Men of War, Wheel of Peace
by Michael Hutchison
Notes: Thanks to Scott McCullar for the WWII info and the proof-reading. I'd like to apologize to Chuck Dixon for contradicting his official account of where Sgt. Rock was on December 25, 1944, but I don't feel too bad about it because Sgt. Rock's probably fought all of World War II several times over in his 40+ years of stories!
Words In The Dark
The bitter cold seemed to find every crack and opening in Hazard's army-issue winter uniform as he trudged through the Ardennes. He cursed the snow and the mud, sticking to the Jeep-worn trails and tolerating the uneven footing. One more time, the chill got the best of him and he removed his helmet to put the ski mask back on. He disliked wearing it, as the eyeholes interfered with his peripheral vision.and Hazard was staying alert for any sign of an enemy sniper. Of course, this was all Allied territory, but the dark Ardennes forest was so thick with trees that an entire squad of Nazis could be hiding for all they knew! A hundred steps later, he pulled the mask off again.
The rough terrain of the Ardennes, bordering Belgium, France and Germany, had become the focus of the war for the last few months. This "battle of the bulge" (as some were calling it, due to the odd shape the troop movements made on the war maps) was the first major counteroffensive by the Germans since the Allies had landed at Normandy on June 4, 1944. Now it looked like the Nazis were being beaten back once again, but there was little cause for celebration. Only a few days ago, the Nazis had captured 140 American soldiers near Malmeddy and slaughtered most of the prisoners. The resulting shock had horrified the Allies, who fought even harder now that surrender was not an option. Some over-optimistic Allied leaders had hoped to be in Berlin putting an end to Hitler by Christmas Day, but such wishes were not to be granted.
Captain Ulysses Hazard, who operated under the codename of "Gravedigger", wanted to rest. His Jeep, which had seen better days, had gone kaput when he was three miles from his destination. Carrying his trusted Browning Automatic Rifle, plus supplies, the files and other essentials, he tried to ignore the accumulating snow and pushed through the snowdrifts that blocked his way. Ordering one foot in front of the other, he slowly plodded along and shook off memories of his years of physical therapy.
"Whistling!" came a shout from the trees ahead.
"Dixie!" he shouted back, hoping that the lookout wasn't trigger-happy. There should still be enough daylight to see his uniform and the captain's bars on the helmet.but Hazard prepared to dive for cover nonetheless.
"Good evening, Captain Gravedigger, sir!" came the shout. The greeting stunned Hazard, who had expected the standard "advance and be recognized" order. No one at Easy Company knew he was coming. Hazard squinted, until the glint on a pair of glasses told him that it might be Four-Eyes functioning as lookout. The man's keen eyes were legendary.and now that he thought of it, it didn't take a Sherlock Holmes to identify a brown-skinned officer with a big, red, cross-shaped scar on his face.
"I have orders for Master Sergeant Frank Rock of Easy Company!" Hazard responded. Ulysses Hazard knew that Sgt. Rock ran an informal outfit, but he wasn't about to relax until someone else did first.
"Hang on. I'll get a guard to escort you, sir!" Four-Eyes shouted back, grabbing his walkie-talkie. By the time Hazard reached Four-Eyes, the headlights of a Jeep were racing in his direction. "Private Gap will take you to our temporary H.Q."
"What's it been like out here, Four-Eyes?" Hazard asked, resting on a nearby log. "Any sign of Nazi activity?"
"No, Captain Gravedigger, sir, they've been in retreat. I think they heard Sgt. Rock was moving in and they decided to stay alive, instead!" Four-Eyes snorted, though Hazard could tell from his eyes that the man wished it were true. After three years of action, there wasn't a Nazi in the army that didn't know the name of Sgt. Rock. The German feeling towards Rock mirrored the American attitude towards Enemy Ace in the First World War. Everyone wanted to see him defeated, but no commanders were thrilled to hear that Sgt. Rock was their opponent!
"It's 'Captain Hazard', Private, or 'Gravedigger'. I don't mind if you call me just Gravedigger." Hazard muttered.
"Sorry, sir. Here's Gap. He'll take you the rest of the way," Four-Eyes offered, lunging for Hazard's equipment and throwing it in the back of the Jeep.
Gravedigger savored the meager warmth of the covered Jeep as the private whipped the vehicle around and began speeding back to camp. He took off his gloves and rubbed his hands together. Then he glanced at the driver. He appeared to be as large as Corporal Nichols, Rock's right-hand man whom he'd nicknamed "Bulldozer", but appeared to be only 18 years old. Gap seemed to be wearing a helmet that was several sizes too small, as it sat atop his shaved head like a tiny derby on a cartoon character. Gap cheerily drove along, navigating the treacherous road, oblivious to the blizzard of flakes hitting the windshield. Hazard finally cleared his throat and spoke. "So, Private Gap. A nickname, I presume? Why do they call you G--WHOAH!"
Gap had turned to him and smiled, revealing a straight gap between both of his upper and lower incisors. Gap chuckled, smiling even wider. Upon closer inspection, Hazard saw that the gums around the space appeared damaged. Gap crooked a finger back towards his mouth and proudly proclaimed, "Got it at Normandy!"
Gravedigger was still flabbergasted at the sight of it. "How.how did.uh.did you come by that?"
"Easy was one of the first to storm Utah Beach. You probably heard about the resistance we met. Well, I took a bullet in the shoulder and two more in my leg and another in my right arm.all pretty much minor but the pain all at once was just too much. I was just getting off the landing craft, and I rammed my head into something metal as I fell."
"That's how you got the gap?" Hazard asked, still puzzled.
"Naw," Gap said with a shrug. "Near as I can figure, I just lay there on the beach leaking blood until it came time to count the bodies. By then, I was far gone. I got counted for dead; either I was dead, or the medic was doing a rush job so that he could get to all my other buddies dead beside me. So the corpsman grabs my dogtag, puts it in my teeth and whacks my jaw with the hammer!"
"OH MY GOD!" Hazard shouted, his hand instinctively slapping over his mouth in sympathy. "Oh my God."
"You ain't kidding! Well, the sheer overwhelming pain of it must have shocked me, because he says I shot straight up and tried to scream as loud as I could, only my jaw was stuck together."
"Ooooooh!" Hazard moaned, pained at the idea.
"Well, the corpsman panics 'cause he's got a friggin' dead soldier screeching at him. He and this other soldier finally pried my jaw apart, bustin' it up in the process. They put a mess of stitches on my gums and then moved me on. I got evac'd to a hospital in England, where they finally get my jaw fixed and my gums repaired, mostly. And me, I'm just feeling lousy 'cause it hurts like hell, but I don't deserve the attention. All my buddies are getting shipped home missing whole sections of their bodies and learnin' to hold silverware with a hook, and they're fussing over my jaw. So they ask me if I'm feeling okay, I say 'Yeah, show me some stinkin' Nazis and give me a gun again!' an' they ship me back to Rock." Gap chuckled during his story, but Hazard saw him rubbing his jaw.
