World War II was the deadliest military conflict in history. Over 65 million people died which was over 2.5% of the world population . . .
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midst the heavy vibrations of the intense heat within the boiler of the huge steam engine came the sounds of escaping steam. The fire angrily ate at the fuel fed into its fire box.
He kissed the side of her face softly as she cried quietly on his shoulder and whispered in her ear, "I have to go now." She buried her face deeper into his chest, and sobbed, if you go, "I'll never see you again . . . Never Again!"
Finally at the sound of the engine whistle and the conductors last call "All Aboard," he leaned over and kissed her briefly tasting the salt of her tears. Abruptly he turned and walked briskly to the train. He didn't trust himself with that lump in his throat and she didn't need to see him feeling fearful that she may very well be right.
He bounded onto the steps as the heavy soldier laden train lurched forward. The rumble thundering and echoing loudly as each hitch noisily slammed home as forward motion took up the slack. The engine strained against the weight of the train, the increasing speed confirmed by the ever faster chuff of steam escaping the huge cylinders as they cycled faster and faster.
Grasping the well worn upright handle on the rail he turned, leaned out and waved, blowing her a kiss. She stood there watching him wave until he disappeared out of sight as the silvery tracks guided the long, army green train around the bend, then out of sight perhaps never to see him again.
The thought pervaded her mind about how many of the soldiers on that train would make the ultimate sacrifice, many never to return home again; that number could easily include Will.
The only thing left was the lonely quietness of the now empty depot devoid of well-wishers. One could feel the loneliness settling down much like a heavy blanket. It attacked her with deep feelings of anxiety and desperation, smothering her with the fear of never seeing him again. Why did she feel so strongly about this? And where had "Never Again" come from?
The hours slowly melted into days, days into weeks and months seemingly into years. She waited patiently at the train depot each day for the mail train to bring some word from him. Sometimes there would be several letters all written at different times and heavily censored, but, due to delivery problems sometimes mail wouldn't reach her for weeks on end.
Sometimes the dates were out of sequence, and then sometimes his letters would never reach her simply being lost within the machine of war.
Month after month the war raged on. At times it looked grim for the Americans. It now engulfed nearly the entire world and domestic citizens of the US, fearing the worst were forming civilian militias. The same was happening in England, Germany and even Japan. Before Japan surrendered thousands of civilians formed militias fearing the Americans would eventually invade Japan.
Pockets of resistance were frustrating the German war machine in France, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Those caught were dealt with brutally by firing squad on the site. Pictures were seen of resistance members being shot right on the main streets of towns.
Most of the civilian militia were ill looking and ragged groups formed using the aged, the young, the sick and anyone who could muster the strength to be involved. But they were coming together. Each participant built on another's confidence in the belief that they could stand to confront and even withstand the invading armies they all feared were coming.
Each company built and commanded by aged commanders, ex-military officers and even some with no military experience at all. They drilled at night, in the rain, in the cold and in the heat. They built sand bag barriers and practiced with ancient rifles of every make and caliber imaginable that could be found. They never considered the pitifully small amounts of ammunition they could rake up as a negative. They would simply fight hand to hand when it ran out.
These were desperate times and desperate times demanded desperate behavior.
But fight they would; and they were emboldened further by the words of Sir Winston Churchill:
" . . . I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat . . ."
The words welded them together as units of resisting militias, each swearing the oath of death at the words of Churchill when he stated:
" . . . Meanwhile, the House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. I have only to add, that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way, as on former occasions in our history, through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemies . . . "
People all over the U.S. crowded around any radio they could find, whether at the general store, home or work to follow the progress of the war. Poland and Czechoslovakia fell under Hitler's Blitzkrieg or 'Lightning War.' The term meant deep penetration of air and tanks, surprise on numerous fronts, encircle then defeat them through a decisive Vernichtungsschlacht (battle of annihilation).
And then it was evident France would fall - and it soon did. Hitler's war machine defeated Frances' mighty front line fortress, the Maginot Line - by simply going around it. All ears were fixed on the radio broadcasts of the time for any scrap of news concerning the war. They hung on every word of Churchill as he stated (with the nasal drag of a voice that was his), his will to fight and interrupted with many pauses :
" . . . Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender . . ."
