Fan-Fiction based on TV Show Combat! Copyright Selmur Production, Inc., ABC, Image Productions etc. Disclaimer: Combat! and its characters do not belong to me, this WWII story is a piece of fan-fiction and I am not being compensated in any tangible way for this story.
Missing scenes from, and a tag end to "Bridgehead," season 2, episode 2.
What happens when a soldier makes a fatal mistake?
The squad, ordered to secure a small, but still-intact bridge that was needed for the Allied advance, was pinned down by a desperate rear-guard action of the Krauts. The Krauts had blown up a tank sent in to dislodge them and the two forces were at a stalemate. If the Germans retreated, they had orders to blow the bridge. Saunders had orders to capture the bridge intact and within the hour.
Saunders managed to get his squad into two forward positions near the bridge, a partially destroyed church and a small house formerly occupied by Kraut defenders. Now, just one stubborn group of Krauts remained, and they were at the gatehouse right up against the bridge. The fire coming from this stronghold was withering and Saunders made the only viable tactical move left to him; they would have to cross the bridge and blast out the Krauts.
"Scott!" yelled Littlejohn. The word hung, suspended in time, then an explosion rent the world apart, at least that piece of the world on a small dusty bridge in somewhere France.
Kirby uttered a shocked, sotto voce, "Oh, my God," as he realized what just happened. From his vantage point in the little house across from the church, Billy Nelson turned from the sight at the bridge, stunned beyond words. Littlejohn had gone wide on the bridge to get around Scott and Saunders. That put him under direct fire from the Krauts. A bullet struck at his feet causing him to stumble and fall. He dropped his cluster of armed grenades and they tumbled down the slope of the bridge. They rolled to a stop in a small depression at the base of the house where the Krauts had taken up position, guarding the approach to the bridge.
"Oh, damn! Scott is too close!" The thought raced through Littlejohn's mind. He yelled to warn Scott, but there was no time to react. That was all the time Scott had left on this Earth.
Saunders, shocked as anyone, pushed the whole disastrous event to the back of his mind. He had to get Littlejohn and himself off that damned bridge and to some place a little safer, not that they were safe anywhere in this town. He forced himself to crawl forward, collect Littlejohn, and move past Scott. Although Saunders pushed Scott's mangled body to the side, there was no avoiding the blood and gore in their path. Saunders controlled his rising bile as best he could and dragged Littlejohn along until the private could regain a bit of self-preservation.
They huddled in the scant protection of the bridge's wall. Once Saunders was sure Littlejohn was able to focus, they broke cover and headed back to the church.
"They're breaking! They're breaking!" yelled Cole as the two dashed towards the church.
From the church, the squad kept up a near-constant fusillade to distract the Krauts from the pair as they sprinted across the open ground. Kirby ran out to cover them and got shot for his trouble. The B.A.R. man made his way back into the church, while Sarge and Littlejohn managed to reach the protection of the blasted hulk of the tank.
They stopped for a brief moment and the squad paused in their firing, conserving ammo. The pair was only halfway back; they still had to make it to the church.
Oh, this day! Could it get any worse?
It could and did. They'd almost made it to the church doors when Littlejohn fell, shot in the leg. Doc and Cole helped Saunders drag him in. Doc quickly evaluated him. After a questioning look from Saunders, Doc stated what everyone already knew, Littlejohn was done for the day. Physically, perhaps, he could have contributed his rifle to the effort, but emotionally, Littlejohn was in shock and could not function.
Littlejohn overwhelmed with guilt, tried to talk to Sarge about it. Sarge stopped him. The sergeant knew it would take time and care for this staunch member of the squad to come back from such a horrendous event, and there was no time to spare right now. Why this bridge had to be taken in, Saunders stole a fast glance at his watch, less than 30 minutes was beyond him. Not only did it have to be taken on some inane timeline that someone far from the fighting had decreed as doable, but his squad was the only asset available to do the dirty work. Saunders still had a mission to accomplish and men to keep alive. For now, he could only offer the barest of consolation to the private. Sarge looked steadily at Littlejohn and told him, "Forget about it. Just forget about it." Cold comfort but what else could he say or do in the instant?