"So.you're okay?" Hazard finally asked.
"Well, the doctors say I'll always have this slight speech impediment. But I should be grateful! It looks all right and my mouth moves and I can talk, right? What's a little pain?"
"You're saying it does hurt?"
"OH YEAH!" Gap growled, with gusto. "Does it ever! All day long, there's this constant pain just throbbing, throbbing, throbbing. It NEVER goes away. Sometimes just talking hurts like hell. And meals.forget about it! I have to take a bite, then scream, then chew, then scream. No one likes sitting near me when I eat. When it's cold out, I get headaches like I just ate twenty malted milk sodas.and it's been cold here for months! Sometimes the pain is so overwhelming that I can't think straight. And even when I try to sleep, my head pounds and throbs til it wants to split like an egg. I just cry like a baby to relieve the pressure. And then there'll be an hour where I'm feeling okay and I think this whole painful ordeal is finally over, and then, from out of the blue, it's like God Himself used my skull for a round of golf with the biggest set of clubs you ever seen. I'll just have to hold my head, curl up on the ground and shriek until it ends."
"For God's sake, man!" Hazard blurted, aghast at the story, "Why don't you tell the medic and get some morphine?"
"Oh, I don't like to complain."
With that, the Jeep skidded to a stop in a clearing surrounded by tents. The Allied camp was a reserve location, where the men could rest on a cot in a tent with heat and electricity instead of huddling together in foxholes on the front. Easy Company, after a particularly daring battle against the Iron Major, had earned the three days' relief just in time for Christmas.
A few soldiers clustered by fires, and lights in the tents indicated where people had gathered for warmth and protection. Gap pointed, and Ulysses Hazard hustled to one of the largest tents. Inside were rows of tables, chairs and a gathering of about a dozen men around a stove at one end.
"Good evening, Sgt. Rock! Captain Ulysses Hazard. I have urgent news for you," Hazard said from the entrance to the mess hall, for that was obviously what it was.
Master Sergeant Frank Rock appeared as he always appeared: never clean-shaven, never fully bearded. Somehow he always had two days' growth of whiskers. Despite being one of the most lauded commanders of the War, he was as rumpled as a child's bed and as severe as a strand of spaghetti. In action, he was a sight to behold.but when it was time to relax, Rock was never one to stand on pretense.
After a post-Normandy "Stars and Stripes" interview with an inspiring photo of Rock had been reprinted in every rag coast-to-coast, the American public had speculated that this amazing war hero would return home and run for president. General Eisenhower had promptly sent off a short memo to the effect that Rock wouldn't even be eligible until 1950. Looking at him, it was hard to believe he was a young man, not even thirty yet. War had aged him; he was easily mistaken for forty-five.
Sgt. Rock was resting himself on the edge of a table while his men were seated around him, obviously trading stories. Rock waved him in, his other hand holding a mug of coffee. Heads snapped towards Gravedigger as he approached.
"Well, what kind of 'Urgent' is it, Gravedigger?" Rock asked as a way of greeting. Having met the man before, Rock saw no reason for formality. "Is it 'Nazis are outside the door' Urgent? Or is it 'We have work to do but I can sit down with Easy Company and have a cup of joe while we talk' Urgent?"
"It's 'Look inside this folder while you finish your coffee' Urgent, sergeant," Hazard shot back, flipping the classified envelope around in his hand and proffering it towards Rock. "And I'd be obliged for a cup, thank you."
Sgt. Rock took the envelope and broke the seal, withdrawing a folder marked 'Top Secret", as he spoke. "Coffee's in the pot over there. Help yerself to a mug."
"How is it?" Hazard asked, knowing that few batches of Army coffee ever tasted the same. He headed for the kitchen.
Rock never glanced up from the folder as he began reading. "It's been kept heating in that pot for two days straight. It's watery, yet sludge-like in places. It tastes like swill that got sent to the Army because it couldn't meet code for over-the-counter swill. I wouldn't drink it black, mind ya, but we ain't got any sugar and we certainly ain't got any cream. But it's hot, at least."
Hazard felt his mug-full of alleged coffee. "Um.no, it's not."
"Okay, it's not, but I never like to deprive a man of all hope." Sgt. Rock turned a third page and then a fourth. "Gravedigger, you familiar with what this says?"
"Yes, sir. In fact, I've been involved in this affair for some time now."
"This is all very disturbing. Why don't ya take a load off and give me a couple minutes to finish. I'm gonna want to brief Easy on this." Rock continued to the last few pages of the folder.
Gravedigger began making small talk with the gathered group of men, and he saw a few faces he recognized. Bulldozer, Little Sure Shot and Wild Man were hard to miss, as the hulking frame, Indian features and red mane of hair, respectively, tended to stand out. Gap had just joined them. Three other faces struck Hazard as familiar, but it took him a few more minutes to finally recall the nicknames of Long Round, Short Round and Worrywart.
Hazard was glad to see that Private Jackie Johnson was still alive and serving. Not only was he a famous heavyweight boxer whose death would be a loss to America, but he, like Hazard himself, was one of the few Negro officers permitted to serve in the racially segregated army. Hazard didn't know Johnson's story, but it was most likely a combination of Johnson's fame and Sgt. Rock's request, both of which carried a lot of weight.
Hazard wondered whether a celebrity like Johnson would even understand his own story. Ulysses Hazard had not only suffered the indignities of being a poor black man in Alabama, but he'd had the added pain of being crippled by polio. Told he'd never walk again due to the ravages of ascending poliomyelitis, he'd pushed his body to overcome the injury to his legs. Over the course of six years of intense therapy, he not only walked again but eventually ran and swam and drove himself to become a superb athlete. Nonetheless, when the War began, his medical record and skin color landed him the menial service of grave-digging detail. Knowing he was meant for better things, he had finally deserted the army and demonstrated what he was made of to the top brass by breaking in to a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Impressed, they promoted him to Captain and gave him the codename Gravedigger.
"Where's Ice Cream Soldier?" he asked Jackie. "He must be lovin' this weather."
"Ice Cream Soldier bought it a few months back," Bulldozer interjected. The sad faces on the others made it clear that the loss was still felt by the team. Easy took casualties all the time, but friendships formed fast in Easy and no one was ever forgotten. They often used nicknames to keep from becoming too personal, and yet they were as close as brothers. In his interview, Rock had put it simply: "Every day, you have to forget.and you have to never forget."
Hazard bit his lip and chided himself for assuming that the man would be alive. It was a foolish thing to do in this war. "I'm sorry to hear it. Back when we teamed up to take Nickname Hill, he impressed me a lot. All of you did."
