John D. Beatty is a writer of fiction and non-fiction in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is a veteran of ofer twenty years service in the US Army, and the author of Crop Duster, a novel of the air war in Europe in 1943, and The Sword of Prometheus, a history of flame weapons, and several short stories in both print and electronic publications. He is also a contributor to the Greenwood Encyclopedia of WWII in Europe, due for publication in 1997.
John notes: "This story jumped into my head real late one night, and it still wakes me up with the sweats."
Cold. You never knew you could be so cold. Standing in a hole in the ground on top of a barren ridge in the dead of winter, wearing every piece of clothing you can put on, ain't helping, either.
And tired. Your eyes burn from holding them open, every inch of you aches from shivering. You're bone-weary but you know you can't sleep. You lean back in your hole, adjust your belt so the hooks don't dig into your back. You brace your knees on the other side of the hole. The cold from the earth sinks deep into your joints, but you've got to give your back and neck a rest from wearing this steel brain bucket. You watch.
God, it's dark, you think. And quiet. No birds, no wind, no insects, no nothing. Like you left the real word of life for this frozen desert, this hole on the top of a ridge as long as three counties.
Somewhere out in front of you there's about a million Chinese that want to get you out of your hole, off your ridge. You can't hear or see them, but you know they are somewhere out in that midnight desolate blackness they are massing, sneaking, moving, plotting. You and a half million other guys in a line of holes stretching from sea to sea, hold on in frigid darkness against a tide of humanity determined to throw you out...
What was that? Scuffling? Out to the left? You scan the horizon, looking out of the corner of you eyes, since you can't see straight ahead in this pitch dark. You track with your rifle, tempted to pitch a grenade. Could be your listening post, you hope, or just your imagination. In a few minutes you relax a bit.
In your hole with you is your best friend in the world that you just met last week. His name's Rawson and he's from some little bullshit burg in Wyoming or Washington or someplace like that. Like you he got drafted in '46 and stayed in the Reserves. His older brother was wounded in Italy, his uncle was a merchant sailor in the Pacific, and his father made gear-hobbing machines during the last war. That's all you know about him, but he's your best friend because you've shared the same holes, dug the same latrines, eaten the same rations since you met. And right about now you're thinking he's the only friend you've ever had.
There it is again! That sound could be sneakers on frozen ground, or padded uniform jackets against burp guns. You reach for a grenade and nudge Rawson.
He peers in the same direction, sighting on nothing two feet above the ground and twenty yards out, just about where that crested knoll was off to the left, that little blind spot the Lieutenant was so worried about. You think about the LP out there, but not for long. If it's Chinks this close their throats are already cut. The sound doesn't return. You wait, scan, shiver.
Your own dad was on Guadalcanal, never talked about it. After the 'Canal they brought him back to the 'States and he spent the rest of the war at Camp Pendleton. All those places they wrote about in books and the papers -- Mantanikau River, Tassafaronga Point. He never even brought it up. They didn't even tap him for the invasion of Japan, which thank Christ never had to happen 'cause we got the A-bomb and...
There! Again! This time there was movement and sound. You pull out the grenade again, yank the pin, cock your arm, and you hear a whuff whuff whuff over your head...
Shit. You drop to the bottom of your hole clutching your pineapple.
Ba-lang! The Commie stick grenade goes off somewhere behind you. You and Rawson spring up. You pitch your grenade. Rawson opens fire with his Garand. The machine gun on your left fires where you throw, and the BAR in the next hole peppers the same place. A burp gun rattles, flashes dimly in the dark, another grenade whuffs, end over end, off to your left. You and half the platoon empty a clip at where it might have come from...
Then nothing. Quiet, cold return, black midnight made blacker by the fury and suddenness of its violation and return. The cold bites your upper lip, tugs at your nose. There's shuffling behind you but you don't panic: too noisy to be a Chinese, has to be an American.
"Willis, Rawson," your squad leader whispers just behind the berm in back of your hole.
"Yeah," you whisper back. He shuffles off again, duty done. He isn't such a bad sort, you think. Your last squad leader was a real square, a retread from the last war, fought in North Africa. Real Audie Murphy-type 'till he stepped on a mine about three months back...
God, what a racket, you think. Out there...
"Trip flare!" somebody shouts. Gotta be a replacement...
As the lone trip flare arcs up the platoon opens fire, and earth and sky seem to explode. Bursting grenades flash. The fifty- caliber behind you fires and every round socks your eyeballs as their shock waves pass overhead.
Both platoon thirty-caliber machine guns cut loose. Icy-red tendrils of tracer bullets probe the dark. Eight BARs and forty rifles erupt from the string of holes. Grenades and burp gun tracers rise to meet the curtain of fire from the ridge. Your rifle bucks and jumps as you fire, then the splang of the empty clip and the thud of the bolt locking back. You fiddle with numb fingers, zip in another clip. The bolt snaps forward catching your middle finger. Again. Rawson pitches a grenade. You come up with your rifle...
Artillery, you think, your ears still ringing and your head pounding, gravel bouncing off your steel pot. Real honest to God Chink artillery Christ they never use artillery just mortars I want to know what in the Hell is going on when did they get artillery only maybe it's a short round one of ours...
