Wednesday 28 Sep 2016

A River Divided
AJ Robinson

It isn’t often that two armies face each other, for any length of time, and a battle doesn't occur. Back in World War II, my father faced just such a situation. He and his unit entered Bizerte, Tunisia.


Bizerte was an ancient city; clay, battle-scarred buildings lined every street, laid out in a grid pattern. A river separated the city into east and west zones, as it ran north to the Mediterranean Sea. The Germans, wisely, blew up every bridge and occupied the eastern region. My dad, along with the US Army, held the west.


For a brief time, an unspoken truce settled across the city. The Germans didn’t have sufficient forces to drive out the Americans. The US Army wasn’t strong enough to take the east side and Monty, that is, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, was too far to the east to help. Patton wouldn’t have wanted Monty to help anyway.


Every once in a while, my dad and his men would climb atop one of the warehouses facing the river, and look over at the Germans. They ignored the Americans. They were too busy preparing to evacuate the city.


What they saw disheartened my dad his comrades. As far as they were concerned, they were going to lose the war. The Germans were better equipped, better trained, more committed and better soldiers than they were.


Even in retreat, the Germans were organized, disciplined and rational. Not only had they destroyed every bridge, but they set up 88mm guns, which were among the best artillery pieces of the war, in my dad’s opinion,  on their side of the river, pointing them straight across at the US side. Every hour or two, the Germans shot a few rounds to keep the Americans on their toes. As a result, buildings, closest to the river, weren’t in use and the streetlights on the nearby roads unlit.


My dad was a warrant officer (WO), above a sergeant, but below a lieutenant. As a WO, he didn’t bunk or eat with the officers, nor the NCOs. The WOs’ mess was in a building as close to the river as Command thought safe. Keep that word in mind: thought.


One night he caught a lift with a sergeant and two corporals. While he was ranking officer and could have called “shotgun,” he never stood on ceremony. He was happy to ride in the back with one of the corporals. When they reached his building, the jeep stopped, he hopped out, and waved good-bye to the others. The jeep drove off, and before he could open the door, an ear-shattering boom rattled the windows.


A flash erupted behind him, the shockwave almost knocking him over. Spinning around, he saw the jeep gone. His first impulse was to draw his sidearm, but he knew a Colt .45 was useless against an 88. Creeping to the building corner, he peeked around, and could see a faint round glow in the distance. Then he heard clink-cah-chunk.


My dad was warrant officer working in ordinance, he handled munitions and explosives; he knew that sound. The Germans had reloaded. He turned and scanned the intersection. A body lay in the middle of the road, a little further down the road was the jeep; what was left of it pushed down the side street.


Getting on all fours, he crawled to the jeep and gave it the once-over. It was on its side, and he was unable to see the cab area. Slowly, carefully, he stood and looked over the edge. The shell had struck at the passenger’s seat. The sergeant was mostly gone; further details are unnecessary and would be quite distasteful. The driver was wedged into what remained of the jeep and the other corporal was the body lying in the road.


Reaching for the driver, my dad heard a click-click, click-click behind him. The hairs on the back of his neck stood straight up. He knew that sound, too: German machine guns cocking. Lifting his gaze slightly, he saw that the streetlights on the next street lit. The Germans could see his silhouette, and he had about two seconds to live!


Diving over the jeep, my dad did a tumble, drew his .45, and with two shots, he was never the John Wayne-type, he took out the light. He flattened himself behind the jeep. A split-second later a hail of bullets sprayed the area. My dad waited until the Germans were done, then eased the driver out of his seat. Keeping the wreckage between them and the Germans, he dragged the man down to the next intersection and carried him to the Aid Station.


Things turned out well for all the survivors. The driver sent home for his “million dollar wound,” as the men called any wound severe enough to earn a discharge was worth a million dollars. The other corporal was unconscious.


My dad supervised the relocation of the Warrant Officers’ Mess, after celebrating with a bottle of scotch. Further details are unavailable owing to the inverse relationship between the consumption of alcohol and memory retention. All he remembered was a “belly dancer” named Afreen.


Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.

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