Once upon a time in northern France on late summer night in 1944, there was a sergeant in his mid-twenties, an armorer who normally fixed the big guns when they broke down or cleared hangfires from them. ("Lonely goddamn work, I'll have you know.")
When his turn in the rotation came up every few nights, he would man the forward-observer post duty for the artillery battalion in which he served. He and a private went forward with binoculars and a field telephone to call in fire missions if they saw anything moving. And that particular night they did: Like silent spectres out of the darkness came a handful of German infantryman who, even in the poor light and from hundreds of yards away, were staggering with exhaustion, hungry, dirty. A mess wagon came forward and set up to feed them what must have been their first hot meal in days or even weeks. Patton's advance had been pressing them eastward across France without letup.
"Sarge? Aren't you gonna call this in?"
"No. Not yet. Let's let those poor sons of bitches finish their chow first."
When the Germans had finally eaten their fill, a couple had lit cigarettes, and the mess wagon was turning around to leave, Dad finally called the battery plotter with the coordinates. He made the German soldiers and the mess wagon disappear in a rain of 155-mm howitzer shells.
At the time the movie finally made it to cable, Dad had only a few months to live. When I saw this movie, I couldn't get that story of his out of my head. Knowing how bitter and disgusted he felt about the war -- "I was a political prisoner of Franklin Delano Roosevelt" was how he put it -- I realized that this movie was too powerful for him to see.
I realize this is more a personal anecdote than a remark about the movie per se, but it says something about the tone and impact of Gordon and Wharton's story that I was finally able to understand, just a little bit, why I saw Dad sitting alone at the breakfast table in the middle of the night, chain-smoking in the darkness, for all those decades. And the horrific glimpse this film gave me sobers me to this day.
In memoriam: Amzi R. McClain (1920-1999), T/Sgt, Batt A 721st FA Btn 66th Inf Div 1943-1945
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