|(Source, Page 446)|
My nose is itching, I really want to scratch it, but I can't. I've got my rifle trained on a patch of brush and I swear there's something in there. It might just be the shadows or the mist, I'll feel better when the sun burns some of this fog off.
We've been in this position all night, right now it's Duck's turn to sleep. We're dug in, but this hole really isn't deep enough for my tastes. The Krauts might be running low on tanks and infantry, but their artillery is still pretty active. They don't fire a lot of rounds, Sarge figures that our flyboys are really pounding their supply lines, so they must be getting low on ammo. Thing is, they've been here for four years, it seems like they have every corner of France zeroed in!
I feel a tug on my sleeve, I almost pee myself then I hear Duck ask, "Charlie, anything out there?"
"Damn it Duck, I dunno. What with this mist and the early morning shadows, I can barely see the front sight on my rifle. There's a patch of brush over across the way, I swear someone's in it."
Duck sat up next to me and took a long look at where I had pointed.
"Kid, I don't see nothing there. It's your imagination."
"I dunno Duck, I swear someone's in there."
The scout from the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division "Götz von Berlichingen" was frozen in place. He had been watching the American line for 30 minutes or so when he noticed a man in a trench or fighting hole begin to stare in his direction. It was getting lighter out and he needed to get back to his Kampfgruppe¹, Kampfgruppe Wahl. The division had been reduced to 8,500 men at the beginning of July, the scout reckoned there were even fewer left now, maybe 3,000 or so. But the Führer demanded that they attack. So they would.
"Damn it, there's two of them." SS-Unterscharführer Max Klemens thought to himself. He could just see the top of another man's head as the man got up to look in his direction. The original soldier was pointing in his direction. "If I don't move soon, I'm dead man."
Damn it, I swear that's a man, why is he there? Why hasn't he moved? I can almost see his outline, but I'm just not sure. There, there, the sumbitch moved!
Gammell's rifle barked once, twice, then a third time.
"Damn it Charlie! What the Hell are you shooting at?" Duck was angry, Sarge always warned them about firing at shadows, now here's the new guy blasting away at a damned shrub!
Just then Pvt Woodrow "Duck" Simpson heard a rattling gasp from the shrub which Gammell at fired at.
"What the Hell is going on up here?" Sgt Brandt was not happy. He jumped into Gammell's and Simpson's foxhole. He expected a sheepish look from whoever fired the shots, but Simpson looked half-asleep and pretty confused, whereas Gammell was focused on a spot across the small field.
"Duck, cover us. Gammell, with me." Sgt Brandt expected no debate, he expected the new kid to follow him without question, but it stunned him when the kid jerked him back into the hole and snapped, "Wait!"
SS-Unterscharführer Klemens was down, he'd been hit by one round in the upper chest and was having a great deal of difficulty breathing. Another round had gone through his left forearm, shattering both bones. A third round whirred past his head, just missing him. But he was down, down hard. It hurt like Hell.
Bracing himself, he managed to get his rifle, a G43², around and braced on his badly injured forearm. He was trembling, it had hurt a lot to do even that simple task. That's when he noticed that a third American was there, and was climbing out of the fighting position! "Dumme Kerl³, you're a dead man."
Before Sgt Brandt could whirl on Gammell and asked him what the Hell he was playing at, the young private had fired two more rounds.
"I think we can go now Sarge," was all the kid said.
Sgt Brandt took a moment, he was rather at a loss for words. Then Duck said, "Geez Sarge, I think Charlie did see somebody!"
"Can we go look now?"
Gammell looked a bit embarrassed, "Sure Sarge, sorry about yanking you down like that."
The first round had hit the dirt in front of Klemens, causing him to flinch, the second hit him just below the rim of his cap, causing him to die.
Cautiously the two Americans moved up to where Klemens' body was. Of course, they didn't know his name was Klemens. They didn't know that he was barely 18 years old and was from a small German-speaking village in Romania, like many in his unit. How could they know?
Sgt Brandt stepped up, the SS man looked very dead, the back of his head was missing, his eyes were open and staring into the dirt where he'd died.
"Charlie, how did you know there was a Kraut here?"
I didn't quite know how to answer. Growing up in the country you get a feel for what's natural and what isn't. Though the German kid's camouflage uniform was pretty effective, his outline was too hard edged, it didn't blend with the background. He stood out more as the day got brighter, then he had moved.
So I shot him. This wasn't the first guy I'd shot at, I'm pretty sure I shot a Kraut tanker a couple of days ago who was running away from his tank. Pretty sure I hit him too, but I didn't go look, there wasn't time, we were in the middle of a firefight, then Sarge found that wounded Kraut in the barn, things were crazy.
"Sarge, I feel kinda sick." I did, I felt like I was gonna puke. Here was a guy who had been alive just fifteen minutes ago, then I killed him.
