In honor of Veteran's Day, I submit the following.
Artillery shells screamed overhead while explosions threw soil and rocks into the air. The ground was pock marked with the craters from spent munitions. Bodies from both armies lay scattered about, awkward and dangling, some still locked in the motions of a lost battle.
“MEDIC! MEDIC!” a terrified voice echoed in the darkness. When no reply came, the call was repeated in earnest, “MEDIC!”
A medic was kneeling, perched over the dying frame of a young soldier gasping greedily at his last breaths while moaning, “Mama” just before expiring. The medic rolled him back onto his stomach and responded to the panicked voice calling him. He found the young man lying in a crater clinging to a dismembered leg.
The young man gratefully acknowledged him, “Man, I thought you were hit, too. I’ve been calling you for five minutes now.” A shell exploded a few feet away, showering them with debris. The constant thumping of the tank mounted 50 Caliber was silenced as an anti-tank round lifted the Sherman violently off the ground. It slammed into the rocks and exploded, flinging shrapnel across the battlefield.
The medic involuntarily closed his eyes and ducked his head in response to the explosion. The young man struggled to sit up and see what was happening. “Lie still, Thompson. There is nothing more you can do out there.” At that, Thompson lay back and closed his eyes.
“How bad is it?” He swallowed.
“Bad enough.” The medic was seasoned. Very little surprised him anymore. His uniform bore the blood of two-dozen soldiers who had valiantly paid the highest price for freedom.
“Will I loose the leg?” Thompson still had not opened his eyes.
“You already have.” He spat tobacco on the ground and fumbled with a tourniquet.
Thompson smiled, “Not much on small talk, eh?”
“Too much to do.” He spat again.
“I knew that I already lost it.”
“Then why didja ask?”
“I was just trying to keep some of my sanity. Talking kind of helps.”
“Well, the worst is done, you can relax now.”
“Let me guess. I’ve lost a lot of blood…” His voice was getting weak and he never finished his sentence. The medic repositioned him and retightened his bandages. He then low crawled to the edge of the crater and peered over the top. The artillery had stopped and somewhere a .30 caliber machine gun fired sporadically. Smoke and fire enveloped the night air. No one was calling for him.
Silently, he stole through the darkness and rechecked every soldier, stopping a moment longer with Lieutenant Chandler. They were all dead. Only he and Thompson remained, and Thompson was fading fast. Another stray explosion belched flame and metal from the burning tank. He was alone. Where was the enemy?
Thompson awoke an hour later. As his eyes opened, a hand covered his mouth, cutting off his air supply. He began to struggle but was too weak to make a difference. He rolled his eyes and saw that the medic was trying to keep him quiet. When he relaxed, he could hear the sound of wandering feet and clanking metal. The medic had a pistol drawn and was gripping a grenade in his left hand. The pin was dangling in his right index finger. After a few breathless minutes, the footsteps faded into the trees and they were alone again. Slowly the pin was replaced and the grenade was hung on his belt.
“Who was that?” Whispered Thompson.
“Was he by himself?”
“Roger. Apparently, they lost as many people as we did. He is the only one I have seen, and he was wounded.”
“What’s our status? Who’s in charge?”
He spat tobacco. “You and me, kid. We’re all that’s left.”
Thompson swallowed, “Even the… Lieutenant?”
“So, he died anyway.” His voice trailed off.
He watched the kid for a moment before acknowledging him, “what you did was brave.”
“How’s that again?”
“You saved his life, pushing him off that mine.”
“Yeah. You said that he didn’t make it.”
“He was shot a few minutes later. Their ambush was effective.” He spat tobacco again and listened in the night for any dangers. “They had us pinned down between the mine field and the river. Those bastards! Yesterday that road was clear, now it’s mined.” He spat. “Man, I hate those Krouts!”
Thompson tried to move but didn’t have the strength. “It’s their job. That’s what they do. They steal freedom, we restore freedom.”
“What makes you so optimistic? You lost your leg to them.”
“Because I have faith.”
“In what? God?” He was sarcastic.
“For starters. But I also have faith in freedom and democracy.”
“Fat lot of good it’s doing you now. You’ll be lucky to live.”
“But I have lived.” Thompson glanced over at him. “We haven’t met.” He held up his hand.
“Davis. I was just assigned to your platoon today.”
