Triumph And Tragedy

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It was tranquil and almost eerily quiet that first evening in Austria. I have long since forgotten, if I ever knew it, the name of the village. It looked like most Central European hamlets—a picturesque cluster of houses dominated by the onion-dome spires of a church, nestled in the foothills of the mountains. It must have been in the western part of Upper Austria, somewhere north of Salzburg.

To our surprise and great satisfaction, the survey section found itself in a house that apparently belonged to a well-to-do family. It was an unusual house to find in a rural setting, not large but tastefully and expensively furnished. One member of the section headed immediately for the cellars of the homes we occupied and kept us well supplied with excellent wine, much of it originally looted from France by the Germans. We were enjoying some of that wine now, as we relaxed in the attractive living room.

Much to our surprise, the power was still on in the area, and as darkness fell we turned on lights, and more from force of habit than any real danger, we pulled down shades as a precaution against German artillery. The sergeant was in the kitchen, heating the rations for our evening meal. He would have delegated this chore, but apparently he was enjoying the luxury of a working stove.

The section was fortunate in having two excellent leaders, the sergeant and the lieutenant. They performed their jobs with efficiency and dispatch and required us to do the same, while maintaining what seemed an ideal level of discipline, not too much and not too little. Like the rest of us, they were citizen soldiers, not career men.

In spite of a few minor instances of friction, the lieutenant and I liked each other and got along very well. We had shared a number of escapades in the past two months, some humorous, some harrowing. On one occasion we had been lost, on a very dark night, in a rural area between the rapidly changing front lines. It was a dangerous place to be lost. Ordinarily we would not be driving at night, but this was an exception. We were trying to find our way by the jeep’s blackout lights, which threw a faint glow about twenty feet in front of the hood. The lieutenant was crouched in his seat, holding a flashlight over a map, frantically trying to determine where we were.

Suddenly, above the sound of our own engine, there was the sound of other engines, monstrous engines, coming toward us. In a panic we turned off quickly into the adjacent field, stopped, turned off the blackout lights, and seconds later watched with pounding hearts as four huge tanks clanked past only yards away.

“Sir!” I said hoarsely. “Those tanks have low silhouettes! They’re—”

“German!” he interjected in a shaky voice. (When we were scared, we used the word German . Otherwise it was always Kraut .) Panic-stricken, we waited until that frightening rumbling had faded in the distance, then returned to the road. We proceeded at about twenty miles an hour in the direction from which the tanks had come, expecting to be fired on at any moment. At the next intersection we turned, still lost, and eventually, miraculously, we were back with the battalion, relieved, exhausted, and shaken.

They were remnants of an elite SS division we’d been pursuing. Perhaps sheer exhaustion let us get this close.

One day the lieutenant shot and killed a German soldier. It was a situation in which he had no choice but to do what he did. After being ordered to halt, the man panicked and ran. If he had stood still and put up his hands, he would have lived. If he had escaped, as he nearly did, he could have taken with him information damaging to us, and he himself could have killed Americans later. But the incident preyed on the lieutenant’s mind, and for days he hardly spoke to anyone. Up to that time I had wanted a chance to use my rifle against the enemy, but after that I changed my mind.

Although the battalion’s howitzers caused casualties among the enemy almost daily, by the very nature of artillery we were behind the lines most of the time and did not have a clear idea of the violence at the front. But on one occasion I saw something an artilleryman doesn’t often see. I saw what we were shooting at.

Once, about four o’clock in the morning, one of the gun batteries was dug in on a hillside overlooking a narrow valley in the Harz Mountains. The enemy was in sight, or would be, with the first light of dawn. Across that valley, perhaps a quarter of a mile away, about a hundred German troops were reportedly asleep in a large wooden building, some sort of factory or warehouse. In the darkness we could just make out its faint outline. Incredibly, our gun crews had dug in and prepared the guns for firing without the enemy’s hearing them, although that dark valley was absolutely still.