by Bill Yenne

Copyright © 2004 and 2013 by William Yenne

On the road
Somewhere south of Bayreuth, Germany
Monday, May 28, 1945, 3:23am

Nate McKinley glanced from the rearview mirror of the jeep to dark road ahead, and back again. The lead vehicle of what was almost certainly a Red Army convoy had come around the corner less than a hundred yards away. Fortunately, the faint blackout lights were not powerful enough to catch the jeep in their glare, but Nate knew it would be just a matter of seconds before they shone on four deceased Soviet soldiers lying in pools of blood that spread across the roadway.

Nate did not wait to watch. Slamming the Willys into third gear, he was traveling as fast as he could in the darkness. Without his own lights, which he dared not use, Nate’s perception of the road was that of a very dark gray ribbon winding through the blackness of the forest, a reflection of the grey wedge of sky above the tops of the trees.

Until he rounded the first corner and put a few trees between him and the headlights behind, Nate did not even dare breathe.

In his mind, he estimated that the Russians would stop for no more than a minute when they found the bodies. This would buy him the chance to put some space behind him, but not much. When they saw the bodies and the bloody tracks of the jeep, would the Reds move more slowly, not knowing how many of their enemies were present? Or would they speed up to catch the jeep?

There was a strong urge on Nate’s part to just floor it and drive as fast as he could until he made contact with friendly forces. How far were the American lines? He was assuming that there were American lines.

What if this captured American jeep that he and Gunther Hass had ambushed was not the first Russian-manned vehicle on the road?

What if he was racing away from the Russians behind him, only to come around a corner and find another Russian convoy ahead?

There was nothing to do but drive. He watched the radium dial of his wristwatch as it ticked off two hours, then four. Thankfully, the drive was entirely uneventful. He had felt tired earlier, but now he was beyond exhaustion. Gunther, he noticed, had dozed off and was snoring uncomfortably.

For the first time since the shootout, Nate realized that he still had the old Leica camera around his neck. For a moment, he thought about pulling it off and tossing it, but as he was weighing the pros and cons, he glimpsed a cluster of road signs that indicated that the jeep was approaching a town.

Gunther awoke as Nate slowed abruptly.

“Wo bin ich? Was passt?” He muttered, his eyes half opening.

“We’re coming to a town. We’ve gotta be careful.”

Gunther struggled to sit up and he grasped the Russian submachine gun, ready to use it if necessary.

As they emerged from the darkness of the woods into the clearing where the village was situated, they could see the first weak pinkish hue of the approaching dawn spreading across the sky.

It was, as far as Nate could see, a typical small Bavarian village, filled with wood and stone buildings that began abruptly at the edge of town and crowded close on either side of the road. In a town like this back home, houses would have at least a quarter acre around them.

There was no sign of life. No lights were visible in any of the windows. The only vehicle was an American deuce-and-a-half truck parked at the edge of the road. Nate approached carefully, but the hood was up and he guessed that it had had engine trouble and was abandoned. There was no sign of it having been shot at. Nate sensed that this meant they were ahead of the Russian vanguard. Apparently there had been American forces in town, but they had withdrawn without having been attacked.

On the south side of the town, the road forked. A signpost between the forks had been reduced to a raw stump. Whoever had been here last had taken it away as a keepsake, or to help confuse whomever came later. Nate was confused, but Gunther gestured weakly toward the right fork.

Just as he was turning, Nate heard the ripping sound of a large truck backfiring as it slowed on the narrow main street behind them. As Nate looked back, Gunther jerked himself from the grogginess of his painful stupor and raised the broad snout of the PPSh-1941. An American truck came around the corner, just fifty feet behind them. Nate could see the pea-green uniforms of three Russians in the cab. They saw the jeep and one of them reacted quickly, raising his side arm to fire.

Gunther, however, reacted quicker. He sprayed the cab from left to right, the jagging down into the grille, shredding the radiator of the big GMC.

As the truck jerked sideways in a cloud of white steam, striking the wall of a stone building at about forty miles per hour, Nate put the jeep into second gear and pushed the pedal to the metal. For nearly an hour, he’d paced himself carefully through the forest, but now it was time to say “Hang on!”

With its small engine and low gear ratio, the jeep was never intended for high speeds, but Nate decided to wring every mph possible out of those four cylinders.

By causing the truck to crash on the narrow street, Gunther had bought them more precious time. Any other vehicles behind it would be backed up trying to get ahead of the wreck. This would give the jeep more of a chance to get away.

What they had not counted on, however, was for three of the vehicles behind the truck to be motorcycles.

The jeep screamed from the strain of the rpms as the thundering motorcycles gained ground. Despite Nate’s best efforts, the Willys was no match for the captured German BMWs. In his mirror, he could see the Russian on the lead motorcycle draw a pistol. Wincing in the sixty-five-mile-an-hour slipstream because he was not wearing goggles, the Russian struggled to take aim.

Gunther waited until the motorcycle was within easy range and squeezed off a very short burst.

