There's No Place Like Home (part 5)
No Turning Back
“Herr Major! Herr Major!”
“What? What is it?” Hochstetter growled at the young non-com racing up to him. He paused in his search of Barracks Five only briefly as the prisoners who usually slept there at this time of night were huddled together in the far corner of the room.
“The radio detection truck is picking up a signal from the direction of Barracks Two!”
“Barracks Two? That’s Hogan’s quarters—why didn’t you say so at once, you idiot? Let’s go!” Hochstetter abandoned his ransacking and raced out immediately.
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“Now you had better stay awake and alert,” Schultz was saying to the men of Barracks Two. “You heard what Colonel Hogan said about—”
The door to the hut burst open and Hochstetter came screaming in. “Search the barracks! Tear everything apart until you find it—there is a radio here, and it is working, and that means Hogan is somewhere in this camp!”
Four armed soldiers went to work starting to turn everything in the room upside down. The prisoners moved from side to side, trying to stay out of the Germans’ way and yet doing nothing to help them with their investigation. After a few seconds of this, Schultz spoke up. “Herr Major, this might be a good time to have a roll call,” he suggested. “The prisoners are only in your way anyway. This would get them out of your hair.”
Hochstetter waved a dismissive arm without looking back at the guard. “Fine, fine. Do whatever you want with them, Sergeant. Take them on a ten mile hike for all I care. Just keep them out of my way. Hogan is here, somewhere, and I am going to find him!”
Schultz didn’t wait to be told twice. “You heard the Major,” he bellowed. “Roll call, everybody! Raus! Raus! Everybody out! And that means you, too, Olsen! Out, out, out, out, out!” The men started obeying immediately and without grumbling. “And just to punish you, you are going to meet all the way across the compound outside the Kommandant’s office instead of next to your nice, cozy barracks!” he shouted.
Schultz glanced back at Hochstetter, who was showing no sign of letting up his mad search. It was just as well, he thought; if Schultz was going to stay here, he could use a little less of the madman for the rest of the war. He shut the door and quickly herded the men across the camp.
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“Carter, hurry up!”
“I’m coming, Colonel—just getting this last pack ready.”
“This part of the tunnel will collapse with the rest of it; we only have a few seconds left. Get moving! Everyone else is already upstairs.”
But Carter kept at his work. There won’t be anything left for the Krauts to get when I’m through, he thought determinedly.
Hogan came up suddenly behind him and pulled him away from the device he was still adjusting. “Come on,” Hogan ordered, in a voice and with a yank that stood no resistance.
Carter dropped the uncharged explosives, resigned, and grabbed his haversack. Hogan kept prodding him from behind until they were at the ladder. “Move—get up there,” Hogan urged, even then pushing Carter from below.
But when Carter reached the third step, there was a deafening roar, and he was rocked off the ladder and back down to the tunnel floor, before either he or Hogan had a chance to get out.
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“That’s it, that’s it!” Newkirk shouted in a whisper. “Look over there!” He pointed toward the camp below, where what was once Barracks Two was a mass of rubble and flame. “We did it! We ruddy well did it!”
“Where are Colonel Hogan and Carter?” Wilson asked.
All eyes immediately moved to the tree stump, where they expected to see the pair emerging. When no one came, they ran almost as one to the spot. Kinch opened the cover and dust came flying out, forcing him to turn his head away and cough. He waved the grit in the air away and tried to peer back in. There was so much noise coming from the camp that he took a chance on calling out loud. “Colonel Hogan! Carter!”
Le Beau forced himself to the front of the pack and tried to look into the dimness below. “Let me go down,” he said.
“Louis, it’s dangerous!” Newkirk said. But he had no intention of leaving without checking either.
Knowing he would not be stopped, Le Beau popped himself down through the stump and dropped to the ground below. “Wilson! We need help!”
Their stomachs plunging, Newkirk agreed to stay with Klink in hiding above while the others disappeared back into the tunnel. Wilson was the first one to make it. Hogan and Carter were both sprawled on the ground near the ladder, unconscious. Wilson stopped first at Carter, who was closest to the ladder, and checked him briefly. A cut on the Sergeant’s forehead was bleeding, but was showing signs already of clotting. A quick examination showed no other apparent injuries, and he was breathing quite easily despite the dust in the air. “Get him upstairs; he needs to breathe fresh air,” Wilson said, swallowing a cough of his own. Kinch and Le Beau started to pull up the Sergeant to haul him clear of the tunnel.
He turned his attention then to Hogan, who had landed face down and was now stirring slightly. “Colonel Hogan, can you hear me?”
Hogan groaned and tried to rise, shaking his head slowly as though to clear it. “Carter—” he coughed, not yet seeing around him.
“He’ll be fine, Colonel. Come on, let’s get you up.” Wilson reached out to help when he realized the Colonel had landed on his right arm. Hogan gasped as he began to move it, then gritted his teeth against the pain. “Your arm, Colonel?”
Hogan shook his head and kept moving. “My hand,” he hissed, panting. “Hurts like hell.” He struggled to his knees, then took a second to rub his forehead and used Wilson to get himself standing. “Never mind; we have to get out now.” He felt dizzy when he stood upright, but he staggered to the ladder and followed his men out, with Wilson bringing up the rear.
Wilson took one last look down the tunnels as they ascended. Everything behind them was gone.
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“Jawohl, Herr General. I will keep the camp in order until you arrive,” Schultz said. Then he praised the Fuhrer and hung up the phone. With Klink, Eichberger, and now Hochstetter gone, he was the highest ranking soldier at Stalag 13. A responsibility he did not wish for, he called General Burkhalter’s office once he was satisfied that Klink, Hogan, and Hogan’s men were gone.
Let someone else run the war. I am a man of peace.
He went back outside to oversee the firefighting, and looked out into the woods to see if he could detect his Kommandant or the prisoners. There was no sign of them. Schultz heaved a sigh, relieved, and turned his attention to the now homeless prisoners of Barracks Two. They would need to find a new place to live.
I know I wish I could, too.
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“How is he?” asked Newkirk, as Carter was hauled out of the tunnel and carried into dense brush.
“Just got a knock on the head; he should be okay soon,” Kinch answered, as slow movement from Carter indicated the man was starting to come around.
Carter tried to sit up. “Hey, what happened?” he asked. “What about the Colonel?”
Le Beau pushed him back down. “He is okay, too,” he answered. “You took too long; your bombs caught up with you.”
“See where the quest for perfection gets you?” Hogan came up from behind, pressing his right hand up against his chest and looking distinctly white, even in the darkness of the woods. “Next time settle for letting the aftershocks get it.”
Wilson came to Hogan’s side and pushed him into a sitting position as well. “How’s the head, Carter?”
“Hurts a bit. But I’ll be okay.”
“A little fuzzy… but maybe that’s just me.”
Wilson shook his head. “Or maybe it’s a concussion. You’re going to need to take it easy.”
“How?” Kinch asked. “We have to get out of here.”
Hogan stopped rubbing the back of his neck. “What about the car?” he mused.
“The car?” Le Beau repeated. “Won’t the Krauts be looking for it?”
Hogan shrugged. “The only people expecting it were Eichberger and Hochstetter. And they’re both out of the way, I hope.”
Newkirk nodded. “Hochstetter’s out of the way, all right,” he confirmed. “The whole bloody barracks is a goner. We saw him go in, but we didn’t see him come out.”
“Then we’ll take the car to the first rendezvous point and then ditch it.” Hogan glanced around him. “Now it’s going to be a little tight. Does anyone mind doubling up?” He looked directly at Klink.
Klink shook his head, still overwhelmed by everything that had happened. “I don’t mind,” he said.
“Good,” Hogan said. The headache he’d developed earlier in the evening was now reaching epic proportions. He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed the center of his forehead before continuing. “Pick your buddy, everyone, and let’s go. Make sure Carter’s got someone who can hold him up if he’s still a bit groggy.”
“Right, Colonel,” Wilson answered. And you, too. He looked at Kinch, who seemed to understand without Wilson speaking.
Kinch moved in next to Hogan. “I pick you,” he said, with a hint of a smile on his face.
Hogan turned to the Sergeant. “Fine,” he said evenly, though his eyes told Kinch he knew exactly what was going on. “But I get to sit on your lap, not the other way around.”
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“We look like we’re going to a convention,” Hogan observed with some unhappiness, as the group spilled out of the car. Kinch and Newkirk started covering it with leaves and branches.
“What’s wrong, Colonel?” Wilson asked.
“We’re such a big group, we’ll attract attention like a magnet. Then if one of us gets caught, we all go.” He stopped for a moment, grim-faced, then continued. “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it at the moment. We need to get to our first shelter. Carter’s looking green around the gills.”
Wilson pursed his lips. Hogan was right; Carter had stayed unnaturally quiet during the trip in the car, and the medic was worried about how hard he’d actually hit his head when the blast hit. But he wouldn’t have a chance to properly examine Carter until they found a resting place. And he wanted to look at Hogan, too, though he knew that mission would be harder to fulfill. “How far away from the shelter are we?” Wilson asked.