The speech heralded in many women the need to form nursing militias on the home front, many joining to fight or fill nursing stations and hospitals anywhere in the world. Thousands upon thousands of women worked long hard hours in the factories filling the shoes of men fighting all over the world. They carried on and built the war machines needed to fight Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. Millions of homes all over the United States had Churchills' picture and those words placarded in rooms and offices as well throughout the British Empire.
Sharon wanted to do more than sit at home and read letters, listen to news, worry and wonder about Will. She HAD to do something. So like hundreds of thousands of other women, she joined the new branch of military called WACS (Women's Air Corps). (At that time the Air Force was still part of the army affording many women the chance to help in the war effort.)
The first year over 25,000 women signed up far exceeding the expectations. Eventually over 150,000 would serve.
Soon, they were finished with basic training, then on to nursing school, then given a one week respite. Before going on leave their wills had been written, signed and submitted as with all military. She went home to pack and make ready.
The day before she was to leave, she received two letters from Will, one of which she soon realized was his style of prose, but it definitely was not his handwriting. The morning too quickly arrived when she was to report to the train station to take her to the same war to which Will had gone. She would be leaving from the same station where she had kissed Will the last time; but this morning she felt something was all wrong.
Suddenly, a surge of apprehension went up and down her spine as the full realization settled upon her at the seriousness of her mission. Not fear to serve, nor even to fight; but fear of the unknown. She was up very early in anticipation of the journey into the world to nurse or do what she could to aid her country. She soon finished the final packing of her bags and set them by the front door. She was dressed and was sipping a cup of strong black coffee she had learned to like in Basic Training.
She was to meet the train at 0700 hrs and she wanted to be early. It was 0600 hours and she was standing at the kitchen counter with her coffee. A black military vehicle caught her attention as it drove slowly up the street. It pulled over to the curb in front of her house where she was living with her parents until Will came home, then stopped.
When she looked out the window and saw the two junior officers in khakis with black arm bands walking in step toward the door, the sound she made was more of a wail than a scream. Her parents rushed into the room to see her collapsed on the floor wailing. The last little bit of coffee out of the cup lying on its side was spreading out on the floor.
Her dad answered the knock at the door, and the officers removed their covers, and asked for one Sharon Combs. "That is our daughter sir, please give me a second to fetch her."
Her mom had gotten her off the floor and seated at the table where she sat with her face buried in her hands weeping, knowing what the news would be.
Her dad helped her to her feet and nearly carried her to the door. When she got to the door, she stood there on legs of rubber with her face still buried in her hands.
The senior officer confirmed her identity and she shook her head in agreement, eyes downcast, tears streaming down her face, a blank look in her eyes. He then stated with military perfection, "I have a telegram for you from the President of the United States of America. It states:
"Miss Sharon Combs. It is our sore displeasure to inform you of one Sgt. Will Travis, wounded in battle - has succumbed to those injuries. I am sorry for your loss."
At that, both men came to attention and saluted. "Good day ma'am," one of them said curtly, and in unison they spun on their heels and walked to the waiting car at the side of the road.
Sharon had been helped to the couch, and by now she was a wreck. She now knew the origin of the thought as she kissed Will goodbye, the phrase; "Never Again . . ."
Her mom came in and sat beside her. Taking her hand she said "Will died doing something that would protect your life here in our beloved nation. He died to make sure you had freedom. He died to make sure that future generations would enjoy the same America in which he had grown up."
She fumbled for more words of encouragement for her daughter then said "Your train leaves in less than an hour. You go wash your face and we'll take you there. She realized that her own flesh and blood was leaving on the train this morning and could very well result in the same loss as Will."
Sharon remembered Wills face as she stood on the same step as Will and waved goodbye to her parents in the same manner he had waved to her. Somehow, she felt as if she would be able to right Wills death by serving her country in this awful war.
She left her parents on the landing where Will had left her, and she wondered if the phrase "Never Again" would apply to seeing her parents again as it had for Will. In less than a month she was over seas on her last leg of the journey being delivered to her post of duty.
Her parents remained glued to the radio listening constantly in anticipation as to the progress of the war. In less than two months, Germany had over run France's northern border completely by-passing the extremely fortified Maginot line by simply going around it. Sharon heard the news also as she listened with comrades.
She was stationed in England for a while for more training, then was sent to Guadalcanal. She had no way of knowing she was within a mile of where Will had been wounded. She had no way of knowing she would be caring for some of the buddies who fought right beside him, and were now barely hanging on to life. Her skill would be needed greatly.
