Pvt Riley Taggert was on point, though the kid was a rookie, he had proven himself to be pretty sharp. He was also good in the woods, he'd been, of all things, a forest ranger when his number came up and he was drafted into the Army. He saw things out there which others missed completely.
Taggert signaled and the platoon came to a stop, the men faced out to cover their sectors and 2Lt Paddock and SSgt Graves moved up to Taggert's position.
"Whaddaya got Tags?" the lieutenant asked.
"I dunno sir, I got a funny feeling about this place, the ground looks, I dunno, like it's been raked over or something. It doesn't look like it's supposed to." Pvt Taggert knew what he meant, but it's hard to convey a suspicion, a gut feeling about something you learned working in the forests of North America. The woods here in Europe were a bit different, more tame somehow, but there were things here which just didn't look right.
"Raked over? Sure, the Europeans like to keep their forests tidy but..." Paddock started to say when SSgt Graves interrupted him.
"It doesn't look random enough."
"Yeah, that's what it is, it ain't random, it's almost like the forest floor has been groomed." Taggert agreed.
The lieutenant raised one eyebrow, he wasn't sure what these two were going on about. The he looked to the rear, then back to the front. The light came on...
"Mines. Sergeant Graves, Tags, have everybody hold their positions, no one moves forward." Gesturing to Pvt Herman Shapiro, one of the platoon messengers, he motioned for the man to come up and join him.
"Sir?" Pvt Shapiro looked at his officer, waiting.
"Go back and have the squad leaders come up to, that tree over there," he indicated a tree with a very thick trunk which stood out from the others, "then report back to the captain, tell him we have a suspected minefield directly ahead of us and to either side for as far as I can see, call it fifty yards. Now go!"
Shapiro headed back down the way the platoon had moved up, contacting each squad leader, he told them what the L.T. wanted, then headed further to the rear. As the entire company was on the move, it might not be easy to find Captain Josephson's CP.
Shapiro found his way back to the company CP, the C.O. was with the First Sergeant and a couple of other men from company headquarters, most of the headquarters were further back with the company XO,² First Lieutenant Gus Chambers. Captain Josephson liked to move the company in stages, using the XO and his team as a base of operations. Also made it easier for battalion to keep track of the company, though being "once removed" from battalion, it gave Josephson a bit more flexibility.
"Yes sir. Lieutenant Paddock wanted you to know, he's going to have his men deploy and start marking where the mines are. They're about 200 yards north of here and..."
At that moment there was a muffled explosion.
"Damn it, those are mines. Mort?" he said, looking at his First Sergeant.
"I'll take a couple of the messengers with me and check it out."
"Doc Milbury's with them, he's also got the new medic with him, Jackson."
With that, 1Sgt Saeger was on the move, he took Privates Samson and Hillsbury with him.
Private Bob Taylor of 3rd squad had wandered off the track to answer a call of Nature. He'd tripped the wire on a German S-Mine³ (Bouncing Betty) as he'd gone to lean his rifle against a nearby tree. The mine, as the name implied, bounced up around waist height then detonated. A number of steel balls had gone into him, killing him outright. Most of the steel balls in the mine smashed into the surrounding trees, but at least one had hit Private Max Smithfield in the back of his left thigh, he went down hard.
When Sgt Mike Peavey saw his man go down, he immediately yelled for a medic. Doc Milbury hurried up to Peavey.
"Over there Doc, be careful, sounds like Taylor stepped on an S-Mine."
"Shit. Okay, let's go Dylan."
It was immediately obvious to Milbury that Taylor was dead. So he and PFC Dylan Jackson went to work on Smithfield, bandaging him up to stop the bleeding, the ball from the mine had gone through the muscle at the back of his thigh, messy but Smithfield would be okay.
"Mike, can I get a guy to help Jackson get this man back to the battalion aid station? He's hurt but not too bad, he'll need stitches."
Before Sgt Peavey could answer, Pvt Smithfield spoke, "I ain't going nowhere Doc, it ain't that bad."
"Oh, so you're a doctor now Max?" Milbury knew that the men hated to leave their buddies, but the man really did need to get stitched up.
