Novels

Finding Billy Rudd part 2

March 10, 2016

The War

We were in the last year of the war, grasping for an intangible peace; we knew it was there but just out of reach. The Germans had been beaten; Hitler refused to submit. We could just as well sit back and wait but our generals were busy making bad decisions, we, the pawns suffering the consequences of those brilliant strategies with our lives. The phrase ‘blood and guts’ was thrown around like some kind of badge of bravery; in the end, it got you nothing but dead. I never felt brave, only scared, trying to survive the Germans and our commanders, both taking their toll on our numbers.

I was twenty-three years old, my company poised to fight more battles, when called upon. Recent news changed things; peace had been declared; Hitler was dead, according to those in the know. Celebrating our survival was enough coupled with the glory of winning a war, a secondary element of our celebratory mood. Raising your tin cup with dirty water to drink didn’t feel like much of a party; there was no glory when one considered what had passed during the years of conflict. The smell of death clung to your clothes, the memory of men, friends, cut down in their youth never to see their loved ones again, the relief that we had not been killed, an overriding victory.

Many of the Germans had lost their desire to fight, often surrendering before we engaged them. Without supplies for weeks, suffering from hunger and lack of ammunition and beaten on all sides, they so no purpose in prolonging resistance. A small squad escorted three hundred German prisoners to an interment camp south of us. The corporal in charge, limping, grinned when he passed us.

“What’s so funny, corporal?” I asked, paying little attention to military protocol. Neither of us were anything official or in command rank. Officers did not like being saluted because the enemy knew which was the leader then. Saluting and that crap had been long gone since early in the war.

“Damn Germans gave up without a fight about two miles back, don’t have the guts for a good tangle anymore. Over two or three hundred, maybe more,” he replied chewing actively on some unknown substance.

“They knew they was whipped and I could tell they was hungry,” he continued.

“So, what’s so funny?” Billy asked.

“I’m laughing ‘cause between my five-man squad, I got a 45 with five rounds and another ten rounds per man for each carbine. If these crazy Germans wanted to get away, I doubt we could stop ‘em. But they ain’t got no fight left in ‘em. Pitiful lookin’ bunch, if you ask me. Half should be spendin’ time in a rest home and the other half don’t look no older than kids; don’t even shave yet, Hitler Youth, I’ll bet.”

The Germans were ordinary guys, just like us. They did what they were told and died for some nutcase’s hunger for power. Sure, it was under the guise of some stupid ideology; they were sold garbage to push them into the fight but none of that made any difference when you were starving and constantly being afraid of being killed. I watched the faces of those soldiers as they trudged by, hollow cheeks, dark circles under their eyes etched on drawn faces to tired to care. You put a different uniform on them and you could swear they were our guys. Yes, I’d have to say they were just regular guys shoved into a corner of violence and killing. That is the way of war; the common man dies while others promote their political agenda.

The SS, on the other hand, were another story. These soldiers fought like crazed weasels, taking advantage of every mistake we made, their training exceeding the average soldier many fold. Hitler, for all his shortcomings, knew how to amass a true fanatical fighting force with their heel clicking and arm raised in salute. These soldiers could also blend into the scenery, undetectable from local citizens when things got tough. Luckily, many of the German people hated the SS as much as we did and would inform on them. That didn’t make it any easier capturing them. They fought until they ran out of ammunition and not before.

The SS were bad but there was the problem of an unintentional accident, stray bullets and such. Any common infantry soldier with little or no training could still put a bullet in your head on purpose or accidentally just as well as the elite, super human SS soldier. Fear and the misplaced bravery of the moment might compel many common soldiers to do seemingly extraordinary things. The truth of the matter, shooting enough bullets in any direction might prove beneficial to the worst of marksmen; they could get lucky and hit someone or conversely be hit by return fire.

A bullet has no sympathy, malice or forethought; it does not discriminate between friend or foe once it is dispatched from the weapon. It travels the distance in a split second, expending its energy on some inanimate object or the flesh of some sorry-ass soldier standing in the path. Luck plays a big part of in war, ducking your head at the right or wrong moment makes the difference between getting chow that evening or being loaded in a wagon with the other dead.

It not just the enemy we worried about; some of our men were killed by ‘friendly fire,’ an accident but just as deadly. Our artillery accidentally fires on friendly positions until some panicking officer gets word back to command headquarters. We’d been shot at by our own troops in a crossfire; war is no place for children.

We mounted the Omaha Beach; miraculously, I managed to survive. D-Day invasion was the big one for us all; many would never be able to recount their experience as they were killed minutes during the beginning. We finally got our feet on the continent, prepared to fight the Germans. I was fortunate to be in a later wave, bodies and blood lining the shore. The initial wave took a beating; losses far exceeded anything to date. We suspected it would be so; we prayed for it not to be us.

In spite of the pounding the shore batteries received from the navy, enough of the enemy was on hand to mow down the approaching forces and mow they did. Unbeknownst to us, the command at the beach was trying to wave us off, the beach not secure for further landings. In the panic they managed to take out several of pillboxes threatening the beach. Machine guns from a safe haven gave no quarter to men on open ground and were given none in return.

