“WHAT’S A GUY GOTTA DO TO DIE?”
December 19, 1944–January 3, 1945
In some ways, my war ended in Bastogne. In some ways it began there. The first day was surprisingly quiet. Eerily quiet, the forest wrapped in fog, the trees like thick masts in Warrenton’s harbor on some November morning. It was the kind of quiet you sensed would not last, even if it lulled you into thinking otherwise.
We heard bursts of machine-gun fire and an occasional whump of an 88 in the distance, but clearly the Germans were, at least for now, doing business with our buddies and not us. We couldn’t see much. And the Germans apparently couldn’t see much more, given that a kraut wandered within shouting distance and crouched to take a crap. We took him prisoner.
We were hunkered down in a dense forest that ran west to east between Foy and Bizory called the Bois Jacques. We just came to call it Jack’s Woods. The 506th was spread out along about a five-hundred-yard front, meaning, with 150 or so men, we were already stretched thin. Easy Company was on the left as we faced Foy.
To bide our time in the first few days, we’d expand our foxholes, which was getting harder to do as the temperatures dropped and the ground froze. But we chipped away, a little at a time. When we’d finish an L-shaped hole, it’d be about six feet in length by two feet wide, the long stretch for sleeping, the short for shooting. Three or four feet deep.
The resemblance to coffins wasn’t lost on Easy Company, though the amount of joking dropped with the temperature. We were exhausted. And it was getting colder.
“Give me the forty-five degrees and rain of an Astoria winter any day,” I muttered to Bain, my “roommate.”
“Hell, Malark, compared to Ilwaco, Astoria has winter drought. We get more than eighty inches a year.”
I blew on my hands for the umpteenth time. Nearby, Walter Gordon Jr., a quick-witted machine-gunner from Louisiana, was sitting next to his machine gun as if a mannequin, his head wrapped in a big towel with his helmet on top.
“Jeez, Smoky,” I said, “why not just put a big arrow pointing to your head that says, ‘Krauts, shoot here.’ ” He just looked at me, rolled his eyes, and shivered.
Bastogne was miserable and cold, but, for now, dry. No mud. Ice formed on mud puddles. And because of the cold and light casualties, none of the “death smell” of Normandy. An occasional whiff of coffee, cigarette smoke, and a navy-bean fart—that was Bastogne.
The snow started on the second day, December 20. Growing up, snow was rare in Astoria, though I’d sometimes run into it crossing over the Coast Range while heading to or from the Willamette Valley. In Bastogne, it fell softly at first, then with great gusto. Just like our exchanges with the Ger- mans. A few small skirmishes occurred here and there, but not much else.
Father Maloney quietly gathered Easy’s Catholics and others who felt the need for some spiritual encouragement. It was Skip’s idea. Alex Penkala, another close friend of Skip’s, was there; like Muck, he was a pretty serious Catholic. Perconte would make fun of him for still being a virgin. Me? I prayed a lot during the war that I could somehow just make it back to the banks of the Nehalem River with a blackberry tin in my hand. I was no Father Maloney. What a trouper he was, having jumped with us into Normandy and Holland, and being with us now in Bastogne. In the stillness of the woods, his words were soft assurance on the jagged edge of war: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
As the group broke up, Skip and I made our ways to each other, having not seen one another since Mourmelon. Our eyes—tired eyes—met. He was holding the rosary he carried with him everywhere.
“Stay safe, Skipper,” I said.
“You, too, Malark. See you when we get outa this friggin’ icebox.”
We shook hands. He left to rejoin the 1st Platoon. I re- turned to my foxhole a few hundred yards away. By then, the Jerries had moved machine gunners along the Foy-Bizory road. But all we could do was wait, knowing either they would attack or we would. Some will tell you that fear is a soldier’s worst enemy. I disagree. Too much and you’re paralyzed. But too little and you’re dead. Fear helps you take care of yourself so something bad won’t happen to you. If you don’t have at least some fear, you’re going to be a damn poor soldier and get yourself wounded or killed. Yeah, too much can kill you. But a little of it can save your life.
