S/Sgt Stephen Hernandez sat in the snow and looked out across the fields towards Wirtzfeld, he was dirty, he was exhausted, he was now in command of 37 men. He was the new platoon leader of the 2nd Platoon of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One. He wasn't at all happy about his new assignment.
His predecessor, 1st Lt. Nathan Paddock, had been wounded. A German bullet had taken a chunk out of the lieutenant's neck, a non-fatal wound, but an inch to one side and the lieutenant would still be here. An inch to the other, the lieutenant would be wrapped in a poncho, like the men Hernandez was sitting next to.
Sgt. Greg Jenkins, Pfc. Harry Mitchell, Pvt. Justin Long, Pvt. Thomas Spencer, Pvt. Edgar Freeman, and Pvt. Eugene King had all been alive less than twenty-four hours ago. Hernandez couldn't shake the feeling that somehow he had failed these men who now lay cold in the snow, wrapped in their Army-issue ponchos.
In addition to his lieutenant, Pfc. Jackson Hebert, Pvt. Peter Romanov, Pvt. Brad Gonzales, Pvt. Peter Moreno, Pfc. Homer Ginter, Pvt. Riley Taggert, and Pvt. Brad Chapman had all been wounded. Hebert had left with the lieutenant, his hand had been mangled by a German bullet while spotting for the platoon sniper, Pfc. Charlie Gammell. With the exception of Pete Moreno, the other men had minor wounds, minor enough to keep them on the line for now.
Pete Moreno was wounded in the thigh, Doc Milbury had stabilized him but didn't want to take a chance on moving him. He was afraid that the wound would reopen and Moreno could bleed to death. So Doc made him comfortable, well, as comfortable as he could in a hole scratched into the dirt of a small Belgian wood.
But Hernandez had another problem, two German prisoners, guys they'd captured when they had taken the small wood they were now occupying. Neither of the two Krauts looked concerned over their fate. One, an older guy, was pretty torn up over the death of his son, a tanker in the same unit. The younger guy looked happy, happy to be out of the fighting. Kid was young, he wouldn't say his age but Hernandez thought he couldn't be much more than 17, maybe even 16. But what was he supposed to do with these two?
As he sat there, he heard someone crunching through the snow, he turned to look. A G.I. he didn't recognize.
"So who might you be Corporal?"
"Uh, John Chapman, I was sent up in the jeep that picked up your lieutenant, are you Staff Sergeant Hernandez?"
"Yup, that's me. What can I do for you?"
"I'm a replacement, I was over in the 18th before I got wounded, not sure why they sent me to you guys. I got outta the hospital two days ago."
"Who knows why the Army does anything? You're French, aren't you?"
"I'm from Louisiana, I'm a Cajun."
Hernandez thought for a moment, then said, "All right Frenchie, for now I'm attaching you to platoon headquarters, and I've got a job for you, right now."
"Sure Top, what is it?
"We've got two Kraut prisoners, they seem okay with being prisoners, so I want you to take 'em back to the company CP, okay? I can't spare anyone to go with you."
"Sure Top, I can do that."
"Alive, Corporal, I want them alive when they get to company, are we clear on that?"
"Sure Top, I've heard that some outfits have been killing prisoners because the Krauts have been doing it to our guys, but I wasn't raised to be a murderer. They'll get back to the CP in one piece, my word on that."
"What's your name again?"
"Chapman, John Chapman, my pals call me Johnny."
"Okay, go see Corporal Katz over at 1st Squad," Hernandez paused, then waved his hand in the direction he remembered Wilson's squad was dug in, "when ya get there, tell the squad leader, Jack Wilson, to report to me. Clear?"
"Got it." With that Chapman moved off to where 1st Squad was supposed to be.
