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 wanted to write a letter to Terrence right away so TR could take it with him when the convoy left, but he suggested I take my time and send it to Mother who would mail it for me. TR was going to be in France for a while, as he still had to check out the temporary port facilities in Normandy and ride the Red Ball Express for a few more weeks. It would be a while before he got back to London. And, even though he was a newlywed with a baby on the way, he was thrilled to be out in the field, having spent the whole war thus far behind a desk.
It wasn't going to be possible for me to see him again, however. He was headed south and west and as soon as our gas tanks were full and our guns were loaded, we were headed north again. Our progress was slowed more by bad weather than by the German army. In the middle of September we took part in a daring operation to go around the northern end of the Siegfried Line and get into Germany that way. Airborne troops were to be dropped at strategic bridges and hold them until ground troops arrived. The plan depended on speed, sort of our own little blitzkrieg.
Unfortunately, between the weather, supply problems and unexpectedly strong German resistance, we weren't able to move quite as quickly as planned. While we penetrated far into the Netherlands, the operation stalled short of the Rhine.
My unit's heaviest action was in crossing the Meuse-Escaut canal. We once again had terrible casualties. I'd noticed with each battle and skirmish Edward had moved closer to me. By the time we got to the canal he'd pretty much taken Peter's place as my personal bodyguard, protecting me while I tended to the wounded.
Our aborted offensive had left us with a narrow salient stretching over fifty miles up into the Netherlands and the Germans almost immediately launched a counter-attack to cut us off. We turned southeast to meet them near the village of Overloon. A three week tank battle destroyed the village and left over 2,500 dead, with many, many more wounded. I felt like I was back at Caen. For days after the battle ended, the gruesome memories kept me awake at night. This time it was Edward's turn to sit up with me, talking and distracting me from my thoughts.
Our offensive had failed as had the German's counter-offensive. And our supply problems persisted although they were slowly improving. The Allies had captured Antwerp in September but while the port was intact, the Germans still controlled the Scheldt River. It took a couple of months to clear them out so the port could be used. TR stayed on the continent until the end of October, working in Antwerp to get the port ready, but even though that wasn't so far from where I was, we weren't able to see each other again until after the war.
For the rest of the autumn and the beginning of the winter, we didn't push any further. Our job was to hold the line along the Meuse River, or the Maas, as they called it in the Netherlands. As much as I hated the battles and the injuries, doing nothing was worse in a way. It gave me time to think about Terrence. I wanted to write to him every day, but I knew that wasn't proper. Everyone, from my parents to Terrence's captors and fellow prisoners, would wonder what was wrong with me.
So I wrote in my journal instead and forced myself to limit my letters to one every 2-3 weeks. In reply, I got one back every month. I couldn't write about the war so my letters were mostly reminiscences of our days at Bancroft's and our visits to Axbridge. I tried to include every amusing story I could think of, even those that were only amusing in hindsight, such as when Terrence had to help me bathe when I cracked my ribs. I assumed the prison camp was dreary and depressing, so if each of my letters could bring a smile to his face, that was as much as I could hope for.
I'd told Edward about Terrence's situation immediately after TR's visit. He was aware how close we were since I'd mentioned Terrence a number of times when we'd talked. As always, I'd described our relationship as `like brothers'. Brotherly wasn't at all the way I thought of him, but it was the best way I could think of to make it clear how close we were without raising suspicion.
In early December I received a letter from Terrence that gave me something to think about.
I hope all is well with you. I worry about where you are and what is happening to you. Everything is so uncertain in this war. At least you don't have to worry about me. I'm staying put, safe and secure here in my camp.
There are a number of Yanks here who are trying to teach me baseball. I keep comparing it to cricket and getting confused. Now I know how you felt at school trying to play cricket.
I got my second package from Mum the other day. This one had less clothing and more chocolate. It also had a photograph your mother had given her of the two of us taken aboard the Queen Mary. What boys we were, just a couple of young carefree lads. We've grown up and changed so much since then, but our friendship endures.
