|"The pen is mightier than the sword (but not mightier than the arclite siege cannon). "|
|Date: ||12/29/03 02:12|
|Game Type: ||Other|
|Report Rating: , # of Ratings: 1, Max: 9, Min: 9|
Lifetime Rating for SupeRc0pKr: 8.2353
For any newcomers, and to remind any readers who may have forgotten in my extensive hiatus, this has been a continuing project since March of this year. You can read the first installation here, or start from the beginning of the chapter here.
This will be one of the last submissions for this story; I plan on completing this project within two or three more segments.
Much of the feedback you've provided has been invaluable, both as encouragement and as honest criticism. Quite a few improvements since March can genuinely be traced back to the comments sections of battlereports.com. To the br.com staff, thank you for allowing me to submit my work. To anyone who takes the time to read and comment, thank you for your support and your criticism.
Reporters have come to this site barely literate and have walked away with the ability to really communicate. Br.com might not be what it was, but it's still a place where writers can write and learn from the readers.
For those of you short on time and interested in the action, skip ahead to The 88 and The Creek.
Almost every soldier in A Company rode-in on the Shermans with letters from home and pictures of family in their pockets. For the most part, that was what the A Company troops felt duty to. They didn't want to shame their families by not participating in the war effort in the nation's hour of need, and they wanted to ensure their protection by fighting a war thousands of miles away against a foe allied with the Japanese, who wanted to kill them.
But for men like Wayne, who felt like a murderer every day because he marched men into machine gun fire, there had to be a bigger sense of duty than home. Home wasn't worth a long list of names on a paper marked "KIA."
The night before, Wescott talked to him for the second time since he'd been assigned. Things were not tense between them; they both enjoyed the presence of silence the other brought with them. Wescott's quiet loyalty to both A Company and the war - or to the end of it - as a whole somewhat inspired Wayne, helped him believe that there were some men with sense left in the world after all.
"I heard you talking to Cook," Wayne told him. "He's a funny kid."
"He's a funny kid," Wescott repeated, "and a smart-ass and arrogant. A funny kid, but he's still a college boy."
"Same with Truttman. They're always giving trouble to someone."
Wescott wished Truttman would go to hell, because he kept spooking the replacements.
"Taken from their lecture halls straight into the war. They both wanted to go into business, or accounting, something nice like that. Had to put their lives on hold and now they're stuck here."
Wayne took his slip of paper from his pocket, knowing he couldn't see the names in the dark. "A lot of the senior officers see this war as opportunity, and that's the sickest part of it all. Everyone with a rifle has to put their lives on hold, college, getting a job in-line, while the colonels and generals are accepting decorations and holding press-meetings and progressing their war careers."
"The only guys I don't think were ever very sore about the whole goddamn mess were Brown, Dunn, and Burkeley. And they're all dead now. They knew it was shit but they did it for a reason. They were the guys who made everybody think of duty first." Wayne referred to them as though they were friends long passed away, though they hadn't been gone for more than a week. But goddamn if it didn't feel like forever.
Wescott was reminded of Martin. "Burkeley especially," he said. "He was good. He trained all the NCOs well."
"Yeah. Yeah, that's right. That's who taught me how to lead the company. Ever since D-Day. And now that he's dead I don't know if I want to keep doing this. He told me it was about duty. Always said it was about duty. So I made it about duty, to my company. My company's dead, though, John, I'm seeing all these new faces and I say to myself, this isn't my A Company. This isn't my A Company, because, because -," Wayne waved the paper and laughed. "You see this? This is my company. Seventy, eighty names. That's how many have died since D-Day. Out of a roster of a hundred sixty-seven."
"Never even got a chance to get all their names," Wescott told Wayne, and when the captain looked back at him he suddenly remembered Wescott had been a Ranger squad leader. "They would tell you, and you'd remember, but you'd see them get hit and all of a sudden you don't know what to say when the medic asks who's hit."
Wayne shrugged. It wasn't one of defiance; it was one of resignation. He'd stopped being Hughe Wayne a long time ago. As far as he was concerned, the life of familiar faces and friends was over. Training in the 29th Division had perhaps excited it a bit, shook things up. It was an adventure in-training. But they hit the beaches and Wayne found out that bullets and Germans were indifferent towards friends.
"Did you ever find out why you keep doing this?" Wayne asked.
Wescott gave it some thought for a moment before answering, "I didn't have much of a purpose after I left high school. My old man told me to enlist, and after I got through basic I felt like I had a point, you know, something to do with my life. The Army gave me something to work on for the rest of my life. As long as I was an NCO I would be training myself and training Army personnel. Even out here, the Army says I'm a soldier first but my number one job is training the men to stay alive. I do this because it's my job."
Wayne nodded with understanding then. Wescott was a professional.
They were two different types of people. Wescott's loyalty was with the United States Army. Wayne was devoted to his life in the United States. Where Wescott saw his job, Wayne saw something that wasted lives and time and material. He saw something needless, something that should have ended before it started.
Wescott was a soldier. Wayne was a pacifist. And they were both in combat in Normandy.
But the five fallschirmjager waiting for the Americans to come through that day were like Wescott. Fighting and dying in a war was their life.
Kast, Bauer, Hoffman, Trapp, the assault gun crew, and Meier, the artillery observer, were all determined young men. They were intelligent soldiers, and confident in their fighting prowess. Most, except for Kast and Meier, had not seen combat before Normandy, but had been trained by a cadre of veterans from Italy. They operated well, and this is why they had been attached to Marcks's kompanie as support units.
