By: Gary Van Haas
And Mars the God of War awoke from his slumber sensing the impending doom, and gazed grimly at the blood-red sunset descending over scorched earth where a chilling wind howled through bowed grass over the Tunisian Coast with fierce waves pounded against its jagged desolate shore.
It was Sunday, March 22, 1944 in Tunisia, and on a ledge above the beach there stood a lone, drab-gray cement blockhouse. It was here where a gun emplacement was positioned in 1943, fitted with a large .88 millimeter cannon pointed out to sea.
Inside the compound two rag-tag soldiers in sullied, tattered khaki uniforms huddled together to keep warm. The older of the two was Sgt. Fred Bauer, a thirty-one year old brawny hulk of a man. The other was Private Joseph Riker, only nineteen, a lanky, sulky young intellectual with silver-rimmed glasses.
Finishing off their last can of rations, Sgt. Bauer spied a lizard on a rock next to him. He carefully set the can down, took his knife and jammed it mercilessly through the lizard lifting it into the air, triumphant of his catch.
Riker looked on in disgust as Bauer began gutting the creature.
‘Is this what we’ve come to?’ said Riker.
‘You get hungry enough, you eat anything to survive.’
‘How much longer do we have to stay? It’s been over three months now.’
Bauer shook his head, ‘We got orders, Riker. I expect we’ll hear something soon after Patton’s push into Medina.’
Bauer broke up a wooden crate, made a small fire to cook the reptile.
‘Maybe they forgot about us,’ Riker said.
‘Shut up! I don’t wanna hear anymore of your belly aching. Go read something and get off my back.’
Riker went to his books, lined up nice and neat on his side of the enclosed bunker. He picked up The Symposium by Plato and started to read. The cramped quarters had only two small window slits and a doorway and a piss bucket.
Bauer spit out a lizard bone, ‘That Plato didn’t like war much, did he? My wife says its men who start all the wars.’
Riker smiled, ‘Sounds like somebody’s got some sense. Maybe she wouldn’t agree with the corrupt politicians who got us in this. Someone should shoot them all.’
Bauer stood to his feet, grabbed Riker by the collar knocking the book out of his hands.
‘You little shit. I ought to bust you good, you’re talking treason!’
‘Take it easy, Sarge. There’s other ways to live besides war and brutality.’
Bauer shoved him away, took out a pair of binoculars scanning the field.
Riker picked up his book again.
‘Alright that’s enough reading,’ said Bauer. ‘Get your ass up here. You’re on guard tonight.’
‘What? We’re stuck way out here and you’re acting like you’re commanding an army! We’re out of food, no communication.’
‘I told you, I don’t want to hear that crap. Get up here and post watch. I’m going to get some shut-eye.’
Riker came up took his poistion.
‘You know it’s funny, Sarge. Every time I express an opinion, you get angry.’
‘Stow it, I wanna get some sleep.’
Bauer rolled out his sleeping bag in front of the small fire and laid down adjusting his backpack for a pillow and quickly fell asleep.
It was in the early hours when a rumbling sound was heard in the distance and Sgt. Bauer came over to Riker, nudged his shoulder.
‘Put out the candle,’ Bauer whispered, ‘we have company.’ He grabbed his binoculars and searched the open grass field in front of them. Then he spied a small company of men moving toward them, and saw silhouettes of soldiers in helmets followed by a tank.
Dark clouds moved in and out shrouding the moon, casting an eerie glow across the field.
‘What is it?’ asked Riker.
‘A platoon; maybe twenty to thirty men coming.’
Riker took a breath as the clanking sound of the tank grew louder.
Bauer climbed up to the cannon.
‘What we gonna do, Sarge? I’ve never been in combat before.’
‘Well here’s your chance to get some experience. Help me get this .88 loaded.’
Riker was frozen with fear.
‘We’re gonna die, I know we’re gonna die! Let’s surrender.’
‘Shut up fool or they’ll hear us.’
‘If we don’t shoot back they’ll take us alive.’
Bauer was livid at the thought. He jumped down from the cannon and slapped Ricker hard across the face.
‘Snap out of it or we will die. I’ll kill you myself! Now get those shells up here.’
Riker nodded and started lifting heavy shells up to the turret.
Bauer loaded in one and zeroed in on the tank moving in the darkness. Bauer took his eye off the range-finder, grabbed his binoculars. Then he saw the tank’s turret slowly swing around and fire.
Bauer instinctively jumped on top of Riker to protect him as a tank shell slammed into the concrete wall, collapsing a section.
Furious, Bauer ran back up to his cannon, set his sight and fired back. About a hundred meters out the .88 shell hit and the tank blew up in a fiery explosion. The light of the fire lit the field, exposing several soldiers scurrying for cover.
