The marching had been hard with little rest for the weary. Exhaustion was setting in , but the Company could not slow down. The orders were to reach and cross the Rhine and bring the war to Germany's doorstep. The Russians were already advancing on the Eastern Front. The race was on to end the bloody war in Europe from East and West. By the start of March of '45, the troops were in sight of their goal.
There had been little resistance by this time. Much of what was left of Hitler's once powerful army had pulled back to the Ruhr pocket in Germany, a section of industrialized cities that had been vital to the war effort. Hundreds of thousands of military personnel, many of them elderly and young boys who had been conscripted into service, and civilians were gathered there as a last ditch effort to keep the war machine moving. Orders were to encircle the pocket and capture the cities.
Each Unit and every Company of the Battalion, including Brian's knew what was coming. It was not going to be easy, but the Rhine was the key to the whole operation. Finally they were in sight of their goal. The month of March had barely begun but the cold weather didn't deter the troops. If all went well, they might be lucky enough to be home before the year was over. It was a strong incentive to march on.
Brian's Unit held up well during the advancement. Their training, combined with the excellent leadership of their Sarge, made them a favorite of the Company. They had been ordered to the front of the lines, scouting enemy troops as they had done so skillfully in the past. Brian was always careful not to show any favoritism towards Justin, but he also kept a close watch on the young soldier. He told himself that he would do the same for any green soldier who had little to no combat experience, but Brian seldom made a habit of lying to himself. He knew in his heart that if something happened to Justin it would be a bitter pill to swallow. It didn't keep him from doing his job and sending his men, including Justin, out into an uncertain landscape to do theirs.
There had been no real resistance up until now. The German army was quickly disintegrating before their advancement. Very few Germans were left on foreign soil by this time. The day finally came when they reached Remagen and the Ludendorff Bridge that they planned to use to cross the Rhine. Tensions were high. As more and more troops caught up and gathered for the push onto enemy territory, men took their last hours of the lull in fighting to hurry off letters that they prayed would not be delivered to their families along with news of their deaths. Those that didn't or couldn't write checked weapons or pulled out photos and keepsakes that brought memories to the forefront of their thoughts.
On March 7 the bridge was secured and the crossing began. Two different Battalions fanned out in order to cause a pincer effect on the Ruhr Pocket, thus plunging the final dagger into the heart of German resistance. It took several weeks before the two Battalions had completed their encirclement and they began to control the area...city by city, block by block, soldier by soldier, citizen by citizen. By April 12th the pocket had been cut in two with the smaller Eastern part surrendering the very next day. Resistance continued until the 21st on the larger Western side. Over three hundred thousand soldiers and some civilians were captured and imprisoned in one of the more than a dozen temporary POW camps that had been nicknamed the Rhine meadow camps.
There had been casualties, mostly on the German side, but Brian's small unit had fared quite well. All of his men had come through the fighting intact, which was a great relief to their Sergeant who had come to care a great deal for every last man. Justin was no longer a greenie with no battle experience. Brian secretly prayed that what the sensitive young man had witnessed and been part of would not harden him, something he had seen happen to countless other naive newcomers to the war. He had little opportunity to talk to Justin privately during the long painful weeks that led to the eventual surrender of all the German troops in the area. He would have given up an arm for a chance to be close to Justin just once more, but he had to content himself with just watching his back.
Brian's surreptitious watching of Justin's back actually came in handy during the last days of the German resistance. Brian's Unit had been moving stealthily through one of the last cities with pockets of fighting soldiers. Justin, along with half of Brian's Unit, were sticking close to the remnants of pockmarked buildings that barely still stood thanks to heavy bombing. There was not a single intact pane of glass in the windows of once thriving businesses. Brian, along with the other half of his Unit, was moving at the same rate of speed while hugging the walls of buildings on the other side of the street. The two groups of men reached the end of the street which led into a wide circular plaza. A large hotel stood across the way facing a waterless fountain that stood in the center of the plaza. Brian signaled to Justin, who was at the head of the line of men, to move out after carefully scanning for any threats. Their goal was to cross the plaza and secure the hotel, which had a great vantage point since it was the tallest building for miles around.
Justin nodded his understanding towards Brian and stepped from the safety of cover. He had taken a dozen steps forward. It was at that instant that Brian spotted movement behind a sculpture on the roof of the hotel. He took careful aim and let off a shot. A loud scream could be heard and a figure tumbled off the roof and landed with a thud on the ground. Brian knew he would have done the same thing for any of his men, but the rapid beating of his heart and the sense of fear he felt told him that this time his sharp eye was even more important than ever before. Justin, who had stopped dead in his tracks at the sound of the weapon firing, swung his head around to face a pale Brian. Brian quickly regained control of his feelings and gave Justin a brief nod. Justin raised his hand and formed an okay sign, then moved forward again, followed by the other men. Brian moved out with his men, letting the thought of how close he had come to losing Justin tuck itself away for the time being. That thought could be brought out later, but there was no time for it now.
