Benjamin Carter was awake before the first notes of reveille. Only once, on the second day of basic training had the bugle call jarred him from sleep. The frightful sound of the bugle, and the confusion as he tried to remember where he was made a permanent scar on his mind. He figured if he lived to be a hundred he’d still wake up five minutes early every day. In the minutes between asleep and awake, his mind jumped around unfettered by any need to present thoughts in an orderly fashion.
Basic had been an odd mix of emotions. Because Carter could read and write, he was singled out by the white officers and non-coms to lead the other Negro enlisted men. Some of the men respected him. Some thought he believed he was better than them. And some thought he made his Negro nose darker by kissing white asses.
Carter’s DI during basic was a sergeant named LaRocue. Behind his back, everyone called him “da rock”, and most of the men in Carter’s platoon wanted to kill him. He drove them hard. Inspections were thorough and harsh. Men were punished for poorly shined boots, poorly maintained rifles, or poor performance in bayonet drills. Punishment was public. Every man in the platoon knew everything that happened to every other man. There were no secrets. Showers and toilets were communal. If one man was punished, the entire platoon felt it.
At the end of the first week of basic, LaRocue barked at Carter: “Carter, front and center, NOW!”
When Carter stepped forward, LaRocue lit into him. “You’re pretty smart, aren’t you Carter? Smarter than all the rest of these maggots combined, I reckon. Why, your file says you speak French and German, and Rooshan. You must be a goddam genius.”
“Shut your pie hole Carter! I’m not asking you questions. You see Wilson over there? He’s the sorriest excuse for a human being I’ve ever seen in this barracks. And YOU are going to turn him into a soldier! And you better do a damn good job of it, because when you leave here, I’m going to see to it that he’s sent to the same outfit as you. He can shoot ten times better than you, and you are a goddam genius, so you should be able to think a little better than him. Between the two of you, you should be able to whip Hitler’s ass. Carter, you stay with Wilson every moment of every day, and you teach him what he needs to know to stay alive. You understand?”
“Alright. Get cleaned up, and get your sorry asses to the mess hall. Carter, half these men eat like animals. Show them how to use a fork and spoon.”
And so began Carter’s friendship with Woodrow Wilson – a friendship that would last from Texas to Louisiana, to England, France, Belgium, and Germany, and finally to Wyoming.
Wilson was barely five foot four during basic training. If the army had been integrated, he’d have been sent straight to the air corps, to become a ball turret gunner. Wilson looked like he was twelve, and Carter was sure he was no more than fourteen years old. He couldn’t read, write or count. He had no idea where he was from. It took a couple of days before he learned to tie his boots. He didn’t know his name, but it wasn’t Woodrow Wilson. His mama had just called him “boy”. For whatever reason, two white men decided on the name Woodrow Wilson.
Carter learned Woodrow Wilson’s story over the course of the next few years. Those two white men had driven up to his home. They were looking to fill their quota for draftees, and they figured to do it with Negroes first. Wilson’s older brother was out hunting, and Wilson knew they would snatch him too if they got the chance. So when they asked him if he wanted to be a soldier, he just shrugged. Wilson’s mama asked if they were going to feed him, and the men said yes, that he’d get food, clothes, shoes, and a dry place to sleep. They didn’t mention that he’d be asked to kill or be killed. The white men took Wilson to a car, and drove to a town he’d never seen. For the first time in his life he saw more than a dozen people in one place at one time. A doctor looked at him, signed some forms, and went back to his cigarette and newspaper. The men took him to another place, where they met more Negroes. The whole bunch of them were put on a bus. They rode almost non-stop to Ft. Dix. There Wilson got the first pair of shoes he’d ever worn. Socks, underwear, showers and toilet paper were all new to him. At night he’d sneak out of the barracks to sleep outside. The sound of so many men snoring and breathing kept him awake. Sgt. LaRocue tried to keep Wilson inside, but Wilson quickly learned how to sneak in and out.
There are always a few bullies and mean people among groups of recruits. At first they picked on Wilson, and he ignored them. They called him Mr. President, and ruffled his head. And still he ignored the unwanted attention. It went on that way until the first bayonet drills. Wilson stuck his bayonet through the target dummy, pulled it back with a sidewise motion, and cut the dummy in two. Then he turned and looked through narrowed eyes at the worst of his tormentors. From that day on, the teasing was different. By the end of basic Wilson was “Prez”, and every man in the company was willing to fight beside him.
Wilson may have been uneducated, but he wasn’t stupid. He learned fast, adapted faster, and did well at every part of soldiering that didn’t require brute strength. It took Carter a few days to get Wilson to say more than “yuh” or “no”, but once he opened up a little, it was clear Wilson was bright. Learning to read was no problem. Simple numbers were no problem. Carter was even able to teach him a little French
On the next to last day of basic, LaRocue told them they were being sent to armor training. They were to be tankers, and he expected them to do well. After the group photo was taken, LaRocue pulled Carter aside.
“Carter, you did a fine job with Wilson. Don’t stop. We all know he doesn’t belong here, but that’s not gonna change. He can shoot better than any man I’ve ever known. His eyes and ears belong in infantry. You keep him out of tanks! He sits in one of them when the guns fire, and he’ll be deaf before the echoes die. Tell the NCO Wilson’s too dumb to sit in a tank. Get him placed with a support group. And for God’s sake, don’t let him get killed!”
Out of force of habit, Carter said “yes, Sergeant.” But then he realized LaRocue was setting aside rank. So he told the sergeant he knew Wilson would survive the war, and that he was destined to ride horses somewhere out west, maybe in Wyoming. Carter told LaRocue about seeing things yet to come, and that he had seen Wilson riding free and easy on a red horse. “I don’t understand the part about him and the hole, though.”
LaRocue’s eyes went wide, then narrowed. “What are you saying, Carter?”
“Well sergeant, I’ve seen Wilson riding a red horse with a white face. Wilson’s smile was as wide as the space between the horse’s eyes, and just as white. I saw mountains, the Rockies, I guess. Wilson looked like he lived on that horse. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out what it means when he looks in the hole in the ground.”
LaRocue saw Wilson standing about fifty feet away, and called him.
“Wilson, you ever ride a horse?”
Wilson replied that he had seen a few horses, but never ridden one.
“Wilson, when this war is over, and the army tells you to go home, you go to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and find the LaRocue ranch. My Ma and Pa will be expecting you, and they’ll have a job for you. You understand me? Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Carter’ll show you where it is.
And both of you, keep your mouths shut about this, you hear? I don’t want the whole goddam company showing up looking for a handout.”
Carter couldn’t think of anything to say, but Wilson asked, “You gonna be there, Sergeant?”
“I hope so – if I survive the war.”
As they walked to the barracks, Wilson asked Carter if the sergeant was going to make it through the war. Carter said he didn’t know, but he sure hoped so because “da Rock” was training more, and better soldiers than anyone else.
That evening, Carter was absent from third mess. The absence was noted by his usual tablemates, and one of the men at another table said he guessed Carter was kissing da Rock’s ass one last time. Harsh words were exchanged, but eating always took precedence over fighting, so the situation died down in a few moments. In truth, Carter was at his bunk, writing a letter to his parents in Chicago. The letter was pretty much a “Hi Mom and Dad. I’m fine. Your loving son . . .” note. Breakfast tomorrow would be his last meal at Ft. Dix.
LaRocue found Carter, and called him to his desk. “Carter, there are some fine soldiers in this outfit. You’re not one of ‘em. But that’s okay because you’re going to be an officer, and your job will be to outthink the Germans, not outshoot them. There are also a few men here who just want to kill people. You want to avoid them. Don’t go on missions with them if you have a choice. They’re going to get themselves killed, which is bad enough, but they’ll probably get some of their buddies killed too. You know who I mean?”
“Deeds, Purl, maybe Stubbs?”
“Yeah. Them. A soldier’s job isn’t killing the enemy – it’s winning the war. If that can be done without getting your buddies killed, that’s a plus. Hell, if you can win the war without killing Germans or Japs, that’s good too. Of course such talk don’t sit well with the Pattons of this world, but it ain’t their blood and guts left on the battlefield.”
Carter wondered aloud why LaRocue was training Negroes. Had the sergeant done something wrong that landed him with the coloreds? LaRocue said he’d chosen the assignment because his Grandpa had fought with the Buffalo Soldiers in the west and in Cuba. Grandpa LaRocue said the Buffalo Soldiers were the best men he ever fought with – they didn’t miss, and they didn’t run. He said the Indians feared the Buffalo Soldiers more than they feared the white soldiers. The whites thought they were superior, but the Buffalo Soldiers knew everybody died the same. There were a couple of Buffalo Soldiers working the ranch with Grandpa when LaRocue was a boy. They were good hands, who didn’t abuse their horses.
Army trucks transported Carter and the rest of the outfit to Louisiana. It was the most uncomfortable ride any of them had ever taken. They arrived at Camp Claiborne in the dead of night, having been delayed several times along the way to change flat tires.
The next day they were introduced to Stuart light tanks.
By the time tanker training was over, Carter was the senior sergeant in his squad of five tanks. The Stuart tank he commanded was quick and agile, but Carter reckoned one square hit from anything bigger than a 20mm cannon would be the end of the tank, and the crew. Only speed and superior tactics would keep him alive.
Three months into tanker training about half of the white officers and non-coms transferred out. They were being sent to Africa. The Negro tankers stayed behind for more training. Within weeks they were back in the trucks, headed to Fort Hood, and mere days after their arrival at Hood, the rest of the white officers and non-coms were gone – shipped to Africa according to rumor.
Roughly four out of five Stuarts were replaced with Shermans. The Shermans were supposed to be fast and well armored. In truth they were heavy, clumsy and incendiary. More than one went up in flames during training, and the men took to calling them Ronsons because they always lit on the first try. The support group learned to be very, very careful about fuel leaks. Hood was easy terrain compared to Claiborne. There was much less mud, for one thing. Dust was a bigger issue though. Carter figured they were being groomed for service in North Africa.
Race issues were just about the same in Texas as in Louisiana. Which is to say, bad. Carter, growing up in Chicago among teachers and students, had been shielded from issues of race for the most part. He dealt with the long periods of confinement to base by reading. Other men got cookies or sausage or fruit from their mothers. Carter got books. For the other GIs, the newspapers from home that were used to protect the food were generally more valued than the food itself, which often arrived smashed, moldy or rotten.
Carter shared his books with anyone who wanted them. Wilson read many, often asking for clarification about things. Prez devoured books about new world history and animals. He could field-strip a machine gun, and his small size made him really handy for some of the tighter jobs on tanks. His most useful attribute though, was his ability to sneak into the QuarterMaster’s compound, and commandeer wanted or needed equipment. One at a time, every man in Carter’s squad got a shoulder holster for his .45. The standard issue holsters that clipped to web belts were useless and annoying in tanks. Gloves, socks, goggles, and spark plugs were among the treasure Prez could extract after repeated requests to the white officers had failed.
They were part of the 761st Tank Battalion. Colonel Bates trained them well, and even managed to promote a few men to officer rank. Most of those promoted were in support rather than combat positions. Carter knew their jobs were important, but he felt like he’d rather be a non-com in combat than a general in support.
They trained, and trained, and trained some more. The support group could take down a tank, and put it back together again. They learned how to do everything they needed to stay alive in combat. And after three months, another batch of officers and non-coms transferred out. Headed for Italy, according to rumors. Carter could see that other battalions were shipping out in about three months, but the 761st just kept on training.
Some of the men complained, but other, more pragmatic men asked them why they were in such a rush to get shot at. Most of the men would happily have spent the war in Texas, eating three meals a day, and driving around in tanks. Carter felt the same to a certain extent, but he knew that if these men were asked to fight, they’d do it, and do it well. The ones who seemed likeliest to choke, or were too big for the tanks were put in support roles.
D-Day came and went, and still they trained.
And then one day they were told to pack up their gear. Personal belongings were to be stowed in foot lockers, and secured on base. They were going to combat, and were to take only essentials and weapons. There would be no leaves, and no one was permitted to write letters until they reached their assigned zone. Even then, no one was permitted to say anything in a letter that would reveal where they were.
To everyone’s surprise, the tanks were being left behind. Personal weapons were oiled, wrapped and placed in carrying sleeves. Clothes were to be replaced where necessary. There was a mass for those who wished to attend. Any man who tried to leave the base would be deemed a deserter, and court-martialed. The penalty for desertion could be as severe as death by firing squad.
Only Prez slept that night.
They went by train to Houston, and by bus to Galveston. They boarded a liberty ship, and were packed in like some of their ancestors had been. The route was east, instead of west, but much else was the same. They didn’t know where they were going, and they had no choice in any case. They met other liberty ships, and convoyed up for the voyage from someplace off the East Coast to wherever they were going. Two weeks into the trip, and on the fourth day of the eastbound leg, one of the ships in the convoy was torpedoed by a u-boat. Carter had no idea how near or far away the sinking boat was. Navy ships, some of them seeming impossibly small to be out at mid-ocean, escorted the convoy. From time to time they dropped explosives, but no one could tell if that had any effect.
En route they were told the battalion company structure was being modified for a while. One Stuart from Company D would be attached to each of the other three companies, and one Sherman each from Companies A, B, and C would be attached to Company D.
The sight of land was welcome, the sight of planes overhead even more so. Carter knew the Luftwaffe was stuck trying to keep bombers from hitting the fatherland. Catalinas and Liberators were out here, keeping u-boats at bay. They debarked at Liverpool, and shipped immediately to some unidentified spot in the east of England. There they lived in tents, and endured seemingly daily rains along with the virtually non-stop coming and going of planes. It seemed likely to Carter that there was an RAF base nearby in one direction, with planes taking off at dusk every evening. And there likely was another airfield nearby on the other side. American Thunderbolts and Mustangs flew over regularly. They spent two miserable weeks in this place, and then went to a nearby town to pick up their new tanks and equipment. Tanks were fueled and driven back to camp, where they set to working the kinks out of the reorganized companies. The order of the day was to get everything combat ready. Cosmoline was removed, actions were cocked and de-cocked. Engines were started, and tanks were run. Ammunition was stowed.
And still they waited. Carter feared the men’s fighting efficiency would fall off because of all the mindless repetition.
Summer, someplace in England, was pleasant. The only problem was that the Negro soldiers were seldom allowed off base.
On October 6th Carter and his comrades were told to mount up and follow a lead truck. They still didn’t know where they were, or where they were going. But they knew shooting would be involved. The lead truck led them to Lepe, where they loaded their tanks and equipment onto LSTs. They were told they would sail at first light. Officers were assembled below for final instructions. Their target would not be revealed until the ship was in the Channel.
Now, as he lay on the deck of the LST, he knew that he’d soon find out if he was fast enough, and smart enough to keep his men alive. Carter worried about Captain Brad and Lieutenant Hess, their newest replacement officers. Brad was out to make a name for himself, and he didn’t seem to care how many men he got killed in the process. Hess was just too green to know better, so he followed Brad’s lead like a puppy. Sergeant LaRocue had warned Carter about men who were hell-bent on killing, and the ones who fancied themselves to be legends. Carter figured the ones who were bent on killing were less dangerous than the ones who wanted to be dashing and daring leaders in war. The killers, for the most part, would only get themselves killed. The egomaniacs would get a lot of other men killed – often for little or no reason.
Everyone was briefed en route across the Channel. Their task was to move in from the Normandy beachhead, and push north as far and as fast as they could. Brad had asked how far they were supposed to push. Some stupid major said “It’s a fucking war. Go to Berlin”, which got a laugh. But Carter feared Brad would take it seriously.
