Come You Home a Hero
AN ATLANTIC STORY
by LT. LAURENCE CRITCHELL
Or come not home at all.
THE SHROPSHIRE LAD
No!” shouted the voice on the telephone. “ I want it tonight. Bring it over now.” “Damn!” said the lieutenant under his breath. He clicked off the receiver. Tired, wet, the snow thick on his boots, he had just come in from the lines. Glumly he stood in the underground operations office of the regimental command post and stared at the wall.
“What’s up?" grinned the operations sergeant.
“Have to go out again?”
“No,” he said, buttoning his coat. “Yes,” he said.
The sergeant folded the Stars and Stripes. “Did you read this about ‘the heroes of Bastogne’?” he asked, accentmg the phrase. “Somebody says we said, ‘They got us surrounded — the poor bastards.’ ”
“Did you say that?” asked the officer.
“Neither did I,” he said. “Especially not when they bombed.” He went out.
Since nightfall the blizzard had become severe. Artillery had set fire to a house in the main part of town, and the glow — whitened by the snow — looked like flares. He stood at the gate of the command post watching. It was a fire, all right. The shelling had stopped for a while. Cursing the captain who had called for him, he shoved his hands deep in his pockets and turned left past the frozen sentry towards the city gate. No one was abroad. Half-tracks and tanks were parked along the sidewalk by the prisoner-of-war enclosure. They had not been moved since the last attack two days before and were banked high with snow. He blew the snow out of his face and tramped down to the shelter of the city gate.
Bastogne had changed greatly since that first foggy daybreak when he and the other men had marched into it. Until then the war had passed through the Belgian town twice without harming it — once during the German advance and again during their retreat. Most of the buildings still showed evidence of German occupancy. The walls of the convent at the northeastern side of the town were slotted for machine guns.
But since the air-borne units had held the town, ruin had come to it. Unlike the neat towns in Holland the lieutenant remembered, where the Dutch people had come out as soon as the shellings were over and begun piling the bricks in neat stacks along the sidewalks, Bastogne had had no repairs. Broken water mains spilled out of the ruins unattended, then froze and made icicles on the charred stone. Stores stood burned and wrecked, their wares abandoned. Hardly a window in town was unbroken. Night bombings by solitary German planes had torn up the streets, caved in the houses, left wreckage in which, for six days, no one had had the time to dig out the dead.
Few shells had fallen by the city gate. But beyond it for a stretch of several hundred yards the road led across a black misty stream and up onto the hill slope on the opposite side. There heavy artillery shells had been falling all day. The lieutenant hesitated a moment. It was a gamble. If he waited, they might begin later; if he went now they might start at once. He shrugged his shoulders and walked forward across the open stretch, keeping close to the snow-filled ditch. The storm in his eyes was blinding. He tried to listen for the first whistle of the shells.
He turned up the slope of the hill towards the lines, getting the snow at his back. A series of houses, almost leveled by the earlier German bombs, flanked the street at one side. They looked queerly skeleton-like against the storm. He tried to remember which way the shells had come during the day. Diagonally over the hill from the northeast — that was it. He kept to the shelter of the ruins. Somewhere along this hill was the command post that he was looking for, the basement headquarters of Task Force O’Hara. The captain had said the place was marked by a stack of wood. Stack of wood! Even the fences were deep in snow.
On the other side of the hill, shortly before nightfall, the enemy had begun an attack. It was only a probing effort, but the volume of small-arms fire audible through the storm was impressive. Once a 40 mm. tracer shell ricocheted over the rooftops where he walked, whirling end on end musically. Beyond where it fell, the flames of the burning house in the main part of town were whipped up in a fresh wind.
He remembered what Bastogne had looked like on Christmas night. Bombs had set part of the southern limits of the city burning. He and the Protestant chaplain had stood by a church near the prisoner-ofwar enclosure and watched it — a curtain of luminous orange smoke over the moonlit rooftops, the whole city blue and silent and snowy while its houses burned.
