Sam's War

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Chapter IV

Food was scarce and Germans were everywhere, seen regularly in platoons and companies patrolling the woods. More than once, Louis and Cormac almost walked up on a group of them, quickly ducking down in panic, then crawling back the way they’d come to find another route.

Still they traveled south at night averaging six to eight miles, then resting by day. Occasionally they would see fish again in a pond or stream, but decided against using a grenade. The five they had left would prove much more useful in a confrontation with the enemy. Both men tried catching the fish by hand but it was pointless. They were too weak, unable to keep their balance and were easily exhausted. Louis tried shooting the fish with the Beretta, but the aim was deceptive, the bullet’s trajectory altered by the water. He did get lucky once, a ten-inch trout-like fish floated up after the water settled, a light snack before resting. Louis was also able to shoot a rabbit with a rifle they took from the Germans, blowing the poor creature completely in half. The meat was wild, gamey and delicious, but hardly enough for the two on them.

They were wasting away, expending far more calories than they were ingesting. In two weeks they had easily lost twenty pounds apiece. At that rate, they were just as likely to die of starvation as at the hands of the enemy.

One evening shortly after rousing from their sleep and starting on their nightly hike, they spotted a small house in the distance. It was still light but the setting sun was behind a looming mountain, casting a vast penumbra on the tiny homestead. The weather was nice and warm yet a plume of gray smoke issued from the cottage’s chimney, the aroma of cooked food lingering in the air. No neighbors, just a lonely dwelling off alone in the woods.

Neither of them had spoke of it, but they were both thinking the same thing. What kind of men would this make them? They were supposed to be the good guys, but taking food from someone who needed it, who had earned it with their own money or sweat was criminal. And what if they resisted, fought violently to keep what was theirs. Then what? Stealing was one thing. Even the killing they had done was necessary. But murder was another entirely caustic element, and Louis could not live with it. Yet they must get food, and not just a bite or two; they needed a nourishing meal. As he pondered his options, Louis could actually feel his body eating away at itself.

“Peter,” said Louis, looking at his co-pilot. “I’m go’n in that house an’ get’n some’a whatever they got.”

Cormac said nothing, just looked at Louis, nodded and looked back at the house.

“You stay out here, keep’a lookout. Any trouble, someone come’n; you bark like a dog, good’n loud. Ya hear me?”

Cormac nodded again, saying nothing, keeping his eyes on the house.

“Every few minutes or so, if all’s clear, whistle like a bird. Got it?”

It soon turned dark, and they moved to a small clump of trees about a hundred feet from the house. Louis then left Cormac alone to stand guard while he slowly advanced on the house with a machinegun slung across his back and a pistol in his hand. By the time he reached the house he heard the first all-clear signal, a bobwhite call. Were there any bobwhites in Yugoslavia? Louis wondered as he reached for the door latch, his gun hand shaking.

Back at the trees Cormac waited nervously. His eyes darted around, homing in on every branch blown by the wind, then shifting to another flicker of movement or sound off in the distance. Crouching low, he made another bobwhite call, his stomach in knots, hands ready with the machinegun. Finally, less than five minutes after Louis had left him, Cormac saw his pilot limping back toward him with something in his hands, some kind of bag.

“C’mon, let’s get the hell outta hear,” said Louis, not looking at his partner.

It looked to Cormac that Louis was crying.

They traveled over a mile, Cormac struggling to keep up with Louis, before stopping to eat in what appeared to be a narrow gap leading to another valley. Inside a burlap sack was a small portion of some kind of roast meat with potatoes and carrots, half an onion, a piece of bread and some hard, bland-tasting white cheese. There was also two wooden bowls and some crude cutlery, all wrapped in what looked like a table cloth. At first they ate without talking, sitting cross legged on the ground with the food between them. Cormac then noticed tears streaming down Louis’ face as he took a bite of cheese.

“It was tough, huh?” asked Cormac.

