The Gun Story
By: L.E. “Red” Davis Adapted by Linda Durdin
The war was winding down. The Allies had already taken Rome and we were about 30 miles south of there. The Germans were on the run, but there were stragglers who planted mines, or shot at our men.
Our Recon group was surprised to get orders to move closer to the front lines. The camp area had already been bulldozed by the engineers, and dirt runways prepared for our planes. After setting up camp, we received a picture from aerial recon drawing our attention to a point on the mountain side which had not been noticed before and was only about fifteen miles from our camp. We were ordered to check it out.
When we arrived at the scene, where there was a large area of naturally layer rocks, I could see right off that some of those rocks had been disturbed. Some of the rocks were darker than the others indicating they had been turned over. I stopped the patrol at that point. Our commander was not pleased, but as I carefully over a few stones and pointed out to him what I had found, he called in the mine specialists.
They found a number of land mines and some “Dirty Gerities”. After the way was cleared, I was given a 3-day pass to Rome where I had planned to spend my time off partying. The only problem was, I needed a ride. (The first time I had been in Rome, I had gone with a cast on my foot, to help roust out the remaining Krauts.)
It just so happened that we’d received word that our rations had come to Rome, which meant it had to be picked up there. I saw an opportunity and volunteered to take the truck, have my fun and deliver the rations on the way back! Our commander agreed, so off I want.
I was having a high old-time sight-seeing in the Big City. I was approached by some MP’s with a handful of papers saying they had orders to commandeer the truck. They checked my pass, orders and list of rations I was to pick up, then left.
I assumed all was well after that. I went to the motor pool and filled the truck and Jerry cans with fuel then started to the hotel for a hot bath and some good rest. I never made it.
The same MP’s followed me this time and checked my driver’s license to be sure I was authorized to drive a heavy truck. I tried to explain that I had to be back at camp with the supplies the next day. They only said, “you’re going to be late.”
One of the MP’s got in with me and directed me to depot stacked with all kinds of bridge iron and road-building materials. The canvas top of my stuck was removed as well as the side panels so it could be loaded. They went to work loading and loading and loading. I was concerned that the truck wouldn’t move, but it did. Every so slowly we moved out of the yard.
A young man, just in from the States arrived and was assigned to ride with me. My compass, which I still have to this day, indicated we were traveling Northwest on Hwy 6. We had traveled probably fifty or sixty miles, then we started zigzagging on back roads and trails. The road was getting rougher and rougher with many pot holes to miss.
The scenery changed, revealing houses and barns which had been blasted out. Acres of broken trees and fruit orchards were broken and flattened. I told my partner we were entering what is or was a war zone. He paled and began to fidget. I tried to calm him by telling him the fighting has probably moved far away from us by now.
As we continued at a snail’s-pace, I was able to take more opportunities to look around. Every hill we topped gave me a view to my left. I was seeing soldiers, probably mechanics, and a huge wrecker loading a burned-out tank. I could see what looked like a huge farm field filled with vehicles which had been bogged down and burned out. There were vehicles as far as the eye could see.
We turned left at a crossroad and followed it about two miles, creeping evermore slowly on the road which had been cleared of the oozing mud which was pushed to either side of the road. The ruts in the road were still axel deep! Our wheels were still slowly pulling, so we moved on slowly finally coming to the line. Ahead lay a crushed bridge fording a small river.
I overheard a comment that the engineers had been working on it for the last couple of days using steel mats laid out for the crane to operate on because the deep mud. I maneuvered my truck near the mats so the crane could unload my truck. I wanted to get back to Rome as soon as I could get out there.
The minute the truck stopped the crane came alongside and dropped it cables on the load, when it happened! The Sargent began blasting the kid in the truck with me, “Get off your ass and hook that cable.”
The little feller was so badly shook-up, he couldn’t move. I jumped out of the cab and hurried around to the other side and hooked the first cable. The Sargent asked, “What is wrong with your helper?”
I told him, “He’s fresh from the States and scared to death of where we are right now. He doesn’t know about rough talk. He’ll be alright in a few minutes.”
The Lieutenant waked up and asked why I had brought him along. I told him I had nothing to do with it.
“An MP just came along and put him in the seat and told him to help me. That’s all I know.” The boy, Clayton, got hold of himself and did a pretty good job after he settled down.
It took almost an hour to get unloaded about which time another convoy of trucks arrived and promptly became bogged down in the soft mud. The bulldozers made it worse trying to maneuver around to pull the trucks into position to unload. It became an impassable mess. I started to suggest what I thought would be a simple to the situation, but as there were so many bars and stripes angrily shouting orders and instructions, I decided to keep my mouth shut!
Finally, a corporal suggested they lay down some steel mats and tow my truck up on them and make a road out as for as the mats would go, and we could get one truck out at a time. That worked. I made a hard run as far as the mats went, them kept going for about a half mile before my struck bogged down. Adjacent to the road, was a huge pile of mud and brush the German bulldozers had piled up to widen the road, 4 or 5 days prior to our arrival.
