Second Lieutenant Edwin Elston led the remaining boys in his platoon to a small clearing within twenty yards of a concrete bunker along the northern edge of the Siegfried line. Elston didn’t need to order them to take any cover they could find. He counted heads. This wasn’t on the final exam at Officer Candidate School. The maneuvers they had practiced for 12 weeks had always assumed that officers would lead attacks on enemy positions with a full complement of men. No one had instructed him what to do when only five of his boys survived from a platoon of 24.
Hours had passed since Elston’s platoon had lost contact with the companies on its flanks. As they pushed deeper into the Hurtgen Forest, the platoon had taken dozens of hits from their own artillery batteries, the shells bursting in the trees above them. The rain of hot shrapnel had cut the radio operator and his box to pieces, so they had no way to call off the bombardment. When they had tried to retreat, the other platoons in their section mistook them for Nazis and opened fire. Elston had no choice but to order what was left of his boys forward.
The dense forest was quickly swallowing the remains of the autumn sun. They’d soon lose the air support that was attempting to knock out positions that the Nazis had spent years fortifying and supplying. Elston tried to decide who he was most willing to sacrifice in an attempt to work behind the bunker and lob a couple of grenades into its unprotected rear. Elston settled on PFC Mather, who’d been brought up as a replacement three days earlier.
The lieutenant ran in a crouch toward the splintered elm where the private lay flat between the ancient tree’s raised roots. Elston was explaining the objective to Mather when the high whine of a P-47 Thunderbolt drowned out his fatal orders. Approaching from behind the enemy line, the plane pitched into a steep dive and opened fire with its 50-caliber machine guns. The clearing between Elston’s position and the camouflaged bunker came alive with puffs of black and splashes of red. Elston and Mather pressed their bodies deeper into the roots of the blasted elm, waiting for an explosion that never came.
Elston heard the plane’s motor struggling, the unexpected weight of a hung-up bomb making it impossible for the plane to gain altitude. The dive bomber’s wingtip clipped the forest canopy and cartwheeled across the treetops, soaking them in fuel and setting the upper branches ablaze. Five hundred yards behind Elston’s position, the Thunderbolt crashed onto the forest floor, detonating the bomb it had failed to release from its belly. A gusher of phosphorus erupted from the plane’s fuselage, igniting the parched undergrowth. Figures leaped from the ground and scattered, covered in white light.
Elston called out the names of the four other platoon members who had taken cover around the clearing. No replies. Not a groan. No boy pleading for his mother to rescue him. The lieutenant could hear PFC Mather sobbing next to him. The private’s body appeared intact, but his brain had gone spastic.
Elston stood, keeping the elm tree between him and the Nazi snipers still snug in their bunker. He unclipped two of the grenades from Private Mather’s belt. He pulled the pin from one pineapple and lobbed it over the toppled trunk of the elm. He counted to five, and then stepped into the open just as the detonation raised a cloud of dirt and sand in front of the Nazi bunker. The four-year letterman for the East High Scarlet pulled the second pin and went into his windup.
“I’m Bullet Bob Feller!” Elston yelled as his fastball sizzled through the firing slit in the bunker and exploded. He stood in the open, expecting a Nazi burp gun to send him to the showers, but no line drive shot toward the mound. Elston pumped his fist and shouted, “Onward we will do or die for dear East High!”
He stepped back behind the elm, grabbed his M-1 out of the dirt and slung the rifle over his shoulder. Mather lay motionless. The flames from the rapidly spreading crown fire twinkled in his watery eyes.
The two summer vacations that Elston had spent working with the CCC had taught him everything he cared to know about forest fires. The crew chief had explained it to the soft-handed college boys on their first day. “If the fire is spreading in the undergrowth, run. If it’s a crown fire, pray.” Elston faced a division of amphetamine-addled Nazis in front of him, a phosphorus-stoked undergrowth fire behind him and a crown fire blazing above him. He was too out manned to fight, too exhausted to run, and too furious with God to pray. Edwin was done with his war, but he wasn’t prepared to die.
Elston drew his Remington Rand semi-automatic and waved the muzzle in front of Mather’s face. The private continued staring straight up, wondering what had made Heaven and Hell trade places. Elston grabbed a handful of Mather’s jacket collar and hauled the private to his feet. Mather swayed a moment, admiring the cinders and flaming branches that tumbled through the air around them. Elston ducked under Mather’s collapsing body and hoisted the private over his shoulders just like they had taught him in Basic.
Elston considered his lack of options and started walking south — toward the Swiss border, back to Oran, maybe, but never again toward home. As he trudged through the darkening wood, Elston could hear Mather’s faint tenor voice singing,
“Not a burden we bear, not a sorrow we share,
But our toil He doth richly repay;
Not a grief or a loss, not a frown or a cross,
But is blessed if we trust and obey.”
If his parents had ever known a sober Sunday morning, Elston might have been able to sing along.
Alec Binnie grew up in a small Midwestern city, always suspecting something else was happening just beneath the surface. He lives now in Northern California in a sleepy suburb not far from the continent’s edge. By day, he works as a financial advisor.