Hogan pointed up the road. “See that farm? It belongs to the Ericksons. Jenny and Willi. They help out when they can. I’m going to see if they can take the bunch of us now. They were supposed to take me and Klink next week. We’re running a bit ahead of schedule.”
“Do you think they will, Colonel?”
Hogan shrugged, then winced. Bad idea. “All we can do is try.”
Wilson decided to take the direct approach. “And when we get there, it’s not just Carter I’ll be examining, either.”
Hogan closed his eyes, trying to settle the argument between his hand and his head over which one could hurt the most. It was a sickening, nauseating tie, and Hogan turned away from Wilson as his stomach rolled and he broke out in yet another cold sweat. “Fine,” he rasped. “Let’s just get going.”
“Colonel, can’t we take the car all the way to the house?”
Hogan knew better than to shake his head. “No,” he said almost inaudibly. “Too risky for the Ericksons.”
“Then I’ll walk with you.”
Hogan turned back to the medic. “No, you stay with Carter. I’ll take Le Beau. The Ericksons know him on sight.”
Wilson agreed, and soon Hogan and Le Beau were walking slowly up the road toward the farm. “Colonel,” Le Beau asked, “how are we going to get their permission to stay? It is the middle of the night!”
“I know,” Hogan agreed. “But we can’t afford to wait till daylight. I’m afraid we’re going to have to take a chance on scaring them. Put your gun away, so they don’t react automatically and whack me over the head with a chair—or blow our heads off.”
“Nice welcoming committee,” Le Beau answered, doing as he was told.
“Better than anything else we’ve had waiting for us tonight. I’d consider it a privilege if they don’t actually fire their weapons!”
On the Run
“The last time Colonel Hogan and his men were here, we were taken by surprise, as well,” Willi Erickson explained. He poured steaming tea into the cups on the table, and the grateful, cold visitors wrapped their hands around them right away.
“Blimey, you can say that again,” Newkirk said, nodding. “Knocking the Colonel on the head with a chair—thinking we were Gestapo. It’s a good thing you were slow with your guns.” He sipped the drink that reminded him so poignantly of home. I’m comin’, Nan. Not how I’d planned it. But I’m coming.
“And a good thing you were swift about coming to your Colonel’s aid,” Jenny put in. She looked warily at Klink, who was sitting next to Kinch. She leaned over to Newkirk and whispered, “Are you sure it’s all right to have the Oberst here?” she asked.
“Oh, ’e’s all right, madam,” Newkirk answered, as Klink started to look slightly insulted. “Harmless, you know.”
Klink sat back in his chair, too tired to speak in protest. Once Le Beau had returned to tell the others that there was a cellar waiting for them with blankets and hot drinks, they had all walked to the house with the things they had brought from the camp. Unused to these long nights, the former Kommandant was beyond exhausted and was barely listening to the conversation.
“You are all very tired. Please accept the few blankets we have and get some rest downstairs. You will be safe there; no one goes down to the cellar but the dog. And even he is not willing to spend much time down there nowadays.” Willi stood up as Jenny headed toward a closet in the next room. “Jenny will bring you something to eat when you have had a chance to sleep. Please let us know if your Sergeant Wilson needs anything for the young man or Colonel Hogan.”
Hogan’s men wearily murmured their thanks, until now almost oblivious to the time and their own tiredness, and made their way downstairs to where Wilson was holed up with his patients.
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“Ow! Hey, stop that!” Carter tried to wave Wilson’s ministrations away, flapping his arm between them. Whatever Wilson had put on that towel was stinging the cut on his forehead.
“Come on, Andrew. It’ll only hurt for a minute; I need to make sure this doesn’t get infected!”
“It won’t; I promise!”
Hogan sat nearby, head in hand, trying to keep his stomach where it belonged. “He won’t take your word for it, Carter,” he put in, as the conversation filtered through a blinding headache. “Trust me; I know whereof I speak.”
Wilson turned briefly toward his next patient. “You’re right about that. I won’t take your word for it either,” he said. He turned back toward Carter, who was trying in vain to pull away. “Come on, now, Carter, how can I earn my Boy Scout badge if you won’t let me practice on you?”
“I was in the Boy Scouts,” Carter said. “And I’ll give you my First Aid badge if you’ll just leave me alone!”
Wilson grinned. “That would be cheating. You know that’s not the Boy Scout way.”
One or two more dabs with the antiseptic and Wilson was finished. Carter shot a not-very-convincing scowl in Wilson’s direction and said, “You wouldn’t be out of place working for the Gestapo.” Then, realizing what his impact his words could have, he glanced guiltily at Colonel Hogan and said, “Well, not really. Sorry, Wilson. Are you done with me now?”
Wilson smiled and patted Carter’s shoulder. “All done. Grab that blanket and get yourself some shut-eye. You need it.”
“We all do,” Hogan said. “Take your own advice, Joe. You aren’t used to this kind of excitement.”
Wilson swung around to face the Colonel. “You’re just delaying the inevitable, Colonel,” he said determinedly. He glanced over to make sure Carter was following his instructions, and nodded relief that at least one of his patients would obey his orders. He looked back at Hogan and saw a man suffering both physically and mentally. “Come on,” he urged gently. “Your turn.”
Hogan brought his hand down from his face as he watched Carter starting to curl up on the floor nearby. He turned his bloodshot eyes to Wilson. “I just need to get some sleep,” he said, not very convincingly.
“Yeah, you need that, too,” Wilson said softly. “Whopper of a headache, huh?” he asked as he probed Hogan’s temples and the rest of his head, looking for any signs of abrasions.
Hogan grunted and pulled his head away. “My head feels about three times its normal size,” Hogan admitted grudgingly. “But that started well before the explosions back at camp.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Wilson answered briefly. He looked in Hogan’s eyes; pupils normal, no indication of internal injury. Just pain. And a deeper anguish that had nothing to do with physical injury. He chose to ignore the latter at the moment. The time would come to face that soon enough. “It’s been a big night. Now, this hand—”
“Aaahh!” Hogan cried out involuntarily as fire crackled through his hand at Wilson’s touch. He jerked it away and bit his lip, regretting both moves as another small explosion went off in his skull. He forced himself not to moan in pain and breathed himself back to calmness, caressing his hand, eyes closed.
“Sorry,” Wilson said. That’s all I seem to say to you, he thought. He tried again. “Let me see your hand,” he said gently.
Hogan warily offered it, and the medic very lightly pressed on the back of Hogan’s hand below the base of the once-abused fingers, then moved the fingers themselves. Hogan gasped, but stopped himself from pulling away by tensing his body to Wilson’s touch and trying to focus only on breathing through his gritted teeth.
“You banged it hard in the tunnel blast,” Wilson said. “It’ll be okay, but you’ve aggravated it, and it’s going to hurt for awhile.”
“Mm-hmm,” Hogan said through tightly pursed lips, as Wilson released his hand. His body went limp with exhaustion and relief.
“Time, sleep, and aspirin for your discomfort, Colonel,” Wilson said. “Just like Carter.” He took a couple of tablets from his worktable and poured a glass of water from the pitcher Jenny had brought at his request and handed them to Hogan.
“How is he?” Hogan asked, bracing himself against the pain of jerking his throbbing head back so he could swallow the pills.
Wilson nodded. “He’ll be fine,” he answered, taking the glass from Hogan. “A headache, of course, but no memory loss or loss of coordination. The best thing for both of you now is rest.”
“I’ll sleep,” Hogan said, slipping off the stool. He picked up a blanket wearily and got ready to settle down near Carter. Not a lot of room down here for seven men. But at least it’s available, thank God. “But I think I’m too tired to dream.”
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Colonel Hogan. That might not be a bad thing at all.”
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“Colonel? Are you awake?”
Hogan heard the words somewhere in the distance but decided to ignore them. His head was still pounding strongly, and he had just consciously replaced his latest nightmare with an image of home. Whatever someone had to say now was unimportant.
“Colonel?” Hogan moaned a response. “Are you awake, sir?”
“What is it, Carter?” Hogan hoped he wasn’t sounding aggravated.
“I can’t sleep.”
Hogan groaned. “Carter, do you have any idea what time it is?”
“No, sir,” Carter answered sincerely. “I sure don’t. But the sun isn’t up yet, so it’s probably not six. And the guys are all still asleep over there—and Colonel Klink. I wouldn’t just call him a ‘guy;’ after all, he’s an officer, even if he’s a German one, and –”
“Carter,” Hogan said to stop the Sergeant. Trying to follow the logic was making Hogan dizzy. “What is it?”
Carter propped himself up on his elbow and looked at his commanding officer. “I can’t stop thinking about last night.”
Hogan opened his eyes and turned over to face the young man. “It certainly was a shock,” he admitted.
“I’m sorry we got caught in the tunnel, Colonel,” Carter said sincerely. “I didn’t mean to get carried away. I just wanted to make sure that the Krauts couldn’t get anything if we left something behind by mistake, and I sure didn’t want you to get hurt.”