Rock's voice cut through the uncomfortable silence. "We should all'a us write our moms as often as Ice Cream Soldier wrote his. Wish we could have returned him to Minnesota safe and sound." The lighting suddenly cut out. Rock cursed, pulled a match from his shirt and lit a nearby lantern, muttering, "Damn it, that generator has gone out half a dozen times today. Short Round! See if you can get it going again."
Rock went back to his reading by lantern light, and there was another long silence. Then Hazard chuckled. A few members of Easy shot him a nasty look. Hazard clapped a hand over his mouth and waved at them to try to dismiss their anger. When his laughter subsided, he explained: "I'm so sorry, it's just.when Sarge said his name, I finally got it. It just never made any sense until I heard Sarge pronounce it. I can't believe it took me over a year to get it. 'Ice Cream Soda' - 'Ice Cream Solja.' It's so obvious, now." There were a few chuckles and murmurs at this.
Little Sure Shot shook his head and responded, "THANK you! I'm glad someone finally explained it to me!" At that, Easy laughed all around. Little Sure Shot groaned, realizing the kidding he'd be taking for a while. "Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, ya. what can I say, there weren't a lot of soda shops on the reservation."
"Hey, Gravedigger!" Wild Man hollared over the others, "You never did tell us how you got your nickname!"
"Gravedigging's the last job I did for the Army before they made me a special agent."
Bulldozer began laughing all over again. "HA! Glad that isn't a rule, or my code name would be 'Latrinedigger'!" At that, the men of Easy Company busted a collective gut, hooting and guffawing.
"'Dozer!" Sgt. Rock shouted, stunning the group back into civility, "Assemble the men on the double. I want to hold a meeting here in five minutes. And someone get some fresh coffee going!" Sgt. Rock closed the folder and met Hazard's gaze for the first time. It was difficult to tell what Rock was thinking.but if it was anything like what was going through Hazard's mind, at least part of it was well-disguised fear.
Soldiers began entering from several flaps in the tent, always taking great care to close the flaps behind them as soon as possible. They hurried in, some still lacing their boots, some buttoning jackets, but all shivering from the cold. Coffee was passed around, more lanterns were lit.and soon Sarge faced all of Easy Company.
"Men, this is Captain Ulysses Hazard, but many of you know him as Gravedigger. He's been working in enemy territory and crossed back over just to get us this important information. Gravedigger?" Sarge turned to Hazard, handing him the folder. Sgt. Rock stood off in a dark corner, giving Gravedigger the meager spotlight from the few lamps in the tent.
"I wish I could say that I chose you for this special misson because you're the best there is. That would be true," Gravedigger began, ".but I'm not the one who chose you. The Nazis did. They're headed straight for this position. According to our latest reconnaissance, they will be here within a day.and they're coming in this!"
Gravedigger flipped over a 9x7 b/w photo and held it up. There was a sharp increase of breath all around.
"It's called a War Wheel. No doubt you've heard of it. It's a kind of tank, although that's certainly a poor description. The vehicle is as big as the tire from Paul Bunyan's Ford.so big it can pancake a small village in only a couple passes. Instead of a tread, the outer surface is one thick, solid piece of rotating metal. It spins just like an ordinary wheel, with huge spikes and an internal stabilizing system to keep it upright. The stabilizer is an entirely new form of technology, and one we're anxious to get our hands on.'cuz it's so powerful that an airplane kamikaze'd into it's hull won't tip it over, as one of the Blackhawks found out."
"There have been several War Wheels, all of them prototypes. The Blackhawks managed to defeat them on separate occasions by luring it into quicksand and by electrocuting the occupants and other traps. Each new version of the Wheel has taken the previous vulnerability into account and improved to avoid it, so those means won't work again."
"Those of you who've seen pictures of the captured prototypes will notice several key differences in this new one. The obvious one is the size. The previous devices were King Kong-sized monstrosities. The Nazis had devoted an immense amount of materiel to the construction of the first few because it was believed that just one would crush the opposition and win the war for them. The same amount of metal could have made 100 tanks and countless bullets.and in the end, they did.for OUR side!" There were chuckles around the room. "The previous Wheels were damaged when they were captured, and Allied command saw fit to turn the metal into an aircraft carrier or three."
The men laughed with glee at this. In the ruckus, somebody in the back of the tent sang a few lines from the song "Any Old Iron" before being elbowed to stop.
"All right, all right, settle," Gravedigger warned, "because it stops being so funny now. The Germans have changed their strategy. The new War Wheel is no bigger than seven stories tall, including the spikes. That's still imposing. See, the Nazis' new idea is to create a number of smaller War Wheels and hit us on every front. You think one of these is bad.I was recently in a factory where the Krauts had dozens of these damned things almost assembled! Enough War Wheels to roll over every Allied tank in Europe and Africa!"
The only sound in the tent was that of the cold air whistling like the breath of a fierce dragon.
"That's right," Gravedigger continued after a suitable pause. "You'll be relieved to know that the factory has been destroyed. I was sent on a top priority mission to make sure none of those War Wheels saw action. I was joined by some of the Allies' top operatives, including the Viking Sgt. Valoric, the Creature Commandoes and some members of the All Star Squadron who are able to operate beyond Hitler's barrier. Together with some targeted bombing raids, we managed to blow up both the War Wheel factory and the super-zeppelins that transport them. I also managed to gather documents and design plans from the offices there. Now that much has already made it back to the Allied press, but there's one thing that hasn't gotten in the papers: we failed to destroy every single War Wheel. One of them was almost finished and was driven away before we could destroy it."
"The remaining Wheel was driven deep into armed territory, where we could not pursue it. Knowing that the Nazis would finish that Wheel as fast as possible, we hustled back to Allied territory and got word to command.and then waited for the Wheel to strike. Word has come at last."
"At 1000 hours today, the Wheel appeared approximately 120 miles east of here. Our front lines spent a few hours slowing it down with various attack-and-hide maneuvers, but it finally pushed through and continued west. It bypassed several villages but destroyed two military camps. All of this has led us to a few useful conclusions."
"First of all, we know that the previous War Wheel was used for targeted destruction. It was dropped off by zeppelins, did its damage, and was then spirited away. But this one is doing all the hard transportation work, too, and there's no chance of relief by zeppelin. Therefore, it's on a one-way mission. And instead of merely causing destruction and terror, we think it has a specific agenda: to draw our forces away from the front. One moderate-sized War Wheel can't win the war for the Nazis, but we can't exactly leave it free to level every town between here and Paris.and stopping it through firepower would require such an army that it would divert our troops and give the Nazis an opening. If we lose the push for Berlin.who knows how long this damn war may last. Indeed, this may just be the break the Krauts need."
