Disclaimer. As much as I'd like it to be so, these characters don't belong to me, but to Combat! and Selmur Productions, ABC, and Image Productions. I receive no monetary compensation for my work.
As I indicated in the previous chapter, this is the final chapter in the story. I have sketches for the continuation but so as not to keep people in suspense, as I've done with a previous story, I'm thinking to conclude with this chapter. (Really, how long can I keep that radio call going?)
This chapter is a bit grim, in keeping with the squad's discoveries at Trois Anges. As the series spared us many hard details about how the SS dealt with civilians and German troops found without papers, I will as well. I expand slightly in author's notes at the end, but I have no desire to elaborate further.
The aftermath of any engagement was always a bit confused. Most times, he'd look around in surprise, wondering how he found himself in a particular place or situation. As long as he came out alive, along with his squad, he supposed he did okay. Danger, take cover, reaction, fight back, eliminate the enemy, check for survivors, regroup. It was a pattern, repeated over and over as they pushed the krauts back, back towards Germany.
What happened during combat was not necessarily remembered correctly. He was too busy trying to survive to take mental notes. Some memories were crystal clear, others misty, almost as if he'd seen and felt them through someone else's eyes and minds. Memories often assembled themselves as he thought things should have happened, not how they actually happened.
The confrontation at Trois Anges was no different. It could have been like any other close combat situation, any other little village they'd fought through. Except for afterwards. This afterwards was the worst he'd seen because the village was intact, but the people. Not.
Kirby remembered Caje at the kübelwagen or whatever the krauts called it, sorting through the bodies. Checking for survivors; making sure there were no surprises.
He'd stayed at the jeep to take care of Freddo and Billy. Smith was beyond any help. Nelson was another matter. He'd eased him back and quickly checked him. He yelled for Doc to "Get over here, now! I need help!" unmindful of any hostile ears that might be listening.
He needed to go with Caje. It was too dangerous for a man to go around clearing buildings without support. But he wouldn't leave Nelson until Doc got there. Billy couldn't defend himself if he had to. He was barely conscious as it was, fighting to hang on, despite Kirby telling him to "take it easy. I've got you," in between hollers for assistance from the medic.
As soon as Doc arrived and he got the nod, Kirby took off to help clear the town. But there were only five, including the Lieutenant, that were still capable.
Hanley's orders were clear after that confrontation. Find the American paratroopers, the Underground and Resistance fighters. Find the traitor. There had to be one.
Saunders questioned the wisdom to do all that with just the five men. Not that his men weren't capable and wouldn't do it. He had all the trust in the world in his men, but to ask so much of the few that were still standing.
They'd already been shot up and who knew if any krauts remained. Especially if they were SS men with a fanatical officer in charge. He'd seen the SS collar tabs on one of the dead krauts. If SS remained. Akin to suicide to go through the entire village with his three and just the Lieutenant. That was assuming Hanley came with them. Somebody had to stay and guard Doc and Billy. That would take them down to four. No. He couldn't and wouldn't order his men to do that. Get more men.
Kirby was there when Hanley got on the horn to HQ. He could hear the Lieutenant's part of the conversation and this time Hanley was not going to settle for just a few more men.
They needed additional men in Trois Anges. There had been a skirmish with casualties. Lots. The squad needed an ambulance or two to come with the medics. No, they hadn't found the paratroopers yet, but thought they were still hidden somewhere in the village or just outside. Needed at least the rest of his platoon, preferably more. The Lieutenant didn't give details beyond that except to say that he wasn't leaving until the village was securely in American hands. He informed HQ that the squad would be waiting for them at the edge of town. Waiting for reinforcements and medical help.
As soon as the reinforcements came, they began to clear the village.
There it was. Cold, hard, awful. Staring them in the face. What happened in Trois Anges after they'd left with Miss Hunt in tow.
The SS had paid Trois Anges a visit. There were some regular krauts mixed in, but Kirby knew that the SS would always be in charge. And the SS could force regular kraut soldiers to do bad things.