"I'm fine, really, it hurts a bit, but I can handle it." Smithfield insisted.
"Really, so when it gets infected, and it will, there was a lot of dirt and crap in that wound, what are you gonna do then? Drag yourself back? Let 'em cut your leg off?"
"Seriously Doc?" Smithfield looked a little less adamant now.
"Yeah, seriously. Go back, let the battalion surgeon sew you up. He'll keep you for a couple of days probably, then if there's no infection, he'll probably send you back up to the company."
"You keep saying 'probably' Doc..."
"Yeah, I can't predict the future Max, everything in life is a 'probably' until ya know otherwise."
"Okay, Doc, I'll go back."
Sgt Peavey had his bayonet out and was probing the ground near Taylor's body. It was obvious to Doc that he was dead, but he had to check.
"Chink." Peavey's bayonet had contacted something metallic below the soil. He checked all around, he saw no wires, saw nothing protruding from the forest floor to trigger a mine, but it didn't pay to take any chances. He slowly dug around the object, it felt odd, didn't seem like a mine. Eventually he cleared away the dirt surrounding the buried object. It was a piece of rusted steel, looked like a piece of a Kraut helmet. He pulled it out.
"Jesus Mike, what the Hell is that?" Doc Milbury asked, it looked like a German helmet but was oddly shaped somehow.
"It's a Kraut helmet from the Great War." Captain Josephson knew enough history to know that the Germans had been fighting in these woods for a long time. Franco-Prussian War, then World War I, and now the current war. "They look kind of the same as what the Krauts wear now, just a little deeper I guess you'd say. Heavier too." The captain had come up quietly, no one had noticed him until he spoke.
"Peavey!" The captain noticed the squad leader staring at Taylor's body.
"Sir?" Sgt Peavey seemed to be jerked back to reality by the captain's voice, he hadn't even heard the man speak.
"Take your guys back to the company CP, take Taylor with you."
"Ah, okay sir, but..."
"Listen to the captain Mike, take your casualty back. We're not going anywhere for a while." 2Lt Paddock had come down the track to join his company commander, word had traveled quickly that the C.O. had come up.
Sgt Peavey got his squad together and the men, carrying Taylor's body, followed him back down the forest track.
"Situation, Nate?" asked Captain Josephson.
"The place is filthy with mines Cap'n. We could probably clear a path in a couple of hours but..."
"Yeah, I know, it's getting dark. Go ahead and dig in here, I'll have the other platoons fan out and start digging with what light we've got left. There's no way I'm moving through these woods at night with mines around."
"Got it Cap." Paddock went to get his other two squads on line and dug in for the night. They'd deal with the mines in the morning. It was starting to rain, of course. What's next, Paddock asked himself, Kraut mortars?
"Geez, it's cold, it's wet, and I'm sitting in this damned foxhole in this damned forest. I wonder how close we are to Germany?" Paddock was thinking all of this out loud and trying to will his eyes to part the darkness of the forest.
"What's that L.T.?" asked platoon sergeant Herb Graves as he slid into the hole next to his platoon leader. He'd gone out to check the line one more time.
"Just thinking out loud Herb? We've gotta be close to Germany, right?"
"Yeah L.T., I was looking at the map earlier, that next ridge, that's Germany. We're close, I think that's why we hit a minefield."
"Well, we had to get here someday." Paddock looked out of the hole into the forest and said, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep..."
"But I have promises to keep." Graves continued.
"And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep."
"I don't think Frost had to contend with mines L.T."
"No, I'm sure he didn't. Get some sleep Herb, I'll take first watch."
"G'night L.T., give me an hour or so, I'll be fine."
"You got it."
Paddock looked into the woods, Germany and the Krauts were on that next ridge.
Another one of his men dead, another one wounded. Would the platoon make it to the end of the war? He wondered if the war would ever end.
Who knows, he thought, I sure don't.
And these damned woods aren't lovely, they're pretty damned lonely looking to me, Paddock muttered.
¹ With apologies to Robert Frost.
² XO = Executive Officer, pronounced "X-Oh"
³ S-Mine - Schrapnellmine, or shrapnel mine, also known as a Bouncing Betty.