He saw a pile of wood. But the house next to it was on the wrong side of the road. Seeing a cellar door at the bottom of the steps, he climbed down and tried the handle. The darkness inside was cold. It had a sickly-sweet odor. He recognized that odor at once and closed the door again. Some dead civilian, he thought. Lots of them had taken refuge in abandoned cellars during the bombings. If any of them were killed, they were found afterwards only by accident.
“Halt!” shouted a voice. He stopped dead.
“Lieutenant Foley,” he said. “Artillery liaison.”
“The password, sir.”
“Brassie.” The guard let him approach; the lieutenant heard the little click of the safety being put back on. “You can ask in the CP, sir,” said the guard in answer to Foley’s question. He gestured back towards the house. The lieutenant opened a door into a room warm with gaslight and Armored Force officers. The major working on the situation map with a grease pencil was a thin young man with black hair, about twenty-five. He shook his head. “Better try in the main part of town,” he said. “Nobody ought to go wandering around getting lost out here.”
The lieutenant said nothing. He persisted up the hill road another quarter of a mile. The snow was still fine and dry. If it had not been for the constant explosions over the hill crest and the occasional wop-wop of incoming shells on the open space in the valley, he would have enjoyed the walk. But a man felt naked outdoors in country where shelling was heavy.
Eventually he found the second woodpile. This time the door opened into a dim, warm room under the abandoned house.
TWENTY-FOUR!” Captain McKaig was shouting over the phone. “Twenty-four galoshes short. That’s right. Find out from Jenkins what the hell happened. Tell him I need those things tonight. Got it?” He twisted the lever of the telephone. “Sit down, Foley. Give me Red again, Beaver. Red. Give me—”
Someone said to the lieutenant as he came in, “ Hello, Jess.” It was Captain Lunin, the surgeon of the 1st Battalion, a small, cheery man with a dark face like an eclipsed moon.
“Any news about Kennedy?” asked the lieutenant, looking for a good chair.
“Still missing,” said an enlisted man in the corner.
“Coffee coming up,” announced Captain Lunin briskly. “Sugar on the table. And tea.” He rubbed his hands. “Over here, we live.”
“Except that Lunin’s never here,” said Captain McKaig, still at the telephone. “Operator, what the hell has happened to this line? I got Division — I wanted Red.”
“Give us the low-down, Jess,” said Captain Lunin, pouring the coffee. “You get all the inside dope.”
The lieutenant leaned back and drank the coffee gratefully. Now that he was safely inside, he was glad he had come. The shabby little room was comfortable. Task Force O’Hara had been formed of several small units taken variously from the whole division. During the first days in Bastogne, when the pressure from the German forces had been too heavy to spare reserves from the line, it had served as a mobile support. Now that the armored columns had relieved the town, its future was uncertain.
“All I want,” shouted Captain McKaig to Lunin, “is to stay indoors tonight. After tonight they can send me anywhere.”
The lieutenant tried to remember the news he had heard during the day. “Division says our oak leaf cluster for Holland was approved. For the unit citation. I don’t know who approved it — Corps or Army. And they say Roosevelt mentioned Bastogne last night. That’s all I know.”
“We’re famous,” said the enlisted man.
“Don’t I know it,” agreed Captain Lunin. “I expect to make a fortune lecturing to women’s clubs. ‘The Battered Bastards of the Bastion of Bastogne’ — that should be a drawing card. But tell me more about the oak leaf cluster. Is it definite?”
“So they say at Division.” The lieutenant poured himself another cup of coffee.
“Geez,” said the enlisted man in the corner. “That makes three for us. Normandy, Holland, Bastogne.”
“ Carnegie Hall is another possibility,” Lunin mused. “To accommodate the crowds.”
“We were in the Stars and Stripes again today,” added the enlisted man. “A big article. Says this place was like Gettysburg, Valley Forge, the Alamo.”
“Gawd!” Lunin rubbed his face. “Maybe I ought to go in for the big time.”
