By Brian Eirik Coe
With thanks to Bob Stein for some valuble editorial advice.
Jack Peters saved my life. Twice. The second time, he gave his own. It’s time for me to tell the world what happened that afternoon so long ago.
Up to now, I’ve always felt the world knew enough. The Lieutenant and I certainly told everyone what happened, to a point. I’ve told his story to friends, to neighbors and in more than one bar after a few too many drinks.
No one has ever doubted his heroism in the face of fire.
They awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Posthumous, of course.
But in all the time that has passed, I have told only two people the full truth. It’s time to rectify that.
I suppose I should start at the beginning. I met Jack in May, 1944. We were both young, green draftees fresh off the Queen Mary from New York. We didn’t hit it off, like you might think. Frankly, except for the fatigues we wore, we weren’t all that much alike. I’d been born and raised in the city of Chicago. I came from a reasonably well to do, though not privileged, family. Jack hailed from a small farm in Tennessee. My idea of eating out was a nice restaurant and a steak. Jack thought it meant around a campfire and whatever you had been able to catch and kill. We came from two different worlds, and in all likelihood, we would never have met had there not been a war on.
We were assigned the same platoon, about three weeks before the Allied invasion of Normandy, France. Jack and I were friendly enough, but not friends. In fact, thinking back on it, Jack didn’t make friends all that easily those first weeks. He was standoffish, nervous around people. I had the feeling that there were more people on that staging base in Britain than in his home county. It would take the heat of battle for him to grow to trust me as a friend, even if it wasn’t until the end that he came to trust me fully.
Jack Peters did save my life, but I suppose some could say he owed me. I saved his first. We were one of the first wave of soldiers to come ashore than cold June morning. We hit the beach and made for cover, taking shots from all directions. Dale went down, as did George and Mitchell. Our medic took one in the leg. He survived, though he lost the leg later.
Jack had come ashore directly ahead of me, and I followed him across the beach. We were both following our Lieutenant to a low rocky outcropping at the top edge of the beach. From there, we could set up a reasonable cover fire for others coming ashore. But we had to get over the dune first.
I had my rifle slung when I came over the dune. Holding it slowed me down. My sidearm, a .45, was in my hand and ready for action. Jack went over the hill in front of me, but he didn’t see the German soldier who poked his head out of a camouflaged foxhole, or more importantly, the rifle that he was holding.
"Jack! Down!", I shouted.
I guess Jack must have trusted me, at least a little, even then. He didn’t stop, he didn’t look back. He simply dove forward with all his might. As he dropped lower, my sidearm went up. I squeezed off three shots in quick succession. I think that the first went wild. The second found it’s mark, striking the center of the other soldiers helmet. Bennett, the oversized private following me, tossed a fragmentation grenade into the foxhole.
I reached down and grabbed Jack’s arm as I came over the hill. He smiled and said, "Thanks." I nodded. I didn’t consider it a real big deal. It was a war, and Jack was a fellow soldier. It was my job to help keep us all alive. But it was something that he remembered, and I think he decided to make me a friend then.
Naturally, we both survived that day. Our platoon lost half it’s strength to death and injury. The beachhead established, the Allied army began it’s march to Berlin. We were initially assigned to help with mop up operations in the areas around the beachhead. It seems that a small number of Germans had been caught behind enemy lines. Some were simply hiding, hoping for a new German offensive to push back the Allied advance. Others were taking a more active roll in assisting that potential rescue. All of them had to be found and neutralized.
The first time Jack saved my life, we were on a patrol through a forested region about fifty miles north of the Normandy landing site. We were following a deer trail through heavy brush and cover in the hopes of finding a rumored pocket of resistance in some small shelters in these woods. The locals claimed that they had attacked supply sheds in the area and were raiding food and equipment. We were slowly and quietly going through the woods when I tilted my head down and left to look at something I saw on the edge of the trail.
You know, I can’t remember what I was looking at now. Odd.
Anyway, it was at that moment that my world was blow apart. Or rather, I nearly was. I had stepped on the edge of a land mine, setting it off. By all rights, I should have died right there, instantly. But I didn’t. My left side was pretty banged up, though. I was cut badly and bleeding pretty heavily. I was only semi-conscious. I vaguely recalled some of what happened next.
The first voice I remember hearing was Jack’s. "Lieutenant, I’ll take him back to the field hospital."