They went ashore on the south end of Omaha Beach. Equipment was everywhere, and there was still blood in the sand in places. Engineers were using explosives to clear obstacles. Vehicles and equipment were growling. And men were shouting and cursing. A lieutenant in a jeep led them to a spot off the beach. A hand painted sign said that nothing beyond this point was secure. Carter thought they’d wait a bit for some kind of infantry support to join them, but Brad signaled to advance, and set off inland behind a lead truck. Brad told Five, a Stuart, to take the point. He wanted a scout out front. The commander, Corporal Deeds said nothing, but Five accelerated to the lead. Captain Brad pushed the company at three-quarters speed. They passed through the wreckage of war all day, into early evening darkness.
Carter became more uneasy with each yard they advanced. He had no idea if the rest of the battalion was advancing with them. There were no road signs or signs identifying the places they’d passed through. Brad had the only map. They were beyond the range of the naval guns, so they couldn’t expect them to provide supporting fire. And to the best of Carter’s knowledge, nobody had informed Brad about how to summon air support. They moved in a generally northeast direction, never stopping in any towns.
After about four hours on the road, Carter bent down and hollered, “Driver, fuel?”
The driver, Private Wells hollered back, “Half!”
Their pace was burning a lot of fuel. Someone was spoiling for a fight. Twice over the next couple of weeks, the convoy outran its supply line. The need for fuel forced them to wait ten days for a convoy to arrive. On one such occasion, the support group from C Company found a couple of damaged German trucks, which they promptly cannibalized into one working truck. They even painted it in Olive Drab. During an overnight stop, they finished the paint job with full U.S. Army livery, right down to fake serial numbers. While he was inspecting the liberated truck, Carter noticed it was towing a trailer of GI tents. When he asked Wilson about the trailer, The Prez said he found it abandoned on the beach.
Carter didn’t ask any more questions of Wilson.
Patton’s Pep Talk
On 1 November, they circled up near Saint-Nicolas, France. They were near the fighting. Destroyed and abandoned equipment hadn’t started to rust yet.
The next day General Patton blew in to give a pep talk. He told the men they were the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army. He told them he’d asked for them, and that he had nothing but the best in his Army. He talked about the great expectations everyone, especially the Negro race had for them. Then he said “Don’t let them down, and damn you, don’t let me down!”
Two things stood out about that speech, to Carter’s way of thinking. First, it conveniently ignored the fact that Negroes fought and died in just about every war the Army ever had. And second, Carter got the distinct feeling that Patton was willing to sacrifice Negro tankers for his own aggressive goals. He would use the Negro tankers’ desire to prove their worth, as a means to achieve his own grand desire for conquest.
Carter called all his men together, and told them things were different now. They would have to take turns on watch, and they couldn’t afford to be slack. He reminded them to always have their personal weapons in reach, and to never let themselves be silhouetted against the sky.
“Remember your training. There’s no guarantee you won’t get hit, but your chances of surviving the war are a lot better if you do things as you were taught to do them.”
Then he turned to the senior sergeant from the support group.
“Sergeant Coffy, what’s your take on the German tanks?”
“Honest? You’re screwed.
A Panzer’ll outreach a Sherman by three or four hundred yards. The reason it’s so heavy is that thick armor. We passed one back there showed signs of being hit on the bow seven or eight times. Inside, the paint was discolored in a few places. The sides are thinner, as you know. And the rear is vulnerable. A round up the six will stop the Panzer, but the crew will be okay. If you meet Panzers in the open, you boys best keep moving. They can’t pan fast, but they can start puttin’ rounds on you three hundred yards before you can reach them, and five or six hundred yards before you can think about hurting them. I heard they hit everything inside a thousand yards on the first shot.
The panzerjacks we seen here are pieces of shit. They can’t traverse at all – just a little windage is all they got. Gotta move the whole tank to pan the gun. The only thing they got going for ‘em is that gun. You boys are gonna get beat up bad if you go head-on at the panzers.
Y’all keep movin’, and don’t go getting my tanks all shot up.”
The Shooting War
An infantry company arrived with Patton’s retinue. The company was led by a white lieutenant named Springer. He introduced himself to Bates, Carter and Brad. He said he was going to send out a patrol to see if they could find out what was happening in the area. Carter immediately said he wanted to accompany the patrol with one of his men. Springer was reluctant to impose tankers on his men – especially Negro tankers. It took a lot of talking, but Springer finally agreed to let Carter and one other man join the patrol. The deal almost fell apart when at midnight Carter showed up with Wilson.
“Are you shitting me Carter? You expect me to send this little bugger out on a patrol?”
“Wilson, show the lieutenant your bayonet. Lieutenant, I dare you to find a man in your command who has a bayonet that sharp. Wilson has the best eyes and ears in the battalion. He can hit a rabbit at two hundred yards with that rifle.”
“Look, you two niggers want to go out and get yourselves killed, that’s fine with me, but if you put my men in danger, I’ll shoot you myself.”
Springer looked at Wilson, who was rubbing the shine off his boots.
“Well I’ll be. It’s a good thing at least one of you two knows how to get ready for a patrol.”
They moved out at 0120. Wilson and Carter followed three infantrymen. A sergeant led the patrol. They walked for about an hour, covering perhaps a mile and a half in that time. Then Wilson froze.
“Ssst! Truck. Kraut.”
No one else heard anything, but they all heeded the warning and moved off the road.
“Just one truck. Coming slow.”
It took a couple of minutes for the truck to pull into earshot of the others. Prez asked Carter if he should shoot the driver. Carter looked at the infantry sergeant, whose name he didn’t know. The sergeant nodded, and Carter told Wilson to shoot when he wanted. The truck was barely visible to the others when Wilson took his first shot. The second shot came almost as quickly as the Garand could cycle another round. Carter was disappointed because the truck kept coming. Then, ever-so-gently it went sideways off the road and into a ditch.
“Full of something heavy, probably ammunition, heavy boxes. Driver’s dead, passenger’s still breathing, but not for long.” The infantrymen looked at Prez, but said nothing. Everyone approached the truck carefully. When they were within a couple of steps of the cab they heard a ragged gasp, then only the sound of the truck engine. When they looked in the back they saw a couple of broken crates with rounds of various sizes spilling out.
Wilson liberated a German machine gun, and the others grabbed ammo belts.
The infantry sergeant told everyone to get good and far away. Fuel was spilling. He lit it, and came running to where the others were crouched.
“Let’s get outta here. Might be more krauts around. You’re a damn fine shot for a jigaboo.”
Wilson told the sergeant folks called him Prez, and the only thing around here was a herd of cows in a pasture off the road a bit. The fire grew for a few minutes, and then rounds started cooking off. The patrol was half way back to their own lines when the grenades and bazooka rounds went off. The main explosion probably rattled windows for twenty miles around, but after events of the last few days, it was unremarkable.
There was a tense moment when the patrol approached their perimeter. The explosion and the sound of ammunition cooking off were about the same as the sounds of intense combat. Everyone inside the perimeter was awake. Three tanks were running, and Carter could hear hatches banging shut. When they were challenged, the sergeant yelled “Patrol’s back! Tell the louie!”
Springer told the men on the perimeter to let the patrol pass. Then he took the sergeant aside. Carter and Wilson walked back to the tanks, where Carter told the tankers to stand down. Tank engines were cut, and hatches opened. Only the duty tank continued to idle. Carter passed the word that they’d met an ammo truck, and taken it out. Some of the tankers wanted to know more, but Carter said he was too tired to talk. Then he sat down beside Wilson. Prez’s eyes were closed, but he wasn’t asleep. His head was cocked, and Carter knew this spot had been chosen as a listening post.
“Sergeant’s name is Barry. Some of his men call him “Razz”, but not to his face. He’s reporting to the Lieutenant. He just called me a jigaboo again.”
“Is he embellishing?”
“Haven’t heard that word before. Is embellishing like lying, or like exaggerating? I guess it doesn’t matter. His report was pretty accurate. He even mentioned that I was the only one who fired shots, and that I fired only two. Told the lou I fired only after you and he gave the okay. I’d like that Razz pretty good if he didn’t call me a jigaboo.
They’re done. Lieutenant’s coming this way.”
“Carter, my sergeant told me what happened. Now you tell me your version.”
“Lieutenant, I suggest you sit down. That bar on the back of your helmet makes a good target, and that carbine you’re carrying tells any German who can see you that you’re an officer. When we get off the front line, we can go back to standing on formality, but for now, let’s not be targets.”
The lieutenant dropped, leaned back against a tank, and admitted to Carter that it felt nice to have a big piece of steel protecting his back.
“Prez here heard everything your sergeant said, and we don’t dispute any of it – except maybe the jigaboo part. I think there must be an ammunition dump near us. The truck we stopped had enough ammo to last a company through three days of heavy fighting. If I were you, I’d get on the horn and ask for aerial search and destroy. I’d do it now, because that dust-up we just had is going to scare the Germans into hiding deeper.
They’re probably working all night, and sleeping during the day. Maybe send another night patrol to find the ammo dump, then send a daylight raid to hit it?”
“Yeah, that’s about what I figure too. Sparks is already on the radio, asking for a flyover. You think I should pick up a Garand?”
Prez spoke up: “Lieutenant, have you had any luck with that carbine? If you intend to shoot anybody who’s more than fifty yards away, you need a Garand. You might want to swap out that helmet too. You’d be easy pickings for a good shooter.”
“Three . . . no four . . . or was it five months ago I was on a Higgins Boat, puking my guts out. Only two of the men with me now were with me then. I don’t know most of the men around me, and they don’t know me. I’ll find a Garand, but I’m keeping the helmet. Wouldn’t be good to have some nervous GI from Hoboken put a bullet in my back.”
Prez spoke up again: “Lieutenant, I got a Garand for you. Picked up a whole bunch of ‘em on the beach. Cleaned ‘em up, and they’re good as new. Picked up a lot of ammo too. Wasn’t much else to do while we waited. We got a couple of fifty cals too, if you want ‘em. Your boys brought home a kraut MG tonight.”
“Carter, if that little ji . . . shit of yours was white, I’d steal him. I might anyway if I can figure out a way to keep the brass from taking him back. Wilson, spread some of that ammo around my boys, will you? And set me up with a Garand and a hundred rounds.
If you’ve got any spare food, my boys could use that too. We’re down to about our last meals.
Do you mind if I sleep here for a bit?”
“Do you mind if we join you?”
The night passed uneventfully in Carter’s zone. But everyone could hear gunfire and artillery rounds in the distance. Everyone wondered how long the lull in their zone would last.
The next night, they patrolled again, to find the ammo dump. It was almost dawn when Wilson stopped and held up a hand. Everyone dropped to the side of the cow trail they were on. Wilson signaled hold, then crept off by himself. He was back in five minutes, and motioned to pull back.
They crept back perhaps a hundred yards, and Wilson signaled halt.
“There’s something up there. I saw one guard, and heard a bunch of others loading trucks. There’s barbwire, and a lot of trees were cleared around the perimeter. Discipline’s bad. The guard was smoking. It all looks too easy. Let’s bug out before the sun comes up. Wait! Shhh.” Wilson said he heard a truck leaving, headed away from them.
“Truck’s headed west. Now it’s turning. South. Lost it. Let’s go.”
When they got back to their own perimeter the patrol discussed what they’d learned. Everyone agreed with The Prez – it looked too easy. There must be some kind of a protective force somewhere near that ammo dump, but where? Wilson said he hadn’t sensed any krauts anywhere except in the ammo dump. In fact, he hadn’t sensed anyone, German or otherwise. Just cows and pigs. But that truck going south was bound for somewhere.
They also agreed that if the Germans were in fact working at night, at least some of them must be sleeping during the day. An attack timed for 0800 sounded about right. As they were about to break up, Wilson commented that since the target was an ammo dump, maybe they could liberate some things.
“Sarge, don’t go in there and shoot everything up. They should have some of those fancy machine guns and ammo. It’d be nice to turn them around. Might be some other things we can use too.”
“Wilson, get a deuce-and-a-half and a couple of men ready. You follow, and get what you can, but you won’t have much time. Don’t go in unless the Lieutenant tells you to. You got that?”
“Yessir. Gonna round up some guys now.”
Carter woke all the tankers. Two Shermans and a Stuart would lead the raid. The Stuart would take the cow trail. The Shermans would take the road. Two more Shermans would bring up the rear to cover a retreat. Main guns would not be used unless the whole thing went bad. Springer was sending half his men on the raid.
They rolled at 0630. About ten minutes into the advance they came to the cow trail, and Seven, the Stuart split off with five infantrymen aboard. Forty-five minutes into the advance, Seven was in position. The Shermans had been waiting a ways back. Their cue would be when Seven started shooting. When it happened they hit their throttles and made for the main entrance. Carter used the fifty to shoot it up, but the two men posted there fled before he opened fire. Seven breached the barbwire on one side, and the Shermans pushed through the gate. The Germans didn’t seem to know what to do. Only a few put up any resistance. One of them took a wild bazooka shot at a tank. He missed everything, and died for his effort. In six minutes time, the ammo dump fell quiet. Infantrymen roamed in pairs, and Springer waved the deuce in.
Carter and Springer went straight to the command building. There they found maps and a radio. One look at a map, and Carter ran back to his tank. There was a German concentration not much more than a couple of miles south of the spot where the GIs were dug in. Carter radioed Hinge to expect an attack from that direction, and possibly from the west. Hinge knew enough to not meet German tanks head-on. He’d set up an ambush if he could.
As Carter was talking the deuce went by, headed back to the perimeter. To Carter’s surprise, it was carrying prisoners and a couple of wounded GIs. Carter stormed off to find Wilson, who was supervising the liberation of various things into three German trucks. A quick glance revealed what appeared to be a few cannon barrels. A couple of Springer’s men brought out the radio. Springer was carrying a wall map. He had other maps and papers stuffed between his shirt buttons. Carter called the two Shermans that had been tasked with covering the withdrawal, and told them to get back to base at full speed. Then he positioned his tank on the road, just past the gate, and ran back into the ammo dump.
“Wilson! Five minutes! No more! Barry, light this place up, and get your men in the trucks.” Then he ran over to Seven. “You lead those trucks back. I don’t want anyone thinking there’s a German army attacking. Get in position. Go!” He could see fires burning in several places, spreading fast. “Wilson, time’s up. Go!” The first of the captured trucks was already leaving. A fuel drum exploded, and Carter felt the heat. The second and third trucks rolled out, and Carter saw his tank pivot as the turret rotated in the opposite direction. The tank rolled toward him, then stopped just long enough for Carter to get his feet on the sponson. Fuel drums were exploding every couple of seconds, and what ammo Wilson hadn’t liberated was also starting to cook off, so Carter didn’t hang around topside. His tank was about fifty yards past the gate when the first large explosion shook it. He could hear things hitting the turret and hull. Some of the shrapnel sounded pretty big. He yelled for more speed, and was told to get out and run if he wasn’t satisfied with Six’s full throttle.
Oddly, no counterattack came. That night Carter dreamed of three cathedrals. He recognized only St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and that only because he’d seen pictures of it in books. The other two cathedrals remained a mystery.
At mid-morning the next day, Wilson hollered to Carter. “Sarge! Jeep coming fast. Just one.”
Carter yelled “Tankers up! Thirteen, cover your road! Possible friendly.” Within thirty seconds all tanks but one were running. Thirteen’s main gun was aimed about two hundred yards down the road they’d traveled yesterday.
A single jeep pulled into view, and stopped abruptly when the driver realized he was the focus of Thirteen’s main gun. He sat there with his hands up until Sergeant Barry waved him in. When the driver crossed the perimeter he asked Barry a question, and was directed to a foxhole where Lieutenant Springer sat with his rifle and half a can of Spam. The two talked for a moment, and Springer pointed to Carter. The driver, a shavetail in a clean uniform made his way to Carter.
“You the senior tanker here, sergeant?”
“Yes sir, for this platoon I am. I suggest you get between the tanks. You’ll be less likely to get shot that way.”
