Foreword: I will attempt to be historically accurate as much as I can, but events will happen in this story which did not happen in the real WWII (one glaring canon example being Hydra, of course). Right now, this story follows MCU canon closely, and is a prequel to my story, 'Running To You' (though you don't have to have read that story first). Updates will be fairly frequent, but not scheduled. Feedback is very much appreciated.
I don't normally bother with disclaimers, since we all know this is fanfiction, but because this story touches real events/places and draws heavily on info pulled together from several factual/historical sources from which I did my research… "Disclaimer: The bits that belong to Marvel, belong to Marvel. Many places/locations which appear in the story are real, except the ones I made up. All of the original characters, no matter how small their parts, are mine, and are not intended to bear any resemblance to real individuals either living or deceased."
We Were Soldiers
1. Last Stop, USA
To the world at large, it was known as Camp Shanks. The massive, sprawling staging area in Rockland County was the largest camp in the chain belonging to the New York Port of Embarkation. But to Bucky, and the others who'd done their winter training at Camp McCoy, it had another name: Last Stop, USA.
Bucky's first view of it was from the window of the bus that had brought him up from Brooklyn, and his first impression was that it looked uniform and regimental. The wooden barracks were all the same shape, the same size, and laid out in neat rows across several fields into which grey stone-chipped roads had been laid. At a distance, it looked like the whole place was swarming with ants, but as the bus drew closer to its stop, he realised those ants were actually people. Soldiers. An enormous, milling throng of them, waiting for the transport ships which would ferry them off to Europe or the Pacific. To adventure, and war.
When the bus pulled up at the top of the winding lane, he grabbed his duffel bag, helmet, gas mask, backpack and bedroll, and hauled it all down the aisle. "Good luck out there, and keep your head down," the driver said to him, as he tried to disembark without dropping everything
"Thanks," he replied, "I will."
He'd already promised his mom, and Mary-Ann, and Janet, and Steve, that he would be careful. He couldn't decide whether his nearest and dearest were natural worriers, or whether they all thought he needed reminding to take care. Ah, they're just worriers, he thought. Dad and Charlie had worried too, but they'd done it more silently. Mom and his sisters had cried. Steve had said, 'Don't win the war till I get there.' In best-friend speak, that meant, 'Take care and watch your back. I don't wanna lose my closest pal.'
As the bus pulled away, he slung his gas mask around his neck and hoisted his pack and sleeping roll onto his back. The weather was too hot for the heavy steel helmet, so he carried it in one hand, and picked up his duffel with the other. Then, ready to face the future, he crossed the street and stepped onto the dusty road which led down to the camp.
He quickly found he wasn't the only new arrival. A mass of soldiers was clustered around the open gate, trying to get closer to a sign which rose above the crowd, the words Barracks Listings And Camp Map stamped across it in severe black letters. He heard grumbles from the nucleus of the swarm of humanity, mutterings about 'Can't find where the 101st are housed,' and 'Is that the hospital or the shower block?' and even a panicked cry of 'Oh god, I think I left my gas mask on the train.' Half the speakers spoke with such strong country accents that Bucky couldn't even tell what they were saying. Some of the other soldiers on the fringes of the group had already dropped their duffels and were sitting atop them, waiting for the pile to move forward. It looked like he was gonna be here for a while.
"Echo-Six," Bucky heard a voice say in a Brooklyn drawl above the grumbling din of the crowd. He looked over to a wooden gatepost where a soldier was leaning back, watching him at his ease, his gear dumped unceremoniously at his feet. Like Bucky, he'd opted not to wear the uncomfortable steel helmet, leaving the warm summer breeze to tug at his short black hair.
"What'd you say?" Bucky asked.
"Echo-Six. That's the section of the camp where the 107th barracks are."
His eyes dropped to the soldier's shoulder sleeve insignia; it was the patch of the 107th, and below it were a sergeant's chevrons. Thank god. Now he wouldn't have to fight his way through the crowd just to learn where he was gonna be resting his head tonight. Taking the provision of information as an invitation, he picked up his duffel and joined his fellow New Yorker.
"You know whereabouts that is?"
The man rolled his eyes and let out an amused snort which somehow managed to lack any amusement at all.
"Yeah. Right on the far side of the camp."
"If you know where you're going, what're you doing out here?" he asked.
"Doin' my bit for humanity. Keeping an eye out for fellow 107th members and pointing them in the right direction so they don't have to dive into the scrimmage." The soldier's bright blue eyes twinkled in a moment of mirth. "And enjoying my last moments of freedom."
