End of Summer
 

Men of War, Wheel of Peace

by Michael Hutchison

Part 3

Cold Numbers

"Sarge, he's coming around!" Leech called, as Gravedigger murmured and opened his eyes.

Sgt. Rock crossed to Gravedigger's prone body and asked, "Gravedigger, how do you feel?"

Gravedigger looked around and mumbled. Then his eyes focused and he sat up, "I'm.not bad. Surprised. How long was I out?"

"About fifteen minutes, Captain," Leech answered, closing his medical kit.

"Fifteen.only fifteen minutes?" Gravedigger asked, puzzled. "I thought I was shot! It hurt like hell."

"Only one bullet entered your body.and on the way, it was slowed down by that Nazi, and this." Rock answered, holding out a book. "You always keep a copy of 'Huckleberry Finn' in your pocket?"

"Oh yeah!" Gravedigger chuckled, "It never hurts to have something by Twain handy."

"Next time, try the Bible.or 'Tale of Two Cities'. Something thicker would have blocked the bullet completely!" Leech said. "As it is, there was barely a hole in your abdomen, and I fixed it up in no time. Just take it easy for a few days.if that's possible. And stay up here.you don't want to take that rope ladder right away." With that, the medic headed back to the turret.

"Why'd you leave me on the War Wheel, Rock?" Gravedigger asked.

"Camp won't be set back up for an hour or two, and this was warmer than anyplace else. You feel ready for a report?" Rock asked.

"Sure"

Sgt. Rock reclined against the console and lit a cigarette. Bulldozer, Four-Eyes and Little Sure Shot, huddling in the doorway, self-consciously touched their bandages as Rock said, "Two casualties, seven wounded.eight, counting yourself.with one critical. We have captured and held the Wheel, and there are guards posted inside and out. No remaining Nazi soldiers."

Gravedigger mulled this over. "The seven wounded and two KIA's."

"Short Round took some shrapnel from the explosive shells. The others are bazooka men, two of whom are dead. One, Brown, is critical; he had to have both legs amputated. The rest of them are banged up pretty badly, with fractures, concussions and some broken bones."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Gravedigger said, as he slowly stood up. "I'd hoped that no avalanches would be caused by the War Wheel's passing."

"Wait a minute!" Four-Eyes shouted from the doorway, "You mean you'd considered that fact when you came up with this plan? Why the hell didn't you warn us?"

"You're out of line, Private!" Gravedigger barked back. There was an uncomfortable silence as Four-Eyes and Bulldozer bit their tongues to keep themselves in check.

"So." Sarge began, as casually as he could ask an officer, "had you thought about the risk of avalanche when you considered placing the men on the hillside?"

Gravedigger glanced at Bulldozer and the rest of the men, and said, "It was a consideration. There was no telling the amount of vibration given off by the Wheel, but I decided to just concentrate on taking out the turrets and if it happened, it happened. There was no other way to hit the targets; the men had to be placed there."

"Then why didn't you tell them about the risk?" Sarge asked.

"Come on, Sarge. I mean, if there was an avalanche, what could the men possibly do about it? Telling them would have only distracted them when I needed them focusing on their targets. It was a risk putting them there, but there was no other place to put them and guarantee that the men in the turrets would be taken out! This was our best plan for capturing the War Wheel, and there weren't any good alternatives. Whether the bazooka men survived or not wasn't a make-or-break consideration in drafting the plan," Gravedigger said. He emphasized the last sentence, in order to indicate that he was done explaining himself to a bunch of enlisted men. Gravedigger leaned back on the console; standing up had made him woozy.

"I don't know where you get off-" Bulldozer began to shout, but Sarge quickly cut him off with a sharp hand gesture.

"Bulldozer, I'd like you to take the other men out and get them started rebuilding the camp," Sarge said, as calmly as he could. "Now," he added.

Bulldozer and the other men headed back to the rope ladder.

When they were gone, Gravedigger pushed himself away from the console and tested out his balance. Casually, he said, "Thanks, Sarge, for avoiding a-"

"WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU, HAZARD!?" Sarge yelled as he spun and stood nose to nose with Gravedigger. "You DON'T tell soldiers that their lives are worthless, and you sure as goddamn hell NEVER tell that to MY MEN, do I make myself clear?!"

