“We’ve got to take that cannon!”
Sarge was being the sarge, shouting at us in a very convincing display of frustration and anger. Only partly at us; mostly with the situation. Still, he was angry, and we all respected that.
It was early afternoon just inland from the French coast. To tell the truth, I wasn’t exactly sure where we were. We were moving inland, our whole Army was, but my small unit was a separate part of the whole.
The air was still, and the sounds of war came from close by and afar, mostly the latter. Heavy booms. Staccato rifle and machine-gun fire. Men screaming. The pervasive smell of cordite.
Then there were the closer smells, of frightened, unwashed men, of open-pit latrines that we didn’t have time to cover as we moved forward. Of corpses left in the sun.
“It’s a mortar, Sarge. Probably a Granatenwerfer 69.” Snyder.
We were pinned down at the foot of a small bluff, fields and hedgerows surrounding us. I’d never seen anything like the hedgerows. Dirt had been piled three, four feet high on the edges of the fields, and instead of fences, dense bushes and hedges, even small trees, had been planted. These natural barriers—hedgerows—were basically impenetrable. They made great tactical locations for the forces already set up near them. The Krauts use them for defensive cover, and we were left having to attack from exposed positions.
The fourteen of us left in our platoon—just kids really—had fought from the coast to where we were now. We were terrified, but we were used to that by now. We’d been here in France for just over a week, and terror was beginning to feel natural. Just like expecting to die any minute—you accepted it, somehow, but it changed who you were. Death felt inevitable. We all faced that in our own way.
We accepted a lot of things we never had before. Not bathing. Wearing the same clothes day after day. Not shaving. The smell of each other no longer bothering us. Sleeping rough. Sleeping when we could. Eating stuff that no one should have to eat. Day after day. Walking a lot. Always tired. Always scared.
The foot of the bluff was about the only place safe from the mortar emplacement. Even it wasn’t really safe. It did shield us from the machine guns, however. Maschinengewehr 42s, according to Snyder, our know-it-all. All units seemed to have one of those guys who knew everything. Snyder was OK, though. Lowry was the one to worry about.
Most know-it-alls I’d ever known were showoffs; arrogant bastards, they said what they said to show how much smarter than you they were. No one liked them much. Snyder somehow said the things he did in a way that made them informative rather than irritating, and surprisingly interesting. He didn’t seem to be showing any ego at all. He was a PFC, the rest of us just privates. Other than the sarge.
We were pinned down, but Sarge wasn’t having any of that.
“Got to keep moving. They’ll re-aim the mortar and drop those fuckers right on top of us. Let’s go! West. Along the base of this bluff 50, maybe 60 yards. Mount up!”
So we took off running with all our gear. Good thing, too—about a minute after we’d left, where we’d been huddled began blowing up.
“Yeah, Sarge?” I replied, wishing it had been some other name he’d chosen. But I didn’t wish it like I would have three months ago. I’d always been one of those who mentally was off on his own a lot, a bit separate from what was going on, the type who preferred to distance himself from the fray, to observe rather than participate. Being in on the invasion at Normandy had a way of bringing you into the moment and keeping you focused. My thinking went off on tangents less and less these days. I was much more a team member. All of us were, now, other than Lowry.
“Sarge?” Why was it that no matter what Lowry said, it seemed to carry a supercilious sneer with it? He was one of the most self-righteous guys I’d ever been unfortunate enough to be associated with.
“Peterson, you go farther west about 25 yards along the bluff, Lowry, go the same way but twice that far. Then work up to the top and peek over. Lewis and Asconti, you two go with them. You guys—” he meant me and Lowry “—go up top, look at what’s up there—the emplacement and everything else—and call down what you see. Look for the best place for us to come over the top, figure out how far it is to the guns, see if there are any swales, anything at all we can take cover behind or hide in. Lewis, Asconti, when they’ve given you the dope, you report to me. You two, stay up there. Watch for any movement, any men coming out to attack us. They know we’re here. Stay low. Don’t make a target of yourselves.”