The lieutenant leaned back towards the fire and let the warmth burn into him. He recognized the familiar banter of the group. It made him think of something he had written home after the Normandy invasion — that in the midst of death they were in life. It was true. He looked at the shabby, warm, comfortable room that Task Force O’Hara had made for itself out of the abandoned cellar — the pictures of girls from home, the opened packages, the letters.
Since the siege, the whole town of Bastogne was undermined with hidden places like this. Almost all of them were underground. Walking through the streets of town at night you saw nothing except the ruins, the snow, the lemon flares of outgoing artillery. Yet warmth and congeniality and hot coffee were all there, behind the blacked-out doors of the wrecked Belgian homes, underneath the desolated shops.
“Foley is here,”shouted Captain McKaig over the telephone. “I can’t talk all night. All right, all right, we’ve got the galoshes. Twenty-four short.” He went on talking.
“You re putting me in for a Medal of Honor, aren’t you, Jess?” asked Captain Lunin.
“That’s right,”said the lieutenant. “That night you dug an underground aid-station singlehanded.”
“A Medal of Honor,”Lunin mused. “ I’d get home. And it would help the publicity for my lecture tour.”
“I was all set to go home once,” put in the enlisted man. “But the doc said it was scabies. I thought I had leprosy.”
“That wasn’t me,” said Lunin. " We always coöperate in matters like that.”
“I’d give a lot to be on Hollywood and Vine right now,”continued the enlisted man. “Even with leprosy.” He moved over to the light; the lieutenant saw that he was Sergeant Selz, the 1st Battalion supply sergeant. “My wife says it’s kind of dull at home right now. Imagine that! I told her that what I wanted was to be bored stiff with her, right in the middle of North Hollywood.” He laughed. “She thinks I’m having a good time with those French girls.”
“Louisiana for me,” said Lunin. “I’d settle for a newsstand on Canal Street.”
“And tell that driver,”shouted McKaig over the telephone, “that he’ll have to go out to the Red CP tonight. Tell him to hook up the trailer — we’ve got galoshes to go. That’s right.” He hung up. “There’s a little town called Belton in Texas—”
“I know Belton,” said Sergeant Selz. “ My wife and me had a house there when I was at Camp Hood. That town was so crowded they had a waiting line for Main Street.”
The shelling down in the valley, Lieutenant Foley could hear, had begun again. He was glad the captain was ready to work. Unfolding the overlay he had brought, he sat down near the situation map. The storm was muffled. Within the room there were no drafts. On the floor against one wall of the cellar were three bedrolls. Beside them was a wooden table with two kerosene lamps, a few dirty plates, the situation map that he was beginning to correct, and a package from home for Lieutenant Sallin. Sallin came in while Lieutenant Foley was working. “Fruit cake,” he announced. After a smell, “No, it’s rum cake.”
“Squeeze out the rum,” suggested Sergeant Selz.
“ We’ve got rum up there in the cupboard,” said Captain McKaig, looking up from the map. “That British ration from Holland.”
“This is what my folks would like to see,” said
Lieutenant Sallin, cutting the rum cake. " The receiving end.”
“They’d say you were gypping ‘em,” commented Captain Lunin, pouring extra glasses of rum for everybody. “Task Force O’Hara is too comfortable.”
“We had a shell right at the door last night,” said Sergeant Selz. Lieutenant Foley looked at the man. Since the first shells in the valley had begun falling, the sergeant had moved around the room uneasily, sitting at last in the shelter beside the empty fireplace. The nearer bursts made the glowing tip of his cigarette jump. The lieutenant looked away. Nobody had a right to criticize. As a matter of fact, he was glad of the glass of rum himself. In a little while he had to go back over that open space in the valley where the shells were falling.
WHEN you’re ready to go, let me know,” said Captain Lunin.
The lieutenant folded up the situation map. “Right now,” he said. “Are you coming?”