None of them had any disposition to fall back along with the others once they were on their own in the orchard. They had been told to assist in holding the line from this town to that town numerous times, and they did this to the best of their ability. They relied on others to hold their sectors so that their flanks wouldn't be exposed, and knew that others depended on them as well for the same security.
But a few of them held some misgivings.
"They're not coming back," Bauer sighed, as though he'd expected Marcks's men to have a change of heart and decide they, like their fellow paratroopers, were heroes.
"Their CO's a defeatist," Kast, the gun commander, mumbled through a cigarette. "If they came back it'd be to surrender."
Kast was an arrogant albeit competent NCO who had been crewing assault guns since 1942, after being swept from a service and support unit into combat. He was a defeatist, too, but he was also a volunteer; when the call for a cadre of leaders came to form a parachute division, Kast had signed up immediately.
He knew that Germany would fall, but he had a family. He could surrender or give up, and Americans or Russians would march into his home to a screaming wife and crying children. Or, he could put up a fight, and if he was lucky God would have mercy for once in the five years that He had apparently been absent and the war would end before it reached his family.
For a man like Kast, though, that was wishful thinking.
But, whether or not the war was lost, Kast and his gun crew were still capable of winning battles, and that's probably what kept him - and many other Germans in Normandy and Russia - from surrendering and handing himself over to fate. When he'd registered a direct hit on an American Sherman and set it ablaze, his determination seemed to have an impact against the inevitable.
"What are you saying?" a young recruit gasped with horror. "Are you crazy? You want to surrender to the Germans?"
"That's right," Truttman said. "What's the point in fighting if the war's already won? The Germans treat Americans well, from what I hear. Spend the rest of the war in a POW camp, eat bread and cheese for a month or two, then go home a hero once our boys liberate us, or the Germans hand us over after negotiations."
The recruit was an idealistic patriot, and Truttman and Cook had fallen in love with him. Everything they said made him withdraw in fascinated horror, and everything he said made them feel like bigger, better men. It was like dating a high school girl again, though neither of the college students had ever dated before.
"You should come with us," Cook added, "We could take it easy and smoke cigarettes and play cards."
"What? While good soldiers bleed and die for the war effort? You're fucking nuts."
The young recruit's eyes were screwed in such passion and feeling that Truttman and Cook doubled-over in exagerrated laughter, wondering why some 18 year-old kid was so eager to die for a country.
"Today we may die for Germany," Meier said dryly into his radio.
"We could die anyday for Germany," Kast replied, "but today we may die for nothing. It's us and you, Meier, one assault gun crew and an artillery observer with a rifle."
"Orders are orders, my friend."
Meier was a twenty-five year old sergeant, a feldwebel. He was an oddity in that he was neither very young nor very old. Most others his age were either dead or missing an arm or a leg. Meier, however, had fought and lived in Russia without taking serious injury. This was exceptionally odd for an artillery observer, whom Russian snipers rated second only to officers.
What Meier had learned in Russia was much different from Marcks or Geissler; he believed he was alive because he discovered trust and loyalty. Before he'd been transferred to Normandy, his company commander had been killed within the first few hours of a massive Russian offensive, so Meier found himself under an old major who organized thirty or forty men in a break-out attempt.
The Battle for Kursk was the largest tank battle of World War II. While the Germans had assembled an impressive panzer force for the offensive, it was a futile attempt to seize the initiative in a war that the Germans had already lost. Soviet intelligence and operational doctrine had developed too far for the old German blitzkrieg to succeed in 1943. Successive defensive lines and anti-tank belts would force the German armor to struggle ahead for a week instead of driving forward in a lightning thrust.
The Soviets would launch two counter-offensives at Orel and Kharkov, both of which would severely maul an already-weakened German panzer force.
Many of the survivors of the infantry divisions lost at Kursk would be reconstituted into cadres to form the backbones of newly-formed divisions for Army Group West in France.
"Follow my orders and you'll make it out alive," the major had said.
So Meier followed his orders and he made it out alive. Him and eleven others.
While Meier was no more patriotic or devoted than Kast or Marcks, he followed directions because it was an old man's direction that had saved a dozen men in Russia. Maybe it would save a few men in Normandy.
Only now, Meier was the old man giving the orders. And to some, Meier thought, it would sound unfitting to call him old, but he was old. The other paratroopers were seventeen, eighteen; they called him "papa." To his officers, he was "the old soldier." Meier wondered when he would die.
If Wescott had known that the only Germans standing against them that day were an assault gun crew and a rifleman, he would have probably been less cautious during the initial patrol. He had most of second platoon with him, Burkeley's men, and for the most part they were the best men in the company.
"I don't want any replacements on this job," Wescott had told Captain Wayne that morning. "Williams, Truttman, the old guys. Professionals only."
Wescott wanted the professionals on the patrol because recently their primary opponents - the troops of the 352nd - had suddenly disappeared from view. The 29th Infantry Division had been locked in a knife-fight with the 352nd since D-Day; Wescott had grown to know their tactics and tendencies pretty well.
3rd Fallschirmjager troops fought much harder than their regular counterparts - that is, they were much more aggressive and feared nothing. They counter-attacked continuously and viciously, and were impossible to rout. They did not pull back from a fight as easily. When the Americans maneuvered in close, expecting the German parachute troops to fall back, they discovered that the Germans were willing to bleed, and were capable of making the men moving against them bleed just as much.
The battalion G2 intelligence officer often characterized their resistance as being "fanatical."
"Second Battalion's got Martinville Ridge," he told Wayne, "and Third Battalion's secured the ridge south of that. We'll continue with our plan to advance down the draw between these two ridges. We've got to advance as far forward as we can from our jump-off points, hopefully set-up a line between la Boulaye and la Madeleine."