Gravedigger tried to quell the fury rising inside him. "Don't take that tone with me, Sergeant! I didn't give you permission to speak freely!"

"I don't think you have the right to give me permission to speak!" Sgt. Rock barked, cutting him off. "I've looked into your record since we first met. You were just a dogfaced enlisted man like me, working as a body-bagger and shovel-pusher, until you impressed somebody high up and they just gave you a captain's rank. You've never taken officer's training! You've never been a leader! And if that's not enough for you, the only reason they haven't promoted me to an officer at a general's rank is that I refuse that promotion every time they try to give it to me, because I'm staying with Easy and seeing this thing through to the end. I outrank you in every way but officially, so I'd like to see you try to report me!"

"I see," Gravedigger muttered. Gravedigger knew that putting Sgt. Rock on report would go over about as well as trying to court-martial Jimmy Stewart, so he let it be.

Sgt. Rock took a breath and calmed down before continuing, but his anger was evident. "Hazard, you're one of the finest soldiers I've seen in action, and if you were a member of Easy Company you'd be a credit to the squad. But some turkey made you an officer, and the fact is you don't understand what it takes to lead men into battle. There's an art to it. A commander needs to be part fighter, part strategist.and oddly enough, part cheerleader. Sometimes the only thing a soldier has left is courage and spirit.and Easy's been in more than our share of scraps where that made all the difference. But you start telling men that they're no more than dots on a map or numbers in a strategy and then see if they have the morale to follow you into hell!"

Gravedigger was taken aback by this. "You're worried about their feelings? Here I thought the men of Easy were supposed to be the toughest around!"

Sgt. Rock shook his head. "It has nothing to do with weakness or cowardice. Crazy thing is, if I tell my men something's dangerous and they may not survive it but it has to be done, they'll trip over each other volunteering to do the job. But if I ordered my men into danger with no appreciation for the risk they're taking, they'd hate my guts! It's a subtle difference, Hazard, but it makes all the difference. It's just one of those lessons you learn when the lives of a platoon are your responsibility."

Gravedigger mulled this over for a moment, then nodded. "You're right, Sarge. I shouldn't have talked like that. So, what do I do about Bulldozer and the others?"

"There are two men dead and another crippled for life. Knowing the danger in advance may not have changed anything, but they're going to be blaming you for it now. Just let it lie and let me talk to them, okay?" Sarge said. "I'm going down to tend the camp. We need to spend the day going over this War Wheel. Between the gunshot and your arms, which must be sore as hell, I think you should just stay up here until you're better. You need anything, sir?"

"Oh, so I'm a captain again, huh?" Gravedigger said, with a smirk. "Yeah, whenever you have some lunch, I could use some. Thanks." Rock left the room, and Gravedigger was alone with his thoughts. Though he put up a casual front, he had been very shaken by what Rock said. Shaken because it was the truth.and men may have been hurt and killed unnecessarily because of him.

Rock rounded the corner of the hallway and found Bulldozer waiting in the turret, arms folded, having heard the whole exchange. Rock was surprised, but not angry. After three years, Nichols was his closest friend in the world and received more leeway than the others.

"Thanks, Sarge," Bulldozer said quietly, so that Gravedigger couldn't hear. "You saved Four-Eyes and me from a court-martial for assaulting an officer."

"I know I did," Sgt. Rock replied, walking to the rope ladder. "Let's go. After you." Rock kept talking as they descended. "Don't be too hard on him. As I told Gravedigger, he's basically a good man."

When Sarge was ten feet from the bottom, he heard a voice ask, "Why are you using the ladder, Sarge?" Sgt. Rock looked to his right and saw Worrywart's face poking out of a metal door in the Wheel. "You can just use this to go in and out, see? Just don't lock it; it takes a key to unlock the door from the outside, and we haven't found it yet."

Sgt. Rock dropped the last few feet to the snowy ground and asked, "What else have you found out, Worrywart?"

