Reprinted with permission from the January 1948 issue
of “Foreign Service”, published by the VFW.
Like Sergeant Mac in this story, Tim O’Brien was a sergeant of rather mature years who led a machine gun squad through some of the heaviest fighting in World War II. He served a peacetime hitch in the Army from 1927 to 1933 and returned to the same branch for wartime service in 1944. Joining Company M of the 346th Infantry, 87th Division, at St. Vith, he saw continuous combat until VE-Day from France through Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, ending up near the Czech border. Born in New York City in 1909, O’Brien now lives at Newark, N. J., where he’s a member of V.F.W. Post 164. His by-line has appeared in several leading magazines.
St. Vith was leveled to the ground. What was left of Company M was crammed into a dingy. damp cellar. The combined odors of dried meat, soggy potatoes, dirty bodies, gun oil and improvised oil lamps created a depressing, nauseating effect.
Captain Hale had returned from the Battalion CP and had given us what we called “the big picture” of our part in a task force operation. Our platoon was to be attached to Company I and we were to move out at 0200 hours.
As the men were snuggling close together for animal warmth, Nelson, who drove the jeep for the 4th squad, came in with his usual “hot” rumors and the latest dope from Regiment. He told us some “fresh meat” had arrived. He didn’t refer to rations but to new replacements. Our platoon, the other machine gun platoon and the mortar platoon were sadly depleted at Tillet, where we had pretty tough going. Those of us remaining were in sad shape as a result of carrying extra ammunition and supplies and doing longer stretches through the cold, black nights at our machine guns.
Nelson also brought news that MacManus’ sergeant’s rating had come through. Stripes or bars were seldom visible in our outfit, but even when they were, the hardships and comradeship seemed to level all ranks. There were no congratulations or back-slaps for Mac. A promotion was only a grim reminder of someone who had been carried back and left a rank open.
Mac was an “old army” man. He followed the Training Manual even in combat. You couldn’t imagine him not having some position of leadership. Being an idealist, Mac got in on the big fight even though he had three exemptions, aged 12, 10 and 6. The 4th squad now had a good leader. Mac was past 35, calm, shrewd and careful. He tempered all his instructions with sound fatherly advice and made many sacrifices to help the young kids in the squad. When they fagged out he carried their stuff, and he often admonished them for carelessness.
When the “fresh meat” arrived at our cellar bivouac, Captain Hale was roused from his bunk in a potato bin. As was his custom, he personally greeted new men, gave them the facts and assigned them to squads. Then Mac pointed out something was wrong. There was one man unaccounted for. The problem was solved when one of the new men pointed to a lanky soldier sitting against a wall fast asleep.
That night in St. Vith was never to be forgotten by Sergeant Mac. Not so much because he picked up three stripes but because he acquired a new charge who was to prove the bane of his existence. The boy’s big hulk belied the record of the casual pool which gave his age at 19. Other replacements told us this overgrown boy took the war very lightly and didn’t care much for his personal safety. Mac couldn’t pronounce the newcomer’s name and condensed it to “Sudy.”
There were many attributes of a good soldier Sudy seemed to lack and the more Mac learned of his new charge, the more he was ready to pull out what little hair he had left. Sudy blithely disregarded all security regulations. He loved to sleep, loved to read and loved even more to eat. He carried a minimum of weight, even discarding those items necessary to a doughfoot’s safety, protection and comfort. There were no grenades hooked on to his coat or rifle belt. Too heavy. He carried no heating units because he could sleep anywhere without them even though others froze. A canteen of water was also too cumbersome and besides, Sudy couldn’t stand water prepared by the aid station – the stuff that tasted like chlorine. He would drink anything, anywhere.
It was plain to see Mac had a fulltime job watching Sudy. In his waking hours Sudy liked to read everything he could get about the war. He pocketed all maps and over-lays the platoon commander discarded. He liked to talk strategy and make predictions, always figuring what part M Company, the 3rd Battalion and the whole damn Allied force would play in various sectors: The big fight was just an interesting game to him.
