Several of us had gathered in a large foxhole as we traded rations and took a few minutes to eat before going back to where we had dug in before sunset. Even at the worst of times, back home it was never this hot and never so humid at night. All around us silver shards of moonlight slashed through the canopy bleeding to the jungle floor in bright contrast to the total nothingness of the shadows. The shadows from where like ghosts our enemy would soon appear. And where many of us feared after the battle our ghosts would remain.
The young man and I spoke low so as to never lose contact with the tell-tale sounds of the insects in the distance.
There was nothing extraordinary about the young man except that he thought his daddy was the best squirrel hunter there ever was, which I took exception with because I’m quite sure mine is. We lost ourselves for a while in conversation about the woods back home in West Virginia. It was October and the leaves would be at peak color, the Hickory and Poplar so bright yellow it would look like the sun was shining on them even before it rose. We talked about how the fog looked smothering the hollows at daybreak as we gained perspective climbing to the “good woods” on a ridge.
The New Yorkers in the foxhole with us seemed to enjoy listening to our hillbilly accents. They tried to make fun of us, but we were so damned sure we could easily kick their asses we took little offense. It would have been a whole different matter had we felt intimidated in any way. A lot of us boys from the hills were bewildered by how the city boys could argue and call each other names without feeling obligated to throw a punch. We would fester for days over a slight while they seemed to be able to go on without an afterthought.
I stopped in mid-sentence. The young man and I turned in unison and raised our rifles in readiness. “What?” one of the city boys asked?
“They’re coming,” they young man answered.
“I don’t hear nothing.”
“Right,” I said. “That’s just it. The insects got quiet in the distance. You can tell where they are by the silence.”
They cleared out to go back to their posts and I was left alone in my foxhole. The silence was creeping nearer… not long now.
In the moment before all hell broke loose I wondered how I could have let my acquaintance, a fellow hunter and fisherman, someone who I seemed to have formed a bond with in the time of our short conversation, get away without finding out his name or home town
Like angry hornets, hot lead zipped through the air just above my head. This was hell. The horrible screams of the wounded occasionally rose above the din of the battle reminding those of us still intact of our impending fate. I lifted my gun above the foxhole and fired, keeping my head down for fear of being stung by one of the angry, heavy-caliber bullets. I prayed that when the end came, it would come swiftly. Shots from the other side rang closer as the enemy advanced on our position. Suddenly the shelling stopped and you could hear in much more detail the names of the loved ones called for by the dying. At any moment those sounds would be punctuated by the blood-curdling screams of the enemy meant to instill a paralyzing fear as they overran our position.
In that momentary pause the enemy took to draw on its resolve for the final rush, through the smoke and mist of the early morning, just as the first rays of the sun struck our mountain top goal not too far off in the distance; from somewhere down our line, above the moan of the dying I heard a voice ringing like iron struck on iron…
“Boys, I’m not gonna die with my head stuck in a foxhole whimperin’. When I go, I’m gonna go lookin’ my enemy in the eye, throwing lead back at him. If anybody’s still alive and you want to die good, follow me.” With that the young man gave a rebel yell and leapt out of his foxhole. I’ll never know where he got that flag but I saw it gloriously silhouetted in the mists of battle against a rising sun. There were many more left than I imagined. There must have been 30 or 40 of us within his earshot. My fellow squirrel hunter from back home scarcely advanced 10 yards before enemy bullets dropped him.
But he had already instilled in us the vision of dying good. Dying on our own terms, advancing into the maws of the enemy was so much better than waiting for death with our hands clamped over our heads whimpering. Our fear turned to courage, or was it just wild exuberance as we rushed the enemy line. Others further down the line on both sides followed us in our mad rush. They had not heard the valiant young man or seen the bullet-riddled flag silhouetted against the sky. But they heard our battle cry, and it rang louder and truer for them than the cry of the defeated.
Like dominoes we tipped over one after the other as they mowed us down, but those of us left kept coming. We ran into the enemy line bent on dying good. We were like a rogue wave crashing over castles in the sand while they scurried back from the onslaught like land crabs before an advancing tide.
How had the tide of the battle so drastically changed? Something that was inside us all along had been awakened. Our former leaders, dead on the battlefield had not awakened it. We tapped into the disgust and resolve of the valiant young man. Our circumstances had not changed; we changed. We bought into his vision and it brought us back into the land of the living. We were drawn magnetically by the resolve in his voice and the flag silhouetted against the sky. Everything in his life had brought him to that point and his timing was exquisite. When he stepped forward he was standing on solid ground. Intuitively he knew the moment, and those nearest rushed with him to meet their potential. And with a momentum like the tide, there was no turning us back.
Much later that day I returned to the place the young man had fallen marked by where the riddled flag lay. I had an idea to find out who he was and write his family. I needed to let the father know what all fathers long to know, and what all sons long to hear — that when the going gets tough, they have what it takes. I needed to let his mother know that he cared for others as much as he cared for himself. I needed to let his wife and children know that because of his courage many of our lives were saved.
I found the flag and a bloody place where he had fallen. A detail had already cleared the battlefield of bodies. I kept the flag.
Two days later I found another soldier, one of the New Yorkers who had shared the foxhole with us that night as we talked about the woods back home, looking for the valiant young man who had led the charge. As far as I know we are the only two left alive who saw him take those first and last ten long steps. I told the New Yorker what I knew. We discussed the other stories taking shape as to why the battle had turned in our favor. Ours are only two voices and chances are history will attribute the young man’s finest moment to someone or something else.
Yet, the young man accomplished his goal that day–head held high, looking his enemy in the eye, he died good. Death as always still took his full tally for the day, only this time because of the leadership of the valiant young man, in the end; it was mostly from the other side.
And after the young man’s performance on the battlefield, I can imagine how his daddy just might be the greatest squirrel hunter there ever was – and why Eisenhower and Washington thought squirrel hunters make the best soldiers.