The view from the cockpit of the Messerschmitt BF-109 had to be amazing, not because the view of Belgium is particularly nice in the winter or something that you would want to write home about, but his view would almost certainly be more appealing than mine. At least he has the small villages and patterns of the countryside to break up his thoughts. He was probably thinking how he would have a cot to flop onto for a couple of hours when his patrol ended, and if luck remained at his side, maybe, just maybe, if luck is still on his side, a cup of coffee as well. What I would do for a cup of warm coffee right now, even if it was horrible. Thinking about what the Luftwaffe airman's future would or wouldn't hold as he flew overhead, kept me distracted for what seemed like hours, but I know in reality it is only for a few minutes. I find it easier, if I daydream a little here, a little there. It beats the alternative, staring at the back of the head of one of the other 83 poor souls marching with me. Staring at the helmet made me wonder what its owner is thinking. I wonder what he thought war would be like when he signed his enlistment papers. I am sure he too was drunk on the romance of war, the battles, and the brotherhood. It really doesn't matter because, like me, he too thought he would be fighting the German's rather than being their prisoner of war.
It seems like days have passed since we were caught off guard, but it had only been a few hours. Looking back on it, we all thought the war was going to be over soon. Caught off guard, the constant falling snow, and Christmas a little over a week away had taken its toll on our unit's morale. The orders we had been given were simple. Join up with the 7th Armored Division to reinforce the town of St. Vith from the German advance. Simple.
Our convoy consisted of close to 30 trucks. Troops were in about half of the trucks and the rest were carrying supplies. Fuel, food, and some ammunition. I sat in the back of the second truck next to Duck. Duck grew up on a farm from Illinois and he got his name, not because he was always crouching down with his head down low, but because of how the top of his jawline stuck out from his face due to his buckteet. You couldn't look at him without immediately thinking of a duck's bill. He enlisted because he didn't want to die on a farm his family had owned for the past several generations. Instead, he wanted to see the world, and he had hopes of one day going to college to learn about business and open a small feed store back home.
There is a saying we all know: you don't really get to know someone until you have shared a foxhole. If I wanted to or not, I got to know Duck over the two years we spent digging foxholes all over Europe.
Most of the guys will tell you in the theater of operation no one is looking for friends. You have the guys you went through basic training with, but as they get picked off one by one, you aren't really looking for replacement buddies. Sometimes in small talk or mail call you might find someone from the same state you came from. Even if it is on the other side of the state, an instant bond is formed. Almost as if they were your neighbor, but that's about it. That was the case with Hershel. Hershel came from the same state as me. Montana. Think about it, what are the chances that someone else from Montana of all places would be assigned to the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion in Europe in 1944? Chances are not very high. Hershel was a few inches taller than me, clocking it at just over 6 feet, skinny as a rail, but strong as an ox. He never said much, but was always someone you could count on in a firefight and that said a lot. One time in southern France, our unit was sent in to sweep a nameless village on the map for German troops.
I drew point. Point, the unlucky bastard who gets to lead the patrol. He has one job, to try and find out where the enemy is, by quietly sneaking around, or more times than not, becoming a human target for snipers. I had a bad feeling about being on point, but there is nothing you can do. I drew the shortest straw. As I rounded a cobbler shop, I heard a loud crack, only to turn my head around to see Hershel grinning from ear to ear as he had just picked off a sniper who had me in his sights from the top of a bell tower. I don't know what scared me more, the sound of the lone shot echoing off the walls of the shops, or the sound of the dead kraut made when he hit the ground. It was a sound that I will never shake. I knew from that moment on, that Hershel was someone who had my back, literally. I remember that night after we settled in at what was left of an inn in the center of town. Hershel and I talked. As darkness took over and the shadows came out to play, Hershel told me tales about when he was a boy and going hunting with his dad for rabbits at dusk on their farm. He talked about how the rabbits would pop up their heads along the tree line, and you could pick them off one by one. The sound of the rifle's recoil didn't scare them off, like you would think. Hershel told me his father said, "It's as if the rabbits knew they couldn't outrun the speed of the bullets." I wonder if that was true for the German that Hershel killed earlier.
After a long march our German captors gave us a signal we could take a break. We came to a stop by a massive farm field. Almost immediately we started to walk a few yards from the road as we broke formation. Guys from our unit started to gather in small groups in the empty farmer's field. Some who had dry Lucky Strike cigarettes lit them. You know the saying "Smoke 'em if you got them." Others sat on cold, dry patches of dead vegetation. Hershel, Duck, and I started to make small talk about our dreams and plans we had for when we returned home after the war was over. As we began to relax, the SS started to line up along the road. Within seconds, a military vehicle approached. The driver got out and opened the back door. Out came a man dressed in black, almost like a widow attending a funeral except the dress and veil had been replaced with a leather trench coat and an officer's hat with the silver skull and cross bones known as the "death head" pin. As his coat danced in the breeze as if it were a child at play, the last breaths of a dying sun reflected off the skull emblem. Another German officer ran up and they started to talk. Their conversation sounded to me like two men barking orders.
It was then I turned around as the sun was getting close to setting. I was just about to drift off into another daydream to pass the time when in the distance I saw a couple of rabbits pop their heads up along the tree line. I continued to watch them when I was suddenly interrupted by a rustling of weaponry.
Then the German officer yelled, "Feuen."