Hogan smiled softly. “I understand,” he said. “You can be guaranteed they got nothing.”
Carter grinned. “It was kind of special, wasn’t it?” he said. “We were stuck in that hole for three years—seeing it go up in the end was a kind of poetic justice.”
Hogan shook his head carefully. Only Carter could find beauty in destruction. “I can’t say I’ll miss the old Stalag,” he said. “But the next time you pull something like that I’ll—” Hogan stopped abruptly and gave a short, wry laugh. “Never mind,” he said in a soft voice. “There won’t be a ‘next time.’” He looked away.
Carter’s grin disappeared. “Gee, no,” he said, almost regretfully. “I guess there won’t be.”
Silence descended for a moment, with each man lost in his own thoughts. “You did good, Carter,” Hogan said finally. “All the way through. Whenever I needed an expert, you were the one. I wouldn’t have trusted anyone else the way I trusted you.”
“Thanks, Colonel.” Carter didn’t know what else to say. He had a feeling Hogan was saying goodbye, and he wasn’t ready to. Not now. Not yet. Not ever! Why, Colonel Hogan was a man to follow forever, not just when working against the Germans. He was someone who made Carter feel appreciated, trusted, valued—and no one had ever done that in quite the same way before. And he was an officer who made Carter feel pride in who he was and what he was doing, who made him feel like what he did was making a difference. No, he couldn’t say goodbye to Hogan now. But all the words he wanted to say stuck in his throat. All he could manage was, “I trusted you, too.”
Hogan smiled gently but said nothing. He lay back and closed his eyes, and for what seemed like the thousandth time in the last twelve hours he realized how tired he was. Sleep. You need sleep, he thought, exhausted and hurting. If only it weren’t so full of nightmares….
“Mm?” Hogan answered vaguely, already drifting out of awareness.
“Newkirk told us what happened with Eichberger by the side of the road,” Carter said quietly.
The whole scene suddenly flashed before Hogan’s mind’s eye as though he were seeing it from a distance. Hogan kneeling facing the woods. Eichberger raising his gun to the back of Hogan’s head. Pulling off the safety. Taking careful aim. The cold. The fear… Hogan opened his eyes, almost in a panic, to get the picture out of his head. “And?” he said, in barely a whisper.
“If he wasn’t really working with us, then I guess the Fuhrer wasn’t really on that train, either, was he?” Carter asked.
Another horror scene filled Hogan’s head. This time he couldn’t escape. He pulled the thin blanket tighter around his shoulders and turned away from Carter. “No, Carter. No, he wasn’t.”
“So what was on the train, Colonel? Was it carrying supplies? Or was it empty?” Silence. “Colonel?” More silence. “What was on the train?” Carter shrugged when no answer came. “Colonel, are you asleep?... Gee. Well, I guess we’re all pretty worn out,” Carter said with a touch of uncertainty. “G’night, Colonel.”
Carter turned over to get some sleep while he could. Hogan remained wide awake, as tears no one else could see rolled openly down his face.
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General Burkhalter turned away from the charred remains of Barracks Two, shaking his head. “Are you sure that Hogan was not in this camp, Schultz?” he asked, as he walked back toward the Kommandant’s office.
“Jawohl, Herr General,” Schultz said, bobbing his head up and down quickly. “I did not see Colonel Hogan. All I know is that Major Hochstetter wanted to look inside the barracks, and the men were in the way, so I moved them out.”
“A wise move in the end,” Burkhalter said. “I would not like to explain to the Red Cross how fifteen prisoners suddenly died in an explosion in camp. Where are the men now?”
“They are in Barracks Four, Herr General.”
“Good. And did any of the other prisoners take advantage of this disaster and try to escape?” Burkhalter asked.
Schultz paused. He wouldn’t be able to keep the information secret for very long, anyway. “I beg to report, General, that there were five prisoners missing at roll call this morning.”
“Five?” Burkhalter exclaimed.
“Four of Colonel Hogan’s men, and the medic, Wilson. He is gone, too.”
“General Burkhalter!” came a call. Schultz and Burkhalter looked up to see a young Lieutenant racing toward them.
“What is it?”
“General Burkhalter, Manheim has radioed in to say that they have found Captain Eichberger, sir.”
“Where is he?”
The young man hesitated. “About a half mile from the railway station near Hammelburg. He was… dead, sir.”
Burkhalter looked stunned. “Dead?”
The Lieutenant shifted feet. “Yes, sir. He was shot at point-blank range.”
Burkhalter fumed. “Hogan…” He turned suddenly to Schultz. “Sergeant, I am going to take over this camp myself—as soon as I am done hunting down Colonel Hogan. He must still be in the area. Prepare Klink’s old quarters for me to move in. Lieutenant, make a call to get all available units to this area. We need to comb it completely. Hogan won’t get out of our grasp again!”
“We’ve got to plan how to proceed from here,” Hogan said to the others late the next morning. Despite his desire to be up and about quickly, Hogan found that he had simply had to succumb to his body’s demand for rest and had not woken up for several hours. Still sore, but feeling so much better than he had been the night before, he gratefully accepted the food and drink offered by the Ericksons, and made a thorough check on his men before allowing himself to relax.
“What do you mean, Colonel?” Kinch asked. He took a bite of the honeyed bread Jenny had laid out, appreciating the warmth of the kitchen after a cold night in the cellar below.
“We can’t travel together like this. No matter how safe we seem to be, moving in a crowd is inviting trouble.” Hogan nodded toward Willi. “Willi here says he can get me to a radio. I’ll contact the Underground and see if they can start taking us in pairs. Then I’ll get in touch with London and tell them to start sending first class transportation. That’s the very least you fellas deserve.”
“Colonel, what about Klink?” Newkirk asked.
Klink looked up from his meager meal and eyed Hogan warily. “Yes, Hogan, what about me?”
Hogan looked back at Klink and would have even felt sorry for him, if he hadn’t had so many other things to worry about at that moment. “He’ll come, too. We can’t let him go back to camp. As far as we know, he’s still wanted. And if the Krauts suspect he’s with us, they could pick up everyone on that list in his brain, and that would mean we couldn’t extract the names from him ourselves and warn our agents.”
“What do you want us to do in the meantime?” Le Beau asked.
Hogan looked at his men. Their faces carried a mix of bewilderment, fear, exhaustion, and determination. How he had led them into this mess he couldn’t even fathom. And the guilt that suddenly slapped him in the face nearly overwhelmed him. “Scout the area. Look out for anyone trying to tail us. Make sure no one’s threatening to find their way here.” He stood up, ready to join Willi at the door. “And help Jenny with the dishes. She’s not going to be a slave for you lot.”
----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
“The Colonel’s right, you know,” Kinch said, as the men hid once more in the cellar, waiting for the all-clear to come out. “We’re going to have to split up.”
Le Beau nodded his unhappy agreement. “Oui, Kinch. I know.”
“I won’t know what to do without all of you around to pick on my handwriting.”
“And how will I cook for only myself?” Le Beau asked. “I am so used to cooking for five.”
Kinch tried to calm his upsetting thoughts. “Well, at least we know we’re all going to the same place. I never got to spend much time in London before I was shot down.”
“I was only there once or twice.” Le Beau considered. “I wonder when they will let me go back to France.”
“We’ll need to be debriefed first,” Kinch reminded him.
“That could take months!”
“Well, maybe for some… for others, telling all you know could take just a couple of minutes!”
Le Beau smiled at his friend’s attempt at lightness. But he found he could not join in. “It will not be the same, Kinch,” he said. Kinch said nothing. “I did not choose to become a prisoner, but I am glad that I had the chance to work with all of you.” Kinch tried not to hear the emotion coming into Le Beau’s voice. “You have become like my family.”
“Yeah,” Kinch agreed, his mind drifting through the years they had spent together. Working together, playing together, being scared together. “I never thought I’d find a family with a bunch of guys in a POW camp. It would never have been like this at home in Detroit. But Colonel Hogan sure knew how to bring us together.”
“What do you think will happen to him, Kinch?” Le Beau asked.
“The Colonel?” Le Beau nodded. “Who knows? I used to think he’d just breeze on out of here and go back to civilian life quite happily. But… an awful lot has happened to him, Louis. I wouldn’t want to carry his burden. I can’t imagine how he’s going to cope.”
“Oui. The Colonel is strong, but the war has been very cruel to him.” He paused. “It has been very cruel to everyone.”
The pair fell silent. Le Beau played with his scarf, and thought about all the times he had wished he was away from Stalag 13, back at home in France, and forgetting all about his time in Germany. Now that this was starting to happen, he found himself trying to forestall its imminence. “I will miss you all,” he said quietly.
Kinch felt the tug of mixed emotions inside. Leaving was all he ever wanted. Staying had meant constant fear of being caught. But the thrill of victory over the Germans had carried him through, and the leadership of and acceptance by Colonel Hogan had presented him with a whole new perspective on life. What would he be going back to? Could the war actually have been good for him in some strange way? “I’ll miss you, too, Louis. I’m going to miss everyone, even that crazy old Schultz.”
