April, 1945. We were patrolling the countryside outside Leipzig, looking for stray German units retreating from the city. I was standing nearby when Molina, one of our scouts, came running to report to Captain Munhall. In a village down the road he’d seen teenage boys, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen-year-olds, gearing up to head into Leipzig to reinforce the diehards still holding out.
“Spotless uniforms, boots polished,” Molina said. “Like they’re going to a parade.”
“Sounds like Hitler Youth,” Munhall said. “How many?”
“Mausers,” Molina said. “Maybe a dozen machine guns. Spanking new Sennheisers.”
“We have to stop them,” Munhall said.
Lieutenant Simmons, commanding my platoon, spoke up. He’d been with us for a week. Hadn’t been shot at yet. A college boy, degree in music. You could see he didn’t have any stomach for the war.
“They’re not a meaningful force, sir,” he said.
“Your reasoning?” Munhall said.
“They’re children, sir.”
“Dangerous fucking children, Lieutenant. The last fanatics.”
“They’re human beings, sir. And so are we.”
“They’re enemy combatants.”
“Sir, the war will be over any day.”
“I’ve been hearing that since last October, Lieutenant. Thirty thousand dead GIs ago. We’re going to engage this force as if they were Waffen SS. Understand?”
Munhall stared at Simmons, eyes huge and dark as cave mouths. He’d survived, miraculously, all the way from Normandy, but the hellish journey had scorched him, turned his insides to salt. His body remained untouched and intact, but it looked to me like he’d never get his soul back.
He stationed two platoons to hit them broadside, from both sides of the road. I was down the road with Simmons’ platoon, ready to stop them if they tried to run for it.
They entered our trap on a flatbed truck, singing at the top of their lungs.
“Beethoven’s Ninth,” Simmons said. “Ode to Joy.”
Munhall’s platoons opened fire. Kids toppled off the truck in a wave, like when my mother slices kernels off the cob when she cans corn. The truck accelerated and sped toward us.
“Fire!” Simmons hollered.
We did. The truck swerved to a stop. The kids still alive leaped off, scrambled up a slope, and vanished into the woods.
“Fuck,” Simmons said. “Let’s go. We have to get them out of there.”
They found a good place to defend, a grove of young trees with thick underbrush and boulders. We advanced, using covering fire, taking no return fire, even after we closed in. I expected white flags and kids coming out with hands up, scared to death.
I’d barely finished the thought when they cut loose, and I dove behind a tree. I’d fought the Wehrmacht, the grownups, but never experienced anything like the hellstorm those kids unleashed on us. Zip, zip, bullets tearing into the ground beside me, smacking and ripping through bark and branches, splinters and dirt flying everywhere. Someone screamed on my left — Simmons, a big pink chunk gouged out of his thigh. One of those kids stepped from behind a tree for a clear shot at me, but way too slow. Before he shouldered his Mauser I put two rounds in his chest.
They fought like feral cats, but foolishly, like the children they were. In that one furious outburst they used up most of their ammunition, and their firing slacked off. We killed a lot of them with grenades, then moved in close and captured the last of them. Nine left alive, all wounded.
I leaned my M-1 against a tree and knelt down to help Simmons.
“Medic!” I hollered.
I heard footsteps in the leaves and looked up. Ten feet away, one of those kids stood pointing his rifle at my head. Beyond the small, black, perfect circle of muzzle, a child’s face, cheeks smooth-skinned and flushed, brown eyes wide and fixed.
I scooped a handful of dirt and leaves and flung it at him, then threw myself sideways, rolling fast. The kid fired, and the slug nicked my shoulder. Stung like hell, but I rolled behind a tree. I peeked to see where the kid was, and an M-1 cracked. The round blew the kid’s forehead off and he went down in the leaves.
Only it wasn’t a he. The cap came off, and waves of long black hair uncoiled and tumbled loose. A girl. Still alive, digging her fingers into the ground.
Private O’Hara, who’d fired the shot, came running. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “I had no idea. I had to shoot her, didn’t I?”
“Shut the fuck up, private.” Munhall had arrived, with Jorgenson, a medic, who knelt down and looked at the girl. Blood flowed down her face, and you could see brain where her forehead had been torn away.
Jorgenson shook his head and stood up. “She’s finished.”
But she wasn’t. She kept clawing at the dirt, making a whimpery, crying sound.
“Take her down to the road with the rest of their wounded,” Munhall said.
“Sir, she’s suffering,” I said.
I’d been watching, thinking about my son, Robert, in fourth grade. Someday he’d be an adult, maybe swept up in another war. On some future battlefield, in the same situation, what would I want a compassionate stranger to do for him?
“Look around, Sergeant Bradford,” Munhall said, swinging his arm. “What do you see?”
“I don’t understand, sir.”
“Suffering, for Christ’s sake! Everywhere. We’re all suffering.”
The girl whimpered again. I stepped close to her and slid my M-1 into her beautiful hair and snug against her skull. I knew I was doing the right thing. But it felt like a crime.
I fired. Her head bounced once, and her suffering ended.
I looked at Munhall.
“You disobeyed my direct order, Sergeant,” he said.
“I could court martial you to hell and back.”
Munhall’s eyes flicked around. To the dead girl. To the gathered faces. To my shoulder, my bloody shirt.
“See to your wound, Sergeant,” he said, and walked away.
Douglas Campbell‘s fiction has appeared online and in print, in publications such as Many Mountains Moving, Every Day Fiction, The Northville Review, Vestal Review, and Short Story America. Douglas lives and writes in southwestern Pennsylvania.