"Don't you wanna be here?"
The man shrugged. "Sure. Here's as good a place to be as any. Do you have any idea what it's like once you check in, though?"
Bucky shook his head. He'd heard rumours at Camp McCoy, but suspected they were mostly started by the camp's drill sergeants as a way of frightening the recruits during training. 'If you think you have it bad now, wait till you get to Last Stop, USA,' they would say.
"First thing they make you do when you check in is go to the hospital and have a physical and about a half-dozen shots," the soldier explained. "You don't have a thing about needles, do you?"
"Good. Because they do typhoid, diphtheria, polio, tetanus, smallpox, cholera and typhus. And we should be glad we're heading to Europe, because half of those tropical diseases they get in the Pacific Theater don't have vaccinations or cures." The soldier reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, which he flipped open and aimed at Bucky. "Smoke?"
"No thanks, I don't."
"Me neither. Terrible habit."
"Uh…" Just his luck. He'd managed to find his first crazy person, and he hadn't even officially reported for duty yet. "If you don't smoke, why do you have cigarettes?"
"It's a traditional system whereby in the absence of minted coin, goods are exchanged in trade for like or similar value."
"I know what barter is," he said, suppressing a sigh. Great. Crazy and a smart-ass. This day was just getting better and better.
"You didn't bring anything to barter?"
The soldier let out a low whistle, humour dancing in his blue eyes. "Be glad this isn't the Navy, pal."
On the verge of asking what was so bad about the Navy, he thought better of it. Now that he knew where he had to go, he wanted to dump his heavy gear and take a moment to adjust to the fact that at any moment, he'd be leaving his home and family behind. That soon, real soon, he'd not only be in a different country, but on a different continent.
"Have you seen any other members of the 107th pass through?"
"Yeah. An excited-looking ginger fella a while ago, and some kid who probably lied about his age, earlier this morning. I sent 'em both on to E-6."
"This morning?" His fellow sergeant was either lying, or completely nuts. "How long have you been stood here?"
The guy shrugged. "What time is it now?"
Bucky checked his watch. "Twelve o'clock and change."
"'Bout six hours, then."
"Six hours? Why?"
"I like to people-watch."
He gave a small, disbelieving shake of his head. He'd heard that war could do funny things to people, but he'd never thought it could do things to them before they'd even been in it. Maybe his fellow sergeant had been out in the sun for too long; it was an awful hot day. Or maybe he just didn't wanna go into camp alone. The size of the place, and the sheer volume of soldiers in it, was a little intimidating.
"Well, it's lunch time," Bucky pointed out. "I'm gonna check in and see if I can get food before they force me to have all those shots. Y'wanna come too?"
"Not really." The soldier squirmed uncomfortably for a moment. "But I guess I should. I really could use the facilities right now. Kinda forgot to go before leaving the house."
"Too much information."
The guy smirked. "This is the Army. Get used to it, Sergeant..?"
"James Barnes," he said, offering his hand.
"Daniel Wells," his new 107th comrade returned, shaking his hand and then stooping to pick up all his gear. "Most people call me Danny."
"Most people call me Bucky," he offered. Half the time someone called him 'James,' he forgot to respond; it had gotten him in trouble in class more than once, back in school. He'd tried to get his teachers to stop calling him 'James', but most of them were pretty traditional.
"It's a nickname shortened from my middle name, 'Buchanan.'"
"Huh." Danny studied him for a moment, then hoisted his own backpack up over his shoulders. "No offence, but that's the kinda name I'd give my dog as a kid. I mean, if I'd ever been allowed to have a dog. I'll just call you 'Barnes.'"
"Then I'll call you 'Wells.'"
"Fine by me," Wells grinned. "C'mon, Barnes, let's go find Carrot-top and that kid I haven't thought of a name for yet, and see how many interesting diseases we can be inoculated against today."
: - - - — — — - - - : - - - — — — - - - : - - - — — — - - - :
The inside of Camp Shanks was a form of organised chaos. There was so much going on that Bucky didn't know where to look first, but everybody involved in it all seemed to know what they were doing. Supply wagons rolled continuously though the camp, and several squads ran laps in formation to keep themselves in shape. Commands barked by officers were jumped to by enlisted men, and here and there a few MPs patrolled with K9 units trotting at their heels.
