Friday, January 22, 2021

Hell Has Frozen

U.S. Army Photo

Cpl. Willis Hartness had his seat in the up position, he didn't like the cold wind blowing in his face but he could see much better to drive the tank. It was cold, it was snowing, and for some reason his driver's periscope in the hatch was constantly fogging up when he tried driving with the seat down. Next chance he had he was planning on trying to fix that. For now he drove with the hatch open.

2nd Lt. Stephen Hernandez was leaning in close to the tank commander, S/Sgt Brad Woodstock, who was trying to explain something to him, but he could barely hear the guy because of the noise from the tank's engine and the howling of the wind. Not to mention being all bundled up against the cold. Hernandez was about to shout at Woodstock again that he couldn't hear him, when he saw a flash to the front.

A small wood concealed a bend in the road they were following, the flash had come from there, followed a split second later by the tank starting to slow and swerve off of the road.

"Everybody bail! Take cover!!" Hernandez screamed at the men riding on the outside of the tank.

Hartness had been hit in the side of the head by a German bullet, it was a glancing blow, his tanker's helmet had protected him somewhat but he had been knocked silly by the blow. As head wounds tend to do, he was bleeding profusely. The tank's bow gunner, Pfc. Roger Blaisdell, assumed that Hartness was dead, killed by a sniper.

"Sarge! Willis got hit in the head! What do we do?" Blaisdell was on the edge of panic, he was a new replacement, just joining the unit barely a week ago to replace a man in Woodstock's crew who had been evacuated for trench foot.

For his part, Woodstock had been trying to explain to the lieutenant that he was going to have them dismount and approach the woods on foot, but it was apparent that the lieutenant couldn't hear him. Then the tank had slowed, the infantry had jumped off, and his driver was unresponsive. As they veered off the road, Woodstock realized that they were under fire.

SS-Obersturmführer¹ Gerhard Ley was watching through his field glasses when he heard the shot fired from somewhere down his line and saw the lead Ami tank begin to slow and veer off the road his detachment was covering.

"Verdammte Idiot!²" he bellowed in anger as he realized one of his men had opened fire without orders. Amazingly the man had hit the driver of the lead tank, Ley could see the blood splashed against the whitewash over the driver's position on the turret.

Realizing that he'd lost the element of surprise he shouted at his 7.5 cm antitank crew, "Feuer! Feuer frei!³" He winced as the gun barked and he saw sparks flare on the glacis of the enemy tank.

Blaisdell had been trying to pull Hartness out of his seat so that he could take over as driver when the antitank shell had struck the front of the tank and ricocheted away. It was like being inside of a bell. His ears were ringing as he struggled to get the driver moved.

"Jesus rookie, take it easy!" Blaisdell nearly came out of his skin when the "dead" Hartness yelled at him. How could he possibly speak, he was bleeding like a stuck pig and there was blood everywhere, he could see the gash in Hartness' helmet where he'd been hit.

With Hartness helping, Blaisdell got him moved and took over the controls of the tank. It was a few seconds more before he remembered to plug into the intercom. He had been yelling into a dead microphone.

"Just stop the tank, you hear me rookie, put the f**kin' brakes to her."

"Gotcha Sarge!"

As Blaisdell got the tank stopped, the main gun roared right over the driver's still open hatch. Blaisdell thought that if survived this war he'd be deaf as a post the rest of his life.

Hernandez had his men off the tanks and deploying into a skirmish line, as he was trying to spot where the enemy was, the tank he had been on fired, from the woods ahead he saw an explosion, then a number of secondary explosions. A Kraut gun! Looks like the tank killed it, but they might have just hit the spare ammo.

"John, get battalion on the horn, see if we can't get some arty on these guys!" Cpl. John Myerson immediately established radio contact with battalion.

As Hernandez moved to find cover, he heard a grunt behind him, then someone fell on his legs, knocking him to the ground. He turned and saw Pvt. Robert Jennings face down in the snow, lying across his legs. Reaching back he checked, Jennings was dead.

