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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Cannonball's Tales"

I Remember "The Lucky Stiffs"

By W. T. Block

Some time ago, a friend asked me, "Bill, have you and your wife seen the movie (name deleted) yet?" I replied that "No, we hadn't," and he asked why. I responded, "Because each of us had already seen enough brutality for this life!"

Suddenly I recalled the days I spent with the "lucky stiffs," days during which every evil thought nibbled at my conscious, and days I could never forget. The day before, the 309th Infantry had jumped across the Roer River, making a lightning advance into the weakly-defended Rhineland, but several of our 78th Division soldiers had died during the onslaught. And the several inches of snow beneath our feet had hardened to ice consistency, with the temperature hovering in the minus zero range.

Early that day Sgt. Novy and I, our mess kits still dangling in the brisk breeze, had just returned from breakfast at the HQ mess truck. Suddenly I heard a loud voice bellow, "Hey, soldier, come here!" I turned and inquired, "Me?" "Yes, you!" was his response. "Go help Davis do his job for a day or two. His helper has gone on sick call!"

I was reluctant as I pondered the price of refusal, since the man with the loud voice wore no visible rank or insignia on his uniform. Sgt. Novy added, "Go ahead, Block, it's just a temporary assignment, and refusing a direct order at the front can mean a general court martial for insubordination."

I opened a door of Davis' truck and as I did so, I read the sign on it, "Graves Registration Command." We drove a short distance to a soldier, whose body was half covered with snow, and whose shoulder insignia was the same as mine, a red half moon and lightning patch. Davis stopped his truck and said:

"Grab his shoulders and swing with me, and let him fall in the truck," he shouted above the icy breeze. The frozen body hit the bed of the truck so hard that ice fragments broke off and scattered everywhere. Something rushed up inside my throat, but I said nothing that time. We drove a couple blocks and repeated the procedure, but I could not keep quiet that time; I cried out:

"Good Heavens! Must we toss these bodies in like so much cordwood? There must be a better way. Every one of them represents a trail of broken hearts back home, and but for the Grace of God, they could be us!"

"Don't be foolish, Block!" he retorted. "You'll git used to it! They're 'the lucky stiffs.' They don't feel no pain no more. Their fingertips and toes don't ache no more like ours do. And besides, we still got ours to git!"

"Git what?" I asked him curtly. "I mean git a bullet in the head from some sniper!" he responded.

I winced at the words, but got back into the truck. Once I had to take a shovel and pick up the insides in a basket of a fallen soldier's body, which had been mutilated by an 88 shell; and the scene was so sickening I quickly tossed up all my breakfast. All that day and the next, we threw scores of bodies into the truck-an American here and a German there. I remember 1 big German body- must have weighed 350 pounds-that required 4 of us to pick up and put in the truck.

Of course, I could not escape the fact that a day earlier, he probably had killed some of the Americans we had loaded on the truck. Nevertheless, I also could not escape thinking that the death of the big German was heartbreak for some one in his country. Each day we kept loading bodies and hauling them back to the Henri Chapelle Cemetery in Belgium.

After that, I was glad to get back to the pillbox where we were billeted, but the memories of "the lucky stiffs" continue to haunt me to the present day. I remember too that I was able to return home and raise a family, but they couldn't-so I know they were not the lucky ones.

I remember too how the Army had trained and honed me and other soldiers to butcher shop perfection, and I do mean razor-sharp perfection, with never a thought of undoing that training as we became civilians again. Perhaps it was a credit to most of us that we were able to shed our chicken-hawk aggression toward others with no more damage to society than was wrought by us.

W. T. Block, Jr.
"Cannonball's Tales" - June 5, 2006 column
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