Today’s newsletter is longer than usual, as I’d like to give you the first scene in my new novel, Chasing the American Dream. I’ll talk more in a later newsletter about where this novel came from but know now that it started with my curiosity about my father’s role during World War II. He’d signed an oath at the end of the war that he’d never speak of his activities in the Office of Strategic Services. Finding out what he actually did took me months in the OSS Archives. All those details are for another time. Right now, just enjoy the novel that came from that research.
“What is that stench?” Jim Atkins asked, wrinkling up his nose.
Mac McKenzie cleared his throat and glanced over at Jim from the driver’s seat. From Jim’s face, Mac’s eyes drifted up to meet David’s. “Dead bodies, son.”
Now, Atkins was a good photographer. David had read his paperwork. The kid had learned from his father and worked in the family’s studio all through high school. But naïve, he still believed people were basically good, that you should always obey the law—all baby-blue eyes and eager curiosity.
David thanked God for Mac, technical sergeant extraordinaire. Steady as a rock, six foot tall, and solid muscle. Could fix any engine and often had to scavenge or jerry-rig parts for their aging equipment truck. He watched over Jim like a dad.
The truck’s windshield wipers scraped the glass. David pulled his pistol from his pack and touched his lower leg to make sure his knife was in its sheath. It was just possible a German regiment would meet them around the bend, rifles ready. He kept his eyes moving, watching the curve of the road ahead and scanning the sides of the hill. Nothing out of the ordinary that he could see, nothing poking up from the ground or down from above.
Their truck was third in the line of vehicles, behind a jeep and a canvas-topped personnel carrier. Those guys ahead must be wet and freezing by now, in addition to being scared. At least his truck cab got some heat from its own engine and had windows that closed. Its metal sides would do a lot better than the leading vehicles at deflecting bullets.
To the right and left were plowed fields, the crops having been harvested months ago and it being too early in the year to plant. The truck crawled up the incline, Mac downshifting, and stopped just before the road turned. The men in the forward vehicles unloaded and fanned out, rifles at the ready. As they squatted into place, several of them tied handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths. David climbed out, consciously breathing through parted lips, tucked his pistol in his waistband and went up to see why they’d stopped. In theory, the unit was under the command of a first lieutenant in the Army Group, but David Svehla, a captain in the Office of Strategic Services, held a higher rank and was prepared to take control.
David sidled up to the lieutenant, Edwin Tippet, who had his binoculars raking a seemingly empty compound. Big area surrounded by high wire fencing, electrified. Had a sort of parade ground near the entrance and rows of one-story wooden barracks. At the corners of the fencing and next to the gate were guard posts, now empty, and the front gates hung open. An ambush? Or had the guards fled?
Tippet let the binoculars fall to his chest. He signaled for two squads, now out of their trucks, to move in. “Don’t shoot, if you can help it. Flush out whoever’s in there. Bring ’em into this empty space.”
The squads moved inside the gates—one to the row of wooden barracks on the left, one to the right. Tippet’s binoculars went to his eyes again, and he settled on a single-story brick building up a hill. “What the hell is that?”
David squinted. “Separated from the other buildings. Lots of stuff stacked around it. Probably not headquarters.”
“No movement there either.”
David tapped Tippet’s shoulder. “White flag at eleven o’clock.” He pointed to a group of five skeletal specters staggering toward them, holding each other up. The one front and center brandished a stick with a rag attached and fluttering in the driving rain. He glanced at Tippet’s horrified expression and said, “It’s one of those camps. I’m goin’ up there; see what we can do.” David tasted acid and swallowed hard. Those poor bastards.
The Lieutenant threw out his arm to block David’s path. “Could be a trap. Wait for the men to check it out.”
Mac and Jim joined them, Jim with his nose stuck in his elbow and his voice wobbling. “Look at their clothes. They’re in pajamas. They convicts?”
Mac jerked his chin toward the group. “I heard about these places. Not sure I want to go in, though.”
David nodded and took a closer look at Jim. His face was white, like he was about to lose his lunch. David laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder to steady him. “Get your camera, Jim; mine, too. And, no, they’re not convicts—at least not the sort we’re used to.”