"No way," Sgt. Rock intoned from the darkness, "no god-damned way. We have fought for this too long and too hard and lost too many fine men to lose it all to one hunk of spinning metal. No way." The red ember of his cigarette lit Rock's chin, and all of his men saw the grim sneer which tugged at the corner of his mouth as he spat out, "I don't care what the Blackhawks say.that Wheel is vulnerable. It has weaknesses. We just have to find them. But it's not getting past Easy Company!"
Murmurs of assent had grown throughout Rock's short speech, and when he threw out the last sentence the men roared with fury. Gravedigger was annoyed at the unnecessary interruption.but when he saw the willingness to fight in the men's eyes, he realized it made his next job easier.
"Here's one more thing that'll stoke your fires, men," Gravedigger began again. "The War Wheel does indeed have weaknesses. Not all of them are readily apparent. The Wheel is big and terrifying and hard to stop, its hull darned near impenetrable and nearly impossible to tip over through force. At first glance, it's fearsome. But look again, and think about what it takes to move the thing. It needs almost constant oiling throughout the outer hull. It picks up mud and moisture, and our reports tell us that it is NOT handling the cold winter at all well. There are no lights, so it's not traveling at night. Biggest problem? The weight of it. Think of the fuel it takes to move a machine that size. Turns out the central hub is practically 3/4 fuel tank! And to keep this doomsday weapon from just going up like the world's largest shrapnel grenade, they had to put on the thickest, densest armor hull they could manufacture. Which, of course, just makes it that much heavier and increases the fuel consumption rate."
"But here's the lynch pin for our attack. Remember that the previous War Wheels were almost totally enclosed. No portals, no windows, no smokestacks. Navigation and gun sighting were done totally by the use of complex periscopes, while exhaust was pumped through small holes near the turrets. Needless to say, there were numerous problems with visibility and breathability inside the Wheel. That's been changed." Gravedigger pulled out the diagram of the current War Wheel and pointed with his pen at the turrets, saying, "Notice the small slits in the metal above each gun in the new turrets. These are covered with thick Plexiglas, so the guys inside are still somewhat secure. But here's the clincher: they're removable. And these fellows are pulling a cross-country trip in a stinky, unventilated, cramped, humid gunport in a vehicle that was intended for short search-and-destroy missions of only a couple hours. Word from the front is that, even in the pitched battles earlier today, they've taken the Plexiglas off and are enjoying the air."
"That's our lucky break, gentlemen. Now here's my plan."
"Tomorrow morning we bug out. Strike the camp and drive the equipment and supplies to a safe distance, with the exception of a few trucks to serve as bait. The key to our success is the local geography; there's a steep, narrow valley, almost like a ravine or a canyon, just two miles to the southwest of here. There's a dirt road through the center of it. We lure the Wheel into this crevasse, where our men are staked out in the walls of the hillside. Take out the gun turrets on both sides with bazookas. When that's done, I'm going to climb the Wheel and descend to the turrets. I'll attach a rope ladder for you men, then I'll enter through the hatch. We get into the main chamber and take out any remaining Nazis.and it's ours. It'll be a lot harder than it sounds. We'll have time in the morning to go over the plans. Rock?"
Sgt. Rock finally rejoined Gravedigger before the men and addressed them. "Before it gets any later," he said, in his gravelly baritone, "I need to get men over to the motor pool. Take plows and half-tracks to the crevasse and get that road cleared, packed flat and sanded. If we're luring the Wheel there, it needs to look like we use it a lot or they'll get suspicious. Plus, I don't want Jeeps getting stuck when they have a Nazi death machine rolling down on top of them! So let's work through the night if we have to, but get that road packed! Bulldozer, make the assignments. Dismissed"
As the men broke and scattered, Rock turned to Hazard and said, "I'm sorry, Captain Hazard, but we don't have any officer's quarters. You'll have to bunk with me tonight. I'll see if I can rustle up an extra cot."
"Thank you, Sarge, but I'm not above bunking with the men if there's a spare bed. My rank gives me what I need to get things done, so I don't complain, but I don't need special treatment. All I ever asked of Uncle Sam and the good Lord was to put me in the fight where I was needed," Gravedigger said with pride. He glanced around to see that the men were gone, then continued, "By the by, I never got to tell you how sorry I am for ruining your Christmas. I know Easy was rotated off the front lines to this camp so you could take a well-deserved break-"
"It happens, Captain, it happens. Don't bother apologizing for things you aren't responsible for," Sarge said, lighting another cigarette. "The war calls its own shots. We can only struggle to survive it."
Spirits and Snowballs
Sgt. Rock heard the sharp cry and ran from his tent while still tugging on his clothes. He glanced around, trying to get his bearings. There was snow everywhere. The biting wind blew it in all directions, until it looked like it was snowing sideways. He didn't know where the blizzard had come from. Turning around to use his tent as a placemarker, he was shocked to see that it was lost in the spinning snow.
Again, the anguished cry came from the darkness. Rock struck out in the direction of the shout, ignoring fears that he would get lost in the black night. Faint moonlight illuminated the snowdrifts with an eerie blue as he stumbled and shivered. The snowfall tapered down to a mere flurry, and finally dwindled until only some fat snowflakes lazily drifted across his path. Still, he was lost in the night. The vast snowdrifts and fir trees seemed to extend in all directions.though he could not see too far in the bleak darkness.
"Sarge! Over here! I'm here!"
The shout was close this time. Sgt. Rock ran as fast as he could. Finally, he could see an American soldier's silhouette standing in the distance.
"Sarge, it's good to see you again," came the voice, eerily familiar, as the soldier waved to him.
"It's.it's you," Sarge stammered. "How can you be here?"
"Why wouldn't I be here?" Ice Cream Soldier said. "I love to play in the snow. Besides, you led me here."
"I don't understand. Where is here?"
"You know. Where we all go. Where you led us." The voice came from Rock's right. He turned to see Farmer Boy, who had also been with Easy until just a few months ago.
"Where I lead you? Oh my God." Sarge said, his voice breaking.
"It's okay, Sarge. You know us mid-western boys. We love playing in the snow!" Ice Cream Soldier scooped up a snowball and beaned Farmer Boy in the helmet. Farmer Boy laughed and began packing a snowball of his own. As he reared back to throw it, a hailstorm of snowballs hit him in the chest. Farmer Boy fell backwards as though dead, then jumped up and laughed.
Sarge turned around to see who'd thrown the snowballs. Behind him were dozens of men. He recognized them as the joes of Easy Co. that he'd led into danger and death for the past three years. Tiny Tiger. Hairy Man. Joe One and Joe Two. Potato Flanagan and his dog, Spud, whom the company had adopted on an abandoned road in Italy. Private Butter and Private Wurst. Short Fuse. Tall Drink'a Water. Heads Bronson. All of their nicknames came rushing back to Sarge as he realized these were the men whom he tried to forget and to never forget. These were the dead.