Fortunately for the citizens, the SS had less than a day to wreak havoc. He'd heard rumors about the SS, how they dealt with the Resistance and Underground. How citizens paid. He knew they were deadly in combat, fighting with a ferocity that the average kraut unit didn't display, but this wasn't combat, what they saw. It was more like what he thought the Gestapo would do. There must be a special place in Hell for men like that. Men with no soul. He hoped to God there was.
These people, these villagers, were civilians. It was awful. Some had been badly beaten before execution. Some of what he saw, he'd call it torture. The lucky ones were shot. The others. Slow and painful. He did not want to recall any of this memory, but he knew it would be seared in his mind for a very long time, perhaps forever. If he ever spoke of it, it would be only to those who had been there. Or maybe some official from G2 or S2 or whatever.
It was bad enough that resistance members and the Underground people had been executed, but there were citizens. Average, everyday people that had been swept up by the SS just because they lived in Trois Anges. Innocent townspeople, tortured and killed. Because they greeted Americans with open arms? To make Madame Michelin and her fellow partisans talk? Reveal where paratroopers were hidden? That must have been some terrible last visions for her and the others. Witnessing the torment of their friends before their death.
Brave. Heartbreaking. Horrible.
With the rest of the squad, he searched for the enemy that might still be in town. Except for the few krauts they'd encountered on patrol or in that ambush at the edge of town, there were none, either living or dead. Good. He might not be able to stop himself from finishing off a prisoner, if they were SS. It would be hard enough if they were just the regular krauts.
A sobbing, shivering bundle of girl crouched at the edge of a bridge caught his attention. Her dress was torn and dirty, one shoe missing.
He touched her shoulder. She jerked back and tried to curl up smaller. She was tenser than a tightly coiled spring and he didn't want to do anything that would cause her to bolt away.
He remembered how he coaxed her to let him help her, reassuring her over and over that "it's alright. It's okay." As if she understood.
It was probably the tone of his voice and the quiet hand on her shoulder that finally made her relax and turn to face him. Tears, bruises, and scrapes marred her face. Scratches on her arms and who knows what else.
His lovely mademoiselle of the jeep.
She still shook. Cold, fear, shock. He couldn't tell and it didn't really matter. Damned bastard SS jerks. He was not sorry he'd killed a few of them.
He took off his jacket and wrapped it around her. She might be cold and if, well, he wouldn't think about that. Her dress was torn and that was enough for him. He gently maneuvered her to her feet. One hand on his rifle, he supported the girl with his other as they walked over to the little first aid station the Americans had set up. She was as much a casualty of war as any soldier.
As he handed her over, he tried his best, with what few French words he had, to tell her they would take very good care of her. She tried to give him back his jacket. He shook his head, and gestured for her to keep it. He could always collect it later. He gave her a little smile, one of his slightly skewed smiles. She did her best to return it. As he turned away, he heard her say "Merci, monsieur."
More thanks than he ever expected and more than he had a right to receive, he thought as he went off to join the rest of his little squad, now reforming around Billy, still at the jeep.
Miss Hunt. What happened to Miss Hunt? Kirby only saw and heard little snippets of what she did once she came into Trois Anges.
Miss Hunt must have arrived about the same time as the reinforcements, maybe a bit sooner. He wasn't sure, he hadn't seen her come in. He was busy still sorting out the dead and injured, checking through buildings.
All he knew is that he'd seen Sarge walk up to her as she was taking pictures of the squad's casualties and of the dead Germans. Sarge had as grim a look on his face as he had ever seen. And that posture. Stiff, unyielding, radiating barely suppressed anger.
He could only imagine what Sarge had said to her, but he figured it was blunt and barely civil. He'd just come from the building where they'd found several townspeople, some dead, some only damaged.
War was that way. Not nice, clean, or painless. It was raw, filthy, and excruciating, whether it was a small engagement or a full-blown battle. There was nothing tidy about this skirmish.
The blood and gore were real, the physical wounds painful, the mental pain as bad. Billy had unbidden tears in his eyes from the hurt and was barely conscious. The villagers, even if they hadn't been hurt, they had witnessed something that would be a part of Trois Anges, forever.
Then there were the dead. Their squad mate dead. The French dead. Even the krauts.