You did what the sarge told you to do. I took off running west. The bluff was only about fifteen feet high, but that was enough to shelter us. We’d been exposed, crossing open land between hedgerows running toward the bluff, when the first mortar round had exploded in our midst. Five guys bought it. We hadn’t even had time yet to think about that. Our medic, Jeffords, had done what he did—gone and looked at each of them—ignoring the shelling. I’d expected another burst any second and for him to disappear, but it didn’t happen. Took him less than half a minute to see they were dead and to rejoin our charge across the field to the bluff. One other guy, Rogers, a redhead who was as close to a friend as I had in the unit, a kid my age, caught a machine-gun round just before we reached cover. He was dead, too.
The rise to the top of the bluff was steep, but soft enough that I could kick my boots into it to create footholds. I did that and worked my way up.
The emplacement was about the length of a football field away. It was set back near the hedgerow defining the back edge of the field. No trees, hills, anything. What it was, was a farmer’s field, a pasture I guessed, because there were about ten cows standing around munching like they do. Evidently they’d become accustomed to the occasional abrupt booms and bangs. And the smells.
But that was it. A large pasture with a gun emplacement towards the right side near the back. Sandbags about five feet high with a couple of small gaps for machine guns to poke through. The mortar must have been set up behind them. The whole thing was just sitting there. We had no way to approach it. I saw that right away. I hoped like hell Sarge would just decide to work our way around this field, to bypass it. We had no business trying to take the gun position out. A tank could have done so, but not us. All we had were rifles and grenades. Not even a bazooka.
I called what I saw down to Asconti. I really didn’t have any cover, but Sarge had said stay, so I stayed. I kicked myself a sort of ledge in the sandy slope and hunkered down with just my eyes and helmet peeking over the top. Then I watched and prayed they didn’t have binoculars, which was crazy. They always had binoculars. I convinced myself that if I saw a machine gun move to point at me, I’d be under the lip before they could pull the trigger.
Lewis and Asconti ran back and reported. I glanced back and saw the sarge on the radio Phillips carried. Sarge spoke, listened, spoke, listened, then threw the receiver back into the pack. He didn’t look happy.
He spoke to the men for a bit, then sent two of them to replace Lowry and me. We ran back.
“Here’s the thing,” the sarge told us. “Our whole advance line is moving forward. The lieutenant wants us to keep up. He wants the line maintained, all the fields cleared, going south. He says we’re to take out whatever’s in front of us. I asked for a mortar so we can drop a couple shells down on top of them. The lieutenant said there were none to spare. We’re supposed to do this with what we’ve got.”
“That’s crap, Sarge.” Lowry always was outspoken. What he out-spoke was usually a gripe. He never liked anything anyone else decided. He didn’t always know a better way, but he did know the proposed way was flawed and stupid. “There’s nothing up there. We’d have 100 yards of exposure trying to charge that nest. None of us would make it. What about at least getting up against the hedgerows on either side?”
Sarge scowled at him like he usually did. “We’ve been told both edges of the hedgerows in this area have been heavily mined. The Krauts want us to have to stay in the open, which they didn’t mine so their own troops can move safely across the fields. So it’s down and dirty, boys. That’s it. We wait for dark, then go. Get some rest. Cold rations tonight. Better dig in. They might start dropping mortar shells on us at any time.”
When we dug in, we usually did it in two-man holes. Everyone had a foxhole buddy. Except mine was Rogers, and he was dead.
I moved up close to the bluff and started digging. The loamy soil was easy to dig, not like some places where we’d practiced at home. You want to see what blisters are like, try digging a foxhole in the Georgia red clay when it’s dry.
I’d only been digging a minute or so, feeling odd doing so because I’d always dug with my partner before, when I felt a presence. I stopped and looked up. Snyder.
“You’re alone, right? Rogers?”
“Yeah.” No emotion in my voice. I hadn’t even thought about it yet. I would. If anything, I thought too much, though the army was doing a good job of curing me of that.
“Mind if I join you? Pulkowski bought it, too.” There was no emotion in his voice, either. This was the second time we’d both lost a partner. It wasn’t that we didn’t care, didn’t feel it. It’s that we weren’t letting ourselves do that.
