By Mickey S.
This is a fictional story. Most of the characters and events are figments of the author's imagination. However, some of the fictional characters take part in real events and some real characters take part in fictional events. In spite of that, this is a fictional story. My thanks to Tim and Drew for all of their help. The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at NJMcMick@yahoo.com.
I hadn't given much thought to what would happen after we'd achieved our goals in Africa. I had thought about it a little, of course, but it was more along the lines of wishful thinking. The army had been happy with my work at Pirbright and the only reason I'd been put into the infantry was the African invasion, so maybe once it was over I would go back to my old job in England. That was my hope, anyway.
After a few peaceful weeks in Tunisia, I realized that was a dream that wasn't going to come true. The war itself wasn't over, and from the way new troops and equipment were arriving it was clear it was just beginning. Our daily routine had shifted from battle back to training. We were being prepared for a new mission but we had no idea what it was to be.
Another hope that was dashed was that I might get leave and be able to go to Algiers to see TR. Although it felt like he was close I knew that Algiers was too far away. It would take a week just to get there and back and we were only given leave 24 hours at a time.
So Peter and I kept each other company while we waited to find out what we were going to do next. One day on leave we toured the ruins at Carthage.
"This place makes me stop and put everything we're doing into perspective," Peter mused.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, twenty-seven hundred years ago Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians. It became a republic and lasted five hundred years until the Romans came in and destroyed the city. They built a big beautiful city of their own and it was one of their centers of commerce for hundreds of years. Then the Vandals and later the Arabs came in and destroyed the city again, making Tunis the big city in the region. The Ottomans took over after the Middle Ages and then the French made it a protectorate about sixty years ago. Now, all these years later, here we are fighting over the area again."
"It's pretty depressing when you put it that way. Thousands of years of wars and nothing lasts."
"I don't think it's depressing but it does show that the world constantly changes. Like you said, nothing lasts forever, but that isn't necessarily bad. I just think it's important to keep things in historical perspective."
"You sound like Terrence. History must have been your favorite subject in school, too."
"I liked history but I think philosophy is my real interest. Of course I'd have to go to university to study that and I don't think that will happen."
"Why not? The war won't last forever. Terrence and I are planning to go when it's over."
"No one in my family has ever gone and we just don't have the money."
"Well, don't rule it out. Something may come up and you'll be able to do it."
"Speaking of the war, where do you think we're headed next? Another invasion, for sure, but where?"
"The rumors we've heard so far are southern France, Sardinia, Sicily and Crete. I'd say France and Sicily make the most sense. France is an objective in itself, and Sicily is a stepping stone to Italy. The others are pretty much stepping stones to other stepping stones."
"I'm betting on Sicily. I think when we invade France it will be from the north, across the Channel. But whatever it is I'm not looking forward to it. I don't know how I survived the fighting we've already been through."
"You did very well, Peter. You're a lot stronger than you think you are. That's something Terrence is always telling me and I have trouble believing it sometimes, but I think it applies to you, too."
"You think about Terrence a lot, don't you? You really care for him." Peter sounded a bit wistful.
"Of course, he's been my best friend for nearly four years, the best friend I've ever had."
"I wish I had a friend I cared about that much, who cared about me that much."
"You have friends back home you've talked about."
"Yes, but they were just lads that I grew up with. We enjoyed doing things together as kids, but we didn't really talk and share who we were. I always had the feeling that if ever I let someone inside my head and heart and they saw who I really was, they wouldn't want anything to do with me."
"I think most people have feelings like that at some point in their life. We tend to be more critical of our faults than others would be."
"Maybe, but there are some things inside me I can't ever let out. No one would understand. So it must be nice for you to have someone like Terrence."
"Well, I'll admit Terrence and I talk about a lot, but there are still things I hold back. As I'm sure there are things he hasn't shared with me. No one ever opens up completely with another. Except maybe my parents." I grinned as I added that last thought.
"Well, it would still be nice to have someone special in my life. Someone who cared enough about me to accept me as I am."
"I may not know everything about you, Peter, but from what I've learned about you in the past nine months, living side by side, I can see that you are a very kind, caring and brave person. I haven't had very many close friends in my life and I'm glad you are one. I`m proud to be your friend and I care a great deal for you."
