January 3, 1945
That’s all it would take, I figured, as I warmed my hands around the campfire with a few other shivering soldiers. One shot and this frozen hell of Belgium’s Ardennes Forest would be over for me.
It was January 1945, seven months since me and the guys in the 101st Airborne’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment had jumped into that dark sky over Normandy. Now, a handful of us E Company guys were numb from war, death, and bitter cold and snow. In the flames’ flickering light, I looked down at my boots, wrapped in burlap bags and purposely dipped in water so they’d freeze and keep my feet warmer.
One shot and those damn feet would never be cold again. One shot and the sight of Joe Toye and Bill Guarnere lying in the snow, each missing a leg, would never haunt me Again.
Why Toye? Why not the SOB who I’d seen a few days ago slicing fingers off the dead German soldiers to get their rings, the guy who was almost smiling when he told me “cuttin’ those fingers was just like cuttin’ a candle in half.” Toye was wounded in Normandy, Holland, and once here, coming back with his arm in a sling to fight. Maybe I’m biased because, like me, Joe was Irish, but hadn’t he already paid the war piper? And why Guarnere? He gets it trying to save Joe. The Germans are raining down artillery shells like a Fourth of July show gone wrong, and Bill sees Joe out there trying to get up and so runs across the snow to save his buddy. Sort of like one swimmer trying to help another swimmer who’s drowning. And, boom, both end up drowning. At least it hadn’t been Skip Muck, whose 1st Platoon was a few hundred yards away from our 2nd. He was closer than a brother to me.
I blew on my cupped hands to warm them up. I then put my right hand onto the pistol’s holster, and around the wooden grip, cold as a frozen salmon. We were virtually surrounded by the Germans, the proverbial hole in the doughnut. And had been here for more than two weeks, though time wasn’t easy to keep track of when you couldn’t see beyond the fog and snow of some ice boxed forest that’s so far from home that you can hardly remember what home is like anymore.
Sometimes, in the night, when the quiet wasn’t feared as much, I would remember home. Not so much my family or our house in Astoria, where I’d grown up near where the Columbia River meets up with the Pacific Ocean, but the cabin.
It was snug to the Nehalem River, in Oregon’s Coast Range. I lived like an Indian. Swam in the Nehalem each day. Dove for crawdads. Went bird hunting with a bow, carved from a yew tree. While crouched in a foxhole in Bastogne, I remembered watching the riffle in the river, knowing that beneath that water lived sea-run cutthroat trout and crawdads galore. I remembered easing into the current and letting it take me—fishing pole in hand—wherever it might. I remembered fires on the banks at night. The sound of a hoot owl. And the smell of late-summer blackberries. All things that now didn’t seem possible. Unless . . .
I looked at the flames and fingered the pistol, a P38 I’d picked up from a German we’d taken prisoner in Holland. One shot and I’d be back to all that. Not a shot in the head, though a few soldiers were known to do that, too. But in the foot. Hell, there’s no sugarcoating it: This was a coward’s way out. It wasn’t common, but it happened in war: One squeeze of the trigger and you’d be unable to fight. You’d be a liability to your company, so they’d have no choice but to ship you back to the safety of England, maybe even the States. Accidents happen.
But would the guys really buy that your gun had accidentally gone off? Don Hoobler’s had just yesterday, but he bled to death on the way to an aid station. I’d make sure I missed a main artery. Regardless, the price for my ticket home would be my integrity. All these guys forever wondering, Did Malark do it on purpose? But, then, integrity is an easy thing to lose in times of war, accidentally or on purpose. And when you watch others lose theirs, it becomes easier to let go of your own. Hell, back near Utah Beach, you’d see the bodies of soldiers stacked up like so much cordwood. Where’s the integrity in that? Or hear those stories about 1st Lt. Ronald Speirs gunning down a bunch of German prisoners, even one of his own men, some say. Where’s the integrity in that? Or even before the war, at Fort Benning, watch the drumming-out ceremonies. The guys who couldn’t cut it— the guys who weren’t going to make paratroopers—would be marched up in front of everybody with a tommy gun at their backs and an officer would strip them of basically everything they had, including their pride. Where was the integrity in that?
In war, you quickly realize that you’re playing a game of odds. The longer you fight, the better chance you have of something bad happening to you. You die. You get wounded. You get sick. You get captured. Or you quit.
Like my father. He quit. Not in war. But in life. Went bankrupt during the Depression—he was an insurance man— and just quit. Quit trying. Quit caring. Quit noticing anything and anybody around him. When times got tough, when he lost his business, my dad was like some twenty-foot runabout trying to get over the bar at the mouth of the Columbia: crushed to splinters.
My father missed World War I because he had been 90 percent blind in one eye; he was 4F so he worked in a spruce mill making airplane parts. But World War I took the lives of two of my uncles, his brothers. Though I never knew them, they were my heroes. I felt a bond with them both. So much of a bond, in fact, that when learning that Easy Company would be shipping out, ultimately to fight the Germans, I felt the need to somehow avenge their deaths. To bring back something—some symbol—that would tell my family, I did it. I evened the slate. Some sort of souvenir. Like the pistol whose hammer, in the chill of the Ardennes Forest, I now cocked.
Truth is, I’d gotten to this point for reasons beyond Joe Toye and Bill Guarnere getting their legs blown off. Beyond missing the Nehalem River, I also missed Bernice Franetovich, a girl I’d known from Astoria who was now living in New York, where she was a singer. I’d started to wonder if it was only a matter of time before everyone in Easy Company was going to wind up like those frozen Germans you’d have to all but step over when heading to an outpost. We were like the shipwrecked sailors on a raft, waiting for the sharks.
I felt hopeless. Numb. Not from the cold, as I’d been since we’d arrived in this god-awful forest December 19, but from something that chills you far deeper inside you: death. We’d lost more than a dozen guys in the last few weeks, some of whom were my friends. You see a dead enemy soldier and you say, At least it wasn’t one of ours. You see a dead American soldier—one of your own—and you say, At least it wasn’t me. You lose a friend and you say, To hell with this. Get me out of here. At the same time, though this might sound strange, you almost envy the peace they now have. No more being cold. No more war. No more pain. All that bad stuff gets left to those of us who...
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