Lonely birds in skies of ash
Soar over isles of rock and heath
Sudden sprouts of wispy drab
Burst forth and float to ground beneath.
Barking shouts from hidden nests
Scream forth to greet these assailing seeds
The first of the raptors meets its prey
And in midair begins to feed.
The chatter of anti-aircraft fire filled the air and the first of the 40mm flak guns had just begun to hurl shells into the air. Captain Rost watched the sky fill with more and more tiny olive-drab parachutes, the enemy soldiers beneath almost invisible against the overcast sky. He saw a flak round hit one of the closer ones with a jerk and a small spray, but most found only empty air and the invaders drifted ever closer to the ground. A staff officer hurried up to him.
“Captain, you are ordered to roll out your platoon to the landing zone to repulse the invaders. The defense of the fort is the first priority.” The major hurried away, talking on his walkie-talkie. Captain Rost looked back to the paratroopers. Now that they were lower, the anti-aircraft guns were finding more marks, ripping through parachutes and men and sending them hurtling to the earth. It was not enough though. Within minutes, a thousand or more shock troops would be on the ground. He ran towards his tank, shouting for the crews to saddle up, load up, get rolling. Minutes later, the gates of the fort opened and a column of tanks and APCs with mounted machine guns rolled out to defend their sovereign territory.
The trees rushed up
And through I fell
Fingering branches and whispered doom
A savage jerk and then
Cut here, cut there
A crashing thud
The fear rushed in
I watched and waited
Cries of pain and victory all around
A burst of fire
Duck here, dodge there
A man loomed up
I aimed and fired
A single shot sped through the air
A bloom of red
Screaming loud, tumbling down
Private First Class John Haviland’s hands shook as he lowered his rifle. The enemy soldier lay dead ten yards ahead of him. He reached up, past his parachute harness and reached for a fresh magazine. Then he remembered he had only fired one shot and let it be.
All around him, the woods echoed with the staccato of machine gun and rifle fire and with the cries of men. He could not tell what side they came from—probably both. He stood for a moment looking around in confusion. He had killed a man, but he was alone in the woods. Which way was he supposed to go? Their orders were to take the fort in the center of the island, but what direction was that in?
“Hey, soldier! What the hell do you think you’re doing?” PFC Haviland turned to see a lieutenant crouched behind a bush. “Get your ass down! Do you want to get shot?” Haviland dropped to the ground and crawled over to the lieutenant. He felt better. Getting shouted at was familiar ground.
“Which way, sir?”
“Follow me and keep down. We’re going straight up, you cover the flank.” The lieutenant darted forward and Haviland lurched after him, swinging the barrel of his rifle back and forth.
A bullet whistled by him from the right. He fell flat and fired a burst without aiming. The bullets tore up the bark of a tree twenty yards away. Then he was up and scrambling to the hollow where the lieutenant had taken shelter.
This was the routine for the next few minutes. Duck, wait, fire, sprint, drop, crawl, wait. The lieutenant shot two enemy soldiers before Haviland even saw them. He felt scared and useless, but it was better than being alone. Five minutes later, they came across a squad of their own men, including a captain. There were bazookas in this group and the officers started ordering attack formations. Haviland was handed a bazooka and then they were off again.
They came out of the trees to rocky ground covered with scrub grass and low bushes. Private Haviland heard a squeaking rumble and a tank appeared ahead of them, then two more off to the right. It stopped as soon as it was in sight, and the turret rotated towards them.
Haviland wished they hadn’t given him a bazooka. He was breathing hard as he thumbed the safety switch and sighted it on the space between the tank’s turret and main body. He had a mental image of himself vomiting just as he pulled the trigger, firing into the ground and killing them all. He pulled the trigger and with a roar of flame, the rocket was away.