But I think I’ll miss Colonel Hogan’s unconditional trust and acceptance most of all.
----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
“What are you going to do after you get back to London, Joe?” asked Carter.
At the urging of a concerned Colonel Hogan, the medic had given Carter another brief examination in the morning. Satisfied that all was well, Wilson and the Sergeant had started a conversation, with little else to do until the all-clear was given to move on.
“I don’t know,” Wilson answered truthfully. “I mean, I always thought I’d have time to think about it. I wasn’t planning on coming along when you fellas finally busted out of Stalag 13.”
Carter nodded. “I know what you mean. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. But Colonel Hogan always made plans for it, just in case. I feel bad that I messed it up.”
“You didn’t,” Wilson protested. “You just got carried away. But you’ve gotta be careful when you do stuff like that!”
Carter grinned. “That’s what the Colonel always says. I felt so bad that he was caught in the tunnel with me. It’s my fault he hurt his hand again. I mean, did you see him this morning? Holding it away from his body like he was afraid to bump it into anything? I really blew it.”
“He doesn’t blame you,” Wilson answered. “Besides, it’ll only be sore for a few days.”
“Yeah, but I was really stupid. He kept telling me to get out, and I wouldn’t leave! What’s wrong with me?”
Wilson took in Carter’s anxious look of self-loathing. “Nothing’s wrong with you. You have a healthy dislike of the Germans…and probably a slightly unhealthy like of explosives.” Wilson chuckled.
Carter nodded and gave a lopsided grin. “The Colonel never minded it much.”
“I’m sure he didn’t. It would have saved you all many times—and think of all the jobs you wouldn’t have been able to do without your expertise.”
“That’s what the Colonel says—that I’m an expert. Y’know, I never really felt like an expert at anything until I came to camp. And Colonel Hogan was the first person to let me decide what I thought would work best. He really put a lot of faith in me.”
“And he’s a pretty good judge of character.”
“He sure is. When the Colonel says that someone is good or bad, he’s usually right on the ball. Eichberger was different, but the Colonel still didn’t really trust him; he just couldn’t find a real reason why not to. And he was hurting so badly, who could blame him for being confused? But in general, you know, I’ve never seen anyone with an instinct like his. If the Colonel likes someone, he has a good reason—” Carter cut himself off when he realized where Wilson had led him. “So, I must be okay. That’s what you’re saying, huh?”
Wilson nodded. “Uh-huh.”
Carter grew quiet for a moment, contemplating. “Thanks for looking after him, Joe,” Carter said suddenly. Wilson just looked at Carter, waiting. “I mean from the very beginning. We did an awful lot of dangerous stuff, and you were always there to take care of the Colonel—of all of us. And when Major Hochstetter got hold of him this time—” Carter found he couldn’t finish, as all the fears he had built up until that terrible day dawned had been realized when Hogan was pulled, so desperately ill and broken, from solitary confinement. “Well, I know he trusted you, too.”
“He doesn’t give his trust easily, Carter. But you’ve got it. That makes you somebody pretty special.”
Carter smiled, a genuine, hopeful smile. “Well, I know he trusts you, too—and Louis, and Kinch, and Newkirk. I guess that puts me in pretty good company!”
“The best. And don’t you ever forget it.”
----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
“You’ll like London, Kommandant,” Newkirk was saying to Klink.
Klink shrugged. “I doubt the people at your Allied Headquarters are going to give me much time to enjoy it,” he said.
“Well, you do have a lot to talk about, don’t you?” Newkirk quipped. He sighed, looking around the cellar where the men were waiting for Colonel Hogan to return as Jenny went about her daily chores. “No, there’s nothing like heading down the High Street on a Sunday afternoon, looking at all the ladies and gents dressed up in their Sunday best, heading for the park.” He smiled as he saw the images in his memory. His smile disappeared slowly, though, and he said, “On the other ’and, there may not be a lot left of the High Street, thanks to the Germans,” he said, a touch of anger creeping into his voice. “The city’s a bloody mess after the bombings.”
Klink felt the hair on the back of his neck rise in a whisper of fear. “Berlin is quite badly damaged as well, from what I understand,” he put in, almost meekly.
“How nice,” Newkirk said, his mood suddenly souring.
Klink sat in silence for a moment, reaching into his own memories of before the war. “When I was a younger man, Corporal, I used to go with my father into Berlin once a month, just to go to the theatre.”
Newkirk stopped his slow burn and listened.
“It was our one time to do things without my brother, Wolfgang. We used to go to a little club where there was always a show of some sort—a song and dance, a pantomime, a small drama—and then we would go to Der Rote Löwe—that means The Red Lion—a quiet Biergarten, where we would share a drink and a small meal before coming home. It was always a very special time for me.”
Newkirk nodded mutely. The idea of spending a quiet, special time with his father was only a dream for him. That Klink could hold these memories so close to his heart both touched the Englishman, and hurt him.
Klink shook his head sadly. “The theatre is gone now—as a matter of fact, I think the Biergarten is, too, after the Allied bombing attacks.”
Newkirk shifted uncomfortably. “Must be a few of those crimson cats around,” he said, clearing his throat. “There’s a Red Lion pub back in London, too.”
“Really?” Klink asked, sensing some kind of mood change in the Englishman.
“Yep—used to go there myself. But it had nothing to do with a father-and-son outing, that’s for sure,” Newkirk said, with a bit of enthusiasm that even Klink could place as false. “It was more like a chance to get away from the old man.” He shook his head. “Now? I don’t really know if the place is there any more either. So I guess that makes us even, Kommandant.”
“What will you do when you get back there, Newkirk?”
“I’m not sure, sir,” Newkirk replied. “I used to think I’d just open up a pub, you know? Put some of me back pay to work for me. But I’m not sure now. I might have a talk with Colonel Hogan—see if he thinks he’ll need anyone with my talents on his staff, if he stays in England.”
“You would continue working for an American?” Klink asked, somewhat amazed.
“Why not? He’s been a bloody good boss so far. Can’t think of anyone I’d trust more. And that’s not a bad place to be.”
“But what kind of work could you possibly be doing?”
“Well, with the kind of work I’ve been doing at Stalag 13—begging your pardon, Kommandant—I could always teach a course in calligraphy… or creative lock picking.”
Klink waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. “I don’t want to know.”
“Maybe doing imitations… you know, on the stage. I understand it’ll be quite funny to be German after the war…”
“Corporal, I don’t want to hear it!”
Newkirk grinned slightly and stopped. “Sorry, Kommandant. The gov’nor always did say I go a little bit too far.”
Klink nodded. “Colonel Hogan knows you very well!” he said, not really angry. “He seems to know everyone really well,” he added thoughtfully.
“That he does, sir,” Newkirk agreed. “He’s a quick study is our Colonel.”
“And that’s why you respect him so much?” Klink asked.
“No, sir; I respect him because he’s never afraid to get right in the thick of it with us. He wouldn’t have us do anything he wouldn’t do himself.” Newkirk paused, grim. “He’s paid for that kind of loyalty. Many times, sir.”
Klink nodded, and slowly different situations in the camp came to him in which he himself had thought Hogan was at risk of being killed. The time they went back to England and stole a plane—which somehow never got back to Germany; the time General von Heiner decided to hold Hogan hostage at a rocket depot—and the depot was destroyed; the time Hogan knelt, with Klink and Schultz at his side, in the middle of the camp and defused an unexploded bomb dropped from an Allied plane. Then Hochstetter came into his mind. How many times had he come into camp, threatening Hogan with unpleasant methods of questioning, actually taking him back to Hammelburg to squeeze all he could out of him. Hogan had always remained calm, sometimes flippant, sometimes almost philosophical. Klink had never even dreamed that Hogan was holding more secrets than any other man in the camp… and that he had every real reason to fear the Gestapo and its tortures. But Hogan had given away nothing, not even under Hochstetter’s most intensive interrogation, and so the Major kept coming, until finally the day came where he could drag Hogan away without any fear of recrimination, even if he was wrong… and he had taken full advantage of it. And even then, thinking his future was short and death was certain, Hogan had kept his secrets, and those of his men.
Klink now fully understood the loyalty of Newkirk and the others, and felt a bit overwhelmed, as his own unwitting part in this whole operation dawned on him. It was too much to think about now; he would put it aside, to consider later. He hoped he would have plenty of time to do that.
“Tell me, Newkirk, didn’t you ever worry that you’d get captured and shot as a spy?”
“All the time, sir,” Newkirk said almost lightly.
“Then why did you keep up Colonel Hogan’s plan to sabotage the German war effort from a POW camp?”
“Because if the Colonel ended up getting caught, I wasn’t going to let him go alone.”