In a flash, Saunders appraised the situation. He'd lost two, maybe three men forever; only one rifle was firing from the house across the way. Littlejohn was done, perhaps for the duration, if he couldn't get past Scott's death. Kirby, though functional, was in rough shape. That left only three able-bodied men in the church, including himself. He didn't count Doc, though an integral part of the squad. The medic was a non-combatant, and by the rules of engagement, could not fight. Anyway, Doc's fighting was of a different sort and he usually had his hands full once the bullets started to fly.
They had to dislodge the Krauts and keep that bridge intact so somebody's tactical desires AND schedule from up the chain could be satisfied. Saunders mentally muttered a curse or two, then pushed anger aside as he rapidly worked through various options in his mind. Settling on one, Saunders fixed Doc with a steely look that excluded everyone in the squad except the medic.
"I don't care how you do it, just get me some TNT," demanded Saunders. With those words echoing in the sudden quiet of the church, Saunders helped Doc get Littlejohn to his feet, handed the private his rifle, and watched the two as they left for the CP and makeshift hospital. Saunders sighed as he spared them a last glance. At least those two might survive the day, he mused, then turned back to the business at hand.
Back at the CP, Doc tried to console Littlejohn as he worked on him, but Littlejohn was beyond comfort. In shock from both the wound and emotion, he shivered violently. He wrapped his arms around himself, trying in vain to stop both the shivering and his thoughts from dwelling on the disaster at the bridge. The guilt weighed so heavily on his soul that it stifled his senses. He scarcely felt the pain of the bullet wound or Doc's bandaging efforts. He heard Doc's words, but they just rattled his eardrums. Every time Littlejohn tried to talk about what happened on the bridge, Doc interrupted.
Footsteps on the staircase. It was Hanley, coming down to contact HQ to report progress, or more likely, lack thereof. He changed his mind as he registered the scene below him and went over to Littlejohn. Hanley offered a few words of consolation to the private, but the soldier was in no mood to listen.
Practically in tears, he confessed to the Lieutenant the horror he knew was his fault. Littlejohn needed to be heard; he had to talk to somebody. Doc hadn't let him talk; at least the Lieutenant listened. Littlejohn relived those moments; not only had he killed Scott, he had to crawl over the shredded body, compounding the guilt. When softer words had no effect, Hanley bluntly stated that the "Krauts killed Scott, not you," and repeated that message.
The lieutenant looked at Doc and asked how Littlejohn was doing. Doc, irritated by the bromides, clichés, and platitudes that rang of hollow comfort to a soldier in crisis, erupted at Hanley.
It was getting old, real old, patching people up, just to have them get wounded again, or worse, killed. These soldiers were more than just casualties to Doc, they were his friends. One was hurting in a place that no amount of sulfa or bandages could touch. "Time for me to really get in this man's war. With a gun," Doc thought.
Casting aside his medic's armband, Doc demanded a rifle. He was tired of seeing his friends being hurt in any of a myriad of ways; tired that he could only bandage, comfort, and pronounce their prognosis to Sarge, the Lieutenant, or another squad mate. He was afraid that by war's end, he would lose them all, and all he could do was watch.
Taken aback by Doc's outburst, Hanley listened while he weighed his response. When Doc paused for breath, he thought, "Enough! Doc's going to say or do something he'll regret later."
Hanley drew himself up to his full height, threw off the "comrade-in-arms" attitude and assumed his commander's stance and tone. He minced no words. Maybe Doc was right, maybe the medic would be the only one to make it through the war. But it was a sure fact that if each soldier, "you, me, him, the others," didn't do their job, then none of them would be alive when the war was over. Hanley stared at Doc. "Understand?"
