I have always thought that in times of war I would be the hero of the story, not the monster. I thought that human courage that we all shared would in the army would carry me through the hardest moments. I thought that the will that I had inside me to fight the people I love would help me fight the enemy, but here I hide a survivor with the blood of brothers soaking in my clothing as the enemy footsteps grow closer.
I huddled in the corner of the enemy pillbox. The earth was moved by the explosions to cover the entrance, leaving me trapped in a concrete bunker behind enemy lines. It was an operation that was supposed to go so well, but instead it left many of my soldiers in arms dead beside me with me as the last living greenhorn. I was out of the sights of the Germans that marched around me. Now and then I would see a shadow of them cast in the light, helmets keeping the heads of the killers.
I waited, patiently, for a change in shifts that would allow me to burrow through the dirt, maybe escape this mess in the cover of darkness, but the longer I spent in the machine-gun nest the more hesitant I became about leaving. There was a sense of security being in there, keeping hidden away from hostile forces. I spent two days wondering if each day was the one where an officer would order the troops to clear the entrance in order to get the nest functioning again, but it never happened.
Soon I grew too hungry, the food I scavenged off of the soldiers around me long since eaten. I began to dig, knowing that it was better to try for freedom to get any weaker. I felt a little more confident, albeit anxious about my escape. I knew now that it didn’t take much for a planned operation to go wrong. A witness in the wrong place meant deaf in this part of the world and getting past the enemy unseen was a tall order. However, this was not a planned escape, this was desperation.
Under the cover of darkness I began shoveling away at the dirt with my helmet, piles forming on the limbs or bodies of my closest friends in the team. When at last some faint light began to shine down from the night sky I turned to look back at the bodies. Each one was laid on their stomachs to make it easier for me to stay in the pillbox, I couldn’t bear to see their faces. Saying that last goodbye must have been what reaffirmed my on the need to survive. Of course, it was my fault for their deaths.
The leader of our group showed courage, fought to cover our escape with tremendous skill and effort, but it was all made wrong with one terrified throw. A grenade intended for the enemy, but thrown without regard to my group. The ones that lay inside were butchered by the explosion while I hid behind them, the rest were shot on sight outside the pillbox. As my head peaked out for the hole I saw them, their bodies rotting and festering, blue from the cold.
Looking away helped. It hid their faces, their bodies, but I was stuck with that grim scent as I crawled into the bushes. I continued to crawl, further from war and towards the small hills and fields. It was a long way, especially if I was to make that distance on my belly. After a series of close calls when German boots marched on the roads I was far enough away to crouch instead.
For a brief moment after my escape I thought for a moment I heard voices. The ones of the soldiers who fought for themselves, for their country and for me. As it turned out, it was the voice of one soldier and he was whispering to me from the bushes. I panicked on the spot, knowing that he asked me the code word and I was struggling to find a response that would prove me an ally. It vanished, I didn’t have a clue what the second half of the code was and I closed my eyes waiting for the knife from shadows of even the bullet.
“Philip?” was what I heard next and I was soon pulled into the bush.
Once I opened my eyes I saw there was another soldier from the same team, more than that, it was the team leader, one I thought to have been shot down. He was injured, leaning against the brambles, appearing half-starved. He asked me what happened to the others, but the look in his eyes although optimistic, expected the truth as well. I told him there was a grenade, but didn’t say it was me who through it. He nodded sadly, but didn’t seem to give me a friendly glance after that. I believe he knew who threw it.
He handed me a cigarette and placed one in his mouth. Covering the light with his hand so we wouldn’t be spotted he lit them and we smoked in memory of the fallen. There wasn’t much else we could do in that situation and I didn’t have anything that could treat the team leader, foolishly I left all medical supplies with the medic, not even taking some bandage for surface wounds.
The next day help arrived in the form of a platoon who devastated the enemy stationed in the area. My leader, who was carried carefully out of the bush, was given a heroes celebration as one commanding officer shook his hand. There whispers amongst the two as they discussed what happened and the pillbox investigated. By the end of the day, everyone knew what had happened and how I survived without me having to say anything. I was shunned, of course, but I lived till the end of the war. In times of war I believed I would grow into a hero, but instead I learned a lesson. In times of war you become who you really are and in my case that was a coward.