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The Communique (Part III of III)

The Communique
 
Part III of III
 
Noville's church
 
From the rear of the church he could see a burning haystack about one-half mile away.  It was outside of town along the road they had used earlier to enter Noville.
 
"If we crawled across that open field, and kept going far enough we should run into our unit,"  thought the gunner.  He could make out the outline of the hill where they had spent the day and knew it was in friendly hands.
 
"We could use the burning haystack to guide on, and by crawling across the field we would avoid the road and houses.  Our chances of avoiding any Germans would be good."  He tentatively planned the escape route, and then returned to Joe and Lawrence.
 
"There doesn't seem to be any Germans in the church or churchyard at this time," he reported.  "However, we know they are in town.  If we remain here it will just be a matter of time before they find us."
 
"As I see it we have three alternatives.  Number 1, we can stay right here and wait for the American infantry in the morning.  This might require sweating out an artillery attack from our own guns tomorrow."
 
"Number 2, we can go back outside and surrender to the first Germans we see.  By doing either of these we run the risk of being killed rather than captured.  The Germans are taking a beating right now, and may not look too kindly upon three lost and wounded Americans."
 
"Number 3, we can attempt to get out of town.  We can leave by the back way and crawl across an open field.  It looks deserted, and I think we have a good chance of avoiding detection.  Which shall it be?"
 
Lawrence was the first to answer, "I can't go anyplace.  Leave me here and you two escape."
 
There was a minute of silence before the gunner spoke up.  "No, we either go or stay together."
 
"Could we carry Lawrence across this field" asked Joe.  "We could make a sling out of my jacket and carry him."
 
"I'm afraid we can only get past the Germans by crawling," replied the gunner.  "If we stay real close to the ground we might make it, but by walking upright it would be too risky.  We would be silhouetted against the snow.  No, we have to crawl."
 
"How about it Lawrence?" pleaded Joe, "You can crawl a little ways.  It isn't far.  We will go real slow.  How about it?"
 
"I can't" moaned Lawrence.  "My legs hurt just lying here.  Every time I move a sharp pain jabs me.  I can't do it.  You guys go on and leave me."
 
"Listen, Lawrence," begged the gunner, "try it.  We won't continue if it pains you too much.  We'll start crawling slowly across the field.  If you want to stop; if you can't go on, then we'll stop and surrender, and get medical attention for you.  It's our best chance.  I'm sure we can make it back to our unit."
 
"I'll try.  Help me up."  Joe and the gunner helped Lawrence up on all fours.  He groaned painfully and sank back to a prone position.
 
"I can't do it," he uttered, his breath coming in short gasps like a runner who had just completed a two mile race.  "It hurts too much to move.  You guys go on, I'll be ok."
 
Lawrence was completely out of breath by the time he finished talking.  The gunner and Joe looked at each other, then looked down at Lawrence.  He was a pathetic sight, obviously in pain and completely helpless.
 
"We are wasting time", said the gunner, "and every minute we waste decreases our chances to escape.  The Germans may come in here at any time and find us."
 
"Can we leave without him?" asked Joe.
 
"Can you make it crawling across a field?" asked the gunner ignoring Joe’s previous question.
 
"I think I can if we crawl slow.  My legs are numb now, and I don't have any pain.  Yes, I'm sure I can make it."
 
The gunner took Joe aside and spoke quietly.  "Look, I don't want to leave him here alone, but we have no choice.  He can’t go with us.  It would be better for one to be captured than three.  Let’s leave the bayonet with him and get out of here.  I'm sure he will be ok.  He is seriously wounded.  If the German's find him they will treat his wounds and take care of him."
 
"Yeah, I suppose so.  Let’s go."  They gave the weapon to Lawrence, and made him as comfortable as possible.
 
"Good luck, Lawrence," they said as they departed out the side door.  Lawrence waved farewell.
 
They crawled around to the rear of the church and through an opening in a wire fence.  Then began the slow, methodical crawling across the field.  Fortunately there was no moon; even the stars were hiding behind the clouds.  It was as though He up above was helping them to escape.  The only light was the burning haystack.  They crawled slowly toward it by sliding along on their bellies and pushing forward with the hands and feet.  The snow was wet and cold, the crawling was extremely tiring.
 
