The Prisoner of War (Chapters Three and Four)

Reads: 351  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

More Details
Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic
Savage stops his car to help at an accident involving a truck carrying German POWs and their British guards, and comes face to face with Sergeant Müller, the sergeant of the German patrol that captured him after he had been shot down the previous year. Müller is injured and Savage takes him back to the base hospital for treatment. A strange relationship develops between the two as he prepares for an important mission.

Submitted: October 14, 2015

A A A | A A A

Submitted: October 14, 2015






Chapter Three

WEEK ONE, Thursday, Early Afternoon

The Neurosurgeon, Doctor Hays, arrived mid-morning.  He was passed through the gate and given directions to the hospital. 

Doctor Philip Hays was in his early thirties, average height and build, with thinning blonde hair and a fair complexion.  His hands were his most distinguishing feature, small with long, almost delicate fingers... the hands of a surgeon.  As he entered the hospital, he shook the rain off his raincoat and hat, and spotted Kaiser heading toward one of the wards. 

"Doctor Kaiser."  he called out.  "Good morning."

"Doctor Hays,....Phil."  Kaiser said, changing direction and going over to him,  "Welcome.  I hope you didn't have any trouble getting here."

"None at all, Don.  A pass was waiting for me at the gate, and the hospital was easy to find.  How's your patient?"

"I took the x-rays yesterday; the grenade fragments are clearly visible.  Come on back to my office, and I'll fill you in."  and they headed back down the hall. 

Doctor Hays was intrigued by Müller's case.  There were few documented cases of penetrating head trauma that had presented like Müller's and that had, except for recurring headaches, been asymptomatic for several years. He felt it would make an excellent case study for his Hospital, and as such, he believed he would have little difficulty getting approval to operate.... if it came to that.

Neurosurgery was still a fledgling branch of medicine.  Though lessons in the treatment of head wounds had been learned in the First War, and advancements in technique and equipment had been made between the wars, not all of that experience was remembered twenty years later.  Neurosurgery remained a very small specialty practiced by surgeons learning as they went.

Doctor Harrod had also driven down from Camp Barton that morning, and had arrived shortly after Doctor Hays.  Shown to Kaiser's office, Harrod found him conferring with another officer.

"Sorry to interrupt, Doctor,"  he began, but Kaiser cut him off.  "You're not interrupting.  Come in; you're just in time." 

Kaiser made the introductions, and the three doctors began to discuss Sergeant Müller's case.  After studying the x-ray films, Doctor Hays agreed with Kaiser, that the smaller of the fragments could be removed without too much difficulty.  However, the large piece near the brain stem gave him great concern. 

As Kaiser had thought, he said there was a high risk, maybe sixty percent or greater, that Müller wouldn't survive the operation, and if he did, he could be paralyzed, to what extent he couldn't predict.  Hays thought those were bad odds, but understanding that it was only a matter of time before the fragment moved again, with the same likely results, he agreed to operate.... if the patient was willing to take the risk.  The three doctors agreed that an operation was probably Müller's best chance, but Hays still had to examine the patient. 

They found Müller in his room, and while Kaiser and Harrod observed, and Sergeant Douglas stood quietly by, Doctor Hays examined Müller and questioned him about how and when he had been wounded, his medical treatment at the time, and the frequency and severity of his symptoms since. 
When he was satisfied he knew all there was to know, Hays discussed the operation with Müller as well as his concerns and the risks.  Hays was relieved that language was not a problem, and that Müller understood, and comprehended, everything he had told him.Finally, Hays asked, "What do you want to do, Sergeant?" 

Müller considered everything the doctor had told him.  The headaches had been getting worse and more frequent, and he should have died many times before, so...  "I would like to have the operation, Herr Doktor.  I accept the risks.  I have been a soldier for many years; there are always risks."

A date for the operation was set.....Monday of the following week, in five days.  It would take Doctor Hays that long to get approval, clear his schedule and prepare his surgical team.

*  *  *  *

After finishing his rounds late that afternoon, Kaiser returned to his office and called General Savage.

"I thought you'd want to know, General.... Doctor Hays examined Sergeant Müller this morning.  He agreed with my diagnosis.... the fragments can be removed, with great risk, but the eventual outcome is certain if he does nothing.  He discussed everything with Müller, and Müller has decided he wants to go ahead with the operation."


"Doctor Hays plans to operate Monday morning at St. Hugh's.  We'll transfer Müller to the hospital Sunday afternoon."

"OK, Doc.  Thanks.  Keep me posted."

*  *  *  *

WEEK ONE, Friday, Morning

It had stopped raining, when Savage entered his office early the next morning and found 'Sergeant' Ross sitting at his desk, slowly pecking at his typewriter with bandaged hands enclosed in large white gloves.

"What you doing here, Sergeant?

"I work here, sir."  Ross answered, pleased with himself.

"Don't be flippant.  You know what I mean.  What are you doing out of the hospital?"

Before Ross could answer, "I found him here when I came in this morning, General."  Major Stovall said, as he came out of Savage's office.  "He said Doc Kaiser released him yesterday afternoon.  He'd been bored silly in the hospital and said he wanted to get back to work."

"Can he do anything useful, Harvey, with his hands like that?  At the rate he's typing, and the mistakes he making, it'll take him all day to get out the Morning Report."

"Typing might not be his strong suit at the moment, sir, but I have some filing he can help me with."

"All right, Sergeant.  You can stay, but if you do anything to impede the healing of those hands, it's back to the Burn Ward.  Am I clear?"

"Yes, sir.  Thank you, sir."