When the Allies were in full control of the entire Ruhr Pocket, it was finally time to take a small breather. It wouldn't last long since the Russians had begun their offensive to capture Eastern Germany and the race was on for Berlin. By April 27th, word had come down that Mussolini had been captured. The Russians reached Berlin and the last gasps of the war in Europe were being felt by one and all. By May the 2nd the Germans had surrendered in Italy. Word next came down that Hitler had killed himself a few days earlier on April 30th. By May 8th it was over. Germany had surrendered unconditionally. Allied troops whooped and hollered and hugged each other with all the joy a man could feel when he realized that he had somehow survived the bloodiest war in history.
Soldiers still had their duties to perform and no one was being sent home immediately except the wounded, but the bloodshed was over. That was enough to bring smiles to every man's face. Now they could at least start believing in the futures they had been talking about all during the previous harrowing years. Little by little, men were being given their final assignments before being shipped back home. Brian's men were being sent back to England before their final orders to return home. It was an assignment they looked forward to having. One man, Crockett, had even left a sweetheart back in England when they were first sent to the shores of France. Brian and Justin secretly looked forward to the chance of spending some alone time away from the barracks once they were on English soil, if they could manage it.
Two days before the transport was scheduled to arrive to carry Brian's Unit and several others back to England, fate played one of its nasty tricks on the secret lovers. The men of Brian's Unit still had their normal duties to perform before their transfer. They were scouting the outskirts of one of the towns they had taken control of. It was a routine patrol with no real worries involved. The town was surrounded by a countryside of fields used for the growing of crops that had sustained the area for generations. The fields were all but obliterated by all the fire power during the siege of nearby towns but somehow one small section still had a little life left in it. When the men happened on the small patch of healthy vegetation, they became incautious and rushed towards the area where vegetables could be seen growing. Samuels and Smith led the excited men towards the crops, followed closely by Justin and the others. Their Sarge brought up the rear, watching their backs as he did so often, and shouting for them to move slowly. His warning came too late.
In the blink of an eye, the world turned upside down. The sky was suddenly filled with fire red and blazing yellow as Samuels stepped onto a buried land mine that exploded under his heavy foot. Shrapnel and the destroyed body of Samuels went flying everywhere, soaking the ground with blood. Several other men lay sprawled on the ground, including the fair haired Private Taylor. Brian let out a scream and ran forward, carefully following in the footsteps of his men. Three men lay on the ground while the rest stood frozen to the spot they'd been in, only yards away from the blast. As their Sarge rushed in, their feet became unglued and they hurried over to their fallen comrades. Brian went straight for Justin, yelling back for Carruthers to call for help.
Smith was injured the worst, with severe damages to his head and upper body. Norton had simply been knocked out by a large clump of flying dirt. He was slowly beginning to rally. Justin had an injury to his head where he had been hit by shrapnel too, but it was the wound to his leg that scared Brian the most. He could see where something sharp had torn Justin's khakis and blood had begun spreading on his upper thigh. Brian quickly tore off his belt and formed a tourniquet to stop the flow of blood. Justin was barely conscious. He was trying desperately to focus his eyes. Suddenly he could see Brian's concerned face staring down at him. Brian had wiped the blood seeping from a small head wound from his eyes.
"We....I....we...," he choked. "We made a mistake, didn't we Brian?" Justin's voice was hoarse with pain.
"Don't worry Justin," Brian pleaded. "You're going to be fine. We're going to get all of you the help you need. You'll be back on your feet in no time." Brian's voice broke. He didn't even notice that Cowlip was standing right behind him, waiting to see if he could help the young Private he had grown to like and respect a great deal. Justin could only focus on one thing...Brian's beautiful face.
"Don't look so scared Brian. I'm not. No matter what happens, at least I had the chance to be with you. That's more than I ever dreamed I'd have in my life."
Brian's face crumpled. He couldn't stop the tears that slowly etched down his face.
"Nothing is going to happen to you Justin. Do you hear me? Nothing! We're going back to England and we're going to be together as often as we can. Then we're going home and we're going to be together whenever we want. Do you hear me? Justin? Justin?"
It was too late. Justin had passed out completely. Brian would have snapped if he hadn't seen that Justin's chest was still rising and falling in a regular rhythm with each breath he took. The blood had stopped flowing thanks to the tourniquet. Brian was afraid to move Justin in case he would injure the young man more, but he carefully picked up the blond head and laid it in his lap. He ran his hand through Justin's dirt encrusted hair and looked at his surroundings for the first time, noticing that one of his men was standing right behind him. He looked Cowlip in the face and simply couldn't hide his distress at what had happened to the young Private. He had no way of knowing what the soldier had heard but it didn't matter right now. The only thing that mattered was getting help and getting it immediately.
Carruthers ran over to his Sergeant and informed him that help was on the way, including men who were expert at finding and defusing landmines. He didn't question why the Sarge looked the way he did or was holding onto Private Taylor's head with such tender care. He simply turned and went back to see if he could help the badly injured Private Smith. It only took a matter of ten minutes, but it seemed like hours before a medivac unit came into view and they knew that help had arrived. It was only then that Brian released Justin's head and let the medics take over, loading him into the van to take him back to the field hospital. As Brian watched the truck with the huge red cross on it disappear from view, he sent up a silent prayer that Justin would be fine. If not...well hell, he had no desire to think of an 'if not'. It was not a viable alternative...simple as that.
To be continued.............................