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The pressurized cabin, strangely, reminds me of the cellar in Hamburg. Many hours had been spent in that small cellar. Reeking of cigarette smoke and soap, I usually was found to be its only occupant.
But this time, I am not alone. Some of the others have shrunk into their seats, while a few are shouting to each other over the rumble of rotors, their voices keeping afloat the morale of many. I can’t help feeling enthusiastic that a purpose has been found for me, to use my abilities to serve the fatherland and the Führer.
Spitting passages of Mein Kampf into your enemies’ faces as you bayonet them is described by my brothers as the ultimate form of enjoyment. They weren’t in a paratrooping regiment; “We don’t use bayonets when paratrooping,” I’ve been told, “If we do, then the blade will snap when you land and slice your skin open. Only a schwachsinnige Russian would do that.” Fritz reassures me. Fritz, a good friend, is to be dropped in the same sector as I, so we planned to meet on the field after dropping and score some tötet—kills.
Finally, a greasy man enters the cabin. His filthy coat slips him through the steel door like a bar of used soap.
“Also gut, du Abschaum!” he hollers. “Gehen Sie zeigen die Russischen Schweine, was Deutschland tun kann!”
“Ja!” the unit confirms in synchronization.
We stand and turn towards the back of the cabin in grim unison. A motorized grating sound peels at the walls’ flaking blue paint as the maw of hell slowly gapes. The muddy world below pulsates with explosions and smoke. Or are they clouds? I had never seen flak before; it looks like popping kernels of corn, lighting everything around, and then burning into a puff of black ink. I was third in line for the jump. I was second. I’m up. Nervous as I am, admittedly, I suddenly feel the weight of my helmet, of the Schmeisser and ‘chute, which I am now grasping trustingly, the doors threaten to pull me in, and I am unprepared. The bell flashes green, and after what seems like an eternity of hesitation, in only a few seconds, my submachinegun falls. Then a helmet. Then a vest. Then I. The initial wind can tear skin off the bones of even the bravest.
At first, there is nothing. My ears depressurize, deafening me. A delicate nylon cord is pulled; a ‘chute catches the air. Then, there is pain. Rain droplets and elastic cords carve deep gashes into the body’s flesh; mostly the face. Awkwardly, I pull a second mask over my face; this time of rubber and hose. I remember that brother would always pack a mask when he went to “work” at the Vernichtungslager. He said that he enjoyed working at the camps, grim as it was. Mother told me that the creation of Vernichtungslager was one of the Führer’s few true mistakes. Nobody in Hamburg used the word “genocide.” Even for the indifferent, it was thought to be “over-cleansing.”
I touch the ground, finally. Severing myself from the chute with a blade, I writhe from the mass of canvas and cord. I survey the field around me: German soldiers dredge through ravines and shell holes, screaming orders to one another. Only dead trees and shredded sandbags provide the advancing soldiers with sheltered resting places. There are no dead Germans on the field, as I had already deducted. The main battling is going on ahead, and even so, the Germans rarely suffer casualties; we all know that. The evening is darkened by smoke and ashes filling the air above, completely hiding the sun. Light rain has caused topsoil to melt into smooth mud; the entire battlefield shifting like a stream of coagulated blood, an endless supply fueled by the Schmeisser’s stamped steel.
The Schmeisser is Germany’s best automatic weapon. Only the finest soldiers were issued them, and they were built specifically for use by paratroopers. The warriors that used them are known as Sky Schmeissers. My power when wielding one on the battlefield is unsurpassed. The magazine is placed and cocked; safety turned off.
Let’s see those Schweinepest Russians now.
A muffled but familiar voice fractures the distant gunfire’s echoing silence. Fritz has made it.
“Die Mediziner werden 50 Meter hinter die Kraft zu allen Zeiten,” “The medics will be 50 meters behind the force at all times.” Black ash continues to rain down, our appendage-like masks the only thing keeping us alive.
I jokingly respond that we Germans wouldn’t be in need of medics; they’d better help the commies. Fritz snorts in amusement. Of course, neither of us have seen combat.
Air has a strange tendency to thicken when one marches towards battle. It becomes harder to breathe, the body seems to respond sluggishly and vibrations travel quickly through it. People around you can be felt without even being seen; crowds of shouting men reverberate like the very shells they struggle to evade. The atmosphere now reminds me of my mother’s factory. Mother had worked at a plant for as long as I remember, machining shells and cannon barrels. The commotion of that place was always bustling and loud; the sheer volume always failed to mask depression. It feels the same now.
Breaking the muffled drag of combat boots through sopping mud, a shrieking sound throws me to the ground. Men scatter to limbless trees which resemble parched bones jutting from the mud, but some fall where they stand and cover themselves. Other men jump to the safety of a shell hole. I, stunned, lie in the sludge searching for a grenade, but Fritz and I had gone down in a shell hole and were protected.
“This is it.” I say quietly to Fritz.
“Das ist unser Ruhm.” “This is our glory” he defiantly utters, his eyes barely visible through a pair of speckled lenses.
We clench gloved hands together, leather abrading itself, and shake rigidly. Then we fight.
Bursts of automatic fire tear through the air as the Germans advance. First we take 40 meters, then 15. Seeing four German troops die is hardly an impact to a recruit’s morale. Seeing a man torn completely apart by machinegun fire just feet away is another matter. I know my mask is spattered with blood, though I cannot feel it. Fritz is now pulling an injured man down a ravine as I give supporting fire to the trenches. The assault ebbs; we sit, take out a cigarette and talk quietly.
“I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to keep up the attack; we lost the company commander to a grenade just an hour ago,” Fritz mutters. “And we’ve lost 23 men since then,” he continues.
“How many do you think have the Russians lost?” I asked.
“Probably a few dozen. I saw 4 take it just--” He pauses and peers towards me.
“We’ve got nothing to worry about,” I say, smacking a gloved hand against his helmet.
Then we wait. Hours pass; mud-encrusted hours. The sky above is a spider’s web of crisscrossing rounds; where no one dares to stand and risk entrapment.
A whistle breaks the silence, four long and two short blaring tweets. This is the signal to rush.
The German army lets loose a slowly swelling, stampeding cry of a savage nature as men rush from shell holes and ravines. The sound of rubber beating in the mud and men howling drowns out resounding machinegun fire. Fritz tugs at my collar, pulling me into consciousness.
“SCHNELL! SCHNELL!” he screams through the masks.
The Germans move towards the Soviet-held trenches like a glorious spearhead of Roman cavalry. The dugouts explode with rifle smoke as a torrent of German troops fall upon their companions, blood smearing their black jackets. Another row of soldiers are cut down, and another. Some throw themselves on the barbed wire, others fall on it involuntarily, ushering in another drove of men to the trenches. They dive like Olympic swimmers into the dugouts, drenching themselves in mud. Some meet a quick end, skewered on the points of Russian bayonets. I am one of the last to clear the barbed wire, smoke now engulfing the battlefield; smoke saturated by human blood. I lap sweat from my lips, tongue grated by rows of unshaved hairs. Vision blurring through a cracked eyepiece, German silhouettes flash through the smog as I advance, flak explosions above lighting them like grim animated ghosts.
A burst of machinegun fire rips through the tin canteen at my side. I throw myself to the mud, violently unfastening a grenade from my torn canvas belt. Squinting wearily through the blinding fog at the vague silhouettes, a wave of sweat rolls down my brow, only to pool inside the mask. Finally, the machinegun fires again, muzzle flash revealing its position in the dense smoke. Pulling the detonator cap from its handle, I hurl a grenade at the nest. Protecting my skull, I count under my breath, trembling: 3… 2… 1… Nothing. Doubting, I look up. An instant later, blinding light blossoms from the dugout, and my masked face is pelted with pinging sand. Then, silence. The raging battle can still be heard southward, in the trenches now. A stray round will zip by every few minutes to smash any feeling of security. I pull myself from the mud, resting a bleeding knee on a burst root.
Slowly, a moan of pain emanates from the shattered machinegun nest. Smog masks the whimpering noise as I move towards it carefully in the shifting mud. A charred, twitching body lies in the torn, smoking earth amongst shredded sandbags. It is wearing a torn German uniform; shreds of which lie strewn over the mud. Crouching over the body, I extend a shivering glove, cradling its shoulder. Turning the charred bulk on its back, the now familiar odor of burnt leather and flesh penetrates my mask. The man’s chest is shredded, blackened twitching ligaments overflowing with crimson blood. His right arm is completely missing, replaced now with a shattered collar bone. Head relatively intact, the mask is flattened deep into what I can only guess was once his face, the clicking of filter valves still present—still breathing. A stream of blood trickles from a smashed eye lens, behind it an unidentifiable mass. Reaching my hand over his chest, I tear from the soldier’s neck a single brass dog tag. I stuff it down my shirt, next to my own, his blood trickling down my front. It is warmer than mine.
Had I killed one of my own?
The Reich will never know.
Leaping into the trench, my boots settle into the pooling water and blood. Bodies fill the sludge, both German and Russian. Some are peacefully lying in the mud, while others are bayoneted and decapitated. Some are still alive. I turn towards the expanse of torn land facing the trench. The medics have trailed the force, just as we had been told, already piling the injured on stretchers. Keeping your head low is vital in trenches behind the main force, as snipers are everywhere. Brother had told me that.
The battle of the Volga rages on through the night as I keep behind the battle. Reinforcements are low, but not as low as morale. Lost German numbers are as high as 1,750 men, 400 paratroopers, 45 tanks and dozens of vehicles. I sit in a foxhole with three other men from the support company.
“The Soviets are pathetic,” one says.
The second is a decorated officer and is gibbering to his pistol. When I asked what was wrong with him, the third man told me that he’d lost his entire platoon to a single machinegun nest.
“Shell-shocked— the fool’s brain is like mud. He’s one of the lucky ones,” the third man said.
“I need to get out of here,” I think to myself. Peeking from the foxhole’s lip, I see that the battle has slowed as the Germans run low on ammunition and manpower. We had been told by an officer several hours ago that the 4th paratrooping regiment has retreated to form a defensive line some 10,000 meters back. Fritz and I are part of the 4th. I’m in no situation to pull back, as I’m in the frontlines, but Fritz must be safe.
Finally, the artillery arrives. First, whistling, then an explosion, followed by numerous human screams. A cloud of dirt and fire quickly engulfs the Soviet positions. Germans cheer for the long-awaited support as we leave the trenches and begin to move up the long field. A lone machinegun still sputters at us futilely, sweeping the ground with orange tracers. German reinforcements arrive, adding to the Nazi morale: groups of Storm Troopers in sleek black, some with deployable machineguns and anti-tank rockets, dismount from trucks. All of them professionals in the business of killing. The Soviets can now be seen abandoning their positions and mounting escape vehicles.
“Die Russen ziehen zurück! Aufladung!” “The Russians are retreating! Charge!” I holler to the advancing company behind. I finally feel the glory now, a glory to kill for, bestowed by God himself.
With violent speed, everything stops. The unstoppable Germans freeze in their tracks. Storm Troopers stop firing for the first time since their arrival. Such silence. The rain can be heard, the flak and the distant artillery, audible now for the first time. And another sound, a new sound. A low but loud mechanical whirr fills the skies; airplane rotors. Synchronized heads turn to the Soviet front. A thin black line has formed over the plumes of smoke.
“Russian fighters!” a lone German screams, his fright echoed by others.
I peel the black mask from my caked face, “Fliegeralarm! Fliegeralarm!” I scream, “Rush the enemy!”
We begin to run, ignoring the automatic fire still tearing at our helmets. I dredge boots through the sludge now, coordination sluggish. Adrenaline and rain has numbed my senses; no pain is felt from the steel fragments embedded in my legs. The mask is fogging slightly now, its valves clogged with mud. Although sweat and heat has engulfed my flesh, I feel strangely cold, like being wrapped in an electric blanket inside of an icebox. I turn back to the force. We are within friendly artillery fire now, our own shells skewering men like heavenly javelins.
The planes arrive.
Half a dozen gray planes streak by, red stars spattered on their hulls like Christmas ornaments. Unleashing a long burst of machinegun fire, the ground below explodes with sparks and dust. Men fall, their bodies tossed through the air like dolls. Some of them fire upon the planes, in vain.
“Keep moving, men!” I cry.
My leg explodes, suddenly. A single rifle round has passed clear through my leg, completely shattering the bone. Thrown to my back, another bullet embeds itself in me, this time the collarbone. Floundering in the mud, I scream as blood gushes from my injuries. No scream is heard. The Soviets dominate the air above, blurred hulls shadowing the cloudy sky. The flak has finally stopped.
German troops run by, some fall before me. I call out to them, my throat creating a gargling noise, but no scream.
“Hilfe!” “Help!” I think, tears branch over my face to make salty pools in my mask, burning cut flesh.
I realize after the initial shock that I had been shot four times, twice in my left leg, once in my chest and again in the arm. The Soviets must have pulled back and set up a second defensive perimeter, out of way of the fighters’ strafing runs. After what felt like hours, the Germans stop charging. Are they dead? Or perhaps they had broken the Russian defense and are seizing the Volga. The medics should be here soon, as they are behind the force at all times. Finally, I am calm, intense pain and blood loss numbing my ability to understand what is happening. I think of the battle. It was not a glorious battle; many men were lost. I know that Fritz will be upset if he has to fight the Russians without me; will I die here? I have seen so many die it may not matter. My vision is blurring before me, limbs growing heavy. I killed one of my own; a companion. Remembering the charred body, I slowly reach down the jacket with my functional arm and extract the dog tag. I cannot feel my own chest. Inspecting its smooth metal, I notice the intricate dents and scratches on the tag’s surface. My vision is nearly gone now, the edges of sight blackening like a filthy lens. I turn the tag over in my palm, toying with it like a piece of candy. Glinting on the metal is the glowing moon, peaceful after a night of murder. Bringing it to my face, I read the inscription. Silence. Then tears.
“The medics are not coming—I was ordered with them into battle as backup” I tell my bruised mind.
“The Volga will never be seized.”
“Father could not understand; the Führer himself could not understand, even if he put to it his best military minds. The country of Germany could never understand.”
Such are my last thoughts, as the tears on a cold face dry to salty powder.
The brass tag falls from my hand, into the mud. Inscribed in its metal lay the few words:
“Forever Ein Himmel Schmeisser”
“Forever a Sky Schmeisser”