Sometimes, I worried as much about having rookies to the left and right of me as I did about the enemy. You’d always get a bit more nervous if you had some replacement beside you. And for whatever reason, they were the guys who seemed to get killed or wounded faster. Maybe it was because they just weren’t as gritty. Or maybe because they weren’t as well trained. In either case, they seemed to disappear quicker than the Toccoa guys.
Suddenly, on the second or third day, the stillness of the woods was shattered by the pop of guns and the sound of bullets ripping into trees. And then the awful sound of someone getting hit: a mufﬂed cry. “I’m hit!” And the panicked cry of “Medic! Medic!” And a machine-gunning of swear words that spoke not only of pain but of the frustration of knowing the victim could no longer do battle with the bastard who’d shot him. And—God, I hated this one—a soft, desperate call for a mother.
The German machine gunners kept spraying the woods like a lawn sprinkler till we finally got some guys in position and started hammering back. Before long, the field beyond the woods was littered with dead Germans. Dozens of them, part of one small attempt to push the lines west, toward their ultimate goal of Antwerp. Not that every time we quelled such a push it didn’t cost us something. Gordon took a shot in the neck that should have killed him but didn’t. Same with another machine gunner. They survived, but not by much. Same with that new machine-gun crew, the Polish guys. Our medic, Eugene Roe, was busy that day, and the nearest aid station was in Bastogne, a few dangerous miles away.
Wounded men were Roe’s stock-in-trade. And he’d seen more death than anyone else in the unit. To the rest of us, death was some rogue wave that would crash down on us from time to time. Hell, Roe was standing out in the surf every day, taking one shot after another. Since we’d got to Bastogne—bloodier than any other place we’d been—Roe was getting a bit of that thousand-yard stare himself. Quieter. You could tell it was getting to him. And who could blame him?
We continued hide-and-seek games with the krauts for the next few days, not that there was much daylight in which to fight. It didn’t get light until around 8:00 a.m. and returned to dark around 4:00 p.m. We’d pick a fight, they’d pick a fight. They’d send a patrol; we’d send a patrol. We did a lot of frontline firing and mortaring. Perhaps too much. If this stalemate didn’t break in our favor soon, we were bound to lose because we were already running out of ammo. And snow and heavy fog meant our ﬂyboys weren’t, at least for now, going to be saving our butts with a supply drop. We were down to six rounds per mortar, one bandolier per riﬂeman, and one box of machine-gun ammo per gun.
“No firing at anything, except to repel a major attack,” said Compton.
Before long, the Germans seemed to sense this. When the fog would lift, we’d see them down there in Foy, frolicking around in their white snowsuits, almost as if daring us to come after them but knowing we couldn’t. Already, the 506th’s 1st Battalion had been beat up pretty badly trying to take the town and had fallen back.
Ammo wasn’t the only thing we were low on. Roe was going from man to man like some sort of desperate trick-or-treater, scrounging whatever he could in the way of supplies. Food was becoming a problem. Not enough K rations had got distributed in the rush to leave Mourmelon. Our company cooks tried to get us hot, boiled chunks of beef in a souplike recipe—or white beans in broth—brought in from Bastogne by jeep before daylight or after dark, but it was impossible to keep it even lukewarm. Our best culinary trick was mixing a lemonade packet from our K rations to make an iced dessert. But, God, what I’d give for a hamburger steak and mashed potatoes from the Liberty Grill.
Meanwhile, the cold and snow started taking their toll. Joe Toye’s soft singing of Irish ballads or “I’ll Be Seeing You” might have eased his soul, but it wasn’t doing much for his toes. Roe suggested he go back to regiment for a break. “I ain’t comin’ off the line,” Toye said.
We were told to inspect our feet on occasion. Blue was a warning. Black the danger zone. On December 21, up to a foot of dry powder fell. And yet we were still wearing summer uniforms. All we had for cold weather were long, wool overcoats, which helped in the trenches but obviously weren’t smart for combat, and thin woolen caps we wore under our helmets. Sometimes, if a guy got hit, Roe was having to tuck the plasma bottle in his armpit to keep the stuff from freezing.
“Krauts don’t know how good they got it,” said Bill Guarnere, who’d become a close friend. “Wearing them snowsuits and sleeping in houses down there in Foy—they got the life.”