Bauer laughed self-satisfied, ‘Ha, that will teach them!’
Riker looked at him like he was insane, ‘Now you’ve done it, there’s no turning back.’
‘That’s right, kid. It’s the law of the jungle now. Kill or be killed.’
Riker slapped a bullet clip into his rifle, ‘They’ll be coming for us.’
‘What’s it feel like when you get hit by a bullet, Sarge?’
Bauer stared at him when a white flag popped up in the middle of the field and muffled shouts were heard.
‘What will they do if we give up?’
‘Probably torture us until we give them the location of our unit. Then they’ll shoot us anyway.’
‘You don’t want to surrender, do you?’
‘I don’t want to hear that,’ Bauer cursed, ‘We got orders to hold this position and that’s what we’re gonna do!’
‘But there’s too many of them.’
Bauer patted his cannon affectionately, ‘Not with this baby, we have the old equalizer on our side!’
‘You think you can hold off all those men with that?’
‘The bunker gives us an added advantage.’
Riker stood up and tied a piece of white cloth to his rifle barrel, ‘I’m stopping this or its suicide.’
Bauer snatched his rifle away and pointed at him.
‘You’re not going anywhere, soldier. Now get a shell up to the turret.’
Riker followed his orders, brought another shell and loaded it into the breech.
Out in the field about fifty meters out from the bunker a small group of soldiers we approaching.
Bauer peered through the range finder and saw them waving the white flag. He paid no attention and cranked the huge gun barrel down on them.
‘What are you doing? They have a flag. Don’t you want to negotiate?’
‘Nothing to negotiate.’
‘But it’s murder, sir!’
Bauer ignored him, looked through binoculars.
‘Hit the trigger, Riker. That’s an order!’
‘I won’t do it!’
Bauer swiftly shoved Riker’s hand on the trigger and the .88 fired with a deafening blast.
Looking out on the field they saw the shell hit with a tremendous blast and in the light they saw torn bodies of men flying in the air.
Then there was brief silence all hell broke loose! Bullets and machine gun fire came from all directions, ricocheting off the bunker.
Bauer grabbed Riker, pulled him down for cover.
‘You got your first taste of blood kid, ha! Now you’re committed.’
‘You killed them! All they wanted was to talk.’
‘Stow your tears. Take a look through the binoculars.’
Riker reluctantly looked out on the field where more men were approaching with another white flag, but to his left he noticed four others wheeling up artillery.
‘What is it, Sarge? ’
‘Mortars. Those guys to the left of the flag are marking the range of our bunker. They wanted to talk, huh? Bullshit.’
‘Maybe they did.’
‘I’ve seen it before. Get in range and suddenly the flag drops and it’s all over.’
Riker began to believe him.
‘I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t think…’
‘You can forget about the rule books out here. Geneva Convention doesn’t apply. All you have to know is I’m trying to keep us alive.’
Riker nodded, picked up his rifle.
Above the isolated field in front of the bunker, swift clouds rolled by obscuring the moon, and in the darkness the enemy troops moved stealthily, crawling in the grass, creeping ever closer to the bunker.
It was about 4:20 a.m. when Riker’s eyes were fluttering, trying to stay awake. Bauer lay next to him with a blanket and rifle.
Riker heard a twig break and sat up. He bent over, shook Bauer. ‘Wake up, sir. I think I heard something.’
Groggy-eyed, Bauer crawled up, peered out onto the field, saw men crawling up about twenty yards away.
‘Get ready,’ Bauer warned, ‘they’re here.’ He cradled his rifle, slid the barrel out the window slit and took aim. ‘Come on you sons’ bitches, just a little closer.’
Then he fired a round and a soldier jumped up screaming, the man ran a few yards but Bauer shot him again and the man fell over dead.
Three other troopers charged the bunker firing wildly, but Bauer was cool, calm and collected. He simply waited, took aim and shot them one by one as they approached.
‘Get up here, Riker. I can’t fight them all by myself!’
‘I can’t,’ cried Riker. ‘I can’t kill people!’
‘You already did when the cannon went off. Now get your sorry ass up here!’
‘I don’t want to die!’
Bauer fumed, slung his rifle over his shoulder and went to him, grinning like a madman, staring out at the dark battlefield. The moon with rushing clouds cast surreal shadows over his face.
‘We’re all going to die one day anyway, Riker. Do you want to rot away in an old folk’s home or die like a hero in a hail of glory?’
Before Riker could answer, another soldier ran into the bunker and fired at them and Bauer was hit.
Riker went crazy and instinctively fired back at the soldier, wounding him. The man broke away and limped back into the field.
Riker then came over to Bauer who was bleeding.
‘That was good what you did, kid. Gets your guts fired up don’t it!’
Riker looked over Bauer’s side wound.