Time to Move On
“Okay, heads up,” Hogan said as he descended into the cellar. The men had dozed off, more out of boredom than fatigue, and Hogan’s call had them sitting bolt upright. “Here’s what’s happening.” The men gathered close; Klink wanted to hear as well, but hung back a bit, still not ready to become one of Hogan’s men. “There’s no place that the whole group of us can meet along the Underground route and be safe. So I’ve asked London to arrange for three pickups to get us all back to Headquarters—the first two with the sub, the last with a plane. Kinch, you and Carter are going to go first, and you’ll take Wilson with you. I want you to be the farthest away in case of trouble. We’re used to this kind of thing, but poor Joe isn’t, and I don’t think it’s necessary to try and get him used to the way we operate at this stage. Plus he can keep an eye on Carter in case he takes a turn.”
“I won’t!” Carter insisted. “Just don’t let him near me with that stuff again—it stings.”
Hogan nodded. “I’m sure you’ll be fine, but I’d be happier if the medic was with you after you got knocked around in the tunnel.”
Carter sighed and nodded, knowing he wouldn’t be able to change the Colonel’s mind even if dared to try.
“Next day, it’s Newkirk and Le Beau. Then finally, I’ll head out with Klink. If the Kommandant slows anyone down, it’s going to be me. You fellas keep going. I’ve got the locations of your stops along the route here. Now don’t deviate from them, and stick to the schedule. Otherwise, you’ll foul it up for the folks behind you. Don’t delay for any reason; the sub won’t wait forever. The first group of you goes out tonight. Understood?”
The men were silent, oddly so, and Hogan frowned. “Is there a problem?”
More avoidance, shifting from foot to foot, staring at the ground instead of their commanding officer. Finally Newkirk spoke up. “I think we’re thinking about saying goodbye, sir,” he said gently.
Hogan nodded. “I know; I’ve been thinking about that, too. But we’ve got to get out of here, or we won’t have a chance to attend the Stalag 13 POW reunion in ten years’ time. Right?”
----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
Corporal Heinrich Manheim stopped for a moment to stretch and rest. He had been walking for the better part of the day, and after his gruesome discovery that morning, he was not anxious to find anything else, whether it helped the Fatherland or not. He had never met Eichberger, but it still made him angry to see him lying out there in the cold, lifeless, with that stunned look etched on his face. Americans. British. The French. Why were so many countries against Germany? Couldn’t they understand that the Fatherland needed to win this war? That they had to get back their national pride?
No, Manheim thought, heading for a downed tree to sit on for a brief time to relieve his tired feet, no they don’t. Well I do. He would have been happy to sleep, just for a few minutes, until he was due to meet his patrol partner a half a mile up the road in fourteen minutes. Unthinking, he closed his eyes and almost dizzily swayed back. He was abruptly awakened, however, when he heard as well as felt a metallic clang where he thought a tree should have been. He jumped up, startled, and turned around, rifle at the ready, to face whoever or whatever had snuck up on him.
But there was no one. Manheim scanned the area, then looked more closely at the spot where only seconds ago he had been resting. He squinted in the dimness, then a look of recognition crossed his face when he realized it was not a person, but a thing that he had encountered. He moved aside some branches and brushed away some light snow that had fallen earlier today, and found himself staring at a black, shiny car. A staff car.
“Sie sind in diese Richtung!” he exclaimed aloud. They have come in this direction!
His tiredness suddenly gone, the Corporal propped his rifle next to the fallen tree and quickly cleared off the rest of the car. With a thrill of fear, he shone his flashlight in the windows; empty, thank God. But there was no mistaking what it meant—the escaped American Colonel and possibly his companions had come through here, and they might still be in the area. “Friedrich!” he called, starting through the woods to where his patrol buddy was scouring the area himself. “Friedrich! Schnell, schnell, Sie sind in diese Richtung!” We’ll get that evil American and his crew yet!
----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
“It’s a great idea, Jenny; thank you,” Hogan said gently. He looked at the older lady standing beside him in the cellar. The war had been hard on her, he knew. Though he knew very little about her or Willi Erickson, Hogan was certain that this simple couple had sacrificed a lot to help the Allies. His first encounter with them had been less than auspicious: he had burst in on them, gun drawn, certain that they were responsible for a breach in the Underground escape route for prisoners directed out of Stalag 13, and they had responded by smashing a chair over his head, thinking he was a Gestapo officer trying to fool them. Both parties had been wrong, and when Hogan had come back to consciousness, he had quickly learned that the Ericksons had been duped by the women working at the pub who were supposed to be on the side of the Allies, but who were instead leading escaped prisoners straight into the hands of the Gestapo.
Hogan had always harbored a little guilt at the way he had spoken to Jenny and Willi that day, and despite their repeated protests that he had done nothing wrong, the Colonel continued to carry a soft spot for them, and had tried to keep them out of direct conflict with the Germans as much as possible. But there was no avoiding it when he and the others were taking over their home.
Jenny smiled warmly at Hogan. She had come to like him very much. He reminded her of her favorite grandson, and his gentleness with her always gave her great pleasure. “Willi and I have no use for Gestapo uniforms at the moment—I don’t think I could fool anyone into thinking I am one of them!”
Hogan’s eyes smiled down at her. “Not in your wildest dreams. You’re too humane.”
Jenny put out a hand as though to touch Hogan’s face softly, but she paused thoughtfully, hand outstretched, looking at Hogan’s exhaustion, and drew it back to herself. “You need nourishment,” she said, clearing her throat. “You did not eat when you came home.”
Hogan nodded, suddenly calmed by her obvious care. “I’ll come in a minute.”
Jenny nodded and went back upstairs.
Hogan looked after her for a moment, then turned his attention back to his work. “Louis, go on up and grab those Gestapo uniforms; they’re in the kitchen closet. Let’s see if we can’t make it a little easier to get out of here.” Hogan turned to Wilson. “Wilson, how’s your German?”
Wilson cleared his throat. “Ack-tong! Mack snell!” he declared. “Rowse, Amerikanner!”
Hogan cringed like he was in pain, and Kinch turned away to hide a chuckle. “You’d better let Carter do the talking,” Hogan decided.
Wilson adjusted his shirt in mock self-defense. “There wasn’t a lot of call for German in Albuquerque, you know.”
Hogan grinned, “Well it wasn’t exactly the native language in Bridgeport, either,” he retorted. “So don’t give me any blarney about not being able to learn languages, Sergeant. Just stick to all that Latin and Greek they use in medicine, okay?”
The others cried out in unison. “Stop that!”
----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
Willi had gone into the village and Jenny was straightening Wilson’s German uniform when the front door burst open.
“Hände hoch! Jetzt!” A German soldier stamped into the kitchen, startling Jenny and making Wilson pale in fear. Another soldier stood close behind him, blocking the doorway. “Ah.” The soldier dropped some of his menace when he saw Wilson, supposedly a member of the Gestapo, standing before him. “Verzeihung Herr Hauptmann. Ich habe sie nicht erkannt,” he apologized, saluting.
Behind the cellar door, Hogan and his men had heard the shouting and the soldiers’ entry. Hogan gestured for Carter come forward. “Get out there and save Wilson,” he whispered. “If he tries to speak German, we’ve had it.”
Wilson was roused enough to shakily return the salute. He was almost visibly trembling, and was counting on some fancy talk from Jenny that he couldn’t understand to stall the German soldier, when the cellar door swung open and Carter strode out, dressed in full Gestapo garb, and swinging his Luger like Klink’s old riding crop. He barreled into the kitchen and stared hard at the German in the middle of the room. “Warum sind Sie hier, Unteroffizier?” he barked. Why are you here?
Taken by surprise, Manheim could only salute hastily and look around the room, trying to understand what was going on. “Herr Major, ich suche nach den entkommenen Gefangenen von Stalag 13. Ich entdeckte ein Auto zugedeckt im Wald ich glaube, dass sie gestohlen haben können.” He hoped that telling the Major about the hidden car and his search for the escaped prisoners would please him. Perhaps the Major would reward him for his quick deduction that the prisoners might still be in the area.
“Und?” Carter looked expectantly at the Corporal, clearly not impressed.
Manheim hesitated. “Und… ich dachte, dass sie nahe sein konnten.”
Carter scoffed, as though the idea of escaped prisoners being near an abandoned vehicle was laughable. “Wenn sie nahe waren, warum würde ich hier sein?” Carter bellowed, as though Manheim had offended him. Him, in this useless house, with prisoners on the loose? Manheim started to wither. He hadn’t thought the Major would be here if the prisoners were somewhere else. He had just come here to search the house because it was close by and accidentally—and now, he thought, unfortunately—come across the Major obviously doing the same thing.
Carter turned his attention to Wilson, who was standing, stunned at the transformation of the mild-mannered American. “Und warum stehen Sie dort wie ein Idiot? Versteckt sich jemand in diesem Haus?”