When you’d be up checking an outpost and look down on that village, you’d think you were looking at a Currier & Ives Christmas card. Then you’d stumble over some frozen corpse, bled out in the snow, and you’d think otherwise. The body of one dead German, not far from our foxholes, finally got to a few guys; despite the nearly frozen soil, they gave him a proper burial.
By now, I’d become a unit sergeant. Along with other non-coms, we needed to keep an eye on who needed a break, some Joe who needed a couple of days back at the command post, where Winters was, or being a runner between us.
“Malark, I need you to witness this for me,” said Roe one day. One of our replacements—a guy named Hughes whose grandfather had been a U.S. Supreme Court justice— huddled in his foxhole, complaining of not being able to feel his feet. Roe unlaced one of the man’s boots. His foot was half-black, early signs of gangrene. His war was over. Later, I heard he lost part of one foot and the entire other foot, though, as a newcomer to us at Mourmelon, he may never even have fired a shot in the war.
Once, I made the mistake of checking my own feet; took me two days to get them warm again. While picking up supplies in Bastogne, I picked up some burlap bags and started wrapping my boots in them. I found that if you poured some water on them and had it freeze, it actually worked as insulation and kept your feet warmer. I got a lot of heckling for my system, but by now I preferred warmth to pride and, while some believed otherwise, remained convinced this was the way to go. Speirs thought my getup was the funniest thing since Abbott and Costello; he had Forrest Guth, a guy with a camera, take a picture of me. Winters just thought I was nuts. Later, he said, “Can you imagine a guy wrapping his feet so he could stay in combat rather than get out?”
Every now and then you’d hear about some guy who’d taken off his boots just to freeze his feet so he could get out of here. Occasionally, some guy would go so far as to put a bullet in his foot for the same reason. War could twist your mind in lots of ways; when you get cold and exhausted, you lose your mental edge. And if you lose your mental edge, you lose hope. You lose hope and you’re doomed. For some guys, a day or two helping out back at the command post could charge their batteries a bit. Winters was big on that. He’d notice a guy who was having a tough time and call him for a little break. “Hang tough,” he was always telling us. Other times, the only way out for a soldier seemed to be the one thing I vowed I’d never do: quit.
Bastogne was challenging us in ways no other place had. We had no artillery power and no airpower. We were low on ammo and food. The men were cold, fearful, exhausted. I’ve heard a soldier loses his effectiveness in combat after about 90 days; we’d been in action for 107 since Normandy. This wasn’t exactly how any of us had expected to spend Christmas 1944. As if our situation wasn’t already ominous enough, word filtered through Easy’s ranks from a medic back in Bastogne: The Germans had closed the circle. The 101st Airborne was now completely surrounded, but as Winters would remind us, “We’re used to that. We’re paratroopers.”
Our Christmas miracle came early. On December 23, we awoke to clear skies.
“God, look at that,” said Compton. “UCLA blue!”
“Listen,” said Toye. “Planes. I hear planes.”
We weren’t dreaming. We looked above us; in the gaps between the trees and there against an almost-too-true-to-be-real blue sky were C-47 transport planes, dropping supplies: food, blankets, medicine, ammunition, the works. The amount would prove less than we’d expected—the K rations would last for only a few days—but they were something, and triggered a much needed boost in morale. After a week cut off from everybody else, hidden back in the woods, we’d lost any sense of context, that we were part of something bigger than just staying alive. The planes reconnected us somehow. Soon, a few P-47s were also in the sky, apparently to rouse the Germans below in Foy and Noville.
Some guys, including me, ran partway into the open field so they could see us. We whooped, hollered, and cheered, then suddenly froze in panic. Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. The P-47s were opening fire with mounted machine guns.
“What the hell?” I said.
We scattered beneath trees and into foxholes, wondering if those had been our own guys accidentally firing at us or Germans who’d captured our planes. They returned for a second go. I dove behind a tree. Ping. A bullet glanced off my helmet, sending my metal cap ﬂying, but leaving me unscathed. I’d had tons of close calls since Normandy; this was another. But, somehow, I’d yet to be seriously wounded. At Bastogne, though, you didn’t find yourself thinking too much about long-range possibilities—say, getting back home. You were more concerned about just making it until tomorrow.