The battalion commander seemed tired and irritable. He often briefed Wayne without his G2's aide; recently he'd been visiting the frontline and observing the advance and conferring with his company officers much more often.
"I'm not going to lie to you," the major warned Wayne before he reported out. "It's going to be rough. Chances are a lot of your men are going to get shot to hell. But you can't let that stop you, Wayne." He seemed to want to say more, but quoting his superior officers about saving blood in the long-run seemed pretty meaningless.
There was no difference between a hundred dead men or two hundred dead men; either way, a hundred men were dead.
Marcks and his kompanie found themselves walking past a line of parachute troops, except they were heading the opposite direction. There were perhaps a hundred of them, tall, lanky 18 year-old kids with submachine guns and panzerfausts thicker than their arms.
"You can head back, boys," one private said with a sneer, "We're here at your rescue."
II Fallschirmjager Corps had mustered reinforcements.
The leutnant in charge of the fallschirmjager company was hot-blooded and confident. He was youthfully patriotic, too, because his reproach was cold and condescending. "I think it'd be better for you to join us, comrade." The parachute officer said it as though he believed winning the war was remotely possible.
"I think so, too," Marcks replied icily. If he didn't, the younger officer would report him to higher authorities, and in all probability Marcks would be relieved of his command and executed. "Tell the men to turn around," he told Fischer.
Fischer didn't respond immediately, apparently out of not wanting to return to the line, and also because he had already decided he hated the paratrooper leutnant and his jeering men.
"I said tell the men to turn around. We can't let these boys fight it alone, and it's ridiculous to run away from a fight we can win."
Fischer's gaze fell as a friend's would drop in somber disappointment. He thought Marcks was a better man than this.
But Marcks was a man plagued with a sense of duty. Marching his men back to that frontline in the draw was murder, but so was watching a few paratroopers march back to that same frontline without help.
"If the bastards want to fight the Americans like heroes," one of Marcks's men muttered as they headed back, "we should let them fight. But I don't see why we should have to go down with them."
And as Kempff muttered bitterly, lamenting his fate, Marcks hoped he would be able to help the others, including the paratroopers and their son-of-a-bitch leutnant, stay alive through the battle.
That's what the men found so different in Marcks. That's why he was so alien to them.
If Meyer and Kast had learned that Marcks would have a change of heart, they would have told him to fuck off, because they were already in action and he and his men would come too late to help.
They were fully aware that they were going to lose the battle and they didn't want any help in losing it.
"Contact," Wescott shouted, ordering a private to relay the message to the tanks while 2nd platoon men scrambled into cover. "Gun emplacement, camouflaged, ten o'clock, two hundred meters!"
"I've got him," the tank sergeant acknowledged, and the gunner had him a second later. The panzer had been sited in a barn, covered with hay to resemble a haystack.
Watching from behind the last of the four tanks, Truttman could have sworn he saw the German assault gun go up in smoke, a direct hit and a clean shot that shattered the front of the barn into a thousand splinters. It was burning, the debris from its cover still falling into the field, and the men further up ahead were cheering "nice shot!"
He could have sworn that the gun had been destroyed. But the lead Sherman burst into fire violently and began to brew up anyway.
Kast and his crew had already loaded in a second round, sights fixed on the last Sherman, having already ranged their 88mm L/71 gun before the American patrol had even assembled. Their decoy had been destroyed, a makeshift panzer made out of a telephone pole, a fence, and dead brush. It had given them the crucial seconds they needed to re-adjust on the lead Sherman, and identify the infantry's location. And, while the had Americans zeroed-in on the haystack in the barn, Kast and his guncrew had found an opening on the American flank, and had fired as they crossed the three hundred meter wide orchard.
"Twenty-plus," Meier told the crew, referring to the American infantry, "Two columns and a point group a hundred meters up."
"One hundred meters, understood," Kast acknowledged, and told the gunner to fire.
Wescott had called for the bazooka to move up before he heard the second shot. Two privates sprinted from one of the columns huddling on the road, and narrowly avoided the assault gun's second shot as it screeched into the second Sherman, blasting a smoky rose in the road as the tank caught fire.
One of the bad things about fighting 88s was that the gun shot projectiles with a muzzle velocity faster than the speed of sound. 88mm rounds flew a flat-line trajectory and hit before a soldier realized he was under fire. There was no time to take cover and it was difficult finding out from which the direction the shot had come from. Wescott himself barely had an idea of the 88mm assault gun's position; he'd only seen the dust kicked up from the incoming round tearing down the field before it shattered the lead Sherman. The 88mm was considered the premier instrument of war, capable of serving in anti-aircraft, anti-tank, and anti-infantry roles.
What exacerbated 2nd platoon's situation, though, was the fact that the 88mm assault gun was mobile.
The Sherman crews were already panicking. They were reversing away to the cover of the treeline, leaving 2nd platoon on the roadside alone. Atleast the infantry had cover, though; they could hide in the grass. The Shermans were target practice for Kast's gunner.
"Eighty-eight, I'm guessing on the east edge of the orchard," Wescott told the bazooka crew as they huddled next to the lead Sherman. "No infantry that I know of. We can sneak-in close and blow the fucker to hell."
Wescott was right. There were no notable German infantry in the area - just a lone rifleman with a pair of binoculars. But Meier also had a radio-set, and he was communicating actively with the German assault gun crew. Alone, the 88mm was basically blind, the crew holed up in a turret with narrow viewports and the hatch down to defend against grenades and small arms fire. With Meier serving as its spotter and eyes, Kast's gun became a complete mobile armored combat system.
