John E. Nevola completes his second World War Two historical novel in The Final Flag. It is the sequel to his award-winning first novel, The Last Jump. He was born in New York City, is a graduate of Cardinal Hayes High School and the College of Aeronautics. A veteran of the U.S. Army and a member of The Military Writers Society of America, he resides in New Jersey with his wife Josephine.
The Final Flag
by John E. Nevola
The Final Flag
by John E. Nevola
Published May 22, 2018
Genre: FICTION / Historical / General
Four volunteers embark on a quest to recover the remains of seven missing paratroopers from World War II. Driven by a dying soldier’s last request, their only clue is a list of names. What seems like a difficult but straightforward task suddenly becomes fraught with bombshell surprises. The Department of Defense refuses to cooperate. Credible evidence of a conspiracy and cover-up at the highest echelons of the Army is suspected. However, it turns out some of the men survived the war. It was a place to start. The four eventually narrow the search to two orphan independent parachute infantry battalions with troubled reputations. They uncover scandalous indications of the contemptible mis-treatment of these two battalions at the hands of higher commands. Both units were annihilated at the Battle of the Bulge, ignominiously disbanded and their records destroyed. What was the Army hiding? And the taint of ethnic discrimination against non-citizen Italian-American immigrants becomes more apparent the deeper they delve into the investigation. Most of the missing men were of Italian descent. The searchers stubbornly persist against the odds to uncover the untold story of the missing men. Their only motivation is to give closure to the families. To their amazement, what they discovered was spectacularly astonishing and would change lives forever. Proceeds from The Final Flag are donated to assist families of the fallen.
Chapter Twenty-Four El Djem, Tunisia – December 26, 1942 "I love the name of honor, more than I fear death." Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC) Roman general and politician Second Lieutenant Dan A. DeLeo stared into the black night from the cargo door of the blacked-out lead C-47. Despite the full moon, they could not find the town of El Djem and had been circling aimlessly for some time as the pilot tried to discern any landmark that would help fix his position. Everything looked the same in the desert. DeLeo knew that having his three-plane group loitering in the area for too long would inevitably attract attention. He knew they would have to jump soon. It was his call and while he felt fully capable of making it, he wondered how he, a replacement officer, ever got command of this mission. After Raff secured the two airfields at Tebessa and Youks-les-Bains, he called back to Allied Forces Headquarters in Algiers requesting permission to advance eastward into Tunisia to the town of Gafsa. Retreating French troops had told him of another airfield and a large store of aviation gas. Clark ordered Raff to go no further east than Gafsa though Raff had pipe dreams of reaching the coastal town of Gabes and cutting off Rommel’s supply lines and line of retreat. Clark knew that was too ambitious for this meager force and had to restrain the eager Raff. After Raff brought up his other companies on 17 November, he set out to occupy Gafsa eighty miles to the east. He found a small French contingent defending the town but no Germans. He began to aggressively patrol to the east. It soon became apparent to General Clark that Raff’s force was the only Allied force in Tunisia and he decided to reinforce him. He sent Raff reinforcements, which consisted of a company of infantry from the 26th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, a company of the 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion, a platoon of jeep mounted 37-millimeter antitank guns, various local French forces and fighter cover based at Youks-les-Bains. For the following two weeks Raff skirmished with the local Axis forces, which had become stronger with time. While Allied forces were being pushed back from Tunis in the north, his patchwork command held its own in the south. His speedy tactics, hit and run raids and tactical victories kept the Axis forces off balance. It was the only success the Allies were having as the Germans continued to reinforce and resupply more quickly than the Allies. Axis forces finally attained local superiority in Northern Tunisia around the ports of Tunis and Bizerte. On 27 November, Raff was summoned to Algiers. By virtue of his success, Clark