Entering his office, Savage poured himself a cup of coffee from the fresh pot Stovall had just made, then went to his door and called, "Harvey, get me Major Rosen on the phone and send for Sergeant Nero, will you..... and Harvey, remind Nero to shave."

"Yes, sir."

A few minutes later, Stovall called on the intercom, "Nero's on his way, General, and I have Major Rosen on the phone."

"Thanks, Harvey."  Savage picked up the phone, and without any preliminaries, said  "The rain has stopped, Major.  What's the forecast for the next week?"

"I'm sorry, General."  Rosen answered unhappily. "This is just a brief break in the local weather.  I'm afraid the continent is still socked in and will be for five to seven days."

"All right, Major."  Savage said wearily.  "Let me know if there are any changes."

Savage hung up the phone, and sipping his coffee, turned to look out his window.  He was not in a good mood.  Pinetree had called last evening to let him know 'Spoil Sport',  HIS mission, had been put on hold.  The Old Man still had some concerns.  Savage had mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, he was frustrated by the delay, but on the other.... it was just possible, during that delay, he could convince Kaiser to let him back on flight status.  He was due for his next visit Monday.

*  *  *  *

'Give me enough rainy days',  Nero thought as he stuffed his cigar in his jacket pocket, straightened his uniform, and entered General Savage's outer office, 'and I'll have every hangar queen on this base purring'. 

Unlike most of the base personnel, Master Sergeant Tony Nero, LIKED the rain.  Nero was the 918th's Maintenance Chief.  He was a feisty second-generation Italian from New Jersey, built like a fireplug, and always chewing on a cigar.  He was career Army, and bragged that in his almost twenty years of service, he had worked on every airplane engine ever made.  Whether that was true or not, there was no denying that he knew the B-17's 1200Hp turbocharged Wright Cyclone engines inside and out. Nero was the man primarily responsible for keeping the Group's airplanes in the air. 

His one noticeable failing, however, was that he wasn't the most 'military' of NCOs, and he didn't always shave.  Savage had called him on it several times, until finally Nero explained to the General that he and his crew often worked round the clock to get his birds ready for the next mission, and he just didn't always have time to shave.  He frankly told Savage he could fix his birds, or he could shave; he couldn't always do both.  Savage had thought about it, then compromised; he decided he could turn a blind eye occasionally to Nero's unmilitary appearance if that's what it took to keep his planes flying, but if Nero wasn't on the flight line working, he had better be shaved and appropriately uniformed.

"Good morning, Major."  he said to Stovall. "The General wanted to see me?"

"Yes, Sergeant, go on in.  He's expecting you."  Stovall replied, after checking his appearance.

"You wanted to see me, General?"  Nero said saluting and assuming a position of attention in front of Savage's desk.

"Yes.....At ease, Sergeant."  said Savage, noting Nero had shaved and returning his salute.  "How are you coming on the armor plating for our planes?"

The outer skin of the B-17 was composed of light weight aluminum, which while it improved the bomber's speed, altitude and load capabilities, it was also so thin that you could punch a hole in it with a screwdriver.  Against the enemy's 20mm cannon shells and anti-aircraft flak, it was no protection at all.  Armor plating was essential to protect the crew and vital areas of the aircraft.  However, armor plating was heavy. The challenge was to find a happy medium between the protection provided and the adverse affect of the extra weight.  New planes coming off the line were designed with improved armor protection, but the B-17s already deployed had to improvise.

"I've strengthened the areas under the nose and cockpit seating, sir, and around the gun ports in the waist.  I think that will provide some increased protection for the crew without negatively affecting aircraft performance."

"Good.  That's very good......Now I know you like this type of weather, Nero, but it's bound to break soon, and we'll get a Field Order.  How many will we be able to put up when that happens?"

The 'official' Army Air Force definition of a Group was four squadrons of twelve aircraft each -  forty-eight B-17s.  But the air war was young, and until war production caught up, the most Savage, and the other Group commanders, had to work with was three under strength squadrons, and inexperienced crews.  On his best day, Savage couldn't put up more than twenty-four, and there were always combat losses that hadn't been replaced, aircraft with battle damage that hadn't been repaired, and the 'hangar queens', aircraft non-repairable due to a lack of parts, and from whom parts were constantly being 'cannibalized' to get the damaged back in the air.  So the 918th, on any given day, was doing very good to get twenty-two or twenty-four planes into the air.

"This weather's been good for us, General.  We've got all but three of the last mission's damaged birds ready to go now, sir.  Another couple of down days, and some parts, and I'll give you those, and maybe a couple of the 'hangar queens', too.  By Monday or Tuesday, we should be able to put up twenty-two, maybe twenty-three." 

"What about 'the Lily'?"

"I don't know how Major Cobb brought her back.... but she's ready whenever you want her."

"OK, Nero, thank you; and thank your crew for me.  I'll see that you and your men get some leave as soon as I can."

"Thank you, sir.  I know they'll appreciate it...... Was there anything else, General?"

"No, that's all."  he said, and returned Nero's salute.

*  *  *  *

By early afternoon, Savage had cleared his desk.. again.. and had met with the mornings appointments: a visit from the Vicar of Archbury with a complaint from a local family that one of his gunners had gotten their daughter in 'trouble' (he would have a talk with the 'boy', but reminded the Vicar that 'it's takes two'); a reporter from the 'Stars and Stripes' had heard there was a German POW on base and wanted an interview (denied); and an appeal from a young gunner for the General to reconsider his denial of the boy's request to marry a local girl, who, according to the background investigation performed for such requests, was some years older than the boy and well-known to be of less than virtuous character (request denied and a mandatory counseling session with Chaplain Twombley).