Captain Lunin was putting on his coat when Jenkins, the supply officer, bundled slowly into the room. “That’s my ammunition dump burning over there,” he said heavily. “They made a clean hit. Two hours ago.”
“The ammo dump?” asked the sergeant. He stood up. “I guess—” He hesitated. “I guess I’d better get back over there.”
“That’s a good idea,” Jenkins agreed.
“I want to send those galoshes out to the line tonight,” shouted Captain McKaig.
“They’ll be frozen stiff by morning,” said Jenkins, moving over to the fire. “Better send them out with the ration truck at breakfast.” He looked at Lunin.
“I’d wait a while, Pappy. There’s a lot of incoming stuff down there.”
“Arrange a temporary truce, will you, Jenk?” said Captain Lunin. “Tell ‘em the Geneva Convention is down here visiting.”
“Let’s go,” said the lieutenant. He took a last gulp of hot coffee.
The wind had died outside the house. But the snow was coming down more heavily. The three men turned up the collars of their coats and trudged down the hill road towards the group of houses that marked the left turn towards Bastogne. No one said anything. All of them were listening to the shellfire in the valley below. Between the rolling heaviness of the incoming shells were the sharper, almost hollow whooms of the tank guns, firing counter-battery. The lieutenant remembered with a wry grimace how scared he had been the first time, unable to tell the two sounds apart. Now he could even distinguish the tank guns from the artillery. The tank guns made a hollower sound.
“I don’t like this,” said Sergeant Selz, his voice muffled under a coat collar.
“It may let up,” added Captain Lunin.
“I don’t mind the small-arms stuff so much,” said the sergeant. “But this artillery . . .” His voice trailed off. The lieutenant looked at him again.
“I’d go back and wait a while if I were you, Sergeant,” he said. “There’s no sense taking risks you don’t have to.”
“I have to,” said the sergeant with finality.
The lieutenant felt better for having company. It was strange how soldiers disliked solitary danger. He remembered T. E. Lawrence’s phrase— “Of all danger, give me the solitary sort.” Something like that. But Lawrence was not an ordinary soldier. The ordinary ones preferred dying, as the lieutenant did, in a crowd. That was why so many of them shared foxholes on the front lines.
The three men paused at the open stretch on the entrance to the valley. Through the blizzard they could see the occasional sharp whitish flashes of the shellbursts. The thundering was much more intense. Captain Lunin pulled his Red Cross brassard higher onto his arm. “Does anybody want to wait ?” he asked. When there was no answer: “How about making a run for it?”
“I tried that coming over,” said the sergeant. “The ice is too slippery.”
“Let’s go,” said the lieutenant impatiently. He wanted to get it over. To himself he did what he always did at moments like this: he committed to God the care of his wife and child. He was not religious, but some reassurance in the words of the short prayer was always forthcoming. None of them said anything just then. Isolated by the exposure, they walked forward steadily through the swirl of storm. When a shell exploded on the end of the road they fell flat. But then they got up and continued walking forward, still silent. In the huge booming storm of the night, violence seemed manifest. The sergeant cursed when he slipped. Lunin walked as rapidly as he could. The lieutenant noticed, almost without seeing it, that the fire in the town had died down.
They had almost reached the shelter of the city gate when the shell came in. The sickening whine that it made was ended before they could move. It struck the embankment of the road and exploded. The lieutenant felt two things at once: a violent crash on his eardrums and a hot, bursting upheaval that slammed him into the air. Something sliced by his ear with a whine., He heard his mind saying “ Aii!” and before he could close his eyes he was smashed blindingly into the ground. He was stunned. His ears were ringing. Struggling, he got to his feet. “Hurry up!” he shouted. “Let’s get out of here.” More shells would come in at the same place.
“Over here!” shouted Lunin. “Come over here!”
The lieutenant swore. “Damn it!” He floundered over to the medical man. “The sergeant,” said Lunin. Hurriedly the lieutenant took the man’s shoulders. Staggering, slipping, they worked their way back as fast as they could towards the road. The second shell fell a hundred yards beyond them. Climbing through the ditch, they gained the city gate.
