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The Communique (Part II of III)

The Communique
 
Part II of III
 
Noville
 
The quiet was soon interrupted by one shot. Sgt. Heady heard it, the gunner heard it, Abers, Lawrence and Joe.  They all heard it, but those inside the tank paid no attention and continued surveying the town and the wooded area across the valley.
 
Sgt. Heady turned and looked to his right, from where the sound of the shot had come.  Immediately he realized that Sgt. Robinson's tank had been hit.  Sgt. Robinson's tank was one of the two tanks guarding the right flank.
 
He saw the bow gunner and driver leap from the tank and take cover alongside another tank on the crest of the hill.  He waited and watched.  No sign of Sgt. Robinson, or Freddie the gunner, or little Sam the loader.
 
"Musta got hit in the turret," thought Heady.  "Musta got Robinson and the others.  Damn, he was a good man.  Usta go to L.A. with him.  He was a good man."
 
A corpsman jumped on top of Sgt. Robinson's tank and looked inside.  He then jumped back to the ground, and continued evacuating the wounded Germans from the woods.  Apparently nothing more could be done for Sgt. Robinson, or the other two in the turret.
 
That is one advantage of being in the tank corps, if one is trying to rationalize his presence in this glamour less branch of service.  There is little suffering.  A shell enters and explodes inside, and what was a second ago three live men, becomes a unified pool of blood and flesh.  No suffering as the infantryman experiences when wounded by a mine or small arms fire.  All, or nothing at all.  That should be the tanker’s motto.  Either he lives today, or he dies.  Nothing in between.  One or the other.  No compromise.
 
Sgt. Powers passes slowly behind Sgt. Heady's tank.  He has reported to the C.O., and is walking back to his tank.  Since radio silence has been proclaimed messages must be sent between the tanks by foot.  Sgt. Powers' tank was next to Sgt. Robinson's tank when the latter was killed; therefore, his duty demanded he relate the circumstances to the C.O.
 
"Hey, Jim," Sgt. Heady called.  "What happened to Robinson?"
 
"It was a Tiger, Max," Powers replied.  "It came from the woods, and came out just far enough to hit Robinson.  Then it withdrew before we were able to shoot back.  I saw it disappear into the woods, but couldn't shoot.  It must have been supporting the infantry we spotted earlier."
 
"Just one shot?" asked Heady.  "Yeah--point blank.  The 88 made one neat round hole just above the gunner’s head.  It was fired at such close range it almost went out the other side of the turret.  I looked inside.  Couldn't even find enough of anybody to identify him.  Just a mass of blood and flesh.  They didn't know what hit them.  I was talking to Robbie a few minutes before it happened.  He had suggested we move farther to the right so we could see around the woods.  A premonition, perhaps.  I had advised against it because it would put us too far from the rest of the company."
 
"If we had moved," he continued,  "Robinson would probably be alive now, but some other tank would have gotten it.  That Tiger planned to knock off one tank, and withdraw before we could shoot back.  It just happened to be Robinson, that's all. But that's the way it goes--here today, gone tomorrow."
 
"Yeah, that's the way it goes alright," echoed Heady, "that's the way it goes."
 
Sgt. Powers plodded off toward his tank, his head bent.  He would not soon forget this day, or the sight he saw inside the turret of Robinson's tank.
 
The gunner had heard Sgt. Powers, story.  He broke out in a cold sweat.  His hands trembled, his legs felt weak and numbed, as if the blood circulation had been squeezed off.  It felt like a huge hollow cavern suddenly opened up in the pit of his stomach.  He was not a killer.  He was not a brave hero, nor did he care to be one.  He was scared and he knew it.  He was scared and he showed it.
 
"It might have been us," he thought.  "It could just as easily have been our tank. I wonder how it feels to die.  I wonder if suddenly you feel warm all over, and sleepy, and peaceful, and contented, That's the way it must be.  That's the way Robinson must feel now.  Warm and contented, and perhaps just a little tired.  But that's ok, Robinson.  It's ok to feel tired, because now you will have plenty of time to rest and sleep.  Sleep; quiet, peaceful sleep.  So long, Robinson, see you later.''
 
Abers began unwrapping a "D" ration--a bar of concentrated chocolate.  He performed his duty in silence, which was unusual for Abers.  Between bites of hard chocolate he drank from his canteen.  The better to swallow the unpalatable ration.  The remainder of the crew sat in silence continually watching the town and the woods beyond the valley.
 
The afternoon passed with only minor incident.  Around 4 P.M. a Mark V tank left the woods on the other side of the valley, and headed toward Noville.  It was spotted immediately by the tanks, even though it had been whitewashed to help camouflage it.
 