I thought more about what Peter had said on the ride back to camp. As much as I'd reassured him, I knew he was right in some respects. In my case, I was certainly afraid of anyone, even Terrence, finding out I was queer. That was something inside me that I was sure would change everyone's perception of me. For the first time I wondered if maybe Peter and I had more in common than general appearance. Could he be queer as well? Was that what he was talking about when he said he couldn't ever let it out? I knew there were other homosexuals in the world, but I didn't think there were any like me. I thought they were more like perverts, like Mr. Crowley, that guy who grabbed me after that first aid class I taught in Mother's place.
It wasn't really wishful thinking, though, the idea that Peter might be queer. I was in love with Terrence, not Peter, so I didn't have any ulterior motives. But it was nice to think that maybe I wasn't as alone as I thought.
By early July it was clear something was up. The ports at Bizerte and Tunis were filled with ships, not only troop transports but supply ships and hospital ships as well. Another invasion was about to begin.
When the invasion started the second week of July, I was pleasantly surprised. My division, the 78th, wasn't included. Our sergeant assured us that they hadn't forgotten us, that they probably just had other, probably worse, plans for us. The man was not an optimist.
But for the meantime we stayed in camp and listened to the reports coming back to us. The target was Sicily, and it was being conducted by the British Eighth Army led by Montgomery, and the American Seventh Army led by Patton. The British, being the more experienced, were given the main fighting role, with the Americans in support.
While the landings and the first few days went well, things quickly bogged down. The invasion was on the southern coast and apparently the main objective was Messina, on the northeastern tip of the island. The British were to push up the east coast with the Americans cutting through the center of the island. But the British advance stalled halfway so Montgomery decided on a two-pronged advance, trying to advance on both the east and west sides of Mt. Etna. The western sector was supposed to be the American route, so Patton, not pleased with a support role, decided to go after Palermo, even further to the west. (Peter explained all of the geography to me.)
The last week of the month our orders came through. We were being called in to Sicily to help break the stalled advance. So we were part of the invasion after all, although as late arrivals. And we had a much easier job of getting ashore. Instead of having to wade in from landing craft our transports were able to sail us right into the port at Syracuse. We traveled north through mountainous terrain. This area had already been captured so there was no resistance. We met up with a Canadian division near the Dittaino River.
Our first battle was for the town of Regalbuto, which fell to us on August 2 after four days of fighting. It was just like being back in Tunisia, with me scampering from one wounded soldier to another and Peter providing cover. From my point of view, one battle was much like the rest. Some were easier and shorter with fewer wounded, but when they were happening they were all about blood, pain and death. To others they might have involved the strategy of advancing or pulling back, but I just followed the blood and the cries.
I teased Peter that when the war was over I was going to have a statue of him erected in his home town of Kingston-on-Thames. It would be in the pose he always struck in battle - left knee on the ground, right foot planted firmly ahead so he could lean on his right knee and take aim.
From Regalbuto we moved east toward Adrano and Mt. Etna. We captured Adrano and moved north, taking Bronte on August 8. The Germans had evacuated Troina to our north after several days of fighting the Americans there. We met up with the American 9th division and between us took Randazzo, a town on the northeast slope of Mt. Etna, on the 13th.
And that was the end of the fighting for us in Sicily. Two weeks of moderate battles for a series of small towns. Moderate compared to the months of heavy fighting in Africa, although even in very light fighting there were more than enough casualties for me to tend to, so it was all the same to me - the shorter the battle the better, but while it was going on, there wasn't much difference.
The last several days it was clear that the Germans were evacuating and were only fighting hard enough to hold us off until they could all escape across the Strait of Messina to Italy. The city of Messina fell on August 17 and all of Sicily was in Allied hands.
It didn't take a genius to realize that Italy was the next step. Mussolini had been forced to resign just before our division had left Africa and so the government was in a state of transition, but they were still allied with Germany. And there were as many German troops there as Italian, so no matter what happened politically it wasn't going to be easy.
A couple of weeks went by and we remained camped outside Messina. We were there just long enough for our mail to catch up with us. I got letters from TR and Terrence at the same time. They were about the same thing, but somewhat different in tone. TR was back in London, or 'back home with Mother and Dad' as he put it. And he and Terrence were doing their double-dating with Sarah and Betty again. Most of both letters were about their most recent date. It was interesting reading two different accounts of the same event.
