The characters of "Combat!" are the property of ABC. No profit is made, just the enjoyment of writing. I was listening to a CD and the words from the Stephen Stills song created a story idea. The words evoked an image of the sacrifice of life made during war. Copyright 2002 by M. Roberts
Counting the Cost
Find the cost of freedom
buried in the ground.
Mother Earth will swallow you.
Lay your body down.
Today, men were going to die.
Death was nearby. He could smell it in the air. Smoke, mixed with the lingering odor of cordite. The mossy smell of the damp earth, torn and scarred by explosions. The sweat of the men next to him, pressed to the ground.
He could feel it in the air, a palpable fear. The racing of his pulse as adrenaline coursed through his veins, the fight or flight instinct. He could see it in the faces of the men taking cover in his foxhole on the edge of the dew-covered field. Death was a specter, hovering over them all.
He could even hear it. The distant thumping of artillery, the muffled throbbing of his heart, the shaky breathing of the kid huddled a few feet away. Kelly, he remembered, from 2nd squad. Even the lack of sound was ominous. The insects, birds and animals...all quiet, as if in silent reverence for what was to come.
This time, there was nothing the sergeant could do. If help didn’t come in time, all they could do would be to dig in and try to hold out.
Today…young men would die.
Blunders are an inescapable feature of war, because choice in military affairs lies generally between the bad and the worse. ~Allan Massie, A Question of Loyalties
"This is suicide."
"Shut up, Kirby. Sarge'll think of something." The situation was bad enough, as far as Littlejohn was concerned, without the gloom and doom predictions of Kirby.
The BAR man just huddled smaller and shook his head. "Think of what? What can he possibly come up with to get us out of this mess? Those 81s don't show up, we're dead meat."
Feeling a nudge, Kirby looked to his left in annoyance. The foxhole he was in was small enough as it was, and sharing it with Littlejohn made it ten times smaller. Cramming two more guys into it was positively claustrophobic. “What?”
Unfazed by Kirby’s tone, Doc gave a slight tilt of his head in the direction of the fourth occupant. The look on the medic’s face was clear. You’re scaring the kid.
Glancing at the private’s pale face, Kirby felt a small twinge of guilt. The young soldier was brand new on the line, green as he could get, and barely eighteen. The poor kid’s probably wetting himself about now. Grumbling, still sure they’d all seen their last sunrise, Kirby turned his back on the lanky teenager. But he kept his thoughts to himself.
Sharing a glance, Littlejohn and Doc both harbored the same thoughts. This time, Kirby was right. If they didn’t get some help, their whole company would be decimated in the upcoming push. Sergeant Saunders wasn’t in charge this time, and neither was Lieutenant Hanley. They were now under the command of Major Crenshaw, and the Major was a man who refused to retreat. Even if retreat meant saving lives.
Men are never really willing to die except for the sake of freedom: therefore they do not believe in dying completely. ~Albert Camus, The Rebel
“I’d sure like to know why this lousy piece of real estate is so all-fired important that we’re all gonna die for it.”
Rolling his eyes, Caje cast a quick glance at Billy, trying to gauge the effect of the constant barrage of pessimism. He was surprised to see annoyance on the younger soldier’s face. Though one look at Billy’s trembling hands, clutching his M-1, belied the calm façade.
“Crocker, would you shut up? If I’m going to die today, I’d rather your voice not be the last one I hear.”
Caje was slightly stunned by Billy’s outburst, and smiled. That was definitely something he’d have to tell Littlejohn. The big guy wouldn’t believe it. If they both made it out of there, that is. Looking out over the edge of he foxhole, then longingly back at the forest, Caje knew their odds weren’t good. Not good at all.
Raising up slightly and looking off to his left, he could see the red cross of Doc’s helmet. He knew the others were Littlejohn, Kirby and the new kid. Turning to look behind him, Caje could pick out the foxhole sheltering Sgt. Saunders. A whistling sound had him dropping back down for cover. Here it comes. There was nothing to be done during the barrage, but to keep his head down and pray. He knew the others were all doing pretty much the same. His thoughts briefly flitted to the rest of the guys in his squad.
