Wednesday, July 29, 2020

End of the Line

From where he sat in the ruined barn, he could see the wreck of his tank. Oddly enough, it hadn't burned.

The two opposing tanks had come upon each other quite suddenly, both the Sherman and the Panther were manned by experienced crews. He hadn't had to say a word, his gunner had fired their main gun at point blank range. He figured the round had gone right through the enemy tank. They were within a stone's throw of each other. Neither could miss, neither did.

He couldn't know it but like his own gunner, killing the enemy tank had been the enemy gunner's last act in this life. He had been nearly cut in two by the tank round piercing the turret, then passing though the back of the turret. It was moving so fast that it had enough energy to cut through two plates of armor without deflecting or stopping.

His own tank had been hit low in the turret, just above the turret ring. Spalling from the enemy round had eviscerated his gunner, the round had then deflected off the breech of the main gun, decapitating the loader. He had no idea what had happened to his driver and bow gunner, they had bailed and run shortly after the tank was hit. No doubt they remembered well the screams of comrades burning to death inside their tanks. They weren't going to wait and see.

Enemy infantry had been nearby, supporting the enemy tank. Their fire had cut down both men after they had run a short distance, but he didn't know that. He consoled himself that the two men, from the same small town back home, had managed to get away.

The tank his gunner had killed didn't look too bad from where he sat, nor did his own vehicle. From his spot in the wrecked French barn, he couldn't see the holes in the turrets of both vehicles.

He had stayed in his vehicle until he had heard the enemy infantry move on, there were other tanks in his platoon still fighting. The enemy had no time to stop and check the two ruined vehicles. So he had dragged himself from his ruined tank and crawled to the barn. He barely remembered doing that.

It was at that point that another wave of pain had passed through him. He had never felt such pain before. An old soldier had told him that belly wounds were the worst, hurt like Hell and it took a long time to die.

He didn't want to die, he was only 23 years old. He had a wife and child back home, a two-year old girl whom he cherished. He loved his wife nearly as much, but what was it about children that one grew so attached to them?

As night began to fall, he was nearly bereft of hope. The firing had moved on, it was getting quiet now, he could hear gunfire in the distance, and the occasional bark of a tank cannon. Perhaps the tank recovery people would be up soon. He knew they operated after dark, but he wasn't sure whose tank recovery people would be coming, if at all. He had no idea who was winning the battle.

The fighting had seesawed back and forth over the past few weeks, now it seemed that things were breaking open.

He heard footsteps nearby, he froze, who were they, his own people, the enemy? Perhaps even the French farmer who owned this barn? He was afraid to make a sound, he had heard that the other side wasn't taking any prisoners. Sometimes it was easier for the French to just leave a wounded man to die, unless he were behind the enemy lines. He'd heard of summary executions of Frenchmen harboring enemy wounded.

Then he heard a man speak, not in French, not in his own native tongue. So he assumed that they were the enemy. He looked down at the uniform he wore, though charred and ripped, it was pretty obvious which division he belonged to. Perhaps they will make it quick, he hoped.

A groan escaped from him as another wave of pain enveloped him. He thought of using his own sidearm to end the pain, but as a good Catholic, oddly enough, he knew that that was a mortal sin for which there could be no forgiveness.

He managed to pull his rosary from his map case, where he managed to keep it hidden from his superiors, and began to softly pray.

"Jack, you hear that?" I heard someone speaking but couldn't quite make it out, from the rhythm of the words though, it sounded like someone praying.

"Yeah Gammell, sounds like Kraut. But it sounds odd, it ain't English, that's for sure."

I wasn't sure what to do, the day had been chaotic. I had shot at two German soldiers who had jumped from a Panther, I wasn't positive, but I was pretty sure that I had hit one of them. At first I was kind of elated, rather like hunting deer back home, but now I wasn't sure how I felt about that. Right now I was too on edge to give it much thought. Another tank from Kaminski's platoon had killed the Panther which had killed them. No one got out of that American vehicle, we had checked. It was a sight I wished I had never seen.

"Jack, what's the holdup?" Sgt Brandt had come up with his section.

"Sarn't, there's a Kraut in there, sounds like he's praying. I wasn't going to go rushing in or grenade the poor bastard either. Whaddaya think?"

