This wasn’t the Italy of passionate opera, nor the Italy of Da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Maybe it was the Italy of the Romans.
Not that Private Hubert Bausman had half a clue about those guys. All he remembered were primary school tales of men in togas who turned Christians into lion chow. And not that it was the Romans he had to worry about, anyway. It was their Teutonic brethren from the North, members of that overall not-so-nice-guy organization popularly known as the Nazis.
Only weeks ago, they had been here at Monte Cassino, about eighty miles south of Rome. Axis and Allies faced off against the elements as much as each other. Even though it was well into Spring, Bausman felt New England weather had nothing on this place. Maybe it just seemed that way.
“You’re up, Chief.”
A puff of steaming air wandered out from Private Munson’s mouth, curling beneath the three-quarters moon.
Munson extended his hand and pulled Bausman up onto his feet. Bausman’s muscles ached. He cursed himself for not standing and moving around, but he acknowledged that three to four hours of sleep would, without fail, eventually have its way.
In a daze, he popped on his helmet, slung the strap of his Browning A-5 over his shoulder, and marched towards the designated lookout point.
“Where do you think you’re goin’?” Munson asked.
Halfway through the question, Bausman realized he’d forgotten something. He reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a nearly-empty pack of Lucky Strikes, and tossed it into Munson’s receptive hands.
“Sarge seems to be agitated,” Bausman said. “Command’s probably itching to send us to another slaughterhouse. Best hide yourself well.”
Munson fell on his ass and flicked the flint wheel of his Zippo as if he hadn’t heard a word. The amber glow of his cigarette could probably be seen from a mile away.
Bausman and Munson were two grunts tasked with keeping watch over a hundred-yard section of winding road leading past a Polish Army operating base and up to a bombed-out monastery. Four months ago, the two of them along with the rest of the US 36th Infantry Division had initiated a trade in flesh for these seven acres.
The price was steep.
The two privates were survivors, though. Two from a regiment of originally one hundred and eighty-four soldiers, all who had been delivered into the earth’s snowy maw by chattering maschinengewehr and camouflaged Panzers.
Of course, other armies came and made their sacrifices: the Brits, the Aussies, along with more nations than Bausman had ever bothered to learn about, with the Poles finally wrapping things up.
For some undefinable, yet likely bureaucratic reason, Bausman and Munson’s commanding officer decided it would be good for morale to bring the surviving Americans back so they could participate in the final assault: to see, Bausman supposed, what all the fuss was about. It had been several weeks since the landmark monastery was captured. War raged further north while their small contingent was left behind.
And that’s how Bausman and Munson came to shiver in the middle of the snowmelt, handpicked for the privilege of scanning the night’s forest for the ghosts of partisans who were long gone.
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