Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Crossing the Line

US Army Signals Corps Photo

"So this is the Siegfried Line? Not as nasty as I'd thought it would be." The 1st Battalion commander had been around, he'd fought in the Great War as a Marine, got out, then re-enlisted when things went south in the Crash of '29. But not in the Marine Corps, they had shrunk to insignificance after the war. But his father, a banker in North Dakota, had many friends, one of whom was a colonel in the National Guard. He had transferred to the Regular Army when FDR started expanding the military in anticipation of going to war and brought the banker's son with him.

He'd made rank the hard way, taking command of his company in North Africa when all the officers had been hit, or were, as the major said, "Elsewhere on that day." The Army hadn't exactly covered itself in glory at Kasserine, but some individual units had fought well. The major had won his battlefield commission for that action.

By the end of the campaign he was a captain, commanding a company in what he liked to call, "The Finest Division to ever grace the Earth." The Big Red One of course. Now, for his actions in Normandy and beyond, he commanded a battalion in that division.

Captain Josephson had a great deal of respect for his commanding officer, but he had to point out, "Surely the S2 has pointed out that this is just the outer belt west of Aachen. The main line is to the east of Aachen. I guess they figured the city itself would stop us, I don't know about that, but cities are tough to fight in."

"I just hope the 9th Air Force doesn't blow it all to Hell and gone, I've heard stories of the fighting in Monte Cassino and at Caen. After the air blew those places to rubble, the Krauts had plenty of hidey-holes to shoot the attackers to bits. Probably better if they'd left 'em intact." The major shook his head and sighed, standing he turned to Josephson.

"You've done a top notch job with C Company, Alphonse," the major didn't believe in nicknames, "keep up the good work, I swear you'll have a battalion before long."

"Thanks Sir, I just don't want to fail my men, we started out on the wrong foot, but I think things have gotten better." The captain didn't want to think of his dead wife and son, months later and it still hurt beyond belief when he stopped to think about it. It had also made him angry and unpredictable in the aftermath. But the man walking next to him had done much to fix that, as did the company's First Sergeant, Mort Saeger.

"How's Paddock making out? I remember when he came to us, Hell, he wasn't but a few days out of the Point, Class of '44 only did three years and not the full four. I had my doubts."

"So did I, he seemed like a good enough officer but his senior NCOs were terrible, I hate to speak ill of the dead, but it was something of a blessing when Draper and Fortin were killed by that mine." Captain Josephson shook his head, "Sorry sir, I'm sure someone misses them."

"Fortin had a chance to be a good NCO, someday, but Draper ruined him. That fool had a godfather on the division staff, so I couldn't get rid of him, the Krauts took care of that, but we have to play the cards we're dealt, but about Paddock?"

"Damned fine officer, I'm submitting the paperwork for a Bronze Star, he's led his men from the front and I daresay they'd all march through Hell for the man. He's bright, he learns quick and, something which took me a long time to learn, he listens to his sergeants."

"Make sure that paperwork gets to battalion ASAP, I'll send it to regiment with my endorsement."

PFC Flavio Gentile was sitting with his back against an old tree stump. He was enjoying a last cigarette before it got dark and was savoring a cup of coffee. Where this platoon managed to get a guy who knew how to make such good coffee was a mystery. He drank it black and he liked it strong. Most outfits made it too damned weak. These guys knew how to brew.

"PFC Gentile, how you settling in?" Sgt Wilson was making the rounds before sunset, he'd been meaning to chat with Gentile but this was the first chance he'd had.

"Pretty good Sarge," he toasted Wilson with his canteen cup and continued, "youse guys know how to make a good cup of joe."

"Ah, that's Katz, ask him and he'll show you the secret. I don't ask, I probably don't want to know. I'm sure someone at battalion wonders where all the coffee gets to. I know he uses more beans than the battalion cook does, probably what makes it strong."

Both men sat back, Wilson lit a cigarette and asked Gentile, "So Philly, how is it you've been in combat since North Africa, was awarded a Bronze Star on D-Day, and you're still just a Private First Class?"

Gentile chuckled, "Well, I made corporal once, punched out a dumbass captain at Kasserine, and the battalion commander thought it'd be a good idea to let me start over again as a private, after 30 days in the stockade, of course."

"Of course." Wilson agreed.

"I think I'm just too feisty to be an NCO, can't keep my mouth shut, can't stand an idiot, you might notice that the Army has a few of those."

"That they do, that they do."

"So that's my story Sarge, I'm just a troublemaker from Philly who wants to kill enough Krauts so that they quit and we can all go home."

Sgt Wilson started to speak again but was interrupted when PFC Jack Leonard walked by, "Hey Sarge, why you talking to that tree stump? Oh, it's the new guy, didn't see ya there Philly, you kinda look like a tree stump, all short and hairy."

Gentile started to get up but Wilson pulled him back down, "Pay him no mind Philly, he thinks he's a comedian but as you might guess, he's no Joe E. Brown, in fact Hebert calls him the company jackass. Now there's a man who don't know when to shut up."