Stunned, Sarge watched as they cavorted and laughed, hurling snowballs fast and furious. They were like schoolboys playing cowboys and Indians, enacting a war with the seriousness of afternoon recess. When a snowball hit Short Fuse right in the chest, he clutched his heart and spat out a loud gurgle, keeled over backwards and chortled. Then he got up and hit Hairy Man in the elbow, yelling "I got you! Yer dead!". Hairy Man shouted, "Ah! My arm! Ahhhhhhhh!" and then began a long, dramatic death wherein he thrashed about and quivered before giving out a final, loud gasp.
Sgt. Rock knew he was dreaming. He knew these men couldn't be here. Yet all he could do was stand and watch as these dead men played a pretend war.
"Stop it! Stop it, all of you!" Sarge finally shrieked, running towards them. "What's the matter with you? How can you make sport of war and bullets and death?"
The men of Easy Co. all stopped rolling and tumbling over each other in the snow. They all stood up and faced Rock, and all the smiles vanished. The sight made Rock stop short, and he came no closer to them. Finally, Ice Cream Soldier walked from the front of the group and approached Rock.
"What do you expect of us? We're just playing, Sarge. Like we should have been. We shoulda been home, working our farms, going to college, playing football, kissing girls.we weren't supposed to be dying halfway around the world from our families. We're still young. We were still young."
Rock looked at the young man, with his pale white skin, blonde hair and light freckles.and saw him for the first time as the boy he was. The realization shook Rock. Ice Cream Soldier was right. So many of the dead were a decade younger than him. He had signed up when he was 26, but these men were right out of high school. By the time he got them, after boot camp.heads shaved, muscles honed, toting guns and knives and artillery.he never saw them as boys. For a moment, Ice Cream Soldier's boots, helmet and gear disappeared, and Rock saw him as he may have looked back home. Now he stared at a boy wearing overalls and a hat, face washed and unruly hair combed, carrying some flowers for his date to the local square dance.
Frank Rock felt the tears at the corners of his eyes as he struggled for something to say to this man whose life had been snuffed out while following him into battle. "I'm.I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Ice Cream Sol-"
"Roy," Ice Cream Soldier said.
"It's Roy. Roy Wilkerson. You never learned my name, you just called me 'Ice Cream Soljah,' but it's Roy. You never learn anyone's name. Maybe it's easy for you to bury us all if you never learn our names!"
Frank Rock wanted to object, but he knew there was at least a bit of truth to it.
"Good bye, Sarge. Maybe we'll see you someday," Roy Wilkerson said, as he turned and walked off into the darkness. The soldiers all turned and, without a word, walked away from Sgt. Rock.
"Don't go!" Rock called, as the dead of Easy Co. began to disappear. He wanted to follow, but his feet wouldn't budge. Then more soldiers appeared at his side and began to walk towards the dark woods. "Wait! Who are you?"
The soldiers turned, and Sgt. Rock gasped. It was Bulldozer.and Wild Man, Gap, Four-Eyes, Longhorn, Jackie Johnson, Shoeshine Collins, Squinty and the rest of Easy Co.!
"We're going." Bulldozer said, ".to play in the snow."
With that, the rest of Easy Company disappeared into the blackness. Rock's legs finally started moving, and he ran after them. "Wait! You aren't going with them! You can't play in the snow yet! Stop!"
Then Rock heard a rumble, and the squeaks and grinds of heavy equipment. He turned to see the stars in the sky disappearing as a black shape came closer and closer until it blotted out the sky.and crashed down upon him.
Sgt. Rock awoke in his cot, breathing quickly. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and swore. Unfortunately, restless nights were the norm for him, and disturbing dreams were common. He thought nothing of it.until he heard voices laughing outside in the snow!
Rock jumped into his boots and threw open the tent to see Gravedigger and Private Longhorn running around in the moonlight. Gravedigger was waving one arm and talking, while Longhorn was dodging in front of him. Were they having a snowball fight?
"What are you doing?!" Sgt. Rock thundered with as much indignation as he could muster. He meant it for both of them, although he directed it at Longhorn.
"Sorry, Sarge!" Gravedigger said, lowering his arm. Rock could now see that he had a rope in his hands. "I'm getting in some practice for tomorrow. Longhorn here was giving me some of his roping tricks from back home."
"Well.we'll be getting up soon. You're no good to us if you're dead on your feet!" Sarge grumbled. "Besides, you may catch pneumonia."
"Don't yuh worry, Sarge," Longhorn drawled, "there's no harm in just playin' in the snow!"
In The Valley Of The Shadow of Death
At 0500, the men of Easy Co. had a hot breakfast and then, as Gravedigger and Rock went over the plans in detail, they struck the tents, "bugging out" so fast that Gravedigger could only watch in awe at their efficiency. Soon trucks were loaded and moving out, and it was hard to believe that a fully equipped army camp had stood there a half-hour earlier.
Next, Gravedigger and Sgt. Rock scouted out the nearby pass. Rock did some figuring and ordered two teams to dig into the hillside about seventy feet off the ground and make sure the nests were obscured by snow. When they were ready, he ordered four of his best bazooka teams to hide in the nests, two on each side. Bulldozer, Squinty, One-Note and Gap were Squad A, on the North side of the pass. Squad B was comprised of Four Eyes, Longhorn, Little Sure Shot, and Butterfingers Brown (so named because he was incredibly clumsy at everything.except loading a bazooka, a task at which he was one of the best and the fastest).
Shoeshine Collins was on the radio, collecting news of the War Wheel. The Wheel had stopped for the night forty miles from their position. It was on its way and would be at their position within the hour.
Long Round, Short Round and Jackie Johnson drove off to the East to scout for the Wheel. Their job was to draw its attention and then retreat as fast as possible.
Meanwhile, Sarge and Gravedigger checked on their preparations. It was nearly impossible to see the two snowfort-like nests from the front of the pass. The trucks and the Jeeps were standing by the entrance, engines running. Wildman, Sgt. Rock and Gravedigger then went to hide by the lone Jeep they had hidden behind some bushes to the left of the entrance. All they could do was wait. Gravedigger passed the time twirling and throwing the makeshift lariat he was carrying. Sarge went through three cigarettes while he waited.
After a while, the faint presence of the War Wheel made itself known. Though it had to be miles away, they could hear the mighty rumble already.
"There she is!" Rock finally shouted as he peered through his field binoculars. "Barely visible, but you can see her coming over the trees." Gravedigger grabbed the binoculars and looked for himself. True enough, the Wheel was a little over five miles away and speeding in their direction.
Sgt. Rock blew a whistle, sparking Easy Company to action. "All right, you Joes, start through the pass. Half-tracks first, then the Jeeps. Get moving! If they don't see us yet, they will in a moment. Move it! Move it! Move it! Get to the other end and wait for instructions. The rest of you: run for the brush and stay out of sight until the Wheel's inside the pass. Everyone! Go!"