Major Henderson was next with the Provost Marshal's Morning Report. "All things considered, General,"  Henderson said, "it was a relatively quiet night." 

Henderson's 'quiet night' had included a charge of 'insubordination' by an officer against an enlisted man after a verbal altercation; the charge was dropped after the officer calmed down, but it was indicative, he said, of the stress building on the base.  There had been the usual  'drunk and disorderly' calls, numerous minor fights and 'dust-ups', and two actionable incidents: two of his pilots had started a brawl in the 'Star and Bottle'  in Archbury, resulting in considerable damage, but no injuries, and a Sergeant had single-handedly tried to dismantle the NCO Club, also resulting in considerable damage and sending several personnel, including the Sergeant, to the hospital with assorted minor injuries.  There had also a few 'fender-benders' due to the fog, but no injuries. 

"Tempers are short, sir, and getting shorter."  Henderson said. "It's all symptomatic of a 'weather hold';  and as you well know, these incidents are only going to increase if the rain and fog continue much longer."

"Don't I know it!Handle the minor cases as you see fit, Major, but, I'm afraid we'll have to hold those pilots and the sergeant for Court-Martial.  If you haven't already done so, notify their Squadron Commanders so they can make the appropriate changes to their crew rosters."

"I'm willing to cut the troops a little slack so they can blow off steam, Don, but give me a 'heads up' if this starts getting out of hand.  Let's just hope the weather breaks....  and soon."

"Yes, sir."

Henderson stood, saluted and started to leave.  At the door, he turned and said, "Oh, and General....I was able to get your 'letter' out with the Wednesday night mail. You should have a reply soon."

"That's great.  Thank you, Don."


"No more appointments, Harvey."  Savage said after Henderson had left.  "I'm going catch some lunch, then take a drive around the base."

During his drive, Savage stopped at the flight line, bomb dump, enlisted mess, and other facilities to chat with the troops, share their frustrations and listen to a joke or two.... generally at his expense.  He stopped at the hospital last and made the rounds of the wards, noting there were more patients waiting to be seen than was normal. 

As he left one of the wards, he ran into Doc Kaiser.  "You seem to have a lot of new patients, Doctor...."

"Yes, sir, there seems to be an 'accident' epidemic going around the base. More come in every day."

"Anything serious, Doc, that would keep them grounded?"

"No, General," he said heatedly. "most should be released within a few hours, if that's soon enough for you, sir! ......"  Kaiser stopped and tiredly rubbed a hand over his face, "I'm sorry, General, I didn't mean that the way it sounded.  I guess this weather is getting to me, too."

"That's OK, Doc.  It's getting to all of us, but it can't last too much longer.... at least, that's the thought that keeps me going."

"How's Muller doing?  I haven't had a chance to come by since Wednesday."

"He's doing well, sir.  Medication is keeping his headaches down, and his color is much better..... and from what I've seen, he and his 'escort' Sergeant Douglas seem to be getting along just fine."

"Do you mind if I drop in for a visit?"

"No, but he's probably not in his room right now.  Sergeant Douglas commandeered a wheelchair the first day, and has been wheeling him around the hospital…. just to get out of their room, I would imagine.  It hasn't negatively affected his condition, so I allow it." 

Then as an afterthought, Kaiser added, "Müller's actually a popular patient, General.  A few of the staff and other patients were a little standoffish at first because he's German, but most seem to take to him after they've had a chance to talk to him, and even some of the more unfriendly ones have come around.

....and of course, sir, they all want to hear him tell 'the story', even the ones who've already heard it.  It's been repeated so often in the last few days, I half expect it to be in the 'Stars and Stripes' next."

"It had better not, Doc."  Savage said.  He was not joking.

Appropriately chastened, Kaiser offered, "I'll make sure of it."  Then, "You can probably find Müller in the Patient Lounge, General.  He's usually there in the afternoon playing chess with Chaplain Twombley."


"Yes, sir.  He stops by the wards every day, visiting the patients.  He called on Sergeant Müller that first morning, and has been back every day since.  They seem to have hit it off.... especially since discovering they both played chess."

"Alright."Savage said, checking his watch, "I'll try there first."


As he entered the Patient Lounge, Savage could see a cluster of patients and staff gathered around one of the tables in the center of the room.  The crowd moved aside as he drew near, and he observed Müller and Twombley concentrating on a chess board, oblivious to everything but the game.  Then shaking his head, Twombley took his King and laid it down in surrender.  Cheers, and a few groans, sounded around the room, and Savage saw money changing hands, but decided to ignore it... this time.  Then the crowd dispersed.  The show was over. 

Looking over Müller's shoulder, Chaplain Twombley caught site of the General and nodded.  Then he said something to Müller, stood, and headed over to where Savage was standing.  As soon as he left, Sergeant Douglas sat down in his seat and began setting up a checker board.

"I didn't know you played chess, Chaplain.  I hope I didn't interrupt your game."

"You didn't, General.  Karl had me beat; there was no point in delaying the inevitable.I find chess relaxing, and occasionally, when I find a good opponent, challenging.  Karl is an excellent opponent; I've only beaten him once."

Becoming serious, Twombley said, "He and I have had several long talks.  He's a very intelligent and interesting man, and but he's also a man in great pain."

"Yes, the grenade fragments...."

"No.  Not physical pain, sir; emotional pain."

"I don't get your meaning, Chaplain.  He seems normal, and under the circumstances, reasonably content with his situation."

"That's just his outer shell, sir.  His way of protecting himself from being hurt......I'm not making myself clear.  Let me explain."  he said, leading Savage to some chairs in the far corner of the room.

