It’s probably one of my lesser-known works, but I’ve had a few people tell me it’s one of my best. The story means a lot to me and I think it’s easily my most serious work, which really carries a pretty deep message.
For those who haven’t read it, I’ll paste a good sample size of the book below, so you can start it to see if you enjoy it, but before I do, here are three reasons I think you should read the book, if you haven’t already:
1) First, I think it’s a good story. Can you imagine being a German soldier in the final months of the war? You’re on the losing side, it’s near the end of the war, and you know that victory is now impossible? And yet, you can’t retreat or you’ll be arrested or shot for cowardice by cruel, evil SS troops, who are waiting behind the front lines to keep men from going AWOL. Plus, you’ve served honorably and bravely for years, so you don’t want to surrender that record by acting dishonorably or giving up at the very end. You just want the war to end, and you don’t want to die in its final days.
2) Secondly, I think “Soldier On” is a motivating story that teaches a lot about persistence, not giving up, and most certainly leadership. The kind of leadership you usually only see in war.
3) Finally, though it’s setting is different from today’s modern wars, I think it vividly displays the common themes of the life of a soldier. If you want to know what it’s really like to be a soldier at war, whether it was your grandfather back in World War II or your son in Afghanistan today, I think you can get a pretty accurate look at it by reading this book.
Anyway, I’ll paste a big sample below, and if you’ve never tried the book, I hope you’ll give consider reading it. (It’s a fairly short read of fewer than seventy pages.)
The soldiers on the hill waited as best they could, lying on their stomachs and trying to stay awake, struggling with crippling fatigue from years of misery, heartbreak, and weariness, but they were on German soil now, and that counted for something.
The men were only one hundred and forty-three miles west of Berlin, and each of them knew the war would end soon. Probably in just a few months.
None of the soldiers on this hill, or really in the entire German Army, believed it could be won. Defeat by the Allies and Soviets was assured, yet still the soldiers, completely spent and worn-out, lay on the hill.
It was January 23, 1945, and their reasons for fighting had evolved from national pride to hatred and disgust. They had been conned, and now they were trapped. They could surrender to the Americans in front of them, as others had, but some men just cannot quit. It is beyond them. And the men on this hill were of that mold.
They had been raised by fathers who had not spoiled or pampered them. Their fathers had suffered and survived World War I, which was said to have been the war to end all wars.
The men on the hill couldn’t pull back and return home, for they’d be shot for treason, cowardice, dereliction, or some other offense thought up by someone who had never served on the front. The war could end any day, but until then, they were stuck.
They were fighting for survival.
Just five men on an exposed hill.
Underfed. Under-supplied. Dead-dog tired.
Sergeant Peter Dietrich’s men had waited all day in an ambush on that hill, looking for Americans. They were spread out on a weed-covered, bare stretch of ground with only two machine guns and three rifles for protection against an approaching American Army that was overwhelming and well-stocked with food, supplies, and ammunition.
Dietrich, lying prone like his men, scanned the distance through binoculars. He lay in between the two machine gun teams, putting his men on fifty percent and letting one man at each gun sleep.
After his platoon had been assigned a holding action, Dietrich had selected a hill overlooking a vast field of what had once probably held many cows. Or been used to grow grain. Sergeant Dietrich worried an air patrol of American fighter planes might fly over.
Since the German Luftwaffe no longer existed or provided any support from the skies, the Americans controlled the air and bombed the cities at will with their heavy, four-engine bombers. Both day and night on most days.
And worse for the German ground army, the Americans also relentlessly sent out squadrons of deadly single-engine fighter planes to pound the already battered forces before them. These day-light sorties flown at low altitude allowed the fighter planes to search the ground like hungry hawks seeking prey, and from dawn till dusk the American pilots scanned the terrain for juicy targets such as tanks hidden in the woods or infantry caught in the open.
If planes flew over, the men could only hope they were not seen. Normally, Dietrich and his men fought in cities or thick woods. At a minimum, his troops were dug in, allowing for fairly effective protection from the planes.
But today, there would be no way that Dietrich and his men could retreat down the open hill and across the cleared field to the safety of the tree line behind them, should fighter planes fly overhead.
Time passed slowly, as if the day, and likewise the war, would never end. Dietrich ran his hand through the grass in front of him, bored. He was tempted to stand. His back ached, and the cold, wet ground sucked the heat from his body. At least there’s no snow, he thought.
A sharp elbow to his arm startled him. Lindner, a man that Dietrich had served with since the beginning, when their battalion had invaded Poland, spotted movement in the distance. Lindner, a man who was sometimes a friend to Dietrich and sometimes a foe, pointed toward a part of the woods. Dietrich located the movement and watched as individual American soldiers exited the trees way out to their front. Looking through the binoculars again, he counted the men advancing toward them.