Explosions echoed in the distance. As the vehicles began heading for the pass, Sarge ran back to Gravedigger and asked, "What do you see?"
"Nothin', Sarge, but that's surely our men playing cat-and-mouse with the Wheel. I told them to aim for the turrets if at all possible, but at the very least they're drawing its fire. They'll be heading this way like a bat out of hell. The War Wheel's navigational periscopes are near the top of the vehicle, so they must see our vehicles retreating by now."
Both men gritted their teeth and said silent prayers for Johnson, Short Round and Long Round as they heard heavy exchanges of gunfire and cannonfire. The grinding and crashing of the War Wheel as it plowed over towering fir trees echoed off of the hills behind them, making for a tremendous din. Finally, the shouts of the men in the Jeep could be heard as it hastily rounded a corner of the road and headed straight for the pass.
The War Wheel was several hundred yards behind the Jeep. As it came around a small hill and the trees gave way to a clearing, Sgt. Rock and Gravedigger could see it in all its glory. It was easy to see why Private Johnson had the accelerator of the Jeep pressed to the floor!
From the ground, the War Wheel looked taller than the average building in Rock's hometown of Pittsburgh! The Wheel thundered and groaned, smashing trees in its path like they were blades of grass and kicking up tons of snow, mud and sod in its wake. Dozens of giant spikes ringed the Wheel, giving it traction as they dug in to the frozen ground. Guns jutted out from the turrets at the side, aiming to the front, side and rear of the vehicle. The forward guns fired heavy explosive shells at the escaping Jeep. Fortunately, the guns were built for destructive capacity, not accuracy, and the shells struck off to the sides of the speeding vehicle.
The Jeep raced along the slick road and finally entered the pass. The War Wheel stopped firing and began to slow down. It was obvious to Gravedigger that the commander of the War Wheel was getting suspicious. If they suspected a trap, the Wheel might easily divert around the hills and then all would be for naught. The War Wheel's speed was dropping rapidly, and Gravedigger made a mental note that the ease with which it was grinding to a halt was another sign of its high fuel consumption. Apparently, there was little momentum generated by the heavy vehicle.and without a constant supply of fuel, it would come to a dead stop in moments. He hoped that this didn't hurt his plan when the time came to stop the Wheel.
Then, with an audible revving of its mighty engine, the War Wheel resumed its course toward the snowy pass. Rock and Gravedigger breathed a sight of relief and quickly crept over to their hidden Jeep.
By now, though the Wheel was still most of a mile away, the tremors from the War Wheel's movements were devastating. The soldiers in hiding found it difficult to stand. Snow was shaken from every tree branch in sight, and forest animals were running and flying away from it as fast as they could.
Inside their snow-camouflaged nests, the bazooka men looked up anxiously as the snow at the top of the cliff began to shake small clouds of flakes down upon their helmets. "Uh.Bulldozer, I think we may have missed something here," One-Note said in his nervous but monotone voice.
"I noticed it too, One-Note," Bulldozer said grimly as he hunkered down even lower. "That thing's already vibrating the ground like a jackhammer. If it causes a slide, we're in for it."
"What do we do, sir?" Gap asked as a small rock bounced off his helmet. "If we move now, they'll see us."
"Nobody's moving anywhere!" Bulldozer said, loud enough for the men on the other side to hear. He activated the walkie-talkie to the other team. "You hear that, Four-Eyes? Maintain position. We don't have a choice, except to pray. We have to take out the turrets, no matter what. Without that, Gravedigger's dead and so is any chance of stopping this thing!"
"This is a SNAFU, Four-Eyes!" shouted Butterfingers Brown, as the War Wheel's grinding sounds now echoed about the chasm. "Someone screwed up! We'll never be able to aim straight with the whole place bouncing like this! What are we gonna do!"
"Just what he said: pray! Say a prayer to that St. Jude of yours. He's the patron saint of lost causes, right?"
Brown glanced down at his neck, but couldn't see the St. Jude pendant he usually wore. "Ummm.I think I dropped it."
"Wonderful!" Four-Eyes said, shaking his head. "Giddown! Here it comes!"
With that, the War Wheel entered the pass in pursuit of the Jeeps it had seen. The Wheel again cut its speed, warily moving forward at a relative crawl.
They knew that the Nazis inside would be focused on the ground ahead and would be caught by surprise, but they waited as the War Wheel drew nearer and nearer. Once it was almost parallel to their position, Bulldozer and Squinty took aim with the bazookas while Gap and One-Note readied the rockets. As the War Wheel began to pass, it cut off their view of the other team. Snow and rocks began coming down non-stop, but the men fixated only on the narrow slots above the turret guns. They were so close that Bulldozer could see the faces of the Germans inside it. The soldiers were leaning on the windows, looking ahead with as much excitement as tourists halfway through a week-long bus holiday. Bulldozer steadied himself enough to sight the bazooka square in the center of one soldier's bored melon.and fired.
The explosion was immediate, and the fireball obscured the turret for a moment. Scarcely a second later, all four bazookas were firing at the Wheel from both sides. Without visual confirmation that any rockets had gotten inside the turret, Bulldozer took some comfort from the explosive conflagration. Least the scorching air and oxygen deprivation will get 'em if the blast didn't, he thought.
It was the last thought to go through his head before the hillside collapsed.
As their footing gave way, the four men found themselves plummeting through a deluge of rock and snow. Bulldozer landed on his back and saw a torrent of rocks falling towards him.and then blackness.
Sgt. Rock and Gravedigger spun in their Jeep at the sound of the small avalanche, which they could hear even over the terrible noise of the War Wheel. Wildman, who was driving the Jeep, kept his attention on the War Wheel's furious blur of spikes which were only a dozen feet in front of them. Wildman was cursing nonstop from the effort of pacing the War Wheel so that they were in the Wheel's blind spot, while avoiding the massive holes created by the spikes.and doing it all while a shower of mud rained down on them.
"This is madness!" Rock shouted as he looked at the spikes spinning by. "You'll never make it!" Rock glanced back one more time at the remains of the avalanche and held out hope that his men were all right.
"Wait'll it slows down!" Hazard shouted back. "In a moment, the Wheel will have to slow down. That's when I make my move! And Rock.if I don't make it, it's up to you to try."
"Understood," Rock growled as a particularly large chunk of wet sod smacked his helmet.
What they were banking on was the jag in the chasm several hundred feet ahead. It would be too sharp a turn for the Wheel to make, and it would have to stop and reverse course. At least, that was the plan.
"It should be slowing by now!" Rock shouted. "I hope you have a back-up plan in case it manages to push through!" Rock idly wondered if the spiked Wheel was powerful enough to climb a rock face.
"I'm not certain about any of this. I'm just hoping!" Gravedigger said, as he stood up in the seat and began twirling the lasso he was carrying. On one side of his belt hung another rope and a foot-long device with one large button on it. On his back he carried a bundled rope ladder.