promoted him to full colonel and the command he was given was named The Tunisian Task Force. On 3 December, he led his forces to a victory at Faid Pass capturing over 130 German and Italian prisoners. The Geronimos deployed forward were recalled to Maison Carree. Raff kept E Company and was given more combat units by Clark for his strikes and raids. Executive Officer Major Doyle Yardley was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given command of the Geronimos as Raff was occupied by his new command. Back at Maison Carree, the Geronimos tended to their wounded, were resupplied and absorbed more replacements sent from England. Yardley sat behind his makeshift desk in a room at the girls’ boarding school at Maison Carree not far from the Maison Blanche airfield near Algiers. He had been given orders and a mission from Allied Forces Headquarters and called a conference of his senior staff to work out the details. Sitting across from him were company commanders Captain William J. Morrow of D Company and Captain Archie G. Birkner of F Company along with Staff Sergeant Hobart Pitts. Yardley stood up and began his briefing by fingering a wall map. “The Germans are supplying Rommel’s forces in southern Tunisia using this rail line.” He fingered a line running near the coast from Tunis to a point south of Gabes. “There is a bridge near the village of El Djem. We’ve been ordered to drop a team in there and take out the bridge.” Morrow let out a small whistle. “When?” “Right away,” answered Yardley. “They want to starve Rommel of his supplies so Montgomery’s Eighth Army can break through his defensive line at Mareth.” Yardley stared into blank faces. “This is a high priority mission and headquarters wants us to assemble a team of the best we have.” Birkner stood up and looked at the map. “That’s ninety miles behind enemy lines. How do we get them out?” Yardley cleared his throat. “Well, originally we were to land some planes in the desert and fly them out but the flyboys don’t want to risk their planes.” “So, we risk the troopers instead?” asked Morrow sarcastically. Yardley nodded. “They’ll have to walk out.” “Basically, a suicide mission and they want our best,” noted Birkner. “Merry fucking Christmas!” Yardley nodded. “We’ll get some help. Two French Paratroopers who speak Arabic fluently will guide our guys back. We need to provide the demolitions team and the security force to protect the unit. It will be thirty-two men in all, five hundred pounds of TNT and some special escape and evasion gear.” Yardley was silently waiting for comments or suggestions. None were forthcoming. No one wanted to lose their best men. Finally, Yardley spoke up. “I’ll pick them if you have no suggestions.” Sergeant Pitts cleared his throat. “I have an idea, suh.” “Well spit it out Sergeant.” “Instead of using our best men, why not use our worst?” “Why not?” Morrow chimed in. “Since they’re not likely to make it back, why throw our best guys into the fire?” “I like it,” Birkner added. Yardley thought for a moment. “I’d hardly put it that way. I’d rather consider sending the ‘most easily replaceable’ soldiers since I don’t think we have any of the worst kind in the Five-oh-nine.” “And who would they be?” Morrow asked. “I have a suggestion, suh,” Pitts answered quickly. “Why not use the replacements we just got in? And I have a squad of Eyetalian boys who speak the language and have training with explosives. I think we can win the war without ‘em, suh.” Yardley nodded. “And Lieutenant DeLeo was supposed to be part of this mission anyway. We can let him take command of the whole thing.” They all agreed, although everyone but Pitts seemed uncomfortable about the decision they had just made. They each left the room on their way to brief their subordinates and prepare them for the mission. A few days later, the three-plane contingent left the airfield at Maison Blanche and flew to a more forward airfield at Thelepte. Here the three planes topped off their fuel tanks and took on the 500 pounds of TNT strapped in supply packs under the wings. Colonel Raff had been using the town of Thelepte as his forward headquarters and was anxious to talk to DeLeo about the mission. They met in a hangar where the troops were catching a few hours of sleep. They were due to take off again after dark. “Congratulations,” Raff smiled at DeLeo. “Thank you, sir. I’m not sure why I got this job but we’ll do the best we can.” Raff leaned closer. “I’m not your commanding officer anymore but if I were I would have insisted they pick you up and fly you out.” “Thank you, sir, but that’s not the plan. We’re walking out.” “I