The Wounding of Lieutenant Lively
Webber took his turn on guard at 0400 in one of the forward positions. Bleary-eyed, they’d roused him from a sound sleep. He found it freezing in the darkness of the dugout but it wasn’t that way for long. The wind died down at first light. The chill slackened. Webber watched the landscape across the river shift from black, menacing void to gray, dreary woodlands. He thought of the overnight Boy Scout campouts he’d gone on back in grammar school. On them, he almost always rose early in anticipation of the activities the sun promised. The last thing he wanted to be at the moment was awake.
The sun was low coming through the trees when he spotted the body in the water. Donned in a Wehrmacht camouflage poncho, the corpse was upstream. It hung on the twisted metal rails of the blasted pontoons. An overturned heavy tank, one of theirs, held the wreckage in place. Only the tracks of the behemoth were visible above the water. They’d been that way since Webber’s company reached the river in their vehicles the previous week. Whatever drama had unfolded here had climaxed well before then.
Two full days had passed without shots fired in anger. Even so, the dead man was new. Webber hadn’t seen him on other stints at the perimeter. It was the German’s head, pale as the moon, bobbing in the water that caught his eye. He assumed the man was a victim of the same action responsible for taking out the tank. Submerged, the strong current must have freed him, a result of the recent thaw.
Reported to be hiding in the forest on the opposite bank were survivors of an SS kampfgruppe. Cut to pieces in recent fighting, there was no sign of them, day or night, all along the line. The only illumination flares fired were from the American side. Webber’s unit and others to their left and right were waiting on orders and small boats to cross. He guessed their task was to clear the woods to the flat plain said to be a mile through the trees. He’d heard engineers were waiting upon the assault to build a new bridge. There was the round-the-clock rumbling of trucks and tanks to the rear. Webber knew this meant a wide spear was being set for launch against the enemy. As usual, he stifled as best he could thoughts of who alive now would soon perish.
A foot of snow had been on the ground when Webber arrived up front the day before Christmas. He was part of a group of replacements trucked in. Some of the men with him believed they were already in Germany. They’d spotted a signpost with Teutonic-sounding names of villages along the way. One of the GIs, killed since doubted they’d be forward very long. A million rumors were circulating at the time about a ferocious battle to the north in Belgium. A bulge had formed in the allied line. If it burst, they’d all be running, and fast. Even so, Webber thought himself lucky that first night. Assigned to an armored infantry platoon, the front in his area was quiet. He found the unit sheltering out of the wind in the relative warmth of reinforced lean-tos. Issued an extra blanket, he balled himself up against one of the walls to sleep. It was around midnight when he first laid eyes on Lieutenant Lively, his platoon leader. The officer had come along, bottles of scotch and rye in both hands.
Merry Christmas, gents–he said, pouring fingers full into the mess cups of the huddled men.
Webber didn’t drink. He offered his ration of whiskey to a corporal bundled next to him.
You sure, kid?–said the corporal, smiling.–It’s all you’re gettin’ from Santy Claus this year.
They were the only friendly words to him that first week. On his first patrol, Webber bore ammunition for one of the BAR men. Neither soldier, anxious and preoccupied, bothered to learn the other’s proper name. The gunner stumbled down an embankment near twilight, dislocating a knee. Evacuated, Webber took over his weapon.
His baptism of fire came early New Year’s morning. Temperatures had dropped, and with the sky overcast, the Germans in his sector pushed. A sudden mortar barrage bracketed Webber’s outfit. His unit fell back in a panicked jumble, aboard vehicles and on foot. The impacts made it a struggle to remain upright. Webber kept losing his footing. The ground underneath felt hollow to him. He thought faults might open up and swallow them all.
Webber found himself with a large group, scurrying along a forest trail, dodging automatic fire and tree bursts. He later calculated they’d retreated two miles. Crossing a wide clearing the men took cover behind a jagged, rocky wall to regroup. While catching their breaths, a line of enemy appeared across the clearing. Dressed in white ponchos, the Germans were tracking paths made in the snow. It angered Webber the way they shambled along. Casual, they were like kids on a hike.
Webber and the men with him twirled heads at one another. They wondered if there’d be an order to fire when shots emanated from an angle in the wall to their left. Grenades followed. Going off, they kicked up snow, dirt, and rock among the Germans. Webber’s group let loose as one. The enemy fell almost to a man as if scythed.
Ducking down to reload amid the noise and chaos, Webber saw Lively up the line. He was sure the officer was first to fire. Webber no longer felt frightened. A warm, righteous calm overtook him. He bordered on gleeful.