The shavetail jumped as if he’d been stung by a hornet, and stepped smartly to the side of Carter’s Sherman. Carter keyed his microphone, and told the tankers to stand down to alert. The engines in seven Shermans fell silent. Then Carter dismounted.
“Sergeant, who are you, and who is your second in command?”
“I’m Sergeant Ben Carter. My second is Corporal Wiley Hinge in number Eleven.”
Alright, round him up. We’re going back to batt HQ. Colonel Bates wants to talk to you.”
“Are we in trouble sir?”
“Carter, here’s what I know. The Colonel told the Major, who told the Captain, who told me to get the ranking tanker from this platoon back to HQ. I have no idea if you are going to be given a raise and promotion, or a court martial for a messy uniform. Just get Hinge and get in the jeep.”
Carter summoned Hinge, and also Wilson.
“Private Wilson is our procurement specialist. We need him to gather up a few things from the QM.”
“Such as what?”
“Food and ammunition, mostly, sir. Maybe a trailer to hitch to your jeep when you haul us back. We could probably use a couple of bazookas. Our infantry support looks kind of light on equipment.”
“All right. Let’s go.”
Hinge and Prez sat in back with their personal weapons – a .45 Grease Gun and a Garand, respectively. Carter sat in front. He carried only a .45 pistol. The shavetail never introduced himself, and didn’t say a word during the thirty minute ride back to HQ. They were dropped off, and the anonymous shavetail was gone as if he’d been shot from a gun.
Colonel Bates was sitting on an up-turned ammunition crate. He saw Carter and Hinge, and motioned them to come.
“Carter, first tell me what you need. Then we’ll get to what the hell happened on that patrol.”
Carter replied that the entire battalion needed more winter gear of every sort. C Company needed two tanks and five tankers, more fuel, ammunition and food, plus a few field stoves. And maps, lots of maps. Bates hollered at a captain to get a deuce-and-a-half, a one-ton, and a pre-stocked trailer. Then he added that the deuce-and-a-half was to be filled with as much tank ammo and food as the QuarterMasters could load in an hour.
“We’ve got tons and tons of stuff backed up clear to the beach, and we have to get out of here quick. I knew about the tanks, and you’ll see them the day after tomorrow. We’ll try to send extra fuel with them. Crews are a problem. We can’t get white men, and there aren’t any Negroes coming from the states. We’ll see what we can do about the maps.
In the meantime, you make sure the road between here and your position is secure. Patrol in force. When the patrols reach here, they can refuel before they turn around.
What about the infantry with you?”
“Sir, Lieutenant Springer is good. Sergeant Barry is good. The only problem they have is they’re shorthanded, and light on equipment. As long as the Germans don’t attack in overwhelming numbers, we should be okay. And from what I’ve seen in the past couple of days, the Germans aren’t prepared to launch a major attack in our area.
Sir, may I ask, why are you talking to me instead of Captain Brad, or Lieutenant Hess? Or Major Miller, for that matter?”
“Brad is a glory hound. He won’t ask for anything, and his men will suffer as a result. Hess? I don’t know about him. Miller is out with D Company now, and I’ll talk to him when they come back. Carter, you keep your mouth SHUT about what I just told you, you understand? You follow orders, but use your head, too. Now get back to your platoon.
And tell Wilson to quit pissing off the QM.”
Carter and Hinge were dismissed, and they were about to set out looking for Wilson when The Prez pulled up in a jeep towing a trailer.
“Got some stuff in the trailer, Sarge. We should head back before it’s missed.”
Hinge took the lead in the deuce-and-a-half with the pre-stocked trailer. The Prez abandoned the jeep, and brought up the rear with the one-ton. He towed the commandeered trailer.
The return to their position was blessedly uneventful, and Carter began to wonder where the Germans were. Supplies were distributed, and the camp stoves were fired up. Bad coffee was better than no coffee, and fried Spam was better than cold Spam.
The First Carjacking
When they pulled up for the night on the 6th, Springer sent out a patrol again to look around. Wilson decided to do a little scouting on his own. He walked around the perimeter until he came to a place that struck his fancy. There he told the sentries he was going out scouting, and they shouldn’t shoot him when he came back. About four hours later he pulled up in a captured kubelwagen. The sentries were about to open fire when he identified himself. The Prez drove through the perimeter, and took the kublewagen to C Company support. Then he went back to the perimeter. The sentries asked him where the kubelwagen came from, and he told them he got it from a German who didn’t need it anymore. Then he said he was going back out to get the other one.
The support group had the first kubelwagen done up in OD before he got back with the second one. When they broke camp the next morning, the two kubelwagens were repainted, and carefully dispersed among the support vehicles. By the following morning, they too would be in full U.S. Army livery. As Wilson rode with his comrades that day, they joked that all they needed now was a panzer. Then they came to the conclusion that stealing a panzer wasn’t such a bad idea, since its’ cannon could outshoot the seventy-five on a Sherman. Twice that day, men from the truck Wilson was riding in hopped off to look at battle-damaged panzers. They concluded that changing a panzer engine or transmission in the field would be very difficult. If they could find one with a good engine and transmission . . .
The Origin of the German Sherman
From 8 November on, the 761st was involved in almost non-stop fighting. That meant they saw a fair number of panzers. As fate would have it, one of those panzers made a silly mistake. The inexperienced crew attempted a backing turn, crashed through the front wall of a three-story building, and then crashed through the floor into the basement, whereupon one corner of the building collapsed onto the panzer. It was well and truly stuck, with no help coming. When the C Company support boys heard the chatter, they sprang into action. Even though the town was not secure, a dozen men took a truck and sped to the buried panzer. When they got there, ten men scurried onto the debris pile and started throwing off bricks, furniture, bed clothes, and whatnot. One man stayed at the wheel of the truck, in case they needed to get away fast. Wilson walked in front of the trapped tank. He was carrying a jerry-can of gas, and he slopped a little bit on the panzer in front of a viewport. By now one turret hatch was cleared, and the driver’s hatch was almost cleared. Wilson slopped some more gas in front of another view port, then backed away. One of the support boys banged a rifle butt on the turret hatch. Wilson backed away from the tank a bit more, and aimed his .45 at the panzer.
“Comin’ see here! Jets! Handy hock! That’s all the German I know. If you don’t come out in ten seconds, I’ll light your panzer, and we’ll fry you! Vershtay? Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven!”
The driver’s hatch opened, and two hands appeared. Then a head. The Prez motioned to the driver to climb out and come over. The turret hatch opened, and the same sequence was repeated. Five Germans climbed out, and were hustled into the waiting truck. Wilson and two others guarded the POWs until the truck arrived where the support group was waiting. Wilson told everyone what was happening, and rounded up a few infantrymen to cover the POWs. By the time he got back to the buried panzer a dozen men were clearing debris, and two more were hooking cables to the tank retriever. They cleared a few feet behind the panzer, and restarted the engine. The tank backed up a bit, and the men started filling the space in front of it, to make a sort of ramp. Thus did they become the proud possessors of a captured Tiger – soon to become “the German Sherman”.
The battle swirled all around town, even as the support boys pulled out the panzer. All the tankers heard a report that Colonel Bates was down. Captain Brad told Lieutenant Hess to take over because he was going to help Bates. The fact that Brad didn’t know precisely where Bates was, or how the Germans had taken him out didn’t seem to matter. Brad’s headlong rush was ended abruptly about five blocks after it started. A panzerfaust hit the Sherman’s track and disabled the tank. Brad, who was exposed in an open turret, suffered a badly mangled arm. The tank was immobilized – a sitting duck for any Hitler Youth with a PF. Fortunately for the tank crew, the Germans were employing hit-and-run tactics, and after one shot, the German with the PF chose the run aspect of their strategy. Brad would be evacuated later. His injuries were so severe that he never returned to combat.
Meanwhile Hess was sitting in his tank, guiding it around without any obvious thought. Carter caught up with him, and waved him to a stop. Carter asked Hess if he had any orders for the company, and Hess stared at him for a moment, then admitted he didn’t know what to do. Carter suggested sending each tank up one street with a rifle squad. The rifle squad would spot German tanks or roadblocks, and the tankers could decide how to deal with them. The tankers would be told to avoid frontal attacks on German tanks. Hess looked at Carter in a vague way, and said yes, that sounded good. All the tank commanders in the company heard the exchange, and some were already acting on it.
The Shermans crisscrossed the town, took out several strong points, and destroyed two German tanks. Springer’s men suffered three killed, and nine wounded. Thirteen tankers were killed on 8-9 November, and no one knew for sure how many were wounded. The men were brave enough, no question of that. But they needed to get much smarter if they were to survive the war.
By evening only sporadic small arms fire remained to mark the battle. Carter found Hess still sitting in his tank. He asked the Lieutenant if he was okay, and got no reply, not even an acknowledgement. Hess’s driver, Corporal Willow looked at Carter, and shook his head. Then he climbed out of his tank, and onto Carter’s. “Sarge, he been like that since you talked to him before. I been driving the tank on your orders. The lieu got no fight in him, and he gonna get us killed.” Carter dismounted, and climbed onto Hess’s tank.
“Lieutenant, are you okay? Are you hit?”
Again, no response or acknowledgement. Carter shook him a little bit, but all that accomplished was make Hess blink. Carter told Willow to go to the support area, and get Hess to the medics. Then he should ask around for a volunteer to replace one man on his crew. Willow would be the tank commander.
Carter was now the ranking tank commander in C Company. Brad’s tank suffered a busted track and drive wheel. The tank retriever pulled it back to the support area. Carter was told it would be ready to go in the morning. Its’ driver was bumped up to tank commander, and a volunteer from the support boys became the loader.
That evening, Wilson told Carter all of what happened with the captured panzer, including one little aside.
“We got the tank, and we even got a kraut machine gun and ammo. A couple of us got sick of the gunner taking pot shots at us, so we went around behind his position. Got his rations too – some kind of funny sausage and the worst coffee you ever tasted.”
Not a good day, but none of the men in C Company had been killed. After the fact, Carter learned he’d been fighting in a place called Moyenvic.
The next day was a muddle. Battalion leadership changed hands twice as acting commanders were wounded. Carter’s tanks were called to reinforce a push in Morville. One look at the situation there, and Carter knew he had to change the battle plan. Tanks were running helter-skelter, with no co-ordination. Carter set up one platoon as a response force, to go where they were needed in a pinch. Then he set the rest of his tanks into a crisscross pattern, as they’d done the day before. Company D, who’s commander had been the acting battalion commander, joined Carter’s tanks, and set up a second crisscrossing pattern. Companies A and B moved toward another target. By the end of the day, Morville was quiet. By some twist of fate, C Company suffered only one damaged tank, and no dead tankers. D Company suffered two destroyed tanks, and six dead. B Company suffered two damaged tanks, and four dead. A Company lost one tank, with three dead.
Carter knew those losses couldn’t be sustained for any length of time, and he guessed most of the losses were due to tankers doing rash things.
A Colonel Hunt replaced Colonel Bates on 10 November. He was an unknown quantity to Carter. Hunt called Carter in, and told him he was being bumped up two ranks, to captain of C Company. Then he asked Carter to choose a second. “Who will be your lieutenant? Hinge? I think he’d be a good choice because he wouldn’t be afraid to say what he thinks.”
Carter agreed and Wiley Hinge became a lieutenant.
The next few days were more muddle. There was no priority target. Hunt was sending tanks every which way. At times tank companies crossed paths with other tank companies. On the 13th Carter was sent north, then east, then north again. At twilight, all C Company had to show for their work was empty fuel tanks. They didn’t fire a shot that day.
On the 14th all four companies stood down for maintenance. They set up four perimeters, each about a mile from the others. The idea was to disperse the tanks to avoid creating a big target.
After five days with little sleep, Carter had trouble keeping his head steady. He tried to think when he’d last slept. Sometime before Bates got hit? He wondered what Wilson had appro . . . Germans were inside the tank circle. They started shooting up the tents. Then headlights from the Shermans lit the area inside the circle, and heavy machine guns opened up. German grenades – potato mashers started flying and . . . Carter woke up with a snap. Six was just coming to the perimeter. Carter was awake now, but he knew that wouldn’t last long. He needed to act fast before his mind went fuzzy again.
Springer approached Six, and Carter climbed down.
“Lieutenant, get all your men ready to move. As soon as my tank is repaired, take all your men, all the vehicles, and all the support guys back to one of the other companies. We didn’t get all the krauts. They’ll be coming tonight.”
“Shouldn’t we stay for the fight? We’re supposed to help you guys.”
“No. I want everybody but the tank crews out of here. When the shooting starts, I want us to be able to spray at will, without hitting friendlies. Get going. Oh, and where the hell did all those tents come from? They weren’t here this morning.”
“Your men set ‘em up after you rolled yesterday. Wilson must’ve liberated them from somewhere.”
Carter nodded and turned. Four men were already working on Six. The periscope was out, the radio antenna was new, and one man was removing the fifty. Carter figured in ten minutes only the scar on the turret would show that it had been in a fight.
Hinge’s tank was the last to come in. Two men started fueling it as soon as the engine died. Two others set to work with the tank crew to remove brass, and restock shells. Carter told Hinge to circle the tanks tighter than usual, with five facing in and others facing out. Every man was to get as much rest as possible because they were going to spend the night in the tanks. Hinge started to say something, but thought better of it.
“Hinge, we didn’t get all the Germans around here. The ones left will be coming at us. They’re coming after dark. We got all their tanks, so they’re going to try a sneak attack, to take out our crews. We’re going to let them get into the ring, and then we’ll open up. Nobody sleeps after dark. Nobody moves outside his tank after dark. Nobody makes any noise after dark. When I turn on my lights, everybody turns on theirs. No main guns. When the shooting starts, all tanks power up. If any Germans get away, let ‘em go. We want their higher-ups to know they’re dealing with the Black Panthers. Tell Lieutenant Springer to bring back a couple of rifle squads when the shooting dies down. Tell him to be careful. Everyone else can come back at first light, but they have to be careful of wandering Germans. Get the German Sherman out of here. Why do we have sixteen Shermans?” He was about to say more, but Hinge stopped him.
“Cap, you’re rambling. We have the picture. You have to sleep, or you’ll be useless in a fight. Number Sixteen is a tank the support boys found alongside the road near Nancy. It was stalled because of a cracked distributor cap. Now shut up and sleep.”
Carter agreed, and walked over to Six. The tank was already in position, facing the center of the ring. Wilson must have been listening. Carter sat down beside the tank and fell asleep. Hinge woke him at 2100, and they walked the ring. Wilson was the only man left of the support and infantry GIs. He, Carter and Hinge did a brief patrol outside the ring. The Prez said he didn’t see or hear anything outside. Carter told him to get in his jeep and join the rest of the men at the check-point. Wilson argued to stay, but Carter told him to get going before it got completely dark.
The attack came a little after 0100. It played out just as Carter had seen it. The Germans bypassed the tanks, thinking to attack the crews who must be sleeping in the tents. The only discordant note was the sound of one forty-five being fired from the bushes. The driver of one of the tanks, Otis by name, had slipped into the bushes to relieve himself. He unloaded himself and his pistol to no apparent effect as he made his way back to his tank.
Carter guessed twenty Germans attacked. Nine were killed, six were wounded too badly to flee, and the remainder ran into the night. The tents were lost, and Otis pinched his privates during the act of closing his fly. A few of the tankers were shaken up, but that was it.
The First Truckjacking
Wilson was the first one back, and he was pissed. Those tents were supposed to be the place to make meals and clean carburetors. He prowled around outside the ring for a bit, but didn’t find any Germans. He did, however, come back with a working German truck.
“They won’t be needing it anymore” was all he said when he saw Carter. The truck was in full U.S. Army livery, with especially large stars painted on the canvas before they broke camp in three days.
About an hour after dawn a convoy arrived. Seventeen tanks, three deuces full of infantry, Springer’s men, and the support group, including the captured trucks pulled into the perimeter. Springer put his men back in position. Carter wondered what all the tanks were about. A white captain was in the lead tank. He dismounted, walked over to Carter, and held out his hand. Carter shook hands and asked what was going on.