Every tank in line opened fire with Armor Piercing (AP) and HE shells.  The gunner had previously estimated the range to the edge of town, and also to the woods.  He had done this shortly after pulling into line on the crest of the hill for just such an emergency as this.  He did not wait for a fire command from Sgt. Heady, but rather lined the sight up a few feet in front of the moving target, and stepped on the solenoid.
 
His first shot was slightly over and behind the German tank.  He had not accurately judged the speed of the moving target.  Shell bursts from the other tanks hit around the target, most of them falling much too short.  The range was over 1,500 yards, and the other gunners had underestimated it.
 
Abers rammed another shell into the breach, almost before the gun finished recoil.  In one smooth, continuous movement he had the gun loaded, and had another round in his hands.  This finesse came from practice--months of practice loading in camp and in combat.
 
The gunner adjusted for his error, and again stepped on the solenoid.  The second shot was a near miss, hitting the ground in front of the Mark V, and ricocheting harmlessly into the woods.
 
By this time the German tank was nearing the edge of town.  The gunner knew he would get just one more shot before the target disappeared among the rubble of Noville.  He lined the cross hairs of his sight just under the turret of the Mark V, range 1,200 yards, lead 10 mils, and fired.  His gunnery training was coming in handy.  If his calculations were correct, and with a little luck, he could stop that tank.
 
His calculations proved accurate.  The AP shell hit the side of the Mark V, but instead of penetrating the armor and exploding inside the tank, it glanced off.  The side of the German Tank was at an angle to the flight of the shell--too much of an angle to allow the steel nose of the AP shell to penetrate.  The tank was now lost from view.  It had successfully bridged the open expanse under fire from six American tanks without sustaining a single hit.  Near misses only count in horseshoes, and this was not a game of horseshoes.
 
This made the situation in Noville much worse.  In addition to dug in infantry, the American forces now had to contend with at least one German tank.  Perhaps this would call for a change in strategy.  Sgt. Heady, being platoon sergeant, climbed out of the turret, jumped to the ground, and ran to the platoon leader’s tank to be briefed on any change in plans.  The gunner stood up and took Heady's vacated place in the turret.  He picked up the binoculars and focused them at Noville, hoping to detect a glimpse of that elusive Mark V.  His efforts proved hopeless.  He was no more successful with the binoculars than he had been with the gun sight.
 
Abers tossed the three empty shell cases out the port hole, then leaned out his escape hatch and said, "at least you gave the bastards a good scare. Something they won't forget for a few hours."  "Hey, dump this for me, will you Abers?"  Lawrence called.  Abers bent down and came up with the bottom half of a metal cartridge box.
 
Tankers in combat seldom leave the confines of their steel prison.  They eat, sleep, fight and live cramped together in an area so small they can hardly move around.  And when the time comes to urinate, they perform this bodily function without getting outside their tanks.  Empty cartridge boxes act as the commode for urination and defecation, and after being used are discarded.  Field expedients, the Army Manual says, but "damn handy" is the explanation of the tanker.
 
Lawrence had used the cartridge box, and had asked Abers to dispose of it since Lawrence was buttoned up in the driver’s compartment.
 
"Damn it," sneered Abers as he tossed the box and its liquid contents to the ground.  "I've Sotgot the lousiest job in the army.  I'm supposed to be a loader.  My job is to keep old Bessie here in business.  And that's what I do.  That's what Uncle Sam pays me for.  But you guys make me do any other dirty job that no one else wants to do.  When it comes time for coffee who makes hot water?  Old Abers does--that's who.  But don't get me wrong,  I don't mind playing mess sergeant for you guys.  Hell, I'd rather make the coffee than try to drink any mixture you helpless guys brewed up.  But I do draw the line at being latrine orderly.  That's one dirty job I don't want.  If you guys fill a cartridge box then you empty it.  Don't hand it upstairs to Abers.  And that goes for you too, Lawrence.  I resign as latrine orderly as of this minute.  Next time you hand me a cartridge box it had better be full of machine gun ammunition or you get it back, right down the back of your neck. Comprende?"
 
Lawrence did not answer.  No use starting an argument--especially with Abers.
 
Sgt. Heady had been gone almost an hour.  It was getting dusk when he returned and stepped down into the turret.
 
"What a screwed-up deal," he volunteered.  "Nobody seems to know what is going on.  With radio silence the C.O. can't call the battalion commander and find out what the score is.  The Infantry Company that was supposed to attack the town hasn't shown up, and nobody seems to know where they are.  The C.O. doesn't even know where Company A is, or the rest of the battalion for that matter.  It's just as if they left us here and went off to fight the war someplace else.  The C.O. sent a tank from the third platoon back to Foy to try and establish contact with the battalion."
 