Slapping a hand to his helmet, Kirby ducked as low as the cramped conditions of their foxhole would allow. He felt an elbow jab into his ribs and wondered whose it was, wishing there was one less person in their hole in the ground. He flinched as dirt and debris plastered all four of the huddled men from a too-close mortar shell. He knew the shelling probably wouldn’t last too long, but while it lasted was a terror-filled experience. Who got hit and who didn’t was just a matter of chance.
The young man huddled next to him was praying, his words tumbling over themselves in his fear and his haste to get the prayer out before his worst fears could happen. The deafening sound of the exploding mortars was joined with the shouts of men calling out to their buddies and the screams of the wounded and dying.
Just as the screaming registered in Kirby’s brain, he felt someone jostle him and a booted foot kick his leg as someone scrambled out of their foxhole. “Doc? What are you doing? Wait!”
Well, he’d gotten his wish. Now there were only three of them in the cramped foxhole. Kirby spared a glance at Littlejohn and grimaced. “Aw, hell. He’s gonna get himself killed.”
“He’s just doing his job, Kirby.”
“Yeah, a job that’s gonna get him killed.”
Ducking once again when another shell hit uncomfortably close, Littlejohn kept his retort to himself. A lot of us are going to get killed today, Kirby. Instead, he tried to smile reassuringly to the replacement trembling next to him. “He’ll be okay. You’ll see. We’ll all get out of this.”
He only wished that he believed it himself.
Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!
~Virginia Woolf, The Waves
Doc had heard Kirby’s shout, but had ignored it. Same as he ignored the shelling. You couldn’t think at a time like this. You just reacted. Thinking could drive you to the brink of insanity. For only insanity had you running out into the middle of a barrage. That, and the cries of the wounded. Doc had learned early on how to just shut himself down and do what he’d been trained to do. His whole world at that moment consisted of the foxhole he had his sight glued to. Nothing else.
Once he’d reached his goal and done what he could for the soldiers huddled in the hole in the ground, he scrambled out and went to the next. There was nothing he could do there. On to the next. Don’t think, just move.
The breath whooshed out of Caje’s lungs as a body flung itself over the edge and into his foxhole, right on top of him.
The panting soldier scrambled off of him, and Caje bit back the expletive he was about to let loose. “You need to work on that landing, Doc. Where’d you come from?”
Wiping dirt and sweat from his face, Doc checked to make sure he hadn’t lost his medical pouch in his dash for safety before replying. “Williams and Tucker are dead. Mathers will be, soon, if we don’t get him out of here.”
He didn’t add that it wasn’t likely a stretcher team would be taking Mathers to an aid station any time soon. He didn’t need to; Caje knew as well as he did. Might as well say they had three dead so far, and there was a foxhole that Doc hadn’t been able to get to, yet, where he’d also heard someone yelling for a medic.
Taking a deep breath, Doc scooted his way to the edge of the hole and looked down at his friend. “Keep your head down, Caje.”
“Same to you, Doc.” Caje ducked his head to avoid the dirt kicked up when the medic scrambled out of the foxhole and sprinted off to the right. Caje suddenly realized he’d forgotten to ask about Littlejohn and Kirby.
Thirty yards away, Sergeant Saunders was also thinking about the men in his squad. He had no way of knowing if his men were wounded or…he didn’t even want to consider the other scenario. He risked a look during a brief pause in the shelling, but couldn’t see anything. Everyone seemed to be taking the order to keep their heads down seriously.
Saunders rolled out of the way, making room for the soldier pelting through the blasts in his direction. The medic flung himself head first over the edge and hit the bottom with a grunt of pain. Saunders forced down a wave of relief and faked an air of indifference. “You trying to get killed, or bucking for a medal?”
Reaching for one of the canteens on his belt, Doc took a shaky breath. “Neither.”
Watching as Doc took a swallow of water, Saunders let his eyes wander over the dirty uniform, checking for injuries. So far, so good. “How are the others?”
Screwing the cap back on and replacing the canteen, Doc shrugged. “Littlejohn, Kirby, Caje and Billy were all okay last I checked. That new kid was pretty scared, but who isn’t? Williams and Tucker are dead. Mathers might as well be. Knorr is hurt pretty bad, but he’ll be okay. Any chance on those mortars?”
