|JUNE/JULY/AUGUST 2007 – NO. 16|
World War II
On a hill just inland from the invasion beaches of Sicily, a soldier sits on a rock. His helmet is off; and the hot sunshine glints through his coppery hair. With the sleeve of his shirt he wipes the sweat from his face; then with chin in palm he leans forward in thought.
The company is taking a break. We sprawl upon the slope, loosen the straps of our gear, and gaze at the blue sky. It is my first day of combat; and so far the action of the unit has been undramatic and disappointingly slow.
Just trust the army to get things fouled up. If the landing schedule had not gone snafu, we would have come ashore with the assault waves. That was what I wanted. I had primed myself for the big moment. Then the timing got snarled in the predawn confusion; and we came in late, chugging ashore like a bunch of clucks in a ferryboat.
The assault troops had already taken the beach. The battle had moved inland. So for several hours we have tramped over fields and hills without direct contact with the enemy.
It is true that the landing was not exactly an excursion. There was some big stuff smashing about; and from various points came the rattle of small arms. But we soon got used to that.
Use to it!
A shell crashes on a nearby hill; the earth quivers; and the black smoke boils. A man, imitating Jack Benny's Rochester, shouts, "Hey, boss. A cahgo of crap just landed on Pigtail Ridge." A ripple of laughter follows the announcement. "Hey, boss. Change that name to No-Tail Ridge. The tail go with the cahgo."
The second shell is different. SOmething terrible and immediate about its whistle makes my scalp start prickling. I grab my helmet and flip over on my stomach. The explosion is thunderous. Steel fragments whine, and the ground seems to jump up and hit me in the face.
Silence again. I raise my head. The sour fumes of powder have caused an epidemic of coughing.
"Hey, boss. The cahgo --"
The voice snaps. We all see it. The redheaded soldier had tumbled from the rock. Blood tricles from his mouth and nose.
Beltsky, a veteran of the fighting from North Africa. is the first to reach him. One glance from his professional eye is sufficient.
Turning to a man, he says, "Get his ammo. He won't be needing it. You will."
"Who me? I got plenty of ammo."
"Get the ammo. Don't argue."
Snuffy Jones does not like the idea at all. A frown crawls over his sallow face; and beneath a receding chin, his Adam's apple bobs nervously. With shaky fingers he removes the ammunition from the cartridge belt. One owuld think he was trying to neutralize a booby trap.
"Who is he?" asks Brandon.
"He was a guy named Griffin," Kerrigan answers. "I got likkered up with him once in Africa. Told me he was married and had a couple kids."
"That's rough." Brandon's eyes are suddenly deep and thoughtful.
"He could have stayed out, I guess. But he volunteered. Had to get into the big show."
Novak, the Pole, has been listening with mouth agape. Now his lips curl savagely. "The sonsabeeches!" he growls to nobody in particular.
Unfolding a gas cape, Beltsky covers the body with it.
"That'll do him a lot of good now," says Brandon.
"It's to keep the flies from blowing him," explains Horse-Face Johnson soberly. "Flies go to work on 'em right away. Fellow from the last war told me they swell up like baloons. Used 'em for pillows out in No-Man's Land. Soft enough but they wouldn't keep quiet. They was always losing wind in the dead of the night. Such sighing and whistling you never heard."
"For chrisake, shut up," says Kerrigan.
Johnson's blue eyes twinkle sardonically. His long, lean face stretches into a grin. And his laugh is like the soft whinny of a horse.
"Don't let it get you down, son. Used to be skittish myself till I worked as an undertaker's assistant out in Minnesota. Took my baths in embalming fluid. Slept in coffins during the slack hours. Grave error. Damned nigh got buried one day when I got mistook for the late departed."
"It's the dying truth, son."
"Then why didn't you get hooked up with a body-snatching outfit? You look like a natural for the buzzard detail."
"Why, you know, son, the army wouldn't be guilty of giving a man a job he knowed anything about. Got tired of the racket anyhow. Couldn't argue with the late departeds. Whatever I said they was always dead right."
"Oh, for chrisake," mutters Kerrigan pleadingly.
"Okay, men," says Beltsky. You've seen how it happens. Maybe you know now this game is played for keeps. Everybody on your feet. All right there, what's the matter with you?"
"Me?" drawls Snuffy. "I'm gittin' up. Just give me time. Snapped-to once so fast that I mislocated my backbone."
"Would you like to be carried on a stretcher?"
"Okay. Okay. Let's move across Sicily."
"He was just sitting there on a rock," says Steiner, his face filled with aw. "I was looking at him just a minute before."
"So what?" snaps Antonio irritably. "He shouldn'ta been makin' like a pigeon. He oughta kept his head down." He taps himself on the chest. "You didn't see me givin' out with the coos, did you?"
"How could he know it was coming?"
"Aw nuts! You could hear it comin' a mile."
As we plod over the hills in sweat-soaked clothes, the uneasiness passes from my stomach to my mind. So it happens as easily as that. You sit on a quiet slope with chin in hand. In the distance a gun slams; and the next minute you are dead.
Maybe my notions about war were all cockeyed. How do you pit skill against skill if you cannot even see the enemy? Where is the glamor in blistered feet and a growling stomach? And where is the expected adventure? Well, whatever comes, it was my own idea. I had asked for it. I had always wanted to be a soldier.
From the Book TO HELL AND BACK by Audie Murphy. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC.. Copyright © 1949 by Audie Murphy, © 1977 by Pamela Murphy. All rights reserved.