The American troops were leaving the protection of the tree line more than two kilometers away. They trekked across the open field straight toward the Germans in two parallel files about fifteen meters apart. He stopped counting at ninety-eight, realizing it was at least a company size element; this usually meant about a hundred and fifty men, give or take a few squads.
Damn, what he would give for some artillery or mortar support. He could have killed so many of the men in the field. Pushing the thought from his mind, Dietrich focused on the men closest to him, who had closed to one thousand meters.
“Lindner, we ought to bag us quite a few today,” he said. His blue eyes searched the perimeter.
“It’s too damn bad we don’t have more ammo,” Lindner said. “Like everything else in the war, it’s just our fucking luck. More targets than we’ve seen in a year and just a couple of belts of ammo that we need to sparsely use.”
Dietrich ignored the comment from his most experienced squad member. Always a brave man and one you wanted by your side in battle, Lindner had increasingly become a pain in Deitrich’s ass. The man had grown negative and his attitude had really nose-dived. Numerous times, the friction between Dietrich and Lindner had nearly led to blows. Already, it had cost Lindner his rank. The man was probably the most experienced and decorated private in the entire German Army.
He’s been put through too much, Dietrich thought.
The remaining sleeping German soldiers had been awakened, and they lay behind their rifles, ready in that way that only impending action can awaken completely tuckered-out men. Only two things could recharge and energize the men at his point: either adrenaline from combat that was minutes away or two months’ worth of sleep, rest, and food, back in the safety of their homes.
The German soldiers were that spent. They were that close to completely breaking down or giving up.
The Americans weren’t expecting contact, or they would have been spread out in a wide “V” formation, like a flock of geese. This V formation would allow a lot of firepower to be quickly brought toward their front, or in this case, upon the five German soldiers.
But instead of a V formation, they approached in two columns, lined up front to back.
Dietrich grinned and reported his findings from his binoculars to the dispirited Lindner, who lay behind a machine gun.
“Awfully clean uniforms,” Dietrich said. “No, those are new uniforms. This is likely a green unit. Probably never been in combat.”
Dietrich continued to scan the lines of men.
“Fourth man back on the left file,” Dietrich said, “has a machine gun. Let’s see, seventh man back on the right has had three different men look back at him. Mark him as the squad leader.
“Damn it. Lost count. Okay, thirteenth man back on the left has a radio, and he has looked twice over to the twelfth man on the right, mark him as the lieutenant or platoon sergeant. I don’t see any scoped weapons and the other machine gunners behind them are too far back to make a difference in what time we’ll be here. This should be good. Lindner, you’ve got the lead.”
The closest American had now approached to three hundred meters, making things a bit dicey. Worse, the point man was walking slower, searching the grassy hill frantically, as if his intuition told him something was wrong. His fear and suspicions were spreading to the other men, and Dietrich’s heart raced as the eyes of twenty-plus men slowed and searched for anything that might be out of place on the knoll.
Just about the time that Dietrich was convinced they had been seen, Lindner fired a four-round burst, shattering the anticipation. His opposing machine gunner, fourth man back in the left column, never heard the weapon that ended his life and delivered his wish – that if he had to go, he hoped it would be “quick and painless.”
The other German machine gunner followed Lindner’s lead, landing three rounds from a six-round burst through the chest of the squad leader Dietrich had spotted on the right.
Dietrich watched with pleasure, as surprise then fear registered on the men of the green American unit. They darted left and right, frantically looking for clumps of grass to hide behind, like field mice pushed from cover. Screams of panic in English that Dietrich couldn’t understand reached his ears, and though he couldn’t understand the language, he knew the words. All soldiers knew them. They were screams of terror and anguish.
Dietrich moved his binoculars away from the column then back to the tree line behind the American troops to see if any tanks or Jeeps had roared out from the forest. Nothing. So far. He returned his attention to the front of the column to see how the Americans were responding.
The men had regained their composure and discipline. Now, they rushed forward, screaming and cursing. Again, despite the language barrier, Dietrich knew the words. The Americans formed into a line of men parallel with his line and fired at the hill, suppressing it. Wet slops of mud burst from the ground in front of the Germans like geysers, exploding into the faces of Dietrich’s men.
The riflemen with Dietrich were firing alongside the deafening, powerful machine guns. These two riflemen were driving home rounds methodically from their long, deadly-accurate, bolt-action Mauser rifles, as only battle-hardened veterans can do in the face of accurate return fire.
