MAUTHAUSEN, AUSTRIA MAY 1945
An ideal spot for an ambush, Captain James Ross thought as he shifted in his seat. The main highway packed with surrendering German soldiers fleeing the oncoming Russians clogged up the road. Prevented his column from speeding to their destination. But since turning onto this side road, they encountered no one. No one rushing to abandon their target. Perhaps, like other fanatics, the waiting garrison intended to fight to the death as ordered by their Fuhrer. Or did they lie in wait along this road waiting to deal out death to any who ventured near?
With the mass surrenders, they encountered little resistance in the last few days. Had he been foolish for leaving the offered armor behind? Too caught up in the need to press on with this mission of mercy? Instead of eating dust behind a half truck with a mounted fifty cal., he led this column in an open Jeep. Despite his stupidity he survived until now. His hand tightened around his carbine His eyes strained to pierce the surrounding foliage. Could his luck hold?
The towering pines lining the road obscured the surrounding country. As his Jeep sped down the dirt road, the only view of the horizon came from ahead. Going up hills, they saw only sky. If trees blocked the way, a curve would be ahead.
Overhead branches provided alternating sunlight and shadow, like a tunnel with a damaged roof. The alternating brightness and darkness prevented the soldier’s eyes from adjusting to the light.
A rut in the road bounced the Jeep. Ross turned to make sure his passengers had not been tossed out. Not that he cared for either man. The older man, wearing a brown three-piece suit, sat hunched, holding his hat, preventing the wind from blowing it away. The other, chained and handcuffed, sneered at him with contempt. He sat ramrod straight, appearing almost proud despite his flowery gown.
As the Jeep slowed, approaching a curve, a rifle volley roared ahead. The Jeep slid on the dust-covered road as the driver slammed on the brakes, forcing the ambulance behind to swerve, stopping only inches from a collision. Ross leaped from the vehicle. Once on the ground, he rolled into the roadside ditch.
“Cover the flanks!” he shouted as he crawled forward, hugging the ground. “Harrison, take the left! Johnson, Forney, follow me!”
After retrieving the small metal mirror from his shirt pocket, Ross eased it above the ditch’s rim. On his side, he slowly turned the mirror, viewing the tree-lined road. If a sniper spotted the mirror, he sacrificed his hand instead of his head. The only sound the detachment’s vehicles idling on the road.
No obvious danger in the mirror. No telltale flashes of metal from the trees or gun barrels protruding from the brush. Ross expected Sergeant Harrison on the opposite side of the road, also scanned the surrounding plant growth. Except he would use his gunsight in case a sniper exposed himself or fired at Ross’s mirror.
“All clear this side!” Harrison called from the road’s opposite side.
After rolling out of the ditch, Ross slithered into the roadside cover. Inside, a path paralleled the road. His move triggered no gunfire. As he crept forward, he scanned the nearby woods. The bush behind him thrashed, alerted he turned, preparing to fire. He lowered his carbine as Forney and Johnson emerged from the shadows. Both also peered into the forest to the right as they approached Ross. As they joined him, they dropped to their knees. One removed his helmet to wipe his brow while the other continued scanning the nearby trees. Ross tapped his chest with his index finger, then pointed down the path ahead. While inching forward in a crouch, he led them forward.
Brightness ahead suggested they approached an open area. Stopped at the clearing’s edge, the two riflemen peered into the surrounding brush as Ross studied the clear ground ahead through his binoculars. Tallgrass covered an area about 100 yards across. The clearing formed an open semi-circle next to the road. Near the center stood a lone tree with a small body wearing a Wehrmacht uniform tied to its trunk.
“You stay here,” he whispered, pointing to one man. “Forney and I will check the perimeter. Wait until I come back, or you see me on the other side before you go into the clearing.”
The man nodded while scanning the surrounding brush. Ross and Forney crept around the clearing’s border, staying in the surrounding bush.
After finding no one lurking on the other side, Ross gestured to Forney to remain undercover, then slid from the forest on his belly. Halfway to the tree, his hand brushed clothing. The coppery aroma of blood and feces drifted to his nose as he touched the wet earth near the clothes. A groan made him drawback. After pushing the grass aside, he peered ahead.
“Mir helfen.” A voice ahead mumbled, then groaned again. Ross inched forward, then raised his head. The man’s tunic bore the twin SS lightning on its collar. His trousers pulled down to his knees, blood dripped from his exposed groin. Crab-like Ross moved to his left. His hand touched a second pair of boots, except the toes faced downward, and gray-green trousers draped around them. This man had experienced the same fate as the first but seemed still in death. As the blood had yet to congeal, the wounding must have been recent.
After skirting the blood pool, he resumed his crawl to the tree to examine the small, bound body. The body’s chest peppered with bloodstains. The rifle volley must have been a firing squad. Apparently, they spared him the agony meted out to the Master Race’s Elite.
Sergeant Harrison, his adjutant, called from the road, “All clear.”
Ross rose, then walked to the tree. An emptied knapsack near the tree’s base and the bound figure lacked boots. His killers must have searched him for items of use. As he raised the body’s chin, Ross shook his head. A boy, not over twelve years, still in death.
“Probably the partisans they warned us about getting even,” Harrison said as he surveyed the carnage on the ground. “Guess they aren’t all bad, though,” He added, nodding to the boy tied to the tree, “Killed him quick.”
Behind Ross and Harrison, a medic with red crosses on his helmet kneeled by the man groaning on the ground. Harrison retrieved a blanket lying on the ground next to the boy’s spilled knapsack. He tossed it to the corpsman.
“Thanks!” The medic said, pressing the cloth against the injured man’s groin, “Only way to stop the bleeding here is with pressure.”