“Just an old man and an old woman,” Louis answered after a long sigh, looking off into the darkness. “They were just sitting down to eat. This here bag was full’a potatoes, carrots and onions. I just poured it all out on the floor and took what they had on the table, an’ got outta there.” He hesitated, then looked at Cormac and said, “They looked really scared”

They were now armed robbers. Almost every night for over a week they robbed a house for food. It became their evening ritual after waking. They would find a small house off by itself just before dark, and stake it out until everything seemed safe. Taking turns, one would go in while the other stayed out to keep watch. There was never any resistance, and it was always old folks, usually with very little to steal. They always took only half, yet still leaving the people dismayed and frightened. Except one lonely old man who seemed happy to see Cormac, wanting him to stay and eat like a polite guest.

“Old fellow wanted me to sit right down with’m at his table,” he later told Louis. “I wanted to, but what if it was a trick or something?”

Once they came to a little house that was empty, an old abandoned cottage in the early stages of being overgrown with the vegetation that surrounded it. Cormac entered the place at dawn, then went and got Louis when he was sure no one else was there. With a small lantern they had taken from an earlier heist they combed through the little cabin finding not a crumb of food. The only thing of use they could take with them was a six-by-ten foot rug, folded in half long ways, rolled up and strapped to Louis’ back. They would use it as a spread for when they made camp.

Even with the extra food, they were getting only half the sustenance needed and remained quite weak, having to rest often. And though they carefully staked out the houses they robbed, there was always the chance of something going wrong. A loaded gun hidden in a cupboard. A sudden visit by a friend or simply someone in the house they didn’t realize was there, someone who would put up a fight. As the days went by, they also became concerned that word of nighttime food bandits might be spreading through the region, maybe even identifying them as Americans. But still they continued to commit armed robbery for food, hating every moment of it.

Gaining a higher appreciation for his father’s work, Louis could not imagine the huge mistake someone would make in attempting to rob his home back in Oklahoma. With a house full of firearms, and folks more than willing and able to use them, one would be much better off simply asking.

One night, as Louis peered through a window about to do his evening dirty work, he saw a thin old man sitting in a chair smiling and speaking to someone out of view. After adjusting his angle he saw an old woman also smiling and nodding, sitting in a chair next to the old man. They looked very happy, pleasant and at ease, unlike the others he had robbed. This was terrible, thought Louis. Why couldn’t they be younger, fat and mean-looking. Misers, hoarders of the valley?

After looking again to make sure no one else was there, Louis crept to the door, paused for a second, then opened it. He was behind them to their left. At first the old couple didn’t notice him, just kept up the nice conversation they were having. She was speaking now in some Slavic language he could not even begin to comprehend.

They were very old indeed, well into their eighty’s, maybe ninety or older. Their little house had nothing in the way of luxuries. Their two chairs, one extra, for him perhaps. A bed. A table. A few pictures on the wall, and some books piled in the corner. An old rug, probably made by the woman in her younger years. An Orthodox cross. An old wood burning stove with a gallon-size cast iron pot holding the very prize for which he had intruded their humble home, steam issuing from under its lid.

Then, off to the side of the stove, he saw something that scared and angered him. A framed picture of Adolf Hitler hung on the wall, an eight-by-ten-inch artist’s rendering of Dur Furhrer glaring at him with seductive, brutal eyes. He’s seen them before back at the base in Sicily. They had been mass produced by the Nazi Propaganda Ministry, dropped by the tens of thousands from planes early in the war. As Louis moved further into the house, compelled by the image of the evil dictator, the old man turned and saw him.

“Oh!” he said in surprise, his lips forming a tight little circle of pink inside a white beard that hung down six inches off his chin.

They were both looking at him now as he aimed the Beretta at them, his hand shaking. Although they were no longer smiling, they showed very little fear, something more like sympathy or compassion. Without looking away from him, their old hands instinctively found one another, a habit from long before the turn of the century.

Louis could tell they’d had guns pointed in their direction before, many times perhaps. Their eyes told a storied vision of generations in a land widespread with chaos, turmoil and misunderstanding.