They had crawled almost fifty yards before stopping to rest.  To the left was a small wooded area.  They could hear the snapping of twigs among the trees.  They knew a person or persons were walking around in the woods, and felt certain they were Germans.  Probably sentries.
 
To the right, and about 150 yards away was the road.  They could make out the outline of the trees along its edge.  The burning haystack became brighter, like a beacon showing them the way.
 
After a few minutes rest they continued their crawling, the gunner in front followed closely by Joe.  They were now at the edge of town.  The open field spread out to the left and far ahead, only to the right along the road, could they see houses.
 
The rest periods became more frequent and of longer duration.  The pace became slower and more difficult.  They were exhausted--completely, mentally and physically.  Joe crawled alongside the gunner.
 
"I don't think I can continue," he said, "I'm too tired."
 
''We can't stop now.  We’ve gone over half way to the haystack.  Just a little farther and we can get off our bellies and crawl on hands and knees.  I think we should begin to circle around that haystack.  We don't want to get too close or the light from the fire will show us up.  We don't want to be spotted now after coming this far."
 
"Come on, Joe, lets angle off to the left."
 
The gunner began crawling ahead.  Joe did not move.  The gunner stopped and looked back.  He saw Joe was not coming.  A narrow red trail could be seen in the snow where Joe had crawled.  His feet were bleeding more severely now.
 
The gunner waited a minute and Joe slowly crawled up to him.
 
"I feel faint," he stated, "and my feet are beginning to hurt."
 
"Don't stop now.  Try to crawl around the haystack.  Then we will stop crawling and I will carry you.  But we have to go until we get past the haystack."
 
"How far is it?"
 
"Just a few hundred yards.  We are almost there."
 
Joe tried to continue, but could not go further.  He lay face down in the snow breathing heavily.  Muffled voices could be heard from the vicinity of the road.  It was impossible to determine if they were German or American.  The gunner also thought he could hear the metallic sound of an entrenching tool.
 
"This," he thought, "indicates someone is digging in.  Perhaps it is Americans. Chances are the Germans would already be dug in."
 
The more he listened to the sounds the more he was convinced it was American infantry digging in.  The voices were not clear, but the mere fact they were digging indicated they were friendly.
 
"How about it now, Joe?  Can you continue?"
 
After a pause Joe answered, "No."
 
"Can you make it to the road, then?"
 
"I can hear voices, and the sound of digging along the road.  We’ll crawl to the road.  It's less than 100 yards away.  When we get there we will surrender to the first person who challenges us.  There is a fence line running to the road and a furrow by it.  We'll crawl along the furrow on our hands and knees."
 
"Ok," replied Joe.
 
The gunner made Joe go first now so he could keep an eye on him.  It was much easier and faster crawling on hands and knees.
 
When they reached the road the gunner stood up and helped Joe climb onto his back.  He started walking down the road with Joe riding piggy back.  They had not gone ten feet before he heard the word "Halt!"  He could not see where the sound came from and didn't particularly care.  Also, he did not know if an American or German said it since halt sounds the same in both languages.
 
He stopped and stood perfectly still.  Again the voice, "What’s the password?"
 
A surge of joy passed through the gunner.  "We are safe," he thought.  "The challenging sentry was an American--at least he spoke English."
 
"What's the password?" came the voice again.
 
"Damn," thought the gunner, "I don't know the password for tonight.''
 
He replied with last night's password, "Barney," he blurted.
 
The sentry was evidently suspicious, and asked, "Who goes there?"
 
"We’re Americans," stammered the gunner.  "We were trapped in the town.  We just escaped.  My buddy here is wounded.  Call the medics."
 
He started forward.  "Halt", came the hidden voice again.  "What unit you guys from?"
 
"Company B, 41st Tank. Let us pass.  We're Americans."
 
"Where did you live in The States?"  The voice was taking no chances.
 
"In Illinois--Pekin, Illinois.''
 
"Never heard of it."
 
There was a momentary pause, then the voice tried another approach.  "Who won the World Series last year?"
 
The gunner could not think.  He had evidently read about the World Series, but could not remember who played, let alone which team won.  "The Yankees, I guess."
 
"Know any other base-ball teams?"
 
The gunner rapidly named the Cardinals, Cubs, Senators, Giants, Dodgers, Phillies, Pirates, Reds.  He was interrupted by another hidden voice.  "Ok, don't move.  The road is mined.  Bring them in, Corporal."
 
