As Ross rose to leave the office, Harrison entered, grinning. “Willi’s come to. Doc says besides the broken nose, he’s got a lotta bruises.”
“Did they give him the morphine I arranged?”
“But his nose…” Ross scowled, shook his head. “What a mess.”
“They did a good job with it. Might end up with a slight lump, but Willi said it’ll make him handsome instead a pretty. So, I guess he’s okay. Where ya headed.”
“CO’s office. He sent for me. Figured, I’d better report our little discovery in person while I’m at it.”
“Yeah, might get filed away by those desk jockeys surroundin’ him.”
“It is different, might suggest something a little more serious than other stuff.”
“I’m sure it’ll make that pencil pusher’s day.”
Ross arched an eyebrow.
Harrison gave him a dismissive wave. “I know the man never saw combat. Sat on his ass in Switzerland while the rest of us got our asses shot off.”
Ross shook his head. Aware that the men viewed the Colonel’s lack of combat with disdain. Referred to him in private as Colonel Butt hole, but he had the rank. You didn’t need to respect the man to respect the rank. “He is the boss. Anyway, nice job yourself rescuing our man.”
Harrison shrugged. “Don’t brag me up too much. Some other hotshot officer might make me an offer I can’t refuse.”
As he marched to the camp commander’s office, Ross wondered what the man might want. The Colonel never showed interest in the camp’s day to day function. Except for doing follow-up interviews with the more senior SS they spotted, the man ignored Ross and his unit. As Ross neared the commander’s door, the Colonel emerged, accompanied by a small man wearing a French Army kepi. Ross stood to attention.
Butler nodded to Ross, “As you were, Captain.” He turned to the Frenchman. “This is Captain Ross. He processes the discharges we discussed, General. Ross, this is General Louis Parlieu. He is to be in charge of this camp soon, and our duty here will be ending.”
Ross assumed the at ease position still on his feet. The Frenchman threw back his shoulders as he clicked his heels, he flicked his leather riding crop to his hat’s brim as if saluting. His eyes narrowed as he studied Ross. “I am sure then you and Captain Ross have much to discuss. Our people will arrive the day after tomorrow.” He pivoted on his heel and marched away.
Butler beckoned Ross inside his office. “Didn’t expect you so soon.”
After motioning Ross to the vacant chair across from his desk, Butler seated himself, leaned back, steepled his fingers before his face. “Something on your mind?”
Ross described yesterday’s discovery of the forgery operation run by the SS in the camp.
“Any idea how many got out based on these phony id’s?”
“The man doing the work said he made twenty-three of them since he’s been here. I checked the discharges with his information, and it looks like we still have fifteen here.”
“How many total SS do you think we have?”
“I have no idea, sir.”
Butler stroked his chin. “Well, as the General said, there’s much for us to discuss. Effective immediately, all discharges are to cease. You may finish out the day, but that is it. The French will take control of the camp. Their first details will arrive the day after tomorrow.”
“What about the SS men we have now?”
“We’ll transfer all senior officers to the Langwasser camp in Nuremberg. That includes Major and above.”
“Should we focus now on finding the higher-ranking SS in the camp?”
“As I said, in two days we hand over the total operation of the camp to the French. My orders direct me to focus all our efforts on a smooth and seamless transfer of our responsibility to them. Ross, we won’t have time to run around searching out more SS. As I understand it, everyone now residing in this camp will do forced labor in France and possibly elsewhere.”
Ross frowned. “Sir, doesn’t that violate the Geneva Convention’s rules governing the treatment of Prisoners of War?”
Butler crossed his arms. “These men are not listed as POWs.”
“What? Not POWs? What are they?”
“Disarmed Combatants. As such, they are exempt from the Geneva agreements. Legally, we can do what we want with `em.”
“So, the senior officers caught in the forgery factory go to Langwasser, and the rest returned to the regular population?”
“What about the guards? They’ve helped a bunch. Should we discharge them?”
“No, they have to take their chances now with the rest. Unless the French provide them similar responsibilities, but I doubt that will happen.”
“Is that all, sir?” Ross asked as he rose.
“Yes, there is. That was a fine piece of detective work on your part to catch those forgers. I will put a commendation in your file for that effort. What are your plans? I understand you were a policeman. A detective, in New York. Are you going back?”
“I’m not sure, sir,” Ross replied as he settled once more into the chair. Yes, he’d been a New York police detective, but that had been then. Would that job remain?
“Right now, Germany has no formal civil authority, including police. The allies are forming special units to provide that service. They need men with your background. If you like, I could forward your name to some of these units for consideration. You’d be an asset, with your background.”
“I would appreciate the opportunity to look at those options if I could,” he had considered staying in the Army but had not relished returning to combat. No real soldier ever did.
“Good, I will forward your name to some of those units. You will probably hear from some as we work through this transition. If you have nothing further, Captain, you are dismissed.”
After marching back to his office, he slammed the door. While he had no love for the Germans, this seemed unfair to men like Willi. At the window, he fumed as he pondered the injustice. The door opening behind him prompted him to turn.
