Prisoners of War
When we arrived I thought I was seeing corpses. They had been scattered on the fields or in the trenches or face down in small ponds. Young boy’s faces filled with panic. Mouth open. Blue lips. Grey Eyes. Horror frozen on their young, dead faces. They all realized that they had lost. And it had all become so serious so fast. Everybody knows that in war people die. But nobody talks about how disgraceful those deaths really are. That's something you hardly get used to.
We passed the fields and entered the small forest. We saw the broken trees first, then the bodies below. They told us second platoon got hit heavily by artillery. They send us in to recover casualties. We didn’t expect anyone to be alive. And it didn’t look like they were alive. It was the moans that felt like scalpels in my spine when I heard them, that made me realize they weren’t gone yet.
He was laying on his back. He was quiet. He looked dead. His eyes barely moved. He seemed frozen. I got closer. The horror in his eyes was still shining, not reflecting. He was alive. His helmet hang behind his head, kept only by the strap under his jaw. His hands were dark and dirty. The part between his lip and the left side of his jaw was missing. A hole, with blood pouring out. If there wouldn’t be that much blood I would have been able to see his teeth through the hole in his face.
He tried to say something but only gargled blood. I felt sick and dizzy but remembered to breathe and breathing took some of the heavy feeling of my stomach. In the distance, the shots echoed through the forest and every couple of minutes an explosion roared violently, making us all stiff up. The battle moved closer.
Another breath and I could kneel down beside him. I tried to keep a normal face, to show him that everything would be okay, even though I knew it wouldn’t be.
To my surprise, the soldier kept quiet. Half of his face got blown off and he must have been in excruciating pain, and still, he didn’t scream. He didn’t moan. He just looked at me. His eyes like dark glass, steadily losing its light.
“Will be okay. You will be okay.”, I told him and lied. “Just a scratch that's all.”
He didn’t react, just stared at me, his mouth open as it must have been the position with the least amount of pain. Again he tried talking but just gargled blood.
There I heard screams of pain that sounded so terrible, that I still to this day get ripped out of my dreams when they inevitably appear again. I turned to my right and saw another soldier lay stiff under a tree, his entire body shredded, his coat and pants covered in dark red spots of blood. The shots in the distance popped up again. They were crouching up closer. I turned back to Lieutenant Foley, who stared at me. He had already seen a thing or two and you could see that in his face as well. He never smiled.
“Take care of ‘em Grant.”, he told me: “we’ll push upwards.”
He got the guys moving forwards to secure the treeline and left one kid with me. I didn’t even know his name and I would never get the chance to learn it anyways. The artillery hit again and it felt very close this time. The soldier with the blown-up face looked at me with panic. He didn’t try speaking anymore, but I understood what he wanted to say:
“I am gonna be right back. You just hang on!”, I told him, then grabbed his side and turned him on his stomach, so he wouldn’t suffocate on his blood.
He just let me do whatever was needed. He had already given up. As soon as he faced towards the ground, he had to lift his head, as the blood ran from his face below him on the ground. “I will be right back.”, I said more to myself than him, and tossed my backpack on my shoulders.
I moved towards those horrific moans. He couldn’t move. He was covered in wooden chips. The thin trees broken up above him. Like a rude, teenage giant had just torn them off as he was walking by. His breath was shallow and hectic. His face contorted in pain. He kept moaning silently. I kneeled beside him and let my backpack glide off my shoulders.
“I am here.” I said. I tore the zipper of the backpack back and grabbed a tourniquet immediately.
“Where is the pain?”, I asked.
He didn’t answer. He couldn’t. Both of his legs were stained heavily by the blood. There had been so much those stains had turned black. I gently touched his upper leg above the wound and the soldier started screaming.
“It’s okay. It’s okay.”, I said.
It seemed like his femur had been shattered. I pulled his pants open and fresh blood poured out of multiple wide wounds. His breath started to get quicker again. I put the tourniquet around his leg and kept fastening it. Suddenly I started hearing his whispers. And it sounded the same as the whispers from a sick one having a fever dream. “I don’t want to.”, he started, then kept moaning, while his eyes were squeezed almost shut and sweat lay round on his forehead. “What?”, I asked.
His eyes opened just a bit, he whispered: “I don’t want to die.”
I stared at him, then lied: “You are not gonna die. You’ll go home now.”
He must have been in his early twenties. I pulled the tourniquet shut and he screamed up close to tears. He didn’t sound like a man anymore. And it wasn’t his fault. He had been laying there by himself for at least an hour. Slowly bleeding out. With broken bones and artillery pieces pierced through his body.
I just had to try. I grabbed another tourniquet from my backpack and continued at his other leg. He kept whispering that he didn’t want to die. It was like he was begging me to save him. I couldn’t tell him that there was nothing I could do. That he wouldn’t be going home. Never walk again. Never feel a woman again. I could only keep helping him, hoping that he’d live. Knowing that he would die.