Dietrich recorded the scene in his mind, a consummate professional. The smell of cordite comforted him. The sight of the troops in olive drab green spilling red across the field mesmerized him. This was war, and at least for today, it was good.
Unaware of Dietrich’s trance, Lindner spotted a man on the left sprawled out with a radio. An antenna stuck above the ground by half a meter. A stupid mistake. He sent a seven round burst at him. More water and mud whipped around the prone soldier like splashes from a rock skipped across a pond.
Lindner, unsure if he had hit the small target down the hill, fired another burst into the motionless body. This time he thought he saw his target do more than just flinch as the ground around him exploded into pools of mire, flesh, and blood.
Despite the opposing fire from Dietrich’s men, the Americans advanced. They took turns popping up and rushing forward, making it difficult to hit them. Those not charging forward kept firing from the prone in the attempt to prevent their enemy from accurately aiming. It was paramount that the Americans keep the Germans suppressed, as well as keep them from escaping. The Americans had already lost too many men not to.
They were getting close, Dietrich thought. He yelled to his men to pull back. Working in pairs and covering each other, his men crawled back off the knoll, staying low and never raising their bodies. They then sprinted down the hill as rounds now flew harmlessly over their head. With the hill protecting them, they crossed the field in search of the safety of the woods behind them.
There, behind a barb-wired fence, waited nine more Germans dug in just inside the tree line. Some thumps alerted them that the Americans had set up a mortar, but Dietrich and his men kept running.
They trusted luck and fate to keep them safe. And on that day, as explosions landed to their left and right roughly thirty meters off the mark, it did.
Two months after the action on the hill, and now in a city called Magdeburg, which lay only ninety miles from Berlin, Sergeant Peter Dietrich knew he and his men stood a good chance of ending the war alive without having to fire another shot. Dietrich’s battalion had retreated almost fifty miles closer to the capital in the roughly seven weeks after he had led the ambush on the hill against the Americans.
Parts of the main body of the American Army had bypassed his unit as it raced to Berlin to meet the Soviets.
Sgt. Dietrich recognized the greatest enemy now was the miserable weather and the slow-moving second hand of the wind-up watch he wore on his wrist. Surely, the war would only last a few more days.
Dietrich and his men were in the middle of a hurry up and wait game, one known by every army in the world. One probably known since the first army was ever formed.
Dietrich and the men were shivering in the thick woods, dead tired. His men lay tightly together, trying to stay warm, while Dietrich stood off to the side, taking first watch. A biting wind howled through the trees, and though it was nearing the end of March, the weather was as miserable as it had been in December during the Battle of the Bulge; Germany’s famous and final heroic attempt to win the war.
To Dietrich, it felt like the Battle of the Bulge had happened two years ago and not just three months earlier. It was the fucking cold, he thought, and the lack of food that made time move so slowly. Plus, the men had little lack of purpose other than survival these days. No grandiose plans. No chance of leave to visit your home. No way to track time or look forward to some event in the future.
The only thing the men talked of was surrender and the end of the war; what they might do afterward. And the fucking cold. Always the fucking cold. The freezing temperatures were perpetually just an hour away from taking a man’s fingers or toes. Or even his life.
One of Dietrich’s men carried a small thermometer, and according to him, the temperature sat at nine degrees below freezing on this completely miserable day.
Dietrich stomped his feet and cursed quietly. Fuck, he was about done for. But soon. Only a little longer, he thought.
The sun rose painfully slow, promising slight relief but no time soon. Dietrich moved his heavy Mauser rifle from his right shoulder to his left, slinging it with the ease and practice that comes from years of constant companionship.
The weight of his gear pulled at his shoulders. On his webbed harness, he carried the same damned heavy gear he’d always carried. On his right side, a canteen and sheathed foot-long bayonet. On the left side, helping balance the weight, was a short entrenching tool, two ammunition pouches, and two stick-handled grenades. Underneath the webbed harness, he wore a thick trench coat and multiple layers of clothes. All of the men were dressed the same, and if a man died in the German Army these days, his clothes that weren’t bloodied were taken from him and shared by the living.
Sometimes, even the bloodied clothes were taken if it was an outer layer, such as a thick trench coat or wool overshirt.
Dietrich coughed roughly, feeling pain in his throat, and spat phlegm to the ground. He blew a long line of snot from each nostril and wiped his coat sleeve across his nose. A breeze crept under his collar, and he shook inside his frayed and damp clothes for the umpteenth time.
It was all Dietrich could do to keep his teeth from chattering. Tasting the sweetness of snot on his lips, he sniffled and wiped his crusty sleeve across the base of his sore nose.