know. It’s a damn shame. But there should not be a lot of the enemy where you’re going. We’ve been in and out of that area and made only light contact.” Raff put his hand on DeLeo’s shoulder. “The important thing is that you bring down that bridge.” “Yes, sir,” DeLeo replied. “You’ve been out that way, sir? What’s it like?” “It’s mostly flat, barren desert. Some olive groves, gullies and small hills, not much cover. I know it’s tempting but don’t wait for a German supply train to reach the bridge before you take it out. Get the job done as soon as possible before the sun comes up so you have a good head start getting out of the area in the dark. Once that bridge goes, I’m sure you’ll see a lot more Italians or Germans in a hurry.” DeLeo nodded. It was a big mission for a green second lieutenant and he wanted desperately to succeed and bring his men back. He was soliciting information from anyone who had an opinion. Most were not helpful. He figured Raff would give him the straight scoop. “Any suggestions or ideas, sir?” Raff rubbed his chin. “Sure. If you see any Arabs, kill them. They’ll sell you out to the Jerries in a heartbeat.” DeLeo nodded. “I understand.” He wasn’t sure he could do that. “If it goes badly,” Raff continued, “break up into small groups and try to infiltrate back to our lines. A large group is more easily spotted.” “Right,” DeLeo affirmed. “Travel by night, hunker down by day. The Germans fly recon patrols regularly. Have your men tape or tie down anything that’s loose or jingles. And make sure you have plenty of water.” Those final words of advice kept ringing in DeLeo’s ears as he gazed out the plane’s door. They were wasting fuel and the cover of night and he was anxious to jump. We must be close enough to find that damn bridge even in the dark. Suddenly the red warning light flashed. The pilot had found the drop zone. DeLeo ordered his Paratroopers to their feet and went through the pre-jump checklist. The warning light went green and the three Skytrains simultaneously dumped their load of thirty-two Paratroopers and supply bundles into the inky black night. DeLeo hit the hard scrabble ground with a heavy impact and though scraped and bruised, not injured. He lit his signal flare and waited for the men to rally around him. After collecting their parachutes, they began to assemble, slowly at first but soon all had arrived. “Anyone injured?” DeLeo asked in hushed tones. There was no response. “Radio man!” he ordered. Nico Pellos stepped up. “Here sir. Private Pellos. Radio is working fine, sir.” “Good,” DeLeo nodded. “Stay by me at all times.” He looked around. “Demo team?” “Private Vito Cutaia, sir. Right here, sir. My team is out looking for the bundles with the explosives.” “Well, we can’t go anywhere without them, can we?” he asked rhetorically. “Take some men and help them find the bundles. Meet back here.” “Yes, sir,” Vito answered and headed out into the darkness. About a dozen men followed him. “Where are my Italian speakers?” DeLeo asked. “Right here sir,” Red Falco stepped up. “I’m on the demo team. Most of us also speak the language.” “So do I, Private,” DeLeo replied. He handed Falco a portable SCR-536 handy-talkie radio. “Take one man and scout out to the east. When you find the railroad tracks, report back. We’ll follow as soon as we pull everything together here.” “Yes, sir.” Falco nodded and took off toward the east. DeLeo asked Sergeant Manny Serrano, a fellow replacement, to count heads to make sure the entire detachment was accounted for. Before he saw anything, DeLeo heard the commotion. A group of five Arabs had wandered into the drop zone. His men had surrounded them and held them at gunpoint. “We need to waste these towelheads,” someone from the group yelled. It was Giorgio Pollini. “Keep it down,” ordered DeLeo. “We’re not killing anybody here.” Through his interpreter, DeLeo negotiated with the Arabs. He traded some parachutes for their silence. As they went about their way, DeLeo sensed if not heard some grumbling in the ranks. They didn’t trust the Arabs to keep their presence a secret for long. Just then the radio barked. It was Private Falco reporting in. “Hey, Nico, we’re at the tracks.” “How far?” Nico asked. “About a mile, maybe a little less.” Nico sensed DeLeo was getting anxious about finding the supply packs with the TNT. Another thirty minutes went by before all the troops returned with 400 pounds of explosives. One of the bundles was lost. With no more time to waste and all present and accounted for, they divided the load into half-pound blocks and distributed them among the men and finally set out for the railroad