The shots popped up again. Closer. And closer. Then the artillery shell dropped beside us and I fell to the ground and held my head.
A fireball burned up and tossed mud into the air. “Get down!” I screamed to that Kid that stayed with me. Then the mud came raining down back on us.
Lieutenant Foley and his men were only shadows besides the trees far in front. I looked forwards and saw some of them laying dead.
“Get yourself ready!” I screamed to him “They are coming!”
He was just a kid. And I could see the holy fear of death on his face. I got up and ran back to the soldier who I left laying on his stomach. He hadn't moved and on the ground under his face a large blood lark had formed. I took out morphine and pressed the small syringe into his upper thigh, as the first bullets hit the trees around me and I fell to the ground again, rolling behind a tree and fishing for my AR.
“North-East!”, that kid yelled. And I turned. My heart almost stopped as I saw shadows behind the trees push forwards. We both started firing and the shadows stopped and dropped and fell behind trees. Our guys kept retreating from the treeline. Those that were still alive anyways. The enemy kept closing in.
I kept shooting rounds towards the shadows behind the trees, while laying on my stomach.
Again the whistling of the artillery shell above us. This time it was too close. I turned to look at the kid who stared at me, frozen from fear. Then the shell hit besides us and he got ripped apart and I tossed through the air.
Then the word from upside down.
Then I hit the ground hard.
Immediately relieved that I was still alive.
But I couldn’t move. Laying on my back in that trench, staring up at the treetops the pain started burning, as the moans roared up. Then green marker bullets tore up everything that was outside my trench. Leaves and branches came raining down. One hellish minute I pressed the back of my head towards the ground and clang on to my helmet and I prayed and prayed. “Oh dear god! Oh good god! Oh please get me out of here! Oh please! Oh please! Oh please! I will do anything! I will pray every day! I want to live, dear god! Oh please let me live, dear god!”
After an eternity in hell, the machine guy fired stopped.
And there were no more moans. Just tears still in my eyes.
“Cover the trench!”, I heard behind my tinnitus. I knew that voice and turned to my side and looked behind me.
Lieutenant Foley came crouching into that trench with three more guys. He pulled a grenade and threw it towards the treeline as the other three guys covered him.
The grenade exploded and a Russian screamed. Then Lieutenant Foley saw me and I weepeed: “I am hit! I am hit!”
He crouched over to me and checked my wounds. Artillery hit again, just outside the trench and everybody dropped down, then got back up and kept shooting.
“I am hit!”, i said again and there was so much panic in my lungs I barely brought it out.
“You’ll be okay, Grant!”, he said, “You’ll be okay.”
I lost the feeling of contact with the ground when I realized he was lying.
Suddenly one of the guys covering the entrance of the trench twitched and collapsed as I realized he just got shot. Petrified, I watched five Russians appear around the trench and start shooting our other 2 guys who dropped instantly. One of them screamed loudly as he hit the ground. They kept shooting until he got quiet.
Lieutenant Foley dropped his gun and stretched his arms out into the air. The Russians yelled at us. More came from all sides.
“Surrender! Surrender!”, we heard from everywhere in broken english.
They pointed their guns at Lieutenant Foley and one guy stepped forwards and yelled at him like one would scold a dog:
“Keep your fucking hands above your head
bitch!” Then yelled again: “ Keep them above your head!”
“Come out of the trench slowly!”, he yelled.
I was still laying on the floor and did my best to not look at any of them directly. I was slowly realizing what was happening. But my mind refused to go there. It didn’t yet want to accept what was happening. That everybody had died. That we were just about to do the same.
“FASTER!”, the Russian yelled, then jumped into the trench and hit Lieutenant Foley with his AK-against his head, knocking him out cold.
“GET THE FUCK UP!” he yelled at me pointing his gun at me as my blood froze and I swallowed my breath. “GET THE FUCK UP!” , he yelled again.
I turned to my belly and smelled the blood trenched mud. I placed my hands beside my face and felt cool blood run down from my forehead. I pushed myself through the pain on all fours. Then the Russian soccer-kicked me into my ribs from the side. I felt them crack and the pain pierce through my entire body, pressing out all the air from my lung as I collapsed on the ground.
“Get the fuck up you little cunt! Do you want to die?” He yelled. I begged god as I felt the hot metal of the barrel of his AK-47 press into the back of my neck.
Slowly I build back up to all fours. Ignoring the excruciating pain. Then I stopped, expecting another kick. It didn’t come. “Please god. Please god.”
I leaned back, sitting on my knees and looked up at at least 10 Russians inside and outside the trench. Finally I brought out a whisper: “I am hurt.”
“Not yet.” The Russian said. There was nowhere to go. I pushed up from the ground and stood up. “Hands behind your head cunt!”, he yelled at me and I followed his command. Everything turned blurry as I stood up. I put one foot in front of the other towards the exit of the trench. Staring at the dead bodies in the trench. My comrades. My friends. He pushed me in my back and I stumbled forwards and fell back on my knees. “Get the fuck up scum!”, he yelled at me.