They both ducked as a shell exploded close by. Saunders frowned and slapped a hand on his helmet as it tilted over his eyes. “I don’t know. Shrapnel from one of the first shells hit my radio so I don’t have contact with Lt. Hanley. I’m guessing it won’t be any time soon.”
Another shell hit nearby, followed by the panicked shout for a medic. Doc grabbed his bag and paused a moment to look at his sergeant. “Keep your head down, Sarge.” He wondered how many times he’d be saying that. It was his way of saying don’t get killed today.
Sgt. Saunders watched the medic scramble over the edge and take off running, keeping so low, the bag he clenched in his fist drug the ground. He wondered if it would be the last time he saw the medic.
He knew the barrage was only the beginning. An effort to soften up their lines. The German troops would come in behind the barrage, and the Americans were woefully outnumbered in this sector. He’d lost contact with Lt. Hanley and had no way of knowing how the situation now stood. All he could do was hope.
Hearing the sound of running feet, Saunders looked up to see a flash of legs as another medic ran past. He ran a few steps past the sergeant’s cover and fell as a shell exploded next to him, tearing away half his chest. Saunders swore softly, and put out a restraining hand to keep Kelly from trying to drag the medic to safety. “He’s dead. Get down; there’s nothing you can do.”
Where the hell were those mortars?
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns. ~Wilfred Owen
Sticking a finger in his ear in a feeble effort to quiet the ringing from the noise, Kirby stretched his left leg in an attempt to ease a cramp. He’d been scrunched up in his huddled position for far too long. The restless private was starting to feel the walls close in. Kirby glanced at Littlejohn, and saw the bigger man’s face reflecting the same anxiety he felt.
Littlejohn felt like the whole world was exploding, the shells were coming so hard and fast. One had apparently dropped almost directly into the foxhole nearest theirs. The screaming had been almost too much to bear. Now, it was ominously silent. Except for he shells. If it didn’t stop soon, he was afraid the new kid was going to break.
As if in answer to his silent plea, the shelling stopped. The replacement raised up slightly and smiled in relief. Littlejohn turned to look at Kirby, who stared blankly back. They both knew the worst was about to begin. Saying a silent prayer for the soldiers in the field, Littlejohn let his thoughts drift to his best friend. He hoped Billy would make it out of this mess in one piece.
Kirby crawled to the edge of the foxhole and rested his BAR on his forearm. Any minute now, it would begin. Littlejohn rested his large frame on the incline to Kirby’s right and checked his pockets for extra clips. Any minute now.
I gave my life for Freedom-this I know:
For those who bade me fight had told me so.
~W.N. Ewer, Five Souls
“Keep your eyes open, Billy. They’ll be coming, now.” Caje had replaced his helmet with the black beret he preferred. He felt lighter, more agile with the beret. Plus, it was a sort of talisman. At the moment, Caje would take whatever he could get. “You ready Crocker?”
Muttering a string of four-letter words, Crocker gave a curt nod. He guessed he was as ready as anyone could be. God, help us.
Hearing a shout from one of the foxholes further up front, Kirby swore. “Here they come!”
Already, the guys from another platoon dug in closer to the enemy had opened fire. Kirby lined up the BAR and waited. It didn’t take long before the first wave of Germans came into view. “Aw, hell. They have a tank.”
“They have a tank!” Hearing the shouts echoing down the line, Saunders raised up and shielded his eyes. A Tiger tank. The boom as the big armored vehicle opened fire from it’s 88mm gun, confirmed it. They were really in trouble, now.
“Caje, it’s a Tiger!”
“I see it, Billy.” The three men watched as it plowed through the Americans in its way, then their attention was diverted to their own plight as the first line of Germans came within range of their weapons. Aiming quickly, Caje opened fire.
Once again, the air was filled with the sounds of war.
O can’t you see, brother-Death’s a congested road for fighters now, and hero a cheap label. ~C. D. Andrews
They had to do something about the tank. The grenade launchers weren’t putting a dent in the thing. Caje fired his M1 automatically, his movements mechanical, as his mind raced to come up with a way to put the tank out of commission. His clip emptied and Caje ejected it. As he slid the fresh clip in the chamber, an idea came to him. Turning to Billy, he shouted for the younger man to pass over his grenades then got Crocker to hand over his. Now he just needed some tape.