“Help yourself,” I said.
He stepped beside me and started wielding his trenching tool.
I never was the most talkative guy and didn’t start up talking then, either. Neither did he; we dug in silence. It didn’t take long. When we thought it was big enough, both around and deep, we both hopped into the hole and sat down. It was good.
I jumped back out and grabbed both our packs and hauled them into the hole with us. Then I dug out one of my C-Ration cans and opened it. I’d discovered if you have time to eat, do it. There might not be time later on.
It was late afternoon. June wasn’t a hot month near the Normandy coast, or at least it wasn’t this year. Mid-60s, it seemed to me. The field jacket we had was just right.
Snyder was eating his meal just like I was. He kept looking up at me, then back at his food. I didn’t know him. Hell, the only one I’d known much of anything about was Rogers. After the mess of the landing and on the beaches, the Army formed new units from ones decimated during the invasion and I’d been thrown in with a bunch of guys I’d never met before. But that wasn’t the only reason I didn’t know anyone. I figured we’d all be dead within a month, and why try to get close to anyone who might be missing tomorrow? It would just make the hurt harder to take. Rogers was a good example.
The only things I knew about Snyder were that he was about my age—19 or maybe a year or two older; that he seemed to know more about everything than anyone else in the unit did, including the sergeant; and that a scornful and sarcastic Lowry was always on his ass about something, and that Snyder simply ignored him.
Actually, most of us seemed to ignore Lowry if we could. I’d seen this before in other times and places. Sometimes, if you heard remarks that were bad enough, you couldn’t ignore them. Sometimes, if you were being called out, you had to stand up. There was a gray area involved and it depended on what was said and your own attitude at the moment. Some of the things Lowry had said to and about Snyder were pretty close to being over the line. But when that had happened, Sarge had gotten in Lowry’s face, and he’d backed down. Snyder had just turned away.
I really didn’t have any feel for Snyder. But Lowry I didn’t like at all, and was glad Snyder was sitting in my foxhole with me rather than Lowry.
Snyder was looking at me again, and I couldn’t let it go this time. “What, I’ve got ketchup on my nose or something?”
He grinned. “I wish they’d give us ketchup with this crap! Might make it taste like something edible. You know, like food.”
I wasn’t going to let it drop, however. “Right. But why the looks?” I kept my voice friendly. The ground might be soft, but that didn’t mean I wanted to dig a second hole that day.
He grinned again. “I was just figuring you out, that’s all. You’re kind of quiet. I guess I should say thanks.”
“Yeah, for sharing your space with me.”
I wrinkled my brow. “Why wouldn’t I?”
He stared at me again for a moment without speaking, then said, “I guess Lowry hasn’t spoken to you.”
“No. Why should he? I leave him alone and avoid him as much as possible. He’s an asshole.”
“He is,” Snyder said without any coloration in his voice. “But he’s spoken to everyone else as far as I can determine.”
He stopped then, which I didn’t think was entirely fair. Evidently, Lowry was going around telling guys things about Snyder, things that made it necessary for Snyder to thank me for sharing a room with him for the night. Seemed to me, Snyder might want to be filling me in a little about that.
I waited, but he didn’t say anything more. I guessed it was up to me. “So, what’s he been saying?”
He brought his eyes back up to mine. “He’s been telling everyone I’m queer.”
Well. Now what? Snyder was watching me. Probably wanted to see how I’d react to that.
I’d lived a pretty comfortable life back in Vermont. Graduated from high school pretty close to the top of my class. Got admitted to Princeton. Probably could have gotten a scholarship but my old man was loaded and I didn’t see any reason to deprive some kid who needed a full ride from having it when I could go on my dad’s dollar and he’d never even feel it.
But that hadn’t worked out. All my friends enlisted, most guys my age seemed to be doing so, and so I did, too. Didn’t need to. Getting a student deferment was possible if your dad knew the right people and you agreed to take the right courses. We’d been hearing joining up was the patriotic thing to do, though. Most guys my age were pretty gung-ho. I’d bought into it, too. I’d learned really quickly, however, that soldiering and war wasn’t the glorious thing the recruiting teams told us they were. But it was too late by then. So I was doing my bit.