"Ummm, not that much. Hazard's right, it's mostly a big engine and a big gas tank, so there ain't any crew quarters. These guys were sleeping at their stations and eating rations. There ain't even a privy; they just had chamber pots. It may be the size of a small ship, but it's no more equipped than a jeep! But I'm not an engineer. All the engineers are inside making notes like crazy, so they can probably tell you a lot more," Worrywart finished. He grabbed a handle on the doorway and, turning around, stuck his feet into a ladder well which was inset into the metal of the Wheel. The small slots in the metal were almost impossible to see, as was the door when it was shut.

"All the engineers? I assume Torque is in there, too. Right?" Sgt. Rock asked Worrywart.

"In the Wheel? Are you kidding? I just heard him tell the guys he wants to get married in there! And I'm not sure if he meant to Gwen or to the engine!" Worrywart said with a laugh. Rock laughed hard at that. Torque, whose nickname applied to both his muscles and his love of engineering, was never happier than when he had some equipment to work on.

There was a harried banging from the entrance to the War Wheel, and now Torque ran to the doorway, breathless. "Sarge? Sarge! I need to talk to you!" Torque shouted as he jumped from the doorway to the ground. Torque carried a notepad and a pencil, and he eagerly showed the pages of hastily-scrawled diagrams to Sgt. Rock as he jabbered happily. "This thing is amazing! You really gotta admire the guys who designed this, I don't care which side they're on. There's this self-oiling system to keep the outer shell lubed. It's ingenious! And the, and the weight's all distributed to try to keep the War Wheel from cracking at the bottom! The real accomplishment is the geo-stabilizer. I'll need a day just to try to diagram it, but if we can adapt the design to our ships and planes and tanks."

"I get the idea, Torque," Sgt. Rock said, exchanging a knowing glance with Worrywart.

"Oh, and I figured out how they transported this thing from place to place, sir."

"We already knew that, Torque. Super-dirigibles!" Worrywart snapped with disdain.

"Sure, 'three super-dirigibles lift it into place', right? Come on. You know why that can't work, right?" Torque said, looking back to Sgt. Rock. "Right?"

"Well, suppose you enlighten us," Sgt. Rock said, motioning him to keep talking.

"Wh-.well, I mean, come on! Look at it! Do you know how much helium it would take to offset the weight of the War Wheel?" Torque asked, gesturing at it. "And this is supposed to be a small War Wheel, fercrineoutloud! And how would three carry it at once? Sarge, you've seen a girl at the zoo with a dozen helium balloons on strings, right? They clump up, because each one wants to go straight up. Same deal here. Even if three super-zeppelins could lift it, how could they navigate? They'd be slamming into each other! No way their propellers would have the power to keep them separated AND moving forward with this much downward pull!"

"You're right, Torque," Sarge said, needlessly, "so what did you find?"

"Look! Look at this!" Torque shouted, running to the outer tread of the Wheel. "See this line here? The outer rotating tread splits in three places! The central hub has a top half and a bottom half! And the central section really doesn't weigh that much without the fuel. So they split it up into three pieces and carry the fuel separately!"

"Amazing! But that would be quite an assembly job," Sarge mused. "You can hardly spend a day in enemy territory riveting together your giant war weapon!"

"German precision engineering," Torque said, with admiration. "The thing practically snaps together; just turn a few dozen huge screws and throw the switches on these interlocks and voila! It's as impregnable as if it was a solid metal ingot! I reckon it would be about, oh, twenty minutes total for assembly.maybe even less than that to take it apart afterwards."

"Good to know, in case the Allies are flying it out of here somehow. Too bad the Nazis have all the Super-Zeppelins," Sgt. Rock mused.

"Hey! Yeah! What are we gonna do with this thing, Sarge?!" Worrywart asked.

At that, the men gathered around the Wheel all began asking, "Yeah! What'll we do with it?"

"Maybe we can copy the design and make our own War Wheels!" Little Sure Shot offered.

"Copy it? Uncle Sam could improve it!" Torque said, with pride.

"Nah, we'll just melt it down into enough bullets for every Nazi on the front!" Jackie Johnson said.

"Are you all crazy?" Wildman said, angrily. "We've got ourselves a friggin' War Wheel! I say we fuel it up, drive it across the front line and don't stop until we park it on Hitler's forehead!"

With that, Easy Company howled and yelled at the realization that the key to the war was in their hands.