Iron dragon green
Explodes like blooming orchid
Burning men inside
Even from within his tank, Captain Rost felt the concussion as the tank near him exploded. He shouted orders to return fire, but the gunner was already moving the main gun, sighting in on the low depression where the rocket had come from. The tank rocked back as the gun fired, and the low hillock 60 yards away fountained up in a shower of rock and splintered vegetation. Rost opened the top hatch and got behind the .50 caliber machine gun. There was a sporadic crackle of rifle fire, some of it pinging off the armor of the tank. He returned fire, strafing the edge of the woods wherever he saw movement.
The tank was moving again, turning and prowling along the edge of the trees. Rost kept the machine gun pointed at the trees, letting out short bursts. An anti-tank rocket flew over his hand. He fired at the direction it had come from. He paused for a moment, but there was only silence.
A tiny pool of red
Fed from a small but steady stream
That issues from a tiny gash
In a jacket of olive green
Pumped from the labored heart
Of mother’s son both young and loyal
Whose life leaks out on foreign leaves
Absorbed in foreign soil
Private Haviland had lost his rifle. He lay with his back to a spiky tree, holding the wound in his side. He tried not breathe—every rise and fall of his chest made more blood spill out and soak his uniform. He gritted his teeth, trying to think.
Most of the rest of the squad was dead. A few must have survived, but if they had, they had already advanced. Was he going to die? How would he ever find a medic like this? He felt a wave of lightheadedness come over him. It had to be shock, unless it was the first signs of the final unconsciousness that he would never wake up from. He fought it, blinking his eyes furiously and pressing on the wound as tight as he could.
There was another rumbling of a tank approaching. More bursts from a machine gun. Haviland saw a group of four enemy tanks come into view in the field ahead of him. They were patrolling, turning this way and that as if not sure of where to attack next. Haviland was in plain sight from where they sat; he could only hope that if they did see him, they would consider a wounded soldier not even worth a bullet.
The commander of the lead tank pointed in his direction and swiveled the machine gun around. Haviland was bracing for the shots when he heard a high pitched whistle and a line of fire balls enveloped the far two tanks in a sudden conflagration. The remaining two tanks hurried to gain cover. Just before he lost consciousness, Haviland could see allied bombers flying overhead, like tiny specks of black against the grey sky. He felt happy, although he was not sure why, considering he was about to die.
Night falls and the tigers sheath their claws
And with stealthy paws
Search the carnage they have caused
Despite the air support, the attack had failed. The invasion force had been crushed and either destroyed or captured as prisoners. Captain Rost escorted a medical and recovery team as they searched by flashlight for survivors on both sides.
He came across a group of bodies lying near where his tank column had been attacked. His soldiers went around collecting the corpses and weapons, piling them to be picked up later. He was searching one body for intelligence when it moved slightly and gave a small moan.
“Medic!” he shouted and waited as men with a stretcher approached. They lifted the wounded man onto it and carried him away.
An hour later, Captain Rost returned to the fort and went to the medical corps where he was shown into a guarded area for wounded prisoners of war. The wounded enemy soldier he had found had been bandaged and lay on a low cot. He opened his eyes when Rost approached.
“What is your name, soldier?” Rost asked. The boy looked muzzily at him.
“Private First Class John Haviland,” he said finally, his voice barely more than a croak. “Am I a prisoner?”
“Yes, your attack failed,” Rost said. “You are in recovery now. The doctors believe it is a miracle that you are alive at all. You had more than a foot on death’s threshold when we found you.”
“Why did you save me then?” Haviland asked. “I am the enemy. Out there we tried to kill each other.”
Captain Rost shrugged. “It is soldiers who must fight, but wars are fought between nations, not between men. Does your side not see it that way?”
“We were told that you tortured prisoners and used them in barbaric ways.”
Captain Rost smiled. “We are told the same about you, but those things are told by nations, not by men. Get better soon.”
Like arm-wrestlers locked in struggle
The war raged back and forth
Swaying to one side, then the other
Until one fell
They laid down their arms
Dusted off their uniforms
And shook hands
Treaties were signed
Men returned home
And the war was added as one line
In the grand history of humankind