"Corporal, that’s five miles away. He’ll never make it, and you’ll never make it alone."
"Lieutenant, I can do it, and I’m faster if I go alone. We had to do stuff like this all the time on the farm. I have to try, you know that."
There was a long silence. The Lieutenant still had a job to do, a pocket of resistance to neutralize, and he couldn’t afford to lose more men. "Okay."
They removed my pack and helped me onto Jacks back. At Jacks request, they loosely tied my hands together around him. "It’s easier on me, trust me."
I drifted in and out of consciousness for the trip back, and until later never fully trusted my memories of that day. For a few weeks afterward, I was convinced that I had ridden most of the way on a horses back, a chestnut colored horse, my hands loosely tied around it’s neck. I remember looking up and seeing through blood and sweat the horse looking back at me with one dark eye. Oddly, I remembered muttering, "I’m okay, Jack." as I drifted back out of consciousness.
But when we got to the hospital, I was again being carried piggyback by Jack. I had no recollection of being removed from a horse. I simply wrote it off to the delirium caused by pain and fear.
I was badly hurt, but it didn’t take long for me to recover. It was mostly deep cuts, which healed quickly when treated. Jack hung around for a few days to make sure that I was all right. We had become friends since D-Day, and this incident cemented that relationship. We were even talking about getting together back in the states when this was all over. I wanted to show him Chicago. He wanted me to spend a few nights under the Tennessee sky.
I never did ask him about my memories of the horse. To this day, I wish I had. I wonder what he would have told me. I think that he would have told me the truth, then. If I had only asked.
October, 1944. We were no longer assigned to relatively easy duty along the French coast. We were part of the rapidly moving Allied advance to the Rhine. We were riding high. We knew that we would win. We all assumed that we’d survive to see Hitler hang.
But that October, after days of damp weather, we found ourselves in a small eastern French town, a town that to this day I don’t recall the name of. The town was of little note save for one small ridge. It was occupied by a band of German soldiers. A pocket of resistance. They were cut off and hopelessly outnumbered, but continued to fight. In most circumstances, we would simply have starved them out, but we needed this road to move supplies, and they had a clear shot at it.
Some people that were there have called them fanatics, but I don’t like that term. If the situations had been reversed, and I’d found myself defending some God forsaken hill in Ohio they would have needed a Panzer division to kick me off.
Or someone like Jack.
The hill had some French name at the time, one that, like the name of the town, is lost to my memory. I only recall the name that we gave it after we lost so many men, after we saw the once pale gray stones stained with the blood of our comrades.
Twenty of us started up that low rise. Our orders were to set up a cover fire on the left flank of the German position to allow for an assault. It was believed that the left flank was weak, and the Germans could be kept occupied while a larger force concentrated to the right and center. We passed over a footbridge over a small culvert, and I’d guess that’s when the Kraut in the bunker decided to wipe us out.
As it turned out, they had moved the bunker, really nothing more than a strongly fortified machine gun nest, to the left during the night. We were staring right down the center.
Seventeen men died in those first moments. Most shot in the back as they tried to get back to cover. The only three of us to make it were myself, Jack and the Lieutenant.
We were in a bad spot. We couldn’t radio for help. Nathan was our radio man, and he was dead, the radio destroyed. As the bullets ricocheted inches above our heads, we took stock of what we had. Between us, we had each had a rifle and sidearm. I had three hand grenades. Jack carried four himself, as well as a pair of mines. The Lieutenant had lost his pack diving for cover. It was only then that we saw that he’d been shot.
Jack got a funny look on his face then. He looked over what we had and started stuffing the grenades into a canvas bag. "Listen. I’m going to take care of this. Don’t worry. Just create a diversion. Keep them focused on this spot."
I nodded, and the young lieutenant seemed too stunned to care. I was trying to figure out what he was going to do. The machine gun nest was nearly fifty yards away. I knew that Jack could throw, he had an incredible arm. He might have been able to get a single grenade there, but none of us could throw a whole bag that far.
Jack abruptly took off his helmet and looked at me. "There’s a letter in my footlocker. Two actually. One’s for you. The other for my parents." With that, he took off down the culvert.
Realization dawned. I shouted, "Jack! Get back here!", but he didn’t stop.
I looked at the Lieutenant, but he simply shook with pain. We needed to get him to a hospital before he bled to death. I wanted to go after Jack, but knew better than that. Whatever he was planning, I knew that the only way he was coming back alive is if I did what he asked.
