Konigsberg, Germany, February 1945
Dante had it wrong. Hell wasn’t a blazing inferno filled with the mournful cries of the damned; it was the frozen plains of northernGermany, and it could be quiet as a grave.
That day began like all the ones before it, with Stolz, the German Kapo or head guard, pounding his meaty fist on the side of the rusty old truck as he screamed, “Raus! Raus mit dich!” Up in the truck’s canvas-covered cargo bed, a mound of ragged, emaciated prisoners would shudder and shrink into the shadows; but the sad truth was there was no place to hide and they knew it. They were what was left of a forced labor battalion trapped here in the frozen rubble of Konigsberg on the Baltic coast inEast Prussia. Remnants of the German Army and the SS still held the old port city, surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered by a vengeful Red Army; and life can’t get any more tenuous than that.
Most of the prisoners huddled together in that old truck bed were Russian, with a smattering of Poles, Lithuanians and Czechs, but no one cared. Michael Randall and Eddie Hodge were
American, but no one cared about that either, Randall thought, as he rolled over and looked outside through a tear in the ragged canvas. In late winter at this latitude, the light was thin and the days pathetically short; but as he looked, he saw the first pink line of another cold, clear dawn creep over the horizon. Slowly a frozen landscape of broken buildings, bomb craters, and rubble began to emerge in tones of dirty gray on sooty black. It must be morning, he thought. Somehow, he and Eddie had survived another miserable night as they had survived the many long, painful ones that had preceded it. Not that it mattered; they were all going to die here and every poor wretch inside that truck knew it.
Two years before, the Red Army rolled out of the steppes of Central Asia like an angry tidal wave and no force on Earth was going to stop it until it crashed down onBerlin. However, the main Russian thrust had gone much further south, through centralPoland. Konigsbergand the remaining German enclaves along the Baltic coast had been bypassed and there is no glory in a sideshow — no medals and nothing worth dying for. So Ivan let the cold weather, starvation, and his artillery do the killing. Each morning, he would drink his tea, eat some black bread, and lob a few shells into the rubble, leaving an acrid haze over the city that reeked of burnt wood, burnt brick, and burnt rubber. All it accomplished was to rearrange the bricks, turn the gray snow a bit darker, and kill a few more of the poor, dumb bastards caught inside. Fortunately, spring was still months away. When the thaw came, the ice would slowly give up its dead and the city would really begin to stink.
Randall nudged the pile of rags lying next to him. “Eddie, we gotta get up. Come on,” he said, but his friend did not move.
“Mikey, I can’t,” came the weak reply. “It’s the legs, I …”
“You gotta try; you gotta get them moving.”
“Moving? Jeez, I can’t even feel them any more.”
In the dim light, Randall could barely make out Eddie’s pale, sweaty face; but he knew his friend was dying. That would be the ultimate outrage, the one he would never accept. They had been inseparable since their aircrew met at that Army Air Corps field back inWest Texasearly in 1943. That flight school was the first time either of them had strayed more than a hundred miles from home. Eddie came from a long line of watermen inRock Creek,South Carolinawho spent twelve hours a day in small boats dredging clams and oysters from the heavy river muck. Mike grew up on a dairy farm inWisconsin, milking cows at 5:00 AM. He was a muscular six-foot three, two hundred ten pound tight end for his high school football team; while Eddie was a wrestler, maybe five-foot-five, one-hundred thirty-five pounds, and taut as a steel cable. Now, after a year of training, nineteen combat missions over Germany, and four months trapped inside this Hell-hole, they had become two halves of a whole, brothers pulling, pushing, and taking turns keeping the other one alive. “Hey, what’s a pal for?” one of them would say, because without a buddy, life hung by a very thin thread in a place like that.
Then Eddie got frostbite. First, it was his toes. Michael kept rubbing them, changing the dressings, and forcing Eddie to keep the circulation moving, but it was too damned cold. The frostbite slowly spread from the toes to his foot. Soon, the leg began to swell. Eddie grew feverish and weak, his eyes red-ringed and his skin a waxy pale. It was gangrene and everyone inside that truck knew it.
“We’ve gotta get them moving,” he said as he reached over to rub Eddie’s legs again.
“Mikey, stop it!” Eddie moaned and pushed him away. “It hurts too much.”
One by one, the other prisoners slipped past them, climbed over the tailgate, and dropped to the ground, leaving the two young Americans alone in the truck bed. “I was having that dream again,” Eddie said with a thin smile. “It’s November back home, the first day of duck season. The marsh and cane fields lay all flat and brown and there’s a thin mist floating on the river, just enough so you can’t tell where the land ends and the water begins. You and me, row my Daddy’s old skiff up river to the duck blind. We climb up in there and have a beer and a couple of them ham sandwiches my sister Leslie made us for breakfast — country ham on homemade bread with lots of butter. I can almost taste ‘em, Mikey. And when them birds finally do come over, the flock’s so thick it fills the sky. We shoot and we shoot until our shoulders ache from the kick of them shotguns. And God, it feels good, Mikey, it feels so damned good!”
“Yeah,” Michael sighed, letting Edie stay in the dream for a few minutes, anyway.
