May 10, 2017
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< “Are you going to tell them, Charlie?”
“Yes, brother. I think they need to hear it.”
My Granddaddy fought in the Civil War. I remember him talking about fighting for a way of life on American soil. That’s a real war, where men are passionate about a cause and willing to die for it. What we were in was just America’s attempt to pound its chest. Unfortunately for me and my brothers, this meant putting our lives on the line on foreign, European soil to solve a conflict that Americans did not start.
The Civil War was an honorable affair at least. Granddaddy marched in lines alongside his friends and family and directly fought the Confederate counterparts. This conflict was so different. What was once hot lead and muskets became steel, barbed wire, tear gas, machine guns, and airplanes. The tactics changed as well, as marching at the enemy was replaced by cowering behind trenches until your captain writes your death sentence and told you to go over the top. Morale was low on all sides, as all of the world begged for this Hell to end.
I guess the one upside to this “World War” was the friends I made. We called ourselves the Harlem Hellfighters, one of the only all black groups in the American Army. I think Granddaddy would be proud of this, that we could now fight alongside all white men. You see that’s a direct outcome from his war days. The outcome of this conflict, I was never so sure. Empires crumbled, nations were devastated, and cities were levelled. I cannot think of any outcome worth that cost. None of the other men could either, but at that point, we were too tired to speak to one another. Instead, our eyes did the talking, as once glance showed me the hatred these men had for the War, the Germans, the trenches, and for the US. Rumors suggested that an end is near, but hoping for something like that was enough to drive a man insane out there, groveling through these blood soaked, disease filled, God forbidden trenches.
Men were calling it the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and it was supposed to be the bloodiest encounter of the war. Speculators were right, as over 1 million Americans tried to push through the German lines, causing over 117,000 casualties along the way. I was one of those men in the attacks, those fruitless attempts in this war of attrition. Well, I guess they were not fruitless, as that offensive won the war for us allies, but justifying that with hundreds of thousands of deaths seems impossible to me.
Before I knew it, the day of the offensive, September 26, 1918, was upon us. “Charlie, you reckon us hellfighters are gonna make it out of here in one piece?”
“I’m not sure. I’m not going to lie to you it’s not going to be easy”, I responded.
“Yeah. Odds gotta be 25 to 1 against us, especially with these new German Stormtroopers. I heard they are ordered to charge right at our trench, as if they don’t fear death.” Hearing this, I tried to boost Clarence’s morale, but nothing helped, as he continued his nervous rant. “Jim’s over there puking his guts out, Charlie. None of us want to die here. We all fear that after this offensive, we are gonna look like the French. Like an army of living dead.” Those last words still sit with me to this day. We were dead on the inside, but we did not let the opposition know this. We sure as hell did not want them to know the fear that consumed us all.
I had never seen the French countryside before, but had imagined it before in dreams. With my head on the pillow, I pictured a lush, green field filled with red poppy flowers. I imagined this field would be bordered by quiet woods, exhaling fresh air onto the field. It was heavenly. What I saw during this offensive was nothing that I dreamed of. Eastern France had no more green. It was a barren wasteland of red, black, brown, and gray. The quiet fields had become kill zones, filled with barbed wire, mud, and trenches. Gas had killed all of the foliage, devastating the peaceful countryside. It was hell on Earth.
“Then what happened, Uncle Charlie?”
“Just give me a minute. These memories are not too fond, you know.”
“Then why are you telling us this now?”
“You’re old enough, and your pops can’t manage to talk about it. He can’t relive that nightmare.”
“And you can talk about it?”
“I can’t escape those memories, so I decided to embrace them. It’s not hard either, as I remember all of this as if it were yesterday.” I said. “Anyways, let me finish this story. It is pretty remarkable. It showed me that in time of massive conflict and hatred, some people are still inheritably good.”
The attacks initially began on those fields, and then moved into the forest. My men and I zigzagged from trench to trench, dodging and ducking from German gunfire. We were making decent progress, then the Stormtroopers came. I had never seen men like this before. They were clad in all iron gear, wielding trench maces and rifles and seemed to have no concept of how war worked. How those men garnered the strength to come over the top and charge at us baffled me.
“Charlie, you hear that?”
“Yes, Clarence. It’s quiet over in the German trenches.”
“You reckon they’re going to surrender?”
“I sure hope so. Nothing sounds better than going home.” Then Clarence and I began to hear the dreaded German whistles, ordering a new attack. Clarence peeked out over the field to see what was happening, then looked back at me, notifying me they were coming again. I had never seen fear grip my friend like that day did.
“Dear God, Charlie, it’s the Stormtroopers.” From that moment, all we heard was screaming. Our screaming, German screaming, and God screaming down on us, asking why his children had to fight like this. Those Stormtroopers charged right for our trench. We managed to eliminate most of them, but a few dozen tumbled into the trench with us. Weapons were dropped and men resorted to hand to hand combat. I had never seen something so barbaric in my life.
“Charlie! Get out of here! There are too many of them!” I looked over and saw Clarence, my best friend, being attacked by two Germans. I couldn’t bear watching him struggle, and flew over to help him. The two of us made it out from that skirmish somehow, and the battalion finished off the rest of the Germans. We thought we had won. But that brief moment of glory was interrupted by the sound of mortar fire. I glanced at Clarence as the mortars barraged our trench. One hit near us and threw me multiple feet through the air. Clarence was thrown in the other direction, and I never saw him again. My guess is that my best friend never made it out of that forest in Eastern France.
I woke up from my fall and was surrounded by eternal darkness. I slowly regained  my vision and awareness, realizing the forest was silent. Those mortars must have taken out the whole battlefield. German soldiers and American soldiers were all gone. Thinking I was alone, I got up and began to make my way out of the forest. While trying to escape the forest, I stumbled across a German soldier. He was wounded, but well enough to walk. I assume he was doing the same as me and leave this place. Terrified, I pointed my rifle at him as he raised his at me. I knew one of us would have to die. It was just a matter of who shot first.
I was so wrong. Instead, the most amazing thing happened. We just stayed there, rifles aimed at each other, with no one shooting. Eventually, the German soldier lowered his weapon and just looked at me. His eyes were not full of hate and fury, but sadness and regret instead. Seeing this, I too lowered my weapon. I pointed to his torso where he was wounded and then pointed to my bandages. He seemed to understand, as I inched toward him. While cleaning and wrapping his wounds, I smiled for the first time since I had been sent to Europe. In an era where the world was falling apart, it warmed my heart that us two had the kindness to try and put it back together a little bit. As a token of gratitude for helping him, the German reached into his coat and handed me a map, as he seemed to know I wanted to get out of there. I nodded in approval at him, and we went our separate ways. As we were walking away, the German turned back and looked at me, smiling. His smile is a moment I will never forget.
“Uncle Charlie, that story was amazing.”
“It was pretty unreal.” I responded. “When I got back to camp from the forest, I told your dad, but he did not believe me at first.”
“Did you see the German you helped ever again?”
“No. Soon after that day your dad and I got sent home. We were thrilled to be home. Especially your pops. I am not sure if he could have taken another month in Europe.”
“Do you think he would be able to talk about the War if he had been with you and the German?”
“Most likely. A moment like that can reshape a way one thinks about life. Even if they are in the middle of a war.” Maybe I should not speak on behalf of my brother, but it was hard to think any differently, as that day in Eastern France changed my life.

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