"Karl Müller is a man in turmoil, General.  On the surface he seems normal, but he's just going through the motions; on the inside..... I don't think he cares anymore.  He may smile, but there's no laughter in his eyes."

"No laughter in his eyes."  Savage repeated flatly.  Where was Twombley going with this?

The Chaplain could see the question on Savage's face, but continued.  "He has no family, and he never married.  For almost twenty-five years, the military has been his home; his fellow soldiers, his family.  The Army, and his love of country, was all that he had.  Now he feels betrayed.... he told me about Darmstadt .... and everything he has ever known or loved is gone, and he's alone......  I don't think he'll survive this operation, General.  I don't think he cares."

"You learned all that in a few conversations?!"

"I'm a good listener, General, and very good at my job."

"Yes, of course.  Sorry, Chaplain.  But you may be wrong about 'no family'.  There's a possibility he may have a sister in Nebraska.  I'm trying to trace her now."
A nurse approached, "I'm sorry to interrupt, General, but one of our critical patients has asked to speak with the Chaplain."

Twombley stood to go with the nurse, then said, "I hope you're successful, sir.  The man needs a reason to go on."

*  *  *  *

WEEK ONE,  Saturday, Mid-Afternoon

By Saturday morning, it was raining again..... and the day was so dark, and the fog so thick that Savage had difficulty making his way to his office.  The sun did shine in England, Savage knew that for a fact; he had seen it himself just a few days ago.  What they were experiencing now was called the 'London Particular', a fog so damp and dense that you could hardly see more than a few yards in front of you.

The Group was still grounded, due to the local weather now as much as the weather over the continent.  It did no good to have clear skies over the target if pilots couldn't find their way back to their base in overcast skies, and during extreme fog conditions, safe landings were impossible.  They'd lost several aircraft that way.

Local leave had been granted Thursday, but the rain and fog put a damper on the things they could do, and places they could go, so the crews mostly stayed on base.  Those who could, slept late, and everyone caught up with whatever they had to catch up with..... so long as it could be done inside.  At first, as always, it had been a relief to have a break from flying, from the war, but there can be too much of a good thing.  These 'weather waits' were often more stressful on the aircrews than flying the actual combat mission, and as he was seeing in the Morning Reports, the stress of waiting was building to a head.  If the weather didn't break soon, he was going to have real trouble. 

*  *  *  *

General Savage and Major Stovall had been in the office since early morning working on several overdue combat effectiveness reports, and they were still at it at fourteen hundred (two o'clock). 

There was a knock on the door, and Savage looked up, annoyed to be interrupted so close to finishing.  Then he saw Major Don Henderson, standing in the doorway.

"I have that information you asked for, General."

"Come on it, Major, and take a seat."Savage said, returning Henderson's salute. 

"We'll finish this later, Harvey.  I'd like a few minutes with Major Henderson."Savage hadn't informed Stovall about his search for Müller's sister.  If there was going to be any trouble resulting from this, he didn't want Harvey involved. 

"Certainly, sir."  said Stovall, and as he left, closed the door behind him.


"That was fast, Major.  It's only been a few days.  I didn't expect to hear anything this soon."

"Yes, sir.  Neither did I.  Everything just clicked....  It went out on the diplomatic mail flight to Bolling Field that night, and then onto a cross-country training flight with a short stop at Lincoln Field.  The reply came back with that group of B-24s ferried over this morning."

Taking the offered seat, Henderson reported, "As I expected, there was already a file on Walter Stossel.  He joined the Nebraska National Guard in '38, and they did a background investigation then."Then removing a folder from his leather portfolio, he took out two typewritten sheets, and with a nod from Savage, read:


Gerd and Marta Ohme Stossel, immigrated 1905 from Karlsruhe, Baden-Württemberg, southern Germany.  They were naturalized in 1910.  Their son, Walter Johann, was born 1910 in Gretna, Sarpy County, Nebraska.

Anna Lisa Müller, daughter of Johann and Anna Marie Schmidt Müller, born 1910, in Kleiningersheim, Baden-Württemberg, southern Germany; immigrated in 1929 and was naturalized in 1932.  She married Walter Stossel the same year. They live on the family farm in Gretna which Walter inherited after his father died in a farming accident in 1936.

The Stossel's have four children, all born in Gretna:  Anna Marie, born 1933; Karl, born 1935; Wilhelm 'Willi', born 1936; and Friedrich 'Fred', born 1938.


"That was from the official report filed in 1938, sir.  The following notes are from a quick review of his military file in their local records unit."


Second Lieutenant (then Master Sergeant) Walter Stossel joined the National Guard in May 1938.  By June 1941, he had advanced in rank to Master Sergeant.  His Guard unit was activated and federalized shortly after Pearl Harbor, and integrated into the First Infantry Division.  After training with the 'First' at Ft. Benning, Georgia, they were shipped out in time for the landings in French North Africa.  Stossel's unit participated in most of the major engagements, and he received a battlefield commission after the Kasserine Pass.  His unit is now with Patton's II Corps.

Anna Stossel manages the family farm with the help of German PWs from a small satellite Prisoner of War Camp in 'Weeping Water', Nebraska. 

Henderson then placed both sheets back into the folder and laid it on Savage's desk.  Finishing, he said,  "From all reports, General, the Stossel's are honest, god-fearing, loyal Americans with no ties to the 'fatherland' other than Anna Stossel's oldest brother, Karl, with whom she's had no contact since she left Germany in 1929, and who she believes to be deceased."

Then, Henderson took two sealed envelopes from his portfolio: one was addressed to 'General Savage'; the other to 'Karl '.He also handed these across to Savage. 