The very first day there she was assigned to her quarters and nursing station and told to rest and report for duty at 0600 hours. Instead she went right to work at her post, as all the help they could possibly muster was sorely needed.
Before she even realized it, she had worked 36 hours straight, had held the hands of many who spoke of girls back home, never knowing if they would ever see them again. She stood by several who passed from their grievous wounds in the loneliness of the midnight hours, feeling their grip loosen as death claimed them.
She cried with them, joked with them, laughed with them, and answered "yes" to the many proposals of marriage. But none of these were Will, and as far as she was concerned, her life was over as far as marriage goes. She never thought of marriage for herself, as there was no one who could ever fill his shoes in her life.
She constantly volunteered for some of the most dangerous missions: to go out to the front lines to retrieve the dead and wounded or help out at the front lines in the MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) units there. Sickened by the torn bodies and mangled lives, most of whom would never be the same mentally or physically, she worked on and on. She hadn't even realized she was losing weight and was already gaunt and thin, looking much older than she really was.
Then, on one of the dangerous forays it happened. The jeep in which she was riding shotgun was caught in the sights of a Nazi .50 cal machine gun fire. The jeep was instantly disabled and stopped quickly as the engine seized and the rear wheels locked up and halted it, sliding to a stop.
The vehicle was dead as were all of her fellow occupants. She looked down at her leg and saw she was bleeding severely. She hadn't realized the wound in her side yet.
The gasoline tank had been hit and the leaking fuel had just began to burn, the searing heat and smoke enveloping the disabled Jeep. Knowing instantly death would find her if she didn't move - and NOW!
She leaned over and quickly stripped the canvas belt off the driver fighting momentarily with the claw buckle, picked up his gun and a box of ammo. With all her might she heaved herself over the short doorway. As she exited the jeep, her leg collapsed and she fell flat on her face. Although irritating and extremely painful, the action saved her life. The searching machine gun fire found the jeep again and expended itself on the corpses.
"Well, at least they have already suffered all they are going to," and bowed her head momentarily as the funeral pyre began to lap at the bodies.
The smoke was so thick it obscured her as she limped away from the big .50 and across the road to a little tail ditch using the M-1 as a support. She dove into the mud of the ditch landing safely out of reach of the big gun seeking to finish her. She used the belt taken off the driver as a tourniquet and used the bayonet off the rifle to tighten it.
She was already weak with the loss of blood. The words of Churchill was ringing in her ears louder even than the huge .50 cal machine gun that was searching for her.
She could hear the terrific force of the huge projectiles as they impacted around her, ripping through dirt searching for her in the smoke attempting to finish her off. All it did was strengthen her resolve: to accommodate a German skull helmet with a clean shot from that M-1 she carried.
She did real well on the shooting range during her training and now, she was going to get some revenge for the man who had never left her heart. He was reported KIA and no doubt had either been buried in a shallow grave or was somewhere in transit in a body bag and a flag draped coffin for his final airplane ride. Well, she might join him there, but she was going to take out that big .50!
She used the bayonet to create a small hole through the side of the berm behind which she was hiding just big enough to put just the rim of the M-1 through and aim it. The pain was intense as she lay stomach down, aiming the M-1 toward the nest where the big .50 hid.
The smoke from the fire of the gas tank was thinning as the fuel ran out. The Germans had not seen her exact location because of the veil of smoke. But they could readily see remains of the corpses burned in the fire and that one seat was empty. They wouldn't rest until they had found and eliminated that threat.
She sat there watching for her chance, and asked the Lord to help her silence that big .50. A slight breeze cleared the heavy black smoke for just a couple of seconds. She saw a young German ground pounder stand up to toss the grenade he was rearing back to throw. Her bullet caught him in the head and the grenade fell with him back into the gun nest. The blast seemed modest in comparison to the report of the big .50. Actually, quite muffled. But it did its work.
She saw the movement of only one Nazi soldier; blood soaked and mortally wounded by his own grenade. He staggered weakly then fell over the rim of the sandbag nest in which the machine gun sat. He attempted to crawl the rest of the way over the sandbag wall, then slumped across the wall, head down, only to remain motionless. The big .50 was silent.
She doubted if it could be used again after the blast she saw come from that hole. She prayed that it was destroyed so that it could never kill anyone else.
Sharon took a quick three hundred and sixty degree scan of the horizon. Seeing nothing, she turned over on her back raising up just enough to release the tourniquet for a half minute, then wound it up tight again. She thanked the Lord for His help, and then prayed for Him to let her get out of here; dead or alive.
