Counter attack or suicide mission

It was on one of the last nights in January that their company commander, a captain named Richards, called the men together when they had gone to the rear for food.

“Tomorrow is the first day of the end of the war,’’ Richards said. “At oh-two-thirty we move forward and we’re not stopping until we get to Berlin. The Germans will be waiting in fortified positions. We will destroy them with superior numbers and superior will. But many of you who hear my voice now won’t live to see another sunset. Any last letters need to be written tonight.’’

He paced to let his words sink in. Wendell stared at the snow, thinking of his brother, his parents and the pond.

“Remember your training,’’ Richards said. “Spread out. Use marching fire. Keep moving forward and leave the wounded to the medics. The squad corporals have been instructed to shoot any soldier who tries to cut and run, but I know that won’t be necessary. I have the best rifle company in this man’s Army. Good luck, gentlemen. Happy hunting.’’

Wendell thought about writing home that night, but somehow that felt like tempting fate. He passed the time by cleaning his rifle and checking his ammunition. Guys in the quartermaster corps ran from hole to hole, handing out new wool socks, gloves, and Syrettes of morphine.

Sometime after midnight Sergeant Henderson climbed from his hole.

“Saddle up boys,’’ he said as his squad gathered around him. “It’s time. Glass, you’re first scout. Smith, second. The rest fall in behind them.’’

They started marching, boots crunching in the hard snow. Vinny’s squad flanked Wendell’s a hundred yards to one side. The third squad of their platoon was the same distance in the other direction. Wendell walked behind Morty Glass, a goofy kid from Southern California who was always bragging that he grew up wrestling with sharks. He had the deadliest job in the infantry. Wendell’s was second.

Wendell followed Morty to his right, so he wouldn’t be in his direct line of fire. It was clear and bitter-cold, and by the light of a quarter-moon the soldiers could make out a line of woods about a half-mile away. Glass stopped and dropped to one knee, huffing from having to plow through the deep snow.

“Think they’re in those woods?’’ Morty asked.

“I’m betting they are, but there’s only one way to find out,’’ Henderson said. “Let’s move.’’

They stumbled forward through snow to their knees, rifles at their hips, ready to open up on enemy machine guns that they knew were out there someplace. No one spoke. The only sounds were the crunching of feet and the rumble of artillery as other units moved up against the Germans.

They came within a couple hundred yards of the trees and there was still nothing from the Germans. They closed to a hundred yards. They entered the trees and felt that a first great victory had been won. Maybe the Germans heard they were coming and had retreated, knowing what was best for them with the Army’s best rifle company bearing down.

But the celebration didn’t last long because the men saw that the tree line was only thirty yards thick. On the other side was a broad field of snow, surrounded on three sides by dense woods. That was where the Germans most likely waited. The danger became clearer as the sun rose and Wendell’s unit could see the drifted field in front of them, and the woods surrounding it.

Their squads joined up and huddled in the trees to try and keep warm. Some guys fell asleep standing up. Wendell saw a small figure off by himself in the shadows, and by the ember of his cigarette knew it was Vinny. But at that moment Wendell was more concerned with Lieutenant Orlando, who had gathered his sergeants. Then the officer moved off by himself to use the radio, trying to call in some artillery to soften up the German guns almost certainly waiting in the opposite woods. Orlando threw the radio to the ground. The next thing Wendell knew, the sergeants were collecting their squads.

“Saddle up, boys,’’ Henderson said.

Glass stepped from the tree line into snow up to his thighs. Wendell followed. Every member of their platoon cleared the trees and was moving toward the opposite tree line. Wendell was maybe a hundred yards away when the Germans opened up, their machine guns chattering from the trees. Morty fell, his helmet tumbling off into the snow. Wendell hit the snow himself, trying to burrow away from the bullets, and when he looked up, he saw blood oozing from a wound in the back of Morty’s head.

Henderson yelled, “Hang on, Glass, I’m coming,” but when Wendell turned, Henderson was down, too, lying face up in the snow with his eyes open. Snowflakes started to land on the sergeant’s face.

Wendell knew he would be dead in a few seconds, but he didn’t pray. He never thought of heaven or hell, or of God, because he knew that what had started to happen in that snow was way beyond God’s ability to do much about. Instead, Wendell remembered feeling amazed by how fast a soldier can die, how easy it could be.

From the new novel, Every Common Sight.