Friday, September 4, 2020

The Forest, Part One


2Lt Nathan Paddock sighed and lowered his map and compass down into his lap. He was depressed. Tired and depressed. Since losing Brandt and Olson they'd received a bunch of new replacements. He'd asked for a promotion for Jack Wilson, who was leading Brandt's old squad, all the C.O.¹ had said was, "I'll think about it." The man was an asshole from El Paso according to SSgt Graves.

"Problem L.T.?" SSgt Herbert Graves had been a God-send, Paddock's old platoon sergeant had been a do-nothing kiss ass. He had felt bad when Draper had been killed, though truth be told, he didn't miss the man, not one bit.

"Nah Herb, I'll be okay. It just sucks losing guys." With that the lieutenant picked up his map again and tried to figure out where they were. "Got any idea where the Hell we are?"

SSgt Graves chuckled and said, "Yeah Nate, we're about 15 miles south of the German border, we're surrounded by f**kin' trees and I think it's gonna rain. Let me see the map for a minute."

2Lt Paddock saw Brandt's old squad moving up, the men, with the exception of the two new guys, looked like shit. Their uniforms were stained and torn in spots, they all had two days growth of beard, and they smelled bad. Paddock didn't think he smelled any better though his beard was really light, he'd overheard one of the guys in Peavey's squad ask one night, "Geez, does the lieutenant even shave yet?"

The two new guys had been dropped off that morning, their uniforms were brand new as was their webbing and other gear. They stood out like sore thumbs amidst the grime of the rest of first squad.

"Jimmy!" Paddock hissed at his new platoon guide, one Corporal Jimmy Winston.

"Yo L.T., whaddaya need?"

"Got any of that ration peanut butter left?" The lieutenant knew that Winston had been trading with the guys in first and third platoons, trying to get, as Winston put it, "rations that don't stink." Seems like the platoon sergeant in first platoon didn't like peanut butter but loved meat and potato hash, which was generally hated by Paddock's guys. So that's where all of their meat and potato hash went, Paddock was okay with that.

Winston rifled through his musette bag and pulled out a tin of peanut butter, handing it to the lieutenant he said, "Ya need crackers with that L.T.?"

"Nah, I'm good Jimmy, crackers I have. Thanks."

SSgt Graves slid over next to the lieutenant, who was lathering thick gobs of peanut butter onto a C-ration cracker, stuffing it into his mouth as he pulled another cracker out of its protective can. "Ya got enough peanut butter there L.T.?" Graves was grinning from ear to ear.

Paddock gave his sergeant a semi-serious dirty look before mumbling something that sounded like a question, pointing to the map.

"Yeah L.T., we're right here. See that hill over there through the break in the pines at about 47 degrees azimuth? That matches this terrain feature on the map," he said while pointing.

The lieutenant studied the hill, then looked at the map and it was like a light came on.

"I told you lieutenant, ya just need to find a break in the trees and hope for higher terrain, which, as you might have noticed, is plentiful here. Everything is up and down."

Wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his field jacket, the lieutenant offered Graves a cracker, and the can of peanut butter. "Well thankee L.T., don't mind if I do."

"Dear Mom and Dad, we lost our sergeant the other day, wounded pretty bad. I don't think he'll be back. My pal Ollie got killed next to the Sarge, it's rough over here and..."

PFC Katz, Gammell's acting section leader was looking over the younger man's shoulder and nudged him, "Don't write shit like that Camel. Tell 'em that you're okay, bitch about the weather, or the food, but don't worry them by writing about guys getting hit. They know guys are dying over here, they worry that might be you some day. Keep it light, keep it cheerful, okay?"

Hhmm, I guess Cat has a point. I'll tear this up and start over again. But really, I am terribly sad that Sergeant Brandt was hit. It looked bad, really bad, him coughing up blood and all. But Ollie, holy cow, it was like the top of his head came off.

First one of our guys I've seen killed right in front of me, he was a good kid too. Damn it, this place scares me. The days are getting shorter, it's a lot cooler at night, almost reminds me of the deep woods up in northern Vermont, up in The Kingdom. I wonder if the hunting around here is any good, it sure is wild enough. This place would be paradise if there weren't guys over the next hill trying to kill us.

The two new guys walked up to Pvt Gammell as he was scribbling a new letter to his parents.

"Hi, Gammell, right? I'm Chris McWhorter and this is Hank Cambridge. We just got in this morning. Seen any action yet?"

Gammell eyed the newcomers for a minute, then said, "Yeah, I'm Gammell, I don't care who you are. If you're still alive in a couple of days, come back and try again. Now screw."

McWhorter looked like he might cry, and Cambridge looked like he wanted to punch somebody, but they didn't. Both were draftees, both were 18 years old. McWhorter realized that last year at this time he had played in the first game of the high school football season, his last year in high school. Now here he was, in Europe, carrying a rifle with people he didn't know and who didn't seem to like him.

"What do you think of all this Hank?" McWhorter thought that maybe because Cambridge was also new, they might get along.

"Yer name's Chris, right?" Cambridge was an upstate New Yorker from Buffalo, he had a pretty flippant attitude towards most things, but this place scared him. There were guys out there who wanted to kill him. They'd driven by a Graves Registration team on the way up, flinging dead Germans into the back of a truck. It all seemed so callous.

"Yeah, Chris, Chris McWhorter, from Cleveland."