As you know, I'm limited to four outgoing letters a month. I send two to Mum and Alice, one to you and rotate the fourth to everyone else – TR, your parents, Uncle Geoff, Betty. Those who don't get a letter often get a post card. This month's fourth letter was to Betty. It was a `Dear John' letter in reverse. I broke things off with her. There wasn't anything official to break off, as you know, but I knew she wanted more from our relationship than I could offer. And, as I'm not around for the foreseeable future, I didn't want her to waste her time waiting for me. I'm fond of her and enjoy her company, but that's as far as it goes and as far as it will ever go. So it's not fair to lead her on and let her believe there's more if she only waits.
I don't want you to think this means that I'm losing hope of ever getting home. I think about that every day and am looking forward to seeing you in Somerset. Please take care of yourself so you are in one piece when that happens.
I was thrilled that he had officially ended his relationship with Betty. I felt bad for her since I knew she was more than fond of him, but I was glad that she hadn't had a chance to use her scheme to snare him. And, in spite of what he'd said, it did worry me a bit that he might be losing hope.
I read the letter through a few times, as I always did. I tried to imagine his voice speaking the words and each time I read it I changed the imagined inflection until I got it sounding just right in my head. Maybe it was silly, but it made me feel closer to him.
Edward appeared as I finished my last reading.
"Is everything all right with your mate?"
"Yes, pretty much the same. How did you know the letter was from him?"
"Because you read it over and over. When you get letters from your family you read them once or twice, then set them aside and think for a while. His letters you keep reading."
I didn't realize I was that obvious, or that he was paying attention to me that much.
"I suppose I'm trying to read between the lines, to see if he's sending me some kind of message he doesn't want the Germans to read."
"And what kind of message would that be?"
"I don't know." I realized that in trying to cover up my reason for re-reading the letters I may have dug myself into a deeper hole. "It's just that when you know someone is scrutinizing what you write every word becomes more important. So I pay more attention to his letters."
"I suppose they're all pretty much the same, though. Not much happens in a POW camp."
"Well, this one had something different. He's written to his girl in London breaking up with her." I explained his reasons for doing so.
"If I had a girl back home I don't think I'd do that, even if I didn't feel strongly about her."
"What do you mean?"
"There are so many soldiers back home that I'd want to keep my girl committed to me. And then, once I go back, the place will be swarming with men returning home, lots of competition. It would be nice to have a girl already lined up to be with me until I sort out what I want."
"That sounds a little selfish."
"Maybe it is, but if I had a girl I'd want to keep her even if I wasn't sure she was the one."
"It sounds like having a girl is important to you. So why don't you have one?" I knew there were a few girls he was writing to pretty regularly.
"I'm too young to settle down. But that doesn't mean I want to be alone. Maybe by the time I get home I'll want just one girl, but until then I'm keeping my options open. I'm not closing any doors like your mate."
"Terrence isn't like that. He doesn't think it's fair to her to keep her hanging when there isn't any future in it for her."
"You sure he's not queer?"
"Why would you say that?" I felt very defensive, as if he'd seen through me.
"Well, he's a sensitive bloke and he doesn't seem interested in his girl. Maybe he's just not interested in any girl."
"You don't know Terrence. If you met him you'd know that wasn't possible. He's as normal as anyone."
"Okay, I didn't mean to insult you or your friend. He's just a different kind of chap than me."
"There are all types in the world. That doesn't mean that most aren't normal."
We avoided the subjects of Terrence and girls after that. I'd always avoided the subject of girls anyway, since I had nothing to say except for my few dates with Peggy. That was enough to keep suspicions away from me in a superficial conversation. The fellows knew that I was quiet and not very social, maybe because I was a strange Yank, but as long as I showed courage in battle and did a good job patching them up, they accepted me for what I was. And I didn't altogether avoid them, but I stayed quietly around the edges of their conversation, not joining in much, just listening for the most part.
In my letters to Terrence, I'd tried to avoid mentioning any future plans. It wasn't that I had no hope for the future, but I couldn't even begin to imagine how it might work out. I knew Terrence and I both wanted to go to college. That was a common plan. But I wanted to go home to New York. I loved England but as much time as I'd spent coming of age there, it wasn't home. But it was Terrence's home. And so I couldn't see how we could be together even once the war ended and we were civilians again.