They’d recross the open ground hours later with tank and artillery support. Webber’s platoon scrounged for intelligence and souvenirs among the dead. He recognized the first man he’d killed by the scarlet wool mittens on his hands. Their stitch pattern matched a pair Webber’s mother had made for him as a child. They’d jumped out as a target at two hundred yards. The dead man was flat on his belly. Weber rolled him over with his boot. Why bother to wear white? he thought.
The German resembled Mr. Witterschein. He owned the delicatessen down on the corner of his street back home. Webber could almost smell the chickens the man slow-roasted daily. They always mixed with the aroma of brine from the huge pickle barrel by the front door. Webber squirmed. Feeling his crotch itch and spasm, he knew immediately he’d wet his pants.
Combat raged the next month over the same seven square miles. There was no repeat of Webber’s bladder incident in the seesaw battle. His confirmed tally of kills rose upward of ten. Still, he hadn’t gone unscathed. Living and marching for days in soiled, frozen trousers, Webber’s thighs chafed. His sores then bled. A medic supplied him with an ointment by the third week of January. Webber hated the sarcastic look on the man’s face and asked him to keep his malady under wraps. He knew the medic hadn’t when certain of his squad started to call him “Wetter.”
The lull the last few days had been a godsend after six brutal weeks. Webber had turned nineteen the previous October but his arms and legs ached now like an old man’s. He was cold to the bone and exhausted. Some in his outfit had been fighting since coming ashore the previous summer. He couldn’t fathom how they’d made it through. He’d heard about one or two noncoms in his company who’d fought the winter before in Italy.
There was a soft splash on the water. Webber turned. The dead man was on the move, limbs splayed under his green speckled poncho. His floating body resembled a human lily pad. The river carried him through the patchwork of tiny ice floes into its main channel. The man was bound for the far shore when firing from a submachine gun off Webber’s right impeded his progress. The bullets cut across the dead German’s torso, spinning him in the water. His trajectory changed. The corpse appeared headed for a spot on the bank mere yards past Webber’s outpost.
Who the fuck did that?–cried a voice.
Webber knew from the Georgia drawl it was First Sergeant Stores who’d yelled. The man appeared crouched, on the run out of the morning mist and trees behind Webber’s position. The young soldier gulped as Stores dropped down into his redoubt. It was too damn early for a chewing out. Webber girded himself to explain but Stores ignored him.
Yo!–a low voice said from a shallow bunker twenty yards downriver.
Asshole, you lookin’ to eat kraut mortars for breakfast?
Sorry, Stores–Pleskow called in an even voice.–Thought he was one of their frogmen trying to infiltrate.
He hangs up our side of the river, you’re the one’s gonna haul him out and draw fire buryin’ him!
There was no response from Pleskow. Stores turned to Webber who almost jumped at the sudden motion.
Anything?–he said, and Webber, relieved, shook his head.
The sergeant peeked around the edge of a sandbagged embrasure to scan the trees across the river. Twisting, he moved to the end of the makeshift revetment. Out the side of the dugout, he watched the river carry the corpse round the bend.
I’ll send Morley up to relieve you–he said.–Go get something to eat. I hear they brung real eggs up this mornin’.
Stores got set to dash back.
How’s Lieutenant Lively?
Stores jerked his head around at Webber. He sneered.
Friends, are you?–he said.
No, sergeant–said Webber.–I was only wondering if they were going to send him back.
And leave all this?
Wisecracks from Stores were always accompanied by a deathly poker stare. Webber smirked as he had before at the combination. The soldier aimed his amusement at the ground. He didn’t want it misread. When he looked up, Stores was gone, having faded back into the trees. He hadn’t hung around for audience response.
Things had become brazen at the crossroads a half-mile from the river. Vehicles jammed against each other on both sides of the road in all directions. After collecting their meals, men stood in relaxed clusters near the mess station. This was in blatant disregard of security. One eighty-eight shell, Webber mused to himself, imagining the disaster it would inflict. He hadn’t seen a queue this long allowed for meals since arriving.
The clouds of the last week were burning off with the sunrise. Webber thought this might have to do with the rowdiness on display. Hopeful as the bright light made him, he couldn’t pretend the war was all but over like the men around him. He’d learned in his short time up silence was a bad sign. They wouldn’t see or hear anyone for hours then out of nowhere, an onslaught.
A spindly staff sergeant in a jeep cap stood away from the line, carbine slung around his shoulder. He studied the sky as if communing. Webber thought he shared his concern about this many men and so much equipment in proximity. The sergeant caught Webber watching him.
Mess cups out–he barked at Webber.
No trays or spare kits, huh?