Wilson was mute in fear and lack of understanding. All he could make out of that last tirade was “house” and “idiot”, so he tried to put on a properly cowed response. It wasn’t hard. “Nein?” Carter practically screamed in response to Wilson’s silence. Wilson shook his head. “Ich dachte so nicht!” Carter looked back at Manheim, and momentarily calmed himself. “Kehren Sie zu Ihrer Abteilung zurück und berichten Sie, dass keiner hier ist. Ich habe bereits alles gründlich durchsucht.” Go back and report that there is no one here. I have done a thorough search.
What? Leave without looking for himself? His superior officer would have his head! “Aber das Auto, Herr Major—”
Carter shrieked, “Das Auto bedeutet gar nichts! Gehen Sie!”
Manheim jumped at the dismissal of his discovery and the order to get out. No wonder that poor Captain looks scared to death! “Jawohl, Herr Major. Bitte entschuldigen Sie, gnädige Frau.”
Jenny nodded a quiet acceptance of the Corporal’s apologies. Manheim turned to the soldier who had come in with him—Thanks for standing up for me! he thought sarcastically—and, saluting Wilson and Carter, backed out of the house.
When they were sure the pair had left, Wilson sagged into a chair, and Carter grinned as Hogan and the others came out of the cellar. Klink stood amazed at Carter’s performance, as the others gathered around him, excited.
“That was great, Carter!” Le Beau praised him.
Hogan looked at the medic. “Are you all right, Wilson?”
Wilson nodded shakily. “Are you sure you’re on our side, Carter?”
Carter smiled broadly. “Oh, sure! That was just an act! You don’t think I’d really—” He cut himself off as he realized Wilson was asking a rhetorical question. “Sorry I yelled at ya,” he said sheepishly. “I just got carried away.”
“That’s okay,” Wilson answered. “I didn’t understand most of it anyway.”
Hogan approached Jenny, who was still sitting at the kitchen table. He put a hand on her shoulder. “Are you all right?” he asked gently.
Jenny looked up at him and smiled. “I am fine,” she answered. “We have had visitors before. And I know that this young Sergeant would not do anything that could hurt me.” Carter shifted feet, taking the statement with characteristic shyness. Jenny stood up. “Willi will be back soon. I will start getting you all dinner.”
“Thanks, but we’d better get going,” Hogan said, shaking his head. Jenny looked at him questioningly. “Carter bought us some time, but we don’t know how long it’s going to be before they come back. We’d better go while we can.” Hogan added softly, “It was nice while it lasted.”
Jenny squeezed Hogan’s arm. “You can stay,” she offered quietly.
Hogan shook his head again, touched. “No,” he said, “it’d be too risky. They came once, they may come again. You and Willi have put yourself in too much danger for us already.” He put his other hand on top of hers. “Thank you for everything.” He let his eyes linger there, then put himself back in command mode. “Get your gear together, fellas; it’s time to move out.”
“Make sure you look after Carter,” Hogan was saying to Wilson, as he surveyed the cellar to make sure any traces of their presence were gone. “He says he’s okay, but I worry about him. He hides things.”
“Sounds like he’s been taking lessons from his commanding officer,” Wilson answered.
Hogan stopped in his tracks and looked at the medic. “I’m fine,” he said.
“Sure,” Wilson replied casually. A silence passed between them. “Do you want to talk before we go?” he asked, tentatively.
Hogan sighed and, to Wilson’s surprise, sat down. He said nothing for a moment, then spoke softly, staring straight ahead, looking at nothing. “I just can’t help feeling I’ve made a mess of this whole thing.”
Wilson frowned. “A mess?” he asked. He sat down next to the Colonel.
Hogan rubbed his face. “The operation was supposed to last. I failed.”
“Failed?” Wilson echoed loudly. “How could you think you’ve failed? Look at everything you’ve done in the last three years—tunnels, sabotage, German war plans ruined or passed on to the Allies—not to mention the countless men whose lives you saved by dragging them out of the woods and getting them back to England! Failed?” Wilson said again. “We should all fail so well.”
Hogan shrugged. “It’s my fault we’re here right now,” he said simply.
Wilson paused. He knew he should have expected this; the operation was such a large part of Hogan’s life that its loss would have to be grieved. And Wilson knew it was important to do so. But he didn’t want Hogan thinking that years of work had been for naught, or blaming himself for something that had been bound to happen sooner or later. “Don’t diminish what you accomplished,” he suggested gently. “You and your men achieved the impossible.”
“And we’d still be doing it if I hadn’t fallen into Eichberger’s trap.”
Wilson shook his head. “If it wasn’t that, it was going to be something else. He set it up perfectly from the very beginning. Came in when you were weakest, had information that couldn’t possibly have come from someone who didn’t know the workings of the Allies. You couldn’t help but fall into it.”
“I didn’t trust him. I should have kept it that way.”
“Human beings want to trust.” Hogan didn’t answer. “Look, with all the information we had from London, he seemed okay. You held out longer than anyone.”
“Obviously I should have held out longer.”
Wilson shook his head, remembering with discomfort the horrific condition Hogan had been in when he was pulled out of solitary confinement. It would almost have been more merciful if Hogan had died instead of making him go through the agony of the recovery. He would carry mental and physical scars forever. And the end of the operation, the destruction of the tunnels and the work they represented, would be one of them. “We’re all human,” Wilson said softly. “You were the one always telling me that the operation constantly hung by a thread. That anyone could betray you at any time.”
“But I didn’t think it would be me!” Hogan said sharply, looking directly at Wilson. “I sent the boys out into the woods that night. I let Eichberger know I was Papa Bear. I am the one who blew it—not the Germans!” Hogan covered his eyes with his hands for a moment. When he was more composed he drew down his hands and sighed. “Sorry,” he said.
“Everyone got out safely,” Wilson said, changing tack. “Look, Colonel. Robert.” Hogan turned confused, anguished, tired eyes to the medic. “The things you and the boys did are just extraordinary. You can’t go home thinking you’ve negated all that. It was always ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ right? There was a lot of hard work involved, and a lot of luck, too. The hard work you had control over; the luck, you didn’t. And the luck ran out. Don’t think the work went to waste. There are a lot of happy families right now because of you and the others. Families that are complete because someone they loved came home in one piece, thanks to you. Maybe it’s just time that you joined them, and made your family happy, too.”
Wilson stopped talking. Hogan continued staring ahead. Not all families. What about those POWs on the train? He could see before him a blazing inferno of railroad cars and hear the screams of tortured men as they died. He could not see the ones who had made it back with his help. Not when there were so many that hadn’t, especially in the last few days. But he doubted he would ever tell anyone about that; how could he put that horrible burden on anyone else, when he couldn’t face it himself? “Thanks,” Hogan said finally, in almost a whisper.
Wilson nodded. “Sure,” he answered quietly. He knew there was more, but he also knew it was time to stop pressing. Hogan would come forward in his own time. If he ever could. The medic stood up. “I’ll be upstairs,” he said. “Come on up when you’re ready.”
Hogan nodded. “Okay.” He listened as Wilson went up the stairs to join the others. He sat for another moment, then reached into his pack and pulled out the book he had instinctively taken from his quarters when he was grabbing things to either take with them or burn. He fingered the pages, and scanned the words, looking for something to soothe his aching heart. His eye caught a phrase, and he devoured it, wishing he could see its promises fulfilled right this minute. Give me back the joy of your salvation, the Psalm read, and a willing spirit sustain in me…. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
Hogan closed the book thoughtfully and closed his eyes. I could use a bit of joy, he thought. This is about to be the hardest thing I think I’ve ever done.
----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
“You fellas head straight for the first stop on the route. The rest of us will get over to the Schultzes, and then follow as we planned.” Hogan glanced around the kitchen, making sure that the men had everything they came with. “Any questions?”
Klink stood near Hogan, picking up the tension in the room but not fully understanding it. Hogan’s men looked around them, avoiding meeting each other’s eyes, and especially Hogan’s.
Hogan took a calming breath and said, “Then let’s go.”
Thank God for Carter, Hogan thought. “Yes, Sergeant?”
“Well, I just—wanna say goodbye. You know, in case things go wrong.”
Hogan swallowed a growing lump in his throat. “Nothing’s going to go wrong,” he said, his voice strangely hoarse. “We’ll be together again in a week, right?”
The others agreed too readily, too loudly. Klink observed from a short distance with Wilson, beginning to see the real reason for the obvious stress in the room, which had very little to do with the necessity to escape.
“Well, I know that’s the plan,” Carter said over the group. “But I wanna say this anyway.” Silence descended on the room. Carter accepted the attention without pride. “When I first came to Stalag 13, I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in. I mean I’d never been in a POW camp before, and I didn’t know what to expect. But you guys were great to me. You’ve been like my family.” Carter paused, collecting himself. “And I just want to say thanks.”
Hogan couldn’t speak. Carter, the man who often ran off at the mouth like a runaway locomotive, who could find the exactly wrong thing to say at the wrong time, had spoken simply and eloquently for them all.