"Hope they remember where we are before they capture Berlin," joked Abers.  "We may need more rations by that time.  Hell, I don't mind sitting out the war on this hill.  I'm beginning to like the view across that valley.  Think maybe I could settle down here and retire for life.  I might buy a cow or two, and a mule for Lawrence, just to make him feel at home.  No, this is a nice, cozy spot."
 
"Don't start building your house yet, Abers," Heady said.  "They'll remember about us when they need another town captured.  Still, I haven't heard any firing since noon.  Must not be much resistance, or else the battalion isn't moving today."
 
At last radio silence was broken.  Major Koffman's voice was clear and sharp.
 
"Baker 1, Baker 1, this is King, over."
 
"King, this is Baker 1."
 
"Baker 1, objective is secure.  I repeat ob-jec-tive se-cure.  Roundup northwest of objective, over."
 
"Wilco", replied the C.O.
 
"Better snap it up, Baker.  Over and out."
 
The major was always in a hurry.  Hurry up and wait.  Hurry up to fight.  Hurry up to die.  Hurry. Hurry.
 
The gunner heaved a sigh of relief.  This meant the end of the day’s activity.  This meant they had survived today.  Chances were good they would see the sun tomorrow.  But tomorrow was another day.  Whether or not they would live through the next day was debatable.  Tomorrow was a long time off.
 
In the time comparisons of a soldier in combat, tomorrow seemed a lifetime away.  They live from second to second, and minute to minute.  Hours seem like weeks, and days--days are eternities.
 
"Crank 'em up and move out in column.  Follow my lead.  Third platoon first, then first platoon, and then second platoon."  The C.O. did not sound sure of himself.
 
Lawrence started up the engine, and backed off the crest of the hill.  He fell in behind the last third platoon tank, and began moving toward the road.  The gunner pointed the turret to the front, and secured the gun in travel lock.  Abers removed the round from the 75, and put it back into the ready rack. He then removed the ammunition belt from the machine gun.
 
These precautions were always taken when the tanks moved in column.  It was a safety device to protect those tanks in front, from accidental firing of the 75 millimeter or the machine gun.  When the tanks reached the road they turned right, and followed the road into Noville.  It was almost dark now, and everyone was tired.  The gunner was resting his head against the side of the turret in an attempt to relax.
 
It was difficult to relax during combat; the fear and anxiety that goes with danger prohibits it.  But at the end of each day this fear abates somewhat, and tension ebbs.  A person is then able to forget, for the moment at least, that a war is going on.  It is at this time that the body goes completely limp, and you temporarily loose control of your mind and muscles.  It is a feeling somewhat akin to the ecstasy experienced after indulging in a marihuana cigarette.  And like dope, it only lasts for a few precious moments before you are again brought back to reality.
 
How beautiful is this world of our imagination, and how wonderful is life's experiences.  In our imagination we can swiftly travel anywhere- to real or fictional places.  We can do anything, be anyone from a pauper to a king, and experience any emotion.  How unfortunate that life is reality; a dull, drab existence full of sadness and hate.  Why can't it be imaginary and exciting; why, oh, why?
 
The gunner is aroused from his lethargy by a blinding flash inside the tank.  A brilliant white light criss-crossed with minute red particles.  The tank lurches to one side and stops dead in the middle of the road.
 
The next instant the gunner finds himself huddled along a low stone wall near the edge of the road. Sgt. Heady and Abers are crouched near him.  He can not recall how he got there, and why, for that matter.  The tank is burning, and lights up the area with a cold somber light.
 
The gunner reasons that the tank was hit with an anti-tank shell.  Everything happened so quickly and so spontaneously that his mind is still a blur.  He does not remember getting out of the tank, but evidently did this as a reflex to the blinding flash.
 
A moan is heard from the tank, and turning his head in that direction the gunner observes Lawrence lifting himself out of the driver's escape hatch.  Joe is crawling slowly toward them.  The numbness in the gunner's hands and feet, and the black void in his mind begins to disappear.
 
"My leg, my leg," moans Joe as he crawls up to the wall.  "I've been hit in the leg."
 
The gunner reaches for his first aid packet, which he has always worn on his cartridge belt.  Frantically he opens it and removes the morphine syrette.  The needle is broken.  It can not be used. In despair he casts it aside.
 