tracks. Visibility was just a few yards in the dark night so DeLeo sent out scouts and flankers with orders not to stray too far from the column. He prowled up and down the line of marching men helping them silence noisy equipment and whispering words of encouragement. Finally, they reached the railroad tracks. They took a five-minute break while he radioed his position back to Allied Forces Headquarters in Algiers. It was a short transmission designed to make it difficult for the enemy to fix his position. Since his drop zone was supposed to be the north of the bridge, he turned his column south, sent out two scouts ahead and began the trek to the bridge. Two lines of men, one on each side of the tracks, trudged through the still, cold, dark night. An hour passed, then two. DeLeo called for a break and the men settled down on the hard desert floor. He recalled the intelligence briefing on the importance of the bridge. He also remembered the engineers’ assessment that it would take 500 pounds of TNT to drop a span of the double-tracked, steel girder bridge supported by sixteen stone columns. It was a sturdy structure and DeLeo hoped he had enough ordnance to damage it. “Should have hit the bridge by now,” he murmured. Nico overheard the remark and came over holding the radio handset. “Want to talk to headquarters, sir?” “Don’t want to risk it just yet, Private. Let’s be patient. We’ll go another mile. It should be there.” Giorgio Pollini came up to Nico. “What’s the skinny, Greek?” “Lieutenant Dan thinks we have a mile more to go,” Nico answered. “Does this shave-tail know what the hell he’s doing?” Giorgio asked. “He seems okay to me,” Nico replied. “He seems pretty cool, calm and patient.” Giorgio snickered. “Well, patience is a virgin.” Nico smiled. He wondered if Giorgio said these things on purpose or if he really didn’t know the common phrases he butchered. “That’s right, Giorgio. Patience is a virtue.” “Whatever.” Just then DeLeo roused the men and gathered them. He was starting to believe he was dropped a lot further north of the bridge than planned. “We’re getting close, men. Another hour as I figure. So, no talking, no smoking, we move quickly and quietly.” The men nodded agreement and reassumed their positions on both sides of the tracks. They continued their trek southward. Another hour passed and still no bridge. They came across a small building, which housed some switching equipment for the railroad. It was not manned. DeLeo called a halt and ordered his men to take some rest in an olive orchard. The sky was beginning to lighten and he was afraid his group would be discovered. He called in his French guides and they took some compass readings on some nearby hills only to discover they were some twenty miles south of the bridge. This was DeLeo’s worst nightmare. He had marched his troops away from the bridge all night. Now with the loss of the darkness, he knew he could not countermarch north to the bridge in broad daylight. Perhaps they could hole up in the olive orchard until the next evening. As he contemplated his options, his scouts returned. There were enemy patrols heading in his direction from both the north and the south. “Should have killed those Arabs,” Nico commented casually. “Too late now,” DeLeo replied and turned to his men. “Forget the bridge. We’re bugging out. Demo teams set the charges on the tracks and the hut. Blow the crap out of them. The rest of you drop your explosives along the tracks and head west right away before those patrols make contact.” The demolition team was moving before DeLeo finished his sentence. Giorgio started stringing detonator cord down the tracks while the men dropped their blocks of TNT and moved out. Vito pulled the detonators from his M183 Satchel Bag, clamped the cord to the detonators and shoved them into the TNT blocks. They worked furiously as Fino and Red went to work setting charges in the control shack. “Small groups. Travel by night!” DeLeo ordered. “See you back at the base. Good luck!” All the remaining troopers disappeared to the west except his radioman, Nico Pellos, Sergeant Roland Rondeau, who was one of his Geronimos fluent in French and Arabic and his demolitions team. DeLeo decided to remain behind to report back to headquarters and see the tracks blown. “This is Rover calling Doghouse,” he spoke into the radio using his code designation. He waited for a reply. “This is Doghouse. How do you read?” “This is Rover. We read you five by five. Be advised we could not complete, repeat could not complete our mission. Have been discovered. Blowing the tracks and will withdraw in smaller groups as per