So I couldn't write to Terrence with grand, uplifting plans for the future. I did want to say something encouraging, so my next letter was about plans for a visit to New York when I could be his tour guide as I'd promised him back when we met on the Queen Mary. I mentioned all of the places I was going to show him, from the Statue of Liberty to Yankee Stadium, and told him to pay attention to the American prisoners so he'd understand a baseball game.
Around the middle of December, just as we were getting used to the extended lull in the fighting, we got word that the Germans had launched a major offensive in the Ardennes, many miles south of us. It seemed as though they were trying to duplicate their blitzkrieg of 1940, driving through Belgium to Antwerp, splitting the Allies, with the Americans to the south in France and the British and Canadians to the north in Belgium and Holland.
While the Americans they were attacking were taken by surprise, they put up a strong defense and the Germans weren't able to advance as fast as before. The horrendous winter weather - heavy snow and frigid temperatures - played a big role. It kept the Allies' superior air forces grounded, but it also slowed the German advance. Even so, by Christmas they'd driven a huge bulge into the front and pushed past Bastogne, which they had surrounded, and had advanced nearly eighty miles westward. The reports of casualties were horrific. It was undoubtedly the biggest and worst battle of the war thus far. I was shocked because I didn't think the enemy had the strength left for an offensive like that.
As the German advance stalled, Patton moved his Third Army north from France and Montgomery sent troops south. We were ordered to stay where we were. As much as I was glad to be away from the fighting, when I heard of how many troops were being killed and wounded I volunteered to go to the battle if they needed more medics. I was relieved when my offer was turned down.
In January I got a letter from TR with great news. I now had a nephew named Franklin. Apparently he and Sarah had had a bit of a disagreement over the name. She didn't object to Franklin but would have preferred Winston. TR agreed that the next boy would have that name.
The bad news for TR was that Supreme Allied headquarters had moved to France, so he was being transferred. He'd been allowed to stay in London because Sarah was so close to her due date, but now that she had the baby he had to leave.
Heavy fighting continued well into January and slowly the Allies pushed the Germans back to the original lines. We didn't know it then, but that was Hitler's last gasp. He had thrown everything he had at us and it hadn't worked.
But that didn't mean the fighting was over, not by a long shot. In early February we started to move again, crossing the Maas heading for the Rhine. Now that the Germans were protecting their own borders they fought with a savagery we hadn't seen before. We literally had to fight for every yard we gained, but by the middle of March we had made it to the Rhine. After a brief pause we crossed the Rhine and continued into Germany toward the Elbe.
We ran into stiff opposition crossing a canal near Lingen and the ever-growing numbers of wounded for me to try to repair was starting to overwhelm me. I began to wonder if I would be able to hold on to the end.
Our last big battle was outside Bremen in mid-April. As luck would have it, after going all the way from Normandy to the heart of Germany unscathed, Edward and I were both hit with shrapnel in that battle when a shell hit a nearby tank. He got it worse than me but we were both sent back to the field hospital to have the shards of metal picked out of us. My injuries were to my back as I had been kneeling by a wounded soldier at the time. Edward got it in the back and legs since he had been crouching over me.
They got all of the metal fragments out of us and stitched up the larger wounds, bandaging the others. We got to sit out the rest of the battle, but were well enough to move on with our company when it ended.
It was at that time that we got word that President Roosevelt had died. All of the men in my company asked me about Truman, what kind of leader he'd be, but I had no answers. It seemed to me that FDR had been president my whole life and I felt lost. I was nine when he was first elected. And I had never even heard of Truman until about a year before. I was sure Dad would know more about him but I was as ill-informed as the British troops.
We were halfway across Hannover when word came on May 8 that Germany had surrendered and the war in Europe was over.
For me, the day to celebrate was two days later, May 10th. That was the day I got a letter from Terrence. It wasn't from his prison camp, forwarded by Sarah, as they usually were. It was sent by Terrence from England directly to me at my army address.
Woody, my dear friend,
I am nearly home. I'm in hospital in Sussex. Don't worry, there is nothing seriously wrong with me. I've lost some weight and they just want to make sure I'm all right before they send me home. I'm told I could be in Axbridge by the end of the week.