“Medic!” Caje needed the medical tape each corpsman carried, if his plan was going to work. “Medic! Over here!”
A wiry young man slid in next to Caje, looking from one soldier to another for any sign of wounds. When he didn’t find any, he shot Caje a bewildered look. “What’s the idea? None of you guys are hurt.”
“Gimme your tape.”
“I don’t have time to explain it to you, now give me the tape!” Caje didn’t give the young man time to react, but reached into the bag himself. Finding what he wanted, Caje set the grenades on the ground in two sets of three, each set forming a sort of triangle. He taped each set together and tossed the remaining tape to the stunned medic.
“Billy, Crocker, you guys cover me the best you can.”
Reaching out, Billy snagged the sleeve of his friend’s jacket. He knew what Caje was about to try was all but suicide. From the look in Caje’s eyes, he knew it too. “Be careful.”
Caje didn’t bother to answer. How could you be careful in the middle of this kind of madness? He waited until he saw the tank approach a clump of tree stumps, then signaled for the others to lay down a covering fire. The tank would have to slow down to turn in order to go around the stumps, giving Caje the best opportunity to put his plan into action.
When Billy and Crocker opened fire, Caje took off at a zig-zagging sprint. He dropped into the foxhole nearest the stump, landing on the dead man at the bottom. Grimacing a little, he scooted a little way up the incline and peeked over the edge. Timing the forward movement of the tank, Caje pulled the pins from two of the three grenades in one set, The tape wound around them kept the triggers depressed. He did the same with the second set.
As the tank began to slow for its turn to avoid the stumps, Caje scrambled from the foxhole. Pulling the two remaining pins, he kept a firm grip to keep the triggers depressed. Bullets kicked up the dirt around his legs and whined as they flew by too close to his head. A burning on his arm told him one had come much too close. He kept his eyes glued on the tank, never wavering. When he got close enough, he let go of both triggers, and tossed the taped bundles onto the tank. He turned mid-stride to run back the way he’d come, and slipped. Even as he gathered his balance and started to run, he knew he wouldn’t get clear in time.
Awestruck, Billy watched as the two jerry-rigged bombs exploded, sending Caje flying. He winced when the scout slammed into the ground, and sent up a prayer that his friend was only hurt. Not dead. A sense of relief nearly overwhelmed him when he realized that Caje couldn’t have thrown those grenades any better if he’d tried. They hadn’t been strong enough to stop the tank, but they had been enough to damage the big 88mm gun. That was close enough.
Turning to Crocker to see if he’d seen the damage, Billy froze. Crocker was staring back at him with a look of shock, his hand clutching his throat, trying to keep his life from spurting from the damaged artery. Frantic, Billy knocked Crocker to the ground and clapped a hand over the wound. He hadn’t even heard his friend get hit.
Between my head and my hand, there is always the face of death. ~Francis Picabia
Having taken shelter once more with Littlejohn and Kirby, Doc heard the frantic cry for help. Littlejohn turned toward the sound, his reaction assuring the medic that it had been Billy’s voice he’d heard. Grabbing the bigger man’s arm as he started to turn to leave, Doc shook his head. “You have a job to do here, Littlejohn. I’ll go check on him. Don’t worry.”
Don’t worry. Right, he’s not going to worry about his best friend. Shaking his head at himself, Doc once again left the shelter of a foxhole to traverse the minefield of German and American soldiers. He could just as easily cross in front of a friendly fire, as he could the enemy. Stumbling from weariness the last few feet, the medic all but fell into the hole, fetching up on the bottom with his legs across Billy’s ankles.
Untangling himself, Doc knew at once that Crocker wouldn’t make it. But, he had to try. Lifting the flap of his bag, he grabbed a hemostat and moved Billy’s hands. Wiping away the blood as best he could, he frantically searched for the bleeder. It’s taking too long. Taking too long, dammit.
His searching fingers found the bleeder and he closed the clamp around the torn vessel, knowing all the while it wouldn’t matter. Crocker had already lost too much blood, and who knew how long it would be before the wounded man could be taken to a doctor.