“Hold it,” said Lunin. “I’ll get a stretcher.” He disappeared into the storm of the city.
Dazed, the lieutenant covered the wounded man with his overcoat. He almost fell when he bent over. Sinking to his knees, he pulled off the Canadian combat jacket that he wore and made a support for the man’s head. His eyes failed him for a moment then, and he sank back against the stone. A nauseating succession of violet spirals wheeled under his eyelids. He took two or three breaths. He realized that he was shivering violently. He tried to speak to the wounded man, but his shaking lips refused the words. He recognized his own symptoms; he was suffering from shock. He knew how to treat himself—or at least he knew what helped him. He got up and double-timed in place for a few moments under the shelter of the arch. Then he got slowly down on his knees again and hunted through his pockets for a flashlight. The sergeant made a shuddering noise.
“Down here,” said Lunin’s voice from the front. A half-track, approaching from the rear, tried to pass under the archway; the lieutenant waved it aside dizzily. He was still feeling nausea. But he swallowed hard and followed the stretcher group up to the regimental aid station.
IN THE first days at Bastogne, when the air-borne units had been cut off by the enemy, the regimental aid station had been set up in the chapel of the Belgian convent. There, for almost a week, the wounded men had steadily accumulated, until they covered the whole floor, even up to the altar. It was cold in the chapel. So the command post personnel had given up their blankets to the wounded. Steady shelling and night bombing had knocked out all the stained-glass windows. Snow had drifted in the holes. When the first air resupply mission was flown to Bastogne, the recovered parachutes were added to the blankets. Then when the armored elements opened a corridor, the wounded men were evacuated to rear hospitals and the regimental aid station moved across the street to the vaulted underground cellar of a private house.
When the lieutenant entered, the warmth struck him in the face like a blow. Holding himself, he moved as close as he could get to the stove. He noticed with relief that Captain Lunin’s hands were shaking too. Lunin let Captain Waldman take charge of the wounded man.
“Let’s take a look at you, fella,” said Captain Waldman. He touched the side of the man’s head speculatively. The lieutenant could see, then, what had happened. Like Lunin and himself, the man was trembling violently. His lips were parted; his eyes were open and staring. One of his hands kept straying up to his head. “Hold his hand,” said Captain Waldman. He bent over the wounds with a flashlight. “Now just lie quiet, fella—this isn’t going to hurt.” He probed the ear with a cotton-covered stick. “No ear injury apparent.” Then he turned the sergeant’s neck slightly and looked for a long time at the other side of the neck. In the silence the lieutenant could hear the gas lamp hissing.
“You’re going to be all right,” said Captain Waldman. Reaching back for the penicillin, he nodded to someone in the shadows. For the first time the lieutenant saw the chaplain.
The chaplain looked at the wounded man’s dog tags. “I want you to pray,” he said. “Can you hear me, Al?" He paused. “If you can’t speak, just think the words to yourself with me.” He paused again and began. The man trembled violently. “What are his chances?” the lieutenant whispered to Captain Lunin. “He’s dying,” Lunin whispered back. The lieutenant took a deep breath. He looked at a magazine that lay on one of the bedrolls in the corner. It showed a picture of a flight nurse. She looked too clean and impersonal, he thought — too sure of herself. Women were out of place so close to the lines. The men were too badly hurt, too near to violence.
“Saying,” whispered the chaplain, ‘“Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. . . .” The lieutenant listened to the words. He knew Sergeant Selz very slightly. But it was hard to feel deeply anyone’s death, where each hung so narrowly, even one’s own. He knew that all the soldiers felt that way. For the first time he thought again of his wife. It was odd, he reflected, how the life over here was lived on two levels. Men carried on the casual friendliness that kept them sane, and on the other level were the violence and sudden death.