David watched the slow procession make its way across the muddy ground. Each step looked like it might be their last. How did they have enough strength to walk? He closed his gaping mouth, worried it would appear insulting to these staggering men, or at least make him look stupid.
Every few minutes, one of the regular Army guys called out, “Building’s clear,” and the squad moved on to the next.
The oncoming procession of stick men stalled as one of them sank to his knees, and the others hoisted him back up. They were all shivering, as though made of skin-colored Jell-O. Their black-and-white striped uniforms stuck to their emaciated frames, their eyes had receded into dark hollows, and only wisps of hair stuck out from under their caps.
Jim pulled on David’s arm and handed over his camera. The kid was still breathing sketchily, using his free hand to cover his mouth and nose. “What’s wrong with them, Captain? What are we doing here? I’m supposed to microfilm documents. I’m no medic.”
David lifted the camera’s strap over his head, determined not to show his uneasiness to this youngster. “We’ll get this story, Jim, and it’s not going to be pretty.”
“That’s for sure. Here, extra film. Do . . . do I have to go in there? I’ll . . . I’ll puke.”
David stuffed the handful of film into his jacket pocket, checked the number of pictures left in the camera—ten—and let it fall against his chest. He was in charge of this team. They would do their duty, above and beyond, if that was called for. “Jim, you’re going to show the Army brass what this place is like. Show them what these people have paid for Germany’s rockets. And you’re going to be strong. Got it?”
He turned back to scan the compound. Maybe ordering Jim to stand up and take it would work for both of them. It wasn’t that David was afraid of what he’d see. No, he was appalled at the cruelty perpetrated in these camps. OSS had sent a memo to its officers about them, but it hadn’t occurred to him he’d see one. What smacked him in the face was his total lack of preparedness to deal with such a travesty. Like Jim, he was no doctor. And taking snaps wouldn’t touch the weakness and pain these scrawny men must be experiencing.
Jim swallowed several times.
The head of the procession planted his white flag maybe fifty yards from Tippet and David. The other walking corpses stood behind it, swaying slightly, as though they understood waiting and planned to hold their position as long as was needed. Unfurling himself to his full height, the procession’s leader spoke, “Guten Morgan, meine Herren.”
It was an educated voice, a pure Hochdeutsch that sent a shiver through David. He took a deep breath, gearing himself up to enter the compound. With a nod from the lieutenant, he called out in his less-educated soldier’s German. “What is this place?” Silently, he thanked his OSS trainers for insisting they all speak only German for the months before he was sent abroad. His German might not be pretty or fluent, but he’d find out what was needed.
“This is Dora,” the man replied in German, “the labor camp for the V-2 rocket facility. We are the labor that is left. The S.S. and the able-bodied prisoners marched off several days ago, leaving the sick and the dead, as I am sure your searchers will tell you. Have you food? Medicine? We have typhus and diphtheria and who knows what else. We need help.” The poor man shook, and it seemed at any moment that he could fall. Only determination must have kept him erect.
David turned to the lieutenant and translated. As he waited for the orders to move in, he ran his teeth over his lower lip.
Mac whispered in his ear. “’Scuse me, Cap’n, but we passed a small woods not too far back. How about—”
The Lieutenant turned, though Mac had been addressing David, and answered. “Yes, yes, take a squad, Sergeant. Collect whatever dead wood you can find. We’ll need fires. And get the medic up here. On the double.”
Mac saluted. “Yes, sir. Right away.”
Tippet’s walkie-talkie squawked. “Yes, Corporal. Over.”
David could just make out the squad leader, walkie-talkie to his ear, calling from the edge of the last barracks. “All barracks clear, sir. Guards have gone. The hospital’s back here—if you dare call these pathetic filthy shacks a hospital.”
Tippet thrust his lips out and in as he processed the words. “Medic’s on his way. Is there a doctor?”
“A very sick one, sir.”
“Right. Can we use a barracks for our men?”
“Negative, sir. The mattresses are crawling with vermin, and the smell is, well, pretty damn awful. Most of the men have lost their cookies.”
“Okay, Corporal. You got some German?”
“No, sir. But the doc speaks some English.”
“Good. Tell him help is coming and report back here. Over and out.”