"Yeah, Sarge!" Jackie Johnson yelled. "Hazard said it's nearly impossible to stop! We get going now and we could be in Berlin tomorrow, with the whole Allied army behind us. We could END THE WAR on Christmas Day!"

"All right, settle down. Settle!" Sgt. Rock barked, lighting another cigarette. "Our orders were to stop the War Wheel. Captured if possible, destroyed if necessary. Bulldozer, get someone to radio Command and report our status. No doubt they'll have half the army here tomorrow to protect it. Meanwhile, we sit tight. We drive this thing off half-cocked and we may cost the Allies their best chance for victory."

"But if we're going to attack with it, we should do it fast!" Worrywart objected. "I mean, won't the Nazis be surprised if we had this thing headed back their way tonight? We may not be able to get all the way to Berlin if they know we're coming. What if Command isn't even considering using this against the Nazis? We should suggest it!"

Sarge cautioned him to settle down, and said, "I'm sure Eisenhower's already considered all the options for this thing, including your 'Christmas dinner in Berlin" idea.so we just wait and keep our guard up til we hear word."


Service

That night was Christmas Eve. The tents were back up, the fires were burning and the stoves were keeping the men warm and fed. Several times, the men expressed gratitude for the facilities after the weeks spent fighting the Nazis with little protection from the elements. A chaplain had come by and was conducting a Christmas Eve service in the large mess tent.

In the tent set up for command personnel, Sgt. Rock and Gravedigger were anxiously awaiting word from the radio. Delivery of the news of their success had been met with only a short reply to "wait for further instructions." The radio squeaked and squawked while Four-Eyes fiddled with the knobs and gathered news from the other radio operators on the front.

Finally, Rock checked his watch and said, "Hazard, if you don't mind, I'd like to catch the rest of the service and spend a little time with Easy. Why don't you take this tent tonight?"

"No problem. And Four-Eyes, I can man a radio perfectly well. You can join the others. I'll put in another request for instructions and see what we shall see," Gravedigger said.

"Thanks, Captain. I appreciate it!" Four-Eyes said, as he dashed off to join his friends.

Sgt. Rock followed Four-Eyes into the mess tent and made sure the flaps were secure. The chaplain was a young man, fresh-shaven and clean, wearing his dress uniform and collar for the occasion. He spoke with a proper, clipped manner, and for a moment Sarge wondered if he as British.but then changed his mind, sure that it was merely a prep school upbringing. Nonetheless, the man's tone was soft and friendly, and altogether joyful. Whether this was because of the holiday or simply the forced optimism of a speaker trying to impart a positive attitude to the weary fighting men, which Sarge often saw in army chaplains, he could not tell.

".singing 'Peace on Earth, good will to men.' Peace on Earth. That is what the birth of the baby Jesus was supposed to bring. Peace, in what form, I wonder. Did the angels literally mean that there wasn't supposed to be any more hatred, any more bloodshed, any more war? As we all know, that didn't happen. But it wasn't an order, it was an invitation. Certainly the prescriptions for world peace are found in the good book. Whether the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, or the two commandments of Jesus, 'Love the Lord thy God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind' and 'Love thy neighbor'.the instructions are there. And they are so simple. If we followed them, there would indeed be peace on Earth."

The chaplain put down the Bible and continued, "But we know that peace on Earth is anything but simple. We all want peace.but what kind of peace? Is 'turn the other cheek' a personal choice, or is it supposed to be foreign policy? Is not raising a hand in defense of another the same as peace? And if we love our neighbors, do we allow them to be slaughtered and overrun because we believe taking action means we don't seek peace?" All through the audience, the men of Easy Company nodded as they heard the echo of thoughts they'd considered time and again. "Peace on Earth.cannot be brought about by only one faction. We cannot simply withdraw to our borders and beat our swords into plowshares by ourselves and think that this brings peace. All it means is that when the Nazis finally get to us we'll be trying to defend ourselves with a bunch of plowshares!"

The men of Easy Company laughed, the tension broken. Then the chaplain continued, "We cannot control the Earth and force peace. We can control our own hearts. And that, my friends, will be put to the test severely in the coming year. Very soon, we hope to put an end to the Nazi menace, and hopefully the Japanese, too. What happens then?"