Mess cups out!–the sergeant repeated.–This ain’t the automat–he growled.
Webber reached for the canteen on his belt and the steel cup it was in. A cook’s assistant under a canopy slopped a mass of greasy hash from an immense cauldron into Webber’s cup. Another, stained apron over his fatigue jacket, doled out a large, drippy glop of powdered eggs. These he spooned from one of several trays on a small table.
I heard there were real eggs–said Webber.
Three hundred guys ago–said the second assistant who jerked a thumb.
Webber grabbed a slice of stale bread piled in a crate past the tables when he caught a whiff of something foul. His first inclination was to smell what was in his cup. Then he realized someone had emptied his bowels nearby. Revolted, Webber held his breath, trotting upwind a short distance along the road. He stopped between a large truck and half-track parked roadside and sniffed. The stench in the air was gone. He sat against the truck’s fender and gobbled his meal, using the bread to spoon. It wasn’t that bad or maybe he was that hungry. He wished he’d taken more of the bread, stiff as it was. The grease from the hash softened it right up.
How you doing?
The voice came from the rear of the half-track. Webber recognized it and stood. There was a huge tarp draped and fastened over the vehicle’s open top, making it dark within.
As you were–said the voice.
There was a rustling and creaking in the darkness. Lieutenant Lively hauled himself to the edge of the bench by the vehicle’s rear hatch. He squinted at the daylight.
Sky’s clearing–said Lively.
Yes, sir–said Webber, spotting the huge dressing fastened to the officer’s right thigh.
Lively winced, pulling his wounded leg up. He propped it on the bench across from him.
Need any help, sir?
I’m okay–he said and smiled.
Webber wasn’t sure he believed him. Hair mussed, the officer’s face was pale and gray. Always clean-shaven, there was several days growth of beard on his face and chin. Shrapnel from a mortar round had hit Lively, one of the few fired as troops made the river and halted. The shell had decapitated the radio operator who’d been sitting in the jeep behind him.
Those the real thing?–said Lively as Webber scraped up the remnants in his cup, finishing his breakfast.
No, sir. They ran out.
Dopes. I doubled the req so there’d be seconds.
Can I get you something to eat, sir?
Lively shook his head.
“Wetter,” isn’t it?
“Webber,” sir. Second squad.
Lively frowned, confused.
I must have heard Stores wrong–he said.
“Wetter” is a nickname they gave me, sir.
Webber watched the officer study him.
One you don’t care for, I take it–said Lively.
Lively smirked. His eyes again returned to the sky.
I heard birds at dawn. It’s warming up, finally–he said after a few seconds.–We could cross today if we had boats.
So, they won’t be evacuating you, sir?
Lively shrugged, staring off.
The doc says they might not have to if I can stay off it.
Two riflemen from another platoon passed on their way from the mess station. Spying Lively, they waved, nodding rather than saluting. Lively nodded back at them.
I sure hope they won’t have to, sir.
Makes you a gentleman to say so–said Lively.
Don’t leave us, sir.
Lively’s eyes shifted at the tone of Webber’s plea. The young private stared at the ground.
You’ve been sort of our rabbit’s foot, sir–Webber said.–We’ve been lucky with you.
That what you call it?
I only got since Christmas to judge, sir. And I don’t mean to imply you need to hang around, stay and set some example like Winfield Scott Hancock, or somebody.
Webber’s educated–Lively chuckled and the soldier shrugged.–History your favorite subject at school?
I’m from Allentown, sir. My dad liked to make the rounds of Civil War battlefields on summer vacation. Gettysburg was always the first stop.
Lively licked a finger and held it up.
Not much breeze–he said.–That’s good.
Permission to speak, sir?
Lively shrugged. Why not?–he said.
How did you know?–said Webber.–How did you and Sergeant Stores know it’d be okay that night? I mean, did you?
What night was that?
On the approach to Strasbourg, they say you and Stores brought those three wounded guys in. You went out in pitch-black and pulled them to safety, plucked them from right under the noses of the krauts.
That still going around?
It was a very brave thing for the two of you to do, sir. I sure don’t think I would have been up for it under the same circumstances. I’d have ended up getting lost out there. I ask because they say you were just arrived, too, on the line maybe thirty minutes. What made you go and do it?
Webber watched Lively’s face as his mind worked in earnest on an answer. He thought the officer’s frown encapsulated his own wavering emotions the last weeks. Lively’s expression then softened. An imposed serenity and air of authority returned.
I couldn’t very well let Stores go out there by himself–said the officer.–Could I?
Webber nodded. Disappointed, the response to his question seemed as canned as the hash he’d eaten.
