Saturday, March 13, 2021

The Prisoner


The men of 1st Squad came back into the lines shortly after sunrise. 1st Lt. Stephen Hernandez watched as they worked their way through the rubble of the small Rhine village of Rhöndorf to his CP. At the moment, 2nd Platoon was in reserve. But that didn't stop battalion from using the men from Hernandez' platoon for any number of dirty little jobs which might come up. S/Sgt Jack Wilson had nearly gone through the roof of the CP when the request for a prisoner snatch mission had come in shortly after dark the night before.

"Jesus L.T., how many of these dirty little jobs will we get stuck with? I know we're not in the line, but damn it, the men need rest." He had groused.

"I know Top, but you know the Major, C Company is his favorite company in the battalion and 2nd Platoon his favorite platoon in the company." Hernandez had offered by way of explanation.

"Damn it Sir, you'd think he'd want to keep his favorites alive!"

"We're his favorites because he knows we'll get the job done. You know that Jack."

"Yeah, but damn it. Isn't that just like the Army, do a crappy job, they won't send you in, do a good job and you get called on time after time. I hate it Sir, I f**king hate it." Wilson was fuming.

"I understand, but what should we do, disobey orders? Not an option Top, not at all." Hernandez knew that Wilson was mostly blowing off steam. He was tired of seeing men hurt and killed when the war was all but over. Why wouldn't the damn Germans just quit?

Hernandez did a head count as the guys came up the street, all twelve men were alive and unscathed, but they looked exhausted. As did the prisoner they had with them. A dirty, bedraggled German officer was in the middle of the pack, he had an M1 prodding him along, the man wielding it was one of the new men, Pfc. Johnny Robles.

Robles was a big man, well over six feet, he towered over the German. The German, Hernandez could see as they got closer, was a lieutenant and an older man. Guy had to be in his forties, Hernandez figured. Seemed old for an infantry officer, but the guy's tunic was loaded with combat decorations. Hernandez thought it odd how the Germans wore all that stuff into battle.

"Want us to take this guy up to company, L.T.?" Sgt. Melvin Katz asked as the squad stopped in front of the CP.

"Yeah, but bring him inside, I want to talk with him first. Does he speak English?"

"Don't know Sir, didn't ask him. We grabbed him as he came down the road on a motorcycle. All by his lonesome. Seemed odd, but it made our job easier." Katz answered.

"Maybe we should shoot the son of a bitch right now." Hernandez saw the prisoner's eyes get wide when he said that.

"Sprechen Sie Englisch, Leutnant¹?" Katz asked the man.

"Yes, some. I worked as a seaman on the Hansa Line between the wars, spent quite a bit of time in New York and other American ports. Picked up some English from, you know, the ladies." His English was heavily accented, but understandable.

"Let's go inside Cat, Leutnant." Hernandez pulled the shelter half they were using for a door open and gestured to the German, after you.

"Have a seat, Leutnant."

Sgt. Katz stayed at the entrance, Garand at the ready should the German try anything, which seemed unlikely.

"So, I know you don't have to say anything other than your name and..." Hernandez began.

"It's all right Lieutenant. My war is over, my men are all dead or captured, my family died in the bombing of Hamburg last year. One of my sons was killed in Italy, the other in Russia, I have nothing to live for, ask me anything, I'll answer to the best of my ability."

Hernandez studied the man, he was filthy, in fact he reeked to high heaven, probably hadn't bathed in weeks. But his uniform, filthy and torn though it was, was correct. All buttons buttoned, those that remained at any rate, his decorations were in place, and it looked as though he at least brushed his clothing each day.

"Leutnant, the war is lost, but I think you know that. So my big question is, why do you and your fellow soldiers keep fighting?" The look on Hernandez face indicated to the German that Hernandez genuinely wanted to know the answer.

