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Jim Colling Adventure Series
Copyright © 2006 Robert McCurdy
All rights reserved.
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To my wife, Margie, who read the drafts and asked the right questions, and whose support was essential to tell the story of Jim Colling and Elizabeth Hamilton. I dedicate Dog Robber to her, with my love.
The American officer had been crouched in a depression behind a fallen pine tree since just after midnight. He shifted his weight as quietly as possible, and winced at the pain in his cramped calves. The pale early-spring dawn had begun to spread through the northern Italian mountains around him. Light was filtering slowly through the haze that had not yet disappeared from among the pines, and he resumed his vigil, peering intently through the tree’s broken branches. Through breaks in the treetops, he could just make out portions of the logging road that ran along the curve of the slope below his position. Nothing moved, and he felt the nervousness that had been with him in varying degrees throughout the night become more acute.
He was not a veteran of combat, or even really trained for it. He had experienced his share of shellings and bombings as his unit had moved slowly northward through Italy, but this was the first time he had actually found himself this close to the front lines. The insignia on the collars of his shirt under his field jacket indicated he was a major assigned to the Signal Corps. He was used to being a mile or so behind the lines, his contact with the enemy limited to eavesdropping on their radio transmissions. The newspapers said that the German defenses were “collapsing,” but he was astute enough to know that pockets of resistance still remained, and he was concerned that his small detachment would have the misfortune to encounter some group of diehards, especially if they were Waffen SS or paratroopers.
The fact that he was able to speak and understand German well enough to be capable of eavesdropping and interviewing prisoners of war was the main reason he now found himself this far out in front of the advancing American army. He shifted the carbine in his hands so that its barrel pointed forward. The soldiers who had been assigned to accompany him were volunteers from the Tenth Mountain, and he took some comfort in their seasoned appearance and attitude. Lieutenant Schwartz was somewhere to his left, and two enlisted men, Bergman and Cohn, were to his right. He could just see the olive-drab top of the helmet of one of them. All his companions had Thompson submachine guns, and he was confident in their ability to use them. He hoped they would not have the need to test their proficiency.
The faint sound of an engine down the slope and to his left grew in intensity. Its pitch was too high to be that of a tank, and he guessed that what he was hearing was a truck laboring up the steep rutted road. The driver was downshifting and pressing the accelerator to get the most out of an over-used engine and low-grade gasoline. The vehicle passed an opening in the trees, and he caught a glimpse of the familiar shape of a Fiat, painted Wehrmacht gray. The truck’s engine was roaring as it reached the level clearing where they had arranged for the meeting to take place, but quieted to a still-labored idle once the little Italian truck was no longer being forced to make the climb.
The American major watched as a figure in German Feldgrau opened the passenger door of the truck’s cab and stepped to the ground. The uniform was immaculate, the silver rank insignia and decorations on the front of his tunic contrasting with its sober grayness. The American wondered to himself how Kraut officers always managed to look as if they had just come from a dress parade.
The German swept his eyes across the forested hill in front of him, finally looking directly at where the Americans were hidden. He shouted something over his shoulder, and the truck’s driver swung down from the cab, a submachine gun suspended from his neck. Two more German soldiers, also carrying submachine guns, vaulted over the tailgate and took up positions at the rear of the Fiat.
Cupping his hands to his mouth, the German officer called out in German, “All is quiet. You may come down. I am ‘Otto.’”
“And I am ‘Fred,’” replied the Major in German as he emerged from the woods and walked towards the SS officer. Lieutenant Schwartz and Corporal Bergman warily followed him, Thompsons at the ready.
“Guten Tag,” the German greeted the American, extending his hand. The American didn’t take it.
Instead he responded, “Greetings, Sturmbannführer,” noting the man’s SS rank insignia, and continuing in German, “Do you have the goods?”
“Of course, Herr Major,” replied the SS officer, glancing at the gold oak leaves on the American’s shirt. “Step this way,” he gestured towards the rear of the truck, ordering his men to drop the tailgate.
The major peered into the dark interior of the Fiat’s bed and saw nothing until one of the German soldiers shone a flashlight inside. Wide-eyed faces stared back. A child whimpered and was instantly silenced.
“Raus, Juden!” shouted one of the soldiers, waving his submachine gun for emphasis, and displaying a familiar enjoyment with the task that caused the American officer to grit his teeth.
He turned on the German officer, “Tell your men to desist from addressing these people in that way. You shall, from this minute, treat them with respect. They are no longer your prisoners.”
The Sturmbannführer seemed surprised at the American’s outburst, but he instructed his men to do as the American had asked.
The ten men, twelve women and five children who eventually emerged from the truck looked as if they were on their last legs. One of the women collapsed as soon as she was lowered to the ground. The American officer quickly ordered everyone to sit down, hoping to avoid anyone else dropping in their tracks. While watching the former prisoners being assisted from the Fiat, the American had been dimly aware that another vehicle had reached the clearing, coming from the opposite direction than that of the Germans.
The big US Army truck pulled to a stop several yards from the Wehrmacht vehicle. PFC Benjamin Cohn, a Thompson submachine gun resting on his hip, jumped down from the truck’s running board. He took one look at the huddled group of individuals sitting on the ground, and with a cursory request to Lieutenant Schwartz for permission to get rations and water for the refugees, he went to the back of the American truck, and was soon distributing K rations and passing around canteens.
Lieutenant Schwartz came to stand beside the major and said in a low voice, “Want us to get rid of these Krauts, sir?”