"Don, I can't thank you enough for this.  This was a more than slightly 'irregular' request, and I appreciate your help and your discretion.  In your next letter home, please thank your parents for me."

"...and if you're going to be in the Officer's Club about eighteen hundred (six o'clock), I'd like to buy you a beer."

Henderson smiled broadly, "I'll be there, sir. Thank you."


After Henderson left, Savage opened the letter addressed to him.It was just a short note in flowing old fashioned script.  It began,

I cannot tell you how overjoyed I am to receive your letter and learn my beloved brother, Karl, is alive and out of this terrible war .......' 

She went on to say how she had wondered for years if he were alive and how he was.  How she had written to him many times in care of the Army  -  especially at the birth of each of her children, who she had named after her mother and her brothers - but her letters had come back 'undeliverable' or not at all, and she had eventually had to accept her worst fears.  To learn now that he was not dead brought her more joy than she could say.  She closed with the request that he give her letter to Karl with the hope that she would hear from him soon.

Savage folded Anna's note and put it back into the envelope, then hefted the one addressed to Karl.  It was heavier and stiffer, and he suspected it contained several family pictures as well as a letter. 

He thought for a moment, then placed the two letters and the folder into the top drawer of his desk. 

Then he called Harvey back into the office and went back to the report they had been working on.  He didn't want to keep Henderson waiting for that beer.


Chapter Four

WEEK ONE,  Sunday, Noon

War doesn't make allowances for Sundays. Had the weather not still been bad over the Continent, the 918th, along with most of the 8th Air Force, would have been flying.  But the weather WAS still bad across the Channel, although it had finally broken over Archbury, if not all of England.  The sun had come out, burning off the fog, and most of the base personnel had taken the opportunity to attend church services, go into Archbury, or play some ball.  It was just good to be able to get outside for a change.


General Crowe arrived around noon and found Savage in his office on the phone, and staring out his window.

"No change?  None at all?  That's not good enough, Major...... Well, check again...... No.....  Am I not making myself clear, Major Rosen?......  Good, now get it done."  and he slammed the phone back into its cradle.

"Don't you have anything better to do, General, than harass your weatherman?"  asked Crowe.

"No..."  Savage almost shouted, then swung his chair around, and seeing Crowe, stood to acknowledge his superior officer's presence.

"Sorry, sir, I'm just tired of this weather.  It's cleared here, but it's still socked in over most of Western Europe.  We've been down for five days now, and according to Major Rosen, it's not looking good for the next week. The stress of waiting has been getting to the men...."  and with a rueful grin, "and me, too, I guess."

"It's not just here, Frank; the entire 8th Air Force is grounded.  The meteorologists are scratching their collective heads.But it can't last too much longer, and, on the positive side, the Germans can't fly in it either.

"Yes, I suppose there is that......Can I buy you a cup of coffee, Wiley?"

"Please."  Crowe said.  Taking the proffered cup, he took a good look at Savage, "I'd heard you messed up your 'good looks' when you got involved with those POWs, Frank."  he said with a teasing grin.  "I wouldn't have any pictures taken right now, if I were you."

"Thanks.  You should have seen me a few days ago.  Kaiser said it'll be another week before I'll look human again."

"Now you didn't come down here just to admire my 'good looks', Wiley.  What's up?"

"It's a little slow at Pinetree right now, so I thought I come down and get some feedback on your meeting with the 112th.  General Pritchard is very concerned about the timing; that's why he's delaying it.  We've had a positive report from both you and Colonel Mason, but Pritchard wants to discuss it with you in person.  There's a lot riding on the success of these 'belly tanks', Frank, and Pritchard wants to make sure we get it absolutely right before we risk any more aircraft."

"OK.  I put everything in my report, but I'll go up to Bushy Park and see him first of the week..... 

It was a productive meeting, Wiley. There were some disconnects at the start, but we worked them out.  As far as I'm concerned, we're ready to go.... as soon as the Old Man will give us a 'green light'.  The only thing I'm still not happy about is that, unless there's a miracle, I won't be leading it."

"Doctor Kaiser still has you grounded.  Any idea how much longer?"

"No.  It's been over three months since I was wounded, and I've been DNIF for almost a month.  I'm just about ready to have it out with him." 

"Well, you know my position on the subject; I've told you often enough.  I'd like you to stay on the ground more, Frank.  Stop trying to fly every mission. You've been very lucky up to now.  I'd hate to lose my best Group Commander."

"I swear.  You and Kaiser!  Give it a rest, will you Wiley."

"OK, OK.....  Speaking of doctors..."  Crowe said, changing the subject. "There's a rumor around Headquarters that you brought back a German POW from Camp Barton, and have him here in the hospital.  Any truth in that?"

"Yes, sir.  One of the PWs was injured saving one of the British guards.  Camp Barton has only a small clinic with one doctor, and Doc Kaiser felt that he could be better treated here.  A camp guard came with him as 'escort'.... the one he saved actually."

Savage then went on to explain everything that had occurred since the accident, up to and including the plan for Doctor Hays to operate on Müller at St. Hugh's Hospital, in Oxford, tomorrow.

"And you say this Sergeant Müller is the SAME Müller you ran into in France?  What is it everyone calls him, 'Aspirin Müller'?  That's quite a story, Frank.  If it were anyone but you, I'd be highly skeptical."

There was a knock on the doorframe, and Major Stovall entered carrying a small package.  "This was just sent over from the Post Exchange, General."Opening the box, he removed Müller's flask, examined it, then handed it to Savage. "It cleaned up like new. The PX jeweler says it's real 'sterling' silver and expensive."

"Thanks, Harvey." 

Handing the flask to Crowe, Savage asked, "Recognize this?"