Shush shush shush...
"Hit the dirt" you hear yourself yell. Now that's more like it, you think.
Now we're on familiar territory now they're using mortars OK now I know what's what...
A whistle a Goddamn penny whistle for the love of it and now look at 'em Jesus Christ that must be half of goddamn China just come here to kick me the Hell out of this icebox of a country well just let me outta here and they can have it here they come...
In the ghostly light of the grey-white flares swinging overhead and the flash and streak of red balls of gunfire, you see an amorphous blob of grey movement on the grey ground. The firing gets louder, artillery crashes, you hug your hole and fix your bayonet whuff whuff whuff and get out the shovel whuff whuff whuff "Grenade!" crack crack splang thud another clip.
"Aw shit I'm hit ahhhh..."
A Chinese right on top of you. He doesn't see you but you see him. Wham wham and down he goes. This's the last of your ammo, and there's another Chink. Blam splang thud "Rawson! You got ammo?"
"Yeah not bad just stings some..."
"Christ they see us now GET DOWN!" you yell as a grenade bounces off the back berm into the hole. You kick the grenade into your sump hole. It rattles down. You and Rawson your best friend in the whole world hug the opposite ends of the hole the only hole in the world the place you live...
You find yourself halfway out of your hole and Rawson is pulling you back in, still firing away. You can't feel your face. Where's your rifle? "You OK," Rawson shouts.
"Yeah where's my rifle?" you holler back.
"Dunno. Too close to the grenade I think. Go find one."
The noise seems to die down. Or you're going deaf, you decide. You crawl out of the hole, flashes and explosions all around. You crawl, defenseless, up the rise, past the fifty-caliber and the mortars, through a couple of cracks in the rock, to the platoon CP's hollow. The Lieutenant is shouting on the sound- powered phone, trying to get the artillery to lift and shift. Byers the platoon sergeant and the RTOs are taking shots at Chinese popping up around them from the shadows.
"My rifle got smashed," you shout at Byers. He looks at you, suspicious, and hands you a BAR and a bandolier of ammo.
"Get back up there," he shouts back. You scramble out of the hollow, crawl back towards your hole, chest rattling from the explosions around you. A Chinese squad runs and jumps over you while you're in a crack, catching your breath. You swing the BAR on the last two; they fall, motionless.
You decide this ain't that bad a place to be for a while, 'specially since it looks like you're fighting a night overrun. Another flare goes up over the hilltop, punctuating your thought. A spike bayonet jabs down at you, misses your leg by at least a half an inch. You swing the BAR up, squeeze the trigger. His head disappears in a dark mist against the flare-lit sky.
Time to move maybe, and not a second too soon because two grenades rattle into the crack. You swing around again let fly a dozen rounds. There's Rawson with a Chinese over the hole swinging his entrenching tool. Whump somewhere behind you... everything's in slow motion... quiet... you fire again... you're falling down... you fire another burst... they fall in a silent ballet... another flare goes up... but everything goes black...
Quiet again. Cold. Cordite, magnesium and white phosphorous stings your nose. Around you are motionless lumps of dead Chinese, grey in the dawn light.
A corpsman shakes you again. You get to your knees and pick up the BAR, collecting your wits and strength. The corpsman walks off. Guys sit around holes, smoking, eating, heating water. There's the sun, just under a cloud bank, a yellow sliver after the grey and red night.
You shuffle back to your hole, head ringing, body stiff. Rawson sucks on a frozen candy bar, a mittened hand wrapped in a bandage, sitting on the rim of your hole. Guys are sitting around the holes, standing, smoking.
"There you are," Rawson says. "Sarge was looking you a few minutes ago. You OK?"
"Yeah," you say. "You all right?"
"Yeah. Corpsman gave me this a few minutes ago," he waves his bandaged hand. "Frag went straight through. Says I'll be evac'd this morning.
Where'd you go?"
"Back to the CP," you say, turning to look back the thirty yards or so that seemed so far last night. "Sergeant Byers gave me this BAR and I got caught in some mortar bursts and a little firefight on the way back, I guess. Knocked me out. I guess they broke through for a while. How'd we do?"
"Some of 'em got past the third squad over on the right, and they got caught plenty, but now we've found you our squad didn't lose anyone. CP got a mortar shell. Lieutenant's dead, Byers got a million-dollar wound."
And the line didn't break, you think, watching the sliver of sunrise, the clouds moving off.
Down in the bottom of the hole is your shattered Garand, the stock splintered by the grenade detonating in the sump. The metal is white-frozen in the mud at the bottom. The blood of the Chinese Rawson got with his entrenching tool mingled in the morass. The corpsmen are checking the motionless hummocks dotting the ridge. Some guys are dragging the dead away, eating, stacking weapons, drinking coffee.
You held the line for one more night. Your squad'll be one short tonight, but maybe they won't be back. But for now you've got a BAR. And your squad is OK except for Rawson, who'll be gone for a week or so.
A breeze blows up from the south, warmer than the cold north wind of yesterday. Maybe today won't be so cold, you hope. Maybe tonight won't be so dark. And maybe, sometime today, you'll get a new best friend.
But at least there is a today, and that means there just might be a tonight and maybe even a tomorrow.