Fuck, this sucked as much as anything he could remember. Or maybe it was that the pain of past battles and memories had grown weaker with the distance of time. All he knew was that it was colder than shit and time was moving far too slowly.
Dietrich flexed his thinly-gloved hands, which were stuffed deep inside the pockets of his trench coat. He clenched his hands into tight fists, trying to get the blood flowing faster to them. But this effort proved futile, as his hands were already numb.
He sighed, then regretted it. Have to be strong, he thought, knowing the men were watching. He rocked up and down on the balls of his feet in the attempt to coax a bit of circulation into his toes. He knew it would help little – his socks and boots were soaked from rain showers over the woods from the last two days.
He was as cold as he could ever remember.
He glanced up at the sky and its scattered clouds. God, please don’t let it rain today, he thought. He looked to the front again. Seeing nothing, he lowered his chin and blew hot air into the neck of his jacket.
He was still in that position, like a saint with his head bowed, when Captain Schultz walked up.
“Sergeant,” Schultz said warmly, greeting Dietrich for the first time this morning.
The man, though an officer, was a friend of Dietrich’s. Furthermore, Dietrich highly respected Schultz. In many years of war, Captain Schultz had been one of Dietrich’s best leaders.
It was probably the only good piece of fortune the company could claim right now. At least they had a great leader in charge of them.
Dietrich turned to Schultz and said, “Good morning, sir.”
But immediately after saying it, Dietrich recognized that his own words to the Captain had sounded tired and demoralized. Rightly so, of course, but Dietrich didn’t want to add to the Captain’s burdens. The last thing the man needed to be thinking was that one of his platoon leaders was about to break or quit.
Dietrich thought Captain Schultz looked just days from death. The man’s eyes, bloodshot from too many nights of too little sleep, were lifeless. Hollow. His face was gaunt and pale, covered by dark whiskers, smeared mud, and a huge red pimple on his left cheek, which was filled white with pus on its peak. Dietrich felt like popping it or at least mentioning it, but he focused on looking at the rest of Schultz instead.
The Captain’s rifle was slung over his right shoulder, and he was holding the sling with the torn and tattered glove of his right hand. His left hand was buried in the pocket of his trench coat, same as Dietrich’s.
“How are your men holding up?” Schultz asked, revealing textured yellow teeth behind chapped, cracked lips.
Dietrich wanted to say, “How the hell do you think they’re holding up?” But instead of saying what he wanted to say, Dietrich nodded over his left shoulder toward his platoon.
Lying in a ditch alongside the road, they were tired from the seven-kilometer night march they had completed two hours earlier. None of them talked or even moved for that matter.
The thirteen of them laid practically atop each other, like a litter of pups. Stacked haphazardly a few feet away from the pile, their weapons bore a light brown rusted look from the recent rain. None slept – it was too cold. Their eyes informed Dietrich and Schultz of their frustration about the speed march which had caused them to drench with sweat their last dry set of clothing beneath their trench coats.
They had dressed in the dry clothes around midnight the night before, after the last showers had ended and the skies had cleared. All in an effort to get a decent night’s sleep, as well as to avoid freezing to death. But just hours after changing, at 4 a.m., as most lay more comfortable than they had in days, Captain Schultz had ordered them to move out. Immediately. It was urgent, he said.
This was what Capt. Schultz had been told. They had to get to the front as quickly as possible. They had nearly double-timed in the dark, speed marching down a dirt road as quickly as possible. They arrived at the front fast, sweaty and breathless, only to end up lying on the frigid ground for nearly two hours with absolutely nothing to do.
All lay fixated on the Captain and their platoon leader, Sgt. Dietrich, knowing their next few hours of fate were being decided by the two men. Dietrich wasn’t sure if the troop’s unwavering gazes were the eyes of battle-scarred soldiers or mutinous killers staring at him. Returning his attention to Schultz, he whispered, “They’ll still fight when the time comes.”
The tone implied doubt, and Schultz frowned. “And how about you, Peter? You look rough. How are you holding up?”
He wanted to smile and say it didn’t compare to two years ago during their biggest fight in Italy. Or during the time they’d been pinned down by artillery fire for the entirety of a day near Normandy. But he knew this was a lie, and he lacked the humor or motivation to say it. Instead, he said without feeling, “I hope it’s over soon.”
Schultz nodded, crushed. He had approached Dietrich looking for support. Dietrich was typically one of the most motivated, optimistic men in the company. However, Schultz had known conditions were bad when he saw Dietrich with his helmet’s chin strap unbuttoned. It was a pet peeve of Schultz’s, an order everyone knew and usually obeyed.