“I’m Zbignewski, B Company. I suggest you call me Big or Zee. My second is Hrdina. Ardeena is a little easier to pronounce. The last three tanks in this parade are replacements for the ones you’re short. Hunt said I’m to join you. Someone will be coming from batt to tell us what to do. Looks like your men are setting up shop. I could use a cup of coffee, and judging from conditions inside your ring, I think you could too.
Which one of your men is The Prez? I want to shake the hand of the man who steals German trucks, guns, and tanks. Did you know he sent a dozen of those panzerfaust deals to batt? Some footslogger shows up at Bates’ front door with a great big map all marked up in German, and a bunch of those PFs, and says somebody might want to study ‘em because they are bad for Shermans.”
“Panzerfaust – tank fist – that’s a pretty good name. They look hard to aim, but easy to shoot. If they hit, they hurt. Wilson is that short one over there. He’s been listening to you the whole time.”
Carter signaled Wilson to join them. He came over and gave a smart salute.
“Wilson, this is Captain Zbignewski. He admires your work, and wants to shake your hand.”
“Yessir.” Wilson held out his hand, which seemed a little large for his small frame.
“Wilson, good to meet you. Colonel Bates has heard of your exploits, and he’s impressed. Apparently some pencil pusher in Quartermaster saw you make off with tents. He ratted you out to Bates, who said he’d look into it. Before he was hit, Bates told me to tell you ‘Well done’. He also told me to give you these.” Zbignewski held out a pair of sergeant’s stripes, which Wilson took with a grin.
Carter told Wilson to get back to work, and he trotted off. The captains could hear him yelling to the men he was working with.
“Carter, how old is he?”
“Fifteen, maybe sixteen. But don’t underestimate him. I’ve seen him cut a bayonet target in two with one swipe. I’m willing to bet there isn’t a man in this perimeter who can match him with a Garand.”
The Legend of The Prez
Eventually, the Legend of The President began to evolve. It was said The Prez could see a pork chop at 1500 yards, shoot it at 1200 yards, smell it at 800 yards, and hear it frying at 500 yards. That part was actually pretty accurate. But Carter doubted the story about Wilson shooting a German at 100 yards, and grabbing the German’s chow before it hit the ground. It was true that on one occasion, in Belgium, Wilson saw a tripwire around an apple orchard. He yelled at a group of infantrymen who were about to leave the road and pick apples. When they didn’t hear him, Wilson fired one round from his Garand, and smacked the tree at the head of the tripwire. About two seconds later a dozen mines exploded along the edge of the orchard. And maybe seven seconds later a dozen more exploded deeper into the orchard. That particular group of white infantrymen, who’d never been especially pleasant to their Negro comrades-at-arms, were all very quiet for the rest of the time they served alongside the Negroes’ tanks. Carter could never decide whether is was because they had a newfound respect for the Negro GIs, or because they were scared shitless of being shot by the small GI they’d called a little turtle (which even Carter thought was apt, given how Wilson’s helmet fit). Wilson’s shot was just over fifty yards – practically point-blank for him.
Wilson had no conscience, and no concept of dying or killing. If he was told to shoot someone, that person got shot. If told to hold his fire, Wilson would wait until hell froze over regardless of incoming rounds or attacking Germans. Carter thought that if Wilson were told to hold his fire, a German would be able to walk up and slap him in the face without getting shot. Wilson had been kept out of a tank crew. His keen senses were far more useful in a quieter setting. Officially, he was part of the support group. Unofficially, he drove a jeep just behind the tank column. The rest of the tankers shielded Wilson from the white officers and non-coms, who for the most part never knew what Wilson was doing, or why.
Zbignewski and Carter were still getting things sorted out when a white major arrived in a jeep. Carter recognized Major Miller. The driver was a Negro corporal – Riggs. A wall map liberated from the one of German trucks was in the back of the jeep. The driver stopped in the center of the ring for a moment, then parked near Twelve on the east edge. The major said something to the corporal, who saluted and walked off toward the perimeter. The captains walked to the jeep as the major laid the wall map across the hood.
“Riggs went to get the infantry CO. What’s his name? Is it still Springer?”
Zbignewski said it was, and Carter said Springer was a good man.
“Those the tents QM was pissing and moaning about? Send ‘em back with a note. Tell the QM his tents are good for shit, and if they aren’t going to last two days in service, he should send out six new ones. Wilson get his stripes?”
Carter nodded. “Yessir. He’s happy.”
“Doesn’t matter if he’s happy or not. The little fucker should be general. Any man who thinks to send German munitions to the rear for study is six steps ahead of everyone else.
Springer, come here. Riggs, get yourself some coffee, and check with Sergeant Wilson to see if those boys need anything else from QM.
Bates was so mad at QM that if you boys had asked for Patton’s pyjamas, he’d have made the QM fetch ‘em. Springer, you’re a captain now. Here’s your bars. Garand’s kinda heavy, isn’t it?”
“Yessir. But if I shoot something, I like it to stay shot.”
“Good enough. Carter, you’re in charge. God knows why, but that’s not my call. Hunt’s been told to rely on you. He won’t be here long. He’s decent but disorganized.
Okay. Here’s your objectives for the next week or so. In general terms, your job will be to work in this area, with whatever outfit needs tank support. Springer, you and your men are pretty much off the books. You stay with the tankers. You cut behind the Germans, make a lot of noise, and get them worried about being cut off. Subdue towns, but don’t linger. Other forces will be following you to occupy them. We haven’t been seeing minefields, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. We expect any krauts coming your way will be well armed and experienced.
It’s a miracle you guys didn’t run into mines when you did your recon.”
Carter said it was no miracle. “It was cowshit sir. We were stepping in it as we did our recon. Wilson could smell cows all around.”
“Damn! If we had a company of sloggers like that little fucker, we’d be in Berlin next week. Cowshit. Springer, what do you think of that?”
“All due respect sir, but I don’t think The Prez has lost his cherry yet. Beyond that, I agree with you.”
“Okay. Roll at dawn tomorrow. The tankers all know each other, Springer. You don’t have much time to meet your expanded company. Riggs, let’s get outta here.”
“Major, do you want the German radio set we lifted on the last patrol? Might be useful for sending false info.”
“Carter, you speak better German than half the Polish POWs you sent us. Keep the damn radio, and use it as you see fit. Thanks for the map, though. We got photos – lots of photos. Some of ‘em are probably on Churchill’s desk by now.
Go give ‘em hell. Riggs, grab your rifle. I’m driving.”
Riggs slid over, and the jeep spun 180 degrees in a hail of dirt and stones. They watched it for a moment, then Carter spoke.
“Zee, Springer, what do you think?”
Springer said someone better paint BIG stars on all those ex-kraut trucks.
Carter said “Someone must want us to act like competent soldiers who fight bravely and intelligently in the face of all odds.”
“Or someone wants us dead.” This from Springer.
Let’s work out our strategy.”
The captured radio was mounted on a one-ton truck. It was monitored continuously, and company commanders were notified of which channels were carrying German transmissions. Carter had more, and more meaningful Intel than was coming from GHQ, and he had it faster.
They decided five tanks would take the van, and five would scout on either side. Five more would travel in front of the support group, and five would bring up the rear. Springer now had just over sixty men. Forty-five of them were in three rifle platoons. The rest were in support. They’d be working close by the Negro tanker’s support group. Starting tomorrow, there would be no time for racialism. Springer knew that at least some of his men were outright bigots, so he spoke plain.
“You know you’re the boss here now, right? Some of my men might not like answering to a Negro.”
“They can like it, or not. I don’t care. All I want is to get this war over, and get them home alive. How do you feel about me outranking you, Springer?”
“Don’t know . . . we’ll see. But as long as that little Wilson is around, I think we’ll get along fine. Patrol at midnight?”
“Make it 0200. We did midnight last time. We’ll mix it up a little. Tomorrow some of the tanks will do recon in force to the east and south. We’ll stretch the envelope that way a little each day.”
After a bit, Springer assembled his men.
“Any man in this group who starts trouble with another soldier, white or colored, will be in stockade unless I shoot him first. You don’t have to love everybody here, but you damn better respect them. Any man who has a problem working with the Negro tankers should start walking back to the beachhead now.”
Springer could see that the Negro soldiers were listening, some openly, and others discreetly. He turned to them.
“Any of you have a problem working with white men? If so, the beachhead is thataway.”
Springer turned around to see Carter standing behind him.
“Nice pep talk. Let’s go meet your new boys. We’ll size ‘em up.”
The First Crossing Column
Before dawn the Germans threw a wrench in the works of the carefully crafted plan.
Sentries reported a dozen tanks, and ten vehicles sliding across the Americans’ front in a generally northwest direction. They were going through the fields, possibly to shorten their route, or to avoid confrontation. They’d be passing B Company’s zone in perhaps twenty minutes. Carter squawked Zee, and told him to set up on the left flank of the German tanks’ path. He told Zee to find concealment if he could, and to not reveal himself until he heard shooting. Then he told his own company to split. Two platoons were to run hard across the fields, and try to get in position on the Germans’ right flank. Finally, he told the support boys to send up Seventeen. They had barely enough time to set up in a line abreast, crossing the German column’s path. Seventeen was set in a second row, hopefully concealed by the Shermans in front of it, but with gap between Shermans so that Seventeen could draw a bead on the advancing panzers.
This would be open field fighting, and the Shermans would be at a distinct disadvantage. It was time to find out if the “German Sherman” was worth the work. Carter took Seventeen and his platoon to meet the Germans head-on across the fields. “Load armor piercing! Seventeen fires on my command. After that it’s free fire.”
There was a morning mist in the air. The German tanks emerged from it in a double column. They kept coming, unafraid of the Shermans. The panzers were confident they could get within 900 yards and still be out of range of the American guns. They were also confident that their own guns could hit the Shermans at 1200 yards. At 1000 yards the panzers began to maneuver into a line abreast.
Carter got on the radio. “Seventeen, do you have a target locked?”
“Three Platoon, when I give the word, everybody scatter left or right.
Seventeen, don’t miss. Fire!
Seventeen’s first shot hit a panzer, probably not a mortal hit, but enough to bring it to a stop. Before it lay still, twenty-five Shermans let loose. The Germans were blanketed, and the support vehicles were knocked out immediately. Carter told Seventeen to back out. The German Sherman would be an easy target for the panzers. The Shermans were moving too fast for the panzers to traverse. The flanking Shermans were able to move in close, and destroy every German tank.
Carter’s platoon, which had been the bait in the trap, suffered one damaged tank. The tank could be repaired, but two of her crew were badly injured, and had to be evacuated.
The shooting stopped, and there was that eerie silent noise in the aftermath of battle. Tanks rumbled, ammunition cooked off, burning tanks made a strange hissing noise, and an occasional shout signaled the need for a medic. Yet all of that sounded like silence compared to the hellish noise of just a few minutes earlier. Springer’s men were already looking for prisoners, and picking through the wreckage of the support vehicles. Taking a page from Wilson’s book, they liberated six machine guns, a dozen replacement machine gun barrels, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Then they laid the German dead to one side, and torched the trucks.
The tanks were all back in their zones, and Carter was reporting to Hunt before 0900. Carter, Zee and Springer shared with Hunt their opinion that the Germans had been en route to someplace, and that place was generally northwest of the battalion’s current position. Hunt said he’d squawk division HQ. The tanks spent the rest of the day supporting various infantry actions, then stood down for the night.
There was no response from division HQ. The companies went back to their former mode of operation, responding to calls for help as needed. Thus began December.
The Second Crossing Column
That night Wilson and Barry took a few other men and went out to see if there were any Germans in the area. They were gone until almost dawn, and Carter was getting worried that they’d been killed or captured. Barry told Carter The Prez heard tanks, so they went for a look-see. What they found was puzzling, and not in a good way. At least 40 tanks, and dozens of support vehicles were headed in a general northwest direction. They had no outriders.
Carter consulted with Hunt, and they agreed that B Company would pursue the German column, hit it in the rear, and bug out. Then C Company would take up the chase until the Germans either stopped, or left the battalion’s sector.
B Company caught up with the German column just before sunset. The last vehicles in the column were a collection of trucks and a tank retriever. Their crews were so intent on keeping place in the march that they didn’t notice the American tanks pulling up from behind. Not that there was much they could do, anyway. They had neither radios to warn the column ahead, nor weapons to defeat a tank attack. Zee sent two platoons into the fields to try to get shots on the middle of the column. The other platoon opened up on its tail. The tank retriever and two trucks fell victim to the platoon on the road. The platoons in the field gained mixed results. They destroyed a couple of trucks, and may or may not have hit a few tanks. Then they pulled back to where C Company was waiting. The Germans didn’t waver in their march.
Carter radioed to Hunt that because of the size of the German column, both B and C Companies should stay in the chase for at least another day. Hunt agreed, and Carter said they’d resume the chase just before dawn. Then Carter called up support to re-arm and refuel.
That night Wilson woke Carter.
“Shhh. Come on. I hear tanks across the bridge. Lots of ‘em, going north.”
They slipped out of the perimeter, and walked almost two hundred yards before Carter heard anything.
“How many, Prez?”
“Hard to say. More than twenty. They’re formed up mighty tight. Could be fifty. There’s a bunch of trucks too, but I can’t even guess about them. These krauts are resolute, if that’s the right word. They aren’t securing bridges, so they don’t intend to go west. They don’t even seem to have outriders checking their flanks.”
They slipped back into their perimeter, and Carter put in a hot call to HQ. The call was acknowledged, but there was no response the next morning. Carter repeated the hot call, and said there was a major shift taking place across his front lines. Carter was about to take a jeep to HQ when the reply finally came. The reply was a simple request for Carter’s assessment of enemy strength. Carter said fifty tanks, fifty trucks, and probably a few hundred infantry. Wilson walked in while Carter was still on the line. He’d taken the kubelwagen out to where the Germans crossed. Tracks indicated tanks and vehicles of various sizes. And when The Prez shut the kubelwagen down, he could hear another movement further east. That movement sounded more spread out, but it too was going south to north. The operator on the other ended rogered the message and rang off.
Carter went out and told his men to be ready to roll at dawn, and to expect a three-day advance. Everyone was ready well before first light, but no call came until nearly noon. They were told to pursue the first German force they’d heard. Carter didn’t like this at all. The second German force, of unknown strength, would be on his flank.
As they were leaving their position a flight of Thunderbolts flew over. Carter hoped the Jugs were going after the second German force, but he didn’t stick around to find out. The group he was supposed to catch had a two-day head start. Carter sent one of Zee’s Stuarts ahead with instructions to go twenty miles at top speed, then come back. The commander of the Stuart was Sergeant Miller – no relation to Major Miller. Carter told him to be wary of ambushes. When he returned, Miller reported no resistance. Next up was Sergeant Best, in Carter’s number Eleven. Maps showed a small village ahead. Best was to go full speed until he could see the village, then return and let Carter know where they could stop unseen to survey the situation.
The First Delaying Roadblock
When Best got back to the convoy, he told Carter there wasn’t really a good place to stop and analyze the situation. The town was too small to hide much of anything. The fields around it were dry and frozen, and Best could see they’d been mowed. That meant mines were unlikely. Carter decided to split the tanks into three groups. Only one platoon, his, would go through the town. The others would bypass it through the fields, then regroup on the road. Zee spoke up, and said Carter shouldn’t always put his platoon at risk. It was time for someone else to plow through the town. Lieutenant Hrdina’s platoon would roll through this village.