Meier had spotted the anti-tank team the second they'd sprung up from cover. They were too far out for him to attempt a shot with his rifle, but he had them in his sights and had a dominating view of the area from his observation post in a tree on the south edge of the orchard.
"We're circling around north," Wescott told his BAR gunners, "Hold your positions, we'll take the bastard down."
Together with the AT team, Wescott sprinted hard down the road, an 88 round bursting ahead of them into the hedgerow, tearing a black gap into the brush.
Less than a kilometer away, B and C Companies of 1st Battalion had run up against similar opposition. Three panzer tanks, PzKpfW Mk IVs equipped with 75mm L/48s, and a second 88mm self-propelled gun had materialized at the end of the draw. They drove down the edge of the fields on high ground, firing down into the infantry and extracting a heavy price on the advance. 1st Battalion troops jumped into ditches and rolled into hedgerows while the earth swallowed up those soldiers caught in the center of the orchard in black gouts.
"Charlie red, Charlie red," radio operators relayed, "Halted by enemy armor, I say again, halted by enemy armor."
Kast's assault gun jolted as a terrible screech scraped against their chassis - a ricochet 76.2mm round.
"Jesus," he said, and wiped the sweat from his face, while the gun jolted again, this time because it had let loose an out-going round.
Shermans were notoriously inefficient against German armor. At best, the M4s could hit in a stand-up fight against Mk IVs, but at worst, the Shermans were useless against Mk V Panthers and Mk VI Tigers. In these cases, US armored doctrine was to employ tank destroyer units composed of lighter vehicles with heavier guns, but this complicated battle organization. And since the tank destroyers were lightly-protected, they weren't well-suited for offensive operations.
Ultimately, anti-tank operations came down to the determination and bravery of the infantry; they would hold and call down artillery, or, as Wescott was doing, they moved-in with bazookas.
German armor in general was made specifically for anti-tank combat, despite the earlier blitzkrieg doctrines developed by panzer generals such as Heinz Guderian. Tanks were fitted with high-velocity guns as the war progressed, and simpler assault guns (the brainchild of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein) were designed to combat enemy armor in support of the infantry.
Assault guns had no rotating turret. They were flatline trajectory guns mounted on armored chassis, and were cheaper and easier to produce. In general, assault guns were low-profile guns that were well-suited to set-up ambushes. Many assault guns were designed with heavy frontal armor, and so served well as break-through weapons in combination with infantry.
There were some models with an open-chassis; that is, the crew was exposed to small-arms fire or other infantry weapons, like the Marder assault guns depicted in the last battle of Saving Private Ryan. The 88mm guns that the men of the 1/116th faced on July 12, though, were probably close-topped weapons.
To fight armor as an infantryman was unnerving, and this is one reason Wescott had wanted the professionals of 2nd platoon on the patrol. A less experienced group would have started to rout by now; 2nd platoon held their ground in ditches and waited.
It might have been fear, but Truttman, who considered himself a knowledgeable college student, had no clue as to what they were waiting for. Maybe an order to fall back. Maybe for the goddamn radio operator to stop stuttering and get the goddamn coordinates right for the goddamn artillery.
Or maybe he was just waiting to die.
Wescott, however, had no intention of dying, and in fact had a strong motivation to exact that fate on the assault gun blowing holes in the hedgerows lining the orchard. His bazooka team, to his chagrin, lacked such vigor. They were cringing and crying "Oh, Jesus" each time the 88mm gun sounded its battle-cry. They were teenagers who looked like young men.
"Keep quiet," Wescott told them, though he knew that with the deafening crush that the 88mm emitted, the Germans probably wouldn't be able to hear them.
They were creeping along the edge of the orchard, covered by branches that draped over them like sheets. The Shermans had maneuvered around the field by now, their crews dead-quiet, tense as they waited for the 88 to come into view. They were in the tree-line, perhaps two hundred meters away from the Germans at most, and while they didn't have line-of-sight with each other, Kast atleast had Meier notifying him that the Americans were approaching their flank.
Fire had stopped breaking the road apart, but 2nd platoon could hear the rumble of a German panzer from the tree-line accompanying the Shermans. They hoped that the M4s would be able to tag a shot on the panzer's flank, though these hopes were rapidly dispelled once a metallic boom echoed alongside one of the American tanks. It had been a near-miss, but it was enough to force the Shermans off, while Kast's gunner squeezed off a second shot into the retreating pair, the gun's fury tearing a second crater into the tree-line and taking a chunk of splintered bark from a trunk. The tree twisted roughly, then collapsed, wood crackling, onto one of the Shermans.
1st Battalion troops in the adjacent fields in the draw continued to take heavy fire, though the forward observers were zero-ing the panzers in with ranging shots.
"Fire mission!" they reported, and corrected the artillery shoot's range and width.
Incoming rounds wailed down into the draw and tore into grass, turning green to black. The panzer crews reported that they were taking fire to no one in particular; they were carrying this counter-attack on their own, knowing that if they let the Americans march through, their tanks would be seized and the war would be over for five crews in tanker uniforms.
Their tanks drove ahead, bathed in smoke.
Wescott told the bazooka team to deploy, and waited patiently while the assault gun slewed about. They'd stayed low and in cover, and the Shermans had provided a distraction. They would have one chance at a shot, and if the crew or vehicle weren't put out of action, they would probably be dead.
Survival rates among bazooka teams when facing tanks were just about to the point where only those strong in faith would take up the job. Wescott didn't know about faith but he was a professional; if a job had to be done, it was going to get done.
