We were less than a mile from a village called Lisieux, four or five days out from being boxed up and shipped home, when we came onto this messed up farm we’d seen before, with a few outhouses for pigs, chickens, cows, and horses. The place had been blasted to hell, but the main house and barn were mostly stone, and they were still standing, the walls anyway, and our reconnaissance guys gave the place a good once-over to make sure there were no traps, land mines, or hungry Krauts holed up and ready to die for dear old Deutschland.
After about 10 minutes, our guys came out with two German soldiers, their hands clasped behind their heads. They were babies, maybe 16 or 17 years old, but with no roses in their cheeks. They could hardly walk without leaning on one another and kept muttering “I love you, Uncle Sam,” and “I give up, GI Joe, I give up”—sniveling and bowing, and making gestures, fingers to their lips, for us to give them food, water, and cigarettes.
Two women walked behind them, one very old and the other very young, and I figured the old woman was at least 80, the young woman 13 or 14 at most, and they looked almost as sorry as the Krauts. The old woman—her name was Anne-Marie, and she was the grandmother of the young woman, whose name was Marie-Lise—told us she loved Americans, and France loved Americans, and God loved Americans, and—this is what probably made the difference in what happened—that the German soldiers were not bad men. “Sont pas malin … sont pas malin,” she kept repeating while she pointed to them, and then to the sky, and said prayers I guess were meant for them as well as for us.
Jim Degnim, our first lieutenant, asked her if anyone else was around—any other German soldiers, or anyone from her family. She said the only Germans were the two soldiers, and that Marie-Lise was the only family left: Her husband, three sons, one daughter, and two grandkids—boys, both of them—had been killed by Germans, but not the Germans who were still there and who, she repeated, were not bad men, and had shared their food with her and her granddaughter and helped them stay alive.
One of our guys gave them some candy bars, and Anne-Marie told us we were good men too, and that we should follow her. So we followed her while the granddaughter sat on the ground, eating a Hershey bar. The two Germans sat nearby, hands clasped behind their heads, with our guys keeping their guns trained on them.
Anne-Marie took us into the barn and showed us where to dig. We unearthed several crates of wine, and she said these were for us for saving her life and that of her granddaughter.
We opened a few bottles and began drinking, and the stuff was good, not vinegar and not sweet. We passed around the wine and some canned Army nonsense they called ham, and we began to have a high old time. We kept opening bottles and chug-a-lugging the stuff down, and we started singing songs—“My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and ”God Bless America” and “Home on the Range,” and Anne-Marie and her granddaughter ate like they’d never seen food before.
And then the old lady made her big mistake—she offered the Krauts some of her food. When she did that, Billy Grogan—still a buck private even though he’d signed up four years before, on Pearl Harbor Day—grabbed the food and smeared it on one of the German boys’ face. Billy was five or six sheets to the wind by then, and he took out his pistol and went up to one of the Germans and pressed it against the boy’s head, which made the boy keel over in a dead faint. Jim Degnim told Billy to put the gun away, but Billy just laughed at him.
“This is a victory party, ain’t it?” he said. Jim told him that these two boys were prisoners of war and that he knew the drill.
“Here’s the only drill I know,” Billy said, and he shot the German—the one who was still sitting upright—in the middle of the forehead.
I moved toward him as did a few of the other guys, but he pointed his gun at us and asked if we wanted to join the German.
Very softly, Jim told Billy to put the gun away so that there’d be no trouble—that we’d all been through hard times, but that this wouldn’t solve anything.
“And hey—he was trying to escape, right?” Billy said.
“No,” Jim said. “He wasn’t.”
“Extenuating circumstances then,” Billy said. “And he and his buddy here probably killed this fine lady’s whole goddamned family, and what’s she gonna get for that?”
“Put the gun away,” Jim said.
“Maybe,” Billy said. “But not till you answer my questions, you fucking self-righteous prick.”
“Go easy,” Jim said.