On December 24, a jeep from Bastogne brought copies of a one-page newspaper. The Germans had, two days earlier, demanded the surrender of the 101st. Beneath a “Merry Christmas” greeting, General A. C. McAuliffe had written:
24 December 1944
What’s Merry about all this, you ask? We’re fighting—it’s cold. We aren’t home. All true but what has the proud Eagle Division accomplished with its worthy comrades the 10th Armored Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and all the rest? Just this: We have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the North, East, South and West. We have identifications from four German Panzer Divisions, two German Infantry Divisions and one German Parachute Division. These units, spearheading the last desperate lunge, were headed straight west for key points when the Eagle Division was hurriedly ordered to stem the advance. How effectively this was done will be written in history; not alone in our Division’s glorious history but in World history. The Germans actually did surround us, their radios blaring our doom. Their Commander demanded our surrender in the following impudent arrogance:
December 22nd 1944
To the U.S.A. Commander for the encircled town of Bastogne.
The Fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Ourthe near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Homores-Sibrat-Tillet. Librament is in German hands.
There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.
If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A.A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hour’s term.
All the serious civilian losses caused by the Artillery fire would not correspond with the well known American humanity.
—The German Commander.
The German Commander received the following reply:
22 December 1944
To the German Commander: N U T S!
—The American Commander.
” ‘Nuts,’ ” said Toye. “Gotta love that guy, McAuliffe.” Around us, soldiers hooted and hollered. McAuliffe’s refusal to give up encouraged us all; how fortunate that a gutsy guy like him was on watch while General Taylor was back in the States. Like the planes, his defiance reminded me that what we were doing here was about something bigger than just us. That we weren’t folding no matter what. We were beating back everything thrown at us.
Not that his “Merry Christmas” got us in any sort of holiday spirit, thinking of Christmases back home. By dark, the wind had picked up and the windchill factor plummeted. We had navy-bean broth that night, as usual. For the first time, Winters OK’d a warming fire but the Germans must have picked up on it because an incoming mortar round pounded down, some shrapnel catching Harry Welsh below the belt. He was evacuated, went back to England, though went AWOL to later return to Easy Company.
I passed out some Lucky Strike Christmas presents, then, making sure our outpost was manned, headed for some shut-eye. All was quiet except for guys coughing, which had become as common as breathing. Some guys will tell you they heard the Germans singing “Silent Night.” Maybe. I heard that song only in my head, though sound traveled so well over the snow that it’s possible it was really coming from the Germans in Foy. Once in a foxhole, Bain and I would pull our “lids” of limbs and fir bows over us. A guy named Ed Thomas had concocted a more gruesome roofing system: the frozen-stiff bodies of German soldiers atop the branches. His thinking was, when shrapnel started ﬂying, better them than us. And, hell, the krauts were already feeling no pain.
A few days later, word filtered from Bastogne that Glenn Miller’s plane had gone down over the Channel in mid-December and he was missing; it was hard to imagine not hearing more fresh songs from that guy, one of the greats of big-band music. But better news came on its heels: The siege of Bastogne was finally broken. A tank battalion from Patton’s 3rd Army had penetrated the German lines and rolled into town. That was wonderful. The circle was broken. We could get supplies in and wounded out. But, later, we heard that the 3rd rescued us. That cockeyed idea is phonier than a three-dollar bill. Easy Company didn’t need rescuing.
One night, Joe Toye took shrapnel in the wrist when a German plane swooped low and dropped an antipersonnel bomb. It was the third time he’d been wounded since our jump into Normandy.
“Damn it,” he growled. He hated getting wounded; he was like some football team’s star fullback, never wanting to stop. Never wanting to miss a single play.
“You lucky SOB,” I said to him before he was taken back to an aid station in Bastogne.
“I’ll be back, Malark.”