Newkirk was the first to respond. “I thought before I came here that I’d had my fill of brothers,” he said. He shrugged. “But I was wrong, wasn’t I?” The things he wanted to say, the thanks he wanted to give the men as a group for giving him a security and closeness of spirit that he had never before experienced, refused to come, stuck in the back of his throat and choking his voice. And so he just stared hard at the two men he had worked so closely with, who were about to be the first to leave, and swallowed the unexpected feeling of overwhelming sadness starting to overtake him, as the reality of the night was creeping in. They’re really going. It’s really over.
“Yeah. You guys have been like my family, too,” Kinch added. “Probably a little more destructive than my family, but I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”
Le Beau chimed in, his eyes moist. “Oui, me, too,” is all he could say. “Bonne chance, Andrew. Au revoir, Kinch. Soyez prudents.” Unable to stop himself, the Frenchman came forward and embraced Carter and then Kinch. The men were anything but embarrassed by the show of emotion.
Hogan nodded, signaling an end to the moment. “Come on, let’s go.” The others seemed to shake themselves out of their emotions. Wilson came to stand with Kinch and Carter, now getting used to being in this German uniform. Like Carter, his government-issue clothes were under the uniform. “Remember, Wilson, you and Carter are escorting Kinch back to Gestapo Headquarters for questioning. You have orders to take him directly out of the area and must not be stopped by anyone. Right?”
“Right, Colonel,” Wilson replied. “He’s our prisoner.”
“Tomorrow night you head straight for the waiting sub. Kinch, you have the coordinates.”
“Yes, sir, Colonel,” Kinch answered.
“We’ll give you a ten minute head start, then we’ll head out the other way. Now get going, and don’t pussyfoot around.”
The men made their final preparations, and Hogan checked the German uniforms. He was about to push the trio out the door when Kinch turned around and faced his commanding officer.
Kinch opened his mouth to say any one of the two thousand things that had coming into his mind over the last three years. He prepared himself to tell Hogan how much being a part of this operation had meant to him, how it had saved him from his own version of despair, how it had made him feel he was part of a loyal, tightly-knit team. How he had felt appreciated and valued, and secure when he was with Hogan and the others. He knew he needed to say something that would convey to Hogan just how much the Colonel’s trust in him had touched him, and how Hogan’s leadership itself had inspired him to do things of which he had never thought himself capable. But none of the words would lay themselves out straight in his mind, and so he paused, then did something he couldn’t remember having done to Hogan in years.
He looked Hogan straight in the eye, and saluted him.
Hogan raised his chin slightly, clenching his jaw to prevent his already moist eyes from spilling over. Then, never unlocking his gaze from Kinch’s, he returned the salute, then held out his hand. Kinch clasped it tightly. “I’ll see you in a week,” Hogan said with difficulty.
“Yes, sir,” Kinch answered, still gripping Hogan’s hand. “In a week.”
Kinch let go of Hogan’s hand and headed out the door.
Hogan watched him go, then nodded at Wilson, whom Hogan still couldn’t get used to in anything but his own familiar uniform, and said, “Look after them. Sometimes they get a little excited.”
Wilson let a smile raise the edges of his mouth. “So I’ve noticed,” he said. “Colonel, thanks for everything.” Wilson took in Hogan’s expression, the one that spoke of pain and guilt and tiredness, and added, “Everyone will be okay. They know what they’re doing.” Hogan nodded mutely, still staring out after Kinch. Wilson said quietly, “You’re all heroes. Whether you believe it of yourself or not.” Hogan didn’t reply. “You did good, Colonel. Don’t forget that you did good.”
Hogan nodded, then shook Wilson’s hand and watched him head out the door. Carter brought up the rear, adjusting his small pack and making sure he had his gun, when he turned to Hogan. “Nice speech, Carter,” Hogan said quietly.
“Aw, gee, Colonel, it wasn’t really a speech. It was just something I needed to say. I mean no matter what happens, we’re never gonna work the same way again, and I wanted people to know how I felt about ’em. You fellas have been great to work with, and I never thought I’d—”
Hogan couldn’t help but smile. He shook his head. “Carter,” he said, as the Sergeant threatened to continue in this vein, “at ease.”
Carter looked surprised, then shrugged as a relaxed grin took over his face. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “I guess I get a little carried away sometimes.”
Hogan just smiled. “Thanks, Carter.”
Carter looked at him curiously. “For what?”
“For reminding me we shouldn’t take the war too seriously.” Hogan held out his hand, and was surprised when the Sergeant hesitated about taking it. He frowned slightly. “Carter?”
“Um, I don’t want to hurt your hand again,” Carter replied.
“Carter, shut up and shake my hand.”
Carter grinned. “You bet, boy—I mean, sir.” He gripped Hogan’s hand, then suddenly embraced Hogan like a brother.
Caught unawares, it took Hogan a second to realize what was happening. Then he returned Carter’s hold with a ferocity that surprised even himself. “You take care of yourself, hear me?” he said with false harshness as he released Carter, trying to control his own overwhelming emotions. “If I hear you’ve hurt yourself, when I get to London I’m gonna kick your can.”
Carter blinked away his tears and responded to the challenge. “No, sir. I mean, yes, sir.” He pasted a grin on his face that Hogan knew wouldn’t last long, and headed out to join the others.
Hogan, Newkirk, Le Beau and Klink watched from inside the house as the trio disappeared into the night. Then Hogan sighed and turned to the Frenchman and the Englander. “You two are next,” he said with a twinge of regret. “We’d better all get out of here before the real Germans catch up with us.”
Be It Ever So Humble
Hogan gingerly pressed a hand against his abdomen to counteract the burning feeling in the pit of his stomach. He winced and put the cup of coffee down on the bale of hay he had adopted as a makeshift table.
“Feeling poorly, gov’nor?”
Hogan opened his eyes widely, surprised by the voice. He had thought everyone else in the Schultzes’ barn was asleep. But he couldn’t sleep. Not tonight. And probably not the following night either. Some of his men were out of his reach, and out of contact, and he wouldn’t know if they were safe at least until he got on a plane heading back to England. It gnawed at him, no matter how much he tried to believe what he said so confidently to the others over and over again: if anything went wrong, they would find out. They would know. Wouldn’t they?
The quartet’s late-night arrival at the house had certainly taken Gretchen Schultz by surprise. At Hogan’s suggestion, it had been Klink who had made the approach to the lady of the house, after Hogan and his men had checked the area for any signs of unfriendly activity. But apparently her husband had not left her completely in the dark about the recent goings-on at Stalag 13, and she accepted with relative ease the idea that some men who were on the run and wanted by the powers that be, were going to be staying in her barn. She let them warm themselves by a roaring fire, making sure the children were asleep and unaware, then loaded them up with blankets and reluctantly, but with little other option, relegated them to the barn. Before she did so, however, she made sure to provide them with hot coffee and some bread and cheese to tide them over until it was safe for them to surface again.
It was a cup of this coffee that had Hogan put down when Newkirk interrupted his thoughts. He didn’t answer right away, and the Corporal spoke again. “Are you all right, sir?”
Hogan nodded and turned in the dim light of the kerosene lamp toward Newkirk. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he said. “I just getting tired of sleeping on floors and hay. Plays a bit on my back. I miss my flea-ridden, moth-infested mattress. I’m not as young as I used to be.”
Newkirk shook his head as he came up to Hogan’s side. “None of us are, gov’nor,” he agreed. He grabbed his cup and got some coffee out of the flask.
“Can’t sleep?” Hogan asked, more for something to say than to start a real conversation.
“No, sir,” Newkirk answered. “Carter, Kinch and Wilson are out there, sir. I can’t help thinking about them.”
“They’re fine,” Hogan said. Had he answered too strongly? His gut thought so, and Hogan grunted as the fire inside flared again. “We’ll all be together again next week.”
“If you know that for sure, why is your stomach in a knot over it?” Newkirk asked.
Hogan shook his head. “It’s not. I haven’t exactly been eating properly the last few days, you might have noticed, that’s all.”
Newkirk let it pass. “I know what you mean; I miss Louis’ good cooking, too.”
Hogan smiled wryly and shook his head. Imagine missing gourmet cooking… at a POW camp. “We’ll have to get him to cook us one big, fine meal when we get to London. We didn’t exactly have time for a feast when we left Stalag 13.”
“No, but we sure lit a bit enough fire for a nice pot roast!”
Movement from behind them made them both turn around. Le Beau was getting up. And, leaving his blanket wrapped around his shoulders, he reached out for a cup of coffee. “Well, it is not the best café, but it will do for now,” he said simply. Hogan and Newkirk just watched him. “What?” Le Beau asked as he took a sip and sat down. “I was cold,” he offered in explanation.
“Yeah, me, too,” Newkirk said.
“It will be nice to get someplace warm again.”
“You won’t find England very warm,” Newkirk quipped. “Still,” he said, looking around him, “it’s better than here.” He looked at Le Beau. “Bet you’re looking forward to getting back to gay Paree.”
Le Beau nodded, happy with the thought of home. “Oui, Pierre, I am. I will stay in England while I have to, but then it’s back to la France for me.”