Suddenly, they heard the sound of the War Wheel's cannons. Surprised, Gravedigger looked back at Sgt. Rock. "One of those guns is still active!" he shouted, angrily. "Your men didn't take the turrets out!"
"Don't blame my men, captain!" Rock shouted back, "It could be some soldiers inside the Wheel have replaced them. And they're firing at my Jeeps!"
"Great! Now I have to take them out myself. And why aren't they stopping!" Gravedigger snapped.
As if on cue, the War Wheel's motors changed pitch and the spray from the spikes dropped. Wildman swore and hit the brakes to keep from crashing into it.
"Damn!" Gravedigger yelled, swinging the lasso to get it up to speed, "She's losing acceleration too fast. Looks like I get only one shot at this! I've got to do this now!"
With that, he threw the lasso upwards at one of the spikes on the right side of the vehicle. The lasso landed loosely on the spike and Gravedigger let the rope play out for a moment. The Wheel rotated and the snagged spike got higher, until he was sure that the rope wasn't likely to slip off the slick surface of the spike. Once he was sure that the forward pull would keep it secured, he yanked hard and was pulled from the Jeep!
Gravedigger flew forward, towards the spikes on the right. He threw his legs ahead to lessen the impact, while leaning to avoid a spike piercing his chest. Fortunately, he landed above the upcoming spike. He'd hoped to find some footing and possibly stand once he reached the top of the Wheel, but the thick coating of mud and muck made it clear that would be impossible.
He was nearing the apex of the Wheel's rotation. Any further delay and he'd be flung forward, to then fall underneath the Wheel! Kicking as hard as he could, he pushed himself to the right and fell over the side of the wheel while still clinging to the rope. The rope caught on the inside of the spike above him, so that he was now hanging straight down. He saw the periscope jutting out from the side of the Wheel. It was small, but it was the only handhold available. Dangling from the side, he swung over to the periscope housing.and missed it by a few inches!
Horrified, Gravedigger could only watch as the rope dragged him to the front of the War Wheel, where gravity would again pull him to the center of the wheel's surface and smash him thinner than paper. His only option was to wait for his certain death. However, the Wheel's pace had slowed down so much that the inevitable took second after second. And then it happened.
The War Wheel drew to a complete halt.
Gravedigger clung to the rope and said a quick prayer of thanks as he waited for the Wheel to reverse course. He also hoped that the Nazis wouldn't look at this part of the Wheel while it was stopped. He glanced around. Now that he had a moment to catch his breath and think straight, he saw a better way for his plan to succeed. Instead of trying to grab the small, mud-caked periscope housing, he could attach the device. Holding on with his left hand, he reached down and unhooked it from his belt.
Meanwhile, on the ground, Sgt. Rock and Wildman had swung the Jeep around hard and were racing for the entrance to the chasm again. It was a hazardous drive, as Wildman tried to avoid both the massive holes created by the spikes and the rocks which had been shaken loose by the gigantic vehicle's vibrations. As they reached the entrance, they saw two large hills of snow and rock created by the avalanche.and Bulldozer digging out Gap.
"Hurry up, Bulldozer, the Wheel's coming back any second!" Rock shouted as they drove past.
"I've got wounded men here, Sarge!" Bulldozer screamed in frustration. "I need help!"
With that, Sgt. Rock leapt from the moving Jeep and ran back to help Bulldozer free the injured men. As they pulled Gap and One-Note from the rocks, they heard the gunning engine of the War Wheel reversing its course echo down the chasm.
Back on the War Wheel, Gravedigger ignored his straining muscles and held on as the Wheel rumbled and shook. The Wheel finally began to turn again, and he readied the device in his right hand. Once he reached the center of the wheel, he brought up the device and activated it.
The electromagnet was small but powerful. It was a circular plate, about a foot in diameter, with a handgrip handle and a large button he could hit with his thumb. With a small crackle, the electromagnet snapped to the surface of the War Wheel's side. With no time to test it's hold, he placed his faith in the Allied engineers and let go of the lasso, letting the magnet carry his weight. It held. He began rappelling down the new line until he reached the turrets, then he placed his feet on the flat surface of the turret.
With the end of the rope clipped to his belt to keep him from falling to his death, he held on to the jostling metal as best he could and peered over the side. He could see the slotted window of the guns. He considered throwing a grenade in to kill the soldiers manning the guns, but he feared that the explosion would knock him off the turret. With no other choice, he grabbed his machine gun in his right hand and the rope in his left, and leapt.
As he hit the turret's side, he blazed away at the soldiers with his Browning Automatic Rifle. To his surprise, there were only two.and they weren't prepared for personal combat. As the dead Nazis fell to the ground, Gravedigger grabbed the slot and pulled himself inside. He unclipped the rope and braced himself for an attack, but no other soldiers arrived. There was a thick door leading to the interior, and it was closed. Gravedigger considered that the men inside were probably used to ignoring gunfire.or perhaps they couldn't hear it at all.
Glancing down, he counted five soldiers at his feet. Three corpses were blackened from the bazooka fire, while the other two weren't singed. Clearly, the two had come from inside the vehicle, and the fact that there weren't three meant there weren't any more soldiers to spare.
In one smooth move, he unfastened the rope ladder from his back and hooked it to the side window slot of the turret, then let it unfurl to the ground. Turning back, he ran to the door and prepared to take the control room.
"Squinty's dead, too, 'Dozer!" Sgt. Rock shouted, as he turned from the partially-buried corpses of One-Note and Squinty. Several other soldiers were assisting Gap, who had received some vicious knocks and was busted up pretty badly, and everyone was hustling to get out of the way of the War Wheel. A cry from Bulldozer caught Rock's attention, and he ran to the other hillside where Little Sure Shot's team was still digging out. The avalanche on that side had poured the four men to the center of the road, where the Wheel would be arriving any minute.
The sounds of the War Wheel were getting louder as Rock approached. There was quite a commotion. Four-Eyes' leg was being bandaged by a medical corpsmen. Longhorn's unconscious body was being pulled from the snow by Little Sure Shot. There were screams coming from behind a large rock, and Rock ran to them. Then he saw the reason for the cries.
The boulder had landed on the legs of Butterfingers Brown. The man was shrieking with pain as two medics applied morphine and looked at the damage. Bulldozer was pushing against the boulder, trying to roll it off him.
"Sarge, ya gotta help me!" Bulldozer shouted, struggling in the slippery snow. "I can't move this by myself! We gotta get it off him! The Wheel's coming back!"
"I told you, 'Dozer, that's not going to work!" shouted one of the medics as he began tying off Brown's right leg. Sgt. Rock recognized the medic as Leech, a name he'd been given because he always managed to treat the men of Easy Co. even when he didn't have the proper equipment. They kidded him that he was little more than a quack of the Dark Ages, prescribing leeches to cure bodily humours, but he was a very skilled and very brave doctor. "Sarge, we've got to amputate! Fast!"