The bypass went without a hitch, but there was a snag in the run through village. Hrdina’s tank had barely entered when a French civilian waved him down. Hrdina smelled a trap, and he was prepared to run the Frenchman down, but the man knelt, and begged. Hrdina waved the rest of his tanks by, and told them to scout carefully. Then he turned to the man who immediately started yelling in French. He made signs indicating shooting and praying and rocking babies. Hrdina squawked Carter, and told him what was happening. Carter told him to hold the mic where he could hear the Frenchman. Then Carter gave Hrdina questions in French to repeat to the civilian. In a few moments they figured out five Germans were holding hostages in the church, an insidious delaying tactic.
Carter told Hrdina to position his tank as close to the church doors as he could, and to leave the engine at fast idle. The hope was that the noise and distraction from the tank would conceal the sound of infantrymen entering the church from some back door.
When he was in place, Hrdina asked for a German phrase he could repeat to get the Germans to talk. Carter told him, and Hrdina hollered.
“Waffenstillstand! Waffenstillstand! Waffenstillstand!”
Hrdina knocked on the church doors, and opened them part way. Then he waved a handkerchief though the opening, and opened the doors the rest of the way.
A Sherman tank is an imposing sight, especially when it fills a doorway, and its guns are all aimed at the viewer. Hrdina stepped into the church and asked who spoke for the Germans. It took them a bit to figure out what he was asking, then one of them nodded his head. Hrdina started telling the man he was violating the Geneva Conventions by taking hostages, and that if the Germans refused to let the hostages go, they – the Germans would be treated as war criminals, and hanged. Then he told them he would accept their surrender only if the hostages were released immediately. Then he said he could not respect the soldiers of the Wehrmacht if they hid behind French women and children. Finally, Hrdina looked at his watch, and held up three fingers. All eyes were on him. Women were crying and praying. When Hrdina held up two fingers, a hush fell over the church. Eight GIs moved silently around the altar. As Hrdina held up one finger, one of the GIs yelled ‘hande hoch’. The startled Germans turned to see rifles aimed at them, and they dropped their weapons. The hostages poured out the front doors.
Hrdina left four infantrymen and a Stuart to guard the Germans. Someone from the support group would arrive soon, to take the POWs further back.
By now the main body of the convoy was at least six miles beyond the village, and the support group was just rolling in. On a hunch, Carter radioed to Wilson to join the guard on the POWs.
Within minutes Wilson was back on the radio. He told Carter one of the POWs went nuts when he saw the redeemed German trucks, kubelwagen and tank. The POW started ranting and raving to his comrades about der fuehrer, Antwerp, der wald, and der krieg, and something about verloren. Carter thanked The Prez, and signed off. Then he sent a message to HQ for Colonel Bates personal attention.
Interrogated German prisoners. Their target is Antwerp through dense woods. Their morale is low, and they feel the war is lost. We continue pursuit. Await any additional orders.
The chase continued through the night, but Carter’s tanks had to slow down. He didn’t want to engage German armor in the dark. Carter called a halt at 0300. For the next two hours the support group refueled tanks and dispensed coffee. Carter took The Prez along for a walk on the road. If German tanks were running, the morning stillness should let the sound carry, but Wilson heard nothing. The Germans might be lagering somewhere ahead, or they might be operating out of earshot.
The American tanks rolled at 0600, again with a Stuart spearheading. From this point on, Carter had no detailed maps. To make matters worse, the weather was getting bad. The tanks experienced rain, sleet and snow during the day, and raw, damp cold at night. The bright side was that tracking the enemy was easier in the snow. The fact that there were no tracks in the snow was an indication that the Germans were at least a day ahead.
About mid-morning, the scout Stuart. Sergeant Preacher in command, pulled back to the convoy. Preacher said there was a town ahead. It was a good bit bigger than the last one, but still too small to show on the map.
As they approached the unknown town, Carter could see three columns of dense smoke. German tanks were belching exhaust from cold engines, their positions as plain as day. Carter called a halt.
The Second Delaying Roadblock
Once again he was facing a delaying force.
“Sir, someone in town is watching us. At first I was just getting odd clicks. Took me a while to realize they were just a check sign, to let the head kraut know the watcher was still awake. Then I got one that sounded like “sindear”. Each time there were two clicks, then a really brief message, and no reply. These guys know radio silence. The signals would be easy to miss.
The last one I got sounded like “Cy Warden”. What’s that mean?”
“That means the watcher can see we’re stopped, and waiting for something. Let’s figure out where the watcher is. I think he’s a sniper in the church steeple. You watch that. I’ll watch the tall building on the left. Everybody else keep your eyes open for movement.
Foley, give me the microphone.”
Carter clicked the talk button twice, held it, and said “Yeah Hans, we’re waiting for the guys on the other side of town to get into position. We’ll move soon.”
This time Carter heard it;
* click-click * “Sie kommen”
Foley said he saw movement in the steeple. Carter gave him the mic, chambered a round in the fifty and let loose with a hail of bullets into the steeple. Even at five hundred yards the fifty was devastating. The rounds started shattering bricks, hitting the church bells, and smacking into whatever was inside the steeple. The sound of the church bells ringing was eerie and erratic.
Then, to Carter’s amazement, Foley started singing over the radio…
“On your very last day
When you hear God’s bell,
Will it be callin’ you to heaven,
Or ringin’ you to hell?
Woody, work with me on the siren
On your very last day
When God sounds his horn, (the siren sounded twice)
Will you be bound for glory,
Or wish you were never born? ” (the siren sounded twice again – the second blast was long and mournful).
Carter told his men to go, and they executed their plan almost perfectly. One through Four entered the town on the main road. Two and Three split off left at the first cross-street, went a couple of blocks, and then turned parallel to the main road. Four did the same thing on the right. The German tanks were caught from behind, where they were most vulnerable. Worse, they were unable to turn in the narrow streets they’d chosen for their ambush.
Five through Seventeen, plus all of Zbigniewski’s tanks bypassed the town on frozen fields and continued to chase the northbound German force. The support vehicles would follow after the route through town was cleared.
When a couple of tankers went up to the steeple to clear it, they found a young German shaking in a corner. The shaking was not just because he was cold. His helmet had been dented twice. His rifle and scope were both shattered. There were dozens of bullet holes in his clothes. When they stood him up slugs clinked onto the floor. He’d wet his pants. But though he was bruised in many places, not one slug had drawn blood.
The walkie-talkie he’d used was undamaged, and still receiving. The young German had heard Foley singing as the church bells pealed. And he heard the confused yells from his comrades as they were destroyed by blows they couldn’t counter. Of the thirteen men in the delaying force, only the young German in the steeple survived.
Foley had an ordinary speaking voice, but he sang in a marvelous baritone. He’d sung in church choirs and in jazz groups. Woody – Charles Compton Woods played trumpet and trombone, but he’d had to leave his horns stateside. The two of them knew songs for just about every occasion, and had provided entertainment of sorts during basic and tanker training. The Prez somehow acquired a trumpet for Woody, but the Stuart’s siren seemed more appropriate for this particular performance.
It was near nightfall the next day when the scout Stuart reported signs of vehicles on the road, and in an adjacent field.
Carter’s company had destroyed fifteen German tanks and several support vehicles. November was gone. It was beginning to look like no one would be singing Christmas carols across no man’s land in this war. Carter wondered if anyone else was paying attention to the strange south-to-north shift. His tanks hadn’t passed through any Allied positions in the past two days. That meant the Germans hadn’t encountered any resistance either, and yet they chose to migrate north, rather than probe the weak front.
The weather got worse and worse. Tanks and trucks were getting stuck, or sliding off roads. The support group worked at a furious rate each morning to get everything running. The infantrymen took turns riding in crowded trucks or on the backs of tanks. Everyone was beyond miserable. On December Seventh, Pearl Harbor Day, they came across the first real sign of the convoy they were chasing. An abandoned truck sat in a ditch. Carter radioed in the clear to everyone to leave the truck alone, that it might be booby-trapped. He knew that usually when armies abandon equipment, they destroy it. Whatever caused this truck to be left behind, the Germans hadn’t gone out of their way to destroy it. Maybe that was because they didn’t want telltale smoke giving their position away, or maybe it was because they’d planted explosives around or on the carcass. Either way, best to leave it alone.
On the Tenth the scout Stuart came across fresh truck tracks. A few miles further along they came to the spot where the Germans had stopped to refuel. Carter figured they’d changed to traveling by day, since the dirty weather would keep the AAF on the ground. Carter also noticed the terrain was changing. The roads were narrower, with steeper grades. Fields were smaller. Carter could see the German convoy didn’t circle when they stopped. Now he had to decide – attack early in the day, when the Germans were just getting started, or wait until late in the day, when they pulled up to refuel. As sometimes happens, circumstances dictated the approach.
At mid-day of the Eleventh, the scout Stuart radioed. Sergeant Preacher had rounded a corner, and caught sight of the back of a truck. Then Zee got on the radio.
“Opportunity knocks. I think we should bite their ass and run.”
Carter agreed. “Zee, you, Preacher and one other tank, go bite them, then come back. We’ll set up here.”
Everybody dispersed. Springer set up lookouts ahead and behind. Carter was still looking for the right place for a couple of tanks when he heard the first booms – three shots in quick succession. In a moment there was another, much bigger boom. Ammo detonating. Then more cannon and machine gun fire. Then another boom.
Zee radioed that nobody would be using the road for a bit. The last truck was carrying ammunition. The next to last truck was a fueler, and the third last was carrying troops, probably support troops, judging by the way they were equipped.
No Germans reversed to meet the threat at their rear. The terrain and weather made it impossible to mount a flanking attack on the column. The American tanks withdrew to their assigned areas of operation.
Carter reported to Hunt, and offered the opinion that everyone would be pushing into Belgium within a week. Hunt agreed, and said he’d been sending messages to GHQ, but with no reply. The word went around the battalion to be ready to move on fifteen minutes notice.
As things got quieter in their sector, Carter got antsy. The weather was getting worse every day, and traveling north would be a bear. Finally, on the nineteenth, Carter told Hunt he wanted to move C Company north. Hunt agreed, and took it upon himself to mobilize the entire battalion. They went north in worsening weather. Virtually every tank and support vehicle in the battalion fell victim to some sort of mechanical failure, or operator error. As temperatures neared zero, any vehicle that was shut down for more than four hours was difficult to restart. Cooling systems froze, and engines overheated. Batteries drained from the strain of grinding stalled engines.
On 14 December the battalion crossed into Germany. Everyone was too cold and tired to mark the occasion. France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany all looked pretty much the same to the tankers. On 15 December they lagered for maintenance. On 19 December they received word that the Germans were attacking in force throughout the Ardennes Forest area. They were told to move in the general direction of Bastogne, and to expect resistance from any direction. That last bit of information proved prophetic. No matter which way they turned, they encountered Germans. The weather hindered them terribly, but Carter took some satisfaction in knowing the Germans were having the same problems.
Often one company or another would be dispatched to redeem a situation gone bad because Patton was egging his commanders into fights they were ill-equipped to fight. “Old Blood and Guts” seemed totally unaware of the shortcomings of the Sherman tank. Or else he didn’t mind losing five of them (and their crews) for every German tank they destroyed.
At times companies fought independent of each other. At other times, as during the battle for Tillet, the battalion engaged as a single unit. Often Carter would get a call for help, and have only two or three operational tanks to respond. And on the occasions when he could send all five, at least one would break down en route. Through December the battalion operated helter-skelter. They cut German supply lines, liberated towns, and pushed at the back of the German forces encircling Bastogne.
The battalion was engaged in some kind of fighting every day during the German attack, but because they were being shuttled around to help other units, they never received the level of credit they earned. Often a platoon of Black Panther tanks was all that stood between a beleaguered group of GIs and disaster.
After a deadly November, the battalion lost only one man killed in action during December. Carter attributed the change to brains taking over where bravery and boldness had been.
Malmedy. Wereth and Stavelot – the end of mercy?
As they pushed the Germans back out of Belgium, American troops came across the scene of a massacre near Malmedy, and another near Wereth. Eighty-four Americans, unarmed prisoners of war, were murdered at Malmedy. Eleven black artillerymen, also unarmed prisoners of war, were tortured and killed at Wereth. One hundred and thirty-seven civilians, men, women, and twenty-seven children, were murdered at Stavelot. All three incidents happened on 17-18 December. The violations of the Geneva Conference Agreement were perpetrated by the SS unit of Kampfgruppe Knittel and Kampfgruppe Peiper. Carter’s company passed through all three towns. It became the standing policy that any SS troops who surrendered were to be shot on sight.
Carter struggled to maintain humanity and mercy among his men, but when they lashed out, he understood. The sight of tortured, dismembered Negro artillerymen enraged him, and he felt no compassion for the Germans – krauts – who wore a totenkopf or lightning flashes on their uniforms. Though Carter wasn’t a religious man, he sincerely hoped there was a Hell in which SS murderers would burn. And it scared him to think he’d have no misgivings about sending them there.
The fighting continued. Aside from a handful of Springer’s men, Carter didn’t fight with the same foot soldiers for more than a couple of days at a time. The battalion was in tatters. They were moving so much, and in so many directions, it was all but impossible to keep everything working. This day was no different.
It had taken them two hours to cover thirty miles and arrive at a fight that lasted maybe eighteen minutes. Six Americans and an unknown number of Germans died in those eighteen minutes. Franklin, the wounded driver from Eight would never fight again.
When the defensive perimeter was set Carter got on the radio. He spun the dial for a bit, until he found a channel that seemed to be carrying tanker messages. Carter identified himself.
Carter repeated the message, and was told to switch to a different channel. He spun the dial, and repeated the message. The response was curt.
“Where are you?”
“We’re outside an unknown town about twenty miles east of Morville.”
“Twenty miles – two zero.”
“Roger your last.”
Two hours later trucks began arriving. The first ones carried infantry. The GIs set up machine gun nests and dug foxholes. In a bit a couple of mortar crews showed up, then an ambulance and some light artillery. It began to look like the U.S. Army intended to stay in this little town – whatever its’ name might be. Patrols gave Carter a picture of the situation in the area.
There were tanks massed in a couple of places to the east. The Germans seemed to be set up in a few towns, from which they could travel on good roads to reinforce each other. North sounded busy. West? It didn’t sound like there was much fighting that way.
Late that afternoon the tankers’ support vehicles rolled into the strong point. They had a Sherman with them.
Prez was in one of the trucks. “Hi Cap. We heard you were here, and we figured we’d better get you re-armed.”
“And where did that tank come from? It’s not one of ours.”
“We found it on the way from the beach, just past Nancy. Been hauling it ever since. It must’ve conked out, and the crew abandoned it. Herve says the distributor was wet. He pulled one from a shot up tank. I guess this is Sixteen now, huh? A couple of the guys offered to round out the crew. Your call, I guess.”
Carter didn’t ask any more questions of Wilson.
Weeks later Carter heard a story told in colorful language by Major Miller, about a message HQ received regarding a stolen Sherman. It seems a crew from another battalion abandoned their supposedly disabled tank, and went for help. When they returned, the tank was gone. The commander of the other battalion called Miller, and asked if he knew anything about the incident.
Miller replied that he was insulted by the implication that his men might make off with a tank, and that the tank was probably in German hands now. Then he told the other commander that crews who abandoned operational and fully armed tanks should be brought up on charges.
For weeks after the fighting around Bastogne, the 761st roamed northeastern France, Belgium and into Germany, seldom spending more than two days in one place, and seldom working with the same foot soldiers other than Springer’s mechanized infantry. Many of the white soldiers distrusted the Negro tankers, and some were very vocal about it. Things came to a head one day, when Carter, Zee, and Springer pulled into a rear area where field kitchens, mess tents and showers had been set up. One look, and Carter knew there would be trouble. He told Zee to find a place to circle the tanks. Then he sat down under a tree to contemplate how to deal with the . . .
Carter woke with a start. He’d been asleep for fifteen minutes, and now he knew how the trouble would play out. He was really glad Colonel Bates was back.
