[Part 2 – an excerpt from Teacher of the Year: The Mystery & Legacy of Edwin Barlow]
Edwin and rest of troop B were called before Captain Berlin. It took longer to muster than usual because Patton himself had ordered each man to wear their neck-down. The absurdity of wearing a tie in the heat of combat was not lost on anyone. But it was Patton. And if Patton issued an order, then they’d damn well wear baby bonnets if he said to.
St. Malo (above) was the current goal. It was a coastal village with canals that the Germans had flooded, so as to create a bottleneck into the town. The 17th had already tried to get in, but gotten slammed with coastal guns and some artillery ships along the estuary. A major offensive to take St. Malo was being planned, but to get to St. Malo, they had to get through the neighboring village of Chateauneuf. Their mission was to see what kind of resistance was holed up there.
As Edwin hopped into his jeep, he heard Sgt. Cottone shout, “Ten-hut!” Edwin leapt to attention as Brigadier General Earnest walked into the assembly area. He was a fine old general who strode confidently among the troops. He seemed to be on some kind of inspection. He passed by Edwin and looked at him. He didn’t look him in the eye, but rather at his neck. He did this with just about every soldier. Then he stopped beside another private, fingered the man’s necktie, and said, “Get those damn things off,” and strode away. Everyone gratefully stripped off his necktie.
Three squads from Troop B moved through the brush and forest outside Chateauneuf, and came to a halt when they spied the roadblocks. They’d been constructed out of criss-crossing iron rails over the causeway, and east of there was a canal. All was quiet, save a mangy dog digging for scraps just outside the roadblocks, which appeared to be unmanned.
Edwin kept silent as he watched Sgt. Cottone throw out hand signals. He would take one squad and move in from the right flank, while the other two would take up a frontal attack position. Cottone took the squad and moved to the right, as Edwin and his comrades moved to find clear shots at the roadblock. They’d gone about a hundred feet when two dozen Germans popped up from hiding places among the wall, and opened fire on them.
As Cottone’s men ducked for cover, Edwin and his squad returned fire. Edwin hunkered down just on the edge of a copse of trees, using a huge triangular rock as cover. He placed his gun on the rock and, for the first time, began to shoot in live combat. He didn’t think, he just reacted like Sarge had taught. Everything became so chaotic so quickly that he responded the only way he knew.
The Germans were initially confused by the wide spread of the squad, which had formed a semicircle around the roadblocks and had good cover. One German dashed out from behind a wall to get a better firing position on Cottone’s flanking squad.
Edwin squeezed the trigger. There was the signature loud “CRACK” of his rifle. The German was cut down in his tracks as the bullet smashed into his chest.
And something shattered inside Edwin Barlow. He heard a noise that he thought must have been a bullet breaking a window. But the noise was so much more violent. It was more like a shriek, and it seemed to come from inside him. He realized later it was the sound of his spirit shattering or, possibly, the sound of God leaving him forever.
He didn’t stop shooting. His body seemed to react by itself, while his mind went dormant. Two other Germans fell to his rifle. Bullets zinged around him but never came close. Tree branches snapped and splintered from errant gunfire. He had no idea how much time had gone by, or how many of the enemy had been killed when squad comrade Stephen Brown appeared beside him. A platoon of Germans had been spotted in the village, and Troop B would retreat so the infantry could handle it. Edwin slung his rifle. He cast a glance at the first young man he had shot. He had blonde hair and blue eyes, with an almost angelic face. He gazed at the dead boy for a moment, and then darted into the woods.
That night seemed to last forever, and yet not even exist to Edwin. He kept apart from everyone. He did not eat. He only stared to the south, at the distant stars. Behind him, to the north, Allied air strikes pummeled the German gunboats. The sky was choked with planes, a full thousand of them, buzzing in swarms, dropping bomb after bomb. BOOM BOOM BOOM. The deep, heavy explosions resonated in Edwin’s chest. The sky lit up a bright orange and the flames climbed high. Then the 83rd Artillery Division started hammering the bottleneck into St. Malo. The THUMPS and BOOMS went on all night. Edwin did not sleep.
Edwin tried to pray, but felt that God was not listening, that somehow He wasn’t even there. Edwin asked for forgiveness for killing those men, but didn’t feel God heard him. Finally, he wept. Tears rolled down his face as he thought of his Ma, all alone in that empty house, the mothers of those dead German soldiers, his Pa laying in some cold gutter in a strange city, and the apple pie he wished he could eat right now. And he sobbed into his hands, for he could feel the shards of his damned soul coursing through him, jabbing and sticking every organ, every artery, torturing him with their pricks and stabs. His own doing was tearing him apart, from the inside out.
He cursed himself that night, but would not curse God. The tears dried up, and he asked the Lord for guidance, even as the artillery shells found their targets, destroying everything in their purview, reducing men and stone to dust.