Private First Class Wilbur killed his first German at 19 years of age. He was a seasoned combat vet at that point, wading ashore a month earlier at Normandy. He never killed a man before though he fired his rifle in anger countless times and chucked his fair share of hand grenades.
But never at a human target, only at puffs of gunsmoke in gaping windows or furtive movement in bushes and trees. He’d seen plenty of dead Germans, of course, dead and disfigured by American small arms fire and artillery but never anyone he aimed at, never anyone he shot.
He’d seen plenty of dead Americans, too.
First Lieutenant Kyle had just led the patrol to the outskirts of Saint-Michel-de-Livet when they heard the bitter chatter of an MP 40 submachine gun and screams abruptly cut off. Lt. Kyle fanned his men out to enter the village down three narrow winding streets, signaling Corporal Dugan and Pfc. Wilbur to take the right flank.
The GIs on the left flank encountered the Germans first, and the air filled with the dull barks of Mausers dueling with the loud pops of M1 rifles.
As the battle raged two streets over, Pfc. Wilbur kept his eyes and ears focused straight ahead so that no Germans could encircle his position.
He turned the corner of the small street at the same instant a German turned it in the opposite direction. Pfc. Wilbur was so startled he jerked his trigger finger without thinking and, more by chance than design, put a bullet through the German’s heart at point blank range.
The German staggered back as if struck in the chest with a baseball bat. He fell on the street, cracking his helmet hard on the cobblestones.
He was dead but still conscious, at least for the moment. He looked at his chest in dismay, realizing his injury was fatal, then his eyes rolled back in his head and he lost consciousness and the last bit of life seeped from him.
The shooting on the other street stopped and Lt. Kyle began checking his men’s status. The patrol had been lucky: No dead, no injured, and three Germans killed.
Four, counting Pfc. Wilbur’s.
Pfc. Wilbur’s dead German seemed to be in his mid-thirties, husky with sandy brown hair. He was an unteroffizier, the rough equivalent of an American buck sergeant, and he carried an MP 40.
Cpl. Dugan, the platoon scrounger, stepped up and began rifling the German’s uniform. “Good shooting, kid,” he said to Pfc. Wilbur. Cpl. Dugan was 21.
Pfc. Wilbur stood there, somewhat dumbfounded. He didn’t know what to think, much less what to do. The possibility of killing a man face to face had always been present in his mind, but the possibility was now a reality and he didn’t know how to process it.
Cpl. Dugan handed Pfc. Wilbur the MP 40 submachine gun. It was a valuable souvenir and by right of combat, Pfc. Wilbur’s trophy.
Cpl. Dugan rolled the German over and opened his backpack. There was nothing of value in it, just a Bible in German.
Cpl. Dugan handed Pfc. Wilbur the Bible. Pfc. Wilbur slung his M1 over his shoulder and took the Bible in his free hand. It felt very similar in texture and weight to his own Bible.
He let it fall open in the palm of his hand. There was a snapshot tucked between the cover and first page, a picture of the dead German smiling with his wife and son and daughter. Father and son wore uniforms, there was a Christmas tree in the background. They seemed like a happy family and the enormity of what he had done struck Pfc. Wilbur at that moment. That particular family had now ceased to exist, and the family that survived would never know their happiness.
Lt. Kyle radioed for backup then came over to check Cpl. Dugan and Pfc. Wilbur. He glanced at the dead German without acknowledgement. Killing Germans was their profession. Lt. Kyle was 25.
“The rest of the Krauts retreated,” he said. “Company is sending up two more platoons to reinforce us. We’re going to take perimeter positions in the houses at the edge of the village ‘til they get here.”
Pfc. Wilbur, Bible in one hand, MP 40 in the other, followed Lt. Kyle. They passed a small public square where the bodies of three children and four women lay. Two of the women seemed to be scarcely out of their teens.
The four women were naked; they had been raped then shot as they tried to protect the children. Thirty-two 9mm shell casings nestled between the cobblestones, there were no 7.92mm Mauser rifle casings.
“Did anybody else carry a submachine gun?” Pfc. Wilbur asked.
“Nah, the other Krauts just had rifles,” said Lt. Kyle.
Later, Pfc. Wilbur traded the MP 40 for a bottle of scotch. He kept the Bible because it was hard to find toilet paper in the field.
text © Buzz Dixon