Occasionally, in war, there’d be the guy who was happy to get hit; the Harvard man David Kenyon Webster, when having a bullet go cleanly through his leg in Holland, somehow had the presence of mind—and the Hollywood ﬂare—to yell, “They got me!” He later said so himself. Said he’d gotten his wish: a million-dollar wound that would force him out of action. Funny, though, while Webster was back getting pampered by some sweetie-pie nurse in England, Eugene Jackson was dug in with us here at Bastogne—and had been with us in Holland—after nearly having had his ear ripped off by a mortar in Normandy. Different soldiers, you quickly learned, had different pain thresholds.
Take Toye, his arm looking like a skinned deer after that Normandy jump. Shrapnel in Holland. Now wounded here in Bastogne. You couldn’t keep the guy down. And it wasn’t as if he had anything to prove; every man in Easy Company respected Joe Toye for his toughness. But, remembering back to that night at the Regent Palace when I found Joe on the roof of that atrium, maybe what drove him so hard physically was the need to make up for not being, in his own mind, as “eloquent” as some of the other guys, not that I ever thought eloquence was an Easy Company trait. And not that it was his fault. Hell, your dad sends you to the coal mines when you’re fifteen and you’re not going to be Shakespeare; it’s that simple.
It’s ironic that Webster, the Harvard grad, could spin a sentence like nobody’s business; he was forever writing home, regaling relatives with story after story. But you ask me whom I’d want in a foxhole with me—or, for that matter, back home, sharing a beer and a burger with me at the Liberty Grill—and I’ll pick Joe Toye every damn time over a guy like Webster. You know why? Because he was always thinking beyond himself, that’s why.
On New Year’s Eve, I thought back to a year ago, Skip and I celebrating with the guys in England. Warm. Wild. All the food you could eat. Now, we sat in our foxholes and talked quietly. Then, with permission from Compton, just because we had ammo, we fired off six rounds of mortars to let the Germans know the worst was yet to come. A few days later, we were hunkered down when a jeep pulled up down the way, snow kicking up from its tires. It was Father Maloney. And who in the hell’s with him but Joe Toye. Arm in a sling. Hadn’t shaved since Adam was born. But there he was, walking across the field toward the front line. Winters saw him.
“Where you going?” he asked. “You don’t have to go back to the lines.”
Toye looked at him. “Gotta get back with the fellas,” he said. And walked back to join the boys in Easy Company. Like the others, I just stood and watched in awe.
Lieutenant Peacock, the guy who’d busted us back in Aldbourne for smuggling in the girls in leopard-skin tights, won a thirty-day furlough back to the States. OK, Lewis Nixon won it but had the guts to stay, and Peacock was the lucky runner-up. Most of the guys were happy for him, not because he got to go home, but because they got rid of him. Nice guy, but in over his head. Meanwhile, a few guys with trench foot were sent back to England. Joe Liebgott turned quiet, morose; he’d temporarily lost his edge. In Bastogne, Toye had seen that lieutenant who’d frozen during the tank attack in Holland, the one who’d buried his head in the sand while that Tiger was ripping us; he was in an aid station, leaning against a wall, crying. Our numbers were dwindling. The only thing that kept me going was knowing I had good buddies in the foxholes down the line: Muck, Penkala, Guarnere, Toye, Hoobler—the Toccoa boys—and, of course, Buck Compton, who came to us late but was a good egg, and a sort of honorary Toccoa boy. After his being wounded in Holland, I wasn’t sure we’d see him again, and I was glad he was back, though a lot of guys worried about Buck. Thought he was getting too serious. Maybe losing his edge.
We’d heard that General Taylor was now back in Bastogne. Everybody was ordered to shave within twenty-four hours and to remove their boots once a day and massage their feet. I refused the foot order, having tried and found it only made things worse. Come to think of it, I refused the shaving order, too, as did most of us.