Billy kept drinking and waving his gun back and forth from us to the German soldiers. “This is still a fucking war,” he said, “and these shitheads killed our guys—killed your buddies and mine and I say it’s time we got a little of ours back, so who’s with me?” He jabbed his pistol into a soldier standing near him. “Hey Eddie—didn’t one of these bastards kill your buddy, or what? Shot him in the back while he was taking a shit, ain’t that right?”
Wobbly from the wine, Eddie nodded, then fired his rifle into the air. “Hi ho!” he cried. “Hi ho hi ho, it’s off to war we go, only where are the ladies, pray tell? Can anyone tell me where the fucking ladies are … and when I say fucking ladies, I ain’t just talking.”
Billy jabbed at the German soldier with his pistol. “Phooey! Can you guys smell this little dickhead?” he said. “Because they’re all cowards like him in the end, crapping in their pants even when they got no food in them to crap with.”
He laughed, shouted “Heil Hitler, motherfucker!” and shoved the barrel of his pistol into the German boy’s left ear, and shot him dead.
I thought of rushing him, but it was too late of course. Even if I’d tried, I knew Billy would shoot and that I was too close for him to miss even when drunk. At the same time, the death of the second German had set a bunch of the guys to shouting that the war was over and that it was time to even things up and kill every fucking German. Jim was telling them to put their guns away, to put the bottles down, and stand to attention. By now, though, nobody was in a mood to obey anyone.
“Ain’t you got the news yet, lieutenant?” Eddie shouted, an arm around Billy’s shoulder. “We won the fucking war. It’s party time, so let’s toast to the good old US of A because who the fuck gives a shit about anything anymore?”
“Only good German’s a dead German, far as I can tell,” Billy said, and this set the guys to howling and repeating his line about dead Germans. I stopped drinking, and stood next to the lieutenant, told him I was with him, and for him to tell me what to do. Guys were smashing bottles against trees, rocks, and walls, firing their guns into the air, cheering for Billy and then for Jim—for how he’d led us to victory over the Nazis, but hadn’t led us to any fucking ladies yet, and how could you have a good victory bash without some ladies to bang? So maybe we should send out a search party and bring us back some poontang before we were too wasted.
“We already got our ladies,” Billy shouted, and he grabbed Marie-Lise by her wrist, yanked her to her feet. Anne-Marie reached out for her granddaughter, but Billy whacked her across the face with his pistol butt and started toward the house with the girl.
Marie-Lise’s expression never changed, and it occurs to me now that by the time we arrived, she’d probably gone dead between the ears. Or maybe she’d been deaf and dumb her whole life, because she never said a word, and she never screamed, and she didn’t resist Billy, just let him drag her away while the guys yelled at him to do it for them, or to put a flag over her face and do it for Old Glory, and he said they could form a line and get sloppy seconds if anything was left after he was through. That was when I made my move. But I only made it half-heartedly, and Billy spotted me coming, leveled his gun at me.
The thing of it is not just that I wasn’t the brave, tough guy I liked to think I was, but that there’s no do-over in this life, so I’ve got to keep living with what I didn’t do.
“You gonna be a hero today, Harry?” he asked. “Or were you maybe hoping to cut me off, get first licks with the little bitch?”
“Don’t do it,” I said.
“You and what army’s gonna stop me?” he asked. “Bitch probably spread her legs for those Krauts already, so maybe you better go first, in case she caught the clap from them, but you know what? I’ll clean her out good and proper like we know how, and then I’ll get the medics to clean me up after. I ain’t as drunk or stupid as you think—and you know what else? I don’t think you got the balls to try to stop me.”
He was right. I watched him pull Marie-Lise into the house, and who knows what happened in there—if he was too loaded to get it up, or if he told her to suck on it—but the eerie thing was that once they were gone, everything grew quiet like the air before a storm, with none of the guys cheering, or saying anything to me or Jim. Some of the guys had passed out cold, and a few were busy puking, and some of them just sat down where they were and kept drinking, but nobody cheered or shouted, or sang or spoke.