Pulling out the EMT book, Doc scribbled Crocker’s information on one of the cards and tied it to the wounded man’s jacket. Shoving the book back into his bag, he closed the flap and crouched, ready to leave.
“Wait Doc. Can’t you do something for him?”
“Billy, I’ve done what I can. I ran out of morphine, and there’s nothing else I can do. He needs a doctor, and we ain’t got one.”
Glancing back at Crocker, Billy turned his pleading eyes on the medic once more. “Well, can’t you-?”
“There’s other wounded, Billy. I have to go.”
Other wounded. “Yeah, like Caje.”
Sliding back down the side of the foxhole, Doc frowned with concern. “What do you mean Caje? Where is he?”
“He took out the tank’s gun, but was too close when it blew. I-I don’t know how bad he’s hurt.”
Scrambling back up to the edge, Doc scanned the area around the tank. Sure enough, he could make out the crumpled form of an American soldier not too far from it. There was an awful lot of fighting near Caje. It wouldn’t be easy.
“I’ll see what I can do, Billy.”
Watching the medic go, Billy wondered if he wanted to know what Doc would find. Sparing a quick look at Crocker, the younger man loaded a fresh clip and forced his thoughts back on his job. He suddenly felt really alone.
The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land, you may almost hear the beating of his wings. ~John Bright
Saunders had almost stopped breathing when he saw the lone soldier running at the tank. From his distance, he couldn’t really tell what the man was doing, but the resulting explosion gave him an idea. It wasn’t until the man was flung through the air that the sergeant, straining his eyes to see, noticed the beret. Even from that distance, he knew who the soldier had to be. Caje.
Swearing, Saunders debated about whether he should leave his position to try to get Caje or stay where he was. His emotions wanted him to check out his man…his head told him his duty was to remain where he was. Sometimes, he really hated that word. Duty.
He took out his anger on the incoming Germans, firing his Thompson quickly and with deadly aim. Saunders almost didn’t believe his ears when he first registered the unique sound of incoming fire. When the first mortar hit, he nearly shouted from relief. Maybe, just maybe, they’d live to fight another day.
“Mortars!” Kirby shouted and fired his BAR with near glee. The mortars were landing just south of their position. Far enough in front to avoid hitting their own men, but close enough to cut off the Germans. The remaining German soldiers could be picked off with rifles and automatic weapons. Or a few well-placed grenades.
Smiling evilly, the wiry BAR man snagged a grenade from his pocket and pulled the pin. He spotted a small knot of German soldiers, caught by surprise by the incoming fire and gathering close to one another. Kirby stood long enough to lob his grenade then ducked for cover. Peering over the edge to judge the damage, he grunted in satisfaction.
Taking a cue from Kirby, Littlejohn looked for another group of enemy soldiers and lobbed his own grenade. The sudden bombardment of mortars had apparently thrown the Germans for a loop. Their eagerness to overrun the Americans was now costing them dearly.
Glancing to his left, Littlejohn checked on the new kid. Surprisingly, once the real fighting began, the young replacement had done well. He’d let his training take over, and shot quickly and accurately. He’d make a good addition to the squad. Watching as the younger man smoothly loaded a new clip, Littlejohn smiled broadly and slapped the replacement on the back.
The big man’s smile dropped into a frown when one mortar landed a little too closely to the Americans. “That one was a little too close.”
Whoa, that one was too close. When he’d first heard the incoming whine, Doc was sure they were about to get bombarded by the Germans again, which didn’t make much sense. When the mortars hit the Germans, the medic sighed with relief. The mortars had finally arrived. He hoped it wasn’t too late.
Picking himself up from the ground where he’d thrown himself when the explosion of dirt and debris fell a little too close to home, Doc weaved his way to his fallen comrade. He couldn’t tell if Caje was even breathing.
Closing the gap between himself and Caje, Doc suddenly jerked when he caught someone running at him from the corner of his eye. He turned to see the angry expression of a too young German soldier. Before the medic could react, the young man jerked as if kicked and Doc felt a warm spray hit his face. Wiping a sleeve over his cheek in disgust, Doc blanked that one out of his mind. So many images to erase today. Concentrate on Caje.