Working his legs free, Hernandez crawled forward to where he saw his platoon guide, Sgt. Woody Sherman, firing his Garand in the direction of the woods from where the fire had come. Next to Sherman, on the ground, was Pvt. Irving Dixon, curled into the fetal position, clutching his mid-section. Before he could process another thought, he heard Myerson yelling.

"Shot out, everybody down! INCOMING!!"

Ley was hit in both legs. When the spare ammunition had gone off, destroying his antitank gun and its crew, fragments from those secondary explosions had torn into his legs. Looking down he realized that he wouldn't be leaving this position under his own power.

As he looked for his sergeant to order him to fall back, the forest exploded.

Myerson told the artillery that they had done well, target destroyed, there was no more fire coming from the German position. The five rounds of 105 mm high explosive had hit the trees directly above the Germans. The fragments from the shells and the long splinters from the trees driven down into the men in their hastily dug positions took the fight completely out of the three SS men who survived. All three were wounded, two of them badly.

He sought out his lieutenant, the small German delaying force had cost them two men, one dead, one wounded, and from the look on Doc Milbury's face, Irv Dixon was probably not going to make it.


"It's okay John, let's move up and check those positions."

2nd Platoon advanced over the snowy field and entered the edge of the small wood, the smell of high explosives filled the air, along with the coppery smell of spilled blood. There had been fifteen Germans in the position, twelve of whom were dead. The two wounded SS men died of their wounds shortly after the Americans arrived.

"L.T.! We got a live one over here!" Sgt. Katz was already there, talking to the wounded German, a kid of about 17-years of age Hernandez figured.

"Kid says they're with the Hitler Jugend, 12th SS. They were left here to cover this road until the rest of the division got clear. They began withdrawing last night. Where's Doc, I don't think the kid's gonna make it, but..."

"Doc's trying to save Irv Dixon right now, Cat. He got hit, bad. Bob Jennings is dead. F**k this Kraut." Hernandez toyed momentarily with the thought of just shooting the kid, but from the look of it, he was a goner anyway.

The German's eyes were moving back and forth between the man who had questioned him and the American officer. He was terrified and had no idea what was coming next. Then he gasped, a gout of blood issued from his mouth, then he went still.

Katz checked for a pulse, "Kid's dead, L.T., poor f**ker."

"Sympathy for the SS, Sgt. Katz?" Hernandez looked strangely at Katz.

"He was just a kid, just a dumb f**king kid. Probably joined because his buddies did. I dunno, Sir. It's tough to hate 'em when they're just kids, dying kids."

"Ain't that the truth, Cat, ain't that..." Hernandez turned as Doc Milbury came over to him. Hernandez looked at Doc, who just shook his head.

Another mile closer to Germany, two more dead from 2nd Platoon.

Where would it end? Hernandez wondered.

Would it ever end?

¹ First Lieutenant
² Damned idiot!
³ Fire! Fire at will!

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  1. What's the line? No-one prays for peace like the soldier.
    Gripping writing as always.

    1. True statement.

      Thanks Dakota Viking!

    2. " On the contrary, the soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war."
      Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur, in his Duty, Honor, Country speech at West Point, 12 May 1962

    3. One of MacArthur's best speeches.

  2. Wow. Will you ever turn your focus to the Pacific theater? You, sir, would do it great justice.

    1. Yes, that's the plan. I'm already beginning the research by reading Ian Toll's Pacific war trilogy.

    2. I think one of the reasons your European adventures, from Waterloo to WWII, are so vivid is you've been there. You've been there in the winter and the summer. You've seen the way the rains fall. You've visited the trees, been to the battlefields. So you can understand what you're reading in reference to what you're writing.

      Like, well, me. Mostly flatlander tropic boy, and my idea of mountains is the Smokies. Yes, I can, from various media, envision the Rockies or the Alps, or Maine for that matter, but... Now, I do know a bit about Central Pacific conditions... Or Florida conditions. Some of the conditions in the South all the way to Texas. But my writings about Montana won't have that intimacy with the source material that someone from Montana or who's been to Montana at the time they're writing about (or areas that are like Montana) would have.

      You've said it before, Maine and Rhode Island have a lot in common with Europe. Plus you diddled around in Europe for a while.