We’d heard from guys in Bastogne that the 101st was making headlines back home. We’d broken the German siege. Beaten the odds. All at a time when newspapers were looking for good hero stories and citizens looking for hope. But, believe me, we soldiers in those Bastogne foxholes weren’t feeling particularly heroic. What we mainly felt was cold. Our beards grew longer, our patience shorter. The snow resumed, now halfway to our knees. It would snow again every day for a week. Somehow it didn’t seem to bother the Ger- man planes, which were harassing us day and night. We had been on the front lines for fifteen days in Belgium, on top of seventy in Holland and twenty-three in Normandy. A total of 108 days, not that anybody was counting. In war, you count days the way prisoners mark walls. Will this ever end? Will we ever make it out alive? Will I get home to be with Bernice and pick blackberries? Will Skip marry Faye Tanner and live happily ever after? Such questions rattled around in your mind here and there, between the short spurts of combat and the much longer nights.
On January 2, we headed out into Jack’s Woods to ﬂush out any German soldiers before our inevitable attack on Foy. Before leaving, standing around a warming fire, we got to know a seven-man bazooka team from the 10th Armored Division that had joined us. We worked our way through the woods to the east, where the forest came to the edge of the Foy-Bizory road. We scooted across, knowing we couldn’t probably be seen from German outposts in Foy. We worked our way north with hardly any opposition. The worst problem was heavy snow piling up in the brush.
Suddenly, an ear-piercing sound split the air: “screaming meemies,” like huge mortars and projectiles tumbling through the air, end over end, making an eerie whirling noise. They overshot us, their bark worse than their bite.
Darkness was setting in. Defensive positions were set for the night. I didn’t see it, but later a German soldier came roaring through the woods on horseback, apparently like something out of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Scared the hell out of everybody there. He saw our men, probably wet his pants, pulled a one-eighty-degree turn, and headed back. Don Hoobler, a likable kid from Ohio, coolly pumped three rounds into the soldier’s back. The German fell off, and the horse ran off. Hoobler, a good friend of mine, was quite proud of himself.
We dug in as best we could, not easy in the snow. Buck Compton moved from foxhole to foxhole to check on us.
“Guys doin’ OK?” he’d say. Or, “Keep moving those toes.”
The frontline machine-gun positions were in such heavy thicket that Burr Smith was actually exchanging banter with the krauts. Suddenly, crack. A gun went off nearby and a soldier screamed. One of ours. Hoobler. A guy I’d known since our runs up Currahee. He had been fiddling with a Browning 45 mm pistol—not a Luger as some thought—in his right-hand pocket and apparently accidentally shot himself in the leg. He was squirming in the snow, the blood gushing dangerously fast from his right leg. He’d severed a main artery.
“Help me, help me, oh, God, help me,” he cried.
A 1st Platoon medic bent over and tried to stop the bleeding. “Need help. Gotta get this man to an aid station.” Two guys hauled him off, leaving a trail of blood in the snow. Later, we heard he died shortly after arriving at the aid station. Bled to death.
In the quiet of the woods that followed, you couldn’t help thinking fatalistic thoughts. You figured the law of averages was going to stay with you only so long in combat. And that you were living and fighting on borrowed time.
Late the next afternoon, Winters pulled us out of our advanced position; he wanted us back in our old spots, perched in the woods overlooking Foy. At least part of the concern was that we had no reserves to fill the ﬂanks; if Jerries got past us, we’d be fighting on three sides. Not good.
The light started fading. We were trudging back to our old position—eighteen Easy guys and half a dozen guys from the bazooka team that had joined us—when we had to cross a narrow country lane. Looking back, I think the Germans might have seen us heading back to our positions in the woods because just as we arrived, so did a shelling like we’d never seen before or would see after. The Jerries started pounding us with big ones, probably 170s and 88s, as if they’d known exactly where we were heading. The shells rained down with the thunder of freight trains. Ka-boom, ka- boom, ka-boom! One after another.
“Incoming!” Compton yelled. “G’down! Take cover!” I found a hole in a hurry and tucked my head as if praying, which I did, too. Rod Bain piled in next to me. Around us, people were yelling, diving into foxholes and shell holes. Or, if desperate, cowering behind trees.
The shells were set to explode on contact, creating “tree bursts” that ﬂung shrapnel and knifelike shards of wood in all directions. Pines snapped in half and slammed to the snow with thumps, limbs ﬂying crazily. I’d seen logging crews in action back home, but nothing like this chaos of falling trees. The ground exploded, dirt shooting up like geysers. Guys were running around, desperately looking for cover. For a moment, I was a twelve-year-old kid back in Oregon. “Bob, Donnie, get up, get up! Fire’s comin’.”