"We need to stick together Chris, these guys don't give a shit about us."

"It's just that we're new, that's all. You know how it is Hank, like the first year of high school." McWhorter reasoned.

Cambridge just shook his head, "Didn't go to high school man, I was out logging from the time I turned 14. But yeah, like joining a new logging crew. No one likes the new guy until he proves himself. We need to watch out for each other, these guys have been at this a long time from the look of things."

At that moment Pvt Hebert, the man they called "Bear" came up, "Don't sweat it guys, we just lost a couple of guys and everyone's on edge, you guys eat yet?"

Both new men shook their heads, they hadn't eaten in 24 hours at least.

"Come on, let's get you some chow, can't fight a war on an empty belly, now can you?"

McWhorter and Cambridge followed Bear over to the platoon CP² where the man they called Cajun was cooking something in a steel tub he'd "liberated" from a Belgian farmhouse. Whatever he was cooking, it smelled good.

"Dig in fellows, we don't stand on no ceremony here, don't need no reservations, oui?"

Cambridge had worked with guys with a similar accent up in the north woods along the border with Canada. "So, you French, Quebecois maybe?"

"Nah man, je viens de la Nouvelle-Orléans, you know, New Awlins, down Louisiana way. Now pull out your mess kits, let's get you boys fed. L.T. be mad if'n we let you die on an empty stomach, looks bad on the Army you know?"

Cambridge was starting to like these guys, McWhorter looked like a scared little kid. Guess he'd have to take care of the boy.

As the sun set over the next hill, the temperature began to drop, the men put out their cooking fires, no point in giving the Krauts something to shoot at, bastards were awfully good with their mortars and it was the one thing they seemed to have plenty of ammo for.

Tomorrow was another day.

Another day to try and stay alive.

¹ C.O. = Commanding officer, pronounced "See Oh."
² CP = Command post, pronounced "See Pee."


  1. Great snapshot of an important moment Sarge. This is a good one to read and re-read and think about.

    Thanks as always.

  2. Hey AFSarge;

    To be the "FNG" in a sucks you are scared, hear all the stories, and the old timers treat you like crap. The movie "Big Red One"(My Division BTW in Germany) touched on the treatment. And the woods in Europe were eerie...I remembered thinking spooky stuff during maneuvers from the mist and stuff from the dark woods in Germany *woof*. My imagination ran amuck too much AD&D, LOL. Good interaction and yes Peanut butter, still a staple in the rations.

    1. A lot of things went on in those dark woods back in pagan times.

    2. Those forests have seen so much death. Both of the trees and of people. And they just don't look right to us Americans and our forests (which, quite frankly, scared the crap out of our European ancestors because they were 'wrong.' Trees too big, wrong shape, wrong color. Trees so big a standard European axe was like hitting a tree with a hand axe (no, seriously, American axe heads are at least 25% larger for felling axes than Euro-axes, and go west they become more like 150% or even double the size.)

      And, judging from the fairy tales, Euro-woods were bad enough, at least until the wolves were wiped out (No, Mr. Eco-nut, wolves do and have killed man from Day 1. Just ask the Russians.)

    3. I dunno, the forests there didn't look that different from what I grew up with. Except in Germany where they like tidy forests, no underbrush, which was kinda weird.

  3. Oh, boy... It's a race to see which side makes it to the hilltop first. Or so I predict.

    I don't know how you put tension into an otherwise idyllic moment, but you did. The anticipation of action, the uneasiness of not knowing.

    And Gammell is the bitter old-timer. And that's the way it is. Either you're on the outs or on the ins. Good job portraying that, too.

    Wonder what Cajun cooked up? Dad talked about how the other guys in his squadrons (training and front-line) were surprised at his ability to make almost anything, including C-rats, taste good. Though by the time he was in high-school the Fed-Gov was really cracking down on non-English use in the Cajun communities.

    1. I know in later years a bottle of good hot sauce was a must have, you can make anything taste good with some heat in it. Though some people's tastes vary, couldn't handle the heat when I was younger (think New England-style food, not spicy at all back in the day), now I can't get enough! (Might be the Korean influence... Who am I kidding, of course it's the Korean influence!)

    2. (Don McCollor)..And Korean kimchee, a treat for the Gods...

  4. Peanut butter!
    The #1 top ingredient in the "stash."

    We had a shipmate in OI Div like Gammell, a career E-3, convinced there was a master plan to #@ck him over.

    I wish our forest floors were as uncluttered of brush as those in the photo.

  5. Great writing and story telling.
    John Blackshoe

  6. I read in the Hurtgen Forest the artillery would hit the trees, splinters flying everywhere and fire - like Hell on earth. I think at least in Vietnam it was a tradition in the Special Forces to carry a bottle of Tabasco sauce. In the back pocket.

    1. Happened in the Bulge as well.

      A lot of guys had folks back in the States send them Tabasco sauce. It officially became part of the MRE rations during the Gulf War. Tabasco Sauce goes back a long way.

  7. Came "back" here from the link. Wow, Gammell a bitter private. Good little vignette. Makes me want the hardcover (or paperback) even more.
    We're getting close, Sarge. Don't need any spectacular endings. Be interesting to see what "becomes" of "our"(your) men when the shooting stops and after.
    Boat Guy

    1. He was, he's seen a lot since he joined the platoon as a replacement. He was 17 when he arrived, he's grown a lot.


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