Over the months while TR had been in Africa, I'd been very jealous of Betty while reading Terrence's accounts of his nights out with her and Sarah. There couldn't be anything for me to be jealous of, really, as long as Sarah was along as a chaperone, but I still didn't like it. But now that TR was back, their nights out were clearly about two couples, not three friends. TR's letters made the dates sound more romantic. Terrence's, though, still sounded more like a group of friends out having fun. That was a relief. While TR was going on and on about how much he'd missed Sarah, and how beautiful her eyes were, and how affectionate she was, Terrence was telling me about the club they'd gone to, the band and the latest dance the girls had taught him.
While maybe not as jealous as I might have been, I still felt completely left out. TR's other piece of good news, aside from being back in London, was that he'd been promoted to captain. Apparently his superiors liked the job he'd done in Algiers.
A few days later I got a letter from Mrs. Atkins. Usually her letters were all about Alice or the people of Axbridge. She was just getting to know them and so was I, through her. Her letters were often challenging to read, as she kept slipping up and mentioning places and things she shouldn't. Often the paper was full of holes once the censors got done with it.
Terrence was here on leave for two days last week. He told me you're in now. Dear lord, was bad enough. It's so hard to keep track of where you are, with all of this censorship. Your father told me when he saw you in , but then I had no idea where you'd gone. Terrence found out about your new location from your brother. I suppose he has access to information that others don't. Please know that Alice and I are praying for you.
Do you know anything about this girl Betty that Terrence keeps talking about? Did you meet her before you left? I feel so helpless being so far from London. As you know, Terrence doesn't have much experience with girls and she could so easily take advantage of him. I wish I could meet her for myself to make sure she's right for my boy. If only you were here to keep an eye on him. You're such a good influence. I don't doubt that your brother is, too, but he's not you.
Please be careful.
At least I wasn't the only one concerned about Betty, although my reasons were a bit different than Mrs. Atkins. But it bothered me that things were apparently serious enough between Terrence and Betty that Mrs. Atkins was worried. And there I was, stuck in the middle of the Mediterranean, feeling even more helpless than Mrs. Atkins. Of course, even if I were in England I couldn't do anything about it, but I would at least know exactly what the situation was.
On September 3 the invasion of Italy began. We crossed the narrow Strait of Messina, landing at the tip of the toe of the Italian boot. Over the next several days we moved along the sole of the foot and met no resistance. The Germans had withdrawn to the north, but they had left presents behind that slowed our progress - land mines and destroyed bridges. So while the troops didn't have to do any fighting, I was still occasionally called upon to try to repair injuries from the mines. More often than not in those cases, my job was hopeless.
As we advanced, we received word that the Italian government had signed an armistice with the Allies. That made no real difference to us as our real opponent was Germany, but it was nice to know the Italians were now on our side.
When we reached Taranto, a port city inside the heel, our numbers were strengthened by additional troops that were landing there. We turned north, following a road along the coast of the Adriatic. The Germans continued to retreat ahead of us, providing only enough resistance to cover their withdrawal. The first real resistance we ran into was at the airfields at Foggia, and the fighting there wasn't significant. The only thing that really slowed us down was that we were getting too far ahead of our supply system.
The first week of October we took the town of Termoli, helped by a landing of commandos. More of our troops arrived in the port and we were able to cross the Biferno River, just north of town. There we finally met with some stiff German resistance. We were pinned down for a while just across the river. As the Germans had destroyed the bridge we were unable to get tanks over the river to battle the Panzer division that attacked us. After two days of fighting the sappers managed to put up a new bridge and our tanks joined us in battle. A day later, the Germans began to withdraw.
We moved on to the Trigno River and stopped there for several days, waiting for our logistic services to catch up. We were then further delayed by bad weather. Finally we crossed the river on the second of November. There was two days of heavy fighting before the Germans finally began to give way. From my point of view we were experiencing many casualties, but the enemy must have been suffering more.
Peter and I moved from one wounded soldier to the next. As the line began to move north we were only on the outskirts of the battle. I was tending to a soldier who had been shot in the right thigh. As I was finishing up the bandage, Peter cried out. I looked up and he had straightened up a bit, then his right shoulder jerked and he fell back toward me, dropping his gun and landing a bit twisted. I saw a splotch of blood slowly spreading on the right side of his chest and looked at his face. He had a bewildered look, as if he couldn't grasp what had happened.
Two stretcher bearers came up to me to take the soldier with the wounded thigh away. I told them to return immediately. I straightened Peter out on his back and tore away his shirt. There was a bullet hole just above his nipple.