"Sorry Sarge, I don't mean nothing by it." In fact PFC Jack Leonard was desperately lonely, he had no family other than his mother back home, and she seldom wrote to him. He constantly sought the attention of his peers, even if most of what came out of his mouth wasn't particularly funny.

"Run along J.L. before I turn Philly loose on you."

Leonard moved off and Gentile spoke, "He is a little funny, but he seems kind of a sad guy, does he have any friends?"

"Him, Dickenson, and Kennedy all came to us after D-Day. They were in the division band together, came to us when we desperately needed replacements, somehow we turned them into decent soldiers, well, our old squad leader had a big hand in that. Leonard gets along with everyone okay, but friends? Not really. Our old squad leader kind of took care of him, before he got hit by a sniper in Belgium."

"Shit, did he get killed?" Gentile had lost a couple of good squad leaders in his time, one had died in his arms at Kasserine.

"Nah, wounded pretty bad, but we had a letter from him, he's okay, he'll probably recover, million dollar wound, he's headed home last I knew. With all his parts intact. Lucky man."

"Hey Sarge, I gotta answer the call of nature before it gets too dark. Talk to ya later?"

"Sure. Stump." Wilson smiled as he said it.

Gentile grimaced, but he liked the new nickname, he would never let anyone know of course. But a new nickname in his first week with a new outfit, that told him a lot about these guys. Time, and combat, would tell, but he felt lucky to be with this platoon. He wasn't sure he'd survive this war but he'd be serving with some good men.

As 'Stump' relieved himself, he could hear the thump of distant artillery, the thought of city fighting in Aachen made his blood run cold. It was beginning, maybe his regiment would stay out here in the woods. Though he was city born and bred, he didn't fancy fighting in one, too many places for the Krauts to hide.

Out here a fellow could see the sky and breathe the fresh air. An odd thought he smiled to himself as he slid into his foxhole. "Hey, Hank, get some sleep, I'll take the first shift. I got things I need to think about."

"Sure Philly, thanks." Pvt Hank Cambridge was asleep in seconds. Though he seemed to be terrified all of the time, he never had trouble sleeping.

As Cambridge snored, PFC Flavio Gentile thought of home. He missed it as he missed nothing else on this Earth. The letter in his pocket had come that morning, his older brother Giuseppe had been killed in action on some island in the Pacific called Tinian. His Mom had written the letter, his Dad was devastated, Giuseppe was supposed to take over the family business after the war.

He looked at the sky overhead as a single tear slid down his cheek, "G'bye Giuseppe. I'm gonna miss you big brother."

It was a very long night.


  1. Really enjoying these posts Sarge, fine tale you're I'm there listening to the boys at their shoulders.........:)

  2. You write like the reader is actually there observing the men and their conversations. Publish this when it is completed. I want a copy.

    1. The plan is to publish. Copy on the copy. 😉

    2. I'm with Coffee Man. I want one, autographed by the author. Will gladly pay a premium for that. ;-)

  3. I really like this installment a lot, but for some reason it got really dusty in here when I read about Stump's letter from home. Good writing, Sarge!

    1. Thanks Tom. Character development helps the story, at least I think so, it's also fun to get to know these fictional soldiers. Fun from a writing standpoint.

  4. There were many officers who needed to be slugged as Kasserine, or spanked. We definitely fielded too many not-ready-for-primetime leaders early in the war.

    Sounds like Stump is going to fit in. Not everyone needs to be a leader, some are just fine doing the killing.

    And, yeah, finding out bad news on the eve of stepping into bad news isn't a good thing. Dang it. Tinian, like all Pacific fights, wasn't very nice at all, or atoll.

    Hmmm. Family business. Hmmm. Green grocier, moving company, family restaurant, wonder what it is?

    As was said higher up, excellent filling in on character backgrounds. Just don't David Weber too many, okay? (Bring up a character, fill in history, make you really like the person, then blow his/her guts out in space. Though, in space, death will be more common than survivable wounds, once we get to fighting in it.)

    1. Early in any conflict the military (of most nations) will discover just who the shoe clerks are, i.e. those who rise during peace time by knowing the right people, attending the right schools, and not pissing anyone off. Generally those who play the game. When war begins, many of those get fired or killed, unfortunately only after getting a number of their people killed.

      If a character you don't care about gets hurt or killed, what was the point of the character? Sure, some are just in "walk on" roles, you know his name but that's about it. Those minor characters will show up, get killed or wounded, and we move on. It's the ones you care about that make the story more personal. An emotional response to a story line or character is a good thing, at least I think so. Not to worry, I won't go all "David Weber" (or as I call it, the "George R.R. Martin School of Story Telling") on you.

      I care about these characters as well, when they get in a situation where it's likely one (or more) of them might die or be wounded, it's a gut wrenching thing for me as well. Sometimes the story just goes that way.