Carter, Zee, Springer, and Hinge walked to the mess tent. There was some grumbling as they entered, and the mess sergeant looked up.
“Hey! We don’t serve niggers here. Get out.”
“I’m Captain Ben Carter, an officer in the United States Army, and you WILL serve me.”
“I don’t care if you’re the king of the jungle, boy. You get out now.”
Hinge was all set to jump the serving table, and slug the man. Carter told him to stand down. Springer asked if Carter wanted him to bring in some of his boys to clear out the mess tent. Carter told him to stand down too.
“Carter, we’ve been fighting with you for a few months now. Say the word, and we’ll fight with you here.”
“No lieutenant. You get your men cleaned, and get them fed. Then get them re-equipped. I’ll take care of this business. Trust me.”
Then he turned to the mess sergeant. “Sergeant, I am giving you a lawful order. You will serve Lieutenant Hinge, or face the consequences. How do you choose?”
“You niggers get outta my mess tent. That’s how I choose.”
Carter nodded to Hinge, and they left.
Springer looked at the mess sergeant, then at Captain Zbigniewski, and shook his head.
“What do you think, Cap? Is that stupid cracker fucked?”
“No lieutenant, he is not. He will be dealt with the Army way.
And then he’ll be fucked.”
Carter went out to the ring and radioed HQ about what was happening. He requested support from senior officers, and said the situation had potential to turn nasty. Then he gathered his men, and told them to stay inside their perimeter for now. He told them to post guards, and only admit people they knew. Then he stressed to them that they MUST keep their composure, no matter what happened. Anything less than perfection would destroy their reputation as an elite fighting force. Then he told Hinge to keep things cool. They discussed what might happen, and Hinge, looking grave, went to check the guards. He told them to be expecting Colonel Banes and Major Miller.
When he finished in the ring, he found Springer, and asked him to put his men on guard at the ring when they were fed and set. As they were talking, Wilson ran up.
“Cap, Bates is on the way. He’ll be here in an hour or so.”
Springer and Carter walked to the MP tent. The sergeant listened to what they were saying, but he seemed unwilling to get involved.
“Sergeant, you can come with me, and arrest a soldier for not obeying a lawful order, or you can sit here until my men get too hungry to wait any longer. You choose. One arrest, or one riot. Which do you think will have a bigger impact on your career? Colonel Bates will be here shortly.”
Almost as if on cue, the liberated and re-liveried kubelwagen pulled up. All three men gave smart salutes as Bates entered.
“Sergeant, what is the situation here?”
“Sir, I’m just about to go arrest the mess sergeant who refuses to serve colored troops. I hope Captain Carter will join me. Perhaps we can work something out.”
“Very good, sergeant. Give him one more chance to obey. If he doesn’t, bring him here. When Negro troops are served, they are to be interspersed among white troops. If anyone spits in the potatoes, or otherwise adulters food, he will be abusing everyone, not just Negro soldiers. Do you understand?”
On the way to the mess tent, Carter asked about the MP’s name, which turned out to be O’Malley.
“I’m an Irish cop in Belgium or Germany, or whatever, on my way to prevent a riot between whites and coloreds. This is NOT what I signed up for.”
When they arrived at the mess tent, O’Malley stood by as Carter went to the chow line. The mess sergeant again told him they didn’t serve niggers.
Springer was still in the mess tent, and Carter asked him if he would do the honors. Springer nodded.
“Sergeant, I order you to provide a meal for that man.”
“No sir, I ain’t feeding no nigger. If you’re such a nigger-lover, you feed him.”
Springer nodded to O’Malley, who told the mess sergeant he was under arrest.
“You stupid mick, he’s a nigger!”
“Figured that out all by yourself, did you Cookie? He’s got forty tanks, and a hundred and sixty men. They’ve been killing krauts since August. You got a knife, and you been killing potatoes since August. Get your ass out from behind that table, and get your hands in the air.
Anyone else back there want to join him in defiance of a direct, lawful order is perfectly welcome to come along – peacefully, or after I beat the shit out of him.”
“Sergeant O’Malley, for the record, I have forty-one tanks, and 232 men in my unit.”
No one else moved. O’Malley explained about interspersing troops in the chow line, took his prisoner, and left. Carter took a plate, and was served. Springer joined him. Three bites into his meal, Carter was summoned to the MP tent to give testimony at a court martial. The MP issuing the summons spoke loudly enough for everyone at the next table to hear. Then he went to the chow line, picked out one of the servers, and repeated the summons.
Bates was sitting in the MP’s chair. He asked Carter, O’Malley, and Private Rogers for their versions of what happened.
Their versions were consistent in most details. Bates asked Private Rogers if Sergeant Kohl was a good cook.
“Cook? He don’t cook, sir. He just eats. We do the cooking. He comes in and tastes stuff, then puts too much salt on everything, and serves it. I think our food would be better without him.”
Bates turned to the mess sergeant. “Sergeant Kohl, you’ve been charged with insubordination. I’ve spoken to your superior officer, and he says this in not the first such incident on your record. He also said he would sign off on any action the court martial chooses to take. You entered a plea of not guilty, is that correct?”
“Yeah. Yessir. White soldiers shouldn’t have to serve or sit with coloreds . . .”
“Sergeant, shut up. This court martial finds you guilty of insubordination, and failure to obey a lawful order. Now we’ll discuss your sentence. My initial thought is to demote Sergeant Kohl to private, and sentence him to stockade for the duration, then issue him a dishonorable discharge. Sergeant O’Malley, your recommendation?”
“Sir, I say bust him to private, and put him in stockade for thirty days.”
“Captain Carter, your recommendation?”
“Sir, I agree with you about demotion, but I think Sergeant Kohl should be sentenced to ten days in stockade, and then be given the choice to either be reassigned to a rifle company, or be reassigned to your battalion in some capacity – other than cook.”
“Sergeant Kohl, stand for your sentence. You’ve been found guilty as charged. You are hereby demoted to the rank of private first class. You will spend ten days in stockade, after which, you will report to me for reassignment. If you fail to report to me, you will be considered a deserter, with all the penalties that implies.
Sergeant O’Malley, take Private Kohl outside, and remove his stripes then take him to directly to stockade.”
Bates stood, and all the others did the same. He told them they were dismissed, and they all saluted.
“Carter, you stay here for a bit.”
“Carter, your unit has the highest success rate in the battalion. The infantry attached to your unit has the lowest losses in the battalion. In light of that, and your handling of the situation here today, I’m promoting you to major. I’ve discussed this with Major Miller, and he agrees – in his own fucking way. Here are your leaves.
Your unit will be here for two days. In the meantime you’re coming with me. We have German prisoners, and I want you to interrogate them. We’ll discuss it en route. Go talk to your men, and let them know what’s happening. Tell Wilson the kubelwagen is the cat’s pyjamas, and if he can line up a couple more, he should.
Go. We leave in fifteen minutes.”
“Sir, do you mind if I bring Wilson? He doesn’t speak German, but he can repeat sounds, so he can probably repeat things POWs are saying.”
“Bring him. Now move. You’ve got twelve minutes.
Oh here’s your mail. Sergeant Riggs has distributed the rest of it.”
Bates handed Carter a package. In it were two pair of long underwear, and a letter from home.
“Mon Cher Fils,
Starting a letter with ‘Dear John’ didn’t seem right – ha, ha, ha.
Your father and I are fine, and we miss you much. We got your letter from ‘someplace in England’. If the newsreels are any indication, you have been busy.
We’ve been listening to Gene Autry singing ‘South of the Border, Down Mexico Way.’ Gramma is baking Belgian Pies, and wanted to send you one, but we knew it would spoil before you could get it. So instead we are sending long johns, as we know from our travels that it can get cold in parts of Europe. You should sharpen your fourth language skills. My eye tells me you need them.
There are two sets of longies in the package. One set for you, and one set for Sergeant Wilson. He sent us a letter shortly after the invasion. I have no idea how he got our address, but the letter was most welcome. He seems not to have mastered cursive writing, and some of his grammar was a little off, but his message was clear. He told us you are a Lieutenant now, and that you’ve been teaching him to read and write. He also said he would follow you through the gates of hell, and that ‘against the two of us, the devil would have no chance.’
We’ve been watching newsreels lately, and recently saw one about the liberation of Paris. We looked for you, but to no avail. You may remember Mrs. Peters, from across the street. She had received one of those dreaded telegrams informing her that her husband was killed in action. She’d been sitting at home ever since, and we talked her into taking her children to see ‘Snow White’. There were the usual fillers, plus the Paris newsreel. About halfway through the newsreel, May started screaming ‘That’s Lorton! That’s Lorton!’ We got her calmed down, and asked the manager to re-run the newsreel. Sure enough, there was Lorton Peters, marching in formation past the Arc d’Triomphe. Can you beat that? We don’t know the details yet, but May is happy.
Well, that’s all for now. We know you’re busy, but write if you get a chance.
Tout Notre Amour,
Votre Mère et Père”
Carter’s mother was telling him she knew roughly where he was, and that she expected the war to last through the winter. The longies would have been useful a couple of months ago. Too bad it took so long for the mail to catch up to the troops.
They headed out. Wilson drove. En route they discussed a strategy. The POWs were being held and guarded by white soldiers. Officers were held separate from enlisted men. Wilson and Carter would wear plain field jackets, and bring coffee to the POW officers, who hopefully would not realize Carter could speak German. Maybe the German officers would say something useful.
Through two days of serving coffee and sandwiches, Carter and Wilson acquired a few nuggets. The officers believed the war was lost, and the best hope was to keep the Russians out of Berlin. They were low on fuel, and just about every other supply. Their equipment was starting to break down, and the replacements were unreliable because they were being built by Jews. Replacement troops were just children – like the little American schwarz pouring coffee. And the coffee served to POWs here was better than the swill in the German mess tents. Carter heard one German officer say it was humiliating to be losing to an army that fielded inferior races, to which another responded that the Americans must have a lot of them, because the schwarzpanzers were turning up everywhere, and coming from every direction.
Perhaps the most useful nugget was the fact that the field officers had no idea what was going on. If there was an overall strategy, they knew nothing about it.
When they got back to their own unit, Carter and Wilson showered, then went to the mess tent. As they passed through the line, a private noticed the insignia on Carter’s collar.
“Major, you could be eating at the officers’ mess . . . I mean, we’ll serve you here, and all, but we don’t get many officers.”
Carter told the private he ate with his men, and in his opinion the best food should be given to the men who took the biggest risks. He could hear the buzz in the mess tent, and before he left, every man in it could repeat some version of what was said. When Wilson came in, several of Springer’s men called for him to sit at their table. Wilson had been cautioned about not revealing what he heard from the POWs. But everyone shared a laugh about the Germans drinking coffee poured by the Negro who was stealing their wheels.
The fighting was intense for a few days longer. Then the skies cleared, and the AAF got back in the game. The Germans began to run or surrender.
In early March of ’45, the 761st began a drive to breach the Seigfred Line. As they approached the fortifications, Foley went on the air with a completely unauthorized broadcast transmitted on a channel the Germans frequently used.
“Hello out there, Germans! This is your old friend Rollin’ Foley comin’ atcha again. Today we’re going gospel with a number that seems appropriate.
Brothers! What do you say? Jericho?”
Carter couldn’t tell how many tanks responded, but it sounded like at least ten.
“Jericho! Sing it Brother!”
And Foley jumped right in.
Joshua fit the battle a Jericho, Jericho, Jericho
Joshua fit the battle a Jericho
An’ the walls come tumblin’ down.
You may talk about yo’ king o’ Gideon
You may talk about yo’ men o’ Saul
There’s none like good ol’ Joshua
At the battle a Jericho
Up to the walls a Jericho
He marched with spear in han’
“Go blow them ram horns”, Joshua cried,
“’cause this battle be in my han’.
Well the lam’ ram sheep begin to blow,
Trumpets begin to soun’ (here Woody let rip with the siren)
Joshua commanded the children to shout
An’ the walls come tumblin’ down
Shout it children!
Joshua fit the battle a Jericho, Jericho, Jericho
Joshua fit the battle a Jericho
An’ the walls come tumblin’down.”
Carter, listening on the Germans’ channel heard at least six other American tanks join a chorus. The singing was probably heard all the way to Berlin. Word would travel fast that the schwarzpanzers were verrückt.
They breached the Siegfred Line without losing a man.
Of course, Patton was livid when he heard about the singing. It didn’t fit with his concept of war any more than Bill Mauldin’s cartoons fit with Patton’s concept of American soldiers.
Which made the Negro GIs laugh. The Black Panthers were on the prowl, and it was scaring the shit out of the krauts. Wasn’t that what “Old Blood and Guts” wanted? Hell, even Springer’s men had been on the air with Jericho.
Still, Carter and Bates decided it would be best to try a more local approach.
Sweet Georgia Brown
Herve – Hervell George – was a radio repairman in civilian life. He found a loudspeaker from god-knows-where, and set it up to broadcast from Foley’s microphone. He even figured out how to patch all the tanks through the loudspeaker. With that setup, even German soldiers who didn’t have radios could hear the chorus of doom coming their way.
Which gave Carter an idea. It took some scrounging and begging, but the communications truck was soon fitted with a record player, an eclectic assortment of records, and an unusually powerful transmitter. When all was in readiness, they took to the air.
“Good evening everyone, it’s your old friend Rollin’ Foley here, with my trumpet man, Wailin’ Woody. We’re broadcasting from Radio Liberated Germany. Tonight we’re going to start with a little ragtime from Scott Joplin. It’s called ‘Wall Street Rag.’ ”
They were on the air for an hour, playing a mix of jazz, swing, ragtime, and classical. At the end of the broadcast, Foley read the names of five captured Germans. Then he told his listeners to tune in tomorrow, same time, same station, for more Rollin’ Foley.
The effect was immediate. Major Miller was in his face the next morning, before Carter could get a cup of coffee.
“Carter, what the fuck was all that about last night!? We got messages from Antwerp, Paris, and just about everyplace else in between. Was this Radio Liberated Germany shit your idea?”
“Yes, Major, as a matter of fact it was. While RLG is on the air, just about every other communication the Germans have is jammed. In this area, at least, for one hour they can’t talk to each other. And you can bet that any German civilians who heard the list of POWs will be listening tonight to hear if their sons or husbands are on the list. If the intelligence boys want, we can say we’re someplace miles from where we actually are. Frankly, I think Foley and Woody should be set up in that radio station we liberated last week. They’re natural entertainers. Our orders are to sow confusion and fear, and you have to think it scares the average German citizen to know we have the power to broadcast into their homes. Why don’t you and Colonel Bates tell the intelligence boys at GHQ that the broadcasts are meant to demoralize not only German troops, but also German civilians. I have a hunch when the Intel boys think about it a little, they’ll latch onto it like they dreamed it up themselves.”
Three days later Foley got about two dozen new records, plus a note to work in the fact that they were broadcasting from a town that was actually twenty miles south of their true location. Two days later the AAF caught a column of tanks that seemed to have bit on the misdirection.
When they crossed the Rhine on 28 March, Foley led a rousing rendition of “Lazy River”, as sung by Louis Armstrong. From that point on, every time Carter’s company rolled into a fight, Foley sang “Sweet Georgia Brown”. Often German soldiers could be seen retreating in haste. And just as often, German soldiers put up a token resistance before surrendering en masse. The battalion lost five men killed in January. Most of the losses were to panzerfausts and snipers. As they pushed deeper into Germany, Carter could see that the Germans killed or captured were getting younger and younger. Many seemed to be between fourteen and sixteen. Just like Wilson.
With Patton in Paris
Bates didn’t mince words.
“Major Miller will be taking over your company for a while. I have orders here for you to report immediately to Colonel Holloway in Paris. He’s been watching you for some time now, and he seems to like what he sees. You’re to take one man with you. You and he are to take all your gear with you. The assignment will last about a week, and there’s no telling where the battalion will be when your assignment ends. A driver is here to deliver you. You’ll leave as soon as possible, but not more than two hours from now.