My prison stalag near Munich was liberated by American forces on April 28. Conditions had never been very good there, but at least for a while it was clean and we had enough to eat to stave off malnutrition. But in recent months things got so much worse as more and more prisoners were transferred from the Eastern Front and other areas where the Germans were losing ground. Food became scarce and conditions were quite unsanitary. We were starving and sick with many suffering from dysentery. Many more prisoners died in the last month than had died in the year before that. Our camp was built to hold 10,000 but we had more than eight times that number by the end. You can't imagine how bad it was.
The most beautiful sight was when the Nazi flag was lowered and the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack were raised in its place. In spite of the filth, disease and misery, we all felt better.
Over the next several weeks we changed from an invading army to an occupying army. We established a permanent camp and then spent a good part of our time scouring the surrounding countryside, looking for enemy holdouts, trying to keep the peace and offering what assistance we could to civilians. I was a regular soldier now as there was no need for a battle medic, although I was occasionally called upon to put what little medical knowledge I had to use in cases of non-combat injuries or illnesses.
Ever since we'd started across France I'd been amazed by the numbers of civilians traveling the roads. But once the war was officially over, it seemed these displaced persons were everywhere. Some had been in forced labor camps and were heading home. Some had no homes to return to, as our bombing had virtually destroyed many German cities. There were Poles and Slavs heading east and Dutch and French going west. And then there were the Germans, both civilians and disarmed soldiers, who just seemed to be lost with no place to go.
I wondered when I'd be able to go home. My eleven months of battle experience starting with the invasion had more than qualified me for a week's leave, but I had to wait my turn. I would have preferred to be sent home permanently but a week would do. Now that I knew Terrence was home safe, I needed to see him.
Dad had written me even before the war had ended that he was coming to the continent as soon as he was allowed. He'd been hearing rumors about conditions behind German lines all through the war and he wanted to do some research and writing. The last week of June, he arrived at my camp. He had been traveling around for three weeks and was headed back to London. He looked tired and old.
"I'll be back to do some more touring, investigating and interviewing after a bit but right now I have several full notebooks and my head and heart are overwhelmed by what I've seen. I have to go home, organize my thoughts and do some writing before I come back."
"Are things as bad as we've heard? Everyone's talking about the concentration camps they've discovered, with mass graves and surviving prisoners who are nothing but skin and bones."
"Whatever you've heard, it's infinitely worse. We knew Hitler was bad and suspected he was committing atrocities but the truth is worse than I could have imagined. The man was pure evil."
"Have you heard how things are going in the Pacific? That half of the war has never seemed quite real to me."
"I'm not surprised. This part of the war has been all too real for you. We're continuing to make gains over there, moving closer and closer to Japan. But invading and conquering Japan itself could take months and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The Japs seem willing to fight to the death, every last one of them."
"So the war could still go on for quite a while?"
"I'm afraid so."
"It's all so depressing. I expected the end of the war to be happier."
"It will be, once it's completely over. And you have to look at the positive aspects. The killing here in Europe is finished. And we all survived. A lot of families lost loved ones."
"Like Terrence. Did you get a chance to see him before you left?"
"No, apparently we missed each other by a few days. I left just before he was discharged from the hospital. I hear he stopped by the house on his way home so the rest of the family got to see him."
"How's baby Franklin? I can't wait to meet my nephew."
"He's healthy and beautiful. Sarah and TR couldn't be happier."
"Tell Sarah I'll be there soon. I expect to get my leave next month."
By now TR had moved along with Headquarters to Frankfort.
Less than two weeks later I received a letter from Dad that was a grim reminder that the entire war really wasn't over.
I'm afraid I have some terrible news for you. I wish I could be there in person to give it to you, but that's not possible. Your cousin Tom was killed in the battle at Okinawa. His ship was the target of a kamikaze pilot and everyone on board was killed. We can only hope he died quickly and painlessly. TR is taking the news very hard. They had been corresponding regularly all through the war.
And the bad news doesn't end there, I'm afraid. When they told your grandfather about Tom, he had a stroke. He is in the hospital in critical condition. Your mother and I have managed to arrange passage on a military airplane to New York tomorrow morning. I don't know when we'll be back. There is still so much I want to see and write about, but family comes first.