I lifted my hands again, stretching my broken ribs and pressed them behind my head. The Russian made me step over my fallen comrades and forced me to climb out the trench where another Russian pulled me out. I saw about 30 dead bodies outside the trench. Most of them with severed body parts. I looked at the men I tried helping before, but there was not much of them left. 2 Russians grabbed my arms and pressed them behind my back. It felt like they would rip my shoulder out.
There were a bunch of dead men laying on the forest floor. He forced me to walk on top of the corpses then yelled: “Lay the fuck down cunt! Face towards the ground!” I dropped my hands from behind my head as the russian shot a bullet right besides my feet. I froze.
“Keep your fucking hands behind your head! One more time and you're dead cunt!”, he yelled.
I kept my hands behind my head and slowly drifted down on my knees. “Face down cunt!”, he yelled.
I ignored every thought I had and layed down in the small gap between two dead soldiers. Pressing my face into the earth. The horrible smell of dead humans in my nose. There is no smell like it. I asked myself if it was a dream. Could it be a dream? There I heard more shots just behind me. They shot at the dead to check if anyone was just playing possum. I realized that was too horrible to be a dream. That was real. Then somebody put his foot on my back and pressed my breath from my lips. Then the barrel of their rifle into my back. Then somebody kicked me in my face. Their hard army boot folding my nose. I moaned and I am not ashamed to admit I had lost all strength. They kept beating me. Sometimes light. Then harder. I just held my head and closed my eyes and prayed and prayed and prayed. I begged God for mercy. But he wouldn’t listen. I couldn’t breathe through my nose and panted through my mouth.
Hours passed as I stayed in the same position, smelling the dried blood of dead soldiers. Most Russians had moved forwards. Some stayed with me and Lieutenant Foley and the other few POW’s that had surrendered. We had listened to the shots move further and further away knowing that those were our guys getting overrun. Then they took us all together, sat us down and tied us together beside a tree. All except for Lieutenant Foley. He got to stand by himself, as he was the soldier of the highest rank. The Russians seemed to at least respect that. We watched them search all our comrades and when they took all their ammo and cigarettes they finally offered us some cigarettes as well. Just not to Lieutenant Foley. Only to us normal soldiers.
We sat there hunched up together, smoking our cigarettes as the sun was starting to come down.
Suddenly a Russian started screaming:
“Eh! American cunt.”, we all looked down, praying he didn’t call us.
He started walking over and I began talking to God again.
“Eh! Answer when I am speaking with you, you scum!”
I looked up and was relieved when I saw that he stood in front of Lieutenant Foley and not me.
“What?”, Lieutenant Foley whispered.
The Russian went up to his face and exhaled smoke on him.
“Do you want cigarettes, American?” he asked in broken English.
Lieutenant Foley looked at him. He was a bit taller than the Russian, but didn’t look as strong. The Russian looked like a bulldog, with a sharp pointy face and sudden, powerful movements.
Lieutenant Foley answered quietly: “Yes.”
“Okay, so tell me scum. What the fuck are doing in my country? Did I invite you? Did I ask you to come and fuck my sister?”, the Russian build himself up, the screamed: “Fucking answer me cunt when I am talking to you or I will shoot you dead!”
“You started this.”, Lieutenant Foley said.
The Russian just stared at him then smiled and took a cigarette and pressed it into Lieutenant Foley's mouth, then lid it. Then he let his Ak-47 glide from his shoulder as he slowly took steps backwards over the forest floor.
“You funny American scum.” he finally said. “You are like Cheburashka.”, he said. “Little American Cheburashka scum.”
“Mickey Mouse!”, another Russian screamed and all of them started laughing. “MICKEY MOUSE!”, the short Russian laughed hysterically.
“You look like fucking Cheburashka Mickey Mouse!”
All of us watching, trying to avoid eye contact with any of them.
“Tell me Mickey Mouse. Who will win this war?”
The Russian aimed his gun directly at Lieutenant Foley, three or four more Russians followed. None of us said a word.
Lieutenant Foley looked down and he was pale and looked very small and skinny all of the sudden. He exhaled smoke and didn’t say anything.
Then he looked up and smiled and looked directly at the Russian and said: “America, who els….” as the Russians unloaded at him before he even finished his sentence and smoke bursts marked the spots he got hit, as he dropped instantly to the ground. The shots echoed loud, and violently, and so suddenly that none of could say a word, even if we would have tried.
The short Russian stepped forwards and shot about 5 more times at the shocked corpse of Lieutenant Foley.
Then he walked directly over to us and said: “We are going to kill all of you. You will all die here. Just because you couldn’t sit at home with your sister."
Then he turned around and went back to the others, lighting another cigarette and pouring coffee.