Sergeant Selz closed his eyes. Sometime in the few moments that they stood there, he must have died. Two wounded Armored Force men were brought in on stretchers. Neither was seriously wounded. They joked with the chaplain about their home towns. The lieutenant heard the low words, “You can’t be from California, Chaplain. I thought everybody out there got deferred by Kaiser.” Outside the cellar the storm and the artillery pounded like brothers on the door.
“Did ya’ see the Stars and Stripes today?” said one of the aid men. “It told how one of the Washington papers printed that ‘Battered Bastards of Bastogne’ business. They called it ‘The Battered B—’s of Bastogne.’”
“Imagine that!” said the man who had filled the hypodermic. “They think we’re a bunch of dashes.”
“Things are getting rough back home,” commented an Armored Force man. “They’ve had a hell of a cold wave.”
“Maybe the War Department’ll send us home to lecture in the war plants,” suggested the first man.
“That would cut in on my business,” said Captain Lunin. “The field is definitely closed.” He buttoned his coat collar. “I think I’d better be going on. My boys may cut a finger.”
The lieutenant and the chaplain left together. They walked in silence across the whirring snow-filled street to the convent where they both slept. “It’s all very heroic, ain’t it ? ” said the lieutenant as they entered the cloister. “What the hell is a hero?”
“I dunno,” said the chaplain noncommittally. “Certainly not me.”
Snow drifted down through the wrecked cloister onto the tables where the men were served chow. A statue of Mary looked out on the still-steaming cans where the mess kits were washed. A few fires in the grease cans were alight; some of the guards who were off duty sat there warming themselves. The lieutenant felt tired. His body had at last stopped shivering. But the weariness was overpowering. When he climbed over the coal pile in the cellar to the place where he slept, he felt a deep sense of comfort.
The coal pile had been leveled flat by the soldiers. In the next chamber, connected by vaulted arches, nuns of St. Francis, who had come to Bastogne from Aachen, spent the nights sleeping upright in chairs. They had a small altar with them and each evening at about ten o’clock, before they went to bed, they sang evening prayers. Sometimes they said the prayers in the middle of the night, if they were awakened by German bombing. They were praying as the lieutenant turned back the covers. “Sainte Marie, Mère de Dieu . .. .” It was familiar. Somewhere upstairs in the cloister an incoming shell made a sound like a crashing door. Glass fell.
“You’re not listening,” objected the chaplain, who had been talking.
“I was thinking,”he said. “That sergeant came from California.”
“So do I,”nodded the chaplain. “A good place. I expect to have a home in Burbank after the war.”
“You’ve told me about that,” said the lieutenant drowsily,
“I decided not to buy it ready-made. Build it. Buy all the materials. Of course I’d need advice. I was wondering the other night whether we should have a cellar. Lately I’ve got tired of cellars.” He paused and listened to the blizzard outside the slits in the stone. “Or maybe I can interest you in dogs?” wistfully.
“Yes,”said the lieutenant. “All kinds. Especially wire-haireds. I’m going to get my kid a wire-haired.”
“Now here’s the trouble with wire-haireds,” said the chaplain happily. “They’re all right if . . .”
The lieutenant went to sleep.
Much later someone in the darkness awakened him by calling his name. He raised his head. “Yes?”
“The colonel wants you out at White, sir. They’re having an attack.”
“They want me out there now?”
“That’s right, sir. They’ve had to commit O’Hara.”
The lieutenant leaned back slowly, looking at his watch, “O.K.,”he said. He pulled the blankets over him again, closed his eyes and, quietly and fluently, from four and a half years of experience in the Army, he began to curse. Finished, he lay back and let the drowsy warmth of the sleeping bag steal over him. He was so damned tired. The war could go to hell. He’d had enough. He was through. The hell with honor. The hell with duty. He was through. Through with the Army, through with the war, through with the whole damn mess. Utterly and completely. Heroes! He laughed. He didn’t even know what a hero was.
Rolling his legs out from the covers, he started passionately lacing his boots.