Outside of Eindhoven, Netherlands
The sun began to set over the Dutch farm, highlighting the browns and yellows scattered across the field. The cool fall was signaling the arrival of a harsh winter. Lieutenant Sam Warren knelt behind an upturned wagon next to his radioman. It was not great cover, but it was the best view he could manage, and he was well positioned between the two squads under his command. Sam heard encroaching gunfire and could see smoke over the hill in the distance. He looked to his right and signaled to the men stacked with their backs pressed up against the broad side of a barn to hold their positions. Crackles and murmurs of radio chatter emanated from the radioman’s earpiece.
“Miller, what are they saying?” Sam said to the young man pressing a headset to his ear.
“They’re retreating, sir.”
“Who is retreating? Us or them?”
“Us, sir. They’re ordering us to withdraw.”
“I want to hear it for myself. Raise the captain on that thing.”
“Yes, Lieutenant,” Miller said before keying the mic on the radio. “King, this is Baker 1, come in, over. Yes, sir, I heard the order. I have Lieutenant Warren on the line.” Miller handed the receiver to Sam.
A voice came through as Sam touched the receiver to his ear. “Warren, I’m ordering a retreat. Get your men the hell out of there.”
“Sir, Warren here. It’s all clear where we are. We took out light resistance, and we are holding our sector.”
“No one else is, Sam. The Germans have launched a counterattack. Your flanks are folding. We’ve sounded the retreat, now move your ass before you’re overrun.”
“Copy that, sir.”
Sam popped his head up above the wagon and looked for Sergeant Kovacs standing by the barn. Sam located the squat, bespectacled man. He looked like the kind of man whose strength would be easy to underestimate but who could surprise you by hauling a wounded man from a firefight all by himself. Kovacs threw his hands up in the air as if to say, “What’s going on?” Sam waved Kovacs over, who immediately set out in a sprint. His feet clomped as all two hundred pounds of man and gear came barreling toward them. He transitioned seamlessly from run to a full stop onto one knee in the last two steps.
“What’s the plan, Lieutenant?”
“The Germans are mounting a counterattack. We have been ordered to pull back. You are going to lead the retreat. Take my brother and fall back to the tree line, where you will lay down covering fire. Have the men pull back in two-by-two cover formation. Christie and I will cover from that ditch on the right, then take up the rear. Get it done.”
Kovacs formed a circle with his thumb and index finger, placed it in his mouth, and let out quick whistle toward the men at the barn. He flashed several hand signals to the corporal standing in front, who nodded his head in comprehension, his unstrapped helmet bobbing up and down over his eyes as he did so.
Kovacs then turned to his left. The other squad, kneeling behind a dilapidated waist-high stone wall, was already looking at him. Kovacs flashed the same gesture, which was acknowledged. He pointed at Private Andy Warren, then beckoned him with a crisp single wave of his arm.
Andy clutched his M1 Garand rifle just ahead of the trigger guard with his right hand and placed his left on his helmet as he started his run toward the upended wagon. Andy covered the distance quickly but came careening in and tripped as he tried to slow, dropping his rifle and falling on his hands, which he threw out in front of himself to break his fall.
Kovacs did not acknowledge the stumble. “We’re falling back to the tree line. You and I are first. Let’s make for some cover”—Kovacs paused to scan the area then, spotted a downed tree—“there.” He pointed to the massive trunk laying on its side.
“What about you, Sam?” Andy asked, looking at his brother.
Kovacs responded, “Lieutenant Warren gave an order, and we’re going to execute it without question.”
“That’s bullshit, sir. I’m not leaving my brother here.”
“Private Warren, this is not a debate,” Kovacs said. “Pick up your rifle and get ready to move on my command. You’re first.”
“I don’t want any special favors just because my brother is the lieutenant. I’m always the last one into action and the first out of it. I can fight too, you know.”
“Dammit, Andy.” Sam’s face showed his agitation. “Would you follow orders for once? I’m sending you first because you’re the best shot in this platoon, and I want you behind that cover picking off anything that comes over that hill, all right?”
“Fine,” Andy grumbled as he lifted his rifle off the ground.