But the assault gun continued to traverse until the impossibly long 88mm gun was pointing in their direction, and for a few moments Wescott wondered if somehow the crew had spotted them, then realized that no, the panzer was only re-positioning to fire again.
And then he was looking face-up at the sky, only his eyes were tight because of the smoke and his ears were ringing.
The bazooka team had been hit. One was clutching at his face screeching, "Oh God, Oh Jesus God," and the other was trying to clutch at his face but his forearms were ragged strips of flesh hanging from a sliver of bloody bone. The bazooka tube had been thrown from their grasp, and miraculously incurred no damage, though neither Wescott nor the two men were aware of that because they thought they were dying.
"You've got them," Meier told Kast, "Finish them and advance into the field."
They would have bothered taking them prisoner but that would have been pointless because no one was behind the lines to receive them, and fighting in Russia had shown them that desperate men were capable of desperate measures in the name of duty. Kast shrugged inwardly and thought the Americans lucky; he'd seen worse ways to die.
Wescott was thinking that it took maybe 30 seconds for an 88 to reload and fire, but that didn't help him much because in his daze he thought a minute had already passed. He was on his feet, leaning on his hands, staggering in the brush, searching for the bazooka team for some reason.
His hands came down to his hip for some reason; the Thompson. His weapon, where was his weapon. Wescott groped in the brush for a moment, trying to work on auto-pilot, trying to do something, anything, that would keep him alive, and knowing all the time that he was going to die, he was going to die.
There was another crash behind him, Wescott bounced against the grass while dirt and sharp metal dropped down on him from heaven, and he realized with clarity that the bazooka team was dead, that the 88 had shot the bazooka team because they'd been the ones carrying the tube because Wescott had told them to.
"Who's hit?" Wescott shouted numbly, face half in the dirt. "Who's hit? Someone talk to me."
The assault gun's engine roared, and Wescott heard only the panzer's tracks traversing. The bazooka was ten feet away, to his left.
The bazooka. The assault gun. The bazooka team was supposed to kill the assault gun. The bazooka team's dead. I'm the bazooka team. I've got to kill the assault gun.
Wescott had to crawl on hands and knees to reach the tube, but once it was in his hands, he could work on auto-pilot again. It wasn't loaded. The rocket had fallen out. Chances are the fuse would detonate the round in the tube if he tried to fire it. But then again if he didn't try, 2nd platoon in the field would be eating dirt.
The 88 was fifty meters away, flank facing him full-on, the gun waving as the vehicle idled. Wescott loaded the weapon, brought it across his shoulder, nearly toppling over from the unexpected weight. He settled, inhaled, exhaled half-way. He wondered for a moment why he was a Ranger, and fired.
The projectile went forward, hit the assault gun, but it was a glancing blow; it detonated, but it was a mere spark in comparison to the size of the panzer. Wescott blanched. He'd told himself he wouldn't be surprised if the panzer wasn't put out-of-action from the shot, but he was pretty goddamned surprise that the panzer wasn't put out-of-action.
"Taking anti-tank fire," Kast reported.
"I didn't see the shooter," Meier told him, "Re-position."
And with a parting shot down the orchard, the 88 drew away, leaving Wescott wondering how he'd just beaten a premier instrument of war on his own.
The Mk IVs facing the other 1st Battalion patrols had been shut-down, hit by 155mm shells from either the chance derived from physics or gunnery skill. The crew members that survived had bailed out, staggering away from their vehicles without a clue as to which direction they were supposed to head or what exactly they were supposed to do.
"Where are you?" they shouted, wiping the blood from their eyes and looking for other men from their crew. "I can't see you."
The Americans, they thought, The tank. Our tank's supposed to stop the Americans. The tank's dead. I'm the tank crew. I can't stop the Americans.
And then bazooka teams, who had lie in wait while the artillery shelled the panzers, came from cover with Thompsons and gunned the tankers down in the smoke.
They might have bothered taking them prisoner, but intel had told them that the fallschirmjagers were fanatical, and out in the field it was better to play it safe than risk a chance.
Meanwhile, the lone 88 guns that remained continued to maneuver from cover and fire down into the draw, elusive to artillery shoots because they never stayed in one position long enough for the 155mm rounds to catch them.
"We're still taking fire from the eighty-eights," the 1st Battalion troops reported.
"Much can't be done about that," the company commanders replied. "Push ahead."
Truttman had gone out with the platoon sergeant to see what had become of Wescott after the 88 had driven off. It'd be back, the crew would probably check to see how bad they'd been hit and then re-appear to shell the road, but they had some time. They could see the shattered trees where the bazooka team had taken position, and they saw Wescott, the professional, a bloody, tattered mess, still on his knees with the tube hanging from his shoulder.
"Sergeant?" Truttman called him.
"Who's dead?" Truttman asked, though it was already apparent that it was the bazooka team.
Wescott couldn't remember their names.
Even in the absence of German armored support, progress was close to nil. Wayne had taken the rest of A Company around Wescott's patrol party upon receiving reports of enemy armor in an attempt to find a way through the draw.
His men were getting shot to hell, and he wasn't letting it stop him.
There was a creek that ran in the draw, and patrols earlier that day had noted that an increasing amount of German resistance had assembled in that general area. It was the only way through, other than facing the tanks, and Wayne had sent a platoon through to probe the German line.
First platoon reported that they were engaging in several small fights with bands of Germans.
Cook could see two soldiers firing from the treeline along the creek, Garands cracking intermittently. He and a BAR fireteam were keeping tabs on German snipers, a handful of riflemen, shooting periodically across the stream whenever an American sprinted from cover. A hundred meters down, an MG-42 shot at a few GIs with Thompsons sent out to find the German flank.