The man groaned again, and the medic turned to Harrison, “Can you hold this for me while I get bandages to bind it. He needs morphine too.”
“Have him hold it himself or tie it with his belt. We gotta get goin’. There are people up ahead who need all the supplies we got, so forget the shot and the bandages. Johnson use your Kraut Lingo. Tell him he needs to hold it tight to prevent bleeding. We’ll pick him up on our way back,” Harrison replied over his shoulder as he walked towards the vehicles.
As ordered, one rifleman kneeled by the German and whispered Harrison’s instruction. The soldier looked up and called to Harrison, “Sarge, he wants us to shoot him!”
“Tell him that would violate the Geneva Convention. All we can do is offer aid.” Harrison continued his stroll to the vehicles on the road. “Mount up, we gotta get rollin’.”
Silent, Ross shouldered his carbine as he returned to his Jeep. The man in the dress remained in the back of the Jeep. Despite his shaved head and apparel, the man dripped arrogance. He held his head back, watching Ross return. His posture and expression, as if he viewed something distasteful. He peered behind the Jeep and barked in German. The older man stood clutching his hat to his head. Wide-eyed, he stared at his surroundings as he climbed back into the Jeep.
“I guess some of your guys stayed in uniform when they took off, Commandant,” Ross said as he climbed back into his seat. The driver restarted the vehicle, and Ross nodded to him. As the Jeep rolled forward, Ross waved the rest to follow, then studied the map he pulled from his pocket. After taking a compass reading, Ross scanned the road ahead. “After we round this curve, we should find the camp about a mile ahead.” The driver slowed for the curve, and as they headed West, the smell of death drifted to them on the breeze.
With the convoy’s engines roaring just out of sight around the road’s bend, Justine scanned the surroundings for suitable cover. “Hans set up over there. Joseph, use those trees on the right for cover.” Finished positioning her men, Justine tied the white cloth to the five-foot stick. “If I drop the stick on the road, do nothing. Just go back to the camp after they pass. If I wave it in the air, Hans, take out the vehicle in front and Joseph the next. Then cover me so I can make it back to the trees.”
The men she addressed wore civilian clothes, held Schmeizer machine pistols, and Panzerfaust rockets slung over their shoulders. Both nodded before trotting to their concealed positions.
Finished tying the cloth to the stick, she walked to the roadside. With her hand, she shielded her eyes from the sunlight, enjoying the early spring warmth while she waited. A deep rumbling, much like thunder, came from the East. Not heralding an approaching storm. Instead, it announced the Russian’s advance, meting out revenge for the German’s rape and pillage of their homeland. They vowed to make the Germans pay for their atrocities. As the Jeep appeared over the hill, she stood holding the flag above her head.
The vehicle stopped only a few feet from her. Wide-eyed, the young soldier behind the wheel’s jaw dropped as if seeing an apparition. His passenger stepped out. Cocked his head as if puzzled. Soldiers in the vehicle behind scanned the woods around them while the click of gun safeties being released mixed with the idling engine’s rumbling.
As the soldier approached, he touched his helmet visor as if saluting. “Captain Ross, United States Army, Ma’am.” While dust covered his face and clothing, he still seemed handsome.
“Justine Rothstein.” She extended her hand, which he took in his own.
“May I be of assistance, Ma’am?” His blue eyes, intent, locked on hers. Like he had had not seen an attractive woman up close for a while.
“My people are guarding the camp ahead. We want to make sure that the living inside are not harmed further.”
“My orders are to proceed to the camp ahead as quickly as possible. Inside that ambulance are people here to provide medical care. We also have food and medicine in the rest of the vehicles, and likewise, we’re here to protect and help the people ahead.”
“Good, with your permission, I will accompany you to make sure you arrive safely. Once your people are in place, then we can go.”
“Marston, take the Commandant and His Honor in the truck. Miss Rothstein will ride with me,” Ross shouted to a large soldier carrying a carbine. After uncuffing the man in the dress, he herded him to a truck down the line while the man wearing the suit scurried behind.
She chuckled as her eyes trailed the man being led down the convoy’s length “The man in the dress, who is he?”
“Claims he’s the Commandant of the camp ahead.”
“Why is he dressed like that?”
“That’s what he wore when we captured him. I didn’t want to waste time looking for something else for him to wear before we set out to the camp. I figured the people up ahead might need us more than he needed his dignity. If it’s like the others I’ve seen, they can’t wait.” Ross gestured to the back seat of his Jeep.
“You know he probably killed to get those clothes,” Justine replied as she dropped the stick with the white flag and climbed in.
“I’m sure he’s done worse.”
As the Jeep moved forward, Ross turned to Justine. “That your folk’s handiwork up the road?”
She nodded. “I regret the boy. We planned on shoving him in with the crowds marching back to Germany, but he was vicious. Like a mad dog.”
“The young ones still have zeal.”
“He stabbed my adjutant with a dagger after we took away his gun. Bit and kicked, so we tied him to the tree. Even then, he persisted.” She sighed. “I am afraid my people lost their patience and shot him.”
“How did you come to be a partisan?”
She tightened her headscarf to prevent it from blowing away. “Part of a young girl’s rebellion, I guess.”
She said no more. did not expect this American to understand what happened. Besides, why tell all this to some stranger. Many Germans hated them for their religion. Her neighbor’s violence had forced her family into exile in the Warsaw ghetto. Her mother, father, she and her brother elected deportation to escape the torment and bullying. While being transported, she jumped from the train. She hid in the forest, traveling at night. Finally, during her sojourn, she found the band of partisans in the woods. They treated her as an equal and let her fight along with the others as they harassed the Germans. As the years passed, she became a leader.