“Forgotten Hero” by James Sugrue


Jimmy Juliano

From the 2018 edition of Young Idea, available now! See Mr. Juliano in the library if you’d like to purchase a copy.

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Based on the true story of Private Eric Wright.

We turn off the dusty French road, through a gateway and into a meadow, where an old, dilapidated farmhouse stands. My gaze hits two German heavy machine guns at the far end of the meadow at Le Paradis–pointing at the heads of my mates. Suddenly, my chest tightens, and I become short of breath. Cold iron barrels begin to spit fire as I uselessly try to move my feet. My own mind fights against me, weighing down like an anchor in the long grass. For a few seconds, the cries and shrieks of stricken men drown the crackling of the guns. Men fall like grass before a scythe, and I see my life flashing before my eyes. It has all led up to this moment. I feel a searing pain and pinch forward. My scream of pain mingles with the cries of my mates. As I fall into the heap of dying men, thoughts stab my mind.  

Ringing. Dizziness. Thick, grey clouds. It all becomes real again–the makeshift trench, the flashes of light, the echoing in my ears. The numbness of it all. My body is disjointed from my mind. I can’t say for how long I am in this state, but it seems endless. I begin to feel something in my left index finger, a kind of pins and needles. That sensation is soon followed by a pressure on my chest, one you’d expect when scrumming in a rugby game, and you have the ball. Only this game doesn’t end with a few bruises.

After that, everything moves more quickly. Waking from the disoriented state, I gasp for air. Regaining consciousness, I notice the small crater on the other end of the circular entrenchment. The feeling returns in my index finger, and I pull from it a hot piece of metal in the shape of a tiny cockle shell. My seared skin does not bleed, but it stings more sharply than hot coals. When I glance at my chest, I cannot see a clear abrasion nor any shrapnel. However, I notice that the front of my army issue water beaker, strapped on my lower chest, is crumpled and inverted.

As my mind begins to clear, I pull myself to my knees. My surroundings become clearer, and I notice a comrade next to me–his face, like ivory, looms from the mud that surrounds us. The slight movement in his chest tells me that there is life still in him. I quickly stumble to my feet and reach for him without saying a word. My call for Sergeant Howard falls on deaf ears as I try dragging my injured comrade with all the energy remaining in me.

Mortar shells drop on all sides, and bullets hit the edges of the trench, as if following our silhouettes in the blood red sky. The trench seems deserted, and the morning silence and cold breeze send shivers down my spine. Again, calling softly for Sergeant Howard gives no response. The mutilated soldier I pull close behind grows heavier and heavier. I continue further down the trench toward our machine gun nest which has fallen silent. When I reach the machine gun nest, I pull myself and the wounded soldier over the sandbags and lay him gently on the sopping wet soil at the bottom of the trench. He looks up at me and murmurs, “Pray with me.” In an instant, his eyes roll back, and he gives a last sigh. I finish his prayer alone.

Feeling cold among the lifeless bodies, all I hear is the sound of my heart pulsing with rage, fighting to survive. I want to remember my sister, Mildred, my loving mother and my proud and stubborn father, but all I can see, all I can imagine, is this ugly war. Once I believed it was the most beautiful thing to die a glorious death in a glorious war. I have come to understand that I don’t even know what I’m fighting for with all this senseless death and destruction.

Throbbing. Pounding. I feel my brain pushing against the inside of my head. Nothingness and then…then I wake. Once again, I glance up to see the machine gun nest in ruins. Three charred bodies lay limp and complacent, the shrapnel blanketing them with dust that glitters in the red night sky. There he is, the furthest of the three. Sergeant Howard’s body is indistinguishable save for the red band on his tattered hat.

I feel a dizziness as I stare at my lifeless superior, thinking it could have been me. I must find the rest of my regiment if I wish to survive. My thoughts swiftly move away from my dazed position in that quiet machine gun nest overlooking an inhumane slaughter–the closest thing to hell on earth.    