‘Quiet, Sarge, you’re losing blood.’
But Bauer wasn’t fazed and seemed to enjoy the pain. ‘You gotta go get him, Riker. If he makes it back, they’ll know there are only two of us. You have to kill him, kid. No time to think about it.’
Riker knew he was right, grabbed his rifle and took off into the brush after him.
In the field in front of the bunker, drak clouds rolled in and out under moonlight creating an eerie effect over the bleak terrain.
Riker was crawling on his belly through the grass, petrified moving cautiously through the brush when he came upon a pair of black combat boots. Looking up, he spied a tall, dark, fearsome figure looming over him with a rifle barrel pointed in his face.
Startled, Riker’s glasses fell off and the trooper grinned down at him maniacally, crushed his glasses with his boot. He put his boot on Riker’s back, drew a bayonet from his belt. Its razor sharp blade reflected in the moonlight.
Riker looked up at the soldier and cringed as the blade was pushed deep to his back and he felt the feel of cold steel piercing his flesh.
‘No!!! Please no!’ Riker screamed in horror.
Back in the bunker, Bauer heard the blood-curdling cries and cursed himself. He knew what was happening, Riker was being tortured. He quickly set up a rifle and two helmets in the lookout window to make the enemy think someone was on watch then went to the fireplace, smeared some of the ashe on his face for camouflage then scurried off over the wall.
Bauer was crawling through grass with a knife between his teeth searching for Riker. He stopped and put his ear to the ground, heard something then heard the faint sounds of Riker moaning. Moving quickly through the brush, he surprised the sadistic soldier who was still toying with the dying man, slicing Riker up.
Bauer jumped up and he and trooper stood eye to eye. Without a word said, the two men knew they had met their eternal, lethal match. Then they attacked in a vicious bloody fight to the death!
The killer lurched at him with his bayonet and Bauer wrestled the trooper to the ground. The bayonet fell and Bauer grabbed it. The trooper started to scream, but Bauer placed his hand over his mouth and cut his throat in one swift movement.
Bleeding and exhausted, Bauer went to check on Riker. The boy was in bad shape, cut around the face and gut and bleeding profusely.
Riker managed a faint smile when he saw Bauer.
‘Damn fool, now look what you done to yourself,’ said Bauer as a tear came to his eye.
‘I knew you’d come, Sarge,’ he said, coughing blood.
The kid was fading fast. Bauer swooped him up and carried him away.
‘I finally found out…’ said Riker.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘What it’s like to die,’ said Riker.
‘Stop talking like that.’
‘You know something funny, Sarge? I’m not afraid of dying anymore.’
Riker’s eyes closed and he went limp in Bauer’s arms. Bauer sobbed for a moment then dragged his body back to the bunker.
At the break of dawn, Bauer was bandaging his wounds, loading up his guns for the next attack when he heard a curious bird-call coming from the opposite side of the field. His eyes lit up and he hopped to his feet to check it out. ‘Must be Abdul our scout,’ he thought. ‘Maybe they’ve finally come back for us!’
Bauer repeated the bird-call and after a minute, Abdul the tribesman, wearing white turban and brown caftan slid over the wall into the bunker.
‘Where you been, you bastard? Fine scout you turned out to be. Where’s our unit?’
Abdul didn’t answer. He just stared at Bauer and shook his head.
All was quite as the morning sun rose peacefully over the field. A cool wind whispering through the grass when a single shot rang out. The Arab scout ran from the bunker, but was quickly captured by the troopers. Several soldiers ran up to the bunker to check it out.
Abdul was dragged before the Captain coming up from the field, a tall, rugged man with a black patch over his right eye.
Abdul squirmed, frightened what the man might do to him. The Captain called over a Berber Tribesmen to interrupt.
‘Ask this scout what happened,’ said the Captain.
The Berber talked to Abdul then turned, pointed to the bunker, waved for them to follow.
The Captain and two soldiers went to see what the Arab was talking about. Taking a look around the bunker, Abdul pointed to the body of Bauer lying on the ground with a bullet hole at his temple.
‘Well, what happened?’ the Captain inquired.
‘Scout say, he came back to tell this man war over. He not know Germany surrender six weeks ago, so shoot himself; All this killing for no good reason.’
The Captain noticed a set of dog-tags around Bauer’s neck. He jerked the chain loose and looked at them closer. They were Nazi dog-tags.
The Captain dressed in a U.S. Army uniform, noticed Riker’s body next to the book by Plato and wondered. He shook his head, bewildered, and turned to his men.
‘Okay, bury them here and let’s move out!’
He tossed the book on the ground and waved his men forward.
In the field in front of the bunker the wind came up again and the grass swayed as the regiment marched forward while back at the bunker the book by Plato lay on the floor with dust and dirt blowing over fluttering pages.