This day, this little fight, would barely be worth more than a line or two in the official Battalion or Company diary. But it cost Sarge, his squad dearly.
Kirby had ears and used 'em. He overheard Sarge talking to the Lieutenant as they walked back to HQ.
How Miss Hunt acted and did as Saunders escorted her through the village. He'd shown her the destruction, the human casualties as they went through Trois Anges. He watched her take pictures of the dead men, krauts and American, his injured men, the freed Americans that had been hidden in the village. What finally broke it for Sarge was watching her take pictures of the three Underground people as they hung there, lifeless. He had to leave. It was all too ghoulish and too inappropriate. So wrong to take pictures of the dead, especially these dead. To Saunders' way of thinking, immoral. He'd tried to make her understand that what she was seeing was not a story, but people. People caught in a terrible situation not of their own making. Even the krauts, in death, deserved more than the cold eye of a camera. Saunders told Hanley the only comments he'd ever heard her say was "It's my job" as she kept snapping away.
Kirby remembered Sarge coming back as the squad gathered around Billy, lending moral support and comfort as they waited for an ambulance to come.
At first, Saunders couldn't trust himself to speak he was so furious, disgusted. Disgusted at Hunt taking pictures that were beyond the pale, furious at the situation, angry they hadn't been able to get those people to safety in time.
It took Saunders several seconds before he could kneel beside Billy and tell him he'd be okay. That he'd be coming back before anyone knew it. And that Billy was a good soldier, a good man.
As he began to drag himself back to the now, Kirby thought, what a waste. All for a story. A phony story, too, because they hadn't really liberated that village. Not until after the damage had been done.
The Americans would help sort things out, but they wouldn't stay very long. A reserve unit would probably move in and stay until the local French authorities took over. That was the usual pattern.
Trois Anges would have to take care of their own.
In his opinion, there wasn't a story or photograph worth the life of anyone, not even a kraut. Except for an SS man, maybe. He'd make an exception for those jerks. He'd yet to meet a nice one. Actually, he'd not met any of them, not as prisoners, at least. He wondered if they were as fanatical as the Japanese he'd heard about; fighting to the death and killing as many Allied troops as possible. Well, he'd be okay pulling the trigger on an SS man if it was death the bastard wanted.
That last thought about the SS and movement from below brought any reminiscing to an abrupt end. He straightened up from his tree, pushed his helmet back firmly down on his head and made ready. From the corner of his eye, he watched Littlejohn go through the same motions.
"Kirby?" Littlejohn addressed him.
"Yeah?" came Kirby's soft response.
"I'm going down a few yards, just to make sure. Ya wanna check up that way? We need to make sure everything is clear before Sarge gets everyone back on their feet and we're on our way. Looks like we'll be headed out soon."
"Yah, Littlejohn." "He'll probably send us anyway." "For a change, we'll beat him to it." Kirby grinned and pointed down to Sarge.
The big man looked to Sarge, started to pull his gaze away, but then paused to study the sergeant. Saunders hadn't yet turned up in their direction to signal them to either come down or go check the ridge for intruders. His helmet dangled from a hand. The other was running through his hair.
"Kirby. Doesn't look like Sarge made out too well on that call, does it?"
Kirby looked hard at Sarge. "Yah." The man was upset, no matter how he tried to hide it. The new ones wouldn't notice, but he and Littlejohn knew. They could read the signs.
Kirby couldn't see Sarge's face, but he could tell by the set of his shoulders, the way he wasn't looking at anyone. He'd separated himself from the little group and found a tree to lean against, looking off in some direction. Away from the squad. Away from Littlejohn and him.
Sarge did that whenever news was bad, or he had to deliver an order that he disagreed with. He would think, strategize, figure out how to say things. Sarge was good about taking the burden on himself before he shared the news. He didn't sugarcoat stuff, but he was careful how to say things.
"Hey, Littlejohn, if he looks up this way, let him know I'll be right back."
"Okay," came the taciturn reply.
With those few words, the two went on their self-appointed scouts. They were glad to get moving again. Whatever Sarge decided, they would be fine with. The longer they stayed in one place, the more likely something would happen. And on the front lines, something happening wasn't usually positive.