"We've spent four years hating the 'Krauts' and the 'Japs'. The world has responded in horror and revulsion at the atrocities of these peoples. More and more news reaches the West every month. The prisoner of war camps. The concentration camps. The tortures. The experiments. The death squads. Families wiped out. Towns wiped out. People deemed inferior, deemed unworthy of life, because of the color of their skin or their beliefs. We see the Nazis and the Japanese as monsters. Will we treat them as we would monsters? Will we dispose of them as we would monsters?"

The chaplain removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Sgt. Rock, seated in back, knew that the chaplain was giving several services today, and this was only one of them. He had several more before the night was through. The chaplain continued, "No. We will have to look at the Germans as individuals. Some have been sick and cruel and heartless. Some have been unswerving believers in the Nazi ideal. And others are only Germans who wanted their country to be prosperous and strong again, and threw their support behind a man who promised that. Some Nazi soldiers are truly evil, and others are merely patriotic. And many others have been horrified at what their nation has done. How will we cope with this? Will we, in our just hatred, destroy every single person in Germany? Or will we find it in our hearts to see them as people, not monsters?"

"I can only offer this one counsel: Love they neighbor, and be forgiving. Peace on Earth.begins there," the chaplain said, raising his hands in benediction. "May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you, may the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you his peace. Amen."

The chaplain shook hands with some of the men of Easy Co. and then approached Sgt. Rock. "I'm going to stop by your medical tent before I head out. I understand you have some men who've been injured recently?" he asked Rock.

"Yeah. One of 'em just lost his legs today," Sgt. Rock said, "We're evac'ing him tomorrow."

"Oh, dear God," the Chaplain said, horrified. "I'll see what I can do. He'll need a lot of counsel.more than I can offer tonight.but I'll keep him in my prayers. I'll need to be moving on soon. I have several more units to visit tonight, including up at the front lines."

"You're conducting services at the front? That's crazy!" Sgt. Rock admonished.

"It can't be as bad as performing last rites on Utah Beach," the chaplain offered, putting on his helmet with the small cross on it and opening the flap to the tent.

"You were at Utah Beach? So were we!" Sgt. Rock exclaimed.

"Oh?" the chaplain said, glancing back to look at Rock's face. "Oh yes. I thought you looked familiar." Rock grimaced at the shared joke of D-Day vets, which was already growing old after only six months, as the chaplain disappeared into the night.

The men of Easy Company had broken into a Christmas carol, "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman", and he was glad to see that they were in good spirits after the hellish day they'd had. Sgt. Rock walked to the front of the tent as the carol ended, and the men welcomed him. Immediately, they shifted their talk to further news on the War Wheel.

"No, fellas, there's no word. Relax. It's Christmas Eve, and Corporal Nichols and I want to give you an early present!" Sarge smiled as the men cheered with glee. "And no, it's not Betty Grable, sorry. What it is.well, Bulldozer and I have been saving up for the last few months to get this, so.throw out that swill, because we're cooking up some real Swiss hot chocolate for everyone!"

The cheers and yells filled the tent for a solid minute, as the men hurriedly dumped out their alleged coffee and raced for the stove where the cook was already mixing up the hot chocolate.

"What a Christmas!" shouted Wildman. "First we get our very own War Wheel, and now this!"

"I thought we were going to spend Christmas getting shot at on the front," agreed Worrywart, sniffing at his hot mug of chocolate. "Too bad this isn't the kind of war where both sides take the day off."

"Agreed, Worrywart," Sgt. Rock said. "Those kinds of gentlemen's wars seem to be fading away. Now it's dog-eat-dog, don't-give-the-enemy-a-break. It's not like my dad's war."

While Bulldozer grabbed thermoses to take out to the guards on duty, the men all sat down and drank their hot chocolate. "Back in the Great War.well, it's World War I now, but dad called it the Great War.dad told me about this Christmas back in the Great War when a truce was called. The Germans actually came out into No Man's Land and called to the other soldiers to join them. They crawled out of the trenches and went to meet their foe.and shouted, 'Merry Christmas.' They passed around drinks and sang carols. Commanders from each side gave some makeshift gifts to the others. Someone had a soccer ball and they started kicking it around. For one night, they forgot the propaganda and the ridiculous war that no one really wanted to fight.and they just."