"Are they fell-sherm-yager?" someone asked Cook.
"How the hell should I know?"
"A German's a German," another answered.
The distinctive thonks of light mortars came from the German side of the stream, and Cook heard shouts of "incoming!" to the south. A mortar bomb spit dirt and shrapnel just past the creek-bed, and the two infantrymen firing Garands in the open went to cover. A moment later, fire from the south hit their position, and grenades were bursting in the brush.
"They're coming across," Cook heard, and Thompsons chattered in desperate full-automatic.
"Rifle team, Ben's got five with him, he'll need some cover."
"Cook!" first platoon leader shouted, "Get your fireteam to the Sarge, Germans have an MG and he needs a few more rifles!"
"We ride," Cook told the privates with him, and they were sprinting down the creek-bed while a dozen riflemen seemed to materialize from no where and shot at them with carbines.
"Cover them," and a Browning lit the treeline with tracer, tearing strips of bark from the trunks and cutting branches and vines from low-hanging limbs.
The stream was lined with flashing bursts of gunpowder and spent shell casings. The Germans did not know how many Americans lay across the clear water, where they could see the rockbed sparkling in the sun and a dead soldier who'd been shot while attempting to cross, and the Americans were not sure if they had the strength to push through. It was clear, however, that the Germans were in it for the long-haul - if they were using mortars in combination with infantry assaults, they weren't going to give up the stream without dying in considerable numbers.
Everyone, including Cook, who considered himself a knowledgeable college student, knew that meant that a considerable number of A Company troops would be dying with them.
Cook was thankful when he saw the Germans splashing across the creek with grenades at the ready, because he and his fireteam had apparently arrived to Ben's rescue just before he'd bought it. Cook didn't know who Ben was, but he was almost certain that the Germans did because otherwise they would not be trying to kill him, since killing was a personal business.
There was a machine gun firing behind those Germans, an MG-42, and Cook could see the tracers stitching into the brush lining the treeline and knocking someone onto his back while a mortar bomb plumetted behind him and blew another soldier forward in a cloud of mud and shrapnel.
A moment later Cook and his privates had emptied their magazines into the machine gun position, either killing the Germans manning it or driving them off. He knew those Germans; they'd been the same ones who shot down Burkeley and Dunn, and a few other A Company soldiers he knew.
Cook also knew the Germans crossing the stream. He knew them because he shouted "Jerry!" and then told the privates in his fireteam to "shoot the fuckers dead," and fired from the standing position from the trees, dropping all seven of the Germans named Jerry with a quick burst of rifle fire.
Two full magazines spent in two minutes.
"Ben?" Cook called.
"I'm here," the sergeant named Ben replied.
"We're here to help you out."
"Then get a medic."
As it turned out, all six of Ben's fireteam had been hit by machine gun fire. Two were dead, Ben and the others were virtually incapacitated. There were no medics to get, and Cook barely had a grasp on first-aid procedure. Before he could find his bandages, though, another MG-42 - or perhaps the weapon they'd silenced just before - opened up and began to pelt the treeline. Cook scrambled into a ditch that ran-off into the creek and pressed himself against the mud.
Once Marcks had returned to his line it became clear that the fight could not be won after all; there were pyres of smoke rising in the distance, and the sound of American artillery bombarding the fields.
"Armor has been dispatched to secure the position here," the paratrooper officer said. "We've been ordered to hold the line along the creek that runs in this area."
Marcks was only half-listening. He heard the sturmgeschutz, the 88s, firing into the fields, and the German artillery hammering the southern ridge. He could hear German firepower slamming into the Americans, and he could hear American firepower hammering at the Germans. The difference was that he could see the American troops in the orchards, but there were no Wehrmacht soldiers in sight.
"Who're on our flanks?" Marcks asked.
"No one, but artillery is covering the ridges."
The only comrades the fallschirmjager had in the draw were shell-bursts.
That's why Marcks felt so despondent when the fallschirmjager led his men to the creek; there were baggy gray piles lying all around the treeline and in the creekbed, and there would be no live paratroopers to take their place. 1. Kompanie felt as though they were alone along the stream, against American riflemen who tore mercilessly into the vegetation with small-arms fire.
Cook was still covering his helmet in the ditch when 3rd platoon arrived with Wayne. They deployed clumsily, because the mud and thick brush concealed ravines and folds in the earth.
"Spread out!" Wayne drew them to order. "Keep the MGs covered!"
The MG-42 across from Cook pulled away from its firing position, and several GIs setup their own .30 Browning on top of Cook's ditch. When he looked back over and across the river he saw nothing, just the frantic winks of machine guns and the sunlight streaming through the trees.
But Cook was looking directly at Marcks's 1. Kompanie, hastily deployed and fruitlessly searching for the remaining fallschirmjager.
"Everyone's dead, leutnant," Fischer told him.
The young paratrooper officer realized this as well. The paratrooper company that had been tasked with holding the creek had apparently been destroyed. Orders were orders, however, and the objective remained; hold the creek.
"Kompanie, grenades at the ready!"
Marcks looked back at the parachute soldier.
"Herr Leutnant, I expect you to provide support from my men."
"Why are you assaulting?" Marcks demanded.
"Because, we are fallschirmjager. The Americans will be preparing for their own move, if we hit them now then they'll be thrown off-balance."
"We're out-numbered and out-gunned," Marcks told him. "They're firing from cover and you have to cross a body of water. You'll be mown down."
"Fortune favors the brave, Herr leutnant. I've been in battle several times. I know the risks, and so do my soldiers."
