The darkened trains ran east into Pomerania, towards oblivion. Inside, the only light came form the lucky few who had cigarettes. It was February 1945 and few had any illusions about what they were going to face. The 7,300 Frenchmen of SS Division Charlemagne were about to be hurled into the front line against the Soviet Juggernaut. They were being sent to die. For the 1,000 volunteers who had fought for years against the Soviets in the French Volunteer Legion, well, this was nothing new.
For the rest, well, their place on this train was more or less collaboration gone wrong and all were terrified. Over a thousand of the soldiers had actually volunteered for the Kriegsmarine. Many more came from the sons of collaborators, impressed into service as their families fled the Allies and comparative security in the Reich. The rest were mostly construction workers and factory workers, and a few unlucky Alsatians. There was also one American, a Foreign Legion veteran and Sergeant. He sat in the open doorway, chain smoking and staring into the night, oblivious to the noise, the wind or the discomfort of anyone else in the train car.
Finally, Francis, who had wound up in a combat unit quite against his will, having volunteered to work in construction in the Reich to feed himself and his family, left his shivering friends and moved forward, despite the cold, and sat next to the American.
“So, Sergeant, tell me. We are heading to the front. I have not fought before, what can I do to prepare?”
The Sergeant looked up, regarding the man for a moment. “Prepare to die, soldier, what else is there to do?”
Francis looked pained, “I understand that, but how? I mean, look at us, scared sheep, even packed like livestock. We are being sent against Soviet Tank Corps with a handful of rockets, cardboard boots and Volksturm Rifles! Yet you sit here, quiet as usual. Calm as usual. I’ve asked around the old LVF guys and you’re always like that, even during the winter retreat, even when Armeegruppe Centre collapsed. The other LVF guys say you were like that in the Foreign Legion as well. You were decorated for actions in Morocco back in ’37 and you’d have been decorated again had things gone different in ’40. How do you stay so calm in the face of death?”
The American flicked the butt of his cigarette into the night before turning and regarding his companion quietly. “You know you are going to die right? Even if you can survive the war, men like us, we won’t get to survive the peace. Your best hope is to be hanged by your own countrymen at the end of this. Tragic, no?”
Francis shivered involuntarily. The trains were moving in the wrong direction for that possibility. “Still, Sergeant, that is dodging my question. I am terrified at the thought of death. This whole train is filled with men who are soiling their pants right now at the prospect of what is coming-“
The Sergeant cut him off, “especially those damn Kriegsmariners.”
“Yes, especially the Kriegsmariners,” Francis suppressed a sigh, he’d gotten the Sergeant saying something, there would be no use in annoying him further. “But not you. Why not you Sergeant and how can I be like you?”
That got an unexpected response as the Sergeant whirled on his erstwhile companion. “Be like me? My God man, who would wish such a thing!”
He angrily lit another cigarette. “If I weren’t such a damn coward, I’d have hung myself years ago. As it is, I enter every battle hoping to get shot, blown apart, something. And every damn time my cowardice kicks in. I dive for cover. I shoot back. I live.” The Sergeant looked at Francis with empty eyes. “I don’t fear death, Francis, because I am already dead.” He stared back into the darkness. “I died on the 19th of June back in ’35.” The American lapsed into silence before breathing hard and shuddering. “You want to know why I’m not scared Francis? I’ll tell you why.”
“I came from a wealthy family. Wealthy and lucky. Even as we were all suffering through the Depression, I could still go to College. And I went. And I lived it up. And I met a girl. She was beautiful. Sweet. Heart of gold. All the clichés, only here, in front of me and real.” He shook his head. “Man, she was something else. The kind of girl who just makes you want to be a better person, someone you want to do nice things for, just so she’ll smile and light up your whole world. Yeah, she was something else.” The American smiled wistfully. “Something else.”
“Of course, I fell in love with her, who didn’t? She was simply that amazing. And, you know, she loved me too.” He smiled, “Oh I had competition, don’t get me wrong. A girl like that has lots of options, but I was winning. At the same time, well, I was losing too. See, I was in a fraternity. President of my chapter. Had a lot of responsibilities. Drank a lot of liquor.” He smiled, almost conspiratorially at Francis. “Even you Frenchmen would be shocked at how much.”
He scratched the back of his head. “This went on a few years, and I was still winning her heart, but she was a teetotaler and I couldn’t stop drinking, carousing, what have you, so I knew I couldn’t win her over in the end, but I had to try.” Here, he sighed. “Oh how I tried. Finally, I told her, I said ‘Jenny, I’m quitting school, going home and find some honest work and clean myself up, become the kind of man you should have on your arm.’ Oh she begged me to stay, told me she’d help me, but it was no use. The pull of my pals was too much. Habits, you know. Habits. I had to start clean and fresh. I told her, give me one year and you’ll have the man you deserve and she promised, well sort of. I wanted her to promise to wait. Convinced myself she’d promised to wait.”
