Replacements

By Ron Coombs

 

 

 

 

 

“I can’t believe they finally pulled us off the line.”

 

“About damn time. I’m tired of fighting the same battles.”

 

The two men sat on the stone wall tightly wrapped in long dirty field coats, rifles laid across their laps. The sergeant stripes on their arms barely visible under the dirt and mud that covered both men.

 

“Dave, did you hear they set up hot meals and showers for us in the rear.” The soldier on the left said while studying the crusted deposits of crud under his nails.

 

“Yea I heard.” Dave looked over his shoulder at the sound of heavy machinery moving up behind them. “That reminds me Tom, did you see that tank charge through town like he was indestructible?”

 

“Yea, I didn’t see any of them get out alive. Did you?”

 

“No. Poor bastards.”

 

The men sat staring at the ground. They had seen so many of their own cut down that one might think the exchange was a discussion about socks. Behind them a machine droned on and before them soldiers passed on their way to and from the front. Another man stopped and tapped Dave on the helmet.

 

“Did you guys hear Collins was going home?” Dave and Tom looked up at the man. The eyes of the other man showed age well beyond his twenty-two years. Martin Hightower had been with them since boot. In fact there were less than ten original men left in the company still in Luxemburg. All the others were ether dead, or returned home. “Look.” The two on the wall turned to see Joe Collins, duffle bag and rifle slung over his shoulder. He was standing next to two others they didn’t recognize. Beside them the machines dug a grave, their engines drowning out any chance of calling to Collins. “Lucky stiff.” Hightower said as he walked toward the rear.

 

“Lot of dead guys over there.” Tom said still looking over at Collins. The two men began reminiscing about fallen comrades as they looked at the crosses that marked the graves of dead soldiers. “They are as home as they’ll ever get; except for Collins.” Tom finished and fell silent.

 

“You think you’ll ever get home Tom?” Dave took a small stone from the wall and tossed it at a headstone with ‘unknown’ inscribed across it. “He’ll never go home, hell they don’t even know his name. His family just gets a letter. Won’t even know he’s dead.”

 

They continued to stare at the perfectly aligned crosses not noticing the next man approaching. He remained silent not wanting to disturb the two men he assumed were honoring the fallen. Unlike the others, he stood in a perfectly tailored and clean uniform. The chest adorned with ribbons and medals. The shoulders displayed the four stars of a general. Atop his head, square and straight, a shiny helmet liner reflected the available light of the morning. Strapped around his waist, a pistol, with ivory grip highly polished. George S. Patton was a sight, but the men did not see him until he spoke. The two buddies started to rise but were halted by a single motion of the generals hand.

 

“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” Patton raised his chin, saluted the cemetery in respectful fashion. As he walked past, he patted each man on the shoulder.

 

Dave watched as the general walked beyond hearing. “If it wasn’t for him those men wouldn’t be buried here.” His voice was scornful.

 

“You’re wrong Dave. If it wasn’t for him, more of us would be buried here. Just think if we were still under Montgomery’s command like we were in Holland.” The two chuckled. Behind them a military ambulance drove past. “This keeps up there will only be us left here.”

 

“Don’t forget the general; he’ll never leave.” Dave said with a sneer.

 

A small group of men from Charlie Company approached the two men on the wall. They carefully maneuvered past the stone markers.

 

“Hey here’s Jim.” They all stopped to read the cross with Jim Butlers name painted on it. “Remember when he stole that case of brandy and we all got drunk. The captain was rather upset.”

 

“Don’t matter.” Another soldier said. “Captains buried over there somewhere.” He pointed off into the trees. The men continued to talk of going home and friends and family they haven’t seen in two years. Tom and Dave watch silently as the men disappear past a hedge. Another ambulance pulls up to where the grave is dug. Collins, still standing next to the two men watching the machine dig, waves at Tom, but returns his attention to the machine. Tom gives a half salute in return.

 

“Tom look.” Dave points to two men working their way over. When they arrive both men have ear to ear grins.

 

“We’re going home.” The taller man says.

 

“Good for you.” Dave says mustering a half grin.

 

“Just got the orders.” The second man states. Tom Stands and presents his hand to each of the men.

 

“Been a long run; watch out for subs on the way home.”

 

“Hell I hear we’re flying home. Besides the U-boats are all gone, right?”

 

“Yea.” Dave said. “When do you leave? Are you going with Collins.” He points over at the soldier still watching the machine dig.

 

“I hear next week maybe.” The two men walk on down the road. When the two men are left alone on the stone wall they return to staring at the ground.

 

“Think you’ll ever get out of here. I mean we’ve been here since D-Day.”

 

“Don’t forget North Africa and Italy. No I’m staying.” He tossed another stone at the grave.

 

“Sorry you got no one to go home to.” Tom said in a near whisper.

 

“It’s okay. She would not have been able to wait for me. I even wrote a letter telling her not to wait just before our last drop. She wrote back saying she would never leave me. I told her to move on if she had to. Besides, I may see her again.”

 

“Didn’t think you believed in all that stuff.”

 

“Hey, I’m Catholic.” Dave said sarcastically.

 

“No shit. I’d have never figured.”

 

“War changes a man.”

 

“Hey guys.” Joe Collins had walked over while the two buddies were concentrating on the rocks accumulating on the unknown grave. “Just thought I would come over and say so long.”

 

“We’re happy for you.” They shook hands in silence for several minutes, only looking up when the engine to the machine shut down. Only the birds made noise now. “We’ll walk you out.” The two buddies stepped over the wall and followed Joe back to where the two strangers stood talking. The three soldiers watched as the ambulance driver unhooked the strap from the coffin now loaded in the back.

 

Tom stares down into the open grave, deep and empty. Joe pats him on the back and walks over to the ambulance, climbs up and seats himself and places his hand on the old coffin.

 

Tom wipes a tear from one corner of one eye, turns and heads back to the wall with Dave right on his heels. They resume there places and each tosses another stone at the cross.

 

The two strangers standing next to the big machine, not in combat gear but civilian clothes continue their conversation. “It will be good to have dad back home. Mom’s grave always seemed lonely without Dad next to her. She only had the one trip here to Luxemburg back in the Sixties to visit Dad. You were too young to remember, but another soldier was being returned home then and Mom asked how much it cost. We were just too poor to have his body moved until now. I just wish she had lived to see him back home. All she used to talk about was having him near.” The two looked up at the ambulance with its lone coffin. The driver lowered the truck flap that covered the back end and waited for the brothers to finish.

 

“Next week your son graduates from West Point doesn’t he.” The older brother said as he put one arm around his little brother and the other on the ambulance.

 

“Yea, class of 2005; wish Dad could have seen him.” The two men turn to watch the ambulance pull away for the airport. Inside the truck flap pulls aside and Joe looks out at the men who are his sons.

 

“I will.”

 

 

Ron Coombs is a retired Coast Guard Master Chief Damage Controlman

 

 

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