Chapter 15 : A doctor in the Stalag
A Doctor in the Stalag
Wilson had barely disappeared into the tunnel when the door of the barracks opened on Schultz, whose dark under-eye circles attested to his lack of sleep. There could be no doubt that he had been on alert all night.
He was about to order the prisoners to get out of bed, like he did every morning, then realized that most of them were already up and dressed. He sent a suspicious look in the direction of Colonel Hogan, who was sitting at the table along with Kinch, Olsen and Jones, and he noted, in spite of his own fatigue, that no one among them seemed to have gotten any sleep last night either.
He wasn’t stupid. He knew that the colonel must have had something to do with the cooler explosion, and the disappearance of General Eberhart. But that wasn’t his problem; all that was being asked of him was to see that the prisoners were all present for roll call. It wasn’t important what they were doing the rest of the time…
“Colonel?” he hesitated, for fear of again finding himself in the middle of one of their suspicious activities. “Where are Newkirk, Carter and Lebeau?”
If the three of them were absent, the sergeant knew that he was in deep trouble. Making a connection between their disappearance and that of the general wouldn’t take long, and it would be he who would suffer the most for it. The colonel’s silence only increased his fears. Something was wrong. Hogan had often told him that his men weren’t all present, but he had never seen that expression on the American’s face before.
He had strained features, and a haunted look about him.
“Schultz,” the colonel began, getting to his feet to approach the German sergeant.
The German held his breath. What could be worse than three prisoners missing roll call? Something must have happened to one of them.
Instead of explaining what had happened, Hogan signaled for Schultz to follow him into his quarters. Schultz looked at the wooden door that opened slowly, certain that he was going to find the dead body of one of the prisoners stretched out on the bed.
That wasn’t too far from the truth.
Newkirk’s face was so pale that it would be easy to think he was dead, if his skin hadn’t been so covered with a light layer of moisture and his chest hadn’t been rising, almost imperceptibly, with the rhythm of his breathing.
Lebeau, seated at his bedside, was gently running a damp cloth over his forehead, while Carter stood by watching the Englishman as if to reassure himself that he was still alive. The American sergeant was standing at the head of the bed, silent, but when he saw his colonel enter along with Schultz, he walked past them to get out of the room, wiping away the tears that had begun to fall again with his sleeve.
“What’s wrong with him?” the German managed to ask, hardly able to admit how much of a shock the sight was for him.
Schultz knew that he wasn’t supposed to get attached to the prisoners, but it was hard. Lebeau made him such nice meals, and Newkirk… Newkirk was always showing off, entertaining the camp with his jokes and his magic tricks. Everyone liked him. The prisoners, of course, but also a good number of the guards, himself included. To see him so still like this seemed almost unreal.
The Englishman had been teasing him for a long time but it had never been in a cruel way, and Schultz liked to think that he considered him, even a little bit, like a friend. In spite of their being on two different sides of the war.
“He probably caught something when Eberhart made him spend the night outdoors,” Hogan answered.
“But he was fine yesterday.”
“That’s what I thought too. Looks like we were wrong… Newkirk needs to see a doctor. If he doesn’t, I’m afraid he won’t last the day.”
These words earned him a terrified look from Schultz, but also from Lebeau; the Frenchman dropped the damp cloth into the bowl of water at his feet in order to hold the Englishman’s pale hand between his own.
“I’m going to get the commandant!” Schultz seemed to wake up, leaving the American colonel’s quarters as fast as his considerable weight would permit.
Hogan lowered his gaze to meet that of his cook.
“You really think that Newkirk might… really…”
“I don’t know…”
It was an honest answer. Maybe too honest. But they were at war, and every war required sacrifices. This one would be a lot more bitter than any of the others.
“You know that a doctor won’t be able to overlook that wound. To hide it from Schultz and Klink isn’t hard, but a doctor…”
“That’s a risk we have to take. Wilson has already done all he can; he doesn’t have the necessary equipment. And we can’t get it for him before the Gestapo leaves and things calm down a little. I’ll find some way to explain.”
The doubt in his superior’s voice didn’t escape Lebeau, but he didn’t make any comment, contenting himself with taking up the damp cloth again to wipe away the sweat that had beaded on his friend’s forehead.
It only took one look to convince Klink of the seriousness of Newkirk’s condition. He didn’t even get near the prisoner, the fear of some contagious disease keeping him at a distance, and he was convinced to contact Stalag 4 to borrow their doctor.
A little while after the phone call, the lifeless corpse of General Eberhart was returned to the camp.
“Hogan, I really don’t know what to do…” the German colonel lamented, his head in his hand. “First you tell me that the general is a traitor, and now he’s dead.”