"First of all, Lieutenant, my name is Walter Rusch, I am 47 years of age. I fought in the First World War, I was a corporal. When this war started I was too old for conscription, with my experience as a seaman between the wars, I volunteered for the Kriegsmarine, they turned me down, 'Go home Grandpa and tend your garden, leave the fighting to the young.' I was told. So I stayed home."

"After the debacle in North Africa and the surrender of Stalingrad, the Reich wasn't as picky about where they got their soldiers. I was called up in 1943. I started over again as a private but quickly gained promotion to Feldwebel, what you would call a sergeant I believe."

"A fairly senior sergeant Leutnant Rusch, as I understand it." Hernandez interjected.

"As you say. I was wounded in Russia, twice, the first was a minor wound, I was in hospital for perhaps a week. The second wound was worse, I nearly lost my left hand." He pulled the glove off of hand then held it up, the hand was badly scarred and Hernandez could see a jagged scar in the palm of that hand with a corresponding one on the back of the hand.

"A Russian bullet went straight through that hand as you may guess."

"After I recovered from that, I was sent to Normandy where I became an infantry company Hauptfeldwebel, I don't know the word in English..."

"Company Sergeant Major would be the equivalent in English, L.T." Katz offered.

Hernandez nodded and said, "Please continue Leutnant."

"I survived Normandy and that retreat, when my division was rebuilt for the attack in the Ardennes, they made me an officer, a Zugführer?" Here the German looked to Katz again for the correct word.

"Platoon leader."

"Yes, thank you, by the way Sergeant, your German is excellent, sounds Viennese." Rusch commented.

"Because I grew up there, Leutnant. We fled to America though, my family is Jewish." Katz nearly sneered as he said that. He hated Nazis and wanted this German to know that.

"Ah, most unfortunate..."

"What, that I'm Jewish?" Katz snarled.

"At ease, Sergeant." Hernandez cautioned his 1st Squad leader.

"No, no, it's quite all right Lieutenant. My apologies Sergeant, it isn't unfortunate that you are Jewish, my wife is Jewish but we managed to hide that from the Party, what is unfortunate is the way Hitler and his cronies treat the Jews. It's ghastly. My company commander in the first war was a Jew, bravest man I ever knew."

Katz nodded, then looked at both officers, "My apologies, Leutnant, Sir."

Rusch then continued, "My unit was mostly destroyed in Belgium, the remnants were withdrawn across the Rhine, I think we were going to be absorbed into another division bound for the Ostfront..."

"Sorry, Sgt. Katz? Ostfront?" Hernandez thought he knew what that meant, but wasn't completely sure.

"The Eastern Front, Sir. Russia, but I guess now that means Silesia and the Oder River."

"Ah, sorry Leutnant, continue."

"There isn't much else to say Lieutenant. My unit was thrown in here to crush your bridgehead, most of my men were killed or taken prisoner. I was an officer left in command of a Gruppe, a..." He looked at Katz.

"A squad."

"Yes, thank you Sergeant."

"Okay, here's my big question Leutnant Rusch, why don't you Germans surrender, surely you know that the war is lost?"

"Yes, we know, those of us who aren't idiots or fanatics. You have to understand Lieutenant, we have lived under this regime for eleven years. It's all most of my soldiers know, the National Socialists and all that. Most of them were Hitlerjugend, many of them have been soldiers their entire adult lives, which hasn't been that long."

"The Party tells them that the Americans and British are leveling our cities and killing our families, while the Russians are raping and murdering their way into the Reich. They've been told that if we lose the war, they will either be killed or made into slaves."

"The Party has also let it be known that bad behavior at the front could have repercussions for the soldiers' families. There have been propaganda broadcasts of families being sent to prison because their sons surrendered. I don't know if it's true, but I have seen, with my own eyes, soldiers and civilians hung from trees and lamp posts with signs saying that they were traitors to the Reich, cowards and defeatists. It frightens the men into fighting. But in truth, they believe that their homes will be destroyed if we lose the war. That Germany itself will be destroyed."