But when I was growing up, I never heard much about homosexuals. The Thirties and Forties were more about the depression and survival—and then the war in Europe and then Pearl Harbor. Before the war, social issues had been all about poverty and jobs and the depression. Not for my dad or our family, but the plight of the country was still what everyone talked about.
I’d been a normal kid and homosexuality had never even been mentioned in my family, or really in school, either. I’d had a girlfriend in high school, but I’d known I’d be off to college and hadn’t planned on anything serious with any of the girls at home, and because of that, never did much experimenting. I was still pretty innocent and naive, I guess. I didn’t know much of anything about sex and nothing about queers.
Whatever Snyder was looking for in my face, he either found or didn’t find, but after gazing awhile, he seemed OK with that. I saw his shoulders relax.
I nodded. I thought about asking him if what Lowry was telling people was true but then thought that wasn’t any of my business. So, instead, I asked, “Why would he believe something like that?”
Seemed a fair question. Snyder had been thrown in together with me and most of the guys in this unit. Spare parts being collected into a group. Since then, we’d been on the go constantly. There’d been no time at all for anything private. No reason for Lowry to know something about someone in the unit he didn’t spend any time with.
Snyder said, “He’s been telling guys that he heard from a buddy in the quartermasters corps that I got thrown out of OCS because they discovered I was queer. That they didn’t throw me out of the army, just kicked me out of the officer-candidate school program and into the ranks. That they even keep queers there if they can. They need the cannon fodder.”
Hmmm. I could intuit from that that perhaps he was queer, although he could also not be and just have been mistreated by rumors and the Army. I still couldn’t bring myself to ask him. Didn’t seem right to do so.
I did think of something I could ask, however. Something that maybe would explain Snyder a bit.
“And the part about you being in OCS. Was that true?”
He grinned at me. “Nicely asked,” he said. “Yeah, I was. About to finish, too. About to get my gold bars.”
I was going to ask why he didn’t, but then realized that might force him to affirm or deny Lowry’s accusation, and I didn’t want to do that. Seemed to me that was for him to do, not for me to ask about. So I let the discussion end. I had no problem sharing a foxhole with him. He seemed an OK guy to me. Even if he was queer. Certainly better than Lowry.
Sarge told us to get some shuteye, that we’d be pulling out during the night. I didn’t have any trouble at all falling asleep. I’d never have believed that a few months ago. Then, at home, I never fell asleep very fast. Too much was always spinning around in my head. Any noise at all would bother me. Any light would, too. Now, it was still daylight, I was in a hole in the ground, there were lots of sounds around me, and I was out for the count in minutes. Maybe living on the edge of your emotions for days at a time, experiencing terror and having no control at all over what you were facing, maybe that did that to you.
It was dark when Phillips came around waking us up. We all assembled up close to the bluff so whatever Sarge said wouldn’t carry. He even had Phillips call in the guys who were acting as lookouts on the German gun position.
“OK, we all go up top and spread out along the bluff. Get there and wait. I’ll be the first one out. The guys next to me will see me go, and they’ll go right with me, and everyone on down the line will go too when the guy next to them does. We stay spread out and go as quietly as possible. We should be almost on top of them before they realize we’re there. When they do and start shooting, don’t stop. We have to take this position, and to do so, we have to get our grenades over the top of the sandbags. So we have to get more than halfway to them. Don’t throw them early out of fear. I doubt any of you can throw a grenade more than forty yards. So get closer than that. And keep running forward no matter what. It’s them or us, fellas.”
They don’t tell you this in training, but at that point, knowing the likelihood of only living another few minutes and the effect that has on you, what I needed to do more than anything else was piss. Me and most everyone else, because that’s what we did before starting our climb upward.
Snyder was right next to me, doing as I was doing, kicking footholds in the side of the hill. As we were working, he sort of mused softly to me, “Wonder if Sarge has thought about them having a Leuchtpistol 42 or two?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. And I was busy kicking footholds, so I just kept at it.
