The next morning a parley was called. A cool breeze blew through the valley as the two Americans met with the top Partisans in the shade of the trees. Louis sat with Katia and Gustov on what looked to have once been rather expensive furniture, now filthy and soiled from exposure to the elements. Next to them, seated in a dirty high-back chair, was Cormac who was surrounded by half-a-dozen young women, still fussing over him like a child, making sure he was comfortable.
Off to the side was Prodki and about twenty of his lieutenants, including Oleg and a handful of the men who’d come into the camp with Louis and Cormac. With the exception of the weapons they carried, Louis thought they all looked very ordinary. He learned that Gustov was a personal confidant of Prodki’s, an adviser of sorts. And since he was the only person in the camp who could translate English in a clear, concise manner, his already high standing was made that much higher.
“What are they talking about?” asked Louis, looking at Prodki and his men. They were all huddled together just fifteen feet away around a long mahogany table with one of its legs missing, replaced by a crudely notched tree limb. They were not whispering, but speaking and gesturing with such animation, Louis figured whatever they were discussing was no big secrete.
“Well,” said Gustov, his arms and legs crossed, sitting in a chair that looked as if it had been taken from an opulent mansion, tossed into a river and dragged through the mud, then left out in the sun for weeks, “they’re trying to decide what this meeting is actually about. What kind of questions they want to ask you and Lieutenant Cormac. And what kind of answers they want to give your questions.”
The little pre-parley-parley went on for over an hour while everyone drank weak tea flavored with mint leaves and some kind of root that vaguely reminded Louis of sassafras. During this time, Gustov briefed the Americans on how the Partisan camp had come about.
By September of ’43 Mussolini was all but finished by the Italian resistance. Yet still the inept dictator was rescued, spirited away by a crack team of German commandoes sent by Hitler himself. Italy withdrew from the war, pulling over 250,000 men out of Yugoslavia, thinning the German forces there. Up until then, the Nazis had looked upon the Yugoslavian resistance as a bad criminal element, a grievous problem temporarily remedied by a simple flexing of the muscles. But now Tito’s people would become a geopolitical force to be reckoned with in blood by the Germans.
About that time, Prodki arrived in the area where Oleg and his small band were operating, with orders directly from Tito himself. All detachments of resistance fighting independently against Nazi Germany in any given area of the nations of Yugoslavia were to unite immediately. If they did not join him, they would be deemed collaborators and considered hostile to the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia. Plain and simple, Prodki was their new boss. Any person or group who did not assist and cooperate with him in waging war on the Germans would be looked on as the enemy. They had only one choice: join him, or he would do all in his power to kill them. Even choosing to be neutral, or to not be involved, was the same to Prodki as siding with the Germans. “Here and now,” he was would say, “one must chose a side.”
For over two months there was bitter fighting between the different bands of resistance in the region. But with Oleg’s help, Prodki’s small outfit grew larger, stronger and even more determined to see the thing through. By the year’s end all the petty warlords had either acquiesced or been killed. Christmas Day of ’43, Prodki and his men went to the valley where two of the last renegade bands were camped, offering an amnesty to all those who still had not joined him.
“You have until New Year’s Day!” he shouted from a ridge, his voice echoing for miles. “You must come to our camp and join us! All will be forgiven! You have one week! Then, we hunt you down like dogs and destroy you! Join us, comrades, in victory against the Nazis, before it is too late!”
At that moment, Prodki had less than a hundred men in his charge. By nightfall he had nearly two-hundred. By New Year’s Day of ’44 he had over five-hundred, lone stragglers from the mountainside even joining up. Since then, seven months ago, he had almost tripled in size, controlling an area of about ten-square kilometers. A good portion of Prodki’s staff were much like Oleg, but far less fit, early middle-agers with some military training from the First Great War. That too was more than likely forced, not voluntary.
Prodki’s partisans, who had been dubbed the 38th Provincial Mountain Battalion by the PLA's high command, were extremely well armed with literally tons of rifles, machineguns, pistols and hand grenades. They also had about dozen large field machineguns, some small artillery, a few more panzerfausts and a 22 millimeter machine gun mounted on a two-wheeled cart that could be used as an anti-aircraft weapon, or be brought to bear delivering a devastating barrage of fire power.
“Man, oh man,” said Louis raising his eyebrows when he saw the large gun. “You could put a serious hurt’n on someone with ’at thing.”