As I move further toward the far right flank of the entrenchment, I see in the distance what looks like Private Frank pointing his rifle just over the embankment. This gives me some relief as I feel anxious and alone. As I get closer, I notice how still Frank is as he rests his helmet on the wooden butt of his gun. I crawl over to him and place my hand on his shoulder, but he does not move. Pulling him down from just above the trench, I find him limp. His body flops over, and his face falls toward me, revealing a hole at the top of his helmet and fresh blood on his face. Wiping away the blood, I notice Frank’s deep blue eyes, lifeless and solemn. Only seventeen, he had run away from his mother and father to join this glorious war. Look at him now. What glory has this common soldier received? I am saddened, but I have to keep moving if I want to save myself from this increasing crescendo of gunfire. After gathering myself, I notice I am alone and abandoned in these trenches. My regiment has either perished or fled from these sounds and screams of hell.

I have a cold sweat even though the warm sun shines brightly on my face and a buttercup tickles my ear. After some time, the gunshots stop. Slumped on my right arm, a comrade sobs uncontrollably. Suddenly, I hear a sharp swish of metal followed by a soft wail. I know a bayonet has been buried in my comrade, and he is finished off by a couple of shots. I never thought I’d be so scared of death, but that isn’t the thing that sickens me the most. How can one human treat another so cruelly? I once thought that man was not simply bound to do good by laws or religion; I thought there was something else, a compassion, a kindness, an innate moral code. I now know I was wrong. Man is driven by power and greed.   

Deeper, I fall back into that nightmare of days ago, forced to make the lonely midnight walk again….I crawl out of the horrors of the trench, my hands a shade of maroon, a mix of dirt and blood. There is a smell in the air, not one of rotting flesh. An earthy smell, like that of a faraway garden. I continue on about twenty feet from the trench, and I am met with a wall of barbed wire. It isn’t the kind used to enclose a field. It has sharp razors, meant to tangle its victims and never let them go. I know there must be a gap somewhere, so I continue crawling. I come upon a ditch where the barbed wire parts onto a small road. Climbing out of the rat infested ditch, I see, in the distance, a wood dark and deep. Stumbling haphazardly on every tuft of grass and tree root, I make my way closer to the darkness in the distance, over a loosely built stone wall and across a muddy field. When I come upon the woods, lonely, dark and deep, enveloped in cold and silence, I feel tired. I gaze in, and all I wish for is to sleep.

I cannot picture much more from that lonesome evening apart from the roar of the German Panzer tanks. In the distance they echo, as I walk back in the direction of Dunkirk. That night I find my purpose in this war–not for glory, not for country, but for the hope that if I continue struggling on, I might be able to save my brothers, my brothers-in-arms. That is my reason. Now there is but to do and to die.  

The last thing I can recollect, and this time of my own accord, is all one hundred of us beginning our uncertain journey, squeezed into the backs of Rolls Royce lorries. My comrades and I stare placidly through the gaps in the green tarp where the ties have come loose. We hear the chatter of machine guns in the distance; a smoky fog lays over the disheveled land, its fields barren and untamed. We pass column upon column of our dazed and broken-hearted retreating infantry. That morning I am ready to play God and take my revenge. It’s hard to remember everything. It seems so long ago, but I remember arriving at Le Paradis on a dusty French road where not a single animal stirs, not a single bird sings, not one magpie scavenges. It is an eerie place with leafless trees protruding from the ground like great, wiry limbs. I have a feeling of being watched, not by the enemy, but by death itself. I remember reading the street sign as we arrive at the farm at Le Paradis. I do not think twice….But now I realize. Now, I ponder. A place like this, paradise?    

I see the silver skull on his helmet as he thrusts the point of his bayonet into me. I don’t even have the energy to express my pain. I just stare right into the soldier’s eyes. I only wish that I could forgive him. It’s hard to live with a tainted conscience. It’s easier to die with a clean. As I slowly lose myself to the sleep, I remember my family, my childhood, days both gray and bright. I shed one last tear for my brothers-in-arms and I am off to sleep.