I thought of my wife and daughter, and what could have happened to them if the Krauts won the war and came through our cities and towns. I tried to tell myself there was nothing I could do to stop Billy, not unless a bunch of us were ready to blitz him with me—overwhelm him like we were piling onto some quarterback and grinding his face into the dirt.
That wasn’t the end of it, though. By the time Billy came out a few minutes later, the men had scattered and Jim Degnim was sitting where the German boys had been sitting, his head in his hands. Most of the guys were sleeping their binge off, lying here and there in the farmyard like a bunch of dead GIs the Krauts had left behind. I felt dizzy—from the wine, for sure, but more from what had happened—from what I’d let happen—and I went into the barn, where I figured it would be dark and quiet. I was right. It was dark and quiet in there, with only three or four soldiers sleeping it off. I sat down, my back against a wall, and that was when I saw that one of the sleeping bodies was not a guy.
I knew what she’d done before I looked down at her. I was already telling myself she must have cut the throats of a lot of chickens and pigs in her time, so it would have been quick. I went out and brought Jim and one of our medics back with me. We got a wheelbarrow and some shovels, and we walked out past the barn until we found a spot with a few dozen old gravestones with some makeshift wooden crosses near them, and there we dug a pit into which we lowered Anne-Marie. Jim Degnim said some words over the gravesite, and we recited “The Lord’s Prayer” with him. Then we went back and got the two German boys, and we buried them too.
By that time, Billy was beyond shit-faced, and lay on the ground moaning, his pistol next to him. Jim Degnim had a few of us put the cuffs on him, and we brought him with us to the coast like that. We brought the girl too, but she wouldn’t drink or eat. Nothing we tried helped, and three days later, in a cemetery outside Dieppe, we buried her too. Jim Degnim said it was a shame we couldn’t have buried her next to her grandmother.
After that was when I got the chills for the first time, and began seeing things that weren’t there. I’d look up at a cloud and see something in it the way you do when you’re a kid—an airplane, or a sailboat, or a cow—but then I’d see them moving around, and they’d come dive-bombing at me so that I wanted to run and hide. I must have screamed up at them a few times because some of the guys had to hold me down and tell me everything was going to be OK, that we’d be on a ship going home soon. But it wasn’t what I saw or didn’t see that mattered. It was this feeling I had in my gut that there was nothing in my gut—just a big hollow of air, with tiny razor blades whizzing around in it. I fought like hell when they tried to stick needles into me on the ship, because I knew there was poison in the needles. Not enough to kill me, but enough so I’d never be able to get it up or play ball again.
But with whatever they gave me, and with the fact of knowing I’d be back with my family soon, by the time we reached New York and saw the great lady with her torch held high out there in the harbor, I was pretty OK. The doc told me I’d had shellshock like a lot of the guys, and to be grateful I was coming home in one piece, with a wife and a kid waiting for me, and that all in all I was a pretty fair physical specimen, and I should take good care of myself. Your country will always be grateful to you, he said.
But I didn’t tell him what I saw that day—what happened to the German boys, and to Anne-Marie and Marie-Lise. Jim Degnim probably put that on record, though who knows if he did or not or, if he did, if anyone read it. I don’t know if Billy was ever court-martialed or spent even a single day in jail or in the stockade. But none of that was what really bothered me. It was what I saw inside.
Like all the guys who were over there with me, I’d seen enough death to make an undertaker jealous. But what I saw when it was time to bite the bullet, I stood there instead and let stuff happen. I didn’t even know I was making a decision because I didn’t do anything. Though I can shut it off on most 9-to-5 days, it’s always there with me. The thing of it is not just that I wasn’t the brave, tough guy I liked to think I was, but that there’s no do-over in this life, so I’ve got to keep living with what I didn’t do. Because what fucking pill or loony bin will ever bring back those two ladies, or those two boys, or the chance to change things, not now or then or ever. Even though we all did and saw stuff we’re maybe not too proud of, it’s what I did—what I didn’t do that afternoon—that won’t leave me alone.
Jay Neugeboren is an essayist, short story writer, and the author of 22 books.