Harrison joined him at the window. “Sir, I just got the word that the French are takin’ over the camp. Were you aware of that?”
Still fuming, he said nothing, nodded.
“So, what’s gonna happen?”
“The word I got is that they’re shipping everyone to France as forced laborers. If you got some time, we need to talk about how we handle the transition. Oh, and bring your coffee cup.”
“Give me a minute, sir. I’ll be right back, and we can talk then. If that’s okay?”
He nodded as he dropped in his desk chair while Harrison exited. They had over thirty guards that had served under him. Willi had put his life on the line to help them break up that forgery ring and saved that inmate from death. Could he at least make sure these men got treated fairly?
After Harrison returned, cup in hand, Ross opened his desk drawer to retrieve his bourbon bottle.
After he poured himself a two-fingered measure into his cup, he passed the bottle to Harrison. These late afternoon coffee breaks had become their routine when they needed to discuss a particular problem with the assignment. “Have we identified those SS we detained from that forgery factory?”
“What a catch. Fifteen in all and all above the rank of Major. Do we hand them over to the French?”
“No, they go to Langwasser in Nuremberg.” Ross tossed back his whiskey and refilled the mug. “What have you heard about this French take over?”
“Well, this French Sergeant was at the mess hall while I was eatin’ lunch. Claimed he drove one of their generals here today to meet with CO. Said the French farmers can’t get into their fields to plant crops cause the Nazis planted land mines everywhere. He said most of these bastards are gonna first clean those fields out so the French can feed their own.”
“Mine clearing?” Ross shook his head. “Jesus. Well, somebody has to do it. Might as well be the guys that put `em in.”
Harrison kicked back, cradling his cup in his hands. “Yeah, the livestock right now are getting blown all to hell too as fast as they put `em out in the field. Must be why we’ve been getting more canned meat lately, the French, the Dutch and the Belgians must have an abundant supply of fresh.”
“Shit, they gotta clear `em by hand. When the German’s found out our mine detectors found the metal ones, they made `em outta ceramic or wood. They put `em in so thick even the flail tanks couldn’t clear `em all out.”
“So, do we keep discharging `em?”
“After today, we discharge no one.”
Harrison refilled his cup. “What about the guards?”
“The guards will just have to take their chances with the rest of the inmates going to France.”
“You know that’s got to be a shitty detail. The only way we got our guys to do it was to offer mine-clearing as an alternative to execution.” Harrison tossed back the contents of his mug, belching as he poured another measure from the bottle. “We might have some ass holes out there that deserve that, but sure as hell not all of them.”
Harrison’s response surprised Ross. He had never heard the man ever express any sympathy for these men who had been their enemy. Encouraged, he moved ahead. “What if we discharge all the guards effective today? It’s a bunch and late in the day, could we?”
Harrison said nothing, just stared ahead as if lost in thought. Shook his head. “No, that would look suspicious, sir.” Ole Colonel Butt-hole, would be all over you in a heartbeat, figure you’re bein’ insubordinate or undermining his authority. The French would scream to high heaven too. Everybody wants to kiss their asses. You’d probably end up facin’ a court-martial.”
Defeated, Ross turned to the window.
“However, let’s say that we discharged them before as we cleared them to serve as guards. I mean, we trust them with guns.” Harrison continued with a gleam in his eye. “They just stayed on here to help us out and make sure they got fed.”
“What about all the paperwork?”
“If me and the guys start right now, we can have all of them ready for your signature in about two hours.”
“The only problem I see is that I already asked Butler about the guards. He’ll know we are pulling a fast one on him, and that could get you in the crosshairs too.”
“Nah, just tell him you did these weeks ago, and it had slipped your mind with all your other important duties until I reminded you as we discussed the transition. He’ll end up giving you a commendation for being such an efficient and effective leader of men.”
“Do you think the rest of the team will go along with it?”
“Sir, they do as I tell `em. If not, I’ll just ship `em off to the Pacific. They’ll need all the help they can get for the invasion.” Harrison set his cup aside as he rose to his feet. “If that’s all, I gotta get things rollin’ right away.”
Ross shook his head as he capped the bottle before returning it to the drawer. “Just one other thing, Sergeant. Make sure Willi is among those discharges.”
Harrison cracked off a salute before turning to the door. “Had already planned on it, sir.”
Leaning back in his chair, Ross smiled. Did all armies run this way? The Sergeants running things while the officers pretended they were in control?
As the discharges proceeded, Ross paced in his office. Uncertain how to inform Butler about the releases, he rehearsed several approaches. None seemed satisfactory. His claim that the discharges slipped his mind this morning would not sit well with Butler. A pompous bureaucrat like him could be ruthless. Perhaps the discovery of the forgers might offset the man’s wrath. But then again, Butler may toss it out along with Ross’s chances for an Army career. He could live with that if it meant fair treatment for these men. It had been two hours since Harrison had left to begin the process. He needed to act soon. A knock at the door interrupted his reverie.