David liked Tippet’s quick assessment of the situation and trusted him to get his men organized. “Permission to approach our welcoming committee, Lieutenant?”
Tippet eyed David, doing his own assessment. “Yes, take a couple of my men and find out as much as you can about the situation, what’s on their minds, if all the guards are gone, you know. I’ll get camp set up in the field across the road, see what we’ve got that can help.”
David sent Jim off on a photographic mission. He’d figure out the best images to capture, if he didn’t get too sick. Then David pointed at two of Tippet’s soldiers to join him and headed for the white flag. The smell of sick and unwashed bodies made David rub his nose, but seeing the leader flinch, he put his arm down. “May I introduce myself? Captain David Svehla, United States Army.” They didn’t need to know about the OSS connection. “Who might you be?”
The leader lifted one edge of his lips into a strained smile. “I am the shadow of Herbert Landau, violinist emeritus of the Berlin Philharmonic and now specializing in keeping inventories of rocket parts.” He put out his hand, and David gently shook it, afraid that the sticks of bone would crack if he squeezed.
“Please, we need food, medicine…” The man’s voice dwindled to silence.
“We’ll do all we can. That’s a promise. But—you sure all the guards have gone?” David looked around, suddenly feeling vulnerable.
Landau waved a dismissive hand. “Three days ago, they marched off. They heard you were coming.”
One of the men behind Landau slipped to his knees, his yellowed face a mass of pained wrinkles. A soldier caught him, laid him shivering on the ground, and covered him with his thick U.S. Army jacket.
“Food, please,” the prostrate man said. His pleading voice was a mere feather in the wind.
David pulled a candy bar from his pocket, one of those that came with their emergency D-rations, and stared at it. The bar was supposed to have enough nutrients to keep a soldier going for hours. But he had no idea how it would affect a starving man. Still, it was all he had, and he couldn’t hold on to it in the face of such need. “Eat it slowly, okay?” He put it into the outstretched hand.
The man struggled to sit up, ripped off the foil cover, and took an eager bite. As he chewed, pain crossed his face—and then a broad smile. “Chocolate.” It was an exhale of wonder, the sound of a happy remembrance.
David was surprised. GIs only ate these bars out of necessity, as they were tough enough to crack your teeth, crammed with oat flour, and the chocolate taste was barely strong enough to come through all that pastiness.
The prisoner took a second bite, and David watched him fight to bring his jaws together. His teeth seemed to slip off the chunk, refusing to mash it down. Then he looked greedily at the remainder of the bar and tried to swallow the mass he had in his mouth. He choked, tried to cough, and stuck a finger in his mouth.
David slid down to his knees, forced the man’s jaw open, and searched for purchase on the slippery candy bar. It was jammed in the guy’s throat. He turned him over and hit his back between the shoulder blades, desperate to get the food unstuck. At the same time, he worried he’d break the man’s back with the force of his blows.
The body lost its tension, withering in David’s arms.
One of Tippet’s soldiers, who had watched the whole thing, squatted down and held his hand over the man’s mouth. “No breath, Captain.” Then he pressed the side of his neck. “Can’t find a pulse either, sir. Sorry.”
“Medic, medic!” David yelled. His hands were shaking, and he broke out in a cold sweat.
A young GI stepped out of the hospital door, a ratty towel in his hands already stained with blood or something dark.
David waved him over, still cradling the limp prisoner.
It took only a minute for the medic to verify that the chocolate eater was dead. He pointed to the remains of the candy bar. “Don’t give ’em that stuff, sir. Their bodies can’t take it.” He dropped the corpse’s wrist and stood. “Excuse me, sir, I got a lot of patients back there.” He gestured toward the hospital.
David stared at the man he’d just killed and threw up. Here he was, trying to do something good, save a life, and he’d taken it instead. What kind of a hero was he turning out to be?
Landau leaned on his staff and closed his eyes for a moment. “We called him Samson, but his real name was Isaac, Isaac Chornyei. He had thick, black hair once and blew a powerful trumpet.”
David laid Isaac’s body out on the ground, gently straightening out the jacket that still covered his chest. He pushed some frizzled hair off the dead man’s face. “I’m sorry, so sorry.”
Landau sighed. “Have you, perhaps, more gentle food?”