What the 38th PMB lacked in practical military training, they made up for in motivation, drive and the will to fight. A collective thirst for Nazi blood. Without exception, all of them had lost someone to the Germans, and many had lost all. A madding crowd of shattered hearts and dreams. Lost wandering refugees that had spilled over from the other occupied countries, pouring into the countryside from the ravaged cities. Their ethnicity was very diverse and many times fights would breakout over the pettiest of circumstances, trifles that often got way out of hand. In many cases the different groups didn’t even try to get along. There were Serbs, Bosnians, Romanians, Hungarians, Muslims, Jews, Greeks and Bulgarians, all of them prejudice in one way or another toward each other.
But there was one thing they had in common: an overwhelming desire to kill Germans and anyone who collaborated with them. Nods of approval at the violent death of any Nazi.
Like Oleg, Prodki was a Serbian Army veteran of the Great War, fighting against Germany’s axis ally, Austrio-Hungary. But Prodki had been an officer.
When Archduke Ferdinand and his wife were gunned down by a madman in Sarajevo, tipping the first domino that would plunge Europe into a cesspool of inane killing, Prodki was teaching algebra at a small college in Novi Sad, Vojvodina, a province of Serbia. He served with distinction as a lieutenant in an infantry battalion on the much more mobile Eastern Front, giving him a chance to brush up on his Russian.
When the war ended he was a captain, but soon went back to teaching and a happy family life. In less than a year, however, his wife and daughter would perish in the terrible influenza pandemic that swept the world afterwards. This changed the once outgoing, gregarious man into a brooding, overbearing apostate. With the dirt from their graves still fresh on his hands, he made up his mind to become a communist, using his academic ties to infiltrate the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.
“An absurd name!” he vehemently said out loud in pub one night, costing him 100 days in a royal gaol. Not long after he was released, he was arrested again for instigating a labor riot in Zagreb. This time he was given five years, but managed to escape in less than a year. His zealous fervor caught the attention of some prominent socialists, and he was soon sent to Moscow for further education in Lenin’s version of Marxism.
A brilliant, sinister, bull-necked genius, Vladimir Lenin mixed words and expressions with special meanings and political purposes, shaping Prodki’s mind into an engine for the twentieth century man. He met Trotsky and ran with the last of the vanguard fighters in the early, bloody days of Cheka. Asking simple questions of revolution, demanding simple answers with dire consequences. What are you thinking? When a careless slip of the tongue could get even a dear comrade stood against the wall, replacing the luxury of discussions, debates and dialogs with guns, knives and truncheons. A plethora of firing squads crashing through the masses like a traveling circus, forming the first of the despotic utopias.
Late one evening, Prodki was chosen for a special mission. He was to find a known counter-revolutionary in possession of a satchel full of exclusive papers. Compromising documents of the Central Committee had recently been romanced from the soft clutches of a naïve attaché. After posing as a friend, intercepting the operative in a dark ally, he knifed the man, spilling the traitor’s guts on his belt-buckle loafers. Prodki then faithfully delivered the papers to the office of the Politburo. Standing in the shadows of the foyer was Stalin, the master bureaucrat. His eyes gleamed at Prodki with deceptive kindness, patiently waiting his turn behind the broad shoulders of his henchmen. For his troubles, Prodki was given a loaf of bread, a block of cheese and a jug of wine spiked with vodka.
By 1929 Prodki was back in his homeland, now called the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. He worked his tradecraft as a commissar for Josip Broz Tito, the country’s communist party leader. But that same year all political parties opposing the monarchy were banned by King Alexander I. The communist movement was then forced underground.
Under Tito’s direction, Prodki played the seasoned middleman, whispering suggestive hints in gullible ears, spreading rumors that stirred separatist tendencies and inflamed the different nationalist passions. With political precision, he pushed buttons and pulled strings creating the desired effects of a tacit cause. He helped keep the unrest at a smolder by pitting the Orthodox Serbs against the Catholic Croats and Slovenes. Age old grievances going unsettled in a country held loosely together by the hatred of its neighbors.
Eventually both Mussolini and Stalin opposed King Alexander’s policies. And when Hitler came to power, Germany’s flamboyant dictator demanded revisions of the Versailles Treaty. The Soviets were also quite adamant regarding their position in Europe as a major player on the world stage. King Alexander was beginning to feel the heat from all angles. Laws were quickly passed by the King making even communist ideas illegal; a mere whisper was now a criminal act.