Your grandparents here are planning to go back to Coventry soon so only Sarah and the baby will be here when you are able to come home on leave. But then, I would imagine you'll probably want to spend your time in Somerset, not London.
I'll keep you posted on your grandfather's condition. All our love,
I sat there holding the letter in my hand, staring at it, thinking of Tom, not really seeing the words. In nearly three years of combat I'd seen so many young men die. Many of them I knew, some better than others. Even the ones who were only names to me were men I had trusted as a part of the team I was on, men I had depended on. There had been a bond between us stronger than I could have imagined before the war. And watching them die had been a horrible thing. The only way to deal with it was to not deal with it, to accept it but push it to the back of my mind where it would stay forever.
But Tom was my family. We'd grown up together. His family was much more like my grandparents, stiff, formal and snobbish, but when we were children he was like TR and me. And now he was gone. I thought of my Uncle Thomas, Aunt Helen and Cousin Kathy and what my family would be going through if either TR or I had been killed.
Damn this war! I felt like running away, leaving the army and the war behind me, and going to Axbridge where Terrence and I could hide away together. I knew that wasn't possible in any way but it was the way I felt. But I was stuck in the army until I was demobbed and that wouldn't happen until the war in the Pacific had been resolved.
Besides, Terrence wasn't even in Axbridge. He'd had two weeks leave at home but then he had to report back to duty at RAF Tangmere. He said he didn't mind, that it was better in some ways than being home. His mother and Alice had apparently fussed over him terribly, driving him crazy. And he got more to eat back at the base than they could manage at home, so he was gaining weight and building up his strength.
His letters were so cheerful I had the feeling he was pretending, covering up his real feelings. A letter from Alice confirmed that. She said that most of the time he'd been at home, Terrence had seemed like his old self, happy and grateful to be back in one piece. But there were times when he just seemed to fade away, when he got quiet and nearly unresponsive. He'd spent a lot of time walking alone in the hills.
I wanted so much to talk to him, to find out what was on his mind, what was bothering him so. Obviously, his time in the prison camp was at least a part of it. But maybe there was more. He'd broken off with Betty so maybe that was part of it. Whatever it was, I knew that talking to him would help. But letters just wouldn't do the job.
Edward and I finally got our week's leave in early August. With a train ride to Ostend and then a ferry to Dover, it took nearly a full day to get back to England but as my week didn't officially begin until I set foot on English soil, I didn't care. Edward and I traveled together as far as Dover, but split up at that point, with him taking a train to Ipswich and me to London. With Terrence back on duty there was no point in going to Somerset. I would have liked to see Mrs. Atkins and Alice, but they would have to wait.
Sarah greeted me at the door with a big hug when I got home. She led me into the parlor where Franklin was napping.
"It's so good to be home, but the house feels different, so quiet and empty."
"Just wait until Franklin wakes up from his nap. He's got a healthy set of lungs."
"You must get lonely being here by yourself all day after being used to having a houseful of people."
"The baby keeps me busy, but I do miss your parents and grandparents. I take Franklin out during the day when the weather permits and sometimes my sister or Betty visits in the evening. It's nice that we don't have to hide behind the blackout curtains anymore."
I looked at the windows and noticed the curtains were gone.
"Have you heard from New York? I had a letter from Dad shortly after he got there, but nothing since."
"TR got a letter last week and sent it along to me. I'll let you read it later. But your grandfather is doing better than expected. He'll probably have some permanent paralysis and his speech is slurred, but his life is no longer in danger."
"He's a tough old bird. He's nearly eighty but he's a fighter."
Just then the doorbell rang. Sarah left me to answer it and when she returned Betty was with her.
"Woody! What are you doing here?" She didn't look happy to see me.
"I finally got my leave. How are you?" I wasn't sure just what to say to her. I didn't want to bring up Terrence. She saved me the trouble.
"Have you seen Terrence?"
"No, I just got into the country today. I'm going down to Chichester in a few days to see him."
"I'm sure. I suppose you're happy with the way things turned out. I wouldn't doubt that you had something to do with it."
"What are you talking about?"
"It was always clear to me that you never liked me. Everything was good between Terrence and me until you came back from Italy."