"Cat, get up here."

PFC Melvin Katz, "Cat," a native German speaker from Austria, came up and listened to the voice inside the barn.

"Sarge, he's an Austrian, maybe from Salzburg. But definitely Austrian."

"What's he muttering about?" Cpl Jack Wilson wanted to know.

"He's praying, he's asking forgiveness for his sins. He might be dying, at least he thinks he's dying."

Brandt turned to Cajun, "Go get Doc."

"What do you need Sarge?" T/4 Harry Milbury asked Sgt Brandt.

"I need you go in there with me and Cat. There's a Kraut, maybe wounded, maybe dying, I dunno. But I can't leave the man to suffer, even if he is a Kraut."

SS-Oberscharführer Hans Wunsche looked up as he heard a noise at the entrance to the barn. It wasn't full dark yet, but from the shape of the helmets, he knew they were Amis. He kept his hands where the enemy could see them and continued to work his rosary and prayed for forgiveness. Secret Catholic and a sergeant in the 2nd SS Panzer Division he knew he had much to answer for in the afterlife.

Then he heard a voice in German, an Austrian voice speak to him. He was confused, perhaps they were German?

PFC Katz stopped abruptly when Sgt Brandt shown his flashlight on the man. Black panzer uniform, SS runes on one collar, SS rank insignia on the other.

"Sarge, he's a f**cking Nazi."

Wunsche looked up when he heard that word, he was about to say that he wasn't a Nazi, never had been. His father and two older brothers were all fanatic Nazis, all members of the SS. Only he and his mother refused to join the party.

Now that both of his brothers were dead in Russia, his father, at least in a last, and rare, letter from home, was questioning his own faith in the ultimate victory. While he didn't know it, that letter, which had somehow gotten through the censors, was enough to see his parents arrested by the Gestapo.

In truth, Wunsche just didn't care anymore.

Doc Milbury finishing bandaging the wounded German, he gave him a syrette of morphine as well. The man's eyes went glassy.

"Well?" Brandt asked.

"If we could get him back to an aid station, he might make it, if he was one of ours. But he's a Kraut, what's more, he's SS. Some surgeons might not care about that, most do. If we've got our own wounded to treat, and we do, lots of 'em, he might not get seen for hours. And that's if we had a way to get him to the aid station."

Sgt Brandt looked down at the unconscious SS tanker, "If he doesn't get any treatment, other than what you were able to do...?"

"He might die while he's under, he might not, if he wakes up, the pain will be enormous."

"What if you give him another syrette of morphine?" Hebert asked.

"How do you know about such things Bear?" Doc asked.

"I worked in a nursing home before the war, bedpan commando, but I learned a thing or two. Docs and nurses never talked about it, but when the pain got too bad, especially with cancer patients, a bit of extra morphine helped. They died, but they died without pain."

Brandt stood there in silence for a moment, then he told the rest of the men to get outside.

When the barn was clear of all but the wounded German, Doc, and Sgt Brandt, Brandt looked at Doc and said, "Do it, if you can't, show me how and I'll do it. But we need to get moving."

Doc knelt down next to the unconscious enemy tanker, he pulled a syrette from his medical bag, injected it, then waited. After a long moment, the German soldier sighed. Doc took his pulse.

"He's gone Bill, ya did the right thing."

Why doesn't it feel like the right thing, Bill wondered.


  1. Replies
    1. The exact words I was thinking...
      Well written, Sarge. My only thought would be that not only would the sight of the inside of a knocked out tank stay with someone forever, so would the smells.

    2. Thanks Coffee Man. One of my goals in this tale is to show the humanity of both sides.

  2. It doesn't feel like the right thing because Bill, and the far majority of humans aren't psychopaths or sociopaths. They are average humans forced to do many things that aren't right because they don't want to let their buddies down, and they want to survive.

    I read Lt. Colonel Grossman's book "On Killing" some time ago and in section three he writes on the relationship between physical distance and the ease of killing.
    I dug out my copy and I will spend sometime selectively rereading it.

    Another great story and I haven't said that often enough of late.

    1. Lt Col Grossman's book is excellent. I need to find my copy.

      And thanks.