Thousands, including Prodki, were thrown in jail without any form of recourse for simply expressing their political views. The flags of the different Yugoslav nations were banned and the country’s historic regions were abolished as new internal boundaries were drawn for the provinces. This stirred more even more hatred among the ethnic groups, weakening the country’s already fragile infrastructure. Yet with all the turmoil, even the ever-feuding fascist and socialists were in agreement on one thing; the monarchy must go.
While on an official visit to Marseille, France in ’34, King Alexander was assassinated, shot in broad daylight by a lone gunman while being slowly driven in a car. He was succeeded by his eleven-year-old son, Peter II. But the country was actually run by a regency council headed by the dead king’s cousin, Prince Paul.
Along with Romania, Czechoslovakia and Poland, Yugoslavia had been expected to baby sit Germany on her eastern boundaries. France was to keep the bad-boy nation in check at the Rhine.
But little by little, in the span of a decade, the Nazis grew from a roving gang of street thugs, to a powerful political force with a military capable of threatening the whole of Europe. And even though war lingered in the back of everyone’s mind, very few thought the indescribable horrors of the recent past could be repeated. And even fewer still imagined those horrors could be one-upped by another madman willing to cross even the River Styx in search of the ultimate vantage.
After nearly six years in prison, Prodki managed to pull off another escape. With outside assistance, he was placed in a secret countryside hiding place to recuperate from over half-a-decade of starvation and abuse.
At that time the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was just about to be federalized. A Royal Regency would govern through a puppet parliament, headed by puppet prime minister. But Hitler changed all that. Poland was invaded and a new type of war began. For a year-and-a-half Prince Paul submitted to the fascists, trying desperately to keep his country out of the war. But he was not a popular ruler and his generals had other plans.
The Prince and his whole delegation went to Vienna to sign an Axis treaty with Italy and Germany. Upon their return a coup d’ e tat was launched by the senior military officers. Seventeen year old Peter was finally crowned as King with full powers, immediately dissolving the Regency and exiling his uncle Paul.
Ten days later, Germany and Italy attacked Yugoslavia, overwhelming its woefully unprepared military. In less than two weeks the Royal Yugoslav Government capitulated, offering a full formal surrender to the fascists.
By then, most of Prodki’s strength had returned and he was again ready for work. But so far, Tito’s men remained inactive, neither accepting defeat nor making an official declaration of war. Some sparse resistance was put up by the Cetniks, remnants of the Royal Yugoslav Government in exile. At first the Cetniks received a considerable amount of support from both England and America, supplies, equipment and advisors. But their aggression was limited because the fear of reprisals against the noncombatant population. And rightfully so; dozens were sometimes arbitrarily gunned down for a single incident.
But in June of ’41, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa attacking the Soviet Union, hurling over a hundred divisions in a massive wave of slaughter throughout Russia. In less than 24 hours, Tito received explicit orders from Stalin: resist the Axis occupation at all costs.
Prodki was put to work organizing the acquisition of weapons and manpower. Orders were sent out through the Communist Party lines: Surrender and nonaggression are criminal are. All members of the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia and its Partisan detachments must resist the enemy and its Ustase collaborators at every available opportunity. Small armed attacks then began, treacherous acts of sabotage against the enemy without regard to the fate of civilians under the brutal hand of Nazi occupation. In the towns and cities executions of innocent men, women and children increased, causing more attacks of retaliation by the Partisan resistance. A bloody tit-for-tat keeping the nations of Yugoslavia in a constant grip of fear.
Because of the difference in strategies and political views, Tito’s Partisans soon came in conflict with the Royalist Cetniks, the former regarding the latter as mere collaborators. By the time America entered the war, Yugoslavia was not officially at war with Germany or Italy. However, an obvious state of civil war existed between the Cetniks and the Partisans. Not only were the Partisans fighting the occupying forces and the Cetniks, they also fought the Ustase in Croatia where the seeds of fascism had been growing since long before the war. A brutal independent satellite state set up by the Nazis in 1935.
By late ’42, well over half-a-million axis troops were needed to deal with the 150,000 Partisans scattered throughout the country. Most were fighting in well-organized corps, divisions and brigades. But many others were working in small bands and detachments off on their own. A desperate people fighting tooth and nail to survive. At the end of ’43 the partisans had doubled in size, scrounging the abandoned Italian weapons. For a short while the partisans actually matched the Germans in numbers. But then Hitler sent more of his legions, and the end of the bloodshed seemed nowhere in sight.
