NCO Harold Black lay with his cheek to the gritty creek bed of the small ravine, unable for a moment to remember how he had gotten there. He could see the left rear wheel of his Jeep spinning and slowing as it faced the sky; the driver’s side door hung ajar.
Oh, yes. That was it. He had been driving the Jeep across an empty field when two German soldiers gave chase. The Jeep flipped over and landed in the shallow water, spilling him out before coming to rest on its roof.
Black’s head ached, and through half-closed lids he watched diluted ribbons of blood snake and curl their way through the lazy water.
The two Germans got out of their vehicle to check for survivors. They slid recklessly, laughing, down the short embankment.
Black played dead. He lay at a fortuitous angle. His right arm curved up toward his face and shielded his mouth. With his chest against the rocky ravine floor he could mask most of the rise and fall of his breathing. Before the Germans could come around to see his face, Black let his lids drop until only a sliver of the whites of his eyes could be seen.
He watched the soldiers check the Jeep for any hiding enemies, then walk a very slow path around his still form. As they paced and pondered, Black thought in dread of all that might give him away. Was his loose jacket obscuring the miniscule movements of his breathing? Did his blood flow too easily for a dead man? Would his heartbeat start to pulse in the water and give him up?
A pair of muddy jackboots stepped into his line of sight. The soldier reached down and pulled a six-inch trench knife from his right boot. From what little Black could see it looked old and rusting, probably a reissue from the Great War. His heart raced, his breaths came unevenly. There was no way to jump up and defend himself, but if he rolled over and surrendered who knew the kind of cruelty he would endure, alone with two Nazis in a dirty ravine? They were going to see if this possum was faking, and Black had to endure it.
Jesus, was all he could think, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, until his mind became incapable of anything else. He labored to let go of all tension, to stay perfectly still and anticipate the kind of pain that was to come.
A quick exchange in German. The one holding the knife stepped forward, got on one knee, and jammed the blade into the back of Black’s leg.
Pain and fear exploded at once. His leg jumped. The Nazi grunted.
The scream Black dared not release surged in his veins and ricocheted deep in his throat; his hands and feet prickled and spiked with the compulsion to lessen the pain. His entire chest was horrifyingly close to shuddering out a gasp that would surely lead to his true death.
But he lay there, unmoving, while the German snorted in satisfaction and yanked the knife out. The two began a steady stream of banter as they turned to leave, each giving Black a little kick for good measure. One spat on him.
Black listened as they restarted their vehicle and sputtered away. He waited a long minute. Then he shook, and convulsed, and grasped his wounded leg, and screamed up at the indifferent trees, a scream of pain, of disbelief, of victory.
This is the true story of my great-uncle, Buck Sergeant Harold Black, who went on to earn five Bronze stars. He died nearly thirty years later.
*NCO stands for non-commissioned officer.
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