plan.” There was a delay and then Doghouse came back on the air. “Rover this is Doghouse. Please advise why mission not complete?” DeLeo clenched his fist and gritted his teeth. “Will explain upon return. Over and out.” He threw the phone down hard on the ground and yelled, “Because you dropped us in the wrong fucking place! That’s why!” Just then the demo team gathered around him. “Just about ready to blow it, sir,” reported Red Falco as Fino twisted the wires onto the plunger-detonator. DeLeo looked around. Still no sign of the German patrols closing in on two sides. At least we’ll have a bit of a head start. “Blow it.” “We’re awful close, sir,” Red Falco advised. “Take the men and head out and I’ll blow it when you’re a safe distance away.” “Don’t be too far behind us, Private.” DeLeo slapped Red on the shoulder and double-timed the group back toward the west. Red watched them disappear into a gully before he cranked the plunger. The shack went up a split second before the rails. The excessive amount of TNT used shattered the building into splinters and shot them hundreds of feet in the air. Red could feel the ground shake beneath his knees. The shock wave plugged his ears for a moment and took his breath away. He’d never set off such a loud, damaging explosion before and it stunned and surprised him. The cloud raised by the destruction of the tracks shrouded the area in a rather large and dense veil of dust and smoke. Splinters began to rain down on his head and shoulders as he evacuated the area and set out to rejoin the group. The group traveled west through the trackless desert for a few hours in silence before they came upon a road. The men were in superb shape and they still had some rations and water so DeLeo decided to follow the road since it headed west. He told his men to be alert for any traffic, especially coming from behind. He figured they would make better time on the road. After a few more hours DeLeo called a halt and a ten-minute break. The vegetation was more plentiful here so they took shade in a copse of trees. DeLeo was consulting with Sergeant Rondeau when Fino interrupted. “Hey Lieutenant, this was a real cluster-fuck, ain’t it sir?” “You can say that, Private…uh...” “Speciale. Fino Speciale. I’m just sorry we couldn’t get that bridge, mama mia.” “Me, too, Private. But now we need to focus on getting home.” Suddenly DeLeo noticed a vehicle way off in the distance behind them. It was moving toward them along the same road and kicking up a lot of dust. DeLeo raised his binoculars. “What kind of vehicle is it?” he murmured. “May I, sir?” asked Private Vito Cutaia. He reached for the binoculars. DeLeo took them from around his neck and handed them to Vito. “He’s a mechanical genius, sir,” offered Red in defense of Vito’s request. Vito locked onto the oncoming truck. “Let’s see…wide diameter wheels, high silhouette…probably an SPA AS 37 or 41. Light cargo truck, unarmed and Italian.” He handed the binoculars back to DeLeo.” “How do you know that?” DeLeo asked. “It has a flag painted on the side.” “No, no. That other stuff.” “Well, like Red said, I know about all kinds of vehicles.” DeLeo smiled. “Okay genius, get behind those shrubs and out of sight. Everyone, out of sight.” He took off his helmet and shirt and unbloused his boots. Then he took his .45-caliber pistol and jammed it into his waistband at the small of his back. He stood out in the middle of the road and awaited the oncoming truck. As the truck drew nearer he began waving his arms. “Fermata…fermata…guida.” “What’s he saying?” Rondeau asked out loud. “Stop, help,” Vito answered. The truck came to a halt and DeLeo hopped on the running board with a big smile. The Italian driver smiled back at him until DeLeo pointed the .45 in his face. The Italian driver stopped smiling, raised his hands and let out a big sigh. “Americans, si?” “Good, you speak English,” DeLeo responded. “I’m Lieutenant DeLeo. We’re taking your truck.” DeLeo’s men piled into the back of the truck while he gathered his gear and climbed into the passenger seat. “Where were you going?” he asked the driver. “To get water.” “Your English is pretty good,” noted DeLeo. “I lived in United States five years.” “Como ti chiami?” DeLeo asked wanting to practice some of his Italian. “Carlo. Carlo Ferrante.” “Just keep heading west, Carlo.” Carlo put the truck in gear with a grinding push and started down the road. DeLeo checked him out thoroughly as he drove. Carlo was both short and overweight. The Italian Army must be really hard up. Carlo seemed more relieved rather than anxious. He never looked at or made a move to get the 9-millimeter