The Texas Gun Club
September 14, 1943
East Slope, Mount San Chirico
They had returned to die with the company and the killing had already begun.
The lieutenant knew he’d made a bad decision. One of many, he reflected bitterly. As his jeeps skirted up the highway, he’d taken a shortcut. A road to nowhere. He’d been told Able Company was on the other side of the mountain, but to drive around it would take too much time. Besides, he didn’t know who controlled the roads. They’d been gone too long.
Against the backdrop of the smoke-filled sky, the lieutenant took in the horror of the battlefield. Massive clouds of flies marked the dead while vultures and ravens gorged on the unexpected bounty. Broken, listless soldiers sat in ditches praying for the end, praying for salvation while others moved forward towards the smoke and noise of combat. It wasn’t over yet.
There was no road leading down the eastern slope. It ended on a flat, rocky plateau where a shattered wooden cross lay strewn across the rocks. It might have been a beautiful place to pray once, but not today. He wasn’t seeking salvation. There was no sense looking for what would never be granted.
The lieutenant spotted American soldiers on the crest. By God, he was tired. If they’d been German soldiers he would’ve been dead by now. Perhaps they’ll know where Able Company is, thought the lieutenant as he led the jeeps to the far rim of the crest, where a small group of officers had gathered to watch the battle unfold. For the first time in ages, fortune had smiled on him: he knew these soldiers.
The lieutenant climbed out of the jeep and made his way towards a short, bull-necked lieutenant colonel with dark tired eyes: his battalion commander.
“Sir,” he said. He nodded but did not salute.
The colonel glanced at the lieutenant, turned and silently counted the soldiers in the jeeps. Some were missing, but he couldn’t remember how many there had been in the beginning. Was it eight? Or ten? He turned his gaze back to the action at the base of the mountain, looking over the lieutenant once more in the process: he’d changed. Gone was his cocky confidence. He didn’t look injured, but he was covered in dried blood and smelled like a slaughterhouse.
Without taking his eyes off the battlefield, the colonel asked the only question that mattered, “Are they going to help?”
“No sir. They’re movin’ too slowly. They won’t be here for days.”
The battalion commander let out a long sigh. “Well, that’s it then. It’s just us.”
“Yes sir. It’s just us.” The words were chilling, but the lieutenant didn’t care. He needed to get back to his company.
He walked to the edge of the crest and looked down. He’d been gone from the Salerno plain for days, and although the war had by no means passed him by, this was different—less personal—than the killing he’d seen. The killing he’d done. There was enough of a breeze off the water to push the haze around, granting brief glimpses of the battle below. It looked no better from this side of the mountain.
A burst of fire erupted several hundred yards below where the mountain sloped to a ribbon of flat land that lay between the base and a small creek. Beyond the water lay a farmer’s pasture where water buffalo or perhaps cattle had grazed in happier times. On this day, the pasture had become a field of carnage as the battle reached its culmination. The lieutenant knew the little bridge over the creek was the key to the beachhead, to the battle. If the Allies hold the bridge, they inexorably build up and move inland. If the Germans win the narrow strip of wood and iron, it would make Dunkirk look like a weekend at the shore.
“Sir, I was told we’ve been ordered to evacuate to the ships. Is that true?” The lieutenant had heard the rumor only yesterday and had driven through the night to return. It had been the worst night of his life.
“It was a stupid order. Never give an order you know cain’t be obeyed. We ain’t goin’. . .” The battalion commander was interrupted by the sound of cheering. Through a hole in the smoke, they watched as a salvo of naval gunfire destroyed a tank and a squad of panzer grenadiers who’d been using the tank as a shield.
“Sir, where’s Able? I need to get back to my platoon.” The lieutenant thought it a damn odd thing cheering the deaths of a score of men, but then thought maybe the Germans had been praying for an end as well. Perhaps their deaths were…what was the phrase? Sweet and fitting. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. The old lie.
Reading the anxiety and need for haste on the lieutenant’s face, the colonel said, “Your cousin’s fine. That’s them straight down—in front of the bridge. There’s a goat path to your right, it’s the best way . . .”
The colonel stopped talking as German artillery found the bridge’s defenders. The mountain shook as a ton of explosives hit the hillside. The concussion from the blasts and the falling debris forced the watchers away from the edge and down into foxholes or behind rocks—except for the colonel and the lieutenant.
The colonel looked defiant, yet resigned to the inevitable. He had the same look seen on the faces of men at more memorable places like the Alamo and Rorke’s Drift and, more recently, Dunkirk and Dieppe. “You and your boys are my battalion reserve. No one’s left. Y’all head on down now. I’m going to direct Baker to send a platoon from their defenses and then my staff and I’ll be right behind you.”
“Thank you, sir,” said the lieutenant, even though he wasn’t feeling remotely grateful. He turned and motioned to his soldiers, who grabbed weapons and packs before starting grim-faced down the path to join the remnant of their company.