The rest of what I’m about to tell you is strictly classified. You and the man you take with you are not to tell anybody anything about this mission. Do you understand? More to the point, do you agree? Once I tell you about the mission, you’re committed to it, and so is the man you choose. All I can say now it that it’s not a combat mission. Are you in?”
“Yessir. Sergeant Wilson is my choice to accompany me.”
“Good. I thought you’d pick him. There’s a meeting coming up in a couple of days. Our brass is meeting Russian brass in Paris. Patton asked specifically for you to act as a steward, and observe the Russians. I suppose he hopes the Russians will discount the possibility that you could speak their language. The hope is that you’ll overhear some candid conversations.
Go pack, and get back here fast. It’s best that you roll out before anyone can start asking questions. Even your driver knows nothing about your assignment, so keep your mouths shut until you get to GHQ. I have nothing more to say.”
Carter and Wilson were ready to leave in less than thirty minutes. Miller checked in as Carter was packing. It would be up to Miller to tell the company something. Carter figured Miller would cover the issue by plastering a few eff words on it.
The driver was Corporal Riggs. Carter rode in the passenger seat. Wilson rode in back. Riggs must have been told to ask no questions about why he was hauling these two to Paris. He’d made the trip before, always hauling officers, and he’d learned to say nothing unless he was spoken to. Eventually, they talked about other things. The weather, the massacre at Malmedy, the merits of German equipment compared to American equipment, and eventually circling back to the weather.
When they finally got to GHQ, Riggs stopped, and said he’d wait ten minutes. If Carter and Wilson didn’t come out by then, he was going back to the motor pool for gas, after which he’d connect with the next truck convoy back to battalion.
Carter and Wilson went in and asked for Colonel Holloway. After an uncomfortable ten-minute wait, Holloway came out, returned their salute, and said “Come on.”
En route Holloway explained they were going to the hotel where the generals would be meeting. Carter covered his rank insignia with a scarf, and asked Holloway if there was a service entrance they could use.
“Sir, Negro stewards wouldn’t be going through the front door in the company of an officer. If anyone’s watching that front door, our cover is blown. Plus, this may be the only opportunity we’ll get to do recon.”
“Oh, I see. Good thinking Carter.”
They walked a couple of blocks, and turned into an alley, at the end of which they found a service entrance guarded by an MP who was sitting on a crate, smoking. When he saw Holloway, he jumped up, and snapped a salute, then opened the door. Inside, they took a moment to orient themselves, passed through the dining room and lobby, then ascended a flight of stairs to a large banquet hall.
Holloway showed them around, then took them up one more floor, to a pair of rooms at the rear of the hotel.
“The Russians will occupy the front rooms on this floor, and the next. Stay away from them outside of the banquet room. Inside the banquet room, hang up their coats, keep their glasses full, and offer them lights. There’ll be serving trays brought up from the kitchen. Distribute the food to the Russians first, then to us. Your shirts and jackets are here.
Carter, your ability to remain calm will be taxed. I suspect you’ll hear things from both sides that will make you grind your teeth. Hold it in. Wilson, that goes for you too. Okay?
The first meeting is tomorrow morning, at 0900. It’s a subordinates meeting which should last about two hours. Lunch will be served by the hotel staff. You take your lunch in the kitchen, and I’ll see you there for first impressions. Now, shine your boots, and familiarize yourselves with the environment.
When their boots were properly polished, Carter and Wilson put on white jackets, and went to the banquet room. Members of the hotel staff were setting up for the meeting. Carter paid attention to where they were putting glasses, cups, dishes, and napkins. Two GIs brought in cases of liquor, which Carter stowed in a sideboard, and broom closet. Then he went to a street-side window, and drew back the blackout curtains. Wilson realized immediately that Carter was scanning the area outside the hotel, so he too started tying back curtains.
When they stepped away from the windows, the Prez remarked that the woman sitting across the street didn’t fit. She wasn’t moving, but she wasn’t begging. Carter agreed, and added that she was wearing Russian Army issue boots. After a bit, Carter went down to the kitchen, and got a mug of coffee. Wilson watched from concealment as Carter crossed the street, and offered the woman the mug. He talked to her for just a moment, then returned to the hotel.
“Prez, she’s not French. I called her a collaborator, a whore, and the daughter of a whore in French. If she’d understood what I was saying, she’d have tried to tear my eyes out. I think she’s a spotter for a Russian sniper. The question is, where’s the sniper, and who’s the target?”
“That’s two questions, sir, and I bet I know both answers. I think I saw a man on a roof across the way. And you can bet the Russians wouldn’t send a sniper team to get a couple of colored stewards. So Patton’s the target.”
“I agree. Now what are we going to do about it? We have to reach Holloway somehow.”
Carter went to the hotel manager, and asked him if he could reach Colonel Holloway. The manager said yes, and Carter told him to tell Holloway there was a problem of protocol, and Steward Carter needed to see him at the hotel immediately. The manager tried to assure Carter that the hotel could handle everything, but Carter told him to make the call or face the wrath of General Patton.
When Holloway arrived, Carter saluted, and escorted him deeper into the hotel, away from windows. There he explained about the spotter, and the possible sniper. Holloway asked Carter if he was sure about the woman, then he went to the manager’s office to make a phone call. In minutes, a civilian sedan pulled up across the street from the hotel. When it left, the woman was no longer on the sidewalk.
“Carter, whoever she is, the Free French picked her up, and will deliver her to GHQ. After the meeting, you come and talk to her, and find out what she was up to. I’m going to arrange a sweep of the roofs.”
“Colonel, I suggest you not do that. Better to delay General Patton for a day. Let us look at their delegation. I believe that’s where we’ll find the sniper. If we can’t spot him tomorrow, you can do a sweep, but for now, I think it would be best to not tip our hand.”
“Carter, have you done this kind of thing before?”
“No sir, but it’s actually a lot like combat. Know your adversary, and don’t act until you know you can win.”
“Do you think the Russians might try a bomb, like the German generals tried on Hitler?”
“Doubtful, I’d say. More likely they’ll try to figure out Patton’s movements, then try to shoot him with a German rifle so they can deny involvement.”
“Okay, tomorrow is all you’ve got. After that, Patton decides what to do. Now I have to figure out how to explain all this to him.”
The Russians arrived at 0930 the next day. Carter and Wilson poured coffee, refilled cups, lit cigarettes, and acted like invisible servants until 1130. Then they repaired to the kitchen for lunch. Holloway was already there.
“Sir, there’s a man in there, they introduced him as Colonel Grigorye. You can tell by his hands and his boots that he’s no colonel. They completely ignore him, and he says nothing during discussions. Both Wilson and I pegged him for the sniper early on.
I could only pick up snippets, but they discussed why Patton was not here, and how they would deal with it. They also mentioned that Beria would be displeased if they failed. I honestly think this whole meeting is a charade, to draw out Patton, and kill him. The only one among them who seems to carry his rank is the one called Kruschev, and he seems to be using the others as a screen to protect himself from the wrath of higher-ups.
I suggest you keep Patton away, and let Beria and Stalin deal with the failed assassination. Tell them Patton has been summoned to London to meet with Eisenhower about losing too many men and tanks. Or tell them he’s sick. Just keep him away from here. The Russians are well aware of his opinion of them, and it would seem they want him dead.”
When Patton failed to show up for the second day of the meeting, the Russians said there was little more to be accomplished in dealings with low level officers. They left by mid-afternoon. Carter couldn’t help but wonder if the pseudo-colonel was left behind to seek an opportunity to complete his task. Holloway pulled Carter aside, and said the Russian woman was being held at GHQ, but she wasn’t being talkative. Carter asked for, and was given permission to talk to her. Wilson and Carter were back at GHQ before the Russians were out of the hotel.
When they got there, Carter told Holloway that one of the last things he’d overheard was General Bulgarev wondering aloud if ‘the Americans’ realized Stalin wouldn’t pull back from any of the occupied territories.
Getting Anya to America
Anya Perchyshin was Ukrainian, not Russian, and she made sure Carter understood the difference. She’d guessed when Carter talked to her outside the hotel, that her cover was blown. Anya had two brothers fighting with the Russian Army – she knew not where they were, or even if they were still alive. Her parents were peasants who suffered mightily at the hands of the Germans, and nearly as much at the hands of the Russians. She was drafted, and assigned to be a spotter and companion for a sniper named Grigorye, giving him targets and sex. Grigorye was a good shot, but nothing special in the sex department. They prowled for two years, often behind German lines, trying to kill officers or communications specialists. They were successful enough that they were chosen to eliminate Patton – an assignment they accepted without question. It didn’t go well for soldiers in the Russian Army who questioned or refused assignments. Grigorye had no family, but Anya was told her parents would suffer if Patton was not killed.
It took Carter barely an hour to extract all this information from Anya. She was young and scared, but hard as well. She knew she couldn’t go back to her parents in the Ukraine, and she worried about what the Americans had in mind for her. Was there an American equivalent of the gulag in Siberia, where she would be dumped and forgotten?
Holloway listened to Carter’s report with ever increasing impatience.
“Shit. What do we do with her Carter? She’s not a POW. She hasn’t committed any crime against America. And if we send her back, her own people will kill her to keep her story secret. You and Wilson did a stellar job of sniffing out the Russians’ intentions, but now I’m stuck with a sniper spotter on my hands.”
“Colonel, may I make a suggestion? Send her and a couple of WACs to my mother in Chicago. From there, my mother can get her into a community where she’ll fit. My parents have ties to ethnic communities all over the Mid-West. They’ll find a place for her.”
“You think your momma would bite on something like that? You’re asking an awful lot.”
“Sir, the mightiest army in the world should have no trouble losing one woman in Chicago. I’ll write a letter to Mother. Dress ‘Private’ Perchyshin as a WAC, send her off with one or two other WACs, and you’re done with the whole mess.”
And so it came to pass that Anya Perchyshin ended up working in a gift shop in a Ukrainian neighborhood in Chicago. Her escort consisted of one WAC, and the route passed through London, Liverpool, and New York City.
Six weeks later, Carter received a letter from home that said simply “Well, that was interesting. Love, Mom”
VE Day, Anya’s Parents and The Revelation
Spring in Bavaria was almost like a vacation. Almost. The people of Teisendorf didn’t care for the American occupiers – especially the schwarze Männer. Salzburg was generally off-limits. When they were allowed out of camp, the Negro tankers were told to travel in groups of three to five. A bigger group might be seen as threatening. A smaller group, or a lone GI might be assaulted. Carter noticed that Springer issued the same directive to his men. Because he was an officer, and spoke German, Carter had frequent dealings with the Germans in both Teisendorf and Salzburg. Whenever possible, he tried to bring a couple of his men with him. He felt it would be good for both the soldiers, and the townspeople to see each other, and interact as human beings rather than adversaries. Even so, the Americans never quite got over the idea that it was Germans who were responsible for Malmedy, Wereth, Stavelot, and worst of all, the concentration camps. More than a few GIs, white and colored, were of a mind to shoot Germans for even the least provocation.
Spring in Bavaria was not quite a vacation.
Still, Carter was satisfied with his lot. He was able to see Germany, and Germans. His language skills got a workout. He sent and received letters, and he was able to sleep through the night without being called to battle. When he returned to the battalion after one session in Berlin, he went to the maintenance area for an update from Sergeant Coffy. Even at a distance, he could smell paint. The smell of paint was stronger in the warehouse the support group had commandeered, and it took Carter’s eyes a second to adjust to the dimmer light. His attention was instantly drawn to a fire truck in a back corner.
“What is THAT?”
Coffy beamed. “Well, I guess that’s the town fire truck. She’s just about ready to go back into service. Everything works, plus we added a siren and extra lights to shine on the truck bed. The chassis is pretty much the same as some of the Wehrmacht trucks. Took us a while to find a windshield off a wreck, but other than that, it was an easy fix.”
“Joe” Coffey was six-two, and a shade under two hundred pounds. He was too big for any job inside a tank. In an integrated army, his experience with earth-moving equipment would have landed him in an engineering battalion. Here, among the tanks, he was a commodity more precious than rubies. His open face betrayed every emotion, and right now Carter could see Coffy was disappointed that his captain didn’t share the excitement of a new vehicle.
“Joe, where did you get that thing, and WHY?”
“Major, we been sitting on our asses around here for a few weeks now. We fixed every tank we have. We fixed every truck we have. We even started pulling in fifties from the infantry, and greasing them. Some of the boys didn’t much like doing that, by the way. Made ‘em feel like servants. The fire truck was in the fire station, which got shot up a little bit when we first got here. The locals fixed up the building, and we went to work on the truck. We prowled around, and found lots of usable parts on shot-up trucks.
Now, as to why, you’re gone for days at a time. After we’d fixed everything twice, I needed ways to keep the boys sharp. Some of ‘em took to snooping around in the houses. They’d come back with stuff, which is looting. What’s the penalty for looting? As you know, it’s death, and it’s doubtful a Negro would be spared. Some of the boys started bringing back wine or liquor. Then the Germans started straggling in. We were feeding ‘em, and giving out coffee. Now, most of ‘em have been okay, but you can see some resent the ‘swarts’ being in their town. Plus, there are some women here.
Anyway, I thought it would be better to keep the boys busy. Was I wrong?”
“No, you weren’t wrong. You did everything right.”
“Good. Then maybe you won’t be pissed about the cueball wagons. You know we had two of ‘em, but that damn Miller saw one and snatched it from us. Every fourth word outta that man’s mouth is some derivative of fuck. Anyway, the one you have has full canvas. It’s been handy in crappy weather. There was lots of shot-up KWs all over. We dragged a bunch of ‘em in, and got some of ‘em running. We got six working KWs now. I think we should paint one up in black, and give it to the mayor here. Maybe do two in black and white for the local police, then do up one in red for the fire department, and one in white for an ambulance of sorts. Then we let the townspeople decide what to do with the last one. What do you think?”
“You gonna get permission from HQ?”
“And let them horse it all up? No. Just keep your mouth shut about what you’re doing, and get it done.”
So life as an army of occupation presented challenges.
And then Bates summoned him.
“Carter, you remember Holloway? He’s in the OSS, and he wants you to serve with him. Says they desperately need people who can analyze data, and make sound assessments from it. I told him I’d talk to you.
Personally, I think you’d be good at that sort of stuff, but I have to tell you, I have misgivings about Holloway. He never said one word to me about what you and Wilson did in Paris, but he told plenty of other people that he foiled a plot to kill Patton. I wonder about that. I’m thinking you two foiled the plot, and he grabbed the glory.”
“Sir, I guess I’m not supposed to talk about that business in Paris, but I too have misgivings. As near as I can tell, Holloway set up practically everything about the meeting. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually planted the idea to have the meeting in the first place. He set the schedule, picked the site, chose the menu, and arranged transportation. And yet, for all that detail, he never did a security sweep of the surrounding area. I mean, that’s a basic act of warfare. So, I have misgivings about him too.”
“Are you saying you think he might have been plotting against Patton? That’s a damn serious charge to make against a fellow officer – especially against one who outranks you.”
“Colonel, I’m not saying he was plotting anything against anybody. I’m just saying I have misgivings. He might be sloppy, or dumb. Heck, knowing the demands Patton made on his staff, Holloway was probably stressed to the point of collapse, and that alone might be enough to account for the errors. Regardless of the reason, that sniper got into a position to kill somebody, and it seems unlikely the Russians would spend that much effort to take out a junior officer.
Now, I’ve got other thoughts about Patton as a target, but I’ve probably said too much, and I’m going to clam up. If Holloway needs a reply, I suggest you tell him I need some time to think on his offer – maybe two weeks?”