Hernandez sat and thought for a few long moments. "Are you thirsty Leutnant?"

"No Lieutenant, I am fine."

Hernandez nodded and then took the German into the outer room, there Hernandez poured a cup of coffee and handed it to Rusch. The German looked incredulous, it smelled like real coffee, something he hadn't seen or tasted since 1940.

"Sgt. Katz, take a couple of men and deliver the Leutnant to the battalion S2." Turning to the German, Hernandez extended his hand and introduced himself. "1st Lieutenant Stephen Hernandez." Startled, the German took Hernandez hand and shook it.

"Best of luck to you Leutnant. Let us pray that the war will end soon and nothing that your men fear comes to pass."

Rusch snapped his heels together, nodded, and said, "Danke Oberleutnant Hernandez, you are an honorable man."

Hernandez watched as Katz led the German away. Deep down inside, he knew there were cultural differences which made people different in some ways, but in the ways that counted most, he felt all people were more alike than they were different.

"A pox on those who seek to emphasize our differences. We would have a lot less strife in the world." As Hernandez said that, a messenger from company walked up.

"Sir, Cap'n wants all the platoon leaders at the CP in an hour." Pvt. Karl Roberson nodded at 1st Lt. Hernandez, he'd saluted Captain Palminteri last week and the man had torn a strip off of him. He knew, now, not to salute officers in a combat zone.

"Thanks Pvt. Roberson, I'll be there."

No matter how he personally felt about things, Hernandez knew that the war would go on until the Germans had nothing left. Hell, they had so little left now, he thought. And the dying would continue.

Perhaps until no one was left. 

On either side...

¹ D0 you speak English, Lieutenant?

Link to all of The Chant's fiction.


  1. There is some hope, for the World, then.

  2. they worked their way...not there way.

  3. "...those who seek to emphasize our differences." May they all suffer eternal damnation, but it would be rewarding to see them reap some of the bitter compensations yet in this life, as well.

    Excellent display, once again, of the humanity shown by folks of all nationalities and beliefs, even under adverse circumstances, Sarge!

    1. We can be decent creatures when we want to, politics always makes us mean and spiteful.

    2. It's frustrating that more people don't realize that.

  4. Patrick D and ScotttheBadger said it well.

    I've long agreed with others who've said that the American people and the German people had much in common.
    Until recently we could say the American peoples hadn't been led astray by insane leadership.

    1. And now that we have, I worry about the future.

    2. With cause Sarge. "Those who emphasize our differences" are now in power and doing everything they can to demonize the "other" and retain that power permannently.
      Boat Guy

    3. I know, can you say "Venezuela"?

    4. "Coming to a city near you"
      Or already IN a "city near you" depending.

    5. Sad? Nah. More like engendering a pretty hot rage.

  5. In general, once you get past the professional politicians and Illuminati people is people. Several years ago we visited a Romanian parish in Anaheim, not far from Disneyland. We were obviously "Others" to them and both before the Liturgy and just after it they were kind of standoffish. As we were chatting one of the men was handing out shots of homemade slivovitz, we knocked it back, commented that it was better than most of the commercial versions we had tried - which had the twin virtues of being both polite and true - and PRESTO! we were famuly.

    1. My dad was in a new town early in his Air Force carreer, late for Mass and found there was no altar boy, so being one as a kid, he volunteered. Took him about 1/4 of the way through to realize it was a Greek Orthodox church.

      The priest said my dad did better than most of his regular servers...

      Just because things are in a different language doesn't make them that different. And, yes, great story Joe. It does require getting past the layers and boundaries thrown up in our way, much like the Christmas of 1914 in the Trenches.