I grabbed a .45 in each hand and poked my head up, firing in the direction of the nest. I saw the puffs of dust as the bullets hit the hillside. I saw the flash of the machine gun as they responded.
I ducked down and grabbed my rifle, moved over a few feet, and poked my head up again and fired. Then, I found my eyes transfixed on the most incredible sight that I ever witnessed.
There was suddenly a horse running up the hillside. A horse of the deepest chestnut that I have ever seen. It’s sides glistened slightly in the afternoon sun. It was fast. I’d never seen an animal so large move like that and I haven’t since. I think that the Germans in the nest saw it too, but didn’t know what to make of it. Their shooting stopped as well.
Then I saw what the horse carried in it’s mouth. An olive drab satchel. The memories of that ride to the field hospital came flooding back. The memories of being on horseback. The memory of a recognition that I once had that it was Jack inside that body. The memories that I’d been unwilling to trust, until now.
"Jack! Don’t!" I screamed.
The horse never slowed as it came up one side of the nest. My final memory of Jack is that sight. A stunned German soldier, unsure what to do, as a huge chestnut stallion hurled a canvas bag to the ground from it’s mouth. The contact mine in the bag set off the grenades.
They never did find Jacks body, I never thought they would. The Lieutenant had seen enough himself that he was convinced that it had been Jack that saved us. Eventually, the investigators simply decided that Jack simply had been blown apart by the explosion. They took our word that we had seen him go up the hill.
They never did know what to make of the horses body.
I found the note to me in his locker, as he said I would. It didn’t say much. It was a farewell letter he had written a couple weeks back. He thanked me for the friendship. He asked that I deliver the other letter to his parents myself, after the war.
He didn’t say anything about the horse he had become.
A year later, I found myself standing on the porch of a small Tennessee farm. I had debated for a long time, and eventually chosen to wear my uniform for the visit. Jacks parents welcomed me in. His mother cried. It turned out that he had told them about me in a couple letters shortly before he died.
They let me read them. I suppose I didn’t realize until then just how important Jack took the word friendship. His wonderful descriptions of me didn’t match the person I though I was. I mentioned this to his mother, who looked at me with a touch of sadness. "Jack didn’t make friends easily and he didn’t choose them lightly. Those that he made were good people. Those that he trusted were the finest."
We sat down to dinner, the three of us talking about Jack. His parents wanted me to fill in the details about their sons last months. I think that his mother also missed having a young man at the dinner table. As the main course was cleared, Jacks father looked at me. "Son. What really happened at Redstone Ridge?"
I started to tell him the story that we had told the Army investigators. Probably the same story that the investigators had told them already. I got to the part about Jacks mad dash across the field when Mr. Peters stopped me. "Son, tell us the real truth."
I looked at him and at his wife. I suppose that I should have realized that they would have known. So I told them the real story. They never said a word, merely nodded. And cried.
Later that night, as Mr. Peters led me to my room, he paused in the doorway. "You were the first person he showed outside of us. Believe me when I say that this wasn’t something he took lightly. He was afraid of what would happen to him if his secret got out." He paused in the doorway for a long time, "He was afraid of dying a horse. He loved that he could become one, but he was human at heart and wanted to die human. You meant a great deal to him."
I left the next day, and never returned. I didn’t keep in touch with the Peters, though it pains me to this day. I should have. I guess I owed it to Jack.
Besides, I never did find out Jack’s story. I think I was afraid to ask.
I returned to France twenty five years later, to remember and fulfill a request, one that I could not refuse. I had received a letter from Mr. Peters attorney. It had taken him close to five years to track me down. After I read the his cover letter, I tore open the enclosed, long yellowed envelope. As I read it, I felt the tears well up in my eyes again.
I didn’t know the name of the town, but I didn’t need to. It’s location was etched into my mind for eternity. I found the ridge, and the culvert we had hidden in was still there. I tried to remember where I had buried Jack. It had taken hours to dig that hole. I eventually found the spot and uncovered the bones of my friend, badly decayed with time, but still locked in the equine shape he died in. I gathered them up and eventually had them placed in a casket, where they were sent to Tennessee.
As per his fathers final request, Jack was finally laid to rest with his family.
Jack deserved it.
Copyright 1996, Brian Eirik Coe. Please do not reprint without permission.