He and Wells made their way beneath the burning sun through sections A1 to C10, and as they reached D1 Bucky took a moment away from watching the camp's activity to study his fellow sergeant a little more closely. Wells was as tall as Bucky, and despite not being quite as broad across the shoulders, he carried all his heavy gear with ease, his feet marking an easy stride that could be kept up all day. If he was feeling nervous about being here, or overwhelmed by everything going on, he gave no indication of it. Though his blue eyes took in everything going on around him, there was an introspective glaze to them which made Bucky think the guy's mind wasn't entirely focused in the moment. It was an expression he suspected he'd be seeing a lot of, over the next few days, as the time for embarkation grew closer and men began to think of all the things they were leaving behind.
"You gotta girl?" he asked, bringing Wells out of his silent reverie.
"Hmm? Oh yeah, sure." He patted his pockets. "I've got a picture around here somewhere… ah, there it is." He tugged a folded paper from his jacket's inner pocket and handed it over. When Bucky opened it, he found himself looking at a very familiar face, a sultry smile teased out below smoky, come-hither eyes.
"That's Rita Hayworth," he said. He'd had a huge crush on her ever since one of the guys down at the boxing club had put a pin-up of her in the locker room. Tall, slender, with a luxurious cascade of red curls, there wasn't a man alive who wouldn't sell his own mother to meet Rita Hayworth in person. Clearly, Sergeant Wells was full of shit. "She's not your girl."
"She will be after the war, when I come back and ask her to marry me."
"Sorry to burst your bubble, pal, but after the war, I intend to ask her to marry me," Bucky said, handing the picture back.
"Oh?" Wells grinned. "Well then, I say let the best man win."
"That would be me," Bucky told him, affecting an air of mature superiority. He'd had no such plans to ask the movie star to marry him, but if it kept her from marrying somebody who was obviously crazy, he'd do it. For Rita.
Wells merely laughed. "We'll see, pal. We'll see." He nodded to something in the distance, another white sign with a large letter imprinted on it. "That's E-section. We'll find the 107th barracks there."
As they crossed from D to E, they stopped in front of a desk behind which sat one of Camp Shanks' staff sergeants. He was a rather harassed looking man—not an uncommon expression, on the faces of the camp staff—who had a pile of papers weighted down on the table in front of him, and a metal case on a flimsy collapsible chair beside him. The man looked up as they approached, and they both offered quick salutes. Fast saluting was the first lesson taught in basic training, and was considered even more important than being able to correctly hold a rifle. Discipline, the officers of Camp McCoy had said, is everything.
"Sergeant Daniel Wells of the 107th, reporting for duty," Wells said, and Bucky echoed his statement for himself.
"Tags," the staff sergeant requested, and they both took them from around their necks and placed them on the table for verification. As the man scrutinised them, Bucky aimed a questioning glance at Wells, who responded with a tiny shrug. Did the staff sergeant think they might be German spies, or something?
When at last he seemed satisfied, the staff sergeant checked them both off his list, then brought out several forms from the metal box beside him. When he'd finished scrawling on them, he placed their tags on top and slid them over the table.
"Your weapon requisition papers; take them to the quartermaster in exchange for your rifle, sidearm and cleaning kit. Your physical exam request forms; take these to the hospital after storing your gear and before doing anything else, because nobody embarks from this camp before undergoing final health checks. Your punch-cards for the mess; the 107th's designated meal times are 5.30am and 5.30pm. Don't try to go outside of your times, and don't try to use them more than twice a day, because the system is monitored and soldiers who try to abuse the system will be punished. Your punch cards for the galley of whichever transport vessel you end up on; don't lose these, otherwise you'll have a very hungry trip ahead of you." The litany was delivered in a very bored tone, and Bucky felt momentarily sorry for the guy. How many times each day did you have to repeat all this before it drove you crazy? "Your barracks is building number six. Shower facilities are at the rear of every sector; we encourage you to make good use of them whilst on base. Hygiene is important, and you won't like what they have on the troop transports. If you're lucky enough to get night passes—which you probably won't be, because priority is given to those who've spent the past few months sequestered in remote training camps—we have strict rules about etiquette which you are expected to familiarise yourself with before leaving base. Bringing civilians onto the base—no matter how pretty they are—is a serious offence and will result in an immediate discharge. Questions?"
Both men quickly shook their heads.
They both flung another salute, grabbed their papers and tags, and set off to look for building number six before the guy could start issuing more instructions.
"Shame about those passes," said Wells. "I guess they figure anyone coming up from New York doesn't really need to go back there."