Four months ago, their B-17 took off into a clear, Italian sky for the long leg north toBerlin. They hit their marks and dropped their bombs, but before they could make the big turn west, the German flak guns found them. A B-17 is a tough bird and Lieutenant Jensen, their pilot, fought hard to keep it in the air as they lumbered north and east, out of control. The smoke and flames got worse and worse inside, until the plane went into a steep dive. Mike and Eddie clawed their way to a side door and bailed out, but they were the only ones who made it. They came down in a muddy wheat field somewhere inEast Prussia. Long columns of refugees choked the roads heading west, desperate to stay ahead of the Russians. Discarded furniture, mattresses, pianos, steamer trunks, and suitcases lay strewn along the roadsides. He and Eddie found some civilian clothes and it was easy for them to blend in — not that it mattered. Two days later, they were stopped at a German Military Police roadblock, and the joke was on them. The Germans weren’t looking for American airmen. They were looking for strong backs to dig tank traps and clear rubble. Instead of a POW camp or being thrown against the closest wall and shot as spies, they were dragooned into a forced labor battalion headed north toKonigsberg.
Michael nudged him again and pleaded, “You gotta get up, Eddie. We’ve been through too much together. You can’t quit on me now.”
“Quit?” Eddie moaned. “My legs are all froze up; they won’t move.”
“Then let me help,” Michael tried to rub them again.
“Oh, God!” Eddie moaned, so Michael stopped. He could see the pain was too intense now, and he didn’t know what else to do. “Eddie, if you don’t get up, they’ll kill you and this time; I won’t be able to stop them.”
“Promise?” the little guy answered with a pleading smile. “You and me, we should’ve stayed inside that old B-17. We shoulda gone down with Jensen and the rest of them; but no, we were too smart for that, weren’t we? We went out that hatch and we thought we were safe, that we could just walk away.”
“We still can walk away…”
“No, you can, not me; ‘cause I’m not like you, Mikey. They hit you; you bounce back up even higher. They hit me and I hurt. Besides, none of this is real,” he said, waving a limp hand toward the frozen landscape outside. “This is Saturday afternoon at the old Orpheum. Remember? Flash Gordon and Doctor Zarkov? That’s you and me, and this here is the Planet Mongo. See, it’s all pretend, Mikey. It ain’t real. It can’t be, because nobody can make-up anything this crazy mean. Nobody.”
That was when Stolz beat his fist on the side of the truck again, and Michael knew Mongo was all too real. “Raus!” Stolz bellowed. “It is a fine morning in the glorious Thousand Year Reich and the Fuhrer wants you two American swine to earn your keep.”
“Eddie, I can’t just leave you here to die.” Michael whispered.
“Then don’t! Don’t leave me here to die,” Eddie grabbed Michael’s coat and pulled him closer, pleading. ”You’d do it for a lame horse, wouldn’t you? You’d do it for a lame horse. Besides, what’s a pal for? Huh? What’s a pal for?”
Stolz’s voice grew louder. “Herr Randall, you know I get cranky in the morning. You too, Hodge. If I have to roust you out, by God, I’ll thump the both of you good!”
Michael’s stomach was tied in knots, but he knew Eddie was right. So he crawled to the back of the truck and dropped off the tailgate onto the ground. The big German stood directly in front of him, hands on hips with his usual amused, arrogant smile. Not that Stolz was all bad. He wasn’t SS or even Army. He was a civilian, a shipyard worker dressed in a threadbare infantryman’s greatcoat, a pair of knee-high Polish cavalry boots, and a knit seaman’s cap, pulled down over his ears. He could occasionally be human and he could always be bought.
“All right, Herr Randall, where’s your little friend?” he asked, the sarcasm billowing like frozen clouds on the cold morning air. “Is he ‘sleeping in’ today? Waiting up in ‘Gasthaus Stolz’ for some room service?”
“It’s his legs, they’ve swollen up bad.”
Stolz shrugged with complete indifference. “So?”
“Let him stay in the truck today, Stolz. I’ll do his share of the work. Okay? A little rest and he’ll be fine tomorrow.”
“You know the rules,” he bellowed so all the prisoners would hear. “You all do! If you don’t work you go back to the SS, where you won’t have old Stolz to wet nurse you.”
Michael edged closer. “The SS will shoot him; you know they will.”
“No, no,” Stolz corrected him. “Even the SS is running out of bullets, so my guess is they’ll just break his legs and toss him off the pier. But no, I don’t think Hethey’ll shoot him.”
“I don’t make the rules! And I don’t argue with the men in black who do.”
Michael stared at him. “Will you do it then?”
“Do it? Do what?” Stolz frowned, as if he did not understand the words. “Me? Shoot your friend? Surely, you’re joking, Randall”
Stolz threw a contemptuous glance toward the Russians. “Randall, I’d put a bullet in that lot without a second thought, but shoot an American? Me? I know you Yanks. The stench of a thing like that will stick to a man, and I have no interest in becoming one of Herr Roosevelt’s ‘war criminals.’ So if your friend needs killing, that is something you must do yourself.”
Michael looked at him for a long, excruciating moment, and held out his hand. “Give me your gun, then.”