Schultz knew that Sgt. Dietrich was the company’s backbone. He held Schultz’s company together, always leading, inspiring, or insulting the men through the good times and the bad. Schultz grunted and walked off, realizing there was not much left in his men or in himself.
Capt. Schultz hoped Germany would announce its surrender today; his men had fought too long and hard to lose their honor now. He had been so proud of his men since the day he assumed command more than a year ago, but he was increasingly worried (and frustrated) by what he saw.
His men, in a word, were breaking. They were cracking, like a dried-out, rotten piece of wood. No longer were they a stout support beam, which could be used to smash through a thick door like a battering ram or hold the line against the greatest of odds. Now, they were fragile, falling apart as if each man was a thin piece of kindling no longer attached to the core of the beam.
Not that there was much of a core left. The beam was already less than one-third its size, just in men alone. And even what was left was weaker than before.
Sergeant Dietrich had been the core, but his morale had dropped with every passing day. Private Lindner, the company’s biggest badass, had been the core, before he’d grown negative and been stripped of his rank. And at one time, Captain Schultz himself had been the core. And how much strength was he showing these days? How could he be disappointed in Dietrich when he hadn’t scolded the man for his demeanor and attitude?
Damn our leadership, he thought. A schoolteacher who knew nothing of war could walk the German lines and see it was over. But, madness blinded German leadership. The leaders, including the delusional Hitler and his fanatical henchmen, kept urging the men on, like an inexperienced boxing trainer who doesn’t know when to throw the towel in for the hurt fighter who staggers about the ring, defenseless at the end of a drawn-out, losing effort. Unconcerned or naive, the trainer watches as his fighter takes more and more headshots, foolishly thinking they could get a second wind or land that fortuitous blow.
Neither outcome was possible for Germany. The match was over. Had been for months. Germany was surrounded and collapsing with pressure from the east, south, and west from Soviet, American, and British forces. Italy was defeated. Japan was reeling. Now, not only were the Germans outnumbered, but they were also outclassed.
Nearly everyone knew it was over. Anticipation filled Germany’s soldiers as they waited to see the towel come flying in or hear the bell of the last round finally ring, hoping to avoid further injury.
Captain Schultz feared that this troop, a unit he felt no longer capable of combat following this morning’s walking of the lines, would be senselessly slaughtered by the Americans, if it didn’t end soon.
Christ, he thought. Sergeant Dietrich’s men weren’t even spread out. A single mortar round would have killed them all. Yet, he shook his head with dismay as he realized he hadn’t said a word to Dietrich or the men, advising or ordering them, if necessary, to spread out.
For all our sake, I hope it ends soon, Schultz thought.
Behind him, Dietrich watched Schultz amble off without an ounce of typical confidence or energy. Normally, the Captain strode the lines with pride, chest out, head up. Dietrich could tell by the way the Captain had walked off that Dietrich had let him down. Dietrich could have at least chatted with Schultz for a few minutes. Tried to pass some time and help the man forget about how cold it was or how desperate their situation remained.
Shit, maybe it would have cheered them both up so they could start acting like the leaders they really were, or at least, the leaders they had been. He wanted badly to make up for it, get his men cleaning their weapons and spread out, maybe have them start digging in, while he asked Schultz to accompany him on a reconnaissance forward. That’s what he ought to do anyway. That’s, at least, what he used to do.
A dreadful thought occurred to Dietrich. Not even you can get them to clean their weapons right now. It made him weak in the knees to think of it. He shook it off. They’d still listen. No sense in proving such a stupid point.
The nagging voice returned, determined to drive him mad. A year ago, the voice said, you would have made them clean their weapons, set up security, and spread out. Dietrich ignored the voice.
The thought continued: three days ago you would have made them at least clean their weapons.
Dietrich turned from his men and walked up the road toward the front line. Behind him, his men whispered among themselves that even Dietrich didn’t have much fight left these days.
“Maybe it’ll be over soon,” one muttered.
“I don’t even care anymore,” said another. “Live or die, doesn’t matter. What do you think there’s left to go home to? The cities have been destroyed. We know that.”
“To hell with this war,” said another. “You know, if something were to, say, accidentally happen to Dietrich and Schultz, we could go home. Today.”
That thought silenced the entire group.
Lindner finally said, “No need to kill them. Don’t be stupid. When we’re ready to quit, we’ll just go. I’ll tell them both to leave us the hell alone and neither one of them will do a damn thing to me.”
“And when will that be?” one of the men asked.
“Soon,” Lindner said. “Damn soon.”