Herbert was only twenty years old at the time and had gained considerable recognition for his practical thinking, wit and ability to stay focused when in dire moments. He was quickly elevated to lieutenant and was the head of a platoon that consisted of twenty-five men. Philip, who was a year younger than Herbert, was amongst them and very proud of his friend’s achievements. Hailing from South Africa, they had natural-tanned skin as they were always outside and never bothered how the sun would beat down upon them.
However, due to them forever having to take cover and stay in the dark shadows and trenches so as not to be seen by the enemy, their skin began to pale over time.
The constant bombing, guns and artillery went on and on until the noise became second nature to the soldiers. Their eyes began to strain from having to constantly look out for any landmines and enemies, leaving both men tired, drained and somewhat exasperated. It had been almost a year and though they eventually liberated the inhabitants of Sicily and found their way into the Italian mainland, they were beyond exhausted.
Herbert, with bloodshot eyes, was looking out of the trench to see any enemies he could gun down. Philip, however, was a bit shell-shocked but insisted on carrying on with watch duty.
Over the months they made many friends, smoking cigarettes and joke together while anxiously waiting for orders from their superiors to move further inland. While waiting around, wondering when their orders would be given, a bomb hit and Philip looked with horror as the smoke subsided and his friend; Steven; who moments ago was smoking and laughing with him, was gone. Only his boots remained.
No one saw or heard the bomb coming but when it did, it left Philip with such a mental breakdown that his superiors thought it best he returned home. Not wanting to be labelled a coward, and after hearing how soldiers during World War I were even executed for cowardice and desertion due to shell shock, he confidently told everyone he was fine, but Herbert heard his cries at night, but thought better not to speak of it. If anyone were to speak of the carnage they had all witnessed these past few months, should come from Philip himself.
Catherine wrote many loving letters, but the one Herbert really treasured was the birth of his daughter, Amanda. He wished to have been there and to hold her, but he knew he had to fight and win this War so that Amanda could grow up not knowing the horrors her father is currently facing.
Susan sent letters too, though they were few and far between. She had given birth to a son named James, after Philip’s father. He couldn’t have been more proud. During the times he was displaying negative mental behaviour, Herbert would casually remind him that he has a son waiting back home for him. This was the only way Herbert knew how to motivate Philip to carry on with their mission and to stay alive for that sole purpose.
A few weeks later, a bomb hit the trench and the enemy closed in just after the platoon moved more inland, but Herbert could not leave his men behind, who were being peppered with bullets. He knew his actions were futile, but he had to make sure there was at least one survivor he could save. He saw a few of the enemies running in all directions and would use his colt to bring them down. He continued with his search to find his men.
Amazingly, there were four men still stuck under the debris and was able to get them out and luckily none of them were too injured that proved them immobile and so they headed towards where the rest of the platoon made camp. Herbert was awarded a Medal for Bravery and everyone cheered, except Philip.
As the days went by, many of the men kept talking of Herbert’s selfless act to the point where Philip would explode with rage and walk away to spend time alone with his thoughts.
Herbert could no longer use James as a means of reasoning with Philip and so he was forced to leave him alone, though the absence of his friend greatly troubled him. Just as Philip was alone with his thoughts, Herbert felt very much alone not having his friend by his side. Susan made matters worse by sending less and less letters; all the while Catherine would send Herbert so many that Philip’s jealousy spiked.
The two hardly spoke and it hurt Herbert when Philip lashed out at him for his “Decoration of Bravery” and “Leader of the Pack”; a mocking title he gave Herbert.
In October 1944, the Germans and Italians found the compound and bombed it with everything they had. The massacre was dreadful. After a few hours, Herbert woke up with a start, covered with debris, as the roof of the compound caved in and covered him completely. He realised he had been out for hours and as the dust had finally settled, he looked like a ghost. He took in the carnage the enemies had dealt them; body parts, broken walls and the eerie sound of actual silence made him want to scream.
He stayed in the same place for hours, in fear that the enemy were still lurking around, but eventually he managed to crawl out of the compound, even though every muscle in his body was screaming in protest. He looked around and saw no-one. He called for anyone, especially Philip, but no reply came. He felt nauseous when he looked at the wreckage all around him. What seemed to be bits of body parts of the commanding officer and others of his platoon could be seen everywhere.