Louis glanced again at the picture of Hitler, the devil’s pawn, somewhat captivated by his eyes, momentarily sensing the wicked man’s allure. He moved to the stove and smashed the image with the Beretta knocking it to the floor. Then he reached for the pot. Touching the lid, he instantly jerked his hand back burnt at the finger tips. He instinctively put them to his mouth, turning to look at the ancient couple, now with even more sympathy on their faces. The old man began to stand slowly. Louis extended his gun hand at him.

“Watch it, mister,” Louis said as a bobwhite called from outside.

“Hitler, no good,” said the old man, heavily accented, a gaunt finger out as if pointing at something wise in the air.

“What?” blurted Louis in surprise.

“Roosevelt, good. Churchill, good. Hitler, nooo good.” The old man said the first two names with honor, respect and a short nod. But when he mentioned the latter, his voice took on an ominous tone, slowly shaking his head and narrowing his eyes. He then smiled, taking short shuffling steps as he pointed at the small table in the corner.

At first Louis thought the old man wanted him to sit and eat, be their guest for dinner. But then he realized the man was pointing at the floor under the table against the wall. Louis looked at the old woman who was also smiling and nodding. He looked back at the old man, still smiling, nodding and motioning with his hand at the floor under the table.

“Alright,” said Louis, motioning with his hand, “show me what ya got, but no funny business.”

The old man stooped down, causing the old woman to make a kind of “oooooo” sound as he did. As if he’d done it a hundred times, he deftly removed a small wooden plank from the floor and reached inside. With an even bigger smile, he pulled something out and held it up to Louis. He could not believe his eyes. In the old man’s hand was an American five-dollar-bill. Louis took it and plainly saw words written in ink across Lincoln’s face.

Captain Martin J. Brooks-Toledo, Ohio - 325th Fighter Group-15th U.S. Air Force - Shot down January 3, 1944 Be good to this man. Give him a horse and some food. He helped me. God Bless America.

Louis looked back up at the old man, who was slowly shuffling back to his wife, his finger still in the air, smiling as he went.

“America, good,” he said as he sat, placing his arm lovingly around his wife.

“America, good,” said the old woman, softly smiling up at Louis.

For a moment Louis said nothing, just looked back and forth between the five-dollar-bill and the old couple. Then, he began to cry. “Yeah, America, good.”

It took Louis a few minutes to convince Cormac things were alright; the co-pilot was very hesitant. He told him about the note written of the five-dollar-bill, but still Cormac had his doubts.

“What if it’s a trick, Sam?” he said, still nervously glancing around from behind the tree. “I mean, why do they have a picture of Hitler on the wall?”

“Probably incase any Germans drop by,” said Louis, pleading with his friend. “Makes’m look like good Nazi-lovers. I’m tell’n ya, Peter, it’s okay. And they got a pot’a stew in there.” Louis leaned in close to Cormac. “With meat in it.”

Suddenly Cormac’s eyes shifted to Louis. “Meat, huh?”

For the next week, Louis and Cormac rested and ate regularly in a small shed behind the old man’s house. With the exception of the weapons and ammo, everything taken from the Germans was either burned or buried by the old man in the woods; he had insisted on it. The stew they ate had tender bits of brown meat in it, but consisted mainly of potatoes, carrots, onions and herbs picked in the woods by the old woman. Twice a day she would come in smiling sweetly and speaking to them in the loving tones of her foreign tongue, as if she thought they could understand every word she said. She would leave the pot of stew with bread wrapped in a cloth, clean wooden bowls, spoons and a jug of mint-flavored tea. Working her old hands in the air, she would continue to talk as though she were telling them stories of her childhood. She would never linger, only speak to them a moment or two before bowing slightly as she closed the door behind her, moments that seemed to be the highlight of her day. She had an ageless beauty that told of a lifetime of good deeds and selfless works, a glow that protected her from the evils of this world. In a very short time, both of them grew to love her dearly.

There was a garden, but the only livestock was an old mule with all four legs still intact, and Louis wondered where the meat was coming from. Then one day, he saw the old man walking slowly but with purpose into the woods near his home. A little while later he returned carrying three dead rabbits and a type of homemade snare.