Hanley's eyes bored holes through Doc and the medic squirmed under that gimlet glare. "Yes, sir." Doc quavered back. Nothing like a good dressing-down to make a man rethink some hasty words; then, "Yes, sir!" more strongly as Hanley reiterated his question.
The medic put back on his armband while he told Hanley the other reason for bringing Littlejohn back to the CP. Doc took up his bag while the lieutenant grabbed some TNT. As Hanley followed Doc out, he paused by Littlejohn to touch his shoulder and reassure the private that it would be okay.
Now, Littlejohn was alone with his thoughts. He shivered on the cot as he fought against the physical and mental shocks of the day. He had been scared to go across that bridge with Sarge and Scott, and he knew he showed it. Did that fear make him too clumsy? Did he worry more about his safety than for his squad mates? He could not help it–bitter tears of remorse and sadness trickled from his eyes as he thought about the day's events. He even dredged up memories of skirmishes fought over the last several weeks. Littlejohn was wallowing in guilt, and dammit, he was going to wallow. What else could he do, lying here out of the fight and waiting for news?
It wasn't as if Littlejohn hadn't killed men before. Like the core of the squad, he'd gone through the meat grinder of D-Day. He'd put his sights on the enemy more times than he could count, pulled the trigger, and checked the bodies afterward. He killed one-on-one and even felt them die; can't get more personal than that. He'd thrown grenades into enemy positions and looked at that carnage, but this–this was different. It was a buddy, a squad mate. "Oh, God, what have I done?" Littlejohn, in his misery, let his mind drift to the future and what the squad would say when he rejoined them. Would they ever trust him again or would they hold Scott's death against him?
He knew he could be clumsy, a "big moose" Kirby called him, and Littlejohn could not disagree. He towered over the rest of the squad by a good eight inches or more. Only the Lieutenant came close to matching his stature. His height could be a positive. He could see over things easier, could haul up or boost the shorter members of the squad over tall walls or other obstacles, and could reach higher than anyone else. "Hah!" Littlejohn snickered to himself as he recalled a few times when he held a bottle of wine overhead and watched Kirby jump to try and snatch it, always just falling short. He loved getting Kirby back, but.
But his size also made him a liability. He could not hide as easily as the others or slip into narrow spaces; and his big feet, damn, they were so big, he sometimes felt like he had clown feet. Kirby, especially, made his size a running jibe. When they fought together though, Kirby put all that aside, at least until they were safe again. Littlejohn knew Kirby would stick to the end unless ordered back. Even then, he would constantly be casting about for other alternatives if that order meant that someone in the squad had to stay behind. As the two of them grew more comfortable with each other, Kirby's remarks were less biting and more like the teasing of a brother; maybe not the nicest brother, but still a brother. Anyway, Littlejohn could always give Kirby as good as he got.
Today, Littlejohn half-expected Kirby to lash out about Scott, but Kirby said nothing. Littlejohn knew then that Kirby would never mention the bridge or Scott. Hellar would probably throw it in his face, but then, Hellar, what an obnoxious jerk. Littlejohn seldom thought that about anyone, but he'd make an exception for that bum. Hellar made Kirby, at his worst, look like a saint. Hellar cared about Hellar, nobody else; at least nobody in the squad. Anyway, Hellar had applied for a transfer to a band, so regardless, he was not staying. Littlejohn dismissed Hellar.
Cole and Johnson. Littlejohn barely knew either. Folded into the squad as temporary members, they would likely move on. Cole seemed okay. Good shot, steady, listened to Saunders, and followed orders. Johnson was another matter. Littlejohn hoped he wouldn't stay with the squad. He was too scared, and Littlejohn didn't know if he'd ever be reliable.