“Get down! Find some cover!” Compton kept yelling. The bazooka team from the 10th Armored scurried for foxholes but none were to be had. Too late. Ka-boom! Their bodies were ﬂung into the air, twisting and turning before landing contorted in the snow.
Bain and I winced as the shells kept coming like oversized machine-gun fire. I’d been through a lot since Normandy, but nothing as intense, as loud, as constantly dooming as this. When the shells hit, they literally bounced you up.
Ka-boom, ka-boom, ka-boom! The shelling continued. Bain was curled up in the fetal position, hands over his head. Outside, barely audible above the noise from the attack, I heard voices of soldiers: Someone yelling to take cover.
Someone moaning. Someone yelling, “I’m hit.”
Ka-boom, ka-boom, ka-boom!
Then, suddenly, quiet. As quickly as the attack began, it ended, the sound of shells replaced by the sound of the shelled: Bain and I barely heard it far in the distance. “Gotta get up . . . gotta get up.”
It sounded like Joe Toye. I popped my head out of the fox- hole and looked around for Buck Compton, for orders. That’s when we heard what sounded like Toye again. “Gotta get up . . . gotta get up . . .”
Hearing that, Guarnere, Toye’s best friend, scrambled out of his foxhole like a madman, heading for his pal. He was playing right into the krauts’ hands: hit ‘em with a barrage, allow them a little time to go after their wounded, then hit ‘em again. But there was no stopping Guarnere. Bill got to Joe and was dragging him, by his two arms, back to a fox- hole, leaving a streak of blood in the snow. Joe was missing a leg.
“Ge’ back, Bill,” people were yelling. “Take cover!” But he wouldn’t leave Toye by himself. “Bill, find cover!” He glanced over his shoulder, spotting a foxhole. He was almost—
Guarnere and Toye disappeared in a hail of dirt, snow, shrapnel, and tree shards. The earth shook.
Ka-boom, ka-boom, ka-boom!
Another soldier screamed. Finally, the barrage stopped again. It was eerily silent, broken by the panicked voice of Buck Compton.
“Medic! Medic!” He’d seen what the rest of us would soon see: Toye and Guarnere, ﬂattened in the snow, both missing legs, wrapped together in a bloody tangle.
Compton started running back toward the command post, completely exposed to incoming fire. A couple of our guys sprang out of foxholes, tackled him, and dragged him to cover. He’d seen enough pain and suffering. Not just in this moment. But in all the moments that added up to a guy not being able to take it anymore.
I looked out of my foxhole and wished I hadn’t. More than a dozen soldiers were bleeding in the snow. Cries for help rose from all over the woods. Safe or not to be in the open, guys popped out of foxholes and went to Guarnere, Toye, and the others. I was huddling around Joe. Our medic, Roe, was tying a tourniquet around what was left of Joe’s leg, just below the knee. He’d already gotten a good hit of morphine; Guarnere would be next. The look on Joe’s face was the same look I’d seen in him that night I’d talked him off the roof at the Regent, a cross between I don’t wanna live and I don’t wanna die, with a touch of I’m letting Easy down. Anguish. As if he’d somehow failed not only himself, but all of us.
“Take it easy, Joe, you’re going to be OK,” I said.
A jeep had come up from the rear and wound its way through the trees. We put Toye’s stretcher sideways across the front. “Malark, gimme a cigarette,” he said, breathing hard.
I just looked at him and kept saying how it was going to be OK, even though I didn’t think it was. How can it be OK when a guy who’s already been wounded three times is hit for a fourth and, if he makes it, is going to be hobbling on one leg the rest of his life?
I put the cigarette in his mouth. He took a drag and blew out the smoke.
“God, what’s a guy gotta do to die, Malark?” he said.
I sniffed and looked away, then back. “I dunno, Joe. I dunno.”
Guarnere was still behind us, grimacing in pain, meaning two of the toughest guys in the unit were now fighting for life. Around us, guys stood around with the proverbial thousand-yard stare in their eyes. The once-white snow was tinted with dirt and splotched with blood.