"This isn't that old flask you brought back from Metz!?"

"Yes, sir.  Note the inscription."

Crowe found the engraving and squinted at the inscription. "What does it say, do you know?"

"It reads: 'Sergeant Karl Müller, on the award of the Iron Cross, First Class, with gratitude, First Lieutenant Erwin Johannes Rommel, Royal Wurttemberg Mountain Battalion, Caporetto, 1917'."

"Rommel!"  Crowe exclaimed. "He served under Rommel at Caporetto? Why would Rommel give him an engraved flask?  And an Iron Cross, First Class.... the old Imperial German Army didn't award those lightly.... especially to enlisted men."

"Harvey and I have been wondering the same thing...... I had it cleaned up so I could return it to him. Today might be my last chance before they take him up to St. Hugh's tonight for the operation tomorrow." 

Over the next few minutes, Savage told Crowe of everything he had learned about Müller.... about Arras and the grenade, Darmstadt and the treatment of Jews he had witnessed, his court-martial, how he had come to be with the Germans who had taken him, Savage, prisoner, and his anti-Nazi feelings.When he had finished, "Would you like to meet him, Wiley?"

Arching an eyebrow, Crowe looked at Savage. "You know, I think I would like to meet this German who seems to have made such an impression on you.  I must admit he doesn't sound like your average German soldier."


Savage grabbed his hat and headed for the door with Crowe right behind.  At the door, however, he stopped, paused for a moment, then returned to his desk.  He opened the top drawer, and hesitating, retrieved the folder and letters,  "Before we go over, Wiley, there's something I need to tell you."

Savage took a deep breath, then said, "I asked Müller if he had anyone he wanted notified, in case the operation didn't go well.  He said no;  all of his family were gone except for a sister who immigrated to the States in '29..... Gretna, Nebraska, he thought, but hadn't had any contact with her for years and had long thought her dead."

"Yes?  What's your point, Frank?"  Crowe said impatiently.

Savage hesitated again, knowing the storm that would follow, then said, "I looked her up, Wiley, and sent her a letter about her brother......."

The words were barely out of his mouth before Crowe exploded, "You what!"

"....and I received a reply."  he finished.

"Have you lost your senses!? ....Frank, what were you thinking?"

Incensed, Crowe stared at Savage for a moment, then drew himself up, and said formally, "May I remind you, General Savage, that Sergeant Müller is an enemy soldier, a prisoner of war, and that communicating with his family is questionable at best, and at worst a court-martial offense...... You are a General Officer, for God's sake, not a chaplain!"

"Yes, sir, I realize all that, but......"

"Look, Wiley, for years neither of these people have known whether the other was alive.  Is it so wrong to help have that question finally answered?  Especially as there's a very real chance that Müller won't survive the operation tomorrow.  Wouldn't YOU want that chance to know?"

Shaking his head, Crowe said, "I don't understand you, Frank.  Why are you so involved with this man?"

"I've asked myself that question a hundred times, Wiley.  I don't know..... I feel an obligation to him, yes, but.......  I just don't know....  Maybe I'm just tired of this war."  he said, his voice rising.... "Maybe I just want to do something good for a change, something that doesn't involve death and destruction!"

"Let's don't shout at each other, General."  Crowe said quietly.

"I'm sorry, sir." 

Calming down, Crowe asked, "Have you read those letters?"

"Just the one addressed to me."  He took Anna Stossel's note from the envelope and handed it to Crowe.  "The other one is not mine to read."

Crowe read the note, then handed it back without comment.

"Her husband, Walter Stossel, is in the Army."  Savage added, handing him Henderson's information. "Because of his German ancestry, there was a background investigation done on the family." 

Crowe took his time reading both pages. "Stossel has seen some action."  He said nodding. "He appears to have a good record..... and a battlefield commission speaks well of him." Finished, Crowe handed them back to Savage.

Crowe breathed a deep sigh, then said, "All right, Frank.  What's done is done.  Since you have the letter, I suppose there's no harm in giving it to him."

"Thanks, Wiley."

"Don't thank me yet, Frank.  I have a feeling this isn't the end of it."

*  *  *  *

Crowe and Savage entered the hospital and started down the hall toward Müller's room, and as they passed Doc Kaiser's open door, Kaiser called after them. 

"General, ... General Savage, ... a word, sir."

They paused and waited as Kaiser caught up with them. "General Crowe.  I'm sorry, sir; I didn't see you.  If you don't mind, I need to speak to General Savage for just a moment."

"That's alright, Doctor, Go right ahead." 

Turning to Savage, "General, I just had a call from Doctor Hays.  There's a problem with Sergeant Müller's operation.  St. Hugh's has just received an influx of critically wounded from Tunisia.  The treatment of these wounded take priority, and Hays has lost his operating room.  He doesn't want to wait for another one to come open, and would like to perform the operation here."

"CAN he do it here, Doc?  Doesn't brain surgery require special facilities and equipment and specially trained staff?"

"Hays says he can bring the necessary equipment and instruments, and he'll have his own team; he just needs an operating theater.  If it's alright with you, he'll come down later this afternoon with his team and set up in our operating room, then go over the procedure and do a dry run with his team.  Assuming no problems, he said the operation would go ahead as scheduled tomorrow morning.  I just need your approval."

"You have it.  Just keep me apprised.  What time will the operation start?"

"Doctor Hays hasn't said, but I would expect him to want to get an early start....six or seven.  It will be a long procedure."

"I guess that means Müller won't be transferred to St. Hugh's tonight.  General Crowe and I were just on our way to visit him, do you want me to tell him of the change, or do you want to do it?" 