In the stillness and the darkening evening, the world of home from which she came seemed so far away. She fought the sleep that sought to overtake her. She knew in her heart that the sleep that was so forcefully coming would be the sleep of death.
She fought bitterly that sleep. But when dusk came the night found her alone in such a dangerous place, still in the little hole. Finally she could hold out no longer, and sleep, even against the persistent and gallant struggle and without her permission overcame her.
The war that was so close only minutes ago seemed to be slipping further and further away. As the last light of the day waned, the unforgettable sounds of war slipped from ear shot. And, as the last sounds of war faded into quietness she slept.
Badly wounded and bleeding to death even though she'd positioned her frame so as to keep pressure against the wound in her side, she laid still now to the heavy sleep which had overtaken her. Her last thoughts were "even if she lived, she would no doubt lose the leg . . ."
From somewhere deep in the corridors of her mind the words came back to her: "Never Again . . ." The thought of never seeing William again was as searing as if a knife were plunged through her heart. Without William, living didn't sound worth the trouble.
In the midst of her slumber she heard a footfall and she did all she could to rouse herself; to bring her rifle to bear, to protect herself. But with the amount of blood she'd lost, she could not even muster herself to a position in which to fight. Right before she lost consciousness, two things were ringing loud and clear in her head.
One was "Never Again," and the other was the words of Sir Winston Churchill: "We have not yet begun to fight, but fight I shall . . ."
As she sank into the vast blackness of oblivion she welcomed the lapse of pain, loneliness and suffering. She was through and had given the ultimate sacrifice for her country. "Death just releases one from the reality of pain . . ." she thought.
Sharon became aware three days later to the sounds of quiet hustle, the quiet commands and requests, moans and cries of pain. Even before she won the struggle to force her eyes open, she'd recognized the noise of a front line hospital. And, she had become cognizant of someone standing by her bed.
She could feel him there, but whoever it was could not be seen with her peripheral vision. And she was much too weak to raise her head to get a look at him and discover his identity. He moved around to head of her bed allowing a couple of corpsmen bearing a litter heavy with a laden body bag to pass.
The man standing vigil at the edge of Sharon's bed now moved back to the side of it. He hadn't as of yet noticed her eye movement. His eyes had been averted to the bed next to hers and the black bag into which yet another one of his hospital buddies was being placed. That soldiers battle with the war, physical and mental, was over. Later, the bag would be placed in a simple coffin draped with the beloved American flag, loaded onto a plane and returned home.
They zipped up the bag, tilted it to one side sliding a stretcher under it, then letting it back down on the stretcher, sliding the bag and it's contents the rest of the way onto the stretcher. The corpsmen then carried it out to a waiting vehicle.
He continued to stand aside as a nurse stripped the bed and placed clean bedclothes on it. She fluffed the loose down pillow after placing a clean case on it, then quickly patted it into place on the bed. Within seconds a couple of other corpsmen carried another litter in, and with the help of two other nurses, slid the unconscious body of another soldier into place. His face and head heavily bandaged, only his nose was visible.
At first, she didn't know the face of the man keeping vigil at her bedside. It took a few minutes of searching her memory to recognize him as one of the solders she had stood beside in the hospital unit where she had first worked. Just a few weeks before, she had held his hand to comfort him; to let him feel the comfort of someone from back home.
He had been severely wounded and had it not been for her standing by him, no doubt he would have died. Now, it was his turn to stand vigil. It was only after the corpsmen had passed by that he noticed her eyes open and fixed on him.
The questions were beginning to formulate in her head. "Where am I? How did she get here? How long had she been here? Did she lose the leg? Did they retrieve the remains from the jeep? When could she get up and go back to work?"
She felt the surges of physical and emotional pain as it came in waves. She felt to retch, and knew it was coming no matter what. The man at the edge of the bed yelled "nurse!" then stepped aside as the nurse came running over.
The nurse saw Sharon's throat muscles flexing as she dry heaved having nothing on her stomach since the day at the front and before that, very little. The nurse instantly gave her a light shot of morphine with a muscle relaxant, and within seconds she was out again. Retching would tear the stitches out of her side where she had lost so much blood. The tourniquet she had placed on her leg had saved her life.
