US Army at Anzio: The Long Wait II

Ernie Pyle with a tank crew from the 191st Tank Battalion, US Army at the Anzio Beachhead in 1944.

Corey carried Gumpertz back, losing his rifle in the process. All the way, Gumpertz’ blood ran down Corey’s neck, under his OD shirt, until his whole torso was stained and reeking.

When they got back into their own lines, another man besides Gumpertz had been wounded. This man sat holding his stomach, moaning, while the blood bubbled through, until the medics came and carried him away.

Corey vomited for a full five minutes, before he could go back to his hole. Then he went back without his rifle, and Cresap gave him a real chewing out over that.

A few nights later, the Krauts came to pay them back. Suddenly a wave of men burst out of the ravine, screaming and shooting and hurling long, potato masher grenades. For a minute, even though they had been ready, it was touch and go for Howie Cresap’s platoon.

This time Corey fired his rifle. He saw the dark, fuzzy shape of a lean German soldier blown backward by the blast, heard the man crawling about and crying out in the darkness. When the, attack had been beaten off, the German raiders melting into the night under the savage hammering of the platoon’s weapons and the artillery they had called down, the man Corey had shot continued to scream and moan out in front of the platoon position. Cresap’s men didn’t care—they had five of their own wounded to care for.

The German continued to cry out sporadically all night. None of them knew German, and they didn’t know what he was saying. About an hour before dawn, he died, and the front was quiet.

That day, sweeping the area, Corey found his bullet had blasted away the attacking German’s genitals, tearing, a deep hole in his crotch. Before he died, the German had bit his thin lips to bloody shreds.

At that moment, in Corey Hamilton, Rifleman, something gave way.

The first time you saw a man get it, something happened to you. Especially if you had never seen death before. Inside a man there are a lot of little dams. It takes a great deal to break them all down, if the man is solid to begin with. But cold helps, and hunger, and misery, and lack of sleep. And fear. Fear helps most. And each time you see a man get it, a new little dam bursts, and you are closer to the rawness that is inside every man.

In some men, these dams are stronger than in others. They take longer to break, but if they do, there is nothing left to hold the man together.

The rain fell. The holes were always full of water. Food was C rations, cold and greasy, and who wanted hash for breakfast? And it was always cold.

Day and night, the platoon was shelled. H & I, they called it—harassment and interdiction. Both sides fired it from dark to dawn. How much interdiction was done was anyone’s guess—but there was no doubt about the harassment.

Sleep Corey forgot about. Until he could doze off standing up, in the rain, with his feet in dirty water. After a few days, he found he could. And then he worried, because if he went to sleep at the wrong time, he might never wake up.

There was fear. On line, every man is afraid, has been afraid, or will be afraid, except the liars. Fear, insidious, acid, too-long prolonged, does things to a man, in time.

And men died. Not many, but one here, one there, and always bloodily, brutally, in pain and fear. Mostly, it was the new men, the replacements. The old men, the veterans, had lived to learn that sixth sense which now permitted them to survive. They heard the click as a mortar round went into its tube over there; they hit the ground a split second sooner. They never forgot to keep heads down. The ones who couldn’t learn died.

The new squad leader, Quitman, put Moody and Corey on outpost, out in front of the main platoon position, Corey’s fourteenth day on line.

Their foxholes were a few yards apart. Corey could see Moody’s indistinct shape in the dark, though they could not talk. If they heard anything, it wouldn’t be dark long. One call to the artillery would douse the area with parachute flares.

God, Corey thought, I’m sleepy! I got to keep my mind on something, so I can stay awake. One of the fellows in the third squad had showed him how to rig up a bayonet under his chin, so that the point pricked him when he nodded. But Corey hated the sight of a bayonet. He could still hear Gumpertz’ scream, feel his warm blood down his back. He shuddered.

He didn’t seem able to think about girls any more, and vaguely, this worried him.

Back at Benning, even when his young body was tired from slogging along Hour Glass Road and Black Hawk Trail, at night he dreamed of women. Hell, he even thought of girls while he was running the obstacle course!

He tried to think of Elizabeth, his girl back home. It was hard to think of her—even though he had her letters in his pocket. Her letters, when they came, now and then, were nuttier than ever. I don’t mind your not making OCS, she had written, because privates do all the fighting, anyway. You know dear, you have never said anything about medals—have you won any yet?

Corey Hamilton felt giddy. He shook his head to clear it.

He remembered his mother’s last letter. Don’t get your feet wet, you know how it always gives you a cold.

It had been a mistake, writing his mother. Now he had her all worried, because he had said it rained a lot. If she were here, she’d be raising hell. She had always raised hell, with his Dad, with the high school principal, with the dean at college before the draft got him. He wondered idly how much hell Lieutenant Cresap would take, if his Mom got hold of him. Not very much, he decided.

Pop! A flare burst whitely, throwing wavering light over the blighted area across the gully. Somebody was nervous in the next platoon. Buckabuckabuckabuck. That was a friendly machine gun; the Kraut guns had a higher cyclic rate.

He thought of Elizabeth, her firm, tanned skin against white sheets, holding a bottle of fresh milk. He wondered which he’d take first, the fresh milk or Elizabeth, then decided he’d just go to sleep on the clean sheets.

Then he thought about his mother coming out here to raise hell with Howie Cresap, and he started to laugh. He laughed, and laughed, until he felt a tear trickle down his fuzzy cheek.

Mrs. George Hamilton couldn’t do much about Lieutenant Cresap. She might push Dad around, but not the lieutenant!

Spang!

There was old Joe, the friendly sniper, again. That lousy Kraut had been trying to plug somebody for a week. Corey hadn’t heard the bullet pass, so he must have shot at Moody. Corey hunched lower in his hole, shifting his numb feet in the icy water.

He wished he could take off his boots, but he knew he’d never get his feet back in them again. Change your socks, his mother had said. What the hell good does that do, Mother, since I have to put my feet back in the water again? Huh?

He began to laugh again, this time out loud.

That was pretty good; he’d have to tell it to old Moody.

Moody would get a kick out of it; Moody, with his drawl, and his calm, cool, green eyes, was quite a boy. Nothing ever bothered Moody—Moody said that was because of the inherent superiority of Texan manhood.”

“Hey, Moody,” he whispered. “You awake?”

Moody didn’t answer. In the dark, Corey could see Moody’s head leaning forward, his chin blending into the front of his dirty field jacket.

Corey sloshed out of his hole and crawled the six yards to Moody’s position. He grabbed Moody’s shoulder. “Hey!”

Moody’s head fell forward. Even in the murky light, Corey saw the gaping ruin where Moody’s jaw had been, the white teeth gaping skull-like from the frothy horror. The sniper’s bullet had ripped most of the lower face away.

Inside Corey Hamilton, Rifleman, the last tiny dam broke, all at once. He ran screaming and crying all the way back to the platoon.

Corporal Bran Brainerd, a small man with a pug nose and tough, lined face, brought the big fellow, Hamilton, to the aid station. He was thinking, If they’d shoot a few more of these damn psychos, there wouldn’t be so many around.

“Come on,” he snapped. His rough voice was out of the southern Indiana hills, and he moved with a farmer’s deliberate gait.

The big fellow just looked at him. But at least he had quit bawling. Brainerd shoved him inside the dugout that served as battalion aid station. They said that Hamilton had sat at the company CP for a solid hour, bawling and raising hell over someone called Moody.

“Another one for you, Doc,” Bran said to the first lieutenant, who was drinking a steaming cup of coffee. You didn’t have to worry about medical officers; they didn’t give a damn about rank, like some officers Bran knew.

The surgeon moved forward. “Where are you hit, son?”

“He ain’t,” Brainerd said. “He’s a damn faker.”

The doctor took the big man’s shoulder, wheeled him over to the light of the Coleman lantern. He took something and looked into the big blond kid’s eyes.

The kid wouldn’t say anything at all.

“How long’s he been on line? You know?” The medical officer snapped at Brainerd. “Is he brand-new, or has he been around?”

“I remember when he come in. About two weeks ago,” Bran told the medic.

The young surgeon rubbed his face. “Combat-induced,” he muttered. “Well, you don’t get much of the other kind up here—the men who were psychoneurotic when they came in the Army get weeded out in training.”

“Well, does he get a Section Eight?” Bran asked.

The doctor looked at Bran sharply. “He’ll be all right. All he needs is rest. I’ll send him back to the port hospital—though God knows there isn’t much rest to be found there.”

“Ought to shoot a few of ’em, Doc,” Bran said. “They’re faking.”

The medical lieutenant said, “That’s enough, Corporal.” Then, angrily, he said, “Look, Brainerd. All men are not alike. Their backgrounds—when did you first see blood?”

“Shoot,” Brainerd said. “My Maw used to get me to pull chicken heads off when I was five or six, afore she plucked ’em. They’d flop and throw blood all over the place. Ever see a chicken with its head pulled off?”

“No, but I’ve seen worse,” the lieutenant muttered. “And I suppose your old man belted you a few times now and then?”

Bran grinned. “Hell, yes!”

“You realize some of these kids never saw blood in their lives before they came out here? This kid—” he looked at the dog tags—Hamilton, his mother probably tucked him into bed every night. I don’t see how some of them stand it so long.”

He filled out a tag and pinned it on Hamilton’s field jacket, which was covered with blood.

Corporal Brainerd went back into the dark. He turned once and looked back into the dugout. Still oughta shoot ’em, he thought. What do these New York doctors know about it?

Corey remembered getting back to the hospital. Most of all he remembered the sheets. Clean, white sheets. But he couldn’t sleep. He just lay and shook sometimes, until the doctor gave him something.

He kept seeing Moody, with his head blown off.

Once, he heard two doctors talking. One was upset about the rate of psychoneurosis that was showing up on the beachhead. “There’s something wrong with the whole generation! No excuse for this. We ought to do like the Russian Army—do you know they don’t officially recognize battle fatigue?”

“Then they’re blind,” the other doctor snapped. “They’ve got it, too, even though they have a different kind of population, bred a hell of a lot tougher than ours. They just don’t give a damn about the individual.”

“Maybe we pay too much attention to the individual, in a war like this—”

“So now you want us to be like the Nazis, bring up our boys prepared to die for the Vaterland? Is that it? That the kind of conditioned, brainless, insensitive individual you want to produce? Listen, Stein, there are other values besides the military—”

The two doctors moved off, and Corey could not hear them any more.

All the time he was in the hospital, Corey could hear the shells come in. The Krauts kept plastering the port area. He heard the snorting roar, then the sort of whizzing sound as Anzio Annie came in. Every so often, the ground shook.

New men kept coming into the hospital all the time. But Corey knew the Nazis wouldn’t shell the hospital. There were rules against that.

The American field hospital area wasn’t dug in. It stood in bare fields about a mile east of Nettuno, with the red crosses plainly visible to the enemy observers. Shells went over the hospital daily, but none had dropped close.

On March 22, the third day of Corey’s stay, it happened.

Early in the morning, the shells screamed into the hospital. One shell ripped into Corey’s tent and struck the stove, exploding at bed level. There were fifty men in the tent.

The other shells, fifty or sixty of them, plastered the area. They were 88s, high-explosive, anti-personnel projectiles.

Five patients in Corey’s tent died. Eleven others had new wounds. The nurse was the worst of all. She clutched at her breast and went to her knees. When they got to her, she was dead.

Several doctors, more nurses and a dozen corpsmen were hit. The hospital was in a sort of panic, with the wounded men screaming from their beds.

“Get us out of here! Get us out of here!” the helpless men cried. Corey went stumbling into the shambles. He saw the young, short-haired nurse sprawled on the floor of the tent, her breast a bright smear of blood; he saw the patients, with the blood of fresh wounds streaming through their bandages, screaming and trying to move about.

Corey began to shake. He could feel the tremors start in his legs. The doctor and the corpsmen who had been untouched were running about, in something like panic.

Bram-Bram-Bram! A new stonk of explosive shells roared in, shaking the tent with mud and steel fragments.

A nurse, gray hair flying, ran into Corey, almost knocking him down. She looked at his strong body, free of bandages, and snapped, “Here! Give me a hand, soldier! Get these men back into their beds!”

She wasn’t panicked; she was mad, her eyes napping, as hard as the brass leaf on her collar. Corey suddenly felt the tremors halt, felt the cool reason sweep into him. Hell, he’d been on the line; head been shot at before.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

He turned, grabbed one of the corpsmen who was jittering about, still shocked. “Here—help me with these men on the floor.”

The corpsman went with him. Together, they lifted half a dozen moaning men back to their cots. The seventh man was dead, but they put him in his bed anyway. More doctors arrived, and the medical officers took charge, bringing some order to the chaos. The wounded were treated, the dead carried out. Corey was too busy to think.

The shelling ceased, and General Truscott, the beachhead commander, came into the tent. His face was grim and his jaw was set. The same chief nurse who had bumped into Corey marched up to him. She waved a huge, jagged shell fragment under the general’s nose.

“General, these came through my tent while I was in bed. We can’t take care of our patients unless we can get some rest around here. What are you going to do about it?”

The men in the wards were crying out to Truscott, recognizing his bright leather jacket, “General! Get us out of here! For God’s sake, let us go back to the front. We’re better off up there!”

General Truscott was mad, too—and sick, looking at the carnage wreaked on the already injured bodies of the men who had been in the hospital. But all he could do was to say he’d have corps artillery counterbattery every spot from which the Germans could fire on the hospital, and to order the hospital dug in a foot or two. Below that level, there was water.

Corey would never forget the gallantry of the Army nurses, who from that day forward worked under intermittent shelling. For the shelling of the tents with red crosses was deliberate, and repeated. But Corey did not stay there to see it. At noon, Corey Hamilton, battle fatigue casualty, went to the surgeon and said, “I’m ready to return to my unit.”

It had taken only a little rest, after all. Under the broken dams, the man was solid. Corey Hamilton, Rifleman, would not break again.