Sgt. Heady and Abers help Lawrence to the wall.  Even though the light from the burning tank illuminates the five shocked and wounded men, it flickers too much to afford the gunner a good view of the wound in Joe's leg.  From what he is able to see it appears both of Joe's feet are a twisted, bloody mass of overshoes, fabric and blood.
 
Sgt. Heady rips open his first aid packet, and removes the morphine Syrette.  It also has become broken, and cannot be used.
 
The ammunition in the burning tank is beginning to burn and explode.  The bursting machine gun bullets sound like the Fourth of July when an entire package of firecrackers is lit, and the firecrackers exploded in rapid succession.  This noise is interrupted frequently by a loud report as a round of 75 ignites.  The tank rocks with each exploding round, then steadies itself as if waiting for the next impact.
 
The ammunition in the burning tank is beginning to burn and explode.  The bursting machine gun bullets sound like the Fourth of July when an entire package of firecrackers is lit, and the firecrackers exploded in rapid succession.  This noise is interrupted frequently by a loud report as a round of 75 ignites.  The tank rocks with each exploding round, then steadies itself as if waiting for the next impact.
 
"Abers," Heady commanded.  "Get two syrettes from Powers' tank. Hurry."?
 
Sgt. Powers’ tank was immediately behind Heady's.  It stopped as soon as Heady's tank was hit.  Since Heady's was in the middle of the street, and the street was narrow to begin with, the tanks behind could not pass.  Also, the five tanks in front could not back out of the town; therefore, they continued forward.
 
Abers jumped up and ran back to Powers’ tank for the syrettes.  Lawrence and Joe were visibly in pain, especially Lawrence.  He kept moaning. The anti-tank shell apparently hit very low, and exploded on the driver's side near the floor.  He was obviously the more seriously wounded.  Heady, Abers and the gunner, being in the turret, were unscratched.  The vacated tank was now burning fiercely.  The tempo of exploding 75 millimeter shells had picked up until now it was almost continuous.
 
A lone German infantryman came around the corner of the wall, and was walking toward the four huddled Americans.  He obviously did not see them at first, nor did he see the tanks in the street.  Upon noticing the enemy soldiers he drew his gun.  He was just as surprised at seeing them as they were at seeing him.
 
The gunner saw the German approaching, and he was seized with fear.  In his haste to evacuate the tank he had neglected to pick up his carbine.  In fact, no one in the group had remembered to bring a gun.  They were unarmed and helpless--completely at the mercy of the advancing enemy soldier.
 
Before the German could raise his gun to shoot, Sgt, Powers' gunner, Bobelant, had traversed the tank turret around and fired a warning burst from the machine gun at the German.  The shots were wide, but served the purpose.  The German forgot about his four helpless victims, and turned in flight across the street.  Bobelant's machine gun bullets beat a path around his feet, giving impetus to his flight.  The bullets missed their mark; but just as the German dashed into a gutted building Bobelant fired the 75.  The walls of the building seemed to shudder momentarily, and then all four walls buckled and collapsed in a heap.  The German was buried alive amid tons of brick and mortar.
 
Sgt. Powers called, "Hey, Max. You guys better get aboard my tank.  We gotta get out of this town.  It's crawling with Germans."
 
Heady took one look at the wounded men, then turned to the gunner and said, "Cpl, stay with these guys.  I'll send a medic in to take you out."  He then stood up and ran to Powers’ tank.  The tanks beat a hasty retreat back down the street.  They were now backing out of a town which they had entered only a few minutes before.
 
The retreating tanks were soon out of sight, but the gunner could still hear them as the sound of their engines slowly faded out.  They were now alone.  Alone in a hostile town.  Just the three of them.  Alone and unarmed.  There was nothing to do but wait.
 
"The medics will be here in a few minutes," thought the gunner.  "We'll just sit tight until they arrive."
 
They waited. Lawrence's moans became louder and more frequent.  They seemed to drown out the noise of the exploding shells.
 
''Damn, why dad did the syrettes have to be broken?" the gunner thought.  "So we could put this guy out of his misery.  If there are any more Germans in town his moans will certainly attract their attention."
 
They still waited. The fire was dying down now.  There were no longer explosions in the tank.  The ammunition had apparently all burned up.  It was getting quieter.  Only the continual moaning of Lawrence broke the otherwise silence.  Still they waited and no medics, Lawrence and Joe were lying side by side on the ground.  Lawrence was next to the wall.  The gunner was sitting next to Joe.
 
"How does your leg feel now, Joey" the gunner asked.  He was more interested in-breaking the monotony than in learning about Joe's condition.
 
"Feels ok now," Joe replied.  "I don't seem to have any feeling in my feet.  They are numb."
 