Glisenti Model 1910 pistol on the bench seat between them. Carlo saw DeLeo glancing at the pistol. “You take it, sir. I don’t like guns.” DeLeo grabbed it and slipped it into his cargo pants pocket. The truck motored along the road without coming across any checkpoints or military patrols. Finally, it arrived at a small ravine with a water well at its center. A group of about a dozen Arabs were watering their animals as the men disembarked the vehicle. “Fill up your canteens, men,” DeLeo ordered. “And those cans in the truck.” He turned to Carlo. “Any more water further west?” “Don’t know. Never go past here.” Just then DeLeo heard a commotion near the well. He walked over to Rondeau who was actively engaged in conversation with the Arabs. “What the hell is this?” “They say it’s their water, sir. They want to be paid.” “Bastards,” muttered DeLeo. “I say kill them all, sir. Or we’ll never make it back.” It was Giorgio again. Some of the Arabs obviously understood English as their facial expressions immediately changed. DeLeo let out a huge sigh and shook his head. “No Private, I think I’ll buy my way out.” He reached into his pocket a pulled out a wad of French francs. “They gave me this money for just such a situation.” He handed the francs to Rondeau and told him to bargain with Arabs. “Try and buy us some food, too.” As Rondeau and the Arabs haggled, DeLeo took Carlo aside. “This is the end of the line for you, my friend.” Carlo paled. “You gonna’ shoot me?” DeLeo laughed. “No, we’re turning you loose. Leaving you here. We’re not shooting any prisoners today.” “Sir,” Carlo leaned closer. “I don’t wanna’ be free. I don’t wanna’ go back.” DeLeo mulled this over for a few moments. “Okay, you stay with us. You’re now officially a prisoner-of-war. No tricks or you’re dead.” “No tricks. I swear on my mother’s eyes. Grazie. Grazie.” DeLeo nodded but Carlo continued. “Am I going to America?” “I don’t know where they send our prisoners, Carlo. I’m sorry, I don’t know.” “America, I hope. Maybe?” “Maybe,” DeLeo reassured. “I write you. Let you know, yes?” DeLeo smiled. “Sure, if you want.” He ripped a page from a small notebook and scribbled his mailing information. Carlo folded it carefully. “Grazie. I let you know. Grazie.” When they had absorbed as much water as they could carry, DeLeo gave the order to move out. They had been fortunate thus far and been making good time getting closer to Allied lines. He didn’t want to push his luck by lingering any more in one place than he had too. Rondeau came over. “Sir, I bought us some eggs. Very expensive, sir.” He handed a much smaller wad of notes back to DeLeo. “And I told them if they told the enemy about us we would return and kill them all.” “Very well, Sergeant.” He turned to his men. “Mount up!” The truck continued on the road. Hours passed by as the men suffered through the choking dust and heat of the desert. The road eventually turned into nothing more than a camel track. Finally, the vehicle got bogged down in the fine, soft sand on the upslope of a wadi. “Gun it, Carlo!” Shouted Vito over the noise of spinning wheels. The engine revved until it began to scream while the men tried to push it onto firmer soil on top of a ridge. They almost made it. Suddenly there was a loud bang and the engine stopped. “Vito, can you take a look and see what’s wrong?” DeLeo asked “I already know what’s wrong,” answered Vito as he raised the hood. “This baby threw a rod. She’s finished, really.” “Shit, more bad luck,” DeLeo pondered out loud. “Okay, it’s a few hours until dark. We’ll hole up here until then and march through the night.” There were affirmative nods all around. The men were beginning to trust DeLeo as a competent and courageous leader. Out there in the stark heat and isolation of the desert, surrounded by the enemy, he had earned their respect. Four bullets smacked into the side of the truck in quick succession before the first sound was heard. “Take cover!” DeLeo ordered as the men were already diving for cover or concealment. DeLeo looked down the road behind them. Perched a few thousand yards behind them on a ridge on the other side of the wadi was a vehicle. DeLeo could see soldiers taking cover around the truck. The intervening valley-like wadi gave him a clear view and would make the enemy easy targets if they chose to close on the Paratroopers. Just then another six or eight rounds kicked up the sand near the vehicles. The bullet reports followed soon after. “Cutaia!” hollered DeLeo. “What’s behind us?” as he threw the binoculars across to Vito. Vito studied the target. “She’s almost hull down behind the ridge but I can tell she’s