They say you’re each up for a Bronze Star.
So, I’m told–said Lively.
Me, I couldn’t have done it–said Webber and Lively smiled.
How do you know?
I was grateful for the halt, sir, at first. I thought it’d be good to have a little time to rest, stop and think. Now, I’m not so sure. Part of me thinks it would have been better for us to keep pushing, no letup.
And sometimes it’s better not to think so hard–said Lively as Webber brooded.
We’re going to have to kill every last one of them, aren’t we, sir?–he said.–Why don’t they surrender? We’ll root them out, burn them all up; they make us. They have to know that.
I think that’s beginning to dawn on them–said Lively.
Sir, I can’t help feeling I’m headed toward something.
You mean besides Berlin?
I’m not sure. All I know is I wouldn’t know what to do if we lose you or Stores. I wouldn’t know who to trust.
You could always try yourself.
Webber nodded. He sighed. He wasn’t getting anywhere. He wasn’t altogether sure where he hoped to go in their little talk, anyway. An injured man, who did Webber think he was to bother him? This last notion he saw written all over the face of Sergeant Stores as he rolled up behind the wheel of a radio jeep.
Boats are here–he announced, hopping out. He looked Webber up and down.
What play we running?–said Lively.
Captain Sheehan’s looking to kick off at 1400–said Stores.–Says we got three batteries for support but they confirm only about ten minutes of ordinance. There’s supposed to be a shell shortage.
Webber saw Lively’s face sag.
May as well throw spitballs–the officer said and Stores nodded.
Battalion’s sending up an FAC team–he added.–Bunch of sorties being flown in the vicinity. Sheehan says we call on them, we run into anything. He’s waiting on your confirmation.
Give me a lift here, boys, would you?–said Lively.
Wetter, bear a hand, huh?–said Stores.
His name’s “Webber,” sergeant.
Stores turned to the young soldier.
Yes, sergeant–said Webber.
Lively gave out a curt cry as the two men lifted him out the back hatch of the half-track. Using a fireman’s carry, Stores and Webber brought the officer around the front of the radio jeep. The officer cursed under his breath. The operator in back stood to help install him in the passenger seat. Lively nodded his thanks, but his heavy breathing and blinking eyes made it clear. He was in agony.
Six hours yet. Let Doc give you a shot–said Stores.–Your head’ll be clear when the company goes across. You can watch from one of the dugouts.
Lively shook his head. He reached his hand back to the operator.
Let me have the receiver–he said.
Webber placed a hand on the officer’s forehead. He hoped this would steady and reassure him.
Sir, you’re burning up–he said and Lively grunted.
Webber thought of Byron from his school readings, the ironic pathos of his end. Stricken, the poet warrior fell from sepsis before the expedition to Lepanto to fight the Turks. Webber grunted in sympathy with his lieutenant. He shook off an impulse to burst into tears. Caressing and patting Lively’s shoulder and arm, he wished there was something he could do. He yearned to do more.
The young soldier looked up to find the sergeant’s gaunt stare. No wisecrack accompanied it. The sergeant’s eyes shifted and Webber removed his hand from the lieutenant’s shoulder.
A one-ton’s brought up some ammo, Webber–said Stores.–Go find Pleskow. See what they got. You and Morley make sure everyone gets a spare bandoleer.
And the same color smoke–added Lively, as he keyed the receiver.
Got it?–said Stores.
Yes, sergeant–said Webber.
Stores gestured twice down the road behind him. Webber nodded. Slinging his weapon, he hustled away from the men by the jeep.
At 1530, Stores was shoring up the perimeter. He was moving between platoons, tying positions in with three machine-gun emplacements. His company and the others had crossed the river on schedule. They met only light resistance and sporadic small-arms on the trek through the woods. At the edge of open ground, they dug in as ordered. Stores was getting set to send out a short patrol before dark.
A huge plume of black smoke filled the sky up ahead in the distance. Something big was burning amid the houses of a village. Stores couldn’t make out what it was through his binoculars. Pleskow said a lone P-47 had swooped down an hour before in a strafing run and set it off.
Stores spotted two amphibious DUKWs. Dispatched as scout vehicles by the company on his left, they headed toward the smoke. They’d be reporting soon. Leaving Morley in charge, he made his way back to the river. He’d heard the company had already set up a temporary command post. He made sure to keep within the trees. As presumed, the earlier artillery hadn’t made a dent. The smoke from the shells fired before the crossing had already wafted away. Any fires started were out. Ambling along a marked path, Stores took in the barren beauty of the naked trees. They wouldn’t be this stark for long. From the strong smell coming up from the sod, it was clear to Stores spring was not far off.