About the time Sam Louis was flying his first mission over Ploiesti, virtually all Allied military assistance was transferred from the Cetniks to the Partisans. Dozens of tanks and large field guns, hundreds of mortars, thousands of machine guns and tens of thousands of rifles were sent to the different partisan units. Advisers, food and much needed medical supplies were also sent.
But many of the smaller outfits could not be located. They were out there fighting alone, cutoff, sometimes against each other. Their only communication with the outside was young boys that were used as runners, often killed or captured, never to be seen again.
Prodki was sent out by Tito from Sarajevo with a few men, supplies and a two-way radio. A ballsy man trudging through the woods and mountains, taking charge of everyone and everything he encountered with complete utter confidence, no hesitation whatsoever. Anything of value was immediately claimed by Prodki as property of the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia. All able-bodied persons were conscripted and made to swear an oath to the PLA. If they refused, they were given one chance to change their minds. If they still refused, they were shot.
“Who are you?” asked a tall, weary looking man in the first group Prodki came across.
“I am your new commander. I have been sent by Minister Tito, Supreme Commander of the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia, to form an organized detachment that is to eliminate all Nazi activity in this region. Anyone interfering with my mission, or not complying with my demands, will be dealt with swiftly and very harsh.” As he spoke Prodki stood atop a large log looking down at the men, his pistol drawn held down at his side. “Will you join me?”
The exhausted man glanced around at the dozen or so men behind him, then stepped forward and extended his hand. “My name is Oleg. And yes, we will join you.”
After more than two months of hard fighting against his own countrymen, almost everything that could’ve gone wrong did go wrong. By the time Prodki shouted his ultimatum into the valley that Christmas Day, all five men who’d come with him from Sarajevo were dead and the radio was ruined, perforated with shrapnel. Despite all the misfortune he never once even blinked, steadily grinding out the objective he was sent to accomplish: consolidating all loose renegade bands of resistance he could find into one large detachment by the New Year. Since then, they had been in over a dozen small engagements with the Germans, hit ‘n run attacks, avoiding any large enemy patrols.
During that time, only one runner had returned with outside news or orders. A twelve-year-old Hungarian Jew named Kafka had staggered through the pass that led into the valley of the camp. He’d been gone for a week, zigzagging through the mountains and woods, dodging and desperately hiding from the Germans. After being greeted with scores of hugs and kisses, the skinny exhausted boy stood huffing and puffing before the poker-faced Prodki.
“Commandanté,” said Kafka with a crooked salute. “I am proud to report that you have been officially assigned commander of the 38th Provincial Mountain Battalion, detached from the 24th Brigade of the 17th Division of the 2nd Corps of the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia. Minister Tito sends his congratulations and thanks on a job well done, with orders to continue the resistance and hold your positions until further notice. Onward to victory.”
Prodki gave a slight grin, (Some would later say they saw a tear in his eye, but never to his face.), and returned the boy's salute. A jubilant cry then rang out from the throng of Partisans, as young Kafka was hoisted up and paraded around the camp a hero.
Most every member of the 38th PMB would look back on that day as their most fond, a moment that held a special place in everyone’s heart compared to the grim daily realities of war. But that had been over three months ago, and with no reliable steady flow of communication to the outside world, the threads of despair were beginning to eek back into the camp.
Then the two Americans arrived, filthy and on crutches. And along with them, a new sense of hope.
Finally Prodki began to speak, looking directly at Louis and Cormac. He went on for a couple minutes in a calm, deliberate tone, the aplomb of a natural-born leader. Then he stopped and turned to Gustov.
“He wants to know,” said the Frenchman, “if America is going to help us fight the Germans? And if so; what do they plan to do?”
Louis and Cormac looked at one another. Then Louis looked back at Prodki, thinking for a moment.
“Well,” Louis finally said with a smile, slapping his knee, “they sent us, didn’t they?”
After Gustov translated this to Prodki, the Colonel gave Louis a harsh look, holding it for a moment. Then his hard chiseled features began to soften somewhat, noticing the American’s good-old-boy demeanor, not sure what to call it, but knowing that he liked it. A rare smile broke out on the tough Serb’s face. Then he began to laugh. Prodki shouted a few remarks and soon his whole staff was laughing, including Gustov who smiled and turned to the Americans.