We reached the top and sort of held there. Then, before I could really think about it all, the guy next to Snyder jumped up, Snyder followed him, and I was moving as well.
It was pretty dark. Partially overcast sky and the moon was in a waning phase and not very bright anyway. If we kept low, there was nothing bright behind us that would silhouette us. I couldn’t see the sand-bagged enclosure but knew where it was. The guys were moving, and so was I. We tried to stay apart as much as possible, all spread out across the pasture.
We weren’t moving very fast but we were staying silent. Everyone had secured anything that might rattle before we’d climbed to the top. Surprise was the only chance we had.
Slowly and silently we moved forward. Then, down the line, I heard a voice; Lowry. “Hey, move away from me! You’re too close.”
It wasn’t very loud, but when it’s still at night, sound carries. I stopped. We all stopped. And then the unexpected happened. Black became light, the pasture lit up, and there we were, all exposed.
The light only lasted a few seconds, and then it was black again. For maybe another two seconds, and then the sky brightened again.
What I did, what everyone instinctively did, was drop flat. Which was when the machine guns started.
We were probably 25, 30 yards into the pasture. I’d never been so confused, so scared, so disoriented, in my life. The darkness came again in a few seconds. When it did, I heard Sarge yell, “Fall back,” but I don’t even know if that made any difference, as instinct took over again. I jumped up and headed back for the bluff, staying low. All around me the other men were doing the same.
The light came back, and then some screams as the machine guns had a bead on us now. Then it was dark, but that didn’t mean the screams didn’t keep coming. The guys shooting those guns knew just where we were.
It didn’t make any sense to me to zigzag. If a bullet was going to hit me, it could do it just as well if I were running straight or crooked. The machine guns were sweeping the pasture, spraying bullets all around. Being fast to the top of the bluff was much safer than dodging.
I was almost there when I felt something against my trousers. A little tug. I expected pain to follow, but it didn’t. Then the top of the bluff was there, and I dived and slid over, tumbling down the steep slope, doing what I could to slow the descent, but not very effectively. I hit the bottom with an oof and then oofed again as someone rolled down on top of me. Snyder.
The light and dark periods continued. A few seconds of light, then more of dark, back and forth, with the timing varying. I saw Snyder sitting next to me now, watching the sky, and nodding.
“What’s going on?” I asked, still bewildered, still not understanding why I was alive.
“They’re shooting flares—27mm ones I’d guess. I wondered if maybe they had some. They’d be sitting ducks out there without something to light up the field. They have someone on watch, probably a couple of them, and if they hear anything at all, or see anything, they shoot a flare. Illuminate the entire field. What they do is move the guys with the flare guns off to the sides from where the mortar is so the flares being shot don’t pinpoint the nest in the dark. Usually two guys so they don’t pinpoint themselves, either. Shoot a flare, then move.”
“That’s why they aren’t continual?” I asked, then realized how strange this was, talking in an academic way about what was going on while around us soldiers were dying.
Snyder nodded. “They don’t want the guys shooting the flares to be targeted.”
“Why are they so bright?”
“Phosphorous flares I imagine. Brighter ’n shit.”
OK, I could understand now. Just talking had calmed me down a little, though my heart was still pounding like a racehorse’s. Talking to Snyder, someone who understood things, had that effect on me. He never seemed rattled. He simply explained things, and in doing so, I calmed down through listening and then comprehending. I stood up, then remembered the tug on my uniform and checked it out. There was a bullet hole in the inside leg of my trousers, through both sides, about two inches below the important stuff inside. I shuddered, then looked around and started moving. We were near one end of the line, and I walked to that end, then all the way down to the other, counting how many had made it back. We’d started with 15 guys going over the bluff, including the sergeant. I got to the last of the guys who’d made it back and had only counted 8. One of them was the sarge. He’d taken a round in his chest and Jeffords was patching him up the best he could. The sarge was conscious and I told him my count. He shook his head, then told me to have Phillips bring him the radio. I hadn’t counted Phillips. One of the missing.