“Yeah, we lost our medic a week ago. He bought one at Normandy.”
Thompson lifted his head. “You got any water?” Davis threw him a canteen.
“Man, I hate to loose the Lieutenant.”
“He seemed like a swell fellow.”
“He was the tops, a real good ol boy.”
Davis looked away. “He was grateful, by the way.”
“He said to say thanks for saving his life.”
“Weren’t nothing to it. Just part of the job.”
Davis stared at him unbelieving. “How can you say that? You will probably die saving a dead man.”
“Real pleasant fellow to have around, aren’t you, Davis?”
He spat. “So it seems. No need to hide the fact of death.”
“I agree. I'm not afraid to die.”
“I believe you.”
Thompson tried to sit up then relaxed, “well why not? I’ve lived my life according to my faith in God. There is no fear in death for me.”
“No one wants to die.” Davis’ gaze stole into the darkness. “I can see it in their eyes. I watched two-dozen boys die tonight. None of them wanted it.”
“Shoot, I don’t want to die.”
“But you just said…”
“I said that I wasn’t scared to die.” He thought a moment. “I have a girl at home and I want to see her again.”
“Where is she from?”
Thompson’s grin lit his face, “She’s from my home town, Justice, Texas, population: none.”
Davis studied that a moment. “It’s too bad you won’t. See her, that is.”
“Maybe someday.” Thompson closed his eyes. Davis was quiet for a while. A faint glow emanated from the left over husk of the tank. All was quiet. Clouds were gathering and a cool breeze was blowing.
“Why would you do that?”
Thompson stirred. “Do what?”
“Throw yourself on a landmine. You didn’t have to do that.”
“Sure I did. It was my responsibility.”
“What?” He was taken aback.
He nodded, “Sure. The Lieutenant has a wife and children at home. I don’t. They needed him to get home to them. Besides, I live my life ready to die. It’s kind of natural for me, sort of.”
“But that’s just it, it’s not natural. You have a life also, and a right to live it.”
“However, the Lieutenant's life was more important than mine. He was trying to find the meaning to life; I had already found it.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“I’m not afraid to die.”
“So you said.”
Thompson’s voice grew faint. “It’s true. I would do the same for you…” He passed out. When he awoke, he was in a shallow trench.
“Just lie still. I tried to move you, but your wounds started to bleed again.”
“You should leave me here and try to save yourself.”
“You really expect me to leave you?”
“You said yourself that I was dying.”
“You are. But you’re not dead yet.”
“You mean that you believe that I could still be saved?” Thompson coughed.
Davis hissed at the sudden noise and peered over the edge of the trench. Once satisfied that they were still alone, he dug into his pocket and pulled out a plug of tobacco, biting off a large chunk before responding. “There is a little hope, but not much.”
“I am not afraid to die, and I believe that you could be saved. Go on and get out of here. It’s the same thing as me throwing myself on a grenade.”
“Then maybe you do understand why I saved the Lieutenant.”
“It ain't the same. He’s dead now.”
“God knew that he was going to die when I saved him.”
“But it was in vain. He is still dead.”
Thompson swallowed. “Yes, but he died knowing that he mattered to someone.”
“And you won’t.”
“I already knew it.” He was dizzy and started to drift. “Now be saved. Go…”
“Shh, I hear something.” Davis cocked his pistol. A footstep scrapped some gravel behind them and a soldier wearing a German helmet leapt at them. Davis sprang to his feet but the enemy grabbed him and threw him backward and he hit his head. Dazed, Davis lay stunned for a moment trying to get his eyes to focus. The German glanced at Thompson and perceived no threat from him. He pulled out his knife and advanced toward Davis.
Thompson grabbed a stick and miraculously managed to stand up on one foot. He leaned forward and fell into the enemy and knocked him to the ground. The enemy was already wounded, but found the strength to roll Thompson off him and thrust his knife into Thompson’s chest. Three bullets tore holes through the German’s shirt and he fell face first into the dirt. Davis rushed over to Thompson who was gurgling blood as he breathed. “You fool, why did you do that?”
“Damn you, I’m not, I tell you. I am not worth it.”
“But I won’t…be damned…not me…maybe not…you…either.” Suddenly, a light came into his eyes. “Oh my,” he said in astonishment. “I’m not afraid to die.” Then he died. Davis, being saved, stumbled out of the trench and started back to safety.