"I can't breathe," he gasped.
"You've got a bullet in your lung. It probably collapsed the lung but the other one should be working fine, so try not to panic. I'll see what I can do to make it easier."
I searched through my kit and found the largest needle I had. My fingers felt for a space between his ribs on his side, near the wound. I jammed the needle in and removed the syringe. Air rushed out through the needle. After a few seconds I removed the needle, replacing it with a small tube which I taped into place. Hopefully that would equalize the pressure and allow his lung to re-inflate.
Peter appeared to be breathing easier as I went to work on the wound itself. It wasn't bleeding badly, so I assumed no major blood vessels had been hit. Of course there could be unseen internal hemorrhaging but there was nothing I could do about that. I applied light pressure to stop the bleeding and bandaged the wound.
"My leg, too. I caught a bullet in the shin first." Peter whispered.
I looked down and saw his pants leg was a bloody mess.
"How are you holding up?"
"Okay, I guess. I can breathe now but both wounds hurt like hell."
"As soon as I take care of your leg I'll give you something for the pain."
I cut his pants away from his shin and saw a small hole just to the right of center. Again, the blood was oozing rather than spurting, so I assumed no major vessels had been hit. I was able to apply more pressure to this wound than the chest and the bleeding soon stopped. I sprinkled sulfa powder on it and wrapped a bandage around the leg.
By now the fighting had moved far ahead of us and to the left so I was surprised when a bullet tore into the ground only a couple of feet from us. I looked up and saw a German soldier half behind a tree about fifty yards away. I threw myself on the ground and grabbed Peter's rifle. Lying as flat as possible, I took aim and fired. The bullet hit the tree. The German jumped back, inadvertently exposing himself on the other side of the tree. I fired again and this time he went down.
"Did you get him?" Peter asked.
"Yeah, he's down and not moving," I said as I got to my knees again. "I'm going to give you a shot of morphine but first, where are your sulfa pills?"
I had a supply of them but since I knew every soldier had been issued their own I preferred to use theirs and save mine for emergencies.
"Left front pants pocket."
I reached into his pocket and found the small envelope.
"A little more to the right and you'll have to marry me."
"Nice to see you haven't lost your sense of humor."
"Am I going to die, Woody?"
"Don't be silly. You need surgery to remove to bullet in your lung, so you'll be out of action for a while, but I think you'll be just fine."
I held his head while he swallowed the pills with water from his canteen. I wasn't as confident of his chances as I sounded. But as it had been nearly fifteen minutes since he'd been shot and he hadn't shown any signs of weakening I was growing more optimistic that his chest wound wasn't going to be fatal. I gave him a shot of morphine as the stretcher bearers returned to take him back for more treatment.
The German soldier I'd shot cried out just then so I told them to be careful with Peter but then come back again. I crawled to the German and saw I'd hit him in the left shoulder. Before I started work on him I looked him in the eye.
"You shot my friend. I should let you die."
The soldier didn't understand English and didn't have any idea what I was saying. I tried again in French, but he didn't respond to that either, so I had to content myself with cursing him while I worked on his wound. This was the first time I'd worked on an enemy soldier although I`d seen plenty of dead ones. It was easy to hate them when they were shooting at you. They were just a faceless enemy. But up close, face to face, this soldier was a kid like me, maybe even younger. His wound looked just like so many I'd worked on. I hated him for having shot Peter and it crossed my mind that I might have felt better if he'd died from my shot. But that wasn't true, I'd probably feel guilty the rest of my life if I actually killed someone. But at least then I wouldn't have to look him in the face and try to repair the damage I'd done, all the while thinking of what he'd done to Peter. My bullet had hit him very close to the shoulder joint itself so there would probably be some permanent damage there. So while I felt good that I wasn't a murderer, the vengeful side of me at least had the satisfaction of knowing his recovery would take a long time.
After he'd been taken to the rear, I moved to rejoin my unit. The battle was nearly over, but for me it was a whole new war. It wasn't just that I no longer had Peter's protection. I no longer had my friend's companionship.
I'd never tried to follow up on the condition of a soldier I'd treated in the field, but now that I had a personal stake in one I found out how difficult a task that was. Even though I knew most of the medical personnel behind our lines, information wasn't easy to get. After all, hundreds of men were injured and treated in every battle. Men were taken from me to the regimental aid station and from there to casualty clearing stations, if necessary. The badly wounded were then transported to a hospital.
