more concerned that he and his men would not be able to stem the tide of attacking enemy soldiers. Buehle, still watching, picked up on Allenbee's agitation and started shooting his own rifle as well. It didn't seem like they were going to be able to hold them off, when Sergeant Kellerman and the balance of Second Squad appeared at the top of the stairs and started to shoot as well. It was just enough to hold the line. They all knew that they couldn't maintain this volume of fire indefinitely, but for the present it seemed to be working.
Allenbee shouted over the roar of battle to Buehle, "Ammo! Ammo! Get some from downstairs NOW!"
Buehle didn't hesitate for even a moment. He more or less leapt down the stairs and found another couple metal tins of machine-gun ammunition. While down there, he saw Kaczynski and Gill run across the compound toward the stable and storehouse respectively.
Private Kaczynski, full of a new found confidence, approached the stable at a half-run, half-crawl gait. He needn't open any doors, as any barriers on the front of the building had been destroyed during the first moments of the shelling. There were at least two bodies outside the stable, at the far end of the building , down closest to the farmhouse itself. There were three other soldiers gathered together in the high embanked corner of the compound's wall. Apparently, the heavier stones and the reinforcing piled heaps of earth made quite the indestructible position keeping the men safe from direct German fire. But even so, it was quite clear that one of the men was wounded.
He sat there, the wounded man, facing out toward the compound, his back to the wall. He had a rifle in his lap and was obviously scanning the other walls, keeping careful watch for any sudden breaches.
He caught sight of Kaczynski watching them and waved an acknowledgment that they were doing alright. Kaczynski nodded and continued on.
The floor was littered with debris from the walls and ceiling of the structure that had collapsed beneath the weight of the barrage. From under this pile of rubble, jutting out in frequent intervals, mud-caked, lifeless limbs reached up and out. It looked like the souls of the forgotten reaching out from oblivion.
Oh, and there were faces too. Gaunt, pale faces that evinced no signs of life short of terror. The heavy, acrid smoke that clung to the debris and obscured the faces was like a somber dirge that accompanied the dead. He was afraid they were all dead and then one of the faces did something...moved...spoke perhaps. What did it say? No matter. The word just floated off and faded into the air. Kaczynski was suddenly whisked off to a place about which his grandfather had told him. It was a dark and cold place; a place of waiting for the dead. He called it Scheol. Was he there now? Had he also become a casualty and was now awaiting his judgment? No. It was still the stable, but it had become a kind of hell on earth for these poor souls.
Kaczynski could taste the malodorous fear that had gripped the men and endured even then, threatening to envelop him in its presence. He felt vulnerable, standing there with bullets still striking all around and the whine of mortar shells falling. But stand he did and motioned to them...to those few faces to follow him. He assured them that they need not die, not there amidst the inferno they had been forced to endure. And so the seven soldiers still able to walk helped those few unable to walk for themselves and everyone filed slowly and cautiously out the door. The few still able to fight, joined the handful of First Platoon soldiers manning the compound wall, while the wounded were moved into the farmhouse where Corporal Stuart was still in the process of returning the other wounded men.
Corporal Guillard was already there with about fifteen survivors from Third Platoon. They were a ragged bunch with torn and blackened uniforms, some missing helmets, but each carried a rifle and a bandoleer of ammunition.
Kaczynski looked at Gill and then at Sergeant Kellerman who was standing in the farmhouse doorway and asked, "Okay. Now what?"
Almost in response, a bullet whined by the three of them and slammed into a wall. Kellerman, ducking down low, thought for just a moment and said, "The way I figure it, we don't got enough men to cover the whole perimeter wall with any real effect. Since we have to hold this house, well, we dig in and hold it. To hell with the wall. Maybe we can set some grenade booby traps along the wall to discourage the Krauts from getting too comfortable there. We form a semi-circle in the front of the house. We set some sharpshooters and maybe a BAR in the upstairs windows above us to watch out while we do some digging. We can take some of the rubble from the stable and storehouse to help fortify our positions. Kats you take First Platoon and Gill you take Third. Dig fast and dig deep. Okay? Let's get to it."
And then an explosion off to the north caught everyone's attention. Followed by another and then another. It was well directed and, apparently, had all but distracted the Germans because little by little they cautiously withdrew from the slope and virtually disappeared into a growing cloud of grey smoke; like that monster in your dreams who melts away into the mists of your imagination waiting to pounce on you in your sleep.
Allenbee shouted, sounding a little relieved and also a little surprised, "Sergeant! Sergeant! They're pulling back. We've done it. They're all leaving."
Kellerman could feel the smile spread across his face, but he didn't have much time to bask in their success. He had to make the best use of the respite. With the remnants of First Squad from its position on the second floor keeping an eye out on the slope, the rest of the company busied itself with digging new positions and with the grim task of locating the bodies and searching for survivors of First and Third Platoons.
