by Matthew Brennan
The warships offshore arced high-explosive shells over the heads of the men on the beach. The flashes from the water lit up the night behind them, but to the men the light was detached from the thunder that followed. The shells passing overhead left trails of red against the black sky, like embers from an old fire, before bursting brightly against the slopes of the Monti Laziali, where the Germans held their vantage. Artillery crews added to the barrage, their tubes smoking and beginning to glow; there was no response from the mountains. The Germans were waiting.
The Sergeant had been a private in North Africa, a corporal in Sicily – at Palermo, at Messina – then to Salerno and across the river to the mountain, and now a sergeant in the US 3rd Infantry on the new beachhead at Anzio. Looking down the fortified line at his men, their faces flickering in the pulsing firelight, he saw a quartermaster team approaching, wheeling a large metal vat. They were ladling coffee into the men’s uplifted steel cups, hurriedly popped off from the bottoms of their mess-kit canteens. The night watch was long for the men and eerie: lacking the comfort of vision, of seeing what was coming at them, opening the mind to its creations. But at least tonight the Germans weren’t firing back. There were caves in the mountains, and there the Germans would out-wait the heaviest of the bombardments, to return fire later. Every man on that beach preferred nighttime in silence to a day of shelling.
Lifting his own cup, the Sergeant received his coffee in turn and drank, the coffee lukewarm by now, watery and bitter. He hadn’t needed the caffeine, hadn’t felt the fatigue, until the quartermasters’ arrival suggested it. He drank it all quickly in three gulps, wanting not to taste it and wincing at the end when he did. With a swirled splash from his canteen, he rinsed the cup then drank that water followed by a sip from the canteen; reassembling his kit, he spit into the trench. There had been better coffee in Africa, the army supply fresh and focused, the campaign’s initial successes allowing them to establish more of a headquarters than an exposed stretch of beach.
His comrades, too, had thinned throughout the Italian campaign. So few that had landed with him in Fedala remained with the 3rd, replaced with younger, greener men. He remembered his first landing, his first combat, never suspecting that he would one day be an officer; he had been promoted because he had survived. Because he had seen battle. Though they had all once been new, fresh from training, at each landing the reinforcements appeared younger, more hastily trained. Like the coffee, the air and sea support, the food – everything was being stretched thinner and thinner, the stop-gaps rushed into these empty spaces no longer fitting as well as they should. They needed a break – he needed a break – time to rest and recover and prepare, for there was still so much ground left to cover.
The Sergeant did not perceive the end of the naval bombardment, only its absence, and in the silence, the darkness, that followed, he imagined his enemy doing the same thing: noticing that what they had grown accustomed to had now subsided, then warily testing the truth of that perception. Listening, watching. But he had less at stake. The shells fired this night had not fallen upon him, and he wondered how long it would take his opponents to gather the courage to return to their guns. But he had concluded already that the ships had gone – the flashing of their guns a target for aircraft – and the Germans very well could have done the same. He looked down the line of young men with him behind the embankment: talking together, smoking, some playing cards to pass the time, still sipping at the delivered coffee.
The Sergeant stood and spoke aloud to his men: “Look lively, boys. A few more hours left of our watch. Let’s make sure nothing comes our way unseen.”
The men scrambled back to their posts – tapping together stacks of cards, stubbing out cigarettes, finishing or pouring their coffee into the trench – and turned their eyes again to the night.