A black shadow jumped out of the ground from the edge of the road, and taking the gunner by the arm, led him to a fox-hole.  The second soldier in the fox-hole was talking on a telephone.  The gunner heard him ask for a medic.
 
In a few minutes two corpsmen came up with a stretcher.  They put Joe on the stretcher and departed.  The gunner was led to a command tent where he was questioned at length by a Captain.  He told the Captain as much as he knew about the town, and the Germans in the town.  He also explained how they had left Lawrence in the church.
 
The gunner spent the next day in a rest area a few miles south of Noville.  The following day he returned to Company "B" where he learned that Lawrence had been found safe and in good spirits when the infantry captured Noville on the following morning.  He learned also that very shortly after he and Joe left the church, a German medic had entered it, found Lawrence, dressed his wounds, and left him to be rescued by the Americans.
 
He never found out what happened to Joe, but surmised he was sent to a hospital somewhere in France where he recuperated before being returned to the States and discharged.  Neither Lawrence nor Joe returned to Company "B".  For them the war was over.  They had paid the price, and were free.  They could now continue to live a normal life--continue where they had left off to serve their country.
 
Yes, they could lead a normal life--as normal as artificial legs will allow one to live.
 
Epilog
 
Three days after the terror of Noville, the battalion is drawn up in formation in a small snow covered field near Bastogne, Belgium.  The men are clean shaven, as they stand rigidly in ranks, but their torn and soiled uniforms are grim reminders of the preceding battle.  Standing in a single row in front of the battalion are seven men.  The men, who this day, are to be honored.  The few who have been selected for citations, because they served "above and beyond the call of duty".
 
The gunner is standing second in this row.  When his turn comes, he marches very soldierly toward the Commanding General of the division, halts three paces in front of the General, and salutes smartly.  The General returns his salute.
 
Then begins the droning sound of the Adjutant's voice as he reads the citation in a monotone.  "On the 14th day of January, in the village of Noville, Belgium ----------“
 
But the gunner doesn't hear the words.  He is thinking of the past two weeks; of the fear, the blood, the stench of burning bodies.  Of his comrades who, one by one, passed on, never to return.  He thinks of Gerhardt, Chambers, and Johnson, and how they burned to death in a blazing turret.  He thinks of Swanson and Meyers, who never knew what hit them.  He thinks of Huntly lying on the ground decapitated.  He thinks of Robinson, Freddie and Sam.  He thinks of Lawrence and Joe, alive but without feet.  He thinks and wonders.  Wonders when his time will come, and how it will come.
 
And as the General pins the Silver Star on his chest there are tears in his eyes.  Tears for his comrades who have fallen.  Tears for his comrades who are yet to fall.
 
"They are the real heroes," he says to himself.  "The only hero is a dead hero, because who else would be brave enough to sacrifice his only life?
 
He doesn't want to accept the medal because he is alive and in one piece.  He is not a hero.  He doesn't want to be a hero.  He just wants this insane war to end so he can go home and forget.  To live and forget.  To live--and forget.
 
Concluding Remarks
 
Although the story, The Communiqué, is true, individual names have been changed.  Wayne Van Dyke’s note.
 
Editor's Notes:
 

Commanders as of combat on 30 December 1944 were as follows:

1. 11th Armored Division commanded by Brigadier General Charles S. Kilburn.

2. 41st Tank Battalion commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Wray F. Sagaser.

"B" Company commanded by Captain Robert L. Ameno.

 
Follow up Information:
 

1. The tank commander, Staff Sergeant, received a battlefield commission and survived the war.  He has since passed away.

2. The tank driver, Technician Fifth Grade, lost both legs at Noville, Belgium, but survived the war.  He presently operates a small farm in Maryland with his wife.

3. The bow gunner, Private First Class, did not have his feet amputated.  He walks with a limp and resides in La Quinta, California, with his wife.

4. Loader, Private First Class, survived the war, but we do not know where he is at present.

5. Gunner, Corporal, survived the war and resides in Gurnee, Illinois, with his wife Frances.

 
End of the part III of III
 
Cpl Wayne Van DYCKE

Company "B"

41st Tank Battalion

11th Armored Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium