As a Reluctant Warrior
Sgt. Barret and I met in the back of an uncovered army truck on the way to the front. We were replacements en route to the Ardennes; slated to take part in the Battle of the Bulge. Hitler had made his last desperate gamble of the war, hoping to alleviate his situation by pushing us all the way back to the sea.
It was supposed to be a two hour trip but our convoy was as lost as a goose in a snow storm, or maybe the drivers knew which way the front was but they wanted to stay as far from it as they could for as long as possible. The trucks were open to the snow so as to facilitate our frequent dives for cover. Whenever an occasional low flying German plane passed over us, the convoy would stop and we would all jump out and dive into frozen ditches by the side of the road. Our hands were stiff with cold and our feet felt frozen. Sgt. Barret and I whiled the endless uncomfortable time away talking about whatever came to mind. During those long hours, despite the really freezing cold and the many interruptions, he told me about his family in California; showed me pictures of his wife and kids. He said he had been stationed in Hawaii, where he had been a radio operator, same as I had trained to be. He had felt guilty about having it so good while there was serious fighting going on, so he (really) requested a transfer to "the front!" He got it pretty fast.
After riding for over 12 hours, we finally arrived at our destination. This turned out to be an underground bunker in the middle of the Ardennes forest. Our day ended in that bunker. The Germans had meticulously dug it out and roofed it with logs covered with dirt; it was much better than the dugouts we made, but then, by the time I got there, it was all attack and advance. We only dug in during an occasional counterattack and then it was not for long. Fortunately for me, the German resistance had been weakened by the time I got there. (With one exception: when we were almost pushed back into the Rhine after having crossed it without casualties) The Germans had been chased out of that area, then they had retaken it during Von Rundsted's attack; the one that created the “bulge” in the first place. We had re-retaken it during the slimming down of the Bulge. This was the battle during which English speaking German soldiers infiltrated our lines dressed as G. I.’s. Their orders were to do everything they could to misdirect us and sow confusion by moving and altering road signs so we would get lost. They would even expose themselves, brazenly standing in the middle of a crossroad and pointing us in the wrong direction, away from the front. Our big counter offensive was about to begin and we were right on the front line, just as Barret had hoped for when he turned his back on sunny Hawaii.
Our cozy underground home was lit by gasoline filled wine bottles topped with smoky rag wicks. They barely lit but definitely fouled the air of our catacomb. Our lungs were filled with soot. Lights out was at ten O’clock. Barret and I were buddies by then, having spent the day and part of the night in conversation. Early in the morning, when we went a little ways through the woods to pick our breakfast up from the chow truck I noticed Barret was nervous; he even spilt stuff from his canteen and plate on the way back to our dungeon, simply because German mortar fire exploded all around us, splitting and snapping little branches and twigs. In my blissful ignorance, I saw them as interesting special effects not worth worrying about. I did notice, though, that the soldiers that had been the most gung ho before arriving at the front seemed to be the most worried and nervous once we were there. I thought Barret should feel satisfied to finally find himself at “the front” he had longed for back in Hawaii. We were barely finished licking our plates when our little hillbilly Sergeant (great soldier, but I can’t for the life of me, remember his name) came by and hauled Barret off on patrol towards the German line. Less than an hour had passed when I see the sergeant walking past my home in the forest all by himself. "Where's Barret?" I innocently inquired. "He got hit," was the answer. "What do you mean, "hit?" I wanted to know. "Was he wounded or what?" You know, said the sergeant, "he's dead." I did some quick math. If two of us arrive together and one gets killed first thing in the morning, the other - me - is subject to being killed the next or on any subsequent day. On one level I understood this, and even wrote farewell letters, which the censors returned to me so I "wouldn't worry the people back home." I told the censors my folks wouldn't be half as worried as I was, but they still made me omit the farewells. Even so, my letters would arrive with pieces cut out where I revealed too much.
Another part of me was, and still is, dissociated from reality. In fact, things were so topsy turvy, absurd and ridiculous that I couldn't believe they were true or real. I suppose my search for reality began when, as a little boy, I wondered why there was something instead of nothing. I'm still wondering, and events are still so absurd as to make it difficult for me to accept their reality. If you don’t know what I mean, imagine you are an alien and are looking at the TV or reading our newspapers for the first time. If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, I advise you to take it as a sign you’re probably taking too much for granted.
Missing in Action
Oh yes, as soon as it was dark the little Sergeant came by our dugout again and took me on patrol with him. He was using up his new replacements fast. By that time, I had already cut strips off a blanket and wrapped it around my freezing warmth loving feet and was wearing my overshoes over the blankets – without my socks or boots. This, I discovered, made walking in the snow rather difficult, and I was soon falling behind the relentlessly fast walking Sergeant. Pretty soon he walked right out of my life and I found myself all alone in the dark, flopping around in my overshoes in the middle of the Ardennes forest. I wondered if Hansel and Gretel had felt the way I did. I don't think the Sergeant ever looked backwards. I’ve never retold this little chapter since I told it to an uncle and he wouldn’t believe that I had oriented myself by walking in one direction till I approached the sound of men talking. Careful listening told me they were talking German. Of course I immediately knew that the way "home" was in the opposite direction. When I approached the American lines, I was afraid someone would ask me a stupid question as in the movies, to make sure I was friend, not foe. I figured I was a dead 19 yr. old if they asked me the standard question as to who was the pitcher for the Dodgers, so when I got near and was sure they were Americans; I cupped my hands and yelled out my half of the password before they had a chance to shoot or challenge me. I eventually made it to the 2nd Lieutenant’s bunker. He seemed bothered by having me show up. He said he had already written his report and it showed me as “missing in action.” I think he wanted me to feel guilty for making him work extra, writing an updated version, having to delete me as a casualty.
The officers must have realized I would be worthless in actual combat. I was assigned to Company Headquarters, which was hell compared to the quartermasters, but heaven compared to the very front line, a whole few yards ahead. They gave me a little “handie talkie” radio to carry around and made me Platoon Runner. I still had to “run” back and forth between Co. HQ. and the front line all day long, but even with the exposure that gave me to all kinds of flying pieces of metal, it was still one hell of a lot preferable to being stuck in the front line all the time.
My great talent was soon recognized and I became the captain’s radio operator and runner. This was one fast moving captain. Name was Leasch, German descent, and again I have to beg for belief, because that same uncle wouldn’t believe this either. (He had been in the Signal Corps, safe in the Philippines as an M.P.) When th Company was in attack mode, I had to practically run to keep up with the captain. He would wear me out and I had to jettison weight to be able to keep up with him. The first thing to go would be the useless gas mask pouch. The gas mask had been long gone, but I threw the pouch away with my toothpaste and brush and shaving equipment. I swear to God that I could feel the drag of an extra toothbrush or a pen and felt greatly relieved when I got rid of them. Imagine what I felt when I threw my WET (and cold) OVERCOAT away! For a moment I almost felt happy in the middle of the war. Please tell me you believe me. (about the difference a tooth brush made, I mean)
Post Script. There was a whole Quartermaster Regiment following us when we were on attack. They would pick up all the gas masks and equipment we threw away and collect and order it. Once we had reached our objective and stopped for a day or two, they would reissue all that equipment back to us real formally, like we were assuming responsibility of valuable government property. Of course we’d drop every bit of extra weight all over again on the next attack.