I killed him.
Sgt Brandt rested his hand on Gammell's shoulder, the kid was shaking a bit. Brandt remembered the first time he knew, absolutely knew, that he'd killed a man. It felt weird, like a line had been crossed that you could never recross. You couldn't undo what had been done. There was a finality which just felt, somehow unreal. He knew what it felt like to end a man's life. He didn't like the feeling, he remembered each and every one, but you didn't dwell on it, you'd go crazy if you did.
Brandt squeezed Gammell's shoulder and said, "Ya got good instincts kid, this guy is a scout. If you hadn't killed him, he would have reported on our positions and then we'd be dead, not him. It's war. Don't think too much about it, okay?"
Gammell kind of shook himself, slung his rifle then rubbed his face with both hands, hard. Taking off his helmet, he ran his sleeve over his forehead.
I knew what Sarge meant. It wasn't like I've never killed anything before, I hunted back home, I had helped to feed the family by hunting when times got bad, I've been doing that since I was about 10. Deer, rabbits, squirrels, whatever would fill the pot.
I still remembered the dead kid in Marigny, I had thought he was a pile of rags. This wasn't the first dead man I'd seen, but this was the first dead man that I had made that way. An odd way of looking at it.
When Sarge squeezed my shoulder, I realized that I had to just shake this off and move on, so I did, I literally shook myself like a dog shaking off the rain. I slung my rifle, rubbed my face as hard as I could. Then I took off my helmet and wiped the sweat from my eyes.
I placed my helmet back on my head and turning to my sergeant, I said, "I'm okay Sarge. It really is them or us, I'd prefer they die, not us."
"You'll do as I tell you Gerhard, remember, I am your battalion commander. So I get to make these kinds of decisions. Besides, you hate the Königstiger4, why would you want to be assigned to one of those? Third Company is being reequipped with them, we're just about out of the E models."
"But Paderborn, the tank school? What the Hell Rolf..."
"Shut up and listen Gerhard. They're building up a new heavy tank company from the Model Es we've got left. Do you want to go to a Panther or a Pzkw IV unit? Do you want to go back to being in a division? I thought you liked the independence of the heavy tank battalions?"
"I do, but, no damn it, I know we'll get stuck with a IV, might as well shoot us all now. We'll go, but what is the deal here anyway?"
Stabsfeldwebel Gerhard Lindner trusted his commander, Major Rolf Fromme, they'd served together for quite some time. But Lindner didn't want to leave sPzAbt5 503, it had been his home since May of 1942. He knew that the unit would be reformed, but right now sPzAbt 503 existed only on paper. They were rebuilding it, starting with 3rd Company and the Tiger IIs, which truth be told he really did hate. Slow, gas guzzling, monstrosities they were, the antithesis of what a tank should be.
"It's a new outfit being formed by a guy we both know, Hans Hummel."
"Die Biene6 has his own unit? Is he an officer now?"
"Yes, he's a captain. He's forming a new company from the kids at the Tiger school. He's desperate for experienced Tiger crews."
Lindner shook his head, he wasn't all that keen on joining a unit of greenhorns, but he wasn't all that keen to die here in Normandy. The writing was on the wall, they were losing and the generals were too stupid, too stubborn, or too scared of Hitler to fall back over the Seine.
"You're a bastard, you know that Rolf, right?"
"I assure you Gerhard, my parents were married, to each other." Major Fromme let his sergeant skate very close to the edge all the time. You did that for a man who had saved your life, twice.
"Alright, we'll go. Don't get yourself killed here, all right?"
"Aber natürlich7, now go, this is one of the last trains out. Maybe the Amis and the Tommies won't strafe it as it's clearly marked as a hospital train."
"But we're moving troops on it, isn't that..."
"If you won't tell, neither will I. Now go. Wiedersehen."
"Ja, auf Wiedersehen. I'll see you when I see you. Stay alive you old bandit."
As the train pulled away from the station, Rolf wondered if he'd see his old friend again. Rumor had it that the 503rd would be rebuilt, then sent to Russia. Major Fromme did not have a good feeling about that. Not at all...
¹ Kampfgruppe - an ad hoc combat organization formed for specific tasks, or when the combat power of a larger unit had been worn down to the point where all that was left was a small group of all arms. Usually they were named for their commanding officer. Of course, on maps at Hitler's headquarters they were still shown as a larger organization.
² The G43 (G for Gewehr) is a semi-automatic German rifle.
³ Stupid chap.
4 The Tiger II, the Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B.
5 sPzAbt, abbreviation for schwere Panzer Abteilung = Heavy Tank Battalion.
6 Die Biene is German for "the bee," "Hummel" is German for Bumblebee.
7 But naturally.
8 You too.