Now, Littlejohn thought about the rest of the squad. Billy would try and comfort him just like Doc had. They would treat him with velvet gloves. Although Littlejohn had never seen or felt velvet gloves, that was the expression that came to mind. That was a pleasant thought. No! That was not what Littlejohn wanted, or at least that's not what he thought he deserved. He wanted to be punished for Scott. But still, it was nice to know that he had two friends that would always offer the kind words.
Then Caje. He hadn't been here today. Caje would probably say something to the effect that he understood. Maybe he did; he'd killed that French civilian with a grenade.
And Kirby, well, Kirby had some righteous anger when he felt someone had done wrong or screwed up the squad. But Kirby had said all he ever would about Scott's death, absolutely nothing. Kirby would lock memories of this day down tight, never to be mentioned in front of Littlejohn. Most likely, Kirby would welcome him back with a "big moose" comment and treat him like he always had, which was fine with Littlejohn.
Most important to Littlejohn was what Sarge thought. Sarge already told him to just forget about it and move on. He carried the heaviest burden of guilt in the squad. Sarge led men into battles that resulted in many casualties and deaths; not just here in France but from what Littlejohn had gleaned, in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. He never asked a man to do something that he wouldn't do. A real leader. He'd earned the squad's unswerving loyalty a thousand times over, even if those orders had sometimes gotten some of them hurt or killed. Yah, Sarge knew all about guilt.
Each death and casualty weighed heavily on their leader; otherwise, he wouldn't visit his wounded in the aid stations or try and say goodbye to each soldier under his command that fell. Somehow Saunders buried those regrets deep enough so he could do his job. Littlejohn thought, yes, the Sarge understood how badly this tore at his core. Sarge would be there for Littlejohn as he recovered from this day, if he recovered.
That left Hanley. Well, he wasn't in the squad, he was the platoon's lieutenant. Hanley had other squads to deal with. Still, as far as Littlejohn was concerned, Hanley was part of the squad. Littlejohn had been with the lieutenant long enough to know that it cost him to give those orders that sent men into battle and to their deaths. For the most part, Hanley was one step removed from the consequences of his orders; he wasn't there at every action. But, unlike some other officers that Littlejohn observed, Hanley cared, and he was a fighting man. He didn't hide in a CP far away from the action. He knew each of them by name. He often visited the men when they found themselves at the aid station, made sure they were okay, and shared a smoke or a joke with them. Hanley, Littlejohn decided, would do his best to help him regain his footing.
Finally, Littlejohn lay quiet, reassured in his mind that the squad would support him, but still, that was a lot to ask of them. Exhausted from the physical and emotional trauma of the day, and tired of thinking, he closed his eyes and waited for sleep or news or something. He really didn't want to sleep; he was afraid the nightmares would come. The men he'd killed would sometimes appear, uninvited, into his dreams, but never had he killed a fellow American, at least not that he knew of. Fatigue won out and Littlejohn began to sink into sleep, but in that hazy state between near-sleep and unconsciousness, Scott appeared.
Littlejohn could neither raise a hand to ward off the vision, he felt frozen in place, nor rouse himself enough to push sleep away completely. Scott looked like he had in the last few moments of life, scared. Littlejohn was afraid that he would relive that horrible moment when the grenades exploded and sent Scott into oblivion. Oh, God, he did not need THAT nightmare. Then Littlejohn fell all the way into sleep, Scott sliding down with him. Yet, in the fractured bits of the dream that he remembered later, Scott never accused, never cursed Littlejohn. That wasn't Scott's way. In his dream, surrounded by the squad, Scott was telling one of his silly stories, pulling Kirby's leg, and teasing Billy. The whole squad was laughing, and then they seemed to fade, and only Scott remained.
