Triumph And Tragedy

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Unless they intended to leave before dawn, when we could fire accurately, or unless we accidentally gave away our presence, the enemy troops were doomed. They were trapped, without even knowing they were trapped. They were sleeping the last hour of their lives. Those Germans were remnants of a once-elite SS division we had been pursuing and decimating. Perhaps sheer exhaustion on their part had enabled us to come this close without being detected.

The lieutenant and I stood with a group of officers, behind and to one side of the battery. We had nothing to do but observe. Everyone spoke in a hushed voice. All was in readiness. A shell was in the chamber of each of the four howitzers, with more shells stacked behind them.

Finally the dawn came, and with it an extraordinarily clear light, so clear that small details could be seen at a great distance. Then it began. A few quick, quiet commands to the gunners peering through their sights, and all four gun barrels moved slightly, staying parallel with each other. The executive officer stood like a statue, his arm raised. The section chief of number two stood the same way, while the man with the lanyard was also poised and ready. Then came the hushed, tense command: “Number two, one round! Fire!” The arms came down, the cannoneer pulled the lanyard sharply, the howitzer roared and leaped, and the first, adjusting round was on its way. It fell a little short, a puff of white smoke a few yards in front of the building, followed by the dull thud of the explosion. I saw two tiny figures run out the front door. Probably they were the only ones to escape.

The two boys began to laugh. It was as if the devil himself were hurling a final insult at those tormented people.

A quick command to adjust the battery, and the four gun barrels elevated slightly. Then the shouted command: “Battery! Six rounds! Fire at will!” In a moment all four 105s were firing, as twenty-four high-explosive shells began to bracket the target. Explosion after explosion rocked the building. The officer standing next to me offered me his binoculars; perhaps he didn’t want to see too clearly what was happening. Through the glasses I could see debris being blown into the air, silhouetted against the reddish orange of the explosions and flames. Horrified, I saw that some of that debris was unmistakably in the form of human bodies. “Oh, my God!” I thought. I handed back the binoculars. “Those are SS men!” I reminded myself. “The scourge of Europe! They deserve to die!” Still, it was an unnerving sight.

On the fourth of May we ran our last surveys. The gun batteries were placed in the positions we surveyed, but I don’t think they ever fired from them. The war was winding down rapidly. To our great relief the retreating enemy continued southward and eastward, across relatively open country. There had been an ominous rumor that some German units might turn westward and make a final, suicidal stand in the Alpine Redoubt, a rugged area that would have been very costly to attack. But that didn’t happen. Now they would be squeezed between the 7th and the 3d armies (our own 71st would be the most eastward division of all the Western armies when the war ended on May 8), the Russians moving west from Vienna, and the British 8th and American 5th armies coming northward from Italy. It was almost over.

The section came back glumly from the survey that morning to the hamlet in which we had spent the past day and a half, but not to the same attractive little house. Instead we went to the larger, rather drab house from which headquarters was operating. As we pulled up and stopped, we were mildly surprised to see a German soldier sitting on a low wall. A member of headquarters section explained that the man had just surrendered, and he was our prisoner until the MPs came for him.

I felt a moment of empathy with that forlorn-looking figure. He wasn’t young —perhaps about forty—and he looked small and frail and harmless with his horn-rimmed glasses and an overcoat that seemed too large for him. His uniform showed him to be a Luftwaffe corporal. He looked rather scholarly to me, and I thought perhaps he had been a university professor in civilian life. “Poor fellow,” I thought. “He shouldn’t even be in uniform.” Because of his frail appearance, I assumed he had had some sort of desk job.

We waited in our two vehicles while the lieutenant and sergeant went into the house to report to the battalion commander. We paid little attention to the German sitting a few yards from us, and he paid little attention to us. The sky was overcast, and rain seemed imminent. In a few minutes the sergeant came out and ordered us all inside. He assigned my friend Dick, the Californian, and me to bring in the prisoner and take charge of him until the MPs arrived.

 

I grabbed my carbine, got out of the jeep, approached the man, and said, “Kommen Sie mit uns!” That brief sentence represented a major part of my German vocabulary.