Ten days later Carter asked Bates to arrange a meeting with Holloway, preferably at battalion headquarters, with Bates present. Carter said he expected Holloway to balk at that, and the reason for those conditions was to work out a plan to conceal Carter’s transfer. Bates said he didn’t want Carter to leave, but he wouldn’t stand in the way, either. They met three days later.
“Colonel Holloway, I’m willing to take on your assignment if I can retain my present rank of major. Will that be okay?”
“Yes, Carter. There was never a thought of reducing your rank.”
Carter could tell that Holloway was lying. He’d be a pushover in a barracks poker game.
“Good. With that set, here’s what I suggest. Why don’t I go on extended leave from this battalion. We can tell the men I’m going to interrogate POWs for you. What I propose to do, in fact, is to travel to Russia, Ukraine and Poland to familiarize myself with the people and geography of those countries. I see Poland and Ukraine as especially high priorities in any action against Russia. Ukraine in particular looks like a place where an amphibious attack could strike deep into Russia. Regarding Poland, we should be able to get plenty of information from the Poles we fought with, and from German POWs.
Sirs, since I’ve agreed to transfer to the OSS, I suggest that we treat all of this discussion as classified. Do we proceed?”
Holloway agreed to everything, and Carter could see that he was already thinking about ways to use Carter’s assessment of Ukraine.
Bates, always the pragmatist asked: “How do you propose to get into these countries? Sneak in? You won’t exactly blend in.”
Carter said he would go as an American officer on leave, through Greece, into Turkey, and from there, by boat to Ukraine.
Holloway looked at Carter for a moment, and smiled. “You want to get that Anya woman’s parents out, don’t you? I’m not as dumb as I look, and not as heartless as you think. I know a man who can get them out. Why don’t we have the two of you travel together. You identify the parents, and distract the Russian intelligence agents who are sure to be watching you. He’ll handle the extraction. Does he take them to Chicago too?
Carter, I’ve been dealing with devious people for some time now. Don’t look so surprised. You want to help those people, and I want your help at OSS. It’s a trade I’m willing to make. Just for the record, you’re aware of the danger in what you’re planning, right?”
Carter sent a letter to his folks, telling them to expect more visitors. It took Holloway three days to set up the itinerary. Riggs drove Carter to Munich, where, according to the cover story, Carter would be interrogating POWs. Holloway introduced Carter to Lieutenant Nikolas Pokochev. They left Munich less than an hour after Riggs dropped Carter at the Munich MP headquarters. They traveled by air to Rome, Athens, and Istanbul. A diplomatic car took them to Sinop, where they caught a ferry to Sevastopol. The ferry service had only recently been reactivated, and the trip was distinctly free of frills. A no-frills train ride to Kiev was met by a secretary from the U.S. Embassy. She took them to a bank, where they exchanged currency, and then to the embassy. They were given a cheap Russian car, of pre-war vintage. The secretary was the only person they spoke to at the embassy. Carter and Pokochev spent a few days sightseeing in Kiev, then drove to Lvov. From there they drove to Tarnopol. Carter knew that Anya’s parents had lived near Zbarazh, and he had approximate directions to where they’d made their home before the war. The problem was that between the Germans, Poles, and Russians, Ukraine was so thoroughly devastated that few landmarks remained. Carter was pleased to find a small part of an Eastern Rite church still standing. But how would he find two elderly people – assuming they were still alive – amid all the destruction. Pokochev went on a hunt for fuel. Carter sat down on one pew that was mostly undamaged. Part of the area around the altar was protected by a crude shelter.
As he sat there, Carter felt a strange peace descend on him, and he didn’t know if he was awake or asleep. A hand on his shoulder brought him out of his reverie, and back to the here and now. A priest of indeterminate age spoke to him in a Ukrainian-accented Russian.
Roughly translated, the priest said: “You’ve had a long journey, and you have a long journey ahead of you. God’s will brought you here, and I’m an instrument of God’s will. How can I help you?”
Carter described Anya, and her parents. The priest knew immediately of whom Carter spoke.
“Father, I have news of Anya for her parents. If they’re still alive, can you put me in touch with them?”
“They are alive, and near. They try to rebuild their home, but without their sons or daughter, the work is very difficult. When your friend returns with the car, we’ll go to see them, but we’ll have to take a roundabout route. There is a secret service man following you. He’s on foot, so losing him shouldn’t be too difficult. He follows me sometimes. Now we will put on a little show for him.” The priest unfolded a stole of some sort, placed it around his neck, and buttoned it. Then he told Carter to recite his sins, and receive absolution. Carter was at a loss for words, especially since he was trying to find Russian words, so he simply told the priest he was a sinner, and he hoped God would forgive his sins. The priest said God forgives the sins of those who repent, then he made the Sign of the Cross over Carter, and stood up.
“Your friend is back. Now we go to find the people you seek.”
They easily shook the secret service man. The priest led them to what could only be described as a shed built of scraps of salvaged lumber. A man and woman emerged, drawn out by the sound of the car. They bowed and crossed themselves before the priest.
It took Carter barely five minutes to explain the situation to Anya’s parents. They were both crying at the sight of the photograph Carter showed them. He asked them if they wanted to go to America to live with Anya, and he cautioned them that they would have to leave everything behind. Anya’s father laughed, and said they had nothing to leave.
Carter took the biggest blanket he could find, and told the priest to cover the couple when they neared town. The priest, who seemed to have some experience in such things, cautioned the couple to get down as low as they could, and remain silent until they were clear of town. Pokochev drove straight through town, and back to the burnt out church. There the priest got out of the car, and blessed it and its’ occupants.
“Carter, we’re gonna beat feet back to Kiev. There’s a couple of gas cans in the trunk, which I hope will be enough for the trip. At the embassy, those folks can seek asylum, and we’ll ship them out the way we came. That’s not what I originally planned, but it looks like the safest way out. How’s that sound to you?”
“That’s good. Are we being followed?”
“Don’t think so, but you can bet that somebody, somewhere is making calls about us, which is why we aren’t stopping.”
Carter told Anya’s parents they could get up, and they did so with a show of stretching. Carter explained to them what was happening, and what was planned. There was a tense moment when they passed through a checkpoint near Kiev, but apparently the word hadn’t been circulated all the way down to the troops yet. When they arrived at the embassy, one of the guards made a call, and the secretary came to the gate to wave them in. They stayed in Kiev for the better part of a week, and then flew with the diplomatic pouch direct to Munich. Holloway had all the transit arrangements in place through to Chicago, even down to the WAC who’d accompanied Anya.
Carter thought he could get used to the royal treatment OSS afforded. But life in Munich proved to be much different, and not nearly as exciting. He spent the next six months interviewing POWs, deciding who to release, and who to hold for closer scrutiny. He extracted thousands of pieces of information about everything from the German buzz bombs to Goebbels’ favorite food. And of course, he helped Holloway prepare a brief on the possibility of warfare against Russia by way of Ukraine.
Bit by bit, the battalion was demobilizing. Springer and his men were the first to go stateside. Then half of the tankers and support group shipped out. Holloway, acting on a suggestion from Carter, snatched Foley and Woody. They were set up in a high-powered radio station, and could be heard every evening for an hour of mostly music, but also some news. Eventually, their show expanded to four hours per day, and they formed a small jazz band made up of GIs.
Finally one day Wilson showed up in Munich, and said he was shipping out in a week. He was worried. He didn’t know where his home was, and he had no idea what to do if he actually got there anyway. Carter used OSS resources to telegraph his parents:
another refugee en route stop special case stop hold this one until I get home stop name is woodrow wilson stop he will arrive by train and will call when in chicago stop you’ll both like the prez stop benjamin ends
Getting Wilson to Wyoming
During the first weeks of boot camp, Carter discovered that Wilson had no real concept of money. Carter had to show him how to convert his paycheck to cash, and then show him what he could get at the Post Exchange. Now that Wilson was heading back to the States, Carter asked him if he had money to pay train fare to Chicago. Wilson said he thought so, and Carter was horrified when The Prez pulled a wad of bills from his pocket. Wilson hadn’t spent more than a few dollars of his pay. He’d marched across Europe with over three thousand dollars in his pocket. A Negro carrying that kind of money in the states would be an easy target for unscrupulous people of all stripes. Heck, Carter thought, Wilson wouldn’t even be safe on a troop ship with that kind of cash. They arranged for a wire transfer, and set up an account at the bank Carter used in Chicago. Wilson kept five hundred dollars in cash, and Carter told him to not buy anything but food and train tickets until he got to Chicago. He also told Wilson to spread the money out on his person, and never show anyone more than fifty dollars. When Wilson arrived at Chicago, he had just under four hundred dollars left. He tried to give that money to Carter’s parents, but they refused it.
CeeCee and Martin Carter took an immediate liking to Woodrow Wilson, in large part because he was such an apt student. It was almost a year before Major Benjamin Carter came home on leave to Chicago. In that time, Wilson acquired a working knowledge of French and German. The Carters and Wilson discussed the future. Carter told his parents about the LaRocue Ranch at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. CeeCee and Martin were disappointed that Wilson would be leaving, but they knew he wasn’t a city person. Wilson closed his bank account, and hugged Carter’s parents. Then he and Carter spent four days riding trains to Jackson Hole. A phone call from a café reached retired Sergeant LaRocue, who drove into town to pick them up. LaRocue was surprised at how heavy Wilson’s duffle bag was. The weight of the foot locker surprised him even more.
“What the hell you got in these things, Wilson?”
“Well Sarge, let’s have a look.”
Wilson opened the footlocker, which held a disassembled German machine gun and two ammunition belts, plus a spare pair of boots and some clothes. The duffel bag was mostly filled with underwear, socks and towels, but there was also a disassembled Garand, and a couple of hundred rounds of ammunition. Deeper down, lay a .45 with fifty rounds of ammunition.
“Jeeziz, Wilson, you planning on starting another war?”
“Sarge, I figure the Germans don’t need the machinegun any more, and I hauled that Garand across Europe and back. I have as much right to it as the army does. I just wish I could have brought home a kubelwagen, or maybe a panzer.”
They got everything stowed, and LaRocue introduced Wilson and Carter to his parents. Then they went on a tour of the ranch buildings. There was still a few hours of daylight left, and LaRocue suggested they go for a ride. There were three horses already saddled, each of them sleek and solid. These were working horses. Each horse had a scabbard and carbine attached to the saddle. Wilson pulled out one of the carbines, and hefted it.
“No sir, this is not much of a gun. I’ll be right back.”
When he returned from the ranch house, he was carrying the reassembled Garand, and wearing a borrowed cowboy hat.
“Gotta get me a hat like this one, pardner.”
He slid the rifle in the scabbard, and looked the horse in the eye. When he hopped on, Carter saw the smile as wide and as white as the marking between the horse’s eyes.
Wilson was where he was meant to be.
Carter returned to Munich.
When the OSS folded, Carter was offered his choice of plum assignments. Did he want to stay in intelligence services? As a translator? Analyst? Strategist? Did he want to go back to tanks as a battalion commander? What about a teaching position at West Point? He could teach languages, or maybe even create a new course in threat recognition and battlefield awareness.
Holloway, now a brigadier general, asked him to be his adjutant in a new intelligence outfit.
“Carter, I know you think I set Patton up, but that’s not true. The idea for that meeting in Paris came from higher up. I got the assignment from Bradley’s adjutant, but it may have come from even higher. It was Patton’s idea to bring you and Wilson in. He knew about your surreptitious intel gathering among the POWs. I spent two weeks, working day and night, to set things up. It took three days to arrange your part of the plan, so you can imagine how long it took to set things up with the Russians. I admit that I never gave a thought to the Russians as adversaries.
You’ve been a tremendous help to me, and I realize that. If we stick together, I can get you a promotion and a significant position at the Pentagon or wherever the new intelligence structure is set up.
Now, speaking honestly, I doubt that a mostly white tank battalion would respond well to a Negro commander. And I know West Point. The Cadets probably wouldn’t respond well to a Negro instructor who presumed to tell them how to do battle.
I know how you used mental and tactical tricks to keep your tankers alive. The intelligence services need that kind of thinking on a grander scale. The problem I see is that the white officers corps probably won’t accept your ideas any more than a tank battalion would. I can push your ideas, and in time we can see that you get the credit you deserve.
What do you say?”
“General, that was some pep talk. A captain from the navy asked me to join their intelligence service, and Colonel Bates wants me to stay in armor. Can you give me some leave, so I can go home and talk to my folks about all this?”
“Alright Carter, starting at midnight, you’re on thirty-day leave. I expect to see you in this office thirty days from now. Since this is not a covert operation, you’re on your own to arrange and pay for transportation. You can probably get a flight from here to London on MATS. Get moving.”
Carter caught a military air transportation service flight to London, which was crawling with American GIs waiting to ship out for home. He took a train to Liverpool, and was greeted by much the same scene. Rather than wait for a troop ship, he booked passage on a Cunarder. The trip to New York was rough, but the ship was lighted up at night, and Carter never had a problem getting his sea legs. New York was giddy and busy, but he didn’t stay. Chicago looked unchanged – in fact to Carter’s eye, it looked like it hadn’t changed in five years. Carter’s parents greeted him warmly, and showed him letters from Wilson, one of which revealed The Prez had invested in livestock with LaRocue. Beef was back on the table all across the country, and though the price of beef was still controlled, the size of the market made stockmen, if not rich, at least comfortable.
There was no news from Anya. After a couple of days at home, Carter hopped a cab to St. Nicholas Church in Ukrainian Village. The driver was happy for the fare, but grumbled about the empty ride back downtown. Not my problem, Carter thought.
Carter walked into the church, and sat in a pew about half-way up the center aisle. Several people sat or knelt in prayer, and a priest made some kind of preparations at the altar. As had happened in Ukraine, Carter felt a strange, almost disturbing peace surround him. In time, the priest came and spoke.
“You’re Benjamin Carter, aren’t you. I know your parents well. Please wait here for a bit. There’s something I must do, and then I would like to talk to you. You’ve traveled far, and seen much, but I think you still have a ways to go.”
Carter nodded, and the priest left.
It was perhaps a half-hour before he returned with Anya and her parents. The three Ukrainians hugged Carter fiercely, and Anya’s father kept repeating something Carter couldn’t understand.
The priest told Carter they were calling him their savior, which Carter promptly denied.
“Major Carter, I know what you did for them. Perhaps you’re not a savior, but you surely are a good man. These three people would have died in one of Stalin’s pogroms. No one else was willing to help them.”
“Father, how can I be a good man? I’ve killed men. I’ve sent men to kill and to be killed.”
“You saw what the Nazis did to Jews. What would have happened if they had succeeded in Hitler’s plan? If you stood by, and allowed such evil to go unchallenged, would you consider yourself a good man?
In any case, your journey isn’t over. What you do with the rest of your life will determine whether you’re a good man, or not.”
They talked for a while, then Anya returned to her work. Her parents sat in church with Carter a bit longer, until the priest told them Carter needed time to pray. They hugged him, and left. The priest returned to his preparations, and Carter was left in the company of his own thoughts.
When he returned to Munich, Carter told Holloway he was resigning his commission at the end of the year. Holloway was shocked and disappointed, but nothing he said swayed Carter’s decision.
Carter was a seminarian in Istanbul when the North Koreans invaded South Korea. He was never called back to the army.
Wilson wasn’t called back either, probably because his name was simply lost in the shuffle.
They were both where they were meant to be, and neither saw the other again.
One of the difficult, and sometimes mysterious things I encountered while writing “The Prophet” (and other stories) was naming characters. My protagonist in “The Prophet” is Benjamin Carter, a name I chose before I committed a single word to digital paper. Benjamin Carter is pure fiction. As I write this note, I have just learned that Sergeant Eddie Carter is one of the heroes who served in the 761st Tank Battalion. Sgt. Eddie Carter was a true hero, but it took America fifty-two years to recognize him.
Those of you who are curious enough about the 761st (Black Panthers) Tank Battalion can find a very simple account of their actions here: