16 days into the invasion of France, John Green and his searchlight detachment were sent to the village of Les Attaques with orders to block the German army from crossing the only canal bridge for miles. Having seen hundreds of flickering lights through the night, John and his comrades sit in their slit trenches waiting for the inevitable…
May 27th, 1940. It was near 7 a.m. and we were still in our holes, and still breathing. Where were the Germans? We had been expecting the flickers of light to be storming across the bridge by now. Everyone had a turn with the field glasses and no one could spot anything other than green farmers' fields. Everything was as it had been the day before.
"If they're out there they're very skillfully camouflaged," Sergeant Coppack said.
Tommy looked at the sky.
"Where are the birds? They should be singing."
The sergeant told him that the artillery had scared them off.
"Birds are smart that way. Sensitive creatures, they are," Tommy said.
"You’re like a bloody ostrich yourself," the sergeant said with a smile.
I thought to myself, the birds are the only sane ones.
Lt. Barr came along.
"They’re there. HQ knows that they’re there. What we don’t know is when they’re going to cross that canal."
“Drag out that bloody listening box and find ‘em, Taffy, someone suggested.
"Oh, they’ve all gone for a shit," Taffy quipped.
"They’ve had enough of this war. They’re packing it all in and going home!" Sweatie countered.
It felt good to laugh, unburden some of the nervous tension.
Barr still had no news when he made his next visit a couple hours later. There had been no sightings of any German troops.
"I suspect we’re not a large enough force to bother about," Barr said. "They know who we are. They’ve seen the equipment and know that we’re no danger to them."
I wanted to buy the Lt.'s explanation, but the not knowing, the waiting and the gut chewing fear had gotten the better of me. I was too far gone to be optimistic. Watching the sunrise when I woke, I thought what a perfect day, a perfect spring day that’s going be wasted. So many men are going to be killed. That is what I thought. I could feel death all around me. I literally felt it in the air.
The sitting and waiting was too unbearable for some of the lads and they started popping in and out of their holes.
"Goddamn it! Keep your bloody heads down!" The sergeant yelled. "That's an order!"
Sit and wait and sit and wait. Nothing to occupy my mind except fear, my mind playing out hundreds of bone quivering scenarios, each one worse than the last. Tommy kept looking through our spy hole. For the first time I was glad he was convinced he was going to die. It could just be the thing that keeps him alive.
"Barr doesn't know what's going on," I confided to Tommy.
"I got the distinct impression we're being kept in the dark on purpose."
"You might be on to something there."
"John, I'm so frightened."
"I know. I'm scared, too. And you heard Barr, he's scared. Tommy, when something does happen and you get the shakes, just listen to what I tell you."
"Thank you, John."
The sergeant came by.
"What are we going to do?" I asked him.
"I don’t know."
"I wish something would happen. Wish it would just happen, " I told him.
The sergeant glanced past the canal.
"So do I, but whatever’s going to happen might not happen today."
"I can't sit here for another night."
"Neither can I," piped Tommy.
"You two don't have a choice and neither do I…"
The three of us heard a familiar sound and looked up.
"Stork!" The sergeant yelled. "Get down!"
Flying low from the south, the spotter plane came toward us. Everyone curled up in their slit trenche. The sergeant laid on top of me.
"They know we're here," I said
"But they might not know our numbers."
The plane didn't circle as expected, but just kept going. Ten minutes later another plane flew by as if we weren't even there. We thought there must be a mass movement of British troops behind us. Barr came around and he was all business.
"There's nobody else but us. Do not be looking for any help. We're on our own."
HQ had told him that there were hundreds of Jerrys on their way to cross that canal bridge. There were no jokes jabbered this time. Barr took the sergeant down to the lorry to talk privately. Some of the lads started crying. A couple swore up and down. I had more fear inside me then I thought humanly possible, but there was also a queer sense of relief that soon it would all be over; the waiting, the anticipation, the speculation and this all consuming dread.
I looked through my spy hole. The fields on the other side of the canal were empty. What are we doing here? We're inadequate and outnumbered, “useless mouths” to stop seasoned soldiers of the best army in the world. No two ways about it, we were fodder.
I looked at my Enfield. During training, no one had seen a reason to send me to the rifle range when I returned from the hospital, and I never pushed because I believed I was never going to encounter the enemy. That was the consensus of the opinion of all the searchlight personnel at Kinmell Park. When Lillian couldn’t make a weekend visit I’d read the army manuals for the Enfield. Compared to assembling, managing and repairing a searchlight generator there's not much to a rifle. I could load mine with dummy rounds as quick as anybody who had received rifle training and, in theory, I knew how to fire it. How hard could aiming and firing the weapon really be, I thought at the time? In hindsight, that was incredibly arrogant considering the only gun I had ever fired was a pellet gun at the Marine Lake Fun Fair in Rhyl. It took me a bunch of tries - I was pretty sure the barrel was bent - but I did hit the three-inch target.
It was difficult to comprehend that I was going to have to look at a man, line him in my crosshairs then pull the trigger. Would I be able to shoot at German soldiers if they were shooting at us? A part of me was convinced that I could never do it, but there was another part saying, You’ve got to do just that if you’re going to survive whatever’s coming.
After Barr left, the sergeant came to me.
"When I get the order you and I will drive down to that bridge and block it with the lorry. I'll set it on fire and we’ll dash back here."
"We are going to do this before the Jerries come, right?"
"Of course we are, Shorty."
"Then how are we going to leave this bloody place?" Tommy asked.
“First things first.”
Studying his face, I could tell Sergeant Coppack had no idea how we were going to escape. It gave me a chill.
As the sergeant explained our objective to the rest of the crew, someone said, "Good Jesus Christ, look at them!”
I looked and my heart was in my mouth. In the distance, almost on the horizon, was a massive movement of troops and vehicles. Hundreds upon hundreds of German infantry flooding towards us followed by armored cars, scout cars and troop carriers, and a Fieseler Storch flying above them. It was just like in the cowboy movies I’d seen as a kid where the American Indians were stretched across the plain ready to pounce on the hapless tinhorns. I could have sworn the whole German army was about to have a go at our little searchlight crew.
Even though I told him not to, Tommy looked through the spyhole.
"We’re going to die!"
"Shut up!" Someone hissed.
"Look after that idiot, will you?!" Someone ordered me.
"Bloody hell, they're undefeatable," Tommy whispered.
He had a point. Not an army that had come up against the Wehrmacht had come out on top. And now the ten of us, ten non-infantry soldiers, were supposed to slow their advance? Were the officers at HQ having a laugh? Why in the world do I want to disturb that hornet's nest? Engaging those Krauts was suicide, plain and simple.
I wanted to vomit. Tommy did vomit, which made me want to vomit even more. Thankfully, Tommy had the presence of mind to do it at the side of our slit trench. The sergeant threw up.
"Has anybody else spewed?" He thought he was by himself.
I was surprised I hadn't. Not that it would’ve helped anything. Tommy's puddle of bile hadn't done him a bit of good. His fear was still there and the enemy was still across that field, still coming towards us.
"I shit me self!" A lad called.
“I'm shit-scared! The sergeant responded. “So are they over there!"
Wishful thinking, I thought. From my vantage point, there didn't seem a reason for those soldiers to have a care in the world.
"John, shall we turn and run?
"Tommy, there’s no place to run to."
Tommy looked so sad. I wanted to say I was sorry, but I didn’t.
Why weren't we taking "a runner"? Simple answer, good old British army discipline. Even though we were a searchlight detachment, the army discipline was there. We weren't well-trained in soldiering or well-equipped, but we were well-trained in following orders – “the last order" - no matter the circumstance. You will do as you are told, NOW!
The other thing keeping me in that slit trench was the consuming fear that if I turned and ran the Germans would shoot me in the back. I was stuck; it was just that simple. What other options were there? Hold up a white handkerchief?
THE MONK AND THE MARINES was written by Philip Kingry, a former Marine medic and Vietnam vet. Kingry wrote the book as part of his therapy while under the care of Chaim F. Shatan, a pioneer in the study of post-traumatic stress disorders and therapeutic work with war veterans. Published in 1974, THE MONK AND THE MARINES was one of the first novels about American soldiers fighting in Vietnam. As a teenager, I read the book after finding it in someone’s trash while on my paper route. That dog-eared paperback traveled with me to college, came with me to California and is now sitting next to my computer. Kingry’s novel was been a major influence on my writing style, and helped shape my views on war and the physical and psychological sacrifices soldiers make.
"We were cutting through some brush near a clearing. A VC sniper fired on us. He wasn’t very far away in the brush. Anyway, he was close enough that a couple of men saw his muzzle flash. The gook didn’t hit any of us, but a couple of our people didn’t miss him. The point yelled, “You got him!” I could tell by the sound of the round going off that the little prick had a carbine. I took the shotgun off my shoulder and pushed the safety off. The bastard was only wounded; where, I didn’t know, but later we could see the blood he left. He fired two more shots, and then he ran.
He had fired on us just as we had come into the clearing, and he was on the far side. Some of us started to fire from where we were, and some others went off through the brush on the right to flank him. I went with these last men. I figured if anybody got hit at all it would be them, and I would rather go with them then than try to cover the same distance on my own later if someone needed me.
Maybe it wasn’t just a sniper team; I don’t know. All I heard was one carbine, but you never can tell. Maybe it was a small ambush that got off prematurely because one guy fired on us before he was supposed to. The reason I say that is because as soon as we started to go around, another gook jumped up no more than pissing distance from me and fired at us too, at least, I think he fired. I don’t really remember, it happened so fast. What I do remember is this dumb little zip popping up out of the ground just like some spring target. I shot him four times with the twelve-gauge before I knew what was going on. The squad leader was excited about it. I can’t tell you how I felt.
The other zip got away. But like I said, we found blood. We took the weapon off the one I shot, and I went through his pockets. He had a homemade knife and four marijuana cigarettes, which I was only too pleased to confiscate. First man I killed, and I got four cigarettes for it. The shells cost more than that.
… For within your body your spirit beats and thinks and hopes. Does it now? Does it really? Faith is a hard thing to come by, if you don’t have it in yourself, how can you have it in something greater than yourself? If you shut out the light in your brother, where is your own light?
Yet how am I guilty? Did there exist a choice not to shoot? I don’t even remember making a choice. Who is the victor and who is the victim when we kill one another? I don’t know how to judge anymore."