“He says, we should announce this to the Germans and maybe they will leave, perhaps even surrender to us.”
Louis gave Prodki a nod and a wink, causing the colonel and his men to laugh even harder. The laughter continued for several minutes, levity relieving the tension, allowing the men to get on with the more serious matters at hand
“There was some talk,” said Louis after things had quieted down, “rumors I heard of an Allied invasion of Yugoslavia. But Tito wouldn’t stand for it. Said he’d shoot anyone who landed on his shores, no matter what their nationality.”
After hearing this Prodki looked away and nodded, knowing the stubborn disposition of his leader. Pogroms have a way of dissolving trust, even between allies.
Oleg spoke for a moment, very animated in his oration, receiving nods all around.
“Training,” Gustov translated, looking at Louis and Cormac. “We need training. With all the weapons, ammunition and will to fight, we lack proper training and discipline.”
Louis turned to Cormac, “Think ya can help me train these guys, Peter?”
“Well sure, Sam.” said the co-pilot. “I’ll do whatever I can.”
“We can help with this,” Louis said turning back to Prodki. “Me’n Peter, here, can organize practice sessions and drills. Teach your people how to properly use the weapons ya got. Teach’m how to take care of’em, maintain’em. Teach’em some basic military tactics and strategies. Help yawl wup these people.”
Gustov translated this, but Prodki had a puzzled look on his face, asking the Frenchman to repeat and further explain Louis’s last line. When the little colonel finally got the meaning of the words, and how they were said, he stood and shouted with his arms in the air, fists clinch tight. “WUP THESE PEOPLE!! WUP THESE PEOPLE!!”
“WUP THESE PEOPLE!!” shouted Louis, as the whole parlay joined in the boot camp-style chant, shouting the words over and over. Prodki’s men showed a vibrant zeal that encouraged the Americans, all of them shouting, nodding and pumping their fists in the air as they cried, “WUP THESE PEOPLE!! WUP THESE PEOPLE!!”
A training schedule was lined up for drills, target practice, calisthenics and proper weapons maintenance. The talk then turned to another very important issue: food. With over fifteen-hundred mouths to feed, nobody was getting the proper amount of nutrition. Potatoes, carrots, and onions were the main staple of food, found growing wild or at abandoned homesteads. But even they were becoming scarce. It was believed that since the initial invasion three years ago, the woods had been hunted pretty much to its limit and large game were rarely seen anymore. Occasionally a wild pig was killed, but it was hardly enough for the whole camp, a major cause of trouble. Squirrels, rabbits and badgers were a little more plentiful, but so many were needed that gathering them from the field in large numbers proved to be quite difficult. Louis suggested sending out small hunting and fishing parties each day in directions. Accurate logs should be kept of when and where any game is harvested.
“There’s deer out there,” said Louis as if he were a local, looking off toward the trees. “We just gotta find’em. Since it’s summer time, they probably do most’a their move’n ’round at night. Send’a few men out an hour or so before dark. Tell’em to find a spot where they can see a lot’a sky, then hunker down low and wait. Tell’m to be real quiet. If any deer come ‘round, they’ll hear’em first. Then, with any luck, they’ll be able to see’m against the stars. Tell’m to aim slow and they just might hit something. An’ I’ll bet if ya look real hard you’ll find some good fish’n holes out there. Ya just gotta find’m.”
When the parlay was over, Louis and Cormac were shown around the camp, a better view now that they were rested. The rows of tents, make-shift shelters and lean-tos were separated by a tight crisscross of well-worn paths trafficked by hundreds of gun-toting Partisans, all of them grinning and nodding graciously at the Americans.
Their oily weapons were cradled like pets, caressed like lovers, like children. Wooden handles were pressed smooth by the well-initiated hands of the bereaved. Reluctant killers, content in their quest for satisfaction. Then maybe redemption and sanctuary. They were a tired exhausted folk. Yet grateful and lingering on, as if only to witness the demise of the author of their demise. A scattered patchwork of humanity, now amassed in justification, amended and blessed with utility, shoddy and the heavenly stench of their becoming. Old ladies and old men sitting and looking at the children, the scampering orphans. The widows and widowers wanting yesteryear, still knowing yesterday and seeking a tomorrow. As they were in a dusty, greasy place they had all gathered to wait out the mark, set and start of a blind race to permanence.