      You writing about South Korea would be very interesting. You writing about Laos, though you're an excellent writer, might not have that 'first person feel.' Or may have. Dunno. You're a great writer, so... Well... Give it a try. And read those Army green histories, they give a lot of the feel for the theater that more 'adventurous and exciting' books don't.

    3. The Army green books are a major source for data. Most excellent books.

  3. I got a shiver looking at the tank, then I thought I saw 'brush marks'??? Oh yeah, whitewash. Got it....

    The smell..... blood and black powder don't mix well, at least in my nose... I can't imagine what an 1800's battlefield smelled like... And the smell is is what books and movies can't give you... Even the descriptions won't give you the taste unless you have prior knowledge...

  4. The tanks sounds warm and cold at the same time inside, which sounds odd to me. And the sound of the guns going off in the tank must have been, well, deafening (odd I never thought about it before).

    In the movie - I believe it was called "The Last Days of Hitler" - there is a small sub story of some Hitler's youth preparing to defend Berlin. Near the end, they start getting killed or killing themselves (not wanting to fall into the Russian hands). Even with what they represent, there is still a certain horror to it all.

    1. Downfall. A movie I got from Amazon.

    2. Toirdhealbheach Beucail - There are a number of movies covering the last days in Berlin. The Germans behaved horribly in Russia, the Russians paid them back tenfold.

    3. StB - Not necessarily Downfall, which is an excellent movie. Like I mentioned above, there are a number of films covering that time period. Hitler: The Last Ten Days, which has Alec Guinness as Hitler, also The Bunker with Anthony Hopkins as Hitler, I've seen both of those but a long time ago. Downfall is perhaps the best of the lot, the late Bruno Ganz was brilliant as Hitler, he nailed Hitler's mannerisms and voice. His performance was chilling!

    4. To be fair, the Russians behaved horribly in Poland. And in Finland. And in the retreat at the beginning of the war. And in every other war they were involved in going back to prehistoric times.

      A lot of racial hatred between Germany and Russia that was already built up before WWII was a gleam in various idiots' eyes.

    5. Totalitarian regimes tend to behave horribly, Napoléon's men, in their day, committed many atrocities in what would later become Germany.

      No, the Germans didn't forget.

    6. Scott - Thanks, Downfall was the one I was thinking of.

      Yes, the actor's performance as Hitler was very good, to the point of being alarming.

  5. "Blaisdell thought that if survived this war he'd be deaf as a post the rest of his life." It doesn't take many loud noises to damage hearing - most WWII and Korean vets I have had the honor of knowing were all deaf - even the amount of shooting they did in basic training affected all of them, but a ton of jobs exposed them to hearing damage from sources other than gunfire - machinery in engine rooms, flight decks, etc. Today, you'd have some damn personal injury lawyer trying to milk their situation for a payday.
    Great writing, Sarge. Was pondering the lead pic before I started reading and thought "That looks like it was painted..."
    A premature shot by a jumpy kid can ruin even a perfectly set ambush. "Don't fire 'til you see the whites of their eyes" is still a good policy in a lot of cases, although I prefer the "Shoot before they get within range of their weapons" method.. whether by longer range rifle fire, mortars, artillery or an air strike

    1. Definitely a jumpy kid, finger on the trigger, a little too much pressure and bang, you've blown your ambush.

    2. Friend's father was a loader on an M-10 tank destroyer. Yes, tank crew were pert near deaf or would suffer from premature deafness after the war.

      As to the ambush, it's why you have the crew set up the gun but you put your most reliable man, even if he's not an official gunner, on the trigger.

    3. It was a kid with a rifle who popped off that shot, which did manage to ring the tank driver's bell but which resulted in the death of the kid's entire unit. Of course, Jennings and Dixon paid the last full measure as well.

  6. More miserable deaths, to be continued after the war for another 44 years. Then a brief moment of peace and then more miserable deaths in lands both hot and cold, the very definition of Hell...

    Great telling. Very powerful.

  7. Outstanding, as always.
    Thank you very much for this daily gift.

  8. Goosebumps and tears. Your words always paint such a vivid picture.


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