    2. The politicians want us to hate each other, better to control us that way.

    3. You are correct. Control trough induced hate and distrust.

    4. Thank you. To flesh out that story a bit, I'm a subdeacon so I was wearing my cassock. Priest sent a server out before the Liturgy with his greetings and an invitation to serve. I returned the greetings and politely sent back that I didn't want to upset his applecart. Server came back and told me that Fr. Cornell wanted me to serve. AND to do something that was above my grade - read the Gospel. In the Orthodox Church that is the job of Deacons, Priests, and Bishops. Service all in Romanian, Fr. kept apologizing, I kept telling him he meet the needs of his parish, not me. Seems, though, that he took advantage of us to try to make a point that the parish needed to start changing over to English rather than Romanian, otherwise they would soon lose their next two generations.

      But you know in the cartoons when someone is scared, knees shaking, sweat popping out on the forehead? Yep, that happens. I read the Epistle just fine, within my rating, but when it came to the Litany Before the Gospel, which I had never chanted, and haven't since than, my knees started shaking, sweat started pouring off my forehead, and it was all I cold do to talk, just like in the cartoons. My wife tells me I did fine, and the priest didn't say anything afterwards, but I for the life of me couldn't remember a word I said.

      Beans wrote:
      "Took him about 1/4 of the way through to realize it was a Greek Orthodox church.
      The priest said my dad did better than most of his regular servers...
      Just because things are in a different language doesn't make them that different. "

      I was raised Roman Catholic, pre Vat-II, so the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom used in the Orthodox Church was quite familiar when we started looking. Some differences in practice, but then you get differences in practice between Roman Catholic Irish, Polish, and Italian parishes.

    5. I have been that nervous before a crowd, afterwards oblivious to what I had said.

      Funny how you can be quaking on the inside and seem perfectly normal to those around you, isn't it?

      Great story Joe, thanks for sharing that last part, makes it all the more human.

  6. probably best analysis of German "last stand" analysis
    As for the human nature it is basically the same under any geographical coordinates... The more radical regimes try to alter it to their perceived ideal, the more they fail.

  7. Hey AFSarge;

    That explained in a nutshell why the Germans still fought even thought they knew that they lost. it was a microcosm in time as it were. Excellent Post.

  8. OAFS, this was one of the sighs and feeling good moments I saw coming in my comment yesterday. A good short story on its own.

    "he'd saluted Captain Palminteri last week and the man had torn a strip off of him " -- Is that supposed to be stripe as in rank.

    1. No, "tear a strip off" is an old expression. See here.

      Though British in origin, I heard it used growing up.

  9. Wow, Sarge. This may be one of the best vignettes yet. Fascinating that Katz gets to see - in a very small way - the humanity of Rusch.

    I wonder what happened to the Rusches of the world after the War. With everything gone at middle age, how do you rebuild?

    It strikes me as odd that on a personal or interest level we can have a great deal that we can agree on. It is when politics appear that the issues come up (Yes, I know, some people would argue "and religion/philosophy", but there are plenty of examples where people of different religion and philosophy lived side by side, until the politics came up).

    1. Religion/philosophy are the things which drive politics. Anything which divides people is anathema.

    2. Many of them returned to Germany to try to make it live again, and participated in the miracle recovery.

      Many couldn't go back, as there was no home of any sorts left in Germany for them. Some stayed in Europe, many came to America or came back to America if they were detained in the US. Some went off to fight in the Foreign Legion. Some just stopped living, as mentioned yesterday in a comment, choosing suicide quickly or slowly.

      But I feel, and hope, that our Rusche will return, will rebuild and live a good life. Hope his wife stays alive, too.

    3. Rusch's entire family is dead. Wife, sons, parents, etc. Sons killed at the front, parents and wife killed in the bombing of Hamburg.

      He is, quite literally, the last of his line.

  10. I've read that Germans are industrious. My old physics professor, Dr. Sanders said that reunification might not be a good idea, due to the fact that when Germans are united, they make the world take notice. But the ones I spent time with were little different than me.

    Divide and conquer is a valid way to defeat the other.