Engineers were laying tape to the road nearby. Another small group labored ahead of them. Stores watched as they checked the gravel culverts on each side with mine detectors. Upon reaching the bank of the river, he slowed.
What the hell you doing, lieutenant?–Stores said.
Lively had come across in one of the rubber boats. He was lying on the grass upon a ground cloth someone had laid for him. When he sat up, Stores saw the tag affixed to the buttonhole of his jacket. He knew the glassy-eyed gaze greeting him was courtesy of a morphine syrette.
Guess the war’s over for you–said Stores.–Gonna be done before you get back up here.
Lively’s nod was slow and heavy.
How’d we do?–he said, changing the subject. His face was wan, his voice listless.
The company’s through the trees, open ground in front–said Stores.–A flyboy lit up something in a ville three miles away. B company’s sent out a recon. On my way to the CP to hear what it was.
Two dead, two wounded. The wounded aren’t critical.
Some new kid named Marcus from Third Platoon. Plus that one you were talking to this morning from yours.
Lively was looking toward the water at men busy setting up a winch and pulley system to ferry supplies. He turned, eyes blinking.
Webber’s dead?–he muttered.
Stores nodded, holding up two dog tags. Lively held out his hand and Stores laid Webber’s on his palm.
Sniper–Stores said and pointed upstream where the destroyed pontoon bridge was. A disheveled klatch of German prisoners milled on the bank, watched by an MP with a submachine gun.
The SS kid with the black eye–he said.
Why’s he still alive?–said Lively.
That correspondent at Batt HQ during the last briefing, she jeeped up. Hitched a ride on Pleskow’s raft. She was with his group when they flushed the little bastard.
Lively undid the flap of his sidearm holster. He was raising his automatic when Stores wrested it from his grasp.
That’d be sort of stupid at this point, lieutenant. Don’t you think? There’s like a hundred witnesses.
Just testing you.
Stores disarmed the pistol. Pocketing the ammo clip, he handed the weapon back to Lively.
That Webber was a decent kid–said Lively.–He meant well.
Oddball–said Stores.–Dumb luck he lasted as long as he did.
I think even he knew that–said Lively.–He was trying to say so. I pretended not to understand.
What could either of you do about it?
He was okay. A romantic–said Lively.
I can think of another word.
Lively shook his head. He turned to face Stores, a sneer on his face. It occurred to Stores the officer was angry with him. He snorted. He couldn’t help it.
He made out you and I were heroes–said Lively.–Pals, even.
Joke’s on him, huh?
Stores watched Lively watching the prisoners. He doubted any of them were older than seventeen.
Sixty-eight days–said Lively.
I was lying here counting. That’s how long I was up. Sixty-eight. That’s all.
Longer than some.
But not as long as you, sergeant. I knew you’d make it through first time I saw you–said Lively.–How long has it been, Stores? How long will it be?
Hate to think I come all this way, sir, lasted this long not to be around for the big finish.
Why am I convinced you will be?
We’re only here to put an end to things, lieutenant, nothin’ else.
But we won’t end everything, sergeant. Even you must know that. Bombs, bullets, and artillery go only so far. They only do so much.
Right now, I say use all we can get.
They don’t touch ideas, sergeant. Once this mess is over, vigilance is going to be key. Ideas carry if history’s any kind of teacher. Good, bad, they endure–said Lively, tapping the side of his head with a finger.–In here. They’re forever evolving and burgeoning.
Only if you’re alive–said Stores and Lively nodded.
Webber was worried we’d have to kill them all–he said.
That’s entirely up to them, sir.
Lively smiled. He gazed across the river at the positions his company held the past week, now vacated. Stores wondered why it mattered so much to the lieutenant to get across when he’d only be going back. The sooner the better, Stores thought.
A medic landed twenty yards away on a raft with supply crates. Stores snapped his fingers until the man turned. He pointed to Lively twice at his feet then back across the river three times with urgency. The medic nodded. He started over to them and Lively laughed.
What’s the play on that old song, sergeant? We’ll be doing our laundry at the repple depple if the repple depple’s still there.
No idea, sir. Between us: forget to write.
Stores left Lively as a pile by the river, drugged and damaged. Disgusted, it took him a moment to know why. He detested sentiment, especially Lively’s brand. He’d hated it since they’d met from the second he sensed it.
Still better off than Wetter, he thought making his way along the bank. He picked up his pace, catching sight of the company command post beyond the blasted pontoons.
Webber–he said out loud, correcting himself to note in the day’s report. Until Lively’s replacement arrived, he’d be doing all the wounded officer’s paperwork.