He turned back and staggered for miles towards the last place they had been before they were commanded to move further inward. As he reached the ally base, he was lightheaded and parched. He heard shouts from the allies and felt hands helping him to the infirmary before passing out. He was almost unrecognisable with his bloodied face, broken leg and ribs, along with a dislocated shoulder. It was inevitable that he had to go back home. He was unable to talk; first due to his screaming for his friends to the point where his voice became hoarse and then total exhaustion settled in.
On a ship bound for South Africa, he was lying in bed, completely wrapped in plaster-of-paris and braces for his neck, shoulder and leg. He was in extreme pain and physically exhausted but mentally, he was finished. He was more ashamed that he was not there to save his friend Philip, whose fate he never managed to find out.
There was a part of him that wanted to know what happened, but at the same time; after seeing the grotesque body parts and the bloodshed that befell them all around their compound, the other part of him didn’t want to know. He wanted to remember his friend as the bubbly person he was and not a random soldier killed in a war that was not engineered by him or his country. He began to weep. Life would never be the same again.
He came back home to an overjoyed Catherine and their daughter; who had just begun to walk. Susan, on the other hand, was completely devastated at the grave news Herbert had to give her, while little James sat silent and oblivious on the bench, watching the ships in the harbour. Herbert kept the horrid details to himself, sparing Susan the grizzly scenario of the terrors of war and its consequences. He also volunteered to have her moved to a flat nearby his home so he could watch out for her and make sure she’ll be well taken care of, but she decided to stay in the block of flats three blocks away that she and Philip had rented before they left for war.
She was distant and sometimes cold and hardly let James go out and meet with the other children playing in the streets, making him rather unsociable to all the other kids in the neighbourhood. 1945 came and the world rejoiced. Hitler committed suicide just as the allies closed in from all sides around Berlin and Mussolini was shot dead by a member of a group known as the Italian Resistance Movement, who had greatly opposed the Fascist Party and its dictator.
Mussolini’s body was later hung upside down in public alongside with his mistress and other members of the Fascist Party; and everyone cheered at the scene. The treaties that Germany and Italy had to sign made the world rejoice; for their loved ones were coming home and the war was finally over. Soldiers were on their way to their hometowns and life would be as it was before the stench of war was in everyone’s noses.
But the one person who was really having a hard time adapting to these new times was Herbert himself. How could he; a decorated war hero, come back and carry on as a barber and pretend as if nothing happened? He never spoke of what he had witnessed and experienced.
He had endless nightmares of those dark days and Catherine would many nights wake him up from his in-between of murmuring in his sleep to outright screaming. She had been very patient with him and never pushed him to speak of his time at war. He was feeling terrible for all the men in his platoon and constantly questioned why he was the only one to survive? Herbert was suffering from terrible bouts of “Survivors Guilt”, Catherine noted.
Many of his clients were old veterans from World War I and he was grateful that they did not pry in his life as a soldier of war. They too were once soldiers and never spoke of it. His father told him years ago to never ask them what happened, for it played on the mind and as anyone would know, the mind was the greatest trap of all.
It had been six years since the War ended and he and Catherine had a new addition to their family; a son named Adrian. Amanda was her father’s delight and he spent as much time as he could with her. He still felt guilty that he was not there for her first breath but everyone knew he had no control over that. Adrian seemed to take more after Catherine; compassionate for his tender age and very loving.
It had also been a few years since they last heard from Susan. She could no longer take the hotel and its inquisitive guests, so she packed up and moved to live with her parents’ home in Beaufort West. Susan was not one for specifics, but the sudden move after all these years did not seem to Catherine as the result of ignorant, nosey people.
No. Something else bothered her but never got the full story as Susan sent them a short and curt letter; thanking them for their help, but she needed to move on and the letter ended rather abruptly.
Although Catherine had moved on; slowly at first, getting over Susan’s sudden departure, the death of Philip never left Herbert’s mind. The guilt, the scenario, the stench of war was always around him, even though it had been a little over six years now, Herbert never stopped thinking about his friend and the shame weighed on him greatly.
He would, in his quiet times, think only of him and his face that was so bright and cheerful, talking about how they would make a difference in the war and bring their enemies to their knees. The dreams of youngsters and the reality of the world never went hand-in-hand, and he had learnt that the hard way.