Before I stepped off my landing craft, waves of blood splashed over the sides. The bow of the boat opened up to reveal hundreds of bodies floating on the surface. Fear and nausea gripped my gut as I disembarked through the ocean of red. The soldier next to me, Tony, I think his name was, took one step before a bullet made his face unrecognizable, his body dropping into the shallow water like a rock. Others stumbled over the body, terror chiseled into their faces, panic driving them like frighten wild animals. Some fell because of their panic and others due an errant projectile.

Not many in my group were killed in that later landing. But many before us had made the ultimate sacrifice. I wondered if they thought about it in that way or felt they would be spared; I don’t believe that anyone expects to die or chooses to. Pawns on a chessboard, we do what we are told; ideology, our humanity and the humanity of those we are to engage are secondary: we are fodder. There were few heroes on that battlefield, mostly victims. Yet the heroes emerged out of necessity or insanity, doing what any sane man would balk at.

Explosions ripped through the high ground overlooking the beach, our advancing allies destroying the gun emplacements and routing the small forces of Germans defending the coast. We had no idea what we were doing or where we were going, following anyone who moved forward, keeping our heads down and praying a stray bullet would not end our terrifying existence.

Funny how much you want to live when faced with the reality of oblivion. Sometimes death begins to look like a reasonable alternative when faced with the minute-by-minute struggle to stay alive, the sand exploding around you. We survive because something in us refuses to let go.

 

I never thought of myself as a hero, though some claimed I was. I did what I had to do and have no memory of doing anything that might be construed as gallant. Fear and uncertainty were my constant companions, the will to survive, my mentor. My awarded medals were decorations of a misguided battle. They did not honor a man; but his ongoing struggle for survival driven by urgency, valor a concept, he didn’t understand or even care about. Yes, I viewed myself as an accidental hero, nothing more.

 

Those are just snippets of memories flooding back into my tortured soul, as I gazed toward an uncertain future, though the mist of this gorge. A moment of clarity arrives briefly; the beauty of this wild vision is in stark contrast to the war. Things in nature can be violent, a violence of necessity and complete impartiality, no ideology or power struggle; the strong survive. I watch a hawk dive, snatching some small furry creature from the ground, a small struggle before it rendered its prey lifeless. The hawk needs that small creature to survive and the future of its kind. There was no malice, no anger, no hate, only simple self-preservation. There is poetry in that sight, a beauty I can’t describe, violence and survival followed by enduring life.

I match myself to that winged creature, surviving because we have no other choice. Why, exactly, must I? Living is hard; it is pain and struggle, each day presenting new obstacles, almost unbearable.

I remember the day I almost gave it up for good. Mail was slow as we trekked across Europe, fighting at times and then grabbing a few winks when the opportunity allowed, not much of the latter. Mail chased us down, the manner of which baffles me, the army spread miles apart. We had been holed up in some small, no name village, when my letter came. This type of letter wasn’t anything we wanted to see; lots of GIs got these letters. Mine started with the usual.

 

Dear Billy,

         I know things are hard there. We see it on the newsreel every week. That crazy Hitler wants to rule the world. But the war can’t last forever. All those terrible things will be over with and you can come back to your life in the states. It will be a good time to start over, a new life, maybe a better one. But I can’t be a part of that life anymore.

 

Blinded for a second I was afraid to read on; I had to. What choice did I have?

 

I never wanted this to happen, Billy; but I have fallen in love with another man. His name is Albert Marshall; he’s a good man. I know you’d like him. He sells real estate and drives a Chrysler. He says he’ll teach me to drive some day. It seems like such a big piece of machinery to me. But I’ll give it a try.

 

“Why do women say that?” I thought out loud. “How can I like the man who’s taking my wife away? Dumb broad!”

 

Anyway, Al and I are getting married as soon as the divorce is final. With the war and all, these things do take longer. I wish I could explain how hard it was for me, all this time. I feel so guilty but I have needs. I need to have someone close to me all the time; I need to be cared for. You have to admit things weren’t that great with you and me before the war started. We did get married because I thought I was pregnant but it didn’t turn out that way in the end. Anyway, I’m moving soon; so I think it’s best if we don’t see each other when you get back; it will feel awkward. We had a lot of fun for a while and I wish you the best. No matter what happens, I still care for you.

Best of Luck,

Elizabeth

 

I remember crumpling the letter in my dirty hand; black grit permanently etched into the cracks in skin. I jammed it into my top pocket without care, crumpling the paper to express how I felt. I was too angry to cry but too tired to shout the obscenities I wished. My internal scream silent, muffled buy the sounds of war in the distance and the pounding in my heart.

 

Best of luck? What kind of bullshit is that? She couldn’t even wait for me to come home, I thought, resentfully. Liz was my reason for staying alive; making me put one foot in front of the other, when I was too fucking exhausted to stand. Didn’t she know that? Didn’t she read that in my letters? She could have only waited; we could have talked. I could have told her how much I loved her. That would change everything.

 

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