"Wish I brought my copy of War and Peace. I probably could've re-read it before we ship out." At least Charlie would get some use out of it. Maybe. Bucky's younger brother wasn't much into reading.
"Home sweet home." Wells stopped outside a long wooden building with a large number '6' above the door, and ran his hand through his hair as he looked in through one of the small windows. "Cosy."
When Bucky stepped inside he found several rows of camp-beds stacked with fresh sheets, blankets and pillows. A few of the beds had been made, and had soldiers' gear piled around them, but the majority were empty.
"Got a preference?" he asked, gesturing wide at all the empty beds.
"Not really," said Wells, as he dumped his stuff on a bed in the centre of the room. "We'll only be here a few days, anyway." Bucky dumped his gear on the bed next door, and turned to find Wells eyeing him up. "You don't snore, do you?"
"Not to my knowledge. Why? Do you?"
"No, but I bet we get a whole bunch of snorers in our squad. It would be just my luck." Wells folded up his papers and stashed them in his jacket pocket. "Guess we better go get poked, prodded and groped by those so-called medics. But first, I gotta visit the john. Wanna hang fire for a few minutes, and we'll go find that hospital?"
"Yeah, sure, take your time." He'd thought Wells had been kidding about all those shots, but now he wasn't so confident. What would happen if he failed the physical exam? What if the docs found something wrong with him at the last minute? Would he be sent home? Would he have to wait here while the rest of the 107th sailed off for adventure?
Pull yourself together, man, he mentally chastised himself. You don't fail tests. You've never failed a test in your life. You wouldn't have got this far if you weren't fit enough to serve. They're not gonna turn you away now, this is just a formality.
Thoughts of medical tests brought back a memory from the night before, of Steve standing in the recruitment centre, trying for the fourth—or was it fifth, now?—time to scrape an 'accepted' on his medical form. Poor Steve. He wanted so much to serve his country by fighting, but time and time again he'd been turned away. Bucky's best friend had never been particularly hale, and he had a list of maladies as long as his arm. Steve had rarely let that stop him from doing what he wanted, but the army wanted their soldiers to be able to march all day and set up camp at night, and still be fit enough to fight if necessary. A soldier's gear weighed more than Steve himself; he never would've survived basic training, much less life on the front lines.
"Hey, you ready to go?" asked Wells, poking his head back into the barracks.
"Sure, might as well get this over with," he said, and joined his new friend outside.
: - - - — — — - - - : - - - — — — - - - : - - - — — — - - - :
The final medical assessment wasn't just a formality. After waiting in line with Wells outside the hospital for almost an hour, he was eventually led into a small screened-off cubicle where he was made to strip down to his underwear so that he could be poked, and prodded, and groped, just as his friend had predicted. In the space of fifteen minutes he'd been stuck with more needles than he could count, had polio-drops put on his tongue, had his knees tenderised with small hammers, had lights shone into his eyes, and forcibly coughed several times just to satisfy a cold-handed nurse who probably took some depraved pleasure outta making guys uncomfortable. And to top it all off, he was instructed to lie back on the exam bed so that one of the camp's dentists could make sure his teeth weren't about to fall out in the foreseeable future.
After he'd been given the all-clear, he hastily dressed, buttoned up his shirt, pulled on his boots without properly lacing them up, grabbed his jacket and made a swift exit before the nurse could inflict any further unpleasantness on him. Out back, he found Wells sitting on his jacket on the dusty ground, retying his boots. The half-buttoned state of his shirt was evidence that he, too, hadn't wanted to stick around any longer than necessary.
"Join the Army - get medically violated!" Danny quipped with a scowl for the building. "And why do I always get the ones with cold hands? How do they even have cold hands when it's the middle of June and at least eighty-five in the shade?"
"Maybe they have a freezer box in there, and whilst waiting for the next guy to torture, they sit with their hands in the box, just to make them cold."
"Yeah." A speculative gleam stole across the sergeant's eyes. "And they probably stick the needles in flames right before jabbing them into your arm. That would explain why my arm feels like it's burning."
Bucky subconsciously rubbed his own arm. Yeah, it did kinda feel like burning.
"Maybe they weren't even inoculating us," said Wells. "I mean, we only have their word that all those syringes are gonna protect us against typhus and cholera and all that, right? For all we know, they were just putting water in us, and sending us on our merry way, none the wiser."
"What?" Bucky scoffed. "That's crazy. Of course they were inoculating us. You're just being paranoid. They didn't accidentally use that hammer on your head, instead of your knees, did they?"