Rock caught himself and stopped. He looked up at the men, and saw that they were all waiting for him to finish.

".they just.played in the snow."


Change of Plans

It was 0300 when Rock was awoken by Captain Hazard.

"What? Whuz.what's up, 'digger?" Rock mumbled, trying to shake himself awake.

"We've brought the fury of Hitler down on ourselves, I'm afraid!" Gravedigger said, as quietly as he could.

"What?!" Sarge said, also whispering. He didn't want to shock the men in the rest of the tent, but the urgency in Hazard's voice was evident. Sarge reached for his boots and threw them on as fast as possible.

Gravedigger clapped his hands and shouted, "Everyone up! Get dressed, get your gear and prep all the vehicles! Evacuate all non-essential personnel and whatever supplies can be loaded within a half hour. Four-Eyes, get to the radio and keep in contact with us. Come on, Sarge. I'll fill you in at the command tent," Gravedigger said, as they left.. "No, scratch that. Let's head for the War Wheel!"

A moment later, Gravedigger and Rock were braving the cold as they drove a jeep out to the War Wheel's location.

"I don't know how the Nazis know, Sarge, mebbe there's a tracer or mebbe there's just a regular radio check-in with the base.but they know. They know the Wheel's been taken and they know where it is, and now they're coming to get it back!" Gravedigger said as he drove the jeep.

"How do we know?" Sarge asked.

"Because approximately three hours ago, the fighting at the front directly east of here intensified like you wouldn't believe. And an hour ago, the Nazis broke through and, without pressing their advantage, headed straight for here. They'll be here soon enough. Another hour, maybe. Our troops are trying to slow them down for us, but I wouldn't count on it. Our divisions are spread really thin, and the Germans have surprised them with the onslaught. In addition to a sizeable force, it's been reported that Baron Blitzkrieg and maybe a few of the other Nazi supermen are with them. I'd say reclaiming the War Wheel just became a high objective!"

"The Nazis are already hard-pressed to make this campaign work. Why devote so much attention for such a risky maneuver?" Sarge mused, half-to-himself. "It doesn't make sense. We've captured their other War Wheels and destroyed them, and they never tried to recapture them like this."

"Yeah, well from what little we know of him, Hitler's getting irrational. He's making a lot of brash moves, like this whole 'Battle for the Ardennes' push. I'll bet he really expected this War Wheel to make all the difference.and now that we've got it, he wants it back so badly he's diverting precious firepower to do it. Even calling in his operatives like Baron Blitzkrieg! Five'll get you ten that von Runstedt and the rest of Hitler's military advisors are not too gung ho about this idea." The jeep squeaked as it came to a rest by the War Wheel.

The guards were taking shifts inside the Wheel in order to keep warm, and Gap shouted to them from the lower door as they approached. Gravedigger and Sgt. Rock climbed aboard the Wheel and headed back up to the control room. On their way, they found Torque scribbling more notes.

"Torque, what time did you come out here?" Rock asked, guessing the answer.

"Ummm..I never went back to camp. Why, is it suppertime?" the bleary-eyed mechanic asked.

Sgt. Rock waved him off as he and Gravedigger climbed the stairs to the bridge of the War Wheel.

"So, what are our orders, Captain?" Sgt. Rock asked. "Do we engage the Nazi army with the War Wheel?"

"Not with Blitzkrieg along. I think the Baron wouldn't have any trouble getting in the War Wheel, from what I've heard. Allied command tried to reach Green Lantern, to see if he could lift the Wheel out of here.but they're not sure if he'd be able to operate here without that damn magic barrier affecting him and making him work for Hitler. Which would be the LAST thing we need right now," Gravedigger said. "So an attack on the approaching army, or an offensive against Germany with the War Wheel, is out. Lifting it out isn't possible. Driving it away could work.but it's the middle of the night and we can't see a darn thing, plus we aren't trained in piloting it. Our only option is to destroy it."

"Seems a shame," Rock said, "but strategically it is our best option. It only solves half the problem, though. Nazis have broken through and are on the way here. Wheel or no Wheel, they're in a position to cut off our northern flank. We'll have to take them out.and without support, that puts us in a hell of a spot. Do we withdraw or hold position?"

