The morning hours pass, and shadows grow shorter as the sun climbs a cloudless sky. Our scattered groups slowly form into a rough column. Ahead is a long tent from which a row of German soldiers, now prisoners, emerge. We are about to be processed like livestock entering a stockyard. As Brian and I draw closer, I could see uniformed men sitting behind folding tables as the Germans file past. Brian pointed to the line of clerks. “Notice how they’re hunched over their paper work? They look like accountants.”
I motioned to a large square tent next to the fencing. “I wonder what that is?” All the prisoners are toting bundles as they enter the tent..
“Part of the processing, I suppose. Or maybe it’s a changing room. Those look like clothes.” He sighed, “Clean duds. That would be wonderful.”
I pay little attention to Brian’s words. Two American officers, lieutenants, perhaps, and two infantrymen with rifles are surveying the line of prisoners and coming our way. At times, they would stop, seemingly at random, to search a prisoner. While the unfortunate man is forced to empty his pickets, the riflemen would stand aside and scan other prisoners. Didn’t they know? We have no weapons. Many of us had even thrown our knives away for fear of punishment if we were caught hiding one. What could they be looking for? At they draw near, I watch in astonishment as a veteran Afrikaner removes a metal from his around his neck, giving it to his captors.
“That’s an Iron Cross!” Brian is incredulous. “He just gave it to them.”
After placing the medal in a canvas pouch, the officers saunter closer, paying little attention to a group of younger German replacements. Moments alter the armed group surround me.
The Nazis love to bestow medals on their fighting men. A soldier can amass a fair number of awards just by staying alive. I feared the attention my field ribbons and medals could draw so I left many of them back at camp. I did have one favorite award tucked away in my tunic pocket. Unless I am searched, it could pass as a simple cord.
The taller officer appraises me, then motions for me to raise my arms. He wastes no time in searching my pants pockets, finding my Soldier Book. He ignores it and continues to search, but finds nothing. Then he pats my legs for anything hidden. Again, nothing. He turns away, clearly disappointed, signaling the group to move on.
I stifle a smug grin.
The other officer steps forward. “You’re not a good poker player, Gerry.” He points to my tunic pocket, or rather, to the bit of silver braid .visible under the flap. This is my Marksmanship lanyard, a merit award I earned while training. This, I intend to keep.
The lieutenant holds his palm open, “Let’s see what’s in the pocket.”
I shake my head.
He thrusts his hand closer. “Pass it over, or there’ll be trouble.”
My jaw clamps shut; my hands ball into fists.
“Give it up, Henry,” Brian says in quiet German. “These boys mean business.”
The two riflemen look around as if bored with the exchange, but there is no mistaking the rifles pointing at my midsection. I remove the lanyard, careful to move slowly, and toss the decoration to the American. He catches it deftly and places it in his pouch. The group moves to the line behind us.
“Jackals!” I kick at the sand.
Brian frowns. “Second-rate soldiers. This may be as close to combat as those officers are likely to get. So they have to steal their trophies from prisoners.”
“I’d give anything for two minutes alone with them.”
“Let it go. They’ll probably lose it in a card game.”
I shake my head. “You mean they’d gamble my Marksmanship award away?”
“Why not? Easy come. Easy go.”
Walking in a tight circle helps me to work off my anger. The thought of our captors robbing us makes sense. Our soldiers would do the same to British or American prisoners. Still, it bothered me. “They’re choosing their targets.”
Brian turns to watch the American soldiers confront another unfortunate prisoner. “The older solders.” He considers for a moment, then raised an eyebrow. “The veteran fighters would have more medals and awards. Better pickings.”
I sigh. “Almost lost my head. Thanks for looking out for me.”
“Anytime, my friend.”