"That's alright,"  Kaiser said. "You can do it.  Doctor Hays and I will drop by later this evening to go over the operation with him."


As Crowe and Savage neared Müller's room, the MP at the door sprang to attention and saluted.  "Are they in there?"  Savage asked.

"Yes, sir."  he replied.  "They came back before lunch and haven't left."

"Good.  We'll be inside for a while and don't want to be disturbed, unless it's a medical necessity."

"Yes, sir!"


Entering the room, they found Müller propped up in bed, dozing.  Sergeant Douglas was sitting at the table reading.  As the door opened, Douglas looked up, and recognizing General Savage, with another general officer, a two star,  he immediately stood, and with a loud "SAH!"  stamped to rigid attention, but he didn't salute .... in the British Army a soldier only saluted when wearing his cap.

Muller, awaken by the noise, started to rise, but Savage waved him back down.

"As you were.  This is just a social visit."

Douglas, clearly not comfortable under the scrutiny of two general officers, assumed a loose 'parade rest', but that was as far as he was willing to go.  Speaking up, he asked, "Would the Generals like me to wait outside?"

"No, Sergeant; that won't be necessary.  Sit.  Carry on with what you were doing."

Douglas sat down on the edge of his bed, but remained almost as rigid as when he stood at attention. 

Savage returned his attention to Müller,  "Sergeant, this is my superior officer, Major General Crowe.  He has heard a lot about you, and wanted to meet you."

As best as he could propped up in bed, Müller straightened, and said, "Zu Befehl, Herr Generalmajor.  I am at your command, sir."

Crowe nodded in reply, "Sergeant."

"I'm here for two reasons, Sergeant."  Savage started.  "The first is to let you know there has been a slight change of plans with your operation.  Doctor Hays has lost his operating room, and doesn't want to delay your operation until another room becomes available.  He will perform the operation here instead, so you will not be transported to St. Hugh's this afternoon." 

"The operation should go as scheduled tomorrow morning.  Doctor Hays and Doctor Kaiser will come by later and go over it all with you."

Müller nodded his acknowledgement, then waited as Savage continued.

"The other, and main reason, I've come....."  He reached into the pocket of his jacket, removed the polished flask and handed it to him..... "is to return THIS to you." 

"My flask!  You kept it?"  Müller said, accepting it like the return of a old friend, then hefting it said, "and it is still full."

"Yes,"  Savage said. "Well, things happened rather quickly after you left me; I never had chance to take it out of my pocket....  I didn't notice the inscription until a couple of days ago, when I was having it cleaned up for you." 

"I had it translated, and we, General Crowe and I, admit to being a little curious as to what caused 'Lieutenant' Rommel to present you with this flask."
Muller smiled, "It was because the Oberleutnant felt that I had saved his life......."

Continuing, Müller explained, "It was just before we took Matajur.  We were a greatly under strength company, only a hundred men, scouting the village under cover of darkness.  As we moved forward, we stumbled into a hidden machinegun position.  The Italians were just as surprised as we were, and started firing blindly. 

I pushed the Oberleutnant down, out of the line of fire.  Then the Italians' gun jammed, and I and three others rushed their position.  We were almost on them when they cleared the stoppage and started firing again.  I threw a grenade and destroyed the emplacement, but not before they had cut the others down.  Because I was the only survivor, they gave me a medal; and Oberleutnant Rommel gave me the flask for saving his life.....  Over the years, the flask has been much more useful.When I gave it to you, I did not think to ever see it again.  Thank you for returning it."

"Is that where you got your Iron Cross?"  Crowe asked.

"Yes, sir.  The others should have been awarded the medal, .... the only difference between their actions and mine was I survived.  They were good men."

For a moment no one spoke, then, "Tell me, Sergeant Müller,"  Crowe asked, glancing at Savage.  "What kind of prisoner was General Savage."

Müller thought for a moment, then replied, with a roguish grin. "Troublesome, Herr Generalmajor.  We did not really 'capture' him;  we found him unconscious in a barn.  He had a head wound, and at first, I thought he might die.  Soon, though, I worried more that I would have to shoot him.  He could barely walk that first day, but always I could see him looking to escape.  I had to watch him every minute.  He was a lot of trouble."

" 'Troublesome'.  Crowe repeated, and looking Savage hard in the eye, "Yes, I think that is an apt description of General Savage."


Returning his attention to Müller, "On a more serious matter, Sergeant..... General Savage tells me that while you were in Darmstadt, you witnessed some of what is happening to Germany's Jews."

"Yes, sir.  I cannot say what is happening in the rest of Germany, but in Darmstadt, I saw many things I wish I had not."

"Would you be willing to make a written statement about what you saw.... as best you can remember?"

Müller thought for a moment, clearly caught in a dilemma between his desire to tell what he had seen, and his reluctance to speak out against his own people.  Finally, he said, "Yes, sir. I will this."

"Good.  Thank you.  We'll speak of this again after your operation.....  It was a pleasure to meet you, Sergeant.  Good luck tomorrow."

"Herr Generalmajor."

Turning to Savage, Crowe said, "General, I need to head back now, and I believe you have something to discuss with Sergeant Müller, so I'll leave you to it....... We'll talk again later."


After Crowe left, Savage stood staring at the door for a moment, then turned back to Müller and said, "Sergeant, I told you I would try to locate your sister....."

Müller's face blanched as he braced to hear what he had feared for years, that Anna was dead, like the rest of his family.

Savage finished, "and I have."  But Müller didn't seem to understand the words.


"I found her, Karl."  Savage was past rank formality.  "She's living in Gretna, Nebraska, as you said.  She's still married and has four children now..... one girl and three boys."