a scout car by her lights and upper silhouette.” Vito thought for moment. “Probably a Lancia Lince. That’s Italian for Lynx.” “Italian? Not German? Anything else?” DeLeo asked. “Well, she carries an eight-millimeter machine gun.” “No shit,” Falco bellowed as more rounds flew by. “You have a flair for the oblivious, Vito,” smiled Giorgio Pollini. DeLeo laughed despite the danger. So did Vito. Giorgio always broke him up. “Yeah, I guess it was obvious,” Vito replied as another brace of bullets stitched a path along the ground. “Mamma mia, I’m hit!” yelled Fino. “Pull him down below the ridgeline.” DeLeo ordered. Red Falco went to work on the prone Fino. He pulled up Fino’s blouse, ripped open a bag of sulfonamide powder with his teeth and poured the contents onto a bleeding belly wound. He slapped a bandage on the wound and told Fino to hold pressure on it. At the same time Nico was tearing off the remnants of Fino’s pants leg. What he saw horrified him. A huge chunk of bone was sticking out where his knee should have been. The knee was shattered and Nico dared not touch it. He sprinkled the sulfonamide powder from his own kit to staunch the bleeding and prevent infection. It was an instinctive move based on his training. He knew deep down that Fino was not going anywhere. Fino was in shock but soon the agonizing pain would set it. While Vito tied another bandage over the stomach wound around his waist, Giorgio hit him with the first morphine shot. After a few moments, Fino seemed relaxed although still in some pain. “What do we do now?” Nico asked. Lieutenant Dan responded. “Some of you get back up on the ridge and return fire. I don’t want them crossing the wadi and closing in on us. That will give us a few minutes to decide what to do.” Everyone but Red and Vito scrambled up to the truck, took a covered firing position and began to return fire. “Are they coming?” DeLeo asked. “No, sir. They’re just shooting,” answered Giorgio. “They probably radioed our position in by now. They’ll be reinforced soon,” DeLeo speculated. “We can’t stay here.” Red looked at Fino. “We can’t leave him, sir.” “We can carry him,” Vito added. “We’ll kill him if we move him. At least the Italians will take care of him.” DeLeo sounded like he was trying to convince himself. “I’m right here,” Fino said in a harsh, throaty voice. He was speaking through the fog of the onset of shock and the effect of the morphine. “Set me up near the truck, leave me some extra ammo and I’ll hold them while you get away.” Giorgio slid down from the ridge. “Let me stay. I can hold them off while you get Fino back to the rear. Then I can surrender.” Fino laughed. “The hell with that idea. They won’t understand that Sicilian crap you speak anyway. It’s not even Italian. It’s not gabagool, it’s capicola, it’s not mutzadell, it’s mozzarella, it’s not regoat, it’s ricotta. Capisce?” “I wasn’t planning on talking much,” Giorgio replied. DeLeo thought for a moment. If they tried to carry him, Fino would slow them down. At the same time if they moved him, he was likely to just bleed out. The decision became obvious. “We’ll leave Fino behind the truck. Don’t fire back. Don’t piss them off. Let them take you prisoner. No resistance!” DeLeo looked at Fino. “It’ll be dark soon. They’ll likely make their move then.” Fino stared at his officer. He was a Geronimo. That meant something to him. He would never surrender and here he was being ordered to surrender. “I’m not leaving him out here, sir. I’m staying with him,” declared Red Falco in a quiet but determined voice. DeLeo looked around at the other troopers. They all had the same look. For a moment, he feared a mass mutiny but calmed himself and directed his words at Red. “That’s an order, Private. And you don’t want to disobey an order under combat conditions.” DeLeo fingered his sidearm. The situation suddenly became intense. “I’ll be fine, boys. Thanks, Red but you gotta’ listen to our CO. He’s looking out for all of us.” It was Fino that broke the tension. “Besides, I can’t wait to bang those beautiful Italian nurses.” He choked a small laugh. The boys started to gather their gear as DeLeo glared at Red Falco for almost starting a small rebellion. “Lieutenant, sir. I need a minute with Vito.” “Alright Fino. Good luck. Everyone, pack up and move out,” DeLeo bellowed. “Don’t be too far behind, Cutaia.” “Yes, sir,” Vito complied as the rest of the detail slid down from the ridgeline and moved out one at a time. Nico tapped Fino on his bare head. There was so much he wanted to say to his good friend but the words came with great difficulty. “Ever hear of the three-hundred Spartans?” he