This predicting and reading, even in times of great danger, often infuriated Mac. To the name Sudy, Mac prefixed the title “General.” In lighter moments Mac would taunt Sudy on his generalship. A “foxhole general” he liked to call him. Once when we were holding a line in front of a town called Ormont, Sudy came in from a turn at the gun. After eating a cold can of C rations, he headed for a spot in a corner for some sleep. “General.” yelled Mac across the length of our pill-box, “when do we take this town of Ormont?”
“You want in that town?” asked Sudy.
“C’mon, General, what’s the deal on Ormont?” Mac was anxious to get a phony prediction into the record.
Sudy would rather have gone to sleep but he raised on his elbow. spread out a soiled map and began to outline the situation. “Ormont is down in a deep valley, Sergeant, and it ain’t the town for us.”
“O.K., General, why did you and the general staff arrive at that conclusion?”
Sudy continued: “There’s a lot of high hills surrounding that little town. The Jerries moved out and want us to move in. You notice they didn’t set off their road block. Right? It’s wide open for us to move in. They ain’t no patrols been trying to bother us at night. Right? . This is a good place to catch up on sleep. Right? And if we did go into that town we’d be sucker shots for Jerry artillery and mortars. One K-ration says we’ll take a piece of high ground beyond the town and hold from there. -I got the ridge all picked out through the field glasses.”
“Well, it’s nice to know our plans,” jeered Mac.
During this exchange, Lieutenant Schwartz was looking at the map. I noticed he didn’t laugh with the others at Sudy and nodded .approval when Sudy turned to. him with his usual, “Right, Lieutenant?”
Mac was at a loss as to what to do about Sudy and gave up trying. Sudy knew that in actual combat no one . could enforce a thousand and one minor regulations and he actually preferred combat to training camps or “repple depples” where~there was always some kind of inspection or formation. As time wore on, his predictions proved remarkably accurate. There were many times when Mac found comfort in predictions–especially those that promised some kind of relief from combat duty.
During one barrage Sudy and Mac were caught short half-way between the platoon CP and the gun position. Together they hit for a shell hole. While holed in, Mac found solace in the General’s analysis of the situation. Consulting Mac’s watch, Sudy assured him the barrage would be over in four minutes. “Them Jerries,” he said, “give us the same dose every day at noon.” He persuaded Mac to study the barrage and see if the rounds weren’t’ dropping at 50-second intervals. Sure enough, they were and Sudy assured the Sergeant there were only three more to go. It turned out to be just as Sudy said.
“You sound like you got that straight from Hitler,” said Mac.
“You know, Mac,” Sudy said, “The Jerry Training Manuals most tell them to give us’ the works at 12 noon: They think we eat on schedule.”
“When do we get it next?” queried Mac.
“It must be in their book like chow time. We’ll get it at six tonight, right on the button, unless they hear the weasel or jeep coming up with food and supplies. Then they put a barrage of four or six on the road.”
The predictions now became serious business for Mac. Following Sudy’s advice he changed the hours on the gun-watch schedule so there was no one traveling between the CP and the gun at six o’clock. It was a fortunate change because two rounds dropped perilously near the gun position and an outpost rifleman from I Company . was nicked with a piece of shrapnel.
Differences between the two men began to diminish and, a strong bond took shape. Sudy was always after Mac to quit worrying-always warning, “You won’t be any good to them three kids when you get back.” Healthy brute that he was, Sudy could carry equipment and make long marches without wearing out and this proved quite a help to Mac.
As predicted, the town of Ormont was by-passed. Other moves were made in the ensuing weeks according to the General’s plan. All the while there were no replacements for the depleted platoons of M Company. Battalion objectives kept us up in snowy hills, far removed from passable roads, and food,and other supplies were slow in coming up. Everything that did, reach us had to be hand carried over tough hills and Sudy went on many carrying parties.
In making the trips Sudy would strip himself of all weight, even his carbine. His reasoning was that he could carry more and, if ambushed, he couldn’t help himself much anyway, being loaded down with a case of C rations. However, the more chary, ones who went with him kept their arms at the alert, even though Sudy figured any Jerries caught in back of them wanted to surrender. He proved his point a couple of times when he brought in prisoners. The ferries carried the C rations or prepared water and Sudy followed, casually smoking a cigarette. Sudy liked the trips for a couple of reasons. It got him out of some gun watch and gave him first crack at copies of Stars and Stripes and Yank. This material kept him abreast of the war’s progress.
As the war progressed, Mac became more of a worrier. His age, the extra duties he assumed, the. care and concern over equipment and his younger charges all told on him. He thought a lot about his wife and children. Sudy, meanwhile, became more the interested spectator and there were times when he seemed to actually enjoy the war. Mac dwelled too much on the fact that his number would soon come up. On taking stock he realized that only he and one other man remained of the original platoon that went into the field at Tibet. He would recall to Suiiy those. buddies who were taken back with trench foot, bullet or shrapnel wounds. Now Sudy was the gunner and this fact often made Mac wonder if his chances for survival weren’t lessened.
Whenever our outfit stopped, the men instinctively began to dig in. An emplacement was dug for the gun crew and fox-holes for the remainder of the squad. Sudy never approved of digging but depended on his choice of.natural shelter. He insisted there. was no point to digging since the order to move out always came when the holes were dug.
At last the time came for a big assault. The Third Battalion suffered many losses, creeping at snail’s pace through treacherous, mined hills for three weeks. And now we were in sight of what we were after. This was a tense situation. Our tanks were lined up behind a knoll to our rear. Mortars were dug in and we were alerted to move out as soon as a concentrated artillery barrage was lifted in front of us. The advance and the lifting of the barrage were timed to a split second.
In front of the Third Battalion was Gold Brick Hill, the highest point in the Siegfried Line. Our barrage came overhead at dawn and Jerry retaliated round for round. Our men were getting nicked one by one and cries for “Medic” could be heard above all the hell that was loosed around us.
Sudy stuck to the place of his original choosing. Mac, however, was forced to abandon his digging and take shelter with Sudy. A piece of hot shrapnel tore his clothes and other pieces whizzed, passed the spot where, minutes before, he had been digging. Sudy, even at a strenuous time like this,. was munching K ration crackers and yelled over to Mac, “See?”
Medics were working frantically, evacuating wounded back behind a small ridge. Mac, Sudy and a boy named Swafford were all that remained of the 4th squad and they could do nothing but sit and pray till the order to displace forward. Calmly, Sudy was timing mortar and artillery bursts and his assuring observations helped Mac and Swafford live through hellish moments. He yelled to Mac that the 88s had quit firing. An 88 mm. made a menacing whistle in its flight. Sudy knew that sound well and could distinguish it from our own artillery. He listened for a while longer and yelled to his buddies: “Even the mortars must be pulling back. They just wasted about five shells over to our right. They’re on the run.”
Despite the gravity of the situation, Sudy got his buddies in the guessing game. As something would go off between them and Gold Brick Hill, Mac or Swafford would ask, “Whose is that?”
“That’s ours,” Sudy would answer. “Don’t you know the sound of our own 76?”
The barrage lifted and the riflemen moved on the hill, firing as they went. It was a heroic sight. The three undermanned rifle companies were under the command of 2nd lieutenants, the senior officers having all been taken back. Mac and his remaining two men began to gather up their equipment and the equipment left behind by the casualties, making ready to move out. There was still enemy mortar fire coming in, Sudy warned, but not as accurately as before.
Things worked out to where Sudy was giving the orders and Mac willngly obeyed.
“How do we displace,” asked Mac.
“We got a tailor-made route,” answered Sudy. “Each of us will pick a line of those shell holes. Hop from one to the other but don’t hop till right after a shell burst. No shell ever hit in another shell hole.”
“Where do we meet and set up our gun?” asked Mac.
Sudy looked up at the hill and pointed to a rifleman on the left crest. “See that guy up there? Well, that’s where we go and that’s the kind of spot Lieutenant Schwartz would pick for us, anyway. It covers that open area.”
“Pick it up,” shouted Mac. It was the standard move-out order in our outfit. But Sudy and Swafford were already on their way, carrying extra equipment and hopping from hole to hole.
Attaining Gold Brick Hill seemed to bolster the morale of everyone. The riflemen were so relieved after the miserable days of hiking, waitng, hunger, cold and fatigue they turned on full steam and were yelling like savages. This was a strategic point and the men counted on the rest promised them if they took the hill. Sudy crept to the crest for there were still random mortar bursts – and surveyed the vast expanse of country before him. He was as pleased as if he had planned the whole strategy himself. It was satisfying to him to know the brass-laden boys agreed with his tactics.
As Sudy surveyed the terrain, Mac and Swafford returned to gather up some of the equipment left at the take-off point. Sudy, being in good favor, got out of this difficult labor by insisting that a good machinegunner stands by his gun.
The first principles of a gunner were soon forgotten when Mac and Swafford left. Sudy kept low and took off for one of the captured pillboxes, returning in a few minutes with some German rations – black bread, canned pork and ersatz candy bars. He was happy now, consulting some dirty maps and eating Jerry rations. As he sat and ate, the other two were busy. Mac was scanning the terrain and picking out his best coverage, while Swafford was unreeling wire and bringing up a sound power phone to keep near the gun position. Mac ordered Sudy to dig in but gave the order timidly, knowing what the result would be.
With the air of a true General, Sudy beckoned Mac and Swafford to listen. “Boys,” he beamed, “this is it. From the way that artillery was coming in I could tell it was on the run. Watch the 11th Armored Division takeoff now.” He showed their position on the map and the nearness of Gold Brick Hill to main highways that led to the big river.
“What’s all this mean to us?” asked Mac
“It means the Germans are running for the river and we are practically out of the war for a while. Us guys have to move on foot and we can’t catch the Jerries. Those guys in the armored divisions will have to.earn their allotment checks for a while.”
Grabbing Mac’s field glasses, Sudy began tolook over the country ahead. Then putting down the glasses he sighted through Mac’s rifle. Nervously Mac wanted to know if something was up. “Germans?” he asked.
“Germans?” Sudy looked surpiised. “You expect Jerries to be hanging around here? I was just looking at some ridges out there. Look through your sight and see the ridge you’ll sleep on tonight or tomorrow – the well-known high ground, soldier, unless the Colonel has changed his style of warfare.”
Mac was digesting this bit of logic when the sound power phone gave off the 4th squad’s familiar two long and two short whistles. Swafford answered. -“It’s Lieutenant Schwartz,” he said and handed the phone over to Sergeant Mac.
“O.K., Sudy – I mean General,” laughed Mac, “the Lieutenant says it’s a complete knockout. They got 20 Jerries lined up against one of the pillboxes … ‘Says they’re rushing food up by the big highway … mail at the Company CP … coming up tomorrow … Armored outfits bumper to bumper rolling along the roads to the river … we’re gonna get baths and a chance to write letters … says we did a good covering job … he’s comin’ up in a couple of minutes.”
“Something tells me we get the job of taking Cologne;” Sudy said,` without caring who was listening.
Mac had to consolidate his squad with another. In drawing up a roster for watches at the gun, he paired himself with Sudy so he could let the big goon sleep. He ordered a big emplacement dug and placed a generous supply of pine boughs over a raincoat on the floor for the General’s comfort.
It was dusk when Mac and Sudy took their turn at the gun. Mac gazed at the beautiful, rolling hills. God, but it was beautiful, he thought. And to Sudy he said, “To think that people who own this kind of country should fight for deserts.” His reverie was soon broken by the snoring of General Sudy. Somehow it seemed like music to his ears.