Artillery fire could still be heard at a distance closest to the off side of the creek. It was too close for me and I wanted to get on the road back to Rome. If I could have gone another two hundred yards I would have been on better ground and would have been on my way, gut going up a slight incline in deep mud with axle deep ruts, I was moving so slowly as to almost be standing still.
I was still trying to make the truck move in all-wheel drive with little purchase in the mud, when suddenly, there was a bang, then several more bangs. I saw my truck’s hood bounce.
My first thought was that something had come loose under the hood like a broken fan belt or something. I looked over and Clayton was standing on the running board when the next bang came. His torso twisted and he veered off the running board of the truck. As he stumbled into the mud, he cried out, “something hit me!” He pulled his coat and shirt back and I could see a red streak running across his left side. I didn’t see any blood, but he kept saying. “It’s hurting!”. He finally managed to get back in the cab of the truck and across the seat onto the ground on the off side.
About the time, I got him tucked safely on the off side of my truck, the truck that had been following me pulled up to about a hundred feet behind me. I managed to get Clayton into the second truck and asked the other driver to try to get the boy back to the bridge site where there was a First Aid Station. He might need help and I think there is a sniper out there somewhere. “Ya’ll be careful.”
I became hell bent to find out where the bullets were coming from. I thought about the bulldozer operator who would come to pull me out and he would have no protection. I put one of my gloves over the bore of my rifle then got down into the rut on the right-hand side of the road and began to crawl up the road. It didn’t take long before I realized I may be in a real mess. I had flashed my lights to let the Bulldozer operator know I was stuck. If he was on his way to me, I would just be another sloppy spot in the rut! I worked my way down until I found a place I could crawl over and not be spotted by the guy I was trying to spot. I got up on my knees and found the bulldozer operator busy with another rescue so I got back down on my hands and knees and started making my way around rocks and boulders until I reached the top of the little hill.
At the top of the rise, I chanced a look back towards my stalled truck. I could see for a long way from my vantage point. I knew the battle had long since been over, but I also knew that frequently snipers were left behind to harasses the approaching troops. I chanced another look and saw movement, then a puff of smoke. I did not hear the retort of the rifle, but I now knew where he was located.
I kept really still and after many long minutes I saw movement. It looked like a rock, but I recognized it now for the helmet on a German soldier’s head. My situation and hasty actions began to concern me. Here I am with a clip in my rifle and one in my pocket and I am facing how many Germans? Now what do I do? He is downhill of me in front and is way out of range for my 30 Caliber Rifle. There is no one behind me and no cover to cover to allow me to advance upon the rifleman unseen. If I broke out of cover and charged at him, he would raise up and maybe give me a shot, but he would have me at a disadvantage because I would be the larger of the targets each of us faced. I decided I would try to shoot at his helmet and when he stood up, I would have the larger target.
Here goes nothing!! I pulled the trigger, jumped to my feet and ran down the hill going as fast as I could while trying not to stumble and fall. I kept to my feet and ran down toward his position. I had in mind to fire again if I say any movement, but kept up my pace. When I got to his location and looked over the ledge I was disturbed by what I saw. He wasn’t moving. I jumped into the depression where he lay, put my barrel against his head. He still didn’t move. I rolled him over to get a good look at my enemy. He was young, probably much younger than I was. I looked at his helmet to see if I had hit him. I had. The bullet had lost power and hit the dirt making a groove about a half inch deep then plowed thru his helmet and into his head.
The officer from the bridge job showed up with a crew member. They had seen where the action was from my truck after I climbed up out of the hole. We looking over the sniper’s gun, it had been treated badly at some time or other; the stock had been glued in places, but according to the rules of engagement, it was mine. I didn’t care what shape it was in.
There was a round robin discussion about why the guy was left behind. Were there more out there like him? The Krauts were in high reverse trying to get out of there. The Lieutenant said he probably was in the rear guard and got left. “If that’s the case there’s more out there somewhere, lots of places to hide. I am going to request a combat patrol, we will have to be on high alert while we’re working. Let’s get back to the bridge, there’s lots of work to do. I’ll take care of that guy, it looks pretty bad.”
“Sir,” I said, “That’s my gun. That’s the rule that was made after Casino.”
“Oh, yes, I do remember that. I’ll take care of it for you. I want to show it to the other boys sown at the bridge.”
I said, “Sir, that’s my gun and I’m taking it with me.”
He angrily replied, “Soldier don’t argue with me. You are asking for trouble!”
“Yes, sir!” I said.
The soldier that was with him, looked at him shaking his head. As we walking back, I could see the disbelief on his face, but he could say nothing.
When I got back to my truck, the dozer was there hooking up, the Lieutenant yell down at the operator, “Get this guy out of here so he can bring me another load of iron.” He didn’t know and I sure didn’t tell him, that if somebody didn’t stop me I was going to load up what I came after in the first place and head back to camp.