asked. “Nah, I didn’t read the paper today,” Fino smiled at his own joke. “Good! Well it was a long time ago and they became famous by holding off thousands of Persians while the other Greek armies made their escape. “So, I’m gonna’ be famous?” Fino laughed and then coughed. “No. You’re gonna’ surrender when they get close. Like Lieutenant Dan said.” “Sure, Nico. I got this.” Nico took out a white handkerchief and placed it beside Fino. “Good luck, amico.” Nico headed off down the hill. Red Falco grabbed his arm. He had tears in his eyes as he smiled. “Now don’t charm all those beautiful Italian nurses, Hollywood. See ya’ after the war.” Giorgio was next and he knelt beside Fino for a moment. “I’d stay with you, brother, but we’re ordered to evaporate the area.” He smiled knowingly and Fino smiled back. “You crack me up, Giorgio.” Giorgio slipped off a bandolier of .30-caliber ammo and laid it on the ground. He knew exactly what Fino planned to do. “See you on the other side, paesani.” He started down the hill and never looked back. He simply couldn’t. Vito crawled up close to Fino. He looked behind to see the unit spread out and moving quickly down the trail. DeLeo turned around and urgently waved him on. Vito acknowledged with a nod and wave of his hand and turned to Fino. “What do you need?” “Your Bible.” “What? My Bible?” Vito reached into his demolitions pouch. “Here, keep it.” “No, not that.” He took a scrap of paper from his pocket. “I just need to finish this letter.” Using the Bible as a surface, Fino wrote for a few moments as Vito anxiously watched the unit slip away into the darkness. He peeked over the ridge at the Italians. No movement. Fino finished what he was writing and slipped the letter into the pages of the Bible. “This is for Robyn. Promise me you’ll make sure she gets it even if you have to take it to her personally.” “Yeah, yeah,” Vito nodded. “I’ll hold it for you. You can do it yourself when you get back. What else you need?” “My helmet,” Fino answered as he reached for his steel pot and placed it on his head. “Help me to the truck.” Vito helped drag Fino up to the truck. Fino gritted his teeth and grabbed the ammo Giorgio dropped. The morphine had muted the pain but he still remained lucid. “Leave me some morphine,” Fino insisted. Vito hit his thigh with another shot of morphine and dropped another syrette in front of him. “Be careful with this stuff. Anything else?” “Some ammo and your grenades,” Fino said. “Lieutenant Dan said you’re not supposed to fight. Just surrender.” “I need to hold them off for a little while, just do it!” Vito complied. “What else?” Fino smiled. “Mamma sent me a salami for Christmas. Make sure you share it with the boys.” Vito nodded as Fino continued. “Also, just please make sure she gets the letter.” He pointed to the Bible and handed it back to Vito. Then he situated himself in a firing position where he had a full view of the enemy across the wadi. There was some motion and movement surrounding the scout car. Without looking back, he said to Vito, “I don’t want to die out here, alone. But if I should die I want to be buried with my Paratrooper brothers. You remember that.” “Just surrender, Fino. They’ll take care of you,” Vito admonished. Fino blinked his eyes trying to clear his head and his vision. The morphine was taking hold. He ignored the advice. “God bless,” Vito whispered as he tapped his arm and headed back down the hill to catch up with the rest of the squad. Vito was wracked with guilt as he double-timed down the trail. He was leaving behind a friend, a brother who no one believed was a fighter. All doubts about Fino being able to kill Italians dissolved right then and there. Fino would sacrifice himself so his brothers could escape. Vito only hoped the morphine would knock him out and the Italians would care for his friend. When Vito caught up to the column, DeLeo asked, “Everything okay?” Before Vito could answer, they heard eight shots of an M1 in rapid succession. Vito swore he also heard the ping of the en-bloc clip as it ejected from the rifle. Then another rapid eight shots. Fino was fighting back and sounding like there were more than one man defending the broken-down truck. He was buying his friends more time. DeLeo and his team moved swiftly into the gathering darkness. They heard the sound of gunfire from both sides and then the explosions of American grenades. Suddenly the firing stopped. Fino had given them a twenty-minute head start, which was enough to thwart their pursuers. Under the cover of a waning moon, DeLeo led his men and his prisoner into the deep black expanse of the desert night.