"I wish I could say withdraw. If we can junk this War Wheel by the time they get here, and then withdraw, it's possible they might just report back. If they don't, our support will arrive by afternoon and we'll be in a much better position to fight. Our orders were to withdraw, but I don't see this army just turning around now that they successfully penetrated our front lines," Gravedigger said. "Want to know what I'm thinking?"

"I can probably guess," Sgt. Rock answered.

Not waiting for him, Gravedigger continued, "I want to drive this War Wheel right over as many of their tanks and men as I can before Baron Blitzkrieg and whoever else is with him manages to get onboard!"

"And then what? We'd get captured and killed.and the Nazis would have the Wheel back!"

"I'm not stupid, Sarge, and I'm not going to risk the lives of your men on a suicide run. We'll load it up with explosives and give me a trigger.and then I take it out alone. When the Wheel gets boarded, I flip the switch."

"Killing yourself in the process," Sarge stated, just to make sure.

"I don't want to die.but if that sacrifice can annihilate most of that attacking force, and keep Hitler from stemming the tide against him, I'll make it gladly. And so would you in my place, Rock, so don't look at me like I'm crazy," Gravedigger said. Sgt. Rock took one look at him and saw the resolve behind his eyes.

"If you're willing to consider alternatives to our orders, then I'd like to offer one of my own," Sgt. Rock said, calmly. "With your plan, you die and the only Nazis who get killed are the ones you crush in the seconds before Blitzkrieg gets in the control room. What if no one on our side has to die, and we take out most of the opposing force?"

"I'd say, 'For your next trick, turn this water into wine!' What are you thinking, Sarge?"

"Remember in your briefing," Rock said, a grim smile on his face, "when you said this War Wheel's fuel tanks would make it go up like the world's biggest shrapnel grenade?"

"I see where you're coming from Sarge."

"We fill it up with explosives and set time bombs," Sgt. Rock said, warming to the subject. "Several of 'em, just in case the Nazis find one of them. We roll this thing towards them, point it in their direction, gauge the time until it reaches them, set the timers and jump!"

"There's just one problem with that." came a voice behind them. They turned to see Torque's head poking up from the hole in the floor. "It won't work, Sarge."

"Yeah? Why not?" Sarge asked.

"Well, a grenade works because it's a thin coating of metal completely encasing a strong explosive, whereas this would be like a grenade with a coating five inches thick. Even with as much explosive as we could pack in here, it would most likely just blow out the side turrets and leave the rest of the hull intact! That wouldn't take out the whole army like you wanted!" Torque said, resting his elbows on the floor as he stood on the ladder.

"You got any better ideas, Corporal?" Gravedigger asked.

"Yeah.yeah, I might."


Christmas Present

"Get ready, Easy!" Sgt. Rock cautioned his men, as the clusters of shivering soldiers prepared for battle. "When I give the word, I want flares launched on a continuing basis. Light up this forest as far as we can see in every direction! We've got to throw everything we've got at any of the remaining army. And remember: surrender is not an option!"

Rock left his men preparing their weapons, while he ran back to the remaining vehicles. Calling to the truck that was preparing to leave, he ran to the back and looked under the flap.

"Butterfingers." Rock said, "I know this isn't any consolation, but I'm putting you in for a medal or three. We couldn't have taken the Wheel without you, and taking it was crucial. Remember that."

"Yeah," Butterfingers Brown said, his stumps hidden by the Army blankets. "I know. I just wonder why it had to be my legs. Now I've got four useless limbs!"

Sarge smiled at his joke, and waved goodbye to the rest of the personnel inside. He pounded on the truck and waved them away, with a "Get out of here" thrown in for good measure.

Behind the assembled men was another hustle and bustle of men working on the War Wheel. Boxes were loaded quickly, and the sound of frenzied activity was heard inside.

"I see them!" shouted Four-Eyes from his perch in the War Wheel's turret. "They can't be more than three miles away! Maybe less!"

"That's the signal! Light 'em up!" Sgt. Rock shouted. Flares flew into the air and drifted lazily downward, illuminating the forest. Now they could see the tanks and infantry of the invading German army.

