A Short Story
It was the last major battle of the war but, of course, we didn’t know that. It had lasted nine days so far, largely because they couldn’t get tanks across the river. At the edge of town away from the river were two large hills from which our artillery observers could direct fire, and as long as we held these it wasn’t over.
I was in command of a small group of a dozen officers and enlisted men, SS, Volksturm, even Hitler Youth, who came together through the chaos of the nine days and now found themselves in a hidden underground bunker at the base of one of the hills, waiting and watching, the only barrier to the hill. We had been in this place for a night and into the next day when, about mid-day, an American patrol appeared, working its way up the hill, first the scout, then two — three — four — five ——six — seven. I could tell the squad leader was number two. Now they were all in our rifle sights, easy prey. I held up my hand and quietly gave the command: “Hold your fire!”.
We let them pass.
And that’s how our war ended. As they passed out of sight someone began to sing and then all of us. We sang all of the old songs we had sung in victory and defeat and could not command the tears.
We knew the hill top to be unoccupied. We waited. In about an hour they appeared again, coming back. Now they could hear the singing and they crawled toward the bunker. The squad leader called, “Kommen sie aus. handen hoch”, which we did. We had heard that many captives had been shot and we could only hope. And we were lucky.
The American squad leader was a boy of no more than nineteen. We had left our weapons in the bunker, were relieved of things like binoculars, and were taken to their command post. Home became a possibility.
It had been about nine days since we crossed the river. In spite of all the casualties my squad, already down to seven, hadn’t lost anyone. Despite leading the crossing, being trapped, and having a grenade fall in our midst, we were unscathed. The company had now fought through the town and was at the foot of a hill from which the Germans had been directing artillery fire. We had been there overnight, and in the morning the platoon commander told me they didn’t know whether the hill was still occupied and my squad was to find out.
At that time the squad, as best I can recall, consisted of Calvin Kemble, Emmett Jordan, Frank Roske, Joe Stern, Harry Smith, possibly John Repic, and me. So we started out. At the base of the hill was an alley which we had to cross. Fearing it might be raked by fire as we crossed it, we crossed very quickly; all except Joe Stern, that is. Joe hadn’t quite grasped the idea, and he stopped in the alley to look both ways. But there was no fire and we proceeded on, spread out in a line toward the hill. I don’t remember anything about the ascent, but at the top we found no one and we started back by the same route.
We had nearly reached the alley when we heard singing coming from a bunker or cellar. We crawled toward it and when we reached it I called, “Kommen sie aus – handen hoch”, “Come out – hands high”, and they did. There were a dozen or so of them, officers and enlisted men. They had decided their war was over. We took them to company headquarters. I have a pair of binoculars I took from their commander.
It was clear that had they chosen they could have easily killed us all as we passed them on our way up the hill. There are three to whom I know I owed my life during the war. Two were German, one of them this officer who must have said, “Hold your fire”.
Tag : Infantry
Talking to a High School Class About the War
When I talk to them about the war
I tell them of the ones we left behind
To be gold stars in grieving windowpanes,
How if you live they’re what you think about
And glory isn’t even in your mind.
And what of those caught in your rifle’s sight?
Those, too, you think about, for they as you
Trudged in the mud, lay fearful in the night
And dreamed of home. Those, too, you think about,
. . . those, too . . .
It seems unfair, considering all,
That I am here in this place now
With eighty summers on my brow
And you are there in Epinal
Among our comrades sleeping there.
That I can hear the robins sing
And see the almond tree in spring
And you are there. It isn’t fair.
Flowers, if you grow in Epinal,
Grow near where Robert lies.
I will dream that he has eyes
And sees some fairness after all.
I remember the river,
The small boats, and the far shore
And, beyond, the broken wall,
The buildings, torn by war,
And fallen comrades.
I remember the catwalk and the factory,
The voices down below,
The grenade that fell among us, silent,
As if warning us to go.
I remember midnight,
And vivid in my mind,
Retreat, the burning catwalk, safety,
But a comrade left behind
Somewhere in the dark.
And I remember morning
And Roske coming back unharmed.
In bare December woods we lie
On frozen ground to wait and try
To look through distant trees to see
If we will live or we will die.
No hero’s choice has put me here
Caught between two kinds of fear,
One of safety bought with scorn,
And one of duty bought most dear.
At a hushed command I rise.
To those behind I am their eyes
Or, more, their blind man’s cane that probes
Until it meets with some surprise.
And now I fearful move ahead
Toward the forest-hidden dread,
True to them and true to me.
There’s little more that can be said.
American Cemetery, Epinal, France
If he knew fear, I did not see.
He was a brother’s arm to me,
And when he fell, fell part of me.
Once, in a contested place,
I often wonder who he was
Or if before the end he fell,
Das Treffen (The Meeting)
(Translated by Alan Raclawski and Joe Stolz)
Einmal, an einem umkämpften Ort,
Ich frage mich oft, wer er war
Oder wenn vor dem Ende gefallen ist,