“I’m ready to just go sit in front of a warm fire with a Yorkshire pudding and a steak and kidney pie,” Newkirk said. “Whenever they let me do that, that is.” He looked at Hogan. “What about you, sir? After London’s through with us?”
Hogan shrugged thoughtfully. “I think the English got a lot of mileage out of the Lend-Lease Agreement with me,” he said, letting a small smile touch his lips. “I like London, but I don’t think you’ll be able to get me back home fast enough.”
Newkirk nodded. “It’s ironic, isn’t it?” he said to no one in particular. “Here we are, three men ready to head to three different countries… and still I can’t see us being anything but together. Not to mention the Yanks we just sent ahead of us,” he said.
Hogan and Le Beau had no response. Newkirk was absolutely right.
Another voice spoke up. “Shouldn’t you be getting some sleep?” Klink asked, his voice airy with sleep. He got up and joined the group at the hay bale, rubbing his eyes.
“Sorry to wake you, Kommandant,” Hogan said. “We’re just talking about going home after Allied High Command decides they’re done with us.”
Klink nodded. “That may be a long time for me,” he said quietly.
Hogan felt a passing twinge of sympathy. “It won’t be as easy for you,” he admitted. “But when the war is over, you can come back to Germany. And as a prisoner of war, you can say you were taken against your will. No one will hold anything against you.”
“What will I be coming home to?” Klink asked. “A country ruined by a madman, overrun by the enemy, and left with its spirit destroyed. Again.”
Hogan looked at the ground, uncomfortable with the baseless feeling of guilt tightening its grip on his chest and squeezing even harder than the existing guilt that had taken hold of him as soon as he realized that Eichberger wasn’t Black Forest. It made him nearly short of breath, so strong was its hold. He sat down. “War isn’t nice,” was all he said. It was aimed at no one, but everyone felt its deepest meaning.
It was a long time before anyone got to sleep that night.
----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
“Same orders as for Carter and Kinch,” Hogan said the next evening, as Le Beau and Newkirk stood before him, covered in dirt and soot and ready to move out. “You go to the first stopping point, you wait until tomorrow, the sub comes for you. No waiting, no turning back.”
“Right, Colonel,” Newkirk said. He looked at Hogan’s face and for the first time in a week he found he could say what he wanted to. “It’s been a privilege to serve with you, sir. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”
Hogan nodded, touched. Newkirk was not one for expressing his feelings. “Same goes for me,” he said. His throat felt tight. That must be what was making his eyes water, he tried to believe; it had nothing to do with emotion. Nothing. Nothing to do with the fact that when Newkirk and Le Beau left, that he would have no contact with any of his men until next week. No communication with the men with whom he had shared the last three years of his life; upon whom his own life had sometimes depended; whom he would have fought to the death to protect; with Carter, Kinch, Newkirk, and Le Beau. His comrades. His friends.
All going well, they would all be together again in a matter of days. But there was always uncertainty in war, and as men on the run there was never a guarantee that something wouldn’t go wrong. Any one of them could meet an untimely demise, and if that happened, Hogan knew he would feel like his heart had been ripped out of his chest, and he wasn’t sure when the feeling would go away, if it ever did.
“When we get to London, I’ll take you to all the best places,” Newkirk said, in a voice he didn’t recognize as his own.
“I thought you weren’t allowed into the best places,” Hogan reminded him with a raised eyebrow.
“I didn’t say we’d go into them; I said I’d take you to them.” Newkirk winked.
Hogan shook his head and smiled. “Get going. And do what you’re told.”
“Righto, gov’nor.” He wanted to salute Hogan, to show him the kind of respect that Kinch had, that he thought Hogan deserved. But the gesture didn’t feel right to him. So he simply held out his hand and lowered his eyes. “I look forward to causing trouble with you again, sir.”
Hogan accepted the gesture and shook Newkirk’s outstretched hand. “I’m sure that can be arranged.”
Newkirk raised his eyes to meet Hogan’s, but the Colonel found he could say no more. He nodded briefly, and Newkirk took the opportunity to pull himself away from emotions he had never learned to be comfortable with on the surface: caring, respect, and true admiration. He offered a sloppy salute that Hogan returned in like manner, and then nodded to Klink, who stood by again in silence. “I’ll meet you outside, mate,” he said softly to Le Beau, then he went out of the barn and into the darkness.
“Colonel?” Le Beau began.
Hogan felt his guts churning as he faced the Corporal. Of all the men under his command, somehow Louis had been the one who most accurately sensed the Colonel’s emotional states, whether confident or frightened, steady or uncertain. He was the one Hogan couldn’t hide from, even in the solitude of his own office, because even his holing up in his quarters spoke volumes to the man. The only way to cope with this, Hogan thought, was to face it before it began. “Louis, thanks for everything,” Hogan started, holding out his hand. He noticed Le Beau’s eyes were bright with unshed tears, and blinked to keep his own at bay. “I’d have gone crazy without you all beside me.”
“Thank you for letting me continue to fight, Colonel,” Le Beau said. He looked at Hogan’s outstretched hand. “I am sorry, Colonel. I am French; that is not enough of a way to say merci to someone who has meant so much to me.”
Le Beau offered Hogan one of the crispest, most patriotic salutes the Colonel had ever seen. And once Hogan returned it with pride in his men and their contribution to the Allied war effort, Le Beau gripped Hogan by the arms and placed a kiss on each of his cheeks. “Souvenez-vous de moi,” he said quietly. Remember me. “Because I will never forget you.”
Hogan nodded, unable to speak. “Je prie pour Dieu pour vous bénir,” Louis continued.
“He already has blessed me, Louis,” Hogan managed through the tiny opening left in his constricted voice box. “He sent me all of you.”
Louis nodded, and smiled as a tear escaped and slid down his dirty cheek. Then he turned without a word and left the barn.
Hogan watched the door close on the last of his men and, sinking to the nearest hay bale, closed his eyes, emotionally exhausted. All feelings drained out of him, he sat weakly, concentrating only on taking deep breaths and trying to stop the room from spinning around him.
The barn was quiet except for the sound of Hogan’s breathing and the occasional rustling of hay when one of the animals shifted in its slumber. Then, quietly, Klink said, “They will be all right, you know, Hogan.”
Hogan opened his eyes and looked tiredly at the German officer. “What makes you say that?” he asked eventually.
Klink didn’t answer directly. “I have watched your men as they said goodbye, Colonel Hogan. They have an enormous amount of respect for you.”
“I have an enormous amount of respect for them.”
“They are heroes. And what’s more they are your heroes.” Klink shook his head in wonderment. “They have worked as hard as they have out of respect for you. That is quite clear.”
Hogan said nothing, willing each of his men to safety. If wishes could only be guaranteed to come true… “They’re good men. All of them.”
“Then they won’t take any chances on getting on your bad side by getting themselves shot.”
Hogan raised his eyebrows in surprise at Klink’s observation.
“I owe you a lot myself, Hogan. If it were not for you, I would probably be dead. A victim of my own country’s political system.”
“If it weren’t for me, you probably wouldn’t have gotten in the trouble you were in, in the first place.”
Klink shrugged. “Possibly. But it gave me a chance to realize that I am still human, Hogan. That I could not do the merciless thing that the Fuhrer was asking us to do.”
Hogan nodded and stared out toward the barn door. It will be our turn next. He ran his hands over his face, feeling more tired than he had in weeks. He sighed, hoping that sleep would beckon quickly, so that he and Klink could elude any pursuers and follow the others along the escape route soon, and he could confirm that the men who meant so much to him were safe in Allied hands again.
“Hogan,” Klink said into the silence. “I am scared.”
Hogan blinked calmly and looked at Klink, expressionless.
Klink simply looked back, unashamed. “England is not like Germany.”
Hogan nodded, understanding. “It’s not like Connecticut either. But for the time being it’s where we need to be.”
Klink persisted. “I wonder how Germany will change because of the war,” he said. “Will I be able to recognize my home, Hogan, if the Allies win?”
Hogan’s mind drifted. Lush fields, neatly mowed lawns fronted by clean, tree-lined streets, old white church steeples piercing the sky, a girl whom he could love with the intensity of youth. That had been home. But there was more to it, so much more. Family, friends, laughter and warmth. A sharing of beliefs and care. That was home. A support system when the world let you down. A loyalty that burned with such intensity as to blot out any disappointing or devastating event. That was home.
Hogan could almost reach out and touch the men he had worked with in the last three years. He could see their faces, hear their voices, feel their healing constancy and devotion. No matter what the physical surroundings, their acceptance and comfort enveloped him, and Hogan sensed he would feel that presence always. That was home, too. He nodded and allowed himself to smile gently. “You’ll know it when you’re there, Kommandant,” Hogan finally replied. “There’s no place like home.”
Text and original characters copyright 2004 by Linda Groundwater
This copyright covers only original material and characters, and in no way intends to infringe upon the privileges of the holders of the copyrights, trademarks, or other legal rights, for the Hogan's Heroes universe.