Wells chuckled, hauled himself to his feet and dusted off his jacket before donning it, and Bucky pulled his jacket on too. The weather was kinda hot for jackets, but the last thing he wanted was a chewing out for improper dress code on his first day. "C'mon, let's go get our guns… and hope the quartermaster doesn't have one of those freezer boxes, too."
There was no queue outside the armoury. They both presented their papers at the front desk and waited patiently while the quartermaster disappeared into the storeroom. When he returned, he was carrying several weapons, two small wooden boxes and a couple of small metal tins.
"Two M1 Garand rifles, loaded with one clip." He opened the bolts to show that the army was indeed not sending its men off to war without at least one clip of ammo, then put both rifles on the table. "Two M1942 bayonet knives plus belt scabbards. Don't lose the scabbards," the quartermaster warned with a glare. "Two M1911A1 .45 calibre Colt pistols, unloaded, with holsters." The two wooden boxes joined the sidearms. "Ammo, for the sidearms. Ammo for the rifles can be requisitioned when you reach your destination. And finally, your cleaning kits." He put the tins down, and they rang out with a metallic clang as their contents shifted inside. "Don't lose your kits."
The easiest way to carry their weapons back to the barracks was to wear them. They slipped their knives and sidearms onto their belts and slung the rifles diagonally across their backs, then picked up their ammo and cleaning kits. The quartermaster watched them hawk-eyed, like he expected them to start losing things there and then, and they both issued salutes before heading out the door.
"You get the feeling a lot of soldiers lose stuff around here?" Wells asked, as they walked along the dusty path.
Bucky thought back to his arrival, to the guy in the crowd who'd bemoaned his gas mask left on a train. "Yeah."
"Ah, well." Danny rolled his shoulders and grinned. "As long as we don't lose the war."
When they got back to the barrack, they found it less empty than when they'd left it. As soon as they stepped through the door, two men—although one of may not have been old enough to rightfully be called a man—leapt to their feet and offered salutes.
"Sir!" said the eldest, a tall, broad-shouldered, copper-haired corporal who looked to be a few years younger than Bucky. "I mean, sirs! I hope you don't mind, sirs, but when we saw you'd picked bunks, we made up your beds for you."
Bucky looked over at the beds he and Wells had dumped their gear on. They had indeed been neatly made, the sheets tucked under the mattresses, the pillows stuffed neatly into cases, the blankets laid at right-angles so perfect that they might have been measured with a try-square. He fought back the overwhelming urge to check whether mints had been left on the pillows, too.
"At ease, Carrot-top," said Wells. "Nobody likes a brown-noser. And don't call me 'sir'; I work for a living."
The corporal relaxed. "Just trying to kill some time, si—arge. Sarge."
Wells came to a stop in front of the second soldier, who hadn't yet relaxed and was standing as stiff as a post. "How old are you, kid?"
"Eighteen," the young man squeaked.
Bucky joined his new friend in scrutinising the young man. He looked like a slightly more robust version of Steve, only with light brown, combed-back hair and dark brown eyes. The guy couldn't have been a day over sixteen, but only God knew how he'd managed to lie his way into enlisting.
"No, really," Bucky said.
"Really, si—um—Sarge. I'm eighteen."
"What's your name?" Wells asked.
"Tipper, si—Sarge. Private Michael Tipper."
"And how long have you been eighteen for, Tipper?"
"Long enough, Sarge."
"Ha! Good answer!" Wells grinned. "What about you, Carrot-top?"
"Corporal Kenny Robbins," he saluted.
"Ugh, don't keep doing that, it makes me dizzy." Wells stopped in front of the Corporal, who was taller than him by an inch. "Good work on those beds, Carrot. Whilst we're here, it'll be your job to ensure every bunk is regulation for each morning inspection. Think you can handle it?"
Carrot puffed up with internal pride. "Yes Sarge, you can count on me."
"Good. That puts my mind at ease. Does it put your mind at ease, Sergeant Barnes?"
"Sure does," he grinned back. Poor Carrot didn't seem to realise that he'd just been nominated for bed-making duty. Ah well, he'd learn soon enough. Bucky made a mental note to keep an eye on Tipper. The kid reminded him a little too much of Steve, and he'd do whatever it took to make sure Tipper wasn't sat on by anyone on the base, 107th or not.
Wells lay his rifle down under his bed and hoisted his duffel on top of the blanket. Rubbing his hands together, he looked up to Carrot and Tipper. "Right, boys, let's see what you've brought for barter."