Early one morning while it was still dark, Louis peered through the slats of the shed and saw the old man hitching up the mule to a small two-wheeled cart. He then knew that their time in the little piece of heaven was over. Soon the old couple came in together smiling as usual, indicating for Louis and Cormac to get into the cart. The two Americans each gently hugged the old woman, her “oooing” again like before, and kissed her on the cheek. Then they gathered up their guns and things and got in the cart. After motioning with his hands for them to stay down and be quiet, the old man covered them with a pile of hay. He hugged and kissed his old wife, then boarded the cart making clicking sounds, flapping the reins as they slowly moved down the narrow dirt road that led away from his home.

They traveled all that day bouncing back and forth in the rickety cart, unable to see where they were going, a pungent odor of moist hay. It was the first progress they’d made without physical exertion since jumping from Lil’ Butch nearly four weeks earlier. At one point they heard the old man exchanging comments in German to someone as they passed. Louis and Cormac were ready with their weapons, but the cart didn’t stop, the German voice fading slowly behind. This happen repeatedly that day; sometimes the conversations were in the old man’s native tongue, other times in German, keeping the Americans on edge, danger so close. Louis figured the old man must be well known by everyone and trusted even by the Germans, for all the conversations were short, pleasant and casual. Not once was the cart stopped, the voices always drifting off as they continued on. Moments of tension, then great relief for the two Americans.

By afternoon they noticed the air getting thinner and braved a look out from under the hay. They were now high in the mountains, a vast sprawling valley down below. Before long the cart stopped and the old man motioned that it was safe for them to get out.

Stretching their aching bodies, Louis and Cormac slowly crawled out of the cart for a look around, while the old man walked off down a narrow trail. Soon he returned with seven armed men, all in their 40’s and 50’s. Their eyes were wide with surprise, all of them very happy and excited to see the two Americans.

“Yang Keys,” they all kept saying, smiling and nodding at Louis and Cormac, shaking their heads, hugging them and patting them hard on the back.

“Hey, how ya do’n?” said Louis and Cormac.


“Good’a meet ya.”

“How ya do’n”

“Yeah, our plane got shot down.”

“By Germans, yeah.”

“Who beat us up?”

“Couple’a dead guys.”

“Germans, yeah.”

“Yeah, that’s how we got the guns.”

The men began to mimic Louis and Cormac, running the phrases together in long silly-sounding words.



After all the formalities of introduction were done, the hay was unloaded from the cart. Then the old man said a few words to the group. He hugged and kissed each man on the cheek, pausing briefly to grasp Louis and Cormac affectionately by the hand, spending a final moment with the Americans. They helped him back into his cart. He kept on talking, something about victory, working his hands in the air as he headed back down the winding mountain road to his old home and his old wife.

The hay was carried down the trail to a cave about a hundred meters off the road. There, Louis and Cormac met five more men of their group. The youngest looked to be in his early forties.

On a spit a small dear roasted over a fire, the flames playing against the twilight, licking at the gamey meat. After another episode of howdyhowyadoins and gootameechas, the party of fourteen settled down and attempted to break the language barrier.

By the time the meat was served with roasted wild potatoes, Louis had surmised that these were not trained soldiers, but resistance fighters, Partisans, common men thrust into situations of violence, tragedy and survival. The arms they carried were of a wide variety; German, Italian and Russian mostly, some British and French guns, even a few older-model American weapons. One old guy had a bolt-action Springfield and another had a single-action Colt .45 revolver, the same piece his father carried back home. When the man allowed him handled the pistol, twirling it once on his finger, Louis felt a little homesick. Each man had a rifle, a machinegun, and at least two pistols tucked into their belts; some had three or four. They also had a large number of grenades, well over forty, not including the five Louis and Cormac still had. They had a panzerfaust, (a type of German bazooka), and a 55 millimeter mortar tube with eight rounds. On sheer determination alone, Louis figured this small band could take on a whole company of well-trained Wehrmacht or SS, inflicting some very serious damage.