As the Nazis came closer, Rock signaled his men to move aside.and the War Wheel gunned its engines. With a shudder that the men could feel in the ground beneath them, the War Wheel eased forward and rolled towards the opposing army. The gun turrets blazed at the Nazis as it rolled, and soon the German tanks opened up at the giant target, their shells bouncing off its shell.

Rock could make out another light.a beam of light stabbing from the dark sky. Tapping Long Round, he pointed at the odd light rays. "That's gotta be Baron Blitzkrieg! He has this heat ray vision and flies. Our files say he has bad flashbacks whenever he gets temporarily blinded. Aim your next flare for as near to him as you can," he said.

The War Wheel had now crossed a mile and was nearing the German army. The lower hatch flew open, and out jumped Gravedigger, Torque, Four-Eyes, Wildman, Shoeshine Collins and Gap. The six of them rolled as they hit the ground, then away from the Wheel as fast as they could.

Potshots from the German cannons landed all around them as they ran. Suddenly, a shell landed right by Collins. He was thrown twenty feet forward and was a corpse before he hit the ground. Terrified, Gap, Four-Eyes and Wildman raced around his tattered body and ran for the high ground where Easy Company waited. Far behind them, Gravedigger and Torque were cut off by barrage of cannon fire.

"Come on, Torque!" Gravedigger yelled, trying to get his bearings as the blasts exploded in all directions. "We're still in range. We've only got a few seconds before--"

The shelling stopped.and cheers erupted behind them. Gravedigger and Torque turned to see a small figure lifting the War Wheel above his head. The two soldiers continued to run, but they kept glancing back, watching as Baron Blitzkrieg shook the Wheel and then carried it back to the German army.

The War Wheel exploded.

Torque's plan had worked. The loose fasteners of the Wheel separated, and the War Wheel broke into many large fragments, with shrapnel flying in all directions. The entire top of the Wheel flew up about fifty feet, hovered for several seconds.and then came crashing down atop two of the nearest tanks. The fireball gobbled up much of the surrounding army, and flaming shrapnel rained everywhere.

Gravedigger kept slogging through the snow, ignoring the sounds of metal fragments landing around him. He'd gone a hundred feet before he realized Torque wasn't with him. Glancing around in the chaos of bright fires and blinding snow, he finally found Torque crawling towards him. Torque's foot was hanging at an odd angle, and his jacket was smoldering. A jagged piece of metal was jammed through his left bicep, where his jacket was blackened the most. Gravedigger slung the man over his shoulders and slowly carried him back to Easy Company.

Ten minutes later, the fires had died down enough that the men of Easy Company could survey the damage. They could barely make out a few tanks heading back towards the German line. Sgt. Rock's men swept down the hillside, clearing out the forest and looking for stragglers.

On the hill, Gravedigger and Rock took in the damage. The German forces were retreating, no doubt needing medical attention. Baron Blitzkrieg was most certainly hurt, if not dead. The War Wheel was no longer a threat. And the Allied forces would soon close up the gap and push onward to Berlin again.

"Shoeshine Collins.he didn't make it. The medic says Torque may or may not die from the injuries. Oh, and there's one more bit of bad news," Gravedigger said, holding out a few charred pieces of paper. "Torque's notes on the Wheel. They were tucked into his belt, and musta cought fire when he did. They're destroyed."

Sarge glanced at the blackened sheets and then ignored them. "Can't be helped. Torque is important, not his papers. I hope he makes it. One-Note, Squinty, Butterfingers, Shoeshine, Torque.they've paid the price for this victory. Maybe that seems small, in comparison to squashing the Nazis plans and smashing a whole army." Rock trailed off, lost in thought. "Maybe it is, I dunno. I can't think like that."

They sat in silence. The shouts of his men and the occasional gunshot carried over the flat plain below.

"Gift-giving's never cheap, Sarge, but I think we just gave the world a big gift. Mebbe it's not peace on Earth.but if we get to Berlin, it's the next best thing," Gravedigger said. "Merry Christmas, Sgt. Rock."

Sgt. Rock mulled this over. "Maybe that's true. Maybe. But I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Killing on Christmas just ain't right."

 
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This story is © 1999 by Michael Hutchison
Rock and Hazard art is © 1999 by Kurt Belcher
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