Scott looked directly at Littlejohn and said, as clearly as if he were still among the living, "Littlejohn, you can't help what happened. Yeah, you're clumsy and have big feet, but it wasn't all your fault. Remember, I tripped too, and didn't get as far away from the house as I intended when I threw my grenades. And it wasn't as if we had time to get back up that bridge. The Krauts had a bead on us and were shooting like crazy. You had to hurry up and throw, or else they were gonna get us. If you'd gone before me, then maybe it would have been you lying on that bridge, not me. It's not your time." Then, after a moment, "Don't forget me, but don't let me ruin your life." Other bits of days and nights in Normandy swirled around the edges of the dream before the private settled into a dreamless sleep.
The noise of several men coming down the staircase woke him. Littlejohn kept his eyes closed; he wasn't sure he was ready to face the squad.
First, Saunders and Hanley came over to see how he was doing. "You okay, Littlejohn?" asked Saunders quietly. Littlejohn reluctantly opened his eyes and nodded. Both the Lieutenant and the Sarge touched his shoulder and moved away.
Billy, still shaken by the day's events, slid down on the floor next to Littlejohn, exhausted. On his way down, he patted Littlejohn's good leg and murmured, "Good to see you."
Cole and Doc followed down the stairs, Doc helping Kirby as the adrenaline had worn off and left Kirby drained. Kirby, true to form, griped about his shoulder because the crisis had passed, and he would live to fight another day. Doc sat Kirby next to Littlejohn. Kirby laid his good hand on Littlejohn's shoulder for a brief squeeze and gave him a reassuring look, all the while complaining about his shoulder. Littlejohn knew that was Kirby's way, to pretend he didn't care as much as he really did.
Littlejohn asked about the missing men. Saunders said quietly, "Hellar's dead. He stopped a Kraut from blowing up the bridge. Johnson is hurt, another medic is checking him over."
First squad, second platoon, took a beating that day but they accomplished the mission. It would take time for them to recover; it was a hard-fought and costly skirmish. At least, Littlejohn contemplated, his closest buddies had survived, he was grateful for that. He survived, and surprisingly, he was grateful to be alive. He was sorry about the others, even Hellar, but nothing came close to how he felt about Scott.
This day would stay with him for the rest of his life. Littlejohn figured the dead from today would join that parade of dead and wounded soldiers, friend and foe, that visited him in dreams, not always pleasant ones. Scott would certainly be there; however, the dream earlier today helped sort through what happened at the bridge. It would take time to get through Scott's death and his part in it. He surely owed Scott a visit to his grave, but Littlejohn had taken the first steps towards forgiving himself when he realized he was grateful for having survived the day.
Surrounded by friends, Littlejohn dozed while the remainder of the squad rested. Hanley took a call from Captain Jampel. After answering a few questions from HQ, and while still on the phone, he gestured to Saunders to wait.
"Copy. King Two out." Hanley replaced the receiver and glanced over at the decimated squad. "Alright, Sergeant, battalion aid is set up in a building near that fountain in the town center. Littlejohn and Kirby need to get over there. Johnson is already there."
Billy and Cole readied a stretcher for Littlejohn. Kirby would have to manage with Doc's support, there weren't enough men to carry two stretchers. Hanley fished out a couple of cigarettes and his lighter. "Looks like I'll have to get a request in for more replacements," he thought, but didn't say it out loud.
Saunders slung his Thompson up on his shoulder and turned to Hanley, "We're ready to go, Lieutenant."
"Right, Sergeant. Come back here when you've settled those two. Meantime, I'll find a place for you and the men to stay for the night."
Saunders started to follow his men up the stairs. "Oh, Saunders." The sergeant turned back. Hanley offered Saunders one of the cigarettes, and lit the sergeant's, then his. The two enjoyed a moment of quiet as they smoked in companionable silence. Then, "Saunders, the squad did well. I'm sorry about the men we lost."
Saunders nodded, but said nothing. The two shared a commiserating look, counting the cost and the accomplishment. Then, "Thanks, Lieutenant. I'll let the men know." Saunders adjusted his tommy gun and trailed after his men. Another day, another village and a few more casualties to rack up in this man's war.