Unteroffizier Karl-Heinz Köhler, Opa as everyone called him, was staring down at his boots. With any luck he'd survive this war, but he felt guilty, his wife would be all alone now until the war ended. His wife, who lived just outside the small town of Zell am Harmersbach in Baden, was relatively far from the war. As long as she stayed away from the cities, she should be okay, he thought to himself. He knew that either his Major, Jürgen von Lüttwitz, or his platoon leader, Leutnant Manfred Sauer, would write to her, to tell her of their son's death, not far from where he sat, and the fact that he himself was missing in action.
Provided of course they themselves were still alive. He was sure they were, those two were tough bastards.
He saw that the Austrian-American corporal was coming over, along with another man, he nudged Grenadier Christoph Linder and murmured, "No matter what, stay calm."
"Steh auf, Männer." The corporal, one Melvin Katz, late of Vienna, Austria, ordered the two Germans onto their feet. He explained to them that they were going to the rear, if they ran, they would be shot. He reminded them of just how lucky they were, as thanks to SS atrocities in the Ardennes, not many Germans were being taken prisoner lately.
Looking at Chapman, Katz said, "Fix your bayonet Corporal, no one fancies getting stabbed with a bayonet. It ain't the threat of getting shot which intimidates a man, it's the idea of taking a bayonet to the gut which gets his attention."
After snapping his bayonet onto his Garand, Chapman chuckled, then brandished his bayonetted weapon at the two Germans, "No monkey business fellas, or I'll stick ya!" The older German didn't react, but the younger one looked rather terrified.
It was a bitter cold morning, the trails were icy but there was enough loose snow to make the footing tolerable, but when they got to the road, it was like walking on a hockey rink, Chapman thought.
The Germans, with their hobnailed boots, had better traction than Chapman with his rubber-soled boots, he felt like he was constantly on the verge of slipping. He stepped carefully, trying to watch his footing and the two Germans at the same time. Then it happened.¹
One moment he was upright, the next he was slipping, his feet going out from under him. He fell hard onto the road, he went one way, his rifle another, and his helmet popped off and rolled behind him. He was momentarily stunned.
When he looked up, the older Kraut had his rifle, the younger his helmet, he felt certain that he was a dead man. He was stunned when the German helped him to his feet and handed the rifle over to him.
"Alles gut?" The German said. Chapman didn't understand.
"You, okay?" The German tried his limited English.
"Yeah, yeah. I'm okay Fritz." In truth he was mortified, the German had had the drop on him, why didn't he kill him? Then he and the kid could have taken off.
The older German gestured behind Chapman, the younger German was trying to give Chapman his helmet back. Chapman took it and hastily put it on. He motioned with his rifle to tell the Germans to stay in front of him.
"Karl-Heinz, meine Name ist Karl-Heinz," The older German said, while patting himself on the chest, "nicht Fritz."
"Hey, I don't speak Kraut, is that your name, Carl Hans?"
"Nein, Karl-Heinz." The older German said it slowly.
"Ah, okay, Karl Heinz, I get it, your name is Karl. Let's go Herr Heinz, let's move." Chapman gestured with his rifle, thinking that the older German's last name was "Heinz." To Opa, it didn't matter, "Karl" was close enough.
When they arrived at the company CP, Cpl. Chapman noticed that they already had quite a few prisoners in hand.
"Yeah, poor bastards are cold and hungry, smell bad too. Don't get to close to 'em, most of 'em are infested with lice. Probably haven't bathed in days. Dumb shits shouldn't have started the war I guess." The sergeant who was taking a roll of the P.O.W.s spoke enough German to get the names down. It was clear that he didn't hate his job, "Hey, beats being up on the line with you dogfaces!" He chuckled.
"Can I go now, Sarge?" Chapman asked. He wanted to get back to his new outfit before dark.
"Yeah, yeah, you're good Corporal, get outta here."
Opa watched the man who had brought them in leave. He pondered why he had given the man his rifle back. After some thought, he realized it didn't bother him, he was content knowing that his second war was over.
Now to survive captivity.
¹ Today's post is based on a true story. Johnny Chapman was a real person, this actually happened to him.
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