“Malark, give us a hand over here,” Roe said while working on Guarnere. There was no time to grieve. The war had to go on.
Or did it?
That’s all it would take, I figured as I warmed my hands around the campfire with a few other shivering soldiers a few days later. It happened all the time, these “accidents.”
Why not now? Why not here? Why not me?
I stared at the embers, stretched out my fingers, then closed my hands when they got too hot. Hell, everyone found their way out of this, whether intentional or not. Hoobler and Ranney—shots to the leg. One dies, one doesn’t, but both got their get-out-of-jail-free cards. Toye and Guarnere—legs blown to bits. Buck—blown to bits, too, but just in a different way—emotionally. Not his fault. The guy busted his butt for us. The last time I saw him, he was like a ghost. His eyes seemed to look right through me, as if I weren’t even there and he was seeing something else completely.
That was two days earlier. I put my right hand onto the holster, then around the cold stock of the P38. I thought I was a pretty tough kid, growing up in a hardscrabble place like Astoria. I got tougher on Mount Currahee. And on that road to Atlanta, lugging a sixty-five-pound mortar 118 miles. And jumping into the darkness of Normandy. And surviving seventy days in the muck and mutton of Holland. But standing around that fire, you realize the price for surviving is seeing so many around you not survive—and having to stuff that pain in your musette bag every friggin’ day and keep walking, with so little hope of ever getting to whatever’s at the end. And you think, Maybe they’re the lucky SOBs. The ones who are suddenly gone, not that I’d wish death on anyone. Like that telegram my grandfather had sent from Denver when my uncle Bob was dying: If he is to pass at this time he begs of you all . . . not to grieve unduly for he will be released from suffering and at peace.
Once, I asked Skip about swimming the Niagara. He and his pals had started about ten miles above the waterfalls. It was nearly a mile across with a swift current. They knew that to get across they’d wind up at least a few miles downstream. Anyway, about four or five miles from the falls, he said, was a point-of-no-return sign. If you weren’t able to get your boat or body out of the river by this point, your fate was sealed. You were going over the falls, period. And staring at those embers, that’s exactly how I felt right now: beyond the point of no return. Helpless to do anything but relax and go over the edge.
I looked at the fire, careful not to look in the eyes of the men standing around me, the other survivors. I’d lost eight Toccoa buddies since those days in Georgia, not even counting the busted-up ones such as Toye and Guarnere. Slowly, my right forefinger curled around the icy pistol’s trigger.
I wanted to leave it all behind: the cold, the eerie quiet of the forest before you heard the whistle of a shell, and the help- less look in Joe Toye’s eyes when he’d said, “What’s a guy gotta do to die, Malark?” Above all, I think, for the first time I realized that this war had no end and that I’d never smell late-summer blackberries or see Bernice again unless I—
The voice came from behind, scaring the hell out of me. I slid the gun back in its holster. It was some soldier who’d arrived by jeep.
“Winters sent me, Sergeant. There’s someone back in the woods who wants to see you.”
Buck Compton looked nothing like the soldier who’d walked off the line a few days before. Well-starched Class A uniform. Hair combed. He was taking quick drags on a cigarette. His driver was waiting for him in a jeep.
“I’ve been reassigned, Malark,” he said. “Some desk job in Paris. Director of athletics and entertainment or some- thing.” He’d wanted to stay with the company but Winters wouldn’t allow it.
“That’s great, Buck,” I said.
“Dick said I could come say good-bye.” “I’m glad you did. I’m happy for you.”
He looked around. “Don, there’s something I need to know.” He paused and looked beyond me, back toward the woods where I’d just made fresh tracks in the snow. Back to where the others were.
“What, uh—what do the other guys think of me?”
I couldn’t lie. “They think you’re a hell of an officer, Buck.”
“Really. They wish you the best. Honest.”
He nodded, his lips pursed a bit. “Thanks, Malark.”
He looked at me and saluted. I saluted back. And we left to go to the different places we each needed to be.
Excerpted from Easy Company Soldier by Sgt. Don Malarkey with Bob Welch
Copyright © 2008
Published by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.