Sliding to a stop and dropping to his knees, Doc laid his hand on Caje’s back, checking for movement. It was there. He was breathing. Thanking the Almighty, the medic gently rolled his friend over onto his back, after checking for obvious wounds. After doing the same thing for Caje’s arms, torso and legs, Doc smiled in relief. So far, so good.
Easing the beret off, the medic gently palpated Caje’s head and found the source of the problem. Just over the scout’s right ear was a large swelling that was slowly bleeding. Doc cleaned and bandaged the wound carefully then filled out and attached an EMT card. He debated whether or not to move the wounded man.
Another mortar hit close enough to make up his mind, and Doc grabbed the lighter man under the arms, dragging him to the safety of the nearest foxhole. Once they were both safely at the bottom, Doc removed his helmet long enough to run his hand through his damp hair to relieve an itch. He laid his head back and stared up at the amazingly blue sky.
He couldn’t believe it, but so far…they’d only lost one man from their squad. Well, were going to lose a man. It was only a matter of time for Crocker. Unless something had happened to the others since he last checked. Of course, he hadn’t seen Saunders since before the shelling stopped.
“Dear God, I know you’ve probably been hearing a lot of prayers from here today, but…”
War: first, one hopes to win; then one expects the enemy to lose; then, one is satisfied that he too is suffering; in the end, one is surprised that everyone has lost. ~Karl Kraus
After the mortars came pouring in, Saunders left his foxhole to move up and help the men closer to the line. He waved for the others to follow. Now was their chance.
The mortars had cut off the second wave of Germans, who decided to retreat. American flyers were on their way to make sure the fleeing enemy kept on running after the mortar fire ended. It wasn’t long before the remaining enemy soldiers took stock of their situation and begin lowering their weapons. Slowly, the sound of gunfire tapered off and died.
A weak cry of triumph started across the smoke-filled battlefield and built into a crescendo. They’d done it. They’d survived.
Climbing wearily from his shelter, Doc made his way to Littlejohn to tell him Billy was okay. Looking over in that direction, he could see Billy making his way slowly toward him. From the droop of his shoulders, Doc knew Crocker was dead.
Still holding his M1 at the ready, Littlejohn had a hard time believing what he was seeing. They’d won. He climbed out of their hole and went to help round up the prisoners, trying to avoid looking at the bodies.
Kirby let the weight of his BAR rest on the strap across his shoulder, and followed Littlejohn out of the foxhole. Turning, he held out his hand for the replacement. “Here, kid…”
The words froze in his throat. The young man stared back at Kirby with dead eyes. He’d taken a bullet to the forehead and died without a sound. He was alive just a couple of minutes ago. “Ah, hell.”
He was still standing there when Doc, Billy, Saunders and Littlejohn all met up behind him. Saunders wearily closed his eyes, and pressed his fingers against his temples. Sighing softly, he blinked open his eyes and checked his remaining men for wounds. They seemed to be okay. “Where’s Caje?”
Kneeling next to the young replacement’s body, Doc pointed listlessly in the direction of the tank. “He’s in a foxhole over there. He had his clock cleaned, but otherwise seems okay. Somebody might wanna go check on him, though.”
Nudging Littlejohn, Saunders gestured in that direction. “Go check on Caje, will you?”
Pulling his thoughts back to the others, the sergeant was almost afraid to ask. “What about Crocker?”
It was Billy who answered this time. “He’s dead, Sarge.”
Kirby hadn’t taken his eyes off the young replacement. He just couldn’t believe the kid had been alive one minute, dead the next. “I don’t even remember his name.”
Doc paused in the act of filling out the medical tag that would eventually be replaced by one from Graves Registry. “His name was Prichard. Jessie Prichard.”
“Prichard.” Kirby whispered the name, almost reverently. He watched as Doc stood and moved on from one body to the next, German and American alike, checking for survivors. “I hope this damn piece of land is worth what we paid for it.”
Saunders knew Kirby was just blowing off steam. They all knew they were fighting for something far more important than one battle-scarred field. And the cost had already been far too high.
Find the cost of Freedom,
Buried in the ground.
Mother Earth will swallow you.
Lay your body down.