I’d looked for Lowry, too, and hadn’t seen him. If I had, they might have tried me for murder after the war assuming anyone in the platoon would testify. As I didn’t expect to last through the war, a court-martial wouldn’t have worried me any. I felt bad about Phillips. Lowry could rot out in that pasture for all I cared. He’d killed a lot of us tonight.
I suddenly realized how quiet it was. The lights above the bluff had stopped going on and off, too. The night was black again. In what dim light there was, Sarge didn’t look good, but he was still the sarge. He had us gather up together around him, all except Grantham and Foley who he put at the top, watching for a counterattack.
Then he spoke to the rest of us. “You know,” he said, sounding very tired and with none of his usual bluster, sounding like one of us rather than the Man, “they may be in the same boat we are. Our units are advancing south all together to the east and west of us. The Krauts have to be busy all along the line. There probably aren’t that many Krauts in that emplacement here. This group has probably called for reinforcements and been told there aren’t any, that they have to hold on here on their own. That’s why they’re not attacking us. That’s why they’re not wasting mortar shells on us. Since we haven’t fired any mortar shells at them, they figure we don’t have any, and they think if we don’t, if all we can do is charge them, that they’re pretty much OK. So they’re just sitting there, waiting. Just like we are.”
He coughed and grimaced when he did. His voice sounded a little weaker when he went on. “So, it’s all on us. They’re perfectly happy with a stalemate. We’re not. We have to find a way to take them. The lieutenant is all over our ass. He wants the line all moving together without any gaps in it. I guess we’re going to have to try again and hope some asshole doesn’t decide to talk in the middle of the mission.”
He looked around then and saw Lowry was missing. He spat in the dirt, then asked, “Anyone have any better ideas? If not, we’re going to have to charge that position again, like it or not.”
Then he did something I didn’t expect. He struggled to his feet, reeled a bit till Jeffords caught him and held him steady, and then, looking very pale in the wan moonlight, suddenly sat back down again. He looked at all of us, then said, “I’m not feeling so hot. If I don’t make it, Snyder’s in charge. He’s a good man. Do what he says.” And then his eyes sort of rolled, and his face muscles sagged, he started to slump and I turned away.
Snyder stood up. He looked at the other six of us, then asked, “Anyone have any ideas? I’m not real keen on another charge across 100 yards of open pasture. Anyone?”
Johnson stood up, too. He’d been the only guy in the unit that seemed to like Lowry. The two had foxholed together, and had seemed close. I could imagine that if Lowry had something against Snyder because he thought he was queer, Johnson might feel the same.
Johnson was a big old country boy. Strong as an ox. He was about six-three and 220 pounds. He had a southwestern twang when he spoke, and I’d heard him bragging about growing up on a farm and being in better shape than us city boys.
But when he stood up and moved toward Snyder, I did, too.
Johnson looked at me and scoffed. I was about five-nine, 150 on a well-fed-and-rested day. And I hadn’t had any of those lately.
Johnson came close to Snyder, stopped and said, “I’m not crazy about running 100 yards into some machine guns firing at me. If you’ve got an idea, I’ll listen. I think we all will. And I’ll do anything you ask if it’ll help make it work.”
Snyder sort of grinned at him. I was becoming fascinated by that grin. “I have thought of something, actually,” he said. Then he started talking.
It was just turning gray in the east. Very early yet, but the blackness was fading. Not a sound from anywhere. And then there was. It was still hard to see, but there was movement on our left flank. We were spread out, and with so few of us now, there was a lot more distance between us. I could see the movement on the left, however, because I was closer to it than the others. It was the cows getting up. Time for them to line up and amble in for milking.
On the right, down near the hedgerows forming that edge of the pasture, Johnson had carved out a pretty substantial working ledge that allowed him to stand with just his head over the top edge. He had three packs with him, all filled with dirt. He’d tied a piece of rope to each one, ten, twenty and thirty yards of it, one length on each pack.
I could barely make him out, but knew what he was doing. At first grayness in the sky, he was going to throw the pack with the ten yards of rope on it out along the edge of the hedgerow, then duck before it hit the ground. Then, staying down, he’d drag it back to him. If necessary, he’d repeat this with the packs with the longer ropes. What he was looking for was to see if the info we had about mines was true. He wanted to explode one. An exploding mine would make all hell break loose.