The meatball surgery Dr. had saved her leg, transfused her, and gave her a good prognosis. Within a week they had her moved back behind the lines, but none of them were aware of the scene going on at her home that very instant in America.
The dreaded military vehicle, the same two men with black arm bands knocking on the door, and her dad standing there ashen faced with the tears running down and dripping off his chin as the officer spoke.
When the officers saluted him, he snapped to and saluted back with the tears glistening on his cheek, little salty rivulets from his eyes coursing down his face and dripping to his shirt where they melted into large soaked spots.
Her mother coming in midway of the scene, peeked out the window and upon seeing the vehicle, turned white, and sat down on the sofa motionless, and tears streaming down her face. Their only child, now listed along with her fiance, as KIA. But it strengthened their resolve even stronger to fight to the death any army that would invade their beloved America for which they'd lost their child and hope for grandchildren.
Winston Churchill's words rang loud and strong in their ears, vibrated in their chest, and strengthened their backs:
"we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never, ever, ever surrender . . . "
Meanwhile, overseas, Sharon had recuperated enough to be moved to a better hospital away from the fighting, and after a couple of days, the army would be sending her stateside. The day finally came and she had been carried out to the waiting cargo transfer plane and deposited on a temporary bier of double stacked flag draped caskets. They were flying her home, and for all she knew, Will could very well be in one of them.
She was cognizant of the roll call that was taking place and weakly waved her hand in response to her name called out loud enough to be heard over the whine of the four huge radial engines. The noise was deafening and was magnified as each was cranked, sputtered and caught, then roared to life, increasing the vibration to almost unbearable conditions. The thin mattress on which she lay did little to stifle the vibrations.
The doors had been shut eliminating some of the noise of the engines. The thick smell of oil burned by the starting engines sought to choke her breath from her. After a few minutes she felt the huge plane move as the engines roared.
Slowly the big plane waddled toward the end of the temporary runway throwing her back and forth. She closed her eyes while they went through the remainder of roll call listed alphabetically. When the big plane lumbered toward the engine runup area, the turning threw her stomach into a tizzy and she began to retch again.
Two attendants had been sent with the plane to ferry the still very sick and traumatized patients. Seeing the involuntary retching in her throat one gave her another light shot of morphine and a muscle relaxant. Within seconds she calmed down remaining in much pain as the pilot finished with his preflight runup checklists.
The runup entailed each engine to be revved up to operating RPM's one at a time while different tests were performed on the props, the magnetos (which supplied the spark), oil pressure, fuel pressure, manifold vacuum . . .
All this was being done while she was lapsing into the peaceful bliss of sleep again. She was nearly out when she heard a familiar name called as well as a response. And the voice that rang out was right by her side, and it was a voice she knew.
She let out a long moan which soon became a wail with a full compliment of tears. Her wide open and searching eyes came into focus and looked square into the face of a gaunt, tired, and unshaven Will Travis. Weakly she grabbed him and pulled him to her. She cried until she was cried out.
Will was struggling to get to her ear and she strained to hear what he said over the noise of the engines revving up to full power for takeoff at the start of the runway. The lumbering, heavy plane struggled down the rough temporary runway made of slats of iron and she felt the tail come up. In a few seconds it gave a final violent lurch as it hit the lift ramp at the end, then settled firmly into a long slow climb.
She looked at Will with eyebrows scrunched up in a question and mouthed "what?"
The loud yells of those attempting to be heard lessened as the plane brought in the landing gear and the huge, open wheel cavities closed. That made quite a drastic difference in the level of noise. After all, it was a military cargo plane. Comfort nor quietness had been part of the priorities of design. There was a war on, and these things had to fly!
One could easily hear the talk if it was spoken loudly. The change over each occupant was evident in the ambience of the rattly old plane as the dread and fear of war sank further and further away from them; then finally, into oblivion.
After roll call many of them drifted into fitful sleep amidst noise, tight confines, and flag draped coffins stacked two high, three abreast reaching from aft to front of the huge plane. The engines were soon synced and the plane leveled out as she reached elevation. A few more hours and they would be transferred to a huge ship bound for San Francisco! But for now relative safety of the old bird as she whisked them ever closer to the safety of home was a welcome feeling and beyond words.
Sharon was nearly out when a cheer broke out. They were going home. Whistles and wolf calls sounded as the men watched as Will leaned over, kissed her lightly on the forehead and said "Never Again. She arched her eyebrows in question, and he repeated: Never again, will we be separated."