Smiling now, Savage added, "She named the oldest boy, 'Karl'."

Müller couldn't believe what he was hearing.  It was all he could do to breathe, and his eyes were filling with tears.  He couldn't find any words as Savage continued.

"She's been contacted, Karl.  She knows you're alive and a prisoner of war."  Then Savage took the letter from his pocket and offered it to him.  "She sent you this letter."

Müller stared at the letter for a moment, as if he couldn't comprehend what it was.  Then, his face an emotionless mask, he gently took it from Savage's hand.

Savage motioned to Sergeant Douglas, "Let's give the Sergeant a little time to read his letter...... We'll be right outside the door, Karl, when you're ready."


Once outside in the hall, Douglas said, "I know it's not my place to say, sir, begging your pardon, but that was an uncommon kind thing you did for Karl."

"Perhaps a little humanity every now and then - even in a war - is good for the soul, Sergeant."

"Yes, sir.... perhaps, especially in war."

"It's likely he will want to write a reply.  Do you think you could scare up a pencil and some paper for him?"

"I'm sure I can, sir.  I know just the man."  and he headed down the hall to find Jack Dunn.

Turning to the MP at the door, Savage said, "You can inform Major Henderson that a guard detail won't be required after tomorrow morning, Private."

"Yes, sir, General."  the guard replied. "and sir, I hope things go alright for Karl  tomorrow.  We've - all of us guards -  got to know him over the last few days, and well, for a German, he's OK."


A short time later, "General Savage?  Would you come in, sir?"

Re-entering the room, Savage saw a smile slowly cross Müller's face, a smile clearly reflected in his eyes. 'Twombley was right about the eyes', Savage thought. 'I never noticed.'  But he noticed now; Müller's eyes almost sparkled.  He was a different man.  He appeared somehow younger than he had, his face more relaxed .... he was a man contented.

"I do not know what to say, sir.  This is a great gift you have given me.To know my Anna is alive, and happy, and has a good life with a family of her own.  I can never repay .....  Thank you."

"Karl, whether you intended it or not, you helped me through a bad time not that long ago.  If I had been picked up by any other patrol.... I'm not sure I would have made it......  I think we can call it even."

"If you want to send a reply, Sergeant Douglas is finding pencil and paper for you now.  You can write her a letter, and finish it tomorrow after the operation...."

"If I cannot?"

"I'll finish it for you."

As Savage turned to leave, Sergeant Douglas returned with the writing materials, and as he closed the door behind him, he heard,

"Come, Bill, see the pictures my sister sent."

*  *  *  *

Later that evening, Müller was visited by Doctors Kaiser and Hays. 

"Good evening, Sergeant."  Kaiser said as they entered.  "Doctor Hays would like to go over the operation with you so you understand what is going to happen tomorrow."

"Thank you, Doctor.  I would like to know what to expect." 

Looking at Müller, Kaiser thought he appeared different somehow.  He seemed in better spirits, more relaxed; certainly not like someone about to undergo an operation that was likely to kill him.

"Sergeant."  Hays began, "If you have any questions, just stop me....."

"To start, you'll fast tonight; no food or drink after midnight.  You'll be awakened at five-thirty tomorrow morning, and taken to the operating room at six.

Once you're on the table, the left side of your head will be shaved and you will be administered a general anesthesia.  When you're asleep, I will begin the operation.

I will incise and pin back a flap of skin to expose the left side of your skull, then perform a craniotomy, that is, I will remove a section of the bone, called a bone flap, from your skull.  This will expose the part of your brain where the fragments are located. 

Once exposed, I will debride... remove... the old dead tissue to reduce the risk of infection, then remove the fragments themselves.  The large fragment near the brainstem will be the most difficult, the one with the most risk, but I have no doubt that it can be done.

When the procedure is finished, I will close, replacing the bone flap, then overlaying and suturing the skin flap.  I expect the entire procedure will take six, maybe seven hours."

Hays had observed Müller as he was speaking, and saw that he was following his explanation with understanding and interest.  "Immediately after the procedure,"  he continued, "you'll be taken to the recovery room for observation and monitoring of your vital signs.  When you're awake, you'll be periodically asked to move your arms, fingers, toes, and legs so we can determine if there has been any nerve damage.  As I explained to you earlier, paralysis is a serious risk in your case.  When your vital signs are stable, and you're alert, you'll be brought back here."

"In the first twenty-four hours or so after the operation, there may be some swelling of the brain, but I don't expect much.  But if there is, you may experience dizzy spells, weakness, poor coordination, confusion, speech problems, memory loss. This sounds bad, I know, but these symptoms are only temporary; they will usually lessen and disappear as you recover. It may take a few days, or a few weeks, but they will go away."

"Do you understand everything I've told you?"

"Yes, Herr Doktor, I do.  Thank you."

"Do you have any questions?"

"Do you know how soon I will be able to get up?  How soon I can return to Camp?"

"Assuming all goes well, we'll have you up and walking the next day. You'll stay in the hospital for another week or so, to regain your strength and make sure there are no complications.  Then you will be transferred to the rehabilitation unit at St. Hugh's for a period of time so we can monitor your progress.  After that, I assume you will go back to Camp Benton."

"Thank you, Doctor."  Müller said with a grin.  "It should be an 'interesting' experience."


Leaving the room, Hays stopped outside, looking back at the door. "Has anything changed with him?"

"What do you mean?"

"When I initially examined him, he seemed almost disinterested, like he didn't really care.  I was worried about his mental state, but now.... now he's more engaged, more interested.  Now I think he's got a very good chance."



© Copyright 2019 Late Starter. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:

More War and Military Short Stories