“Give you my gun?” Stolz snorted. “You really have lost your mind!”
Michael bent down and pulled off his boot. Reaching up into the toe, he pulled out a dirty American five-dollar bill, the last of the meager hoard he and Eddie had squirreled away for their big escape. At least, it would help one of them escape, he thought.
Stolz snatched the American money out of Michael’s hand, and jammed it into his pocket. “You’re a fool. What makes you think I’ll give you a damned thing now?”
Michael stepped closer and locked his black eyes on the big German’s, letting them bore in. “Stolz, when the Red Army finally gets here and starts hanging Germans from the street lamps — any German — you’re going to need every friend you can get.”
Stolz laughed, but he wasn’t very convincing. Finally, he reached into the worn leather holster hanging on his on his hip and pulled out the old Czech revolver the SS had given him. “All right, my young Ami friend,” he said as he opened the breach and let the bullets drop into his hand. “You may have my pistol,” he said as he pushed one bullet back into the cylinder and snapped it shut. “One shot, that’s all you get. Use it on your friend or use it on yourself, I don’t care which you do,” Stolz said, motioning toward the Russians. “But I’m the only thing standing between that lot and Herr Himmler’s men in black. Use it on me, and they’ll tear you to pieces.” That said, he handed over the pistol. “So go kill your friend, Randall. The sun is up now, and we have work to do.”
Michael looked down at the revolver, remembering the old Greek saying, “When the Gods really want to punish a man they grant him his wish.”
Slowly he climbed back over the tailgate. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he realized how badly the truck stank of dirty men, rotting flesh, and death. “Oh, good,” he heard Eddie say as he saw the revolver and held out his hand, but Michael wasn’t ready for that yet. “Mikey, we both know you can’t do it yourself,” Eddie added, as he pulled the pistol from Michael’s hand. “Thanks. And I want you to go hunt those ducks for me, you hear? Hunt them for both of us.”
“Yeah, the ducks, I’ll do that,” Michael mumbled.
“You go down toSouth Carolina, to Rock Creek and see my Daddy. See my little sister Leslie, too. You’ll like her. Daddy, he’ll understand; but Les won’t. She didn’t want me to leave, so this is gonna be hard on her, real hard. So you go on down and tell ‘em what happened here. See, it’s not the knowin’ that’s hard; it’s the not knowin’.
“Yeah, I’ll do that; I’ll do that.”
“Promise me you will, Mikey, promise me.”
“I will, I promise I will.”
“Good,” he said, sounding pleased. ”’Cause you’ll get out of this mess, Mikey. You’ll get out of here for the both of us, ‘cause somebody’s got to. You can’t let them get away with it, not ALL this, not without somebody knowin’ what happened. It’ll make a difference. It’ll make a difference,” Eddie said as he slumped back, exhausted. “You can go now, Mikey, you can go.”
Michael heard him cock the pistol and turned his head away. He couldn’t go, and he couldn’t stay; all he could do was sit there, frozen to that spot until he heard a muffled Bam! and he jumped as if he had been the one who had been shot. It seemed like an eternity before he could reach over and pry the pistol from Eddie’s limp fingers. The blue-steel barrel was already growing cold. Hoping against hope, he opened the breach and looked inside, praying he would find another bullet, but Stolz wasn’t that careless or that kind. If there was, he would have used it on himself. If there had been a third he would have shot the big German too, but there was only the one. Damn that Stolz! Damn him to hell, he thought as he put his hand on Eddie’s shoulder for the last time and crawled away. He dropped off the tailgate onto the ground and turned his face into the bitter arctic wind. It cut into him like shards of broken glass, but the pain felt good. Damned good! It froze his tears and cleared the fog, allowing him to see things with an amazing clarity.
Stolz stood there looking sheepish, as if he couldn’t quite decide how to act. However, like any good German, when in doubt, opt for cruelty. He jammed a meaty paw in Michael’s chest. “Where is my pistol!” he demanded. “Or did you miss?” Michael said nothing. “No stomach for killing a man up close like that, eh boy? It’s not the same as it was dropping a bomb from one of your fancy airplanes, is it?”
Stolz shoved him again, harder this time, trying to reassert his authority, but Michael shoved back. Stolz was cruel, but he wasn’t stupid. The American’s eyes flared and the German felt the heat wash over him as if the doors to a blast furnace had opened.
“Touch me again and I’ll kill you,” Michael whispered and he was not surprised when Stolz backed away. Randall handed him the pistol and headed toward the other prisoners. Stolz did nothing. He probably figured the young American had gone completely mad like everyone else around there. But the Russians understood. They said if you pound on a man long enough and give him absolutely nothing to live for, he might curl up in a shell and die, or he might explode. He might “grab the Devil by his coattails and hang on for the ride.”
However, Michael wasn’t crazy. He had to get out, out of Konigsberg, out ofGermany, and out of this stinking war. He had to live, and that would be his revenge. He would remember every hurt, every pain, and every injustice and there would be payback. He would get the bastards who did this to Eddie and to him, and to the long, long line of poor dumb bastards who came before them. He would live, and he would have his revenge.