The major replied, “No, Lieutenant. General McKimmon’s guaranteed them a safe conduct. If we welch on it, it will screw things up royally as far as future cooperation is concerned, and you and your men will get the court martial of all court martials.”
The American major had been studying the former prisoners and after a few moments, he asked the SS officer, “They are all Jews?”
“Yes, Herr Major.”
“And they were all assigned to the facility at Oldenberg?”
“They do not seem to be in any shape to have performed technical work.”
The SS officer sniffed, “Compared to many others, they have been well-treated. Plenty to eat, medical care, nice warm place to sleep. They are the lucky ones. They appear as they do because of the difficulty of transporting them to this place.”
“Which ones are the Poles?” asked the American officer.
“None. These are all Jews, no gentiles. The Poles were moved before I could obtain a requisition and the proper papers,” replied the Sturmbannführer.
“The Poles were most important to us. I thought that was made perfectly clear.”
“Understood. But I can do only what is possible. You realize the risks that I and my men have taken even to do this.”
“My general has made arrangements that you and your men will be recognized for this, as promised,” said the American, more than a hint of irony in his voice.
“The war cannot last much longer, Herr Major. I wish only that it shall be remembered that I and my men, SS men all, saved the lives of some Jews. I think that will be most important to us in the future.”
The American major gave the German officer an icy look, then said, “You may return to your lines, Sturmbannführer.”
As he watched the Germans climb into their Fiat and chug away, he wondered whether any of the SS men would survive the war, and if any of them did, whether what had occurred here this day would make any difference to them. He shouted at Lieutenant Schwartz that it was time to load up their charges so they could return to their own lines.
Private James T. Colling watched the green fields and orchards of the Belgian countryside roll past the window of his railway carriage. He found it difficult to reconcile what he was seeing with the newsreels of battles that had occurred here only a few months ago. If he had left college to enlist a year earlier, as he had wished, he would have been part of it. As it was, his father had convinced him to finish his second year, and the Germans had surrendered two weeks before classes ended. During basic training, everyone in his company had expected to be part of the invasion of Japan. But for the success of the Manhattan Project, his life, like many others, might have taken an altogether different direction. Now fate, and the unfathomable administrative processes of the U.S. Army, had decided he would be part of the occupation of Germany.
Hostilities in this part of Europe had concluded nearly eight months before, and the first summer of peace for the Belgians in five years was coming to an end. The last remnants of scorched, rusting hulks of trucks and other military vehicles were still sometimes seen, scattered along the sides of the roads that occasionally chanced to parallel the railway tracks. Civilians in small groups were here and there picking over the salvageable remnants, apparently continuing to find bits and pieces that would bring some money from the scrap dealers. Colling calculated that some of them must have been scavenging for almost a year, and winter would probably see the disappearance into some final junkyard of the last, most obvious evidence that armies had once faced each other on this plain.
The fields that ran to the hills on the horizon presented a green contrast to the gray shabbiness of the towns and cities through which the train rolled. For the first time in five years, the farmers would not see their crops requisitioned by an occupying army. It seemed to Colling that they might have come back to the soil with an unusual enthusiasm that boded well for a good harvest.
Here in the countryside, the smell of masonry dust that had permeated the air in the urban areas through which they had passed was absent. The sky itself seemed bluer and clearer. From the way that recent issues of Life and Newsweek portrayed what lay ahead in Germany, Colling expected that the optimism he seemed to sense in Belgium, technically one of the winners in the conflict, would not survive once he crossed the border to the losing side.
He glanced at the five other American soldiers who were his travelling companions. They were slouched in their seats, their eyes closed, sleeping or trying to. From the insignia on their uniforms, he knew that they were Signal Corps men, and their service stripes and ribbons, together with the fact that they were all wearing the new unofficial “Ike” jackets, advertised that they had much more military experience that he. The chevrons on their sleeves also told him that all of them out-ranked him, so that when they had first filed into the compartment in Antwerp, the reticence towards non-commissioned officers he had learned in basic training had prevailed, and he had not initiated any conversation. Other than a nod of acknowledgement in his direction, none of them had said anything before leaning back and closing their eyes or pulling their caps down over their faces.
The railway car in which they were riding had seen better days. Below the window, a piece of plywood served as a patch in its side, and there were other signs that it might have been the target of gunfire in the recent past. The carriage swayed and bounced constantly, confirming the dilapidated state of tracks that had been repaired too many times. Perhaps because of the movement, Colling found himself dozing, and he eventually dropped off into a light sleep.
He had not closed his eyes for nearly 24 hours. He had been too restless to sleep as the transport sailed up the estuary into Antwerp near midnight, and he had gone to stand at the rail with his fellow soldiers, taking in his first impression of the buildings and lights of Europe drifting by. It seemed that simultaneously with the ship’s docking had come the shouted orders to prepare for disembarkation. Leaving the transport did not occur as rapidly. After better than an hour standing packed together on the transport’s deck with their baggage at their feet, the troops were finally bustled down the gangplank to the floodlighted wharf, where non-commissioned officers and port officials wearing black armbands with “Transportation Corps” emblazoned in white were sorting the men out in preparation for the next leg of the journey. More waiting followed. Like everyone else, Colling eventually dropped his duffel bag and used it to sit on, but he was too distracted by the new sounds, sights and smells around him to do so immediately.
The NCOs continued to search their clip-boards and call off names as they directed the men on the quay into groups. It was more than an hour before he heard his name called, and he was directed to a line of fifteen or twenty men. A corporal wearing one of the Transportation Corps brassards called Colling’s group to attention and marched them to the train, where assignments to specific cars and compartments were made. That had been before dawn, and it was now mid-afternoon.
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