While he was doing this, and getting no explosion from the ten yard toss, the sky was getting just a tad lighter in the east. That was when Johnson had said the cows would get up and return to the farmyard for milking. At least they did in Kansas, he’d said.
Snyder was lying beside the cow that had been closest to the bluff. He’d crawled there. The lights had come on twice while he was crawling, but to the Germans he’d simply been another body that had been machine-gunned. They only had a few seconds to look over the entire field before the light went out, and he hadn’t been spotted.
Johnson threw the 20 yard pack, ducked down, started pulling, and BAM! Dirt and rocks and part of the hedgerow were suddenly in the air, and Johnson was rolling down the bluff as fast as he could.
Flares lit the night and the pasture, the machine gun started up, concentrating on that hedgerow, but they didn’t fire for long. I had the feeling they were trying to preserve ammo.
The cows were startled by the explosion, but they seemed to be used to loud noises by now. They all were up, and they’d moved a little faster at first, right after the explosion and machine-gun blasts, but then slowed to their normal amble.
Snyder was tucked into the side of one, his legs moving with the cow’s, probably barely showing at all to the Germans. It was still mostly dark without the flares, and the cows were still some distance away from the sandbagged nest.
Snyder had collected extra grenades from several of us. We’d thought the plan crazy, but the guys had been more encouraging when they’d heard that Snyder was going to be the one walking with the cow. He said he’d watched the cows go in for their second milking last evening at twilight, and they’d walked within twenty yards of the sandbags. He said he thought he’d have a good chance.
The rest of the unit, other than me, was to charge the guns after he’d tossed the grenades at them. That was the plan. Diversion on the right, walk with the cows on the left, charge the guns coming up the middle after Snyder’d tossed the grenades.
As a plan, it left a lot to be desired. But we all agreed it was better than all of us just charging the guns in a suicidal rush. Snyder said he never had been impressed with Civil War tactics, and most anything was better than that. He also said what would have been better than his plan would be to recover the radio, call in and get support. But Sarge had already tried that, had been rebuffed, and now he was dead.
And where was I, now that Snyder was out walking with a cow? Snyder had recruited me. He’d asked if I was a good shot, and how my eyesight was. He didn’t ask how brave I was. To me, that was the most important thing, but because he didn’t ask, I guessed he had faith in me, and I wasn’t about to let him down. Even though I thought he was crazy, putting his life in my hands.
Snyder was about in the middle of the small herd; there were six cows ahead of his, and three behind. I was on the ground, crawling on elbows and knees as we’d been trained to do in basic, trying my best to keep the same pace as the cows, but at fifteen to twenty feet behind them, hopefully where no one would be looking. I felt safe as long as the flares weren’t continual and the brightness didn’t last long. Well, as safe as I’d ever felt since we got off our craft just off Omaha beach.
Crawling was a pain in the ass, but I didn’t seem nearly as exposed as Snyder was. I kept glancing up at him. He was striding along with his cow, keeping his legs moving in unison with the cow’s. Nothing about his posture looked worried at all. I wondered if he had his enigmatic smile.
There were one or two flares a minute now, randomly shot and from different locations. Even though I was closer now, I couldn’t see the men shooting them off. Only that there were indeed two of them.
BAM! Another mine detonated. The thirty-yard rope, I assumed. More flares, more machine-gun fire. Then a mortar, aimed close to the hedgerow.
The cows ignored it. They were moving steadily along. Snyder had passed what I assumed was the fifty-yard mark. Now he was at a forty-yard distance, it appeared to me. He kept going. He’d told me he was going to wait till he was twenty yards away so he’d be sure to get the grenades where he wanted them. Of course, every yard closer he was, the more likely he was to be spotted.
Thirty yards. I saw him reach into the sack he was wearing around his waist and take out two grenades, one in each hand. He pulled the pins but kept the handles compressed.
Twenty-five yards. I moved faster, making it more likely to be seen, but screw it, I needed to be closer!
