“Just One More River To Cross”

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Farther down the road, we came to a Studebaker truck that seemed worth investigating. It was parked in front of a house in which two rather inebriated Russians were passing around a bottle of schnapps and terrifying two German women. The Russians invited us to partake, which we did. When the bottle emptied, as it shortly did, the Russians demanded more. The German ladies claimed that was all that they had. One of the Russians took out his cigarette lighter, ignited it, and held the flame inches below the bottom of the cottage’s curtains. More schnapps appeared as if by magic.

 

I had had nothing alcoholic to drink for months (except for that that nip on the Tiger) and had been on starvation rations, so the alcohol quickly went to my head. One of the Russian soldiers saw my plight. He cradled me in his arms, took me out to his truck, nestled me down on the barrels of fuel that were his cargo, and returned to his carousing. The trucks or tanks that were waiting for that fuel would obviously have to wait a little longer.

I was awakened later by a Russian soldier galloping down the road on a horse, shooting at the glass windowpanes of houses. My companions rejoined me, and we resumed our plodding toward the west.

Shortly, we caught up with a horse-drawn wagon and about a dozen French ex-POWs. I asked if we could join them and offered to provide cigarettes to pay for the rations needed for the trip. This offer was cheerfully accepted, so we threw our improvised backpacks on the wagon and moved out with them. We found that no more than two or three people at a time could ride so as not to unduly overburden that spavined horse. In fact he was so scrawny that he looked overburdened with no passengers aboard at all. and I had serious doubts whether he could make it to France. But he had one constant passenger, other than the driver: a prepubescent Italian girl. No one volunteered information on where she had come from or how or why. Apparently, she was just battlefield flotsam. But she always rode.

In the afternoon we were able to liberate a nice, fat little pig and two chickens that the Russians had overlooked. One of the Frenchmen proved to be an excellent chef. He bought some local vegetables with our cigarettes and served up an excellent pork and chicken ragout that night. With a bit of a local vintage.

After that fine dinner, I went for a stroll around the area and encountered a fortyish German peasant woman, rather stout and squat. She asked, hopefully, if the Americans were going to occupy the village. I told her we were not an occupying force but prisoners trying to get back to our lines. She then asked if I would take her daughter with us. She explained that the girl was 16 and had been repeatedly raped by the Russians and that she had to get her out of there. I told her that we would be leaving about seven o’clock in the morning, to have her daughter there and she could join forces with us. I didn’t ask our French hosts for permission because, after all, I had the cigarettes.

In the morning they both were there at the appointed time. Mother and daughter said a tearful farewell and hugged and kissed for probably the last time. One of the Frenchmen helped the bedraggled child onto the wagon. It was generally agreed that she should ride. I explained to the girl that from now on she was French. We passed many Russian soldiers along the way, and I told her to smile at them (it must have been hard) and to say, “ Bonjour, m’sieur .” She mastered her line, and no one ever called her into question.

One of the Frenchmen adopted her and looked after her until we finally reached the Elbe. I have no idea what happened after that, but I doubt she ever saw her mother again. And I was never certain that the Frenchman’s intentions were entirely honorable.

But again, I get ahead of myself. As we approached the Elbe, the German army was shedding its identity. The troops were ripping off their insignia and throwing them into the ditches alongside the road. Their efforts to look like civilians would not fool most people. But it couldn’t hurt and just might deceive some peasant from the Steppes.

As we breasted the hills overlooking the Elbe, a bridge crossing the river came into sight. Unlike most other bridges in Germany, this one had not been blown. A Russian sentry was posted at its eastern end. On the other side a U.S. Army jeep was waiting, presumably to pick up American stragglers. Freedom was in sight! Only one more guard to pass; just one more river to cross.

The Russians were sending the retreating German soldiers to one huge field (our former guards were probably already in it), the motorized vehicles the Germans had been riding (including the Tigers) to another, their draft animals to still another, and their bicycles to yet another. Accordingly, we made a swift reorganization. Our French leader, not wanting to lose his (dubious) transportation back to France, gave me the reins of the wagon and told me to take charge. When we reached the bridge across the Elbe, the Russian sentry told us to halt.

Was haben wir hier? ” he asked.

“Fifteen Frenchmen, two French girls, and three American POWs,” I replied in German.

He waved us forward. I flicked the reins across the horse’s withers and gave him an encouraging cluck. The wagon inched past the Russian sentry and onto the bridge.

From the back of the wagon wafted a chirky “ Bonjour, m’sieur .”