It was nearly two weeks later and our division was encamped on the south bank of the Sangro River before I got word on Peter. The damage to his right lung was quite extensive though not permanent. Even so, it would take weeks, if not months, for him to recover. Also, the bullet in his leg had cracked his tibia, so he would be off his feet for quite a while as well. He'd been taken to a hospital ship in Taranto. From there he would be sent to Malta or maybe even back to England. So while that was good news, it was likely I wouldn't see him again, at least until the war was over.
It was late November before we made our next major move. We were to cross the river to Mozzagrogna, then move on to take Fossacesia and push to the sea. Everything was delayed several days by heavy rain which raised the river, making it difficult to cross. There was to be plenty of heavy artillery and air support, as well as that of many tanks, so the infantry wouldn't have to bear the brunt of the battle. But the rain had swamped the bridges our sappers had built for the tanks, so plans were scaled back as those of us in the infantry were stuck along the north bank of the river for a while. Finally the weather cleared and our attack was able to begin in earnest. The artillery and air attack was massive and I soon got used to working with the constant noise of explosions.
I couldn't get used to working alone, however. Without the security of Peter's protection I worked much slower and felt far less effective. I still worked non-stop on the wounded, dragging them when I could behind trees, rocks or whatever would provide a bit of cover, but I couldn't focus entirely on what I was doing. On the second day of the fighting I was working on a chest wound, half-protected behind an overturned jeep when I heard a metallic sound and felt a blow to my stomach at the same time. I looked down and saw a hole in my belt. There was a severe stinging sensation at that spot and I saw blood begin to soak through my uniform. I'd been hit, probably by a ricochet off the jeep.
I unbuckled my belt, glad to see that where I'd been hit there were two thicknesses of it to slow down the bullet. I opened my pants, pulled up my shirt and saw the ugly hole in my abdomen. I was sure I must have had that same bewildered look on my face that Peter had had on his when he'd been shot. I held a bandage against the wound with my left hand as I tried to finish up the chest wound with my right. As he was taken away I leaned back against the undercarriage of the jeep and went to work on myself. I'd treated several abdominal wounds and it seemed that taking a bullet in the belly was always very painful, but aside from the wound stinging like hell I didn't have much pain. I very carefully pressed around the edges of the hole and could feel something hard right under the surface. I wasn't right on the front line so the guy who shot me had to have been some distance away. Between that, the ricochet and my belt the bullet must have been slowed down enough so that it didn't go any deeper and cause real damage. If the hole hadn't been so sensitive I probably could have reached in with tweezers and pulled the bullet out. But I wasn't that brave. A little pressure to stop the bleeding increased the stinging enough. I put some sulfa powder on the wound and taped on a tight bandage, then popped a couple of sulfa pills.
I rested for a few minutes and there was very little blood soaking through the bandage so I refastened my pants, tightening the belt so it held the bandage securely in place. I considered going back to work as long as I wasn't in any pain or losing blood. I knew I'd have to have at least minor surgery to remove the bullet but as long as I wasn't hurting badly and could get around without too much pain, there were wounded soldiers worse off than me who needed help. Unfortunately, as soon as I tried to stand, the pain I`d heard so much about hit me. There was no way I could move around and work while feeling that bad.
I carefully headed back to the regimental aid post. With each step my belly hurt more. By the time I got there I was breathing heavily and was wobbly on my feet. Our squadron doctor gave me a puzzled look, probably wondering why I wasn't at the front, but after one look at my face he came running toward me. Just before he got to me I collapsed, putting out my left hand to break the fall. Pain exploded in my wrist as I landed.
"I got a bullet in my gut," I whispered as I was carried to a table inside the tent. "And I think I just broke my wrist."
"You should have had the boys carry you back directly instead of walking all that way," he replied as he pulled my clothes away from the wound and removed the bandages.
"I didn't think I needed any help." I was feeling very light-headed, almost dreamy.
"That was very foolish of you. Abdominal wounds like this carry a strong risk of infection. The more moving around the worse it is. And you wouldn't have hurt your wrist if you`d been carried."
"Don't worry about infection, I took my sulfa."
It was getting darker and that puzzled me, as it was only mid-afternoon. Doc said something but I couldn't make it out, then everything went black.
To Be Continued