The American colonel had other concerns on his mind, but he made every effort to appear compassionate, holding a glass of schnapps out to the commandant. Usually, he would have taken the opportunity to have one himself, but since the doctor hadn’t arrived yet from Stalag 4, he knew he wouldn’t be able to swallow a thing, with worry turning his stomach and knotting his throat.
“It seems logical to me,” he remarked, attracting a curious look from the German.
“How could that be logical? If Eberhart had really blown up the cooler, why would he have been executed by the Underground if he was one of their allies?”
“Maybe he wasn’t with the Underground, and if that’s the case, you’re right, they wouldn’t have any reason to eliminate him. A German general is worth much more alive.”
That was true. Alive he would have been able to furnish very valuable information…
“But then why? How? You’re going to tell me again that the Gestapo…”
Hogan didn’t say anything, but nodded slowly to show Klink that he was on the right track.
Another nod from Hogan. After all, it wasn’t far from the truth. If you believed Lackey, it was indeed a stray bullet from the Gestapo that had put an end to Eberhart’s life.
“Yes, it’s completely possible…” Klink murmured to himself, as if the senior POW wasn’t even present. “The Gestapo… after all, they’re capable of anything, and getting rid of a traitor is much easier if you make it look like an execution orchestrated by the Underground. A bullet in the back, that’s one of their methods.”
Hogan blinked at this last remark of Colonel Klink’s. A bullet in the back? That was very strange. Not impossible, but strange. He would have to ask Newkirk to confirm Lackey’s version of events when he woke up. If he woke up…
The American shook his head to get rid of those bleak thoughts and concentrated anew on what Klink was continuing to babble to himself.
“If that’s really the case, then I’m going to have problems. If the Gestapo discovers what I know, they’re going to come after me.”
Seeing that the commandant was beginning to panic, Hogan thought it was reasonable to intervene and reassure him:
“Don’t worry, colonel; just do like you always do.”
“Like I always do?” the German failed to understand.
“Make like you don’t know anything and everything will be fine.”
The remark was a bit sharper than he would have liked, but, fortunately, Klink didn’t even notice the obvious hidden meaning, being far too concerned with his own safety.
The commandant was about to thank Hogan for his advice when three sharp knocks sounded at the door, which was opened by Schultz.
“The doctor is here, commandant. Shall I take him to Newkirk?”
Hogan didn’t give Klink the time to respond, leaping up from his chair to welcome the doctor and bring him himself to his corporal.
Hogan opened the door for the doctor and invited him to enter the barracks. He must have been a little over fifty years old, with blond hair just beginning to turn gray in spots. His step was the sure one of a career military man, and the look in his deep blue eyes was firm but somewhat mellowed by the small creases in the corners of his eyes.
Schultz followed the doctor, stopping for an instant to smell the delicious aroma of breakfast that was in the air. Lebeau had made a lot of potato pancakes in the hopes of lifting the prisoners’ spirits a little bit, whose behavior definitely showed their concern. Most were lying on their bunks, waiting in silence. Others were seated at the table, trying, without a lot of interest, to play a game of cards. Their hearts weren’t in it. Everyone was expecting bad news.
Wilson had come back to his patient to re-do the bandages before the doctor had arrived from Stalag 4. He watched apprehensively as Hogan entered his quarters followed by the two Germans. There was no chance for this doctor sent by Klink to overlook these injuries. He only hoped that Hogan had come up with a credible story to tell him.
Hogan saw the doctor’s eyebrows come together the second he saw Newkirk. Had he already guessed that something was up?
The doctor then turned to Schultz, who had stayed in the doorway.
“Wait for me outside.”
“But, Colonel Klink…”
“Nothing will happen to me. These boys aren’t going to come after me, are they?”
“I… I don’t think so,” the sergeant replied, still throwing a questioning look at Colonel Hogan.
The shaking of the colonel’s head reassured him, and he decided to do what the doctor had said. After all, he didn’t want to bother him. The Englishman’s life surely depended on that. Going along, he closed the door behind him, letting himself be led by the aroma of the pancakes all the way to the table, where the card players had given up dealing the cards and were anxiously watching the closed door of their colonel’s quarters.
As soon as Schultz left the room, the doctor from Stalag 4 turned towards Hogan:
“Show me his wound,” he directed.
Hogan didn’t move. He knew that the doctor would soon realize that Newkirk hadn’t caught some illness, but he hadn’t expected that the discovery would come this quickly. That took him completely by surprise, leaving him speechless.
The German seemed to be able to understand the American colonel’s thoughts, reading the concern and the doubt in his eyes.
“A more thorough examination is not necessary for me to conclude from his pallor that your friend has recently lost a great deal of blood. So, the wound?”
At that, the doctor approached his new patient, taking Wilson’s hand as he passed by him standing beside the bed.