The end. For now.
I wonder how often this story played out as the Germans retreated. Not necessarily created by a war correspondent but by citizens eager to throw off the yoke of an occupying force. And doing it before it was safe to do so. Retribution by the occupiers could be swift and brutal, sometimes punishing many for the acts of a few people. "Guilty by association," the operative phrase.
Another idiom that may have fallen into disuse.
Beyond the pale – goes beyond what most people considered right and proper. Offensive, inappropriate. Showing pictures of dead bodies was not something that was done back in that day in the popular media, which was newspapers, magazines, and news reels. When the dead were shown, it was usually only the enemy and there were not closeups of faces or injuries. It just wasn't right. Not that those pictures weren't taken. They were. We've seen plenty of them in books, but at the time, they weren't often published for public consumption. Times were different and people had a better level of decorum.
Combat! Didn't follow a specific time progression so one episode wouldn't necessarily follow on the heels of the one before. At the time of this reminiscence, Kirby didn't know what Miss Hunt's fate was.
Did she have her credentials pulled? Did she get sent straight back to the States? Or was her reputation as a stellar photographer enough and / or her agency have enough horsepower and influence to keep her in the ETO. Of course, he wouldn't know if he was part of any articles that she had written. Sarge's big package with her magazine spread came later. Maybe Kirby's folks saw him in some little articles she had written up and sent back for publication.
Black and white masked some of the brutality of what soldiers saw and experienced. So when pictures came out, they weren't as shocking as they might have been in color. Red was not as obvious as the color did not stand out from any other dark color. As a matter of course, the series Combat! and 12 O'Clock High used chocolate syrup to mimic blood during the years the series were filmed in black and white. It flowed about like blood and looked the same on film. Eleanor's story as we were shown it at the end would have been skirting the edge, with the dead American and German side by side. Some of her pictures were probably printed in color, most likely the cover spread and perhaps a crowd scene, but the harsher scenes would have been rendered in black and white. As a world-class photographer, she would have had both color and black and white film (B&W) at her disposal. B&W is much easier to develop and more stable as film and as a final product. Color film and the solutions to process it are inherently unstable, which makes it much more difficult to develop and to keep the "true color."
On a personal note, I would help my father develop B&W film in his little darkroom (he was not a professional photographer but did it for personal satisfaction) but we would never do color. Too tricky, the timing, the temperature, and the developing solutions were very finicky. We always kept unexposed color film in the freezer to keep it cold. Organic dyes can be unstable and hot temperatures can wreak havoc on organic compounds.
Combat! exercised correct restraint. Rather than show graphic violence that resulted in death, it showed implied violence, such as when a soldier was clubbed to death, strangled, or shot, we'd see the start or the aftermath, but not the struggle. The dying soldiers in these situations would quickly go from living to dead in just a few moments. Occasionally we'd see the face of the actor performing the violent act, but just for a couple of seconds. Same in this episode. We saw the actors' faces as reactions to the violence, we saw the shadows of the hung, not the bodies, we saw the tearful faces of the citizenry.
There are any number of books, articles, and documentaries that cover the operations of both the SS and the Gestapo as agents of Hitler's will. German soldiers that had the misfortune to be caught without papers, got lost or turned around, found in sectors where the SS operated were subject to harsh treatment – summary execution. No trial, no excuses, no listening to reason. Combat! showed this a couple of times. Not all members of the SS were fanatical Nazis, but many were, especially those in higher commands in certain units.
After the failed assassination attempt in July 1944, the paranoid Hitler became more fanatical, if that was possible. He mandated a policy of no retreat, no mercy, and scorched earth as his Third Reich collapsed. He blamed the German soldiers and the German people for the losses. The scorched earth policy applied to the German homeland as well as to the captured territories. German soldiers who did not follow these rules faced summary execution, or if "lucky" immediate reassignment to the Eastern Front, where the Soviets were even more brutal than the SS. Not just German soldiers faced this summary execution, but their families back in Germany were labeled as traitors and were often executed as well.