“Move out,” Kovacs said. “I’m right behind you.”
Andy gripped his rifle and helmet the same way as he had before and started the one-hundred-yard sprint to the tree line.
“An order is an order. It needs no explanation. You coddle him too much,” Kovacs said to Sam.
“Thankfully, Sergeant Kovacs, I have you to keep me in line. Get moving.”
Without hesitation, Kovacs pulled himself up and into a sprint in one swift motion. When he was behind the cover next to Andy, he stood up and waved to Sam.
Sam rapped the radioman, Miller, on his helmet. “Your turn.” Miller took off running. Sam scanned the men stacked up by the barn and found Christie. He pointed at him, then pointed to a ditch about ten yards to the right of the wagon. An overturned wagon was good for staying out of sight but would not offer much protection in a firefight. The ditch was not optimal cover either, but it was better.
With Christie and his Browning automatic rifle, or BAR as it was commonly referred to, on the move, Sam stretched out both arms and pointed at the last man in line in each squad, then waved them forward. Christie made himself as small as he could in the shallow ditch and deployed the bipod on his weapon, steadying it in the direction of gunfire, which was growing closer by the second. As the two men reached the wagon, Sam pointed out the cover in the tree line, then sent them on their way with pat on the back of their helmets. He then pointed to the next two men in line and twirled his fingers in the air. The plan became clear to everyone now, and the men knew how to pace the retreat. The squads made up of a dozen men each trained their weapons on the hillside, ready to provide covering fire as two men at a time fell back to the tree line. Satisfied that no further direction was required, Sam took up a spot next to Christie in the ditch and clutched his M1 carbine tightly. It was a smaller version of the Garand and was outfitted with a folding stock to make it more compact. Ounces were pounds and pounds were pain—a concept well ingrained in the minds of every airborne soldier.
The current mission—part of the Allied assault into the Netherlands known as Operation Market Garden—was Sam’s second drop of the war. The first was D-Day, which was mired by mis-drops leading to heavy casualties among the airborne divisions. Sam’s unit was fortunate to make it to the ground safely, but they missed their assigned drop zone by nearly six miles. With limited hope of marching that distance behind enemy lines to their main objective, he instead opted to take his men through the hedgerows and look for targets of opportunity. He picked up more than a dozen stragglers—paratroopers who had lost their units—and folded them into his as they snaked their way behind the lines and raised hell for any Germans they came upon. At the end of the fourth day, the Allies broke through to his sector. Sam finally linked back up with the rest of the airborne, but not before he and his forty men managed to inflict nearly three hundred casualties. He lost eight of his own, but overall, Sam’s contributions to the Allied landings in Normandy were a resounding success. Sam earned a promotion from 2nd lieutenant to 1st lieutenant, plus various medals and unit citations. Sam did not care much about the smattering of multicolored ribbons that were starting to cover the left breast of his dress uniform—he was just happy to have survived long enough to earn a much needed rest off the lines.
In training at Camp Toccoa in Georgia, the army prepared Sam for extended time behind the lines. They taught him navigation, survival skills, and ambush techniques. What they did not prepare him for was the stress of being constantly on alert. Light and noise discipline were the norms. Sam was certain he did not speak above a whisper during those four days. Between that and the constant fear of discovery, the whole experience was a pressure cooker.
Now he was back, but this time was different. Sam was ready for those feelings. Having already experienced them and lived to tell about it gave him confidence that he and his brother just might survive this war.
The retreat was organized and efficient. It was progressing well with only half a dozen of his men left, but with each second that passed, Sam could sense the Germans closing in on his position. He whistled at his men and instructed the rest of them to pull back immediately. The men, also sensing the danger arriving over the hill in front of them, wore looks of relief on their faces as they made their way past the wagon and to the rest of the squad hidden in the tree line.
Sam turned toward Christie and said, “Get ready, we’re going together as soon as they hit the trees.”
“Yes, sir,” Christie said, his eyes and gun still trained on the hill.
Sam watched the men scrambling across the field.
Seventy yards to go.
Come on, guys. Move it, he thought, willing them to run faster.
Then Sam heard it—the dreadful sound of a German MG 42 machine gun.