There were other explosions that were walking around the valley. These explosions were much larger than any mortar fire. They seemed to be very large caliber artillery firing in support of someone. Could it be that the officers were still alive? Were they using the radio to call in support fire to drive off the German attackers? And so did Command know about the attack and might they be expecting a relief force soon? He couldn't know for sure about any of this. What he could be sure of was that they needed to hold and wait.
Another salvo landed. This time closer. Allenbee suddenly felt relieved. He was thinking the same things as Sergeant Kellerman. And if the officers were still alive, hell, maybe there was still some chance that they might all live through this. Until then though, Allenbee had a job. Kellerman placed him in charge of all of Second Platoon and his first assignment was to watch for another Kraut attack. So, once again, he looked out across the fields of Hell, with its icy mire littered with corpses.
And there they were. On the far edge of the field separating their hill from the not too distant ridge to the north. The officers! He wanted to shout to everyone, but they had all seen for themselves and crowded into the few windows that afforded a clear view.
The field was quite a stretch of that half-thawed, half-frozen black sticky mud. About a hundred yards out from the hill was the old road with its huge earthen embankment that rose up from the field itself. The road had probably been constructed over a millennium ago by the far ranging and ever diligent Roman Legions. The road's stones were set with such precision and skill that it would probably last another millennium.
There was maybe a group of eight or nine. Even with the binoculars, Allenbee was having trouble clearing distinguishing faces. But he could tell Lieutenant Kemp by the way he tilted his helmet while he thought. And there was Lieutenant Martin pointing and probably shouting over behind them. He dropped down to his knees, with his back to the others, and started to shoot at some unseen assailants still concealed in the trees. The others were running at a full gallop away across the open field. At first, their momentum didn't seem checked by the mud, but gradually their feet rose up more laboriously and slowly.
Lieutenant Martin, appearing to have spent the last little bit of ammunition he had in his M1A1 Carbine, tossed the rifle aside and tried to run himself. He was caught right between the shoulder blades on his back, the bullet exiting through his stomach. He tried to crawl, his hands groping in the cold muck, and then he slumped over onto his side.
The others continued on. Allenbee watched Sergeant Kellerman and five others hop the compound wall and start to descend the slope toward the road embankment. Maybe they would be able to get there and help the wayward officers.
Another burst of fire from the trees raked the fleeing men and another one spun around gripping his chest. The impact caused his helmet to be thrown from his head. Other German snipers sensed the prey and sank their bullets into him like the claws of a predator. Shot after shot struck the man's body, twisting this way and that.
The enemy sharpshooters then dealt one by one with the others. And of course, the mortars had re-directed their fire and shells began to burst all over the field. It was a wonder anything could live through such a deadly tempest of searing steel rain and thunder claps of fire.
And lived they did. Two men, caked in black mud, emerged from the maelstrom. They dashed as hard as they could toward the embankment which was just steps away. They disappeared from sight as they neared it. Everyone from the farmhouse anxiously watched and waited, wanting to see who was going to climb over the top to be saved.
Sergeant Kellerman and his men slowed their pace when no one appeared. They waited and waited, hoping and wishing and then dreading. With his men waiting behind, the Sergeant crawled across the road on his belly to look on the other side. Everyone could see his body deflate at what he saw. He rejoined the others and led them back up to the hill without incident.
Corporal Allenbee's mouth was suddenly very dry. And then more of those large, earth shattering explosions began to walk themselves around the valley, like destructive children in a nursery full of toys. The German tank burst into a burning metal coffin for its crew, one of whom leapt from the tank with flames licking and devouring his flesh. He dropped before making it even five paces. The ground was actually shaking with each explosion. And then the storm was over. The valley was empty and silent, except for the crackling of the burning tank.
Still isolated and alone, Sergeant Kellerman and the surviving members of the company dug in and waited. It was late morning the following day before anyone arrived, when a British Greyhound armored car came speeding up the road. Obviously seeing the lingering smoke and bodies still spread out through the valley and on the hill, the vehicle approached tentatively. A small American flag being waved from atop the ruined farmhouse assuaged any fears and encouraged the Brits to come up to the compound. The British officer in the armored car shared with the men that everyone had assumed they had been lost when radio contact was cut. He told them that they were in the vanguard of a relief force that was moving through the valley to re-establish defensive lines. He related that a major German counteroffensive had been stopped just west of their position near Latina. He also told them that their hilltop position had been virtually surrounded and that the gunfire that had disrupted the offensive had been delivered by naval warships off of the coast. No one paid much attention to him. They were already too busy cleaning up the disarray all around them.
So, Kellerman, Allenbee, Kaczynski, and all the rest who could still walk collected together all the shattered corpses, dug graves close together and side by side in even rows out in the yard.
And the British officer watched in silent awe as these exhausted and beleaguered American soldiers quietly buried their fallen comrades, took a final sorrowful look around, and marched away in good order. They left behind the most puzzling of memorials though. In the garden, near the newly dug graves was a plain, straight-backed, old wooden chair.