Here a single tear traced its way down the American’s cheek. He cupped his face in his hands, suppressing several shuddering sobs before taking a single deep breath and looking up again. The face once more a blank mask. “It was a terrible mistake Francis. A terrible mistake. You see, I came home and cleaned up. Quit the drink, quit the carousing. It wasn’t easy.” He tossed another butt into the darkness after lighting a fresh cigarette off the dying ember. “I shook the drink, but I’m hooked on these things now. And coffee.” The Sergeant sighed. “God how I miss real coffee. Anyway, so I did clean myself up, and in only six months or so, but I wanted to give it a real year, just to make it stick, so I stayed away. I wrote her only a little. She sent me cookies. On my birthday, at Christmas. Even at Easter.” He smiled sadly.
“You know Francis, if you put a few pieces of bread in with parcels of baked goods, they’ll arrive anywhere you send them fresh and moist. The bread will be hard as rocks, but the cookies, my God, like they came fresh from the oven.” He pointed at Francis. “There you go, now if we still received parcels and if you weren’t going to die soon, then that would have been useful to you and Jenny would have touched another life.” He shook his head. “I digress. We were discussing the end of my life.”
And now his hand shook, ever so slightly, as did his shoulders. The American continued his story, but now in a monotone. Staring straight into the darkness. “She loved the sounds of the Ocean. Loved strolling along the beaches. Her friend’s family had an ocean cottage in Norfolk and she went to spend a summer there.” His lips pursed. “Had I not been on my…sabbatical…I would have gone. I know I would have. But I was not there. No. I was in Atlanta. Upholstering furniture. Her disappearance did not make headlines, though I heard about it quickly enough. When the Norfolk Police found her body. That did. I was walking to work when I saw the newspaper headline. She was dead. It took nine days to find the body. Two drunken sailors did it. Did awful things to her before they finished her.”
“And that brings us to my moment of death. I told you before it was June 19th, the day she died, but that is not strictly true. Really, it was June 29th. The day after her body was found. The day I saw the headline. I saw it. I grabbed the paper and read and re-read the words. I stared at the picture of the two police-men holding a large, black bag, misshapen and bugling. I felt in that moment, complete and utter horror.”
“I saw all my dreams for the future, our engagement, the way her face would light up and reward me with a treasured smile and a ‘yes.’ I saw our wedding day, her moving down the isle, as always slightly embarrassed to be the center of attention. Our children growing up strong and happy as we lounged on a porch-swing watching them play. Even the weddings of our own children and the births of our grandchildren. Even the final dreams of sitting on a porch, rocking in chairs and watching the world pass. Holding hands in our old age. I saw all of that. And it disappeared.”
“I saw my cavalier attitude. A whole year? Madness! God, time is so short and life so unpredictable. Better to have spent that year a drunken lush, chasing after and losing her. At least to have not wasted her last year! Oh how I pined for her, little knowing I would be doing so for the rest of my life. I should have been there. I should never have left her side, no matter what.”
“And then I saw her last moments. Walking alone on a beach, enjoying the Sun. Two drunken villains approaching, harassing, molesting. God. I can not even think of it.” He glanced over at Francis, grief visible on his face once more. “They did awful things to her Francis. And I don’t know? Did she cry out for me? I always tried to be her ‘Knight in Shining Armor,’ well, some Knight. Did she cry out for me in her terminal terror and pain?” He turned back to the night. “I know she couldn’t once they were done and clamped hands about her throat, chocking her until blood spewed from her nostrils.” Here he shuddered again.
“And still, my vision was not complete. I saw 9 days her body lay there. I saw it bloating in the hot Sun. I saw all manner of tiny creatures, and some not so tiny, coming to feed on her swollen body. Tearing at her flesh, climbing within her destroying all that was beauty. Destroying all I loved and will ever love. Destroying not just her and her life, but everything I wanted. I saw it all Francis. It all tore through me in that moment.”
“So you see, Francis, I am not concerned with what happens to me now, because everything my life was supposed to be was destroyed in that instant and all that is left is this empty husk, waiting to die.”
“So you can be with her again?” Francis murmured.
“No Francis, she’s dead. Even if there is something after that, I would never be allowed to set foot in the place reserved for one such as her. No, I am waiting to die so that I can stop thinking about her. Every day, Francis. Every minute, I am thinking about her. I cannot stop.” He lit a fresh cigarette, tossing another butt into the darkness and sighed. “I cannot stop.” The American lapsed into a sullen silence and Francis, sensing the moment had passed rose from his seat and returned to his friends.
Two Kriegsmariners huddled in the back shivering in their cheap felt great-coats. “So, Francis, will he close the damn door?”
Francis shook his head, “no, and you two’d probably best not bother him about it.”