Within a few hours Cormac had fallen asleep, but Louis had formed a crude dialog with the band’s leader, Oleg, who spoke a smattering of English. Oleg was a fit forty-five-year-old with Scandinavian features and curly red hair that was slicked back with whatever grease he could find, accentuating a prominent forehead. He stood about 6’ 2” and even malnourished weighed about 200 pounds, his large-boned frame maintaining a moderate shield of lean musculature. To Louis, he looked like a perfect mix of Viking and reformed gangster.

Oleg had served in a Serbian outfit during the Great War and was the only member of the twelve partisans with any kind of formal military training, but that was over 25 year ago. He had been a successful brick mason and carpenter in Belgrade, also serving as a volunteer fireman. Not long after the Germans came, Oleg was arrested for belonging to a union the Nazis had deemed communist, a common occurrence for any organization not run by the Nazis themselves. At first his large family cooperated using legal means to obtain Oleg’s release, Oleg being a model prisoner offering his trade skills to his captors.

But one night two German officers were killed outside a bar in the city, a drunken brawl that got way out of hand. By sunrise dozens of innocent men in the area were rounded up and shot, including two of Oleg’s brothers and his eldest son. For weeks he was beside himself with grief in the hellish Nazi dungeon. Then he began plans for revenge and satisfaction. Through secret contacts, Oleg worked feverishly to get the rest of his family out of Yugoslavia, slowly draining over two decades worth of hard earned savings. In less than a year Oleg received word that his entire family, including his aging mother, had arrived safely in Barcelona, Spain with just enough money to start a new life. The next day he volunteered to serve in an SS collaborator battalion. He was soon paroled with dozens of others to a barracks outside the prison. Two months later while on a training exercise in the mountains, Oleg and a few others instigated a mutiny, killing the German officers and fleeing into the woods to find more resistance fighters.

For a short while Oleg helped lead what remained of the collaborator battalion, some 300 men that were all eager to fight the Germans. They formed themselves into two companies, but their attacks were reckless and not well planned. Although they inflicted notable damage on the enemy, each engagement brought considerable casualties, friendly fire being the worst problem. Finally, after an ill-fated ambush attempt, the two companies actually turned on each other as the Germans watched from a safe distance. It wasn’t long before the two companies splintered into smaller groups, mixing with hundreds of others who’d randomly found themselves in life during wartime in the countryside of Central Yugoslavia. Soon it was simply chaos, each little gang attacking the other just because they were there, often mistaking them for Germans. Or at least that was their excuse.

But nine months ago a fearless leader emerged among the separate bands of partisans in the region, gathering them back into one battalion-size force. The man was a commissar sent by the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia. His mission was to unite every Yugoslavian he could find to wage total war against the Germans. And they would soon learn, anything that impeded with that mission would be attacked and destroyed until it was no longer a problem.

“We are close,” said Oleg in a thick occluded accent as he pointed at Louis. “Soon you meet Prodki.”

All through the night, every few hours a watch was replaced, vigilant and alert as the rest of the men slept. There was always two of them, each man’s time staggered and overlapping into the next watch. Although they lacked the edge of professional commandoes, these were true cadres, serious guerilla fighters waging a bloody war against a ruthless, well-trained, well-supplied enemy. Outnumbered, they bravely defied an evil the outside world had yet to fully comprehend.

The next morning after a breakfast of cold deer meat, the band of fourteen headed out on foot to the southwest, walking slow and spread out in a line over a hundred meters long. Louis and Cormac were kept in the center with Oleg and two others, protected like a priceless artifact. By mid-morning activity stirred at the head of the line and Oleg motioned for the Americans to take cover behind a tree.

A few minutes later an all-clear was given. They moved up to meet with another small Partisan patrol, a brother contingent from the same larger outfit. Just like before, when the new patrol saw Louis and Cormac, still in their filthy U.S. Air Corps flight suits, the silly song and dance of celebration was done. Two flawed diamonds in the rough doted on like little children.

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