"I don't think I had anything to do with how you and Terrence got along. He seemed to like you just fine and even though I didn't know you I tried to get along with you because of that."
"Yeah, I'll bet. It was obvious you wanted your precious Terrence all to yourself. He thinks the world of you but I wonder what he'd think if he knew you were queer for him. I've seen the way you look at him."
"You don't know what you're talking about. We're best mates, like brothers. Terrence, TR and me, we're just great friends."
"Maybe Terrence and TR are, but you're not fooling anyone, Woody."
"I think it would be better if you left, Betty. You're getting too worked up and may say something you'll regret later. We'll talk another time." Sarah practically dragged Betty to the door.
"Don't mind her, Woody," she said after closing the door. "She doesn't know what she's saying. She was hurt when she got that letter from Terrence but I thought she'd calmed down since then. I suppose seeing you unexpectedly brought it all back."
"I know she had high hopes for that relationship but I had nothing to do with ending it. To be honest, I still don't know why Terrence did that. I may not have encouraged him to go after her, but I tried not to get between them either."
"Well, don't let her bother you. She was always a good one for holding a grudge. But as soon as the men start coming back from the war I'm sure she'll forget all about Terrence.
Just then the baby awoke so that ended what was a very uncomfortable conversation for me. Betty had hit the nail on the head as far as my feelings toward Terrence and I didn't want to have to talk about that with Sarah or anyone else. I'd always been afraid that everyone could see how I felt about him, but apparently those who knew me chose not to notice, while someone like Betty, who had reason to dislike me, saw it clearly.
I spent the rest of the afternoon fussing with Franklin. I'd never held a baby before and it was a fascinating feeling. I was probably prejudiced but I thought he was a beautiful baby, with long blond hair and very blue eyes. I think Sarah appreciated the break as I sat in the kitchen holding him in my lap while she prepared supper. Shortly before the meal was ready, the telephone rang. Sarah answered and almost immediately called me to the phone.
"It's TR calling from Frankfort."
"Is he allowed to do that?"
"He's not supposed to make personal calls from the continent but he's done it once before."
I handed her the baby as she gave me the phone.
"Man, is it good to talk to you. It feels like ages since we were together in Belgium." TR sounded like he was across town, not across the Channel.
"It was ages ago. And I can't believe they promoted you to major just for making that trip to the continent." TR had received his promotion after having played a key role in establishing the port facilities in Antwerp. "I've been in the army a year longer than you, took part in three invasions and dozens of battles on two continents, almost been killed and I'm still a sergeant. You've never even been shot at, for God's sake."
"Maybe my army is just better at recognizing talent than yours."
"And maybe you kiss arse better than me."
"My little brother is growing up. Where did you learn language like that?"
"In the army, of course."
"Well, you can console yourself with knowing that you'll be demobbed long before me. My deal with ROTC was for five years of service, so I have two more to go. You'll be out long before that."
"Do you have any idea when? What have you heard?" I assumed TR would have more information than me. He always did.
"Very little, as far as the British military is concerned. I know the order of demobilization is based on your age-and-service number, and as long as the war in the Pacific is still on, demob is proceeding slowly. But I'm sure you already know that."
"Yes, as young as I am I was surprised that my number is so high but that's due to my service."
"The RAF is demobbing faster than the army and navy, so Terrence will probably be out before you even though you both have the same number." TR did know a little more than I did.
"He should be out now after all he's been through."
"What about what you went through? You nearly died in Italy."
"Keep it short, boys. TR loses a rank for every five minutes he's on the phone."
"I heard that. Put Sarah back on the phone so the loss of rank will be worthwhile. Come see me when you get back to Germany, Woody."
"I will if I can."
I gave Sarah the phone and went back to the kitchen, wondering where we'd all end up and when. A minute later, Sarah returned, smiling and blushing a little.
"I hope you weren't expecting a big home-cooked meal. Not only is rationing as miserly as ever, but I'm not a very good cook."
"Food is pretty scarce in Germany, too. And I'm sure your cooking is at least as good as army food."
"But not like your grandmother's, or even your mother's."
"I'm sure it will be fine. And the company is far better than that in the army."
We sat down to eat and Sarah said grace, something our family only did on special occasions. This definitely qualified as one.
To Be Continued