“Sergeant Wilson… I took care of the first aid but I don’t have the necessary equipment.”
He also feared that the German might compromise their entire operation when he discovered the nature of Newkirk’s injury, but there was no going back now. The Englishman needed something to lower the fever. As well as the pain.
In spite of his doubts, Wilson was reassured by the German’s warm handshake. “Dr. Lorenz, Frank Lorenz.”
Recognizing a professional colleague in Wilson, he at once asked him about the details of the situation regarding the corporal stretched out on the bunk, hardly budging at the sensation of the damp cloth being passed over his forehead by Carter. The young sergeant kneeling at the head of the bed was watching the doctor with a mixture of hope and fear. Like the others, he didn’t know what to expect, but hoped that the doctor would be able to do something for his friend.
“He’s lost a lot of blood. I was able to stitch up the wound and disinfect it, but I’m afraid that won’t be enough. He needs something stronger. His fever’s gone up quite a bit since… his accident.”
Lorenz knelt beside the wounded man and carefully took his wrist between his fingers to check his pulse. He had noticed the reluctance of his American counterpart to give him any details, but that didn’t surprise him. At Stalag 4, it was usual for the prisoners to fear reprisals, often being wounded during an attempted escape.
Wilson did so, lightly pushing back the blanket covering the Englishman to lift up the leg of his pants, exposing the bandage that he had just put on, which was already stained with red.
The German doctor began to unwrap it very carefully and made no comment as to the nature of the wound. There was only one type of trap that could do this much damage, and it would be very unlikely to find one inside a POW camp. His conscientious comportment and the complete absence of insinuation on Lorenz’ part reassured Hogan and his men, the tension present in the room lowering considerably.
“The stitches are clean,” the German remarked. “Good work. There’ll be scars, but at least the leg was saved.” Lorenz gently palpated the edges of the wound. “There doesn’t seem to be any infection at the moment, but it’s just a question of time. What have you given him?”
“I only had some alcohol to disinfect it,” Wilson admitted. “Not enough for it to be really effective, but at least the wound is clean.”
Indicating his bag, resting by the door, he asked, “Could you bring that to me please, Colonel?”
He did so, but the doctor didn’t take the bag he held out to him.
“There’s some penicillin in the outside pocket and some syringes inside,” explained Lorenz while he redid the bandage, covering up the Englishman’s legs with the blanket once more.
The American colonel gave him what he asked for and watched while the German tapped the crook of Newkirk’s elbow before inserting the needle. He saw Carter instinctively close his eyes and grit his teeth as the serum slipped slowly into his friend’s vein.
“That should be enough to lower the fever,” the doctor commented. “But the fever isn’t what worries me the most.”
“The anemia…” Wilson finished. “I got him to drink a few swallows of sugared water, but the loss of blood is really the issue.”
“Blood supplies are rare in time of war,” the German commented. “And no hospital will use up their stock on a prisoner.”
There was no disdain in the doctor’s voice, only a cruel certainty.
“I could give him mine,” young Sergeant Carter suggested in an uncertain tone.
“I don’t really have all the necessary equipment, but it’s possible…” Lorenz replied. “It’s dangerous, but I’m afraid there’s no other solution. What’s your blood type?”
Wilson took hold of Newkirk’s dogtags to check his blood type and shook his head. “A-positive.”
“I’ll do it,” Hogan spoke up, turning his own dogtags between his fingers.
At that moment three knocks sounded at the door and the worried voice of Schultz reached them, muffled by the wood. “Doctor? Is everything all right?”
Obviously he had finished his pancakes. As soon as he had, Lebeau must have chased him out of the area around his stove.
“I’m just about finished, Sergeant. Wait just a few more moments.”
Lorenz dug in his bag and pulled out several syringes, some penicillin, a few pouches for collecting blood or saline solution, and a long flexible tube. He slid them under the bed at the astonished looks of the prisoners present, got to his feet and turned toward Wilson.
“I’ll tell Colonel Klink to leave your friend in quarantine here and not to let anyone come near him except the prisoners of this barracks. If he’s afraid of a contagious disease, he should leave you in peace long enough to take care of this boy. You can hide that wound for a while but if your friend recovers, and I’m sure that will be the case, he’ll have trouble walking for a while…”
“We’ll let him know when the time comes,” Hogan confirmed.
“I’m leaving you what you need for a transfusion,” the doctor continued, talking to Wilson. “But be careful, his body may have a violent reaction if he gets too much.”
At that, Lorenz offered his hand to his colleague, then to Hogan, and they both shook hands with him gratefully.
“Thank you, doctor,” said the colonel.
“It’s my job, Colonel. I do what I have to do.”
But how many doctors would concern themselves with the health of enemy prisoners? How many would be content to let them die so as not to waste any precious medicine? How many would do even worse?