  3. How can there dust in here when it's so humid out?

  4. I am reminded of the Shifty Powers interview in "Band of Brothers". I can't do the quote justice, but he says about the enemy, absent the war, ..."he might have like to fish. We might have been friends".

  5. wow! Powerful stuff on the reminder that war sucks.

    1. "It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it." - R.E. Lee

  6. At least he died with his soul cleansed.

    Dammit, not dusty, full big tears rolling down my face. Your writing skills are... impressive.

    The justice of a quick death for the terminally wounded has always been one of the greatest gifts and worst horrors of a military man's life. Before the age of antibiotics and survivable surgeries, belly wounds were the worst. 3-5 days of extreme agony to die, in pain to the last. Not a way to go.

    And... it's one of the three parts of triage. Lightly wounded? Back to their mates or hang around, over... there under the trees until the medicos are done. Survivably severely wounded? Over here, quick, quick. Terminally wounded? Behind that hill over there so no one can hear them, we'll deal with them when we have time (for rather terminal values of 'deal.) One of the greatest military medicine inventions, and most people today don't understand it.

    Thanks for humanizing a rather dehumanizing moment.

    And I have never ever forgotten that quote from R. E. Lee. My friend Benen and I would talk about such things after a good day of play-fighting. Others didn't or couldn't understand what we were talking about.

    1. Triage is truly military medicine's gift to the world.

    2. Not just military medicine,but any mass casualty event. It is the law of Supply and Demand, reduced to raw flesh and blood terms. With limited medical resources, some deaths are inevitable. How do you minimize the number of deaths? You assess the patient's probability of survival with, and without, medical treatment. If he will likely live without it, he gets none, other than pain control perhaps. If he will likely die, even with treatment, he gets none other than pain control, perhaps extreme.

      This maximizes the resources available to treat those for whom the outcome is in doubt. The greatest good for the greatest number. One of the few situations where a socialistic policy makes sense to me.

      I would not want to be on either side of that kind of decision.

    3. Sounds like you've been there Mike.

  7. All I have to say has been said by better men. Thanks


  8. Hello Sarge, most powerful piece of writing today. You kind of stuck to the bone of what is humanity, even during wartime. Thanks, I've enjoyed the last couple of weeks of your writing.

  9. I wonder how many tank battles were point blank. I was readinkg a few days ago now an M1 Abrams has a 90% chance of hittinkg a target a mile - or more - away.

    And as others have said about triage - must be horrible to have to decide who has a chance of living and who dies. As to the terminally wounded SS Sgt, there were a few decent ones - but darned few. Only God knows our souls.

    We are going on to Berchtesgaden, aren't we? ;-)

    I guess that was 101st Airborne, but we are going to cross the Rhine?

    1. We will get to the Rhine. Berchtesgaden, nein. That was the 101st.

      The Abrams has a very good gun and a very good sighting system.

  10. Powerful writing indeed.

    It's a terrible place to be, facing the suffering of pain in what you believe to be a mortal wound. Easing the pain would appear to be mercy, but it is also certainly killing. You have a duty to treat others as you would be treated, and you have the duty of the soldier. Since you are not God, you cannot know the right thing to do. So your choice is to kill or allow continued suffering. The reality is that there is no right answer. It's an impossible dilemma. Regardless of what you do, you own your decision and action and either way you choose, it cannot be right. You can justify it seven ways to Sunday, but it'll never be right. Kill or allow suffering. Life as an ape-lizard.

    Thanks Sarge.

    1. Ah, but those around you, not having had to make that horrible choice, will tell you that it was the right thing to do. Whether for their own comfort or yours, I've never really been sure.

  11. A phrase that stuck indelibly in my mind is "the Devil's arithmetic", used to describe the dilemma of someone hiding refugees from the Gestapo and continually facing the problem of whether or not to endanger the half-dozen now hiding, so as to save one more. it's the same emotional double-bind as mass casualty triage and other situations. British ace pilot Robert Stanford Tuck confessed to his biographer that he had machine-gunned a German flier in the water (in the North Sea, miles from land, with night coming on) because "I couldn't leave him there". I've read about plenty of such cases and spoken with a man who faced such. It was an experience to keep one humble. War is Hell.


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