“Enter,” he said as he turned to face the door. Ross expected it to be Harrison or another member of his team. Instead, his visitor turned out to be Sergeant Major Jackson, the camp’s ranking enlisted man. Jackson entered, snapped to attention as he saluted.
Puzzled at the man’s show of military courtesy for a junior officer such as himself, he returned the salute. “At ease, Sergeant Major.” Ross gestured to the vacant chair across from his desk as he sat down, “What can I do for you, Sergeant Major?”
“Captain, I have a serious matter I need to discuss with you.” Jackson cleared his throat. “Word is going around that the French will take over the camp.”
“As a member of Colonel Butler’s staff, Sergeant, I am sure you know of it.” Ross remained puzzled by the visit of this man ranked so far up the ‘real’ unit’s organization table that Ross often thought the man expected everyone but the Colonel to salute him. Nothing happened in this camp without Sergeant Major Jackson’s blessing. “Is there something about this that needs my attention?”
Jackson’s eyebrows arched. “Yes, sir, words gonna spread like wildfire to the prisoners. As bad as it sounds, it’ll spark unrest.” When Jackson crossed his arms, his, hash marks and chevrons almost made his sleeve appear gold plated. “We have about two hundred of `em out there carrying guns, and it might tempt them to turn them on us.”
“You mean the guards, Sergeant?” Ross’ stomach churned. For their discharge plan to work, it had to remain a secret outside the unit. This visit from the Sergeant Major must not be a coincidence. Aware of their work to discharge his guard unit, could the man now nip it in the bud?
“That’s exactly it, sir.” Jackson hesitated before continuing. “I would normally address this concern privately with the Colonel, but he is away and won’t return until morning. The Exec does not take suggestions from enlisted men well. So, it might be best if an officer made him aware of this concern.”
“Your right, Sergeant Major, we’ve not considered the armed camp guards in the transition briefings.” Butler’s adjutant, Lieutenant Colonel Ramsey’s ignored input from anyone besides an officer. “I take it you are suggesting I make Colonel Ramsey aware of this then?”
“Yes, sir. You might also suggest we disarm the current guards as they come off duty. That might not draw the other prisoner’s attention.”
“How will we maintain order Sergeant Major without guards? It will be at least two days before the French arrive. That’s no small army out there.”
Jackson leaned back in his chair. “Division has standing orders to send troops here from the local garrison if we need reinforcements for any reason. I would suggest you remind Colonel Ramsey of that contingency. I am sure he will be most grateful.”
Ross studied Jackson as he reflected on what they had just discussed. If he followed the Sergeant Major’s suggestion, it would boost Ross’s career, should he stay in the Army. Coupled with his discovery of the forgery factory, it would guarantee Ross his choice of assignment from here.
“Is there anything else you think I might need to do, Sergeant Major?” If he followed The Sergeant Major’s instructions, it would draw attention to the guards. The discharges could not happen, and all would go into forced labor. Had the Sergeant Major discovered his plot and now used this offer as his way of making sure he halted the scheme before it disrupted his little kingdom?
Jackson shifted in his chair as if he were about to broach a difficult subject. “I don’t believe so, Captain. I came around here to remind the unit officers that they were to have discharged their guards as they appointed them. Apparently, you were the only officer who remembered to follow through on this.”
Ross bit his lip to choke back the grin that struggled to surface with Jackson’s statement. The tension drained from his body.
Stone-faced, Jackson continued. “I will let the Colonel know about your unit’s efficiency. I am sure he will be pleased. He may not recall issuing that order with all of his important duties. It might have slipped his mind, but I will remind him tomorrow when he returns.”
Ross wanted to jump for joy as he wondered how he rated such luck but controlled himself. “Is there anything else, Sergeant Major?”
“Yes, Harrison mentioned you had some excellent bourbon here in your office. I hope you wouldn’t mind givin’ a hardworkin’ old man like me a taste.”
Ross retrieved his bottle from the drawer along with a spare coffee mug he kept there for guests who may not have brought their own. He set it before Jackson, who poured a finger measure in the cup before sipping.
Jackson grinned, nodded to Ross’s cup. “You’ll join me?”
Relaxed, Ross poured himself a shot into his mug.
Jackson hoisted his mug. “Captain, I believe Harrison is right. You will make a fine officer once you learn the difference between the Official Army and the Real Army. Forget how it officially works and learn how it really works. You better down that drink, we got a long night ahead of us.”
Lights burned in the camp’s headquarters building throughout the night. They disarmed the guards as planned before placing them in a special detention area pending their discharge. Just before dawn, the trucks arrived, bringing a battalion of troops from the local garrison to guard the camp until the French could relieve them. As they pulled into the compound, Ross and Harrison trudged to the barracks, both exhausted by their work that night.
Ross chuckled as he recalled one clerk griping about the work they had to rush through. A sergeant passing the clerk’s desk turned shook his head. “It’s just SNAFU, Corporal. Suck it up.”
“Yeah, Situation Normal, All Fucked Up!”