A moment later he was moving off towards the creekbed, selecting the main assault group and dictating orders to secondary detachments.
Wayne knew the German parachute troops would be pressing against his weaker flank further north. They were good at assembling without being detected and then springing forward with speed; they were tough and were willing to cross stretches of open ground and then close-in to make it a knife-fight. Wayne shortened the northern arm of his skirmish line and told them to be ready with grenades.
Heavy fire exploded to his front, three or four machine guns, and annihilated much of the 1st platoon troops who were lined along the creekbed. The Germans would be pushing forward a little faster than he'd expected; they were good at that, too, seizing the initiative in a fight they knew they should be losing.
Wayne wondered why the German paratroopers were so willing to die, and then they came forward from the north, towards the 1st platoon troops with grenades.
"Cook, get the rest of first platoon and stop that assault," he said.
Cook called for the remainder of 1st platoon, and realized that he and his fireteam were it.
Marcks's men fired on their own, expending ammunition violently but with the methodical precision that had allowed them to survive for five weeks in Normandy. It was the same precision that Geissler had seen when 1. Kompanie had prepared their defensive lines in the hedgerows around Pointe-du-Hoc.
The accurate fire, however, did not stop the Americans who threw grenades into the paratrooper's advance. The young officer had his men spread-out, but the concussion blasted much of the forward group down into the creek, weapons and helmets cast away along with a half-dozen churning plumes of water.
A few of the paratroopers managed to hurl their own grenades, and in their broken detonations, they rushed forward to meet the Americans. They were no battle cries, no more shouted orders from the sergeants, just a silent stream of Germans in still gray running forward with their rifles at their shoulders.
Garand fire hammered into the front row, dropping them to the mud of the creekbed after they jerked and their eyes ebbed as the life left them. But behind them their comrades kept stomping forward, jumping over their still-falling bodies. They were going to close hand-to-hand.
Cook's rifle ejected a spent magazine, and he reached for another to slam into the feed. Ahead of him, the foremost 1st platoon soldiers had drawn sidearms or clashed their rifle butts against the charging Germans, but they were rapidly over-whelmed. They were shoved and kicked down into their ditches, which became their graves as other Germans came and rammed their carbines against skulls and spines. Wet cracks clashed with the gunfire that died-off, but for some reason they were just as thunderous and deafening in the creekbed.
"Jesus Christ," Americans were shouting as they stopped rifles from breaking their faces open, or took hits in the arms and shoulder from hard wood. "Jesus fucking Christ."
The secondary detachments hurled grenades past the main assault group, and the Americans scrambled away from the munitions, protecting themselves from the blasts with tree trunks only to find bayonets stabbing into their backs and submachine guns ripping into their friends.
Cook's rifle snapped up, jumped as he squeezed the trigger, jumped again, and the Germans in his sights jerked with it, staggering and then tumbling to the wet grass. Then the paratroopers had broken through to his position, and he and his fireteam smashed their rifles into faces and drew knives to thrust into bellies and kicked knee caps.
1st platoon was deteriorating, disappearing into the underbrush as the German charge broke into their lines and bludgeoned and stabbed and killed them.
The Germans were dying, too; they screamed when knives drove into their hearts and when GIs stomped their heads in after they'd fallen. But they were led by an officer who continued to carry the charge through straight to Wayne's position, where seven Germans and the officer began to beat 3rd platoon soldiers to death.
"Surrender," the officer demanded, shouting at Wayne as he shook a dying soldier from his bayonet. "Surrender!"
Wayne decked him full in the face while the German was kicking the soldier's body off the blade. 3rd platoon riflemen parried rifle butts, and submachine gunners sprayed the German paratroopers with Thompson fire. They tumbled down into the ravine, those that were still alive trying to crawl away, and then 3rd platoon soldiers jumped down after them, to shoot them in the back as they clawed at the mud.
Ahead of them, the other paratroopers were pulling away, firing at the 1st platoon soldiers who had fought back and were now shooting at them with such murderous intent that they jerked the triggers so hard that their rifles would not stay steady.
Cook, breathless and with a broken hand, looked back at the company CO, and saw Wayne stomping the life out of a young fallschirmjager officer, who still cried "surrender, surrender."
Across the creekbed, Marcks saw it all. He saw the way the Americans shouted for the paratroopers to come back so they could kill them, and the way the American officer was killing the paratrooper leutnant by bashing his brains out. He saw everything, and decided it was time to surrender.
Marcks had taken his men across the creekbed while the Americans had still been shooting. He had said quietly, "cease-fire, cease-fire," and it'd taken a moment for the 1. Kompanie troops to realize that their commanding officer was walking forward with his hands palm-up toward the sky. They didn't quite understand what he was doing, until Kempff had whispered, "fuck it," and rose with his hands up, too.
They were surrendering.
The Americans, Wayne's 3rd platoon, were shouting at them as they crossed the stream, throwing their weapons down into the mud and wading in shallow water. They said that the Germans were dirty bastards, and chickenshit motherfuckers. They said that it was real fucking nice of them to hand themselves over, now killing them wouldn't be such a chore. A few of the Americans were shooting at their feet with submachine guns, but Marcks lead the kompanie, twenty men strong, across the stream without blinking.
"Don't shoot them," one of the Americans said, climbing up from a ravine and clutching at his wrist. "Don't shoot them, please."
"Why the fuck not?" the submachine gunners spat. "Didn't you see what they did? They just butchered our boys. They just helped butcher our boys."
"Don't shoot them," Cook said again, pleading. "Please, don't shoot them."
For a knowledgeable college student, Cook's heart was still pretty soft.