      As to Stump, we might see what the family business is, but his parents are definitely old school "from the old country" Italians. Hard workers, etc.

  5. Very nice touch mentioning Joe Brown. I have a copy of his book "Your Kids and Mine". There is a passage where Joe is visiting with the wounded in a tent on an island in the Pacific. A red headed kid lays dying. The kid confuses Joe for his buddy. Joe plays along. Can't read it and keep a straight face. Brown's own son was killed flying an A-20 when it crashed in Palm Springs.

    1. I remember watching him when I was a kid, a very funny guy.

  6. Hey AFSarge;

    Very Good installment, and mentioning Kasserine Pass, that is why we started "Red Flag" and "NTC" training against the "OPFOR" We couldn't afford any more "Kasserine Pass" or Task Force Smith", we couldn't lose the first battle of the next war, then expect the American military and industry to pull it together and win the subsequent battles and the war. A lot of leaders deserved to get smacked for how poorly they performed at Kasserine,

    1. Task Force Smith, another example of massive failure in the first days of a war based on peacetime practices.

      Red Flag and NTC are both excellent programs.

  7. Poor Stump.😕

    You make it all real Sarge, thanks!

    1. (Don McCollor)...Remember trying to explain to a college who predicted US disaster in the First Gulf War. The ETO US forces employed, who were trained (and who would be heavily outnumbered) to try to hold back the Warsaw Pack armies pouring through the Fulda Gap. And to keep a war from going nuclear...

    2. The guys in the First Gulf War had Allies, support from back home, and were very well trained, kicked some serious ass.

  8. Excellent story telling and character development, Sarge. As has been said many times, you make it easy for your readers to be transported right to the scene of the crime. Hell, I'm there from the first sentence, as the world of here and now quickly fades into obscurity...
    Not sure how much of it is from having been in similar environs...hell, I can smell the coffee!
    I also get a lot of entertainment out of the back and forth in the comments, some humorous, and some somber.

    1. I'm glad I started writing this story back in June, it sure beats the Hell out of politics!

      Thanks Patrick!

  9. Sarge, I really like the info being provided by the narrator as it reminds me of how it was done by Damien Lewis, playing Dick Winters in Band of Brothers.

    PFC "Gentile" drinking coffee reminds me of this joke: How does Moses make coffee? Hebrews it. ;)

    1. That might be what inspired my writing style, I've probably watched Band of Brothers half a dozen times.

      As for you last, good one!

      Thanks Tuna!

  10. And you’ve pictured military life pretty good. There’s always at least one jack ass. One brown Noser. And the rest are pretty good guys

    Haven’t met the brown Noser yet

    Have you served in the military? 😁

    My ex neighbor who was the Marine in the South Pacific and whose stories I always wondered which were true-told me that he kept going up to sergeant and then getting into trouble hearing officers.

    Said he thought he was on an elevator

    I thought internally if he were a BSer he sure wouldn’t brag about that.

    I think you’ve captured World War II army life pretty good Sarge.

    On the Siegfried line, when I was there in 1973 I took a picture of it is the Saar region

    The concrete look aged and weeds were all growing through it

    Funny as we get older that was real time for me and I thought World War II was ancient history.

    But it had ended 28 years earlier and now I look at that day over 40 years later

    And the funny thing is I posted it on the lexicans web site And the Germans seem to look at it most every day.

    I guess that’s when you know you’re officially an old fart

    My first station was in Landstuhl, an area that Patton had just ignored and swept by

    Post here if anyone’s interested

    1. Well, I spent 24 years in the Air Force, does that count?

      You're right, the outfit needs a brown noser! I'll see what I can do!

    2. I thought the brown-noser got done blowned up in the halftrack?

    3. Army, Air Force, Marine, and Navy regulations all prescribe the proportion of brown nosers to actual troops in every level from platoon up to headquarters levels. Unlike The Highlander, there can be more than one.

  11. You're on a roll. Keep it up.
    Italians in Philly were well represented in many small businesses. Masons, bricklaying, marble working were big; lots of small groceries and eateries, leading to a plethora of pizza places, but that part was probably post WW2. Also big on "hoagies" known as "subs" in other locales.
    Britannica states "Hoagie, a submarine sandwich filled with Italian meats, cheeses, and other toppings. The name likely comes from the Philadelphia area where, during World War I, Italian immigrants who worked at the Hog Island shipyard began making sandwiches; they were originally called “hoggies” before the name hoagie took hold."

    Long ago I worked in a boat yard a couple miles downriver from Hog Island (now site of the Philly airport) and would love to get another hoagie from the little joint there!
    John Blackshoe

    1. A hoagie roll!

      Had a buddy from Philly on Okinawa, enlisted in the Air Force at 17, he called them hoagies. Here in Little Rhody they're subs, up in Vermont we called them grinders. Lot of stories behind those names on the Internet (NYC calls them hero sandwiches).

      Thanks John!


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