The dozer pulled me up to high ground and I drove it to the fuel truck with great difficulty because there was so much mud and muck, the wheels bounced as I crept along.
Finally, I got to the fuel truck. I filled the tank and my two jerry cans and pulled out to the way of another incoming truck and started cleaning the mud off my tires. The guy in charge of the fueling depot, came up with two other guys and had them take care of the tires for me. I sure was glad. I made an excuse about leaving something I had forgotten near the bridge site. “I’ll hitch a ride down with the next truck in and out on the next one coming out”, I explained.
“You go on ahead. We’ll have you ready to hit the road by the time you get back. By the way, do you know anything about the sniper down there?” he said.
I told him, “I know a little.”
He said, “The guy driving the truck that was behind you down said the Lieutenant was waving a gun while we were walking back to the bridge telling the other drivers he just took care of the sniper problem.”
“Yeah!?” They always took the credit for things somebody else did.
I got on the truck and rode until it got stuck. Then I got off and walked through the mud. I turned my collar up. It was getting cooler, so no one in the other trucks paid me any attention. I milled around among the other trucks waiting to be towed into place for unloading. The loader was running back and forth. I saw the Lieutenant with his pad down at the water’s edge writing and pointing. He was about three hundred yards away. As I looked the other way, just over the knoll out of the way of the work, I saw what looked like the back end of a jeep. I just strolled on over closer to it. There it was, my gun! shoved down between the seats. I checked around to make sure no one was watching. About that minute, the loader the was lifting a large tread-way panel off a truck, when the truck slipped off the steel roadway. The truck almost turned over. Everyone was ganged around the problem. It gave me a perfect shield! I grabbed the gun and tucked it under my overcoat and walked away, hopefully not being seen at all.
I made it back to where my truck had gotten stuck that started all this trouble. The tow dozer had just hooked onto the truck that was where my truck once sat. I had to hurry to catch it. I nearly fell in the deep mud. Stumbling forward, I managed to pull myself in the bed of the truck. I almost lost my gun but rescued it at the last moment. No one was in the bed of the truck but me. I got what I came for, and no one was any the wiser. My truck was ready to roll and I was hoping I would remember the crooks and turns. Luckily, I was soon back on Hwy 6. Headed toward Rome with the broken bridge in my rearview.
About four or five miles down the road, I began to meet one convoy after another headed towards where I just came from. It was part artillery pulling the big guns and a regiment of infantry. I kept my truck heading towards Rome, thinking, “somebody is going to catch hell on down the road!”
There was a new outpost located on the road that was newly installed. I pulled up, identified myself and asked for a cup of coffee. I must have looked a sight, because those old boys threw in a Spam Sandwich. After finishing my muchly appreciated meal and joe, I pulled off the road and grabbed so sleep. After about 4 hours, one of the soldiers from the roadblock woke me up with a cup of coffee, and shortly thereafter, I was again on my way.
The outskirts of Rome were a welcome, but Rome is another story for another telling. Needless to say, I had a good bath and was glad to put on clean clothes the next morning.
When I got to the motor pool, the guys were in the process of restoring it to its original function. In about 2 hours, I was back on the load with the rations and mail I had been sent to collect. Before I left Rome, however; I found the shipping clerk and arranged to have my “souvenir gun I found on the side of the road”, shipped home. Yes, it was a clever move on my part and I enjoyed a good laugh as I drove out of town.
At the camp the next day, I took some heckling about overstaying my leave. “Boy, do you have some explaining to do. You are listed AOWL.” Once I showed my papers to the CO indicating I had been commandeered for a Worthy Cause, as everyone of us has been commandeered at some time or other.
The 37th Recon was being drawn down. Several of our troops had been transferred into other units according to their expertise. Some had enough points t home for a 30 day leave. We knew it was just gearing up to move into the Pacific Theater. There were rumors that the 37th Recon was being abolished as we had completed our work.
Some of us were sent up near Switzerland on the high peaks above the Appinine Way to keep watch and to recon the German retreat. I was there for a few days dug deep into the snow for shelter. Damn, it was cold! I was really glad when headquarters sent me to train for another job that I was not qualified for.
I had been hearing stories about a Lieutenant who was wanting information about a sniper’s gun that had been stolen from him. I kept my mouth shut. A PFC doesn’t have much clout against a lying 2nd Lieutenant.
This gun had more meaning for me because I was alone this time, wading into the unknown. That uncertainty about how I would react after pulling the trigger and taking a life and knowing I had made the kill. Did I have fear? I am not certain, but I know I had felt terror when making a low altitude jump in the black of night and this felt different.
The War continued and things happened that again can be told another day. For many years, that gun stayed in my closet as one of my most prized possession. I think it was because it was something I did by myself without someone telling me I had to do it. It was something I just knew had to be done.