"No!" Bulldozer screamed, pushing at the boulder with renewed vigor. "Don't take his legs. I can do it! I can get this off him! I swear I can!"
Sgt. Rock put a hand on Bulldozer's shoulder. "His legs are crushed, 'Dozer. Leech is right. Let him do his job."
"No! Oh god, no! Please, god!" Brown whimpered, as Leech tied off the second leg. The other corpsman gave him more morphine. "Sarge, they're gonna take my legs! Oh, god! Can't you do something? Please! Please!"
"Hold him, Sarge!" Leech urged, grabbing his bone saw from the bag. "I've gotta work quickly! Don't worry.I can have this done in a minute." With that, Leech began.
Ulysses Hazard readied his B.A.R. and reached for the handle to the interior door. It wasn't locked. He opened the door and it swung inwards to reveal.a wall.
Ducking his head around the corner, he could see that it was a hallway running back about 10 feet.probably to safeguard the interior from bombs and guns. You could utterly destroy the turrets and never hit the pilots inside, Gravedigger mused. He stepped inside the hallway and left the door open. Cautiously he tiptoed down the hall and listened.
There were no sounds except for the loud thrum of machinery. It was so loud that the Nazis inside probably needed earplugs.yet another drawback to the device. The air was stale and thick with the smell of oil and grease and men in close quarters. The lighting had the unhealthy dankness of a submarine.
Gravedigger resisted the urge to cover his ears and instead tried to cut through the noise to hear any German voices. He had no idea how many men remained. After another fifteen seconds passed, he decided he had to risk it. Gathering his nerve, he drew his machine gun, stepped around the corner and crouched.
Inside were three Nazi soldiers, two of whom were busy at the controls while another looked at a map on the table. The navigator glanced up and saw him. Gravedigger perforated the navigator, then the nearest pilot. The other pilot ducked and drew his Luger, firing back. Gravedigger leapt from his crouching position, narrowly avoiding the bullets and landing on the table, then vaulting onto the pilot.
"Verdammt Amerikaner!" the Nazi yelled, struggling against Gravedigger's arms in the close quarters. "Nein! Nein!"
Gravedigger gripped the man's hand and aimed the barrel of the Luger away from him, but the Nazi was doing the same to his machine gun hand. Gravedigger hoped his opponent was aware that stray shots would ricochet perilously in the cramped, bulletproof room. The two wrestled, locked in a struggle which would mean death for one of them.
Butterfingers had, mercifully, passed out from the pain and the drugs. Leech and the other medic, Hearts, had finished bandaging both of his stumps and were preparing to carry him to safety when they saw the Wheel was gaining speed. They passed Brown to Bulldozer, who carefully placed Brown over his shoulder and then took off as fast as he could for the clearing.
The two medics, Bulldozer and Sgt. Rock ran as fast as they could while the sounds of the Wheel came closer and closer. Suddenly, Rock heard a puzzled cry: "Sarge?"
Spinning in his place, he saw One-Note woozily wandering in the middle of the road. "One-Note!" Rock yelled, "He wasn't dead! HEY! One-Note! Run!"
"What?" One-Note asked, stumbling. He looked behind him.and saw the War Wheel bearing down on him. "Aaah!" he screamed, and began to run away from it.
"No, One-Note! To the side! Run to the side! Your left!" Rock shouted, but he could see the poor man was disoriented. One-Note took another few steps and stumbled again.and then he was gone.
Throwing his weight forward and tripping the Nazi pilot, Gravedigger pushed the man into the control panel. Levers jutted upwards into the Nazi's back, and he shouted in agony. Gravedigger headbutted him, and was rewarded when the stunned Nazi dropped his Luger. Still, the pilot struggled in his arms, and he could not get his B.A.R. pointed towards his opponent.
Suddenly, a cry of "Vas ist--?" came from his left. Gravedigger looked and saw two other soldiers had entered from the left turret! As the men drew their Mauser machine guns, Gravedigger spun in place and pushed the Nazi pilot in front of him. As the Mauser's blazed away, the pilot was struck in the back several times and he gasped for air. Gravedigger carefully cut loose with his B.A.R. and shot the other two Nazis.
The German pilot now gagged and wheezed as blood streamed from his mouth. He fell forward onto Gravedigger, gripping his enemy for support as he slipped to the ground. Gravedigger rarely got this close to the men he killed, and it shook him to see the man staring back into his eyes as he expired.
"I'm.sorry," Gravedigger muttered, trying to remind himself that this man had been flattening soldiers all the way from here to Germany. It didn't make the killing any easier.
Gravedigger felt blood running down his shirt, and realized that the pilot's body hadn't fully stopped the bullets. He didn't feel injured, but he guessed that that would be different when the adrenaline wore off.
Gravedigger turned back to the control console and pulled two large switch-levers. The War Wheel promptly came to a halt. He grabbed a knob and turned it, shutting off the Wheel's power. And with that, Gravedigger leaned against the console and collapsed.
Which is when the mechanic appeared.
The mechanic scrambled out from a hatch in the floor and grabbed the fallen Luger. He trained it on Gravedigger and began shouting a frantic mess of German,of which Gravedigger could only make out bits and pieces. Gravedigger realized he couldn't bring up his B.A.R. in time. He raised his hands in surrender.
Shouting, the man's voice crescendoed in anger, and his hand tightened on the trigger. The gunshot echoed in the small confines of the room.
Gravedigger watched as the blood-spattered mechanic fell to the floor. He glanced to the side and saw Rock, with smoke emanating from the barrel of his pistol, standing in the doorway.
"Yer late.Sarge," Gravedigger joked, still clutching his chest.
Men from Easy Company appeared behind Sgt. Rock, and he ushered them in. Barking instructions, they split up to search the rest of the War Wheel for any remaining Nazis. Noting Gravedigger's wounds, Sarge turned back and called for a medic. Then Gravedigger saw only blurs.and then, nothing.
"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.
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."
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."
"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."
is Editor-In-Chief of Fanzing.com. He is the world's biggest Elongated Man fan
and runs the only EM fan site.
He lives in Rochester, MN.
Bill Wiist is a full-time artist and freelance writer for the Courier-Journal in Louisville, KY. He HATES gray walls and spends most of his time wishing he were on a beach.
All characters are © DC Comics
This piece is © 2002 by Michael Hutchison
Artwork is © 2002 by Bill Wiist, Kurt Belcher, and Scott McCullar
Fanzing is not associated with DC Comics.
All DC Comics characters, trademarks and images (where used) are DC Comics, Inc.
DC characters are used here in fan art and fiction in accordance with their generous "fair use" policies.
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