As the flickering fire faded, a deep feeling of loneliness began to build up in the gunner.  He felt lost and afraid.  Even though Lawrence and Joe were with him he felt all alone.  He knew they were wounded and would be useless in a fight.  He wanted to run away and leave them.  But where would he run?
 
"Half the company of tanks continued on into the town," he thought.  "I could follow them.  They certainly did not go far since it was nearly dark when we were hit.  They are probably just beyond town with the rest of the battalion."
 
"Or I could go back the way we entered this lousy town.  Sgt. Heady and Rodgers and the others backed out that way.''
 
The more he thought of getting out of town the more he felt the uselessness of escaping.  He had been in combat long enough to know how dangerous it was to move after dark; especially over unfamiliar terrain.  Especially when one does not know where the enemy is bidding.  After dark, the possibility of being fired upon by friendly troops is just as great as being shot at by the enemy.  Bullets are impartial, and an American bullet fired by an American soldier can kill just as dead as a German bullet.
 
"No, an attempt to get out of the town is too dangerous," he thought.  "My best chance for survival is to remain with Joe and Lawrence until the medics arrive."
 
"Someone's coming," whispered Joe.
 
The gunner instinctively threw his body over his wounded comrades.  Out of the corner of his eye he detected four men approaching from the center of town.  Unable to determine whether they were friendly or enemy he lay very still and quiet.  Lawrence stopped moaning, but continued to breathe very heavily.  The men came very near, and the gunner was able to see they were Germans-and armed.  The men stopped.  They were near enough to touch.  One of them spoke softly.  The gunner was tense, expecting any second to feel a bullet rip through his body.
 
"This," he thought, "is the end."
 
He wanted to get pup and surrender, but his muscles would not respond.  He tried to speak, to say "Kamerade" and give himself up, but his mouth would not form the words.  There was no air in his lungs.  He could not utter a sound.  He was immobile and helpless as if he were bound and gagged.  All he could do was wait for the fatal shot.
 
The Germans stood over the three helpless men for what seemed like hours.  The gunner stopped breathing, and pretended to be dead.  His heart was pounding like a tom-tom, and he thought surely they could hear it beating.  One of the Germans spoke softly in German, and they then quietly departed in the same direction Sgt. Heady and the tanks had gone.
 
The gunner lay very still long after the sound of the Germans' boots had died out.  He then turned his head and looked in their direction.  He could not see them.  He looked all around, and could see no one else except Joe and Lawrence lying under him.  He rose up.  It was now evident that the town was occupied by German troops.  It would be impossible for the medics to enter the town and evacuate them.  It was the gunner's responsibility now.  His own life, as well as the lives of his wounded comrades, was entirely in his hands.
 
"We've got to get out of the street," the gunner whispered.  "Those Germans may come back and find out we are not dead.  There is a place where the wall has been damaged.  I think we can climb over it."
 
Joe crawled to the damaged section.  The gunner helped Lawrence to the spot, and boosted him over.  Joe had already climbed over.
 
As the gunner dropped down on the other side of the wall he noticed they were inside a churchyard.  The light was very poor, but he could see that the yard was strewn with rubble.  There was a side entrance into the church from the yard.  They crawled through this entrance and found themselves in the main part of the church.  It was almost impossible to move about in the church.  The roof was completely gone, and lay in heaps of timbers and tile on the church floor.  The wooden pews were broken and upended in a bizarre fashion.  This represented anything but a house of God.
 
The three picked their way through the debris to the front of the church.  Lawrence was now in severe pain, and moaning-continually.  It hurt him to move.  The front entrance of the church consisted of two towers.  They were more solidly constructed and had withstood the ravages of war without submitting.  Lawrence refused to go further.
 
"This is a good place to stay," said the gunner.  "The walls and roof appear substantial.  If we have to sit out an artillery barrage this is probably the most secure place we can find."
 
"He is in bad shape," stated Joe.  "We got to get him to a doctor."
 
"You stay with him," replied the gunner.  "I'll reconnoiter and see if there are any Germans hiding in this church."
 
"Take this bayonet just in case you run into trouble," said Joe as he handed him their only weapon.  "Not much in the way of protection, but it is all we have."
 
The gunner took the bayonet and disappeared into the main part of the church.  It was difficult climbing over the benches, but the gunner performed his task as quietly as possible.  He would move a few feet, then remain perfectly still for a second or two listening for sounds which would reveal the movement of others.  In this manner he worked his way to the rear and out a door in the back.  He surveyed the entire grounds and found them free of Germans.
 
End of part II of III
Cpl Wayne Van DYCKE

Company "B"

41st Tank Battalion

11th Armored Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium