Sam's War

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Chapter IX

The practice session resumed with Louis showing a more patient side to his character. Before the day was over he and Cormac had worked individually with each member of the failed firing squad, plus many others, until they all scored a hit on the target. This success installed them with some confidence and a healthy sense of morale.

They were also taught the proper uses of the different weapons they had. Rifles were for precise shooting from a distance, while machineguns were for more close up combat. They learned that short controlled bursts of fire were much more effective than carelessly pointing the weapon and blasting off a whole clip at a target well out of range. Pistols were also for very close-up fighting.

They were taught how to properly clean and better maintain their weapons. Louis assured them that this alone would cut down on the senseless number of careless accidents. It was the beginning of a very close, very human bond between the Americans and the Partisans.

Over the course of the next few days a routine of sorts settled into the camp. With the exception of the elderly, very sick, (which made up a good portion of the camp), and the night watch; everyone was to be up doing something productive by sunrise. The Partisans learned that even in America, where the violence of the front lines existed only in news reels and radio waves, everyone was expected to do their part in the war effort. Many of the Partisans had no idea that hundreds of thousands of Americans had been killed in the fighting since the United States entered the war, a bloody toll that seemed to light a fire in even the most complacent.

Calisthenics and marching drills were organized. Everyday there was more and more target practice. An evaluation process was used to help form different groups according to ability and talent, something that was already done, but with no practical sense of organization. The most physically fit were teamed together in small groups of six and rotated every other day from patrolling just outside the valley, to performing the more strenuous duties around camp. Most of these men and women were not necessarily fit, but were simply uninjured and had no physical ailments.

Out of this bunch, a somewhat elite group was formed and came to be known as The Salute Scouts. The idea was Louis’s. He began to select the fittest of the fit, those who stood out with strength, speed, endurance and courage. For over a week he kept them in their separate smaller units, not letting them or anyone else know of his plan, not even Cormac. His recruiting methods were very covert. He would casually approach the individual after they had performed an exceptionally difficult task or feat, speaking briefly with them through Gustov, acknowledging the achievement. He made notes on their different habits, special skills and subtle talents, and their faults, flaws and weaknesses, until he had a profile on each potential recruit.

During this time, he also did some investigation, finding out what he could about the military history of the region. He interviewed Oleg, Prodki and some of their lieutenants, even some of the older veterans of the Great War. Louis learned of a very small, very select unit of Serbian commandoes that operated briefly during The Great War called the Salute Scouts, a unit some said was only a myth. Although he had heard of them, even Prodki was uncertain of their actual existence. They were said to be an utterly ruthless bunch, only a hundred criminal types that worked in small groups of two, three or four. After penetrating deep and into enemy territory, they would commit treacherous acts of murder, kidnapping, sabotage and worse.

A particularly notorious Salute Scout, who always worked alone, was said to have slipped undetected into an enemy barracks one night. Then he proceeded to slit the throat of every other man as he lay sleeping. The next morning at revelry, the horrified survivors awoke untouched in their beds between the bloody corpses of their comrades, alive to spread the chilling rumors. This very same man, code named Red Stick, was also said to have assumed the identity of a German colonel. Only months before the war's end, he made his way to Berlin, brutally murdering several members Kaisar Wilhelm’s staff before being captured and executed.

From some of the older Serbs, Louis learned nearly all of the Salute Scouts were killed during the war; their missions were often suicidal. The handful that remained afterwards were lured to a secret lodge where they were to be paid and awarded for their services. But they were considered so deviant, they were all arrested and sent to separate prisons and insane asylums. Louis decided to use the name for the special operations group he was forming: The Salute Scouts of the 38th PMB.

One young partisan began to stand out to Louis as a secret weapon all by himself. He was a seventeen-year-old Macedonian named Pavlov. Louis first noticed Pavlov standing in the background at the first parlay with Prodki, acting as an assistant to one of the lieutenants. He was tall for his age, six feet, with a lean muscular frame of about 180 pounds. His dark, wavy, shoulder-length hair had highlights of blond when the sun hit it, giving him the look of blood-born nobility. His looks were so striking that both Louis and Cormac had jokingly remarked of taking him to Hollywood after the war to be in the movies.

But Pavlov was no actor. His whole life revolved around killing Germans and defeating Germany. Like so many in the camp, he’d lost his all his family and friends to the Nazis early in the war. In staggeringly quick succession, before he was fifteen, his large prominent family was murdered in a variety of ways. Reprisal killings, accidental crossfires, mistaken identity and starvation.

A few months before Louis and Cormac arrived at the Partisan camp, Pavlov had been on a patrol in which two Germans were captured during a skirmish. The other Partisans were beating the Germans trying to get information, but to no avail. Without blinking, Pavlov very casually took out his knife as if he were about to clean his fingernails. He stood behind one of the Germans, tugged on his ear and cut it off in one quick motion, startling the other Partisans. The German, a very tough brute, jerked and grabbed at the side of his head, showing more anger than fear. But when Pavlov stepped around in front of him, speaking into the severed ear like a microphone, the German began to shriek, telling them everything he knew.

Pavlov was by far the best one-on-one fighter in the camp. During the boxing and hand-to-hand combat sessions, he overwhelmed everyone with his speed, power and agility. Oleg and a couple of others were strong and savvied enough to give Pavlov a good fight and keep from getting badly hurt. But his endurance was endless, and he always outlasted them. He seemed to be good at everything, but his most outstanding trait was cunning treachery, and a shark-like killer instinct. Louis, who’d twice been a Golden Gloves Champion back in Oklahoma, often wondered how he would have fared against the boy on his best day.

At the end of each day, when all the calisthenics and drills were done, Louis would work with Pavlov. He would stand with his crutches under his arms, carefully showing him some the more advanced fighting techniques. Pavlov learned fast, absorbing the knowledge like a sponge. He was frighteningly efficient with a knife, and since joining the resistance a year ago, he’d practiced throwing the weapon and become chillingly accurate. Strangely enough, his biggest weakness was firearms, but this soon changed after a few lessons from Louis.

During this time Louis had also developed a better understanding of the area’s geography. The valley in which the 38th PMB was located was quite unique. Its width was about a mile-and-a-half, and its length no more than three miles. The jagged peaks that surrounded the valley, Louis guessed, were about 5,000 feet and could only be accessed by three passes. The one to the northeast, the pass that Louis and Cormac had first arrived by was called The Gate and was by far the most traversable. Directly to the south was a low, heavily wooded route known as The Ticket that ran along the stream into a much larger valley. Only a very narrow trail connected the two valleys at that point, most of the pass taken up by the steam itself. Straight to the north was the highest, most dangerous pass, dubbed The Horn. Few knew about it, and fewer still had been through it. On the other side of this northern pass, was a steep narrow trail that wound back down to the west through a series of tight switchbacks. At the end of the last switchback, the trail led to a short ridge that actually ran parallel, overlooking the trail that led to the northeastern pass.

Louis guessed that some drunk Wehrmacht battalion commander might already know about the camp. But having survived this long and knowing the war might soon end, didn’t want to risk getting in a brawl with a large bunch of well-armed, pissed-off locals. But as soon as someone at a regimental or a division level found out, that’s when they could expect some very unwelcome company. After keeping it to himself for ten days, Louis decided to share his ideas with Cormac.

“So, that’s what you’ve been up to,” said the co-pilot. “Start’n up your own little death squad, huh?”

“Not a death squad, Peter, a special group to better deal with any enemy personnel we might encounter,” Louis said as he dressed himself for the morning routine. “It’s bound to happen, and when it does, I wanna be ready. Don’t you?”

“Of course, Sam, but you’re naming it after a death squad. I mean, that’s what these guys, The Salute Scouts, that’s what they did, right? They went around kill’n people. To me sounds like they were pretty much just a bunch of madmen.”

“Yeah. Maybe it’ll scare any Germans that come around.”

“Maybe it will. Kind'a creepy if you ask me.”

“That's what I was hoping.” said Louis as the two of them made their way to Prodki’s Little Circle.

Prodki’s Little Circle was what the two Americans called the small compound where Prodki stayed. It was a grouping of tents set up to allow only the inner circle of Partisans, crudely situated along the east bank of the stream off by itself. A long fence separated it from the other high ranking resistance fighters.

Along the way Louis saw Pavlov on the other side of the stream, and waved him over as they made their way. They still carried their crutches, but not really to walk with. Their ankles were getting stronger, they only used them when they grew tired, or on steep rocky terrain.

Two large middle-aged men holding machineguns stood as sentries. They nodded at Louis and Cormac when the two Americans reached the gate of the little compound. A hinged opening was set with fastened planks and boards in the middle of a series of wooden poles. Odd assortments of lumber and tree limbs were dug into the ground, each rapped and connected with barbed wire, rope and even long strips of cloth. The ten-foot-high fence ran all the way to the edge of the stream, where a man with a machinegun sat on what looked like a fancy barstool. On the other side of the gate, the fence ran all the way to the tree line, where two more machine gunners stood guard. Just on the other side of the fence, a second footbridge was being built over the stream, eventually connecting the southern most parts of the camp.

“Can I speak to Colonel Prodki?” said Louis, looking back and forth between the two guards, not knowing which one was in charge. “Please.”

At that moment Pavlov ran up and stopped next to Louis. He said something to the guards, Lokkel and Pelrow, and they both nodded.

“Yang Keys,” boomed Lokkel, who was as tall as Gustov, but big-boned and thick as a tree trunk. He had a long leathery face, but smiled wide and happy, showing a row of dice-size teeth. He reached out with a hand the size of a catcher’s mitt and slapped Louis hard on the back, jarring him forward into Prodki’s Little Circle. “We love American. You cowboy.”

“Baseball,” said the other guard, nodding. He was also big, but small compared to Lokkel.

The three of them wound their way through a narrow, smelly maze of tents and smiling Partisans, all eager to show what American slang they knew.

Toward the back they found Prodki with Gustov, Oleg and a handful of others sitting in what looked like the beginnings of an open garden. Fancy high back chairs were arranged in a semi-circle, flanked with some pretty wildflowers and a stone paved walking path, a roughhewn sanctuary for the Partisan top-brass.

Louis got right to the point, reading off a list of names and explaining to Prodki his plan for a special group of Partisan commandoes. He proposed a short expedition outside the valley, inviting Prodki and his men to come along, a practical excursion to further present the tactics of his plan. All of this was new to Pavlov, and Louis took note of the expression on the young man’s face as he spoke.

“I’d like Pavlov, here,” said Louis, motioning with his hand, “to go with Oleg and some the men I’ve just named, and make their way through the north pass. The rest of us will take the northeastern pass, and ron dé vue at this ridge y’all told me about, the one that overlooks the trail.”

While Gustov translated for Louis, Oleg clapped Pavlov on the back, happy for the boy who was fast becoming a man. The young Macedonian had always been considered a useful part of the group because of his physical ability and desire to fight. But he had never been fully accepted into the inner circle because of his age. All that would now change.

Louis also explained that the south pass, The Ticket, would have to be widened and patrols sent into the next valley to check for any danger. This would be the escape route if a large overwhelming force attacked the camp. In the event of a camp evacuation, a rear guard would be set up at the pass itself to slow any pursuing Germans. Cormac would oversee this part of the plan.

Four others would accompany Pavlov and Oleg up the north pass of the valley. Mikel was only 28, had a small frame, but was wiry and strong for his size. He was one of very few men his age in the camp, still quite healthy and in his prime years. Before the war he had been a graduate student studying literature at a small university in Belgrade. He too was half Jewish, and initially joined the resistance because he had little choice otherwise. Until recently he had been part of a group that constantly worked on growing and gathering vegetables for the camp. But a couple of months ago his female companion died of an illness. Ever since then he’d shown more interest in fighting. He learned fast and seemed level headed, very alert and upbeat.

Nikoli was not really a man yet at all. Having just turned fourteen and considered to be somewhat simple-minded, he was still just a boy, a rather large boy. He stood six feet and easily weighed 190 pounds with no family to speak of, one of the many orphans that roamed about the camp in small herds. He was very strong and often used as a two legged mule, toting heavy loads here and there, usually for the women, who seemed to be grooming him for other needs. He followed instructions well and would do anything he was told, wearing a constant playful grin. He was one of the few who could actually spar, wrestle and grapple with Pavlov without getting hurt too bad. He’d never been on any patrols and, until now, had never been considered for any kind of real fighting.

Rikardo was the youngest of the Partisan group to first meet Louis and Cormac back at the cave where the old man had left them. He was 41 and had been a champion soccer player in his youth, still retaining much of his strength and agility. Medium height and build, he was a hard diligent worker but spoke very little. He seemed to lack the fire in his eyes that many of the others had. It was rumored that he had been in a military academy growing up in Sarajevo and came from a wealthy family, but never talked about it. When asked, he would simply shrug and shake his head. He had proven himself sturdy and dependable and was a decent shot with all of the various weapons. Louis could tell by the way he handled them, Rikardo had some kind of military training, but he too learned very little about the man.

Josef was 49 and had been in the same SS collaborator battalion as Oleg. He had played a major part in the mutiny that liberated them from the Germans, and had been Oleg’s second when they first met Prodki. But Josef was really more of a sergeant than a lieutenant, knowing his place just outside the inner circle. Short, stocky and barrel-chested, he was very strong, diligent and tireless. Even though he hadn’t heard from his wife, children and grandchildren since he was arrested in Belgrade when the Germans first came, he seemed totally unaffected by the conflict. Like many, he’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time, rounded up in an area where some soldiers had been shot by a sniper. An electrician by trade, he was responsible for most of the ramshackle buildings in the camp, solid if not aesthetic work. His thick bushy hair, long side burns and hairy forearms gave him a very tough blue-collar-look. But he smiled easily and was usually jovial and pleasant, causing Louis to wonder if he was right for the Salute Scouts. “Don’t worry,” Gustov had told him when he asked. “Josef is a killer of Germans.”

The hardest part for Louis in all this was, knowing he would not actually be in the elite unit he was forming. He wanted so bad to fight side by side with them, but it was not to be. Even if he had a month or more to recuperate, he’d still be in no shape to perform at the level required for such work. Landing in the tree, being beaten by the Germans, lack of rest, starvation and the endless marching had taken a disturbing toll on his body. He often wondered if he would ever be strong again.

That afternoon Louis helped Oleg and Pavlov’s six-man-team as they made an inventory of everything that would be going up to the north pass. All six of them had been to The Horn, but only Rikardo and Josef had been all the way to ridge that overlooked the main trail into the camp. Through Gustov, they all shared their views on how to best accomplish the first mission of the 38th PMB’s Salute Scouts.

They would carry all the weapons, ammo and supplies they could manage up a steep series of switchbacks. Along the way they would catch glimpses of a few waterfalls, little cataracts that fed the stream below. Just before the pass, the last switchback turned just before an impressive waterfall that spilled a five-foot-wide wall of water within arm’s reach, a great spot to freshen up and take quick birdbath. There, looking up and to the left, one could see where the water flowed from the east down another peak beyond the pass.

Once through The Horn, the trail turned sharply to the right, beginning the last series of switchbacks. Josef did most of the talking at this point, Rikardo occasionally nodding and adding a comment or two. They explained that about fifty feet after the last switchback, the trail came to a narrow ledge running along the face of a sheer cliff, hedged with brush and small scraggly trees. Forty feet below, straight down, was the trail Louis and Cormac had traveled. Rikardo said it was about half-a-kilometer before the spot where the two Americans first saw the Partisan camp.

Early before sunrise the next morning the six scouts set out, each packed with about seventy pounds of gear. At mid-morning Louis, Gustov, Prodki and about two dozen others, including Katia, headed toward The Gate, also loaded with supplies.

Cormac had gone to The Ticket with a team of men to get started on a little survey work. For Louis and his party, the timing was perfect. Just as they arrived at the location around, a shout was heard from above. Louis was surprised at how well-hidden the spot was as seen from below. Even after close examination the ledge appeared no more than a thick line of brush growing out of the cliff face. Pavlov, who was the first to make it to the ledge, literally had to shout and wave his arms before Louis spotted him.

“Damn!” he said looking up at the grinning Macedonian. “How much room is there?”

Pavlov spread his arms as wide as he could, uttering a few words.

“About six feet” said Gustov.

Soon Mikel joined Pavlov, and not far behind him was Nikoli. After Oleg, Rikardo and Josef made it to the ledge, a hoist and boom was constructed with a rope and pulley attached to one of the tree limbs. All the supplies were lifted up, then Louis himself was pulled to the ledge to have a look around.

What he saw made him wish even more that his physical heath were better. If only the Partisans had a radio, he thought to himself. Supply drops could be made into the valley, fortifying the partisans with men, material and food. If even one 55 millimeter howitzer could be dropped to the camp, coordinating with the very ledge at which he now stood as a forward observation, a whole German regiment could be held off all summer. With a few well-trained advisers and Allied air support, an entire enemy division could be lured to this very spot and laid to waste within a week. But they had no radio, no howitzer and no air support. They were alone. At best they could hold off one strong battalion for a few days, maybe a week, then they would be the ones laid to waste.

The ledge, which was now called The Balcony, ran about 100 feet, then began to taper off, dissipating into the cliff like a huge green blade. Since it was almost invisible from the ground, Louis decided the ledge would actually be the post, housing a good portion of the supplies. In case of a direct hit from an artillery round, most of the supplies and ammo would be stored at a spot well hidden in the rocks and trees near the last switchback.

All that day Louis helped the Salute Scouts organize things on the ledge, while most of the men down below went back for more supplies. On the opposite side of the trail below the ledge was a rocky clearing sparse with trees, a narrow creek running through it. Beyond that, where the terrain sloped back up slightly, another thick tree line began. Large rocks and boulders could be seen further off deep within the trees, barely visible through the darkness of the forest, even in the daylight. From above, Louis pointed out spots to Prodki in the trees and rocks where an ambush could be made on an approaching enemy, catching them in a killing box. He shouted out specific orders to Gustov who translated to Prodki where he thought it best to put another cash of weapons and a few machinegun nests.

Farther south leading away from the Gate, the trail curved sharply to the east, then bent back south around a series of boulders. The place was a perfect slaughter pen. The trick, Louis realized, was getting the German’s in close to the northeast pass, but not too close.

A few other men were hoisted up to the ledge to help with sorting things out and clearing away brush to store supplies. Two machinegun nests were set up in the rocks above the ledge, both fitted with 8mm heavy machineguns. They would have a perfect aim on an approaching enemy just as they rounded the bend where the trail came into view. Louis hoped this would allow them to stem the flow of any large enemy force, letting in about a hundred at a time to be bushwhacked at the killing box.

By the end of the day, the area outside the valley was turned into a stout fortification. The Balcony was stocked with ammo, small arms, first-aid gear and a few jugs of water. At least seven round trips were made by some of men that day bringing more supplies to The Balcony. Louis sent word to Cormac that he was going to spend the night at the location, camping out with Gustov, Prodki and the Salute Scouts. He asked his co-plot to join them the next morning.

"Ya gotta see this, Peter," Louis had written on a piece of paper, "It’s kind’a like The Alamo, but deep in the woods."

Just before dark some of Prodki’s men got lucky and shot a wild pig out past the bend in the trail, riddling the beast with over a dozen bullets. Cooking it whole took too long, so the animal was butchered into smaller pieces and roasted over a fire. Later that night as the men ate, Prodki shared an idea of his own, Gustov translating the man’s animated expressions. He explained that over the last couple of months, more and more German patrols had been spotted in the area. He agreed with Louis in that it was only a matter of time before a large enemy force would come down this tail to attack their position in the valley. The women and children might be spared, but any man who was able to hold a weapon would be shot, even if they surrendered without resistance. The sick and elderly would simply be left to die.

Early the next morning, shortly after sunrise Cormac showed up. "I don't remember any of this. Are you sure this is the way we came."

'Yeah, that's what I said," replied Louis. "I guess we were just too exhausted to remember."

"Hate to be the first one coming down this trail," said Cormac when Louis pointed out all the different machinegun nests.

"We'll slow'm down. That's for sure," said Louis. "How things look at the Ticket?"

Cormac looked at Louis. "There's not much room, Sam. It's gonna take a long time to evacuate the camp if it comes to that."

"Yeah, I know." Louis looked around at the Partisans as they worked, setting up the different instruments of killing. "This is where we'll hafta slow'm down."

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