    1. A lot of people said that about reunification. The East cost the West a LOT of money. The EU is costing them more (boosting up countries with terrible economies like Greece). Now they've got Merkel.

      The Germans are only a threat to themselves at the moment.

    2. True enough, Sarge. Course they've imported a lot of trouble too; yet another story of an "immigrant" murdering an infidel. The German press actively suppressed such news.
      Boat Guy

    3. East Germany is currently winning.

      Though the people of Germany are getting rather tired of it, and Merkel and her party.

      We shall see what the future holds.

      (And it doesn't help that anytime a centrist or slightly to the right group appears, the German government destroys them and works furiously to arrest the leaders because they're 'Nazis' or something, even using the anti-Nazi laws against them.

      Just like here...

    4. Winning? Yes, in a DDR sort of way.

    5. "The Germans are only a threat to themselves at the moment."

      Unfortunately societies that reach that point eventually become desperate, and desperate people do desperate things.

    6. And they've been there, done that.

      We live in scary times, with a gibbering fool at the wheel.

  11. Re the Germans continuing to fight; at least the Werewolf scenario didn't play out as badly as anticipated.

  12. My, it was almost like Rusche wanted to get captured. Good thing the Amis found him before his own side. Needless to say he has a better chance of survival now.

    Thank you for this episode. A bit of humanity after the last few, all covering a good teaching moment. Well done, sir, well done.

    1. I wanted at least one good tale in a string of disasters.

  13. Personally, I think it is more fanaticism that is the issue instead of politics, religion, or philosophy.
    TDS is an example of that.
    Hitler was certainly fanatical about the Jews, as well as anyone else "other" in his mind. If you have a few who are fanatic about... pick the topic, and if you can gain control of the media/propaganda system, you control the discourse about that topic. Then is when everything blows up way out of you are off to the races of fostering/promoting division and societal peer pressure to do what is deemed "proper".
    Hyperbole also plays a part in there as well. Nothing is ever just is horrendous, appalling, ghastly, the worst ever, the most terrible, etc.
    Some people's thesaurus card needs to be revoked. (I'm looking at every evening news anchor in the past 15 years.)
    Just my 2 cents. Worth about what ya paid for it.

    1. But you're right, the fanatics of the "my way or the Gulag" sort are indeed the problem.

    2. Indeed! Look at the success the Left has had, in inculcating hatred of The Other, via their control of education, and the media.


  14. A minor typo: “ had torn a strip off of him”

    Pretty well explained why they kept fighting.

    I would argue besides religion and politics economics is a big factor in politics.

    I would imagine just about everybody stunk from a lack of a bath which would drive me nuts.

    1. What typo?

      My uncle had told me that the few Germans he had contact with, POWs, smelled terrible for lack of bathing.

    2. Torn a strip or a stripe? ;-)

      Imagine they did and I doubt if our guy smelled much better out in the field

    3. See an earlier comment for a link to the origination of that phrase (tear a strip off).

    4. I have heard that phrase all my life. It must be more common in the Upper Midwest.

    5. I've never know the origins, but "torn a strip off of him," has always meant much the same as, "ripped him a new one."

      On the other hand I'm pretty sure there are sayings that would make me draw a blank.

  15. Thank you, Sarge, for putting a human face on the otherwise inhuman insanity that war is.

    "Good People" are Good People, regardless of where they were born.

    1. It is an unfortunate truth that sometimes Good People are forced by evil people to make a hard choice - assist in perpetuating evil or see all you hold dear destroyed. "If you don't pull the trigger and kill "Those Things" your entire family will be killed slowly and painfully in front of you." You can refuse, and see your family killed. You can kill yourself, but you know that will sign the death warrant for your family, or you can stomp down your morals and conscience and comply. That makes the second time a bit easier. Then, all too soon, it's as easy as cleaning your nails.

    2. Deep truth right there.

      Excellent point Joe.


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