Marcks was pulled aside by one of the Americans with a submachine gun. "This son-of-a-bitch is in charge of them. What the fuck do you have to say? You think you can kill us, lose the fight, then walk over with your hands up? What the fuck do you have to say?"
Marcks didn't speak English. He wasn't from the aristocracy, his education wasn't as thorough as most, but he understood well enough that these Americans were tense. He and his kompanie might die in their hands, but then they could die by their hands any day of the week.
"Fortune rewards the brave," the young officer had sneered. Surrender would have been anathema to him. He'd been raised on history lessons and life lessons from the great heroes of war. He'd been taught how to handle a firefight and how to fight a battle, but he'd never learned when to give up. All the fallschirmjager would have bled to death in Normandy if they were given the choice; they believed in something greater than life.
Fischer could see the fallschirmjager staring after them with hate in their eyes. He could see them cursing them as cowards and turncoats.
He turned back to face Marcks, who was being shoved to the ground by the submachine gunner.
"This son-of-a-bitch is dead. I'm going to shoot him, right here, in front of his men. In front of his comrades. You hear that, Jerry? You're dead."
Wescott could barely breathe. He couldn't feel anything, which was fortunate for him because he'd taken shrapnel all across his left side and all across his back. His fatigues were shredded and soaked in muddy crimson. He was coughing and he tasted blood in his mouth; something was hemorrhaging inside of him.
Concussion alone from artillery was enough to kill a man. Even if no shrapnel had hit Wescott, he would have been in bad shape anyway because the 88 round would have damaged his internal organs. His lungs were badly damaged, almost ripped open, and blood was leaking into his chest cavity. His pulse was sluggish, and his blood vessels were shrinking down; Wescott was sinking into shock. He couldn't hear much, and he wasn't listening.
"Oh shit," Truttman was saying. "Oh fucking shit, oh God." He pushed down on the bandages across Wescott's chest and hoped he wouldn't bleed to death. He hoped that Wescott wasn't in bad shape, but he knew that he was in bad shape and that he was probably going to bleed to death.
"Hang in there," 2nd platoon leader was telling Wescott. "Hang in there, Sergeant."
Wescott was not hanging in there. He was fading fast and he knew he was going to buy it.
Truttman looked down at him and he could see Wescott shutting down. His breathing was slowing down, his eyes were starting to dull. His legs had been kicking weakly; they were lying still now. Truttman tried to keep Wescott from falling apart and kept pressure on the bandages.
Wescott did not see his life flash before his eyes. He did not feel a desperate surge of fear, and he did not feel the need to say any last words to the two individuals struggling desperately to keep him alive. Wescott's brain was already winding down; neurons were firing but they were random flickers of life, just the rhythm of thought breaking down into nothing.
"Finish the job," Truttman heard him say, though he mumbled it as though he merely felt the need to say something and said the first thing that came to mind.
2nd platoon leader, a fellow NCO, looked down at Wescott and squeezed back tears. "Okay, Sergeant. Okay. Don't worry. We'll finish the job."
Truttman didn't know what Wescott was referring to; did he want them to put a bullet in his head or was he giving them a parting message to give them hope? Either way, it didn't matter, because Wescott's throat gurgled and choked and then he was gone.
Wescott's last words had been characteristic of his distant attitude with A Company; he was a professional and he saw the war as a job that had to be done. 2nd platoon leader heard those words and he thought of countless other leaders dying in countless other wars and saying the same thing. He thought of history and a good man dying needlessly for what he saw as a great historical cause.
Truttman heard those words and he understood; Wescott was already dead before he said it. He'd already faded-out and his brain had sent a dying message to his dying nervous system.
"We'll finish the job," 2nd platoon leader sobbed again, and looking down at Wescott, Truttman wondered why the NCO was so willing to die for a job.
Marcks thought that the American was going to shoot him and kill him right there, and he wondered if he had made a mistake, but the American officer had turned from beating the young paratrooper to death and stopped him.
"Don't kill him," Wayne said softly. "He was doing his job. We'll do ours."
3rd platoon looked uneasily from the Germans to Wayne and came to their senses. They'd just been screaming for blood.
Wayne remembered once when he'd shot a German officer to death in a courtyard. He'd surrendered the same way, after a violent knife-fight in which men were butchered as quickly as possible so that other men could be butchered just as quickly. It hadn't been a battle then. It was just killing.
He'd regretted shooting the German in the courtyard the second he'd pulled the trigger.
This officer apparently felt his duty to his troops over-rode his duty to the war. He knew that he was going to die and that his unit would die with him if he made them; he'd seen what the fallschirmjager considered war and he didn't want that war to kill his men. He and Wayne were alike in that respect; they felt duty to their companies. Whether or not the German was a professional or something like a reservist like Wayne was irrelevant. Their goals were the same - keep the boys alive.
Truttman had been right; it came down to survival out in the field. That day and today it'd come straight down to survival. No one wanted to die and everyone wanted to live; so they killed each other. Today, though, Wayne could stop it. He could stop men from killing each other. No one would have to die and everyone could live.
"He's done," Wayne said at length. "Cook, find someone and send him to the rear."
Marcks saw the American submachine gunner turn back to him and look away in embarassment. Behind him, a fallschirmjager NCO was telling him to go to hell - leave his comrades to die and go to hell. Fischer slapped his back and gave a smirk.
No, Marcks thought, he hadn't left his comrades to die. He'd given them the best shot they had.
Cook and a private nodded their heads away from the creek and motioned with their rifles.
"Come on. Kommsiehieren," Cook managed. "Let's go. Kommsiehieren."
1. Kompanie lined-up and shuffled down an empty road.