Then Snyder was there. Just past the front of the sandbags, as close as he’d get to them. We didn’t know if the bags were in a complete circle or if it would be open behind. I still didn’t know, but he did. I saw him stop, release the grenade handles, wait a second and toss both of them. It looked to me like they sailed high enough so if there were sandbags encircling the guns and troops, the grenades would clear the bags and drop behind them.
I kept my head down, and then the grenades went off in a terrific explosion. I looked up and saw Snyder with two others in his hands, preparing to throw them.
But by then I was on my feet. My rifle was up. I was ready.
I don’t know how Snyder had thought of it, but he had. He’d told me that when the grenades went off, the guys with the flare guns were the guys we needed to worry about, that he’d be entirely exposed to them once the cows were past, which they now were. I was supposed to neutralize those guys before they could shoot him. This was the worst part of the entire plan.
I was fortunate that they’d been shooting so many flares in the past minutes. When the last mine had been exploded, the flare men stopped moving to concentrate on keeping the sky lit, and so I had a fix on where I thought they’d be. I pointed my rifle in one of those directions, and there was a soldier. He had dropped his flare gun and had picked up his rifle. He was raising it when I fired, and he went down. I quickly scanned to the place I thought the second man would be and in the dying light of the last flare, I saw him. He wasn’t worrying about his rifle; he simply pointed his flare gun at Snyder.
“Get down!” I screamed to Snyder. He didn’t even glance my way. Instead he tossed four more grenades, then dived to the side just as I heard a soft explosion from the second man and saw a gleam of light as the flare streaked toward Snyder.
I quickly emptied my clip. The soldier had no protection, and I saw him fall.
Then, hearing my team charging across the pasture behind me, I turned and headed for where Snyder lay.
We all know how these stories turn out, don’t we? We’ve all seen Saving Private Ryan. It was preceded by many, many war films where the hero dies. John Wayne didn’t always survive, and Tom Hanks didn’t, either. That’s the way to create a great story with great valor, great pathos. Kill off the hero while he’s being heroic. Very easy to remember those deaths, those stories.
It was much different when it was the real thing. You like those bigger-than-life figures on the screen, but in the end, when they die, you remember they’re fictional characters. Snyder wasn’t fictional. He may have been bigger than life, at least to me, but he was flesh and blood, and as much as I could put Rogers and the others behind me, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that with Snyder. He’d touched me somehow.
I ran to him, then slumped to my knees next to him. He was on his stomach, and I gently rolled him over.
He opened his eyes and looked at me and said, “Nice shooting.”
My face must have showed my relief—or something at least—because he got that enigmatic grin of his, the one I’d first seen in the foxhole, and then got up. He hadn’t been hit at all. The man with the flare gun only had time for one shot before I’d opened up on him. I could imagine that making an accurate shot with a flare gun was problematic. In any case, he’d missed; I hadn’t.
Together, we walked over to where the rest of the unit was standing, using flashlights to look down into the gun emplacement. There were four Germans there, four dead Germans. From what wasn’t mangled, they looked to me like kids, kids my age. The grenades had done a job on them. I turned away.
This story could go on and on. But it was a story about Snyder and the cow, not about everything else we went through in the war.
As just an overview of that, we made our way across France, then into Germany, and in the process, Snyder’s intelligence and leadership became recognized. He was promoted a couple of times. He finished the war as a captain. When he could, when it was over, he got out. I did, too. After that, we both had lives to lead. I married a girl I met in college. Started a family.
We did stay in touch, at first, the way men often do, writing occasionally. But we drifted apart without the immediacy and shared trials of the war to keep us together. I was leading my life; he was leading his, and while we met at the reunions our company held every five years, that now seemed enough for both of us.
He never married. He too went to college and became a professor after getting a Ph.D. He told me he was happy.
I’d have given my life for him when we were together in Europe. I had no doubt he’d have done that for me, too.
I never did ask him if he was gay, even though we were together the whole way through the
war. He’d become my best friend in Europe, and he’d told me I was his, too, way
back then. But I never asked him that question. There never had been a reason to do so, nor was
there ever a time it wouldn’t have seemed rude.
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-- Cole Parker, 2014