Nate did not see the 7.62mm slugs strike their target, but in the mirror, he saw the BMW suddenly upend and bounce high into the air. The rider became separated from the machine as it spiralled back down onto the road. They struck the pavement and bounced again. The motorcycle bounced higher than the body of the Russian.

The other two motorcycles made no attempt to stop, but slowed to maintain a respectable distance from the jeep. Gunther Hass waited a moment for them to close, but they held their separation. Sensing what the German was trying to do, Nate let up slightly on the accelerator and the two BMWs quickly slid into range.

Gunther took aim and pulled the trigger.

Nate heard two pops as two shots pierced the air, followed by the whirring sound of a hammer hitting an empty chamber. The 71-round drum magazine was empty.

Pushing the accelerator back down, Nate grabbed desperately for the speed that he knew the straining Willys could not provide. He heard the thunder of one of the motorcycles coming up on his left barely a few feet behind.

Now the BMW was abreast of the jeep.

He could see the angry face of the Russian. He was cursing, but the words were inaudible over the roar of the engines.

Ahead, Nate could see a hairpin turn to the right. Instinctively, he thought to brake going into the turn, but instead, he allowed the Willys to slide into the adjacent side of the road, using the centrifugal velocity of the turn to slam the BMW.

Nate felt the jolt of the impact as he cranked the wheel to the right.

For a moment, the Russian’s face was barely two feet from his own.

The angry leer turned to wide-eyed fright as the motorcycle began to skid.

The face turned away and began to sink as the BMW turned toward its side. It slipped to a forty-five degree angle, then slumped quickly.

Nate heard no sound as it hit the pavement and started to skid. In his mirror, Nate saw the dust cloud as the mass of wreckage tumbled into a low stone retaining wall.

Suddenly, the windshield of the jeep exploded in a hailstorm of broken safety glass. To his right, the last motorcycle rider was pointing his pistol directly at Nate.

Because of the grinding right turn, the centrifugal force was pulling the jeep away from the motorcycle. The rider knew this, and knew that he was safe, at least for the moment, from the fate of his comrade.

As the Russian took aim for another shot, many thoughts raced through Nate’s head, not the least of which was the many hours that Nate and his brother had practiced their quick draws with their handguns back home in Montana. Almost instinctively, he reached for his Colt. In an instant, it was out of its holster.

The look of surprise on the Russian’s face quickly disappeared as his head jerked to the side in a puff of pink froth.

Jerking his head back to the road ahead, Nate saw no longer a deserted rural highway, but crowds of people scurrying to get out of the way of the careening Willys and dozens of other vehicles—other jeeps, deuce-and-a-halfs, and even tanks.

Nate was surrounded, but not by figures in the pea-colored Red Army uniform nor in the feldgrau of the Wehrmacht, but by dozens of men in the khaki and olive drab of the US Army.

He slammed on the brakes, squealing to a stop in a cloud of burning rubber.

Cautiously, a man with captain’s bars on his helmet approached the jeep, accompanied by two who had M1 rifles trained on Nate. He just put his hands on the top of the steering wheel and took a deep breath.

“Nate McKinley, Staff Sergeant, 27th Armored Infantry Battalion...” he said before the captain could say anything. “The war’s not over anymore. The Russians are coming.”

“Who’s this?” The captain asked, pointing to the silent, blood-spattered form crumpled into the rear seat of the jeep.

Nate glanced back at the German whom he had not known twelve hours ago, but who had saved his life at least twice since. He looked into the half-opened eyes and could tell they would never again see Bremen—or Gretl.

“This is...was...Gunther Hass. He and I used to hunt bear together.”

At that moment, the morning sun broke over the mountains to the east. Nate looked up as a crowd of GIs closed in on the jeep to look it over. Suddenly, the crowd turned to look toward something that was ahead of the jeep.

Through the blasted-out windshield frame, Nate beheld a sight that he would never forget.

The crowd of GIs parted like the waters of the Red Sea as a tall, powerful man strode through the crowd to stand before the jeep, bathed in the first rays of the sunrise.

From the toes of his riding boots to the top of his steel helmet, which glistened with four silver stars, the man was the epitome of spit and polish. His powerful shoulders and stern jaw radiated an awesome sense of power and strength. His presence commanded such an aura of total authority that Nate could think to do nothing short of scrambling from the jeep and standing at attention before this man.

Nate straightened himself as best he could, and executed his smartest salute since boot camp.

General George Smith Patton, Jr. stared at Nate for a split second with his glacial blue eyes, then transferred his binoculars to his left hand and crisply returned Nate’s salute.

To be in such close proximity to the great Patton for the first time was not something that one took lightly. Nate had seen him once before, at a distance, soon after the Battle of the Bulge, but his presence was a constant fact of life throughout the European Theater. To most of the men who had fought under him—and against him—through the bitter months between the breakout from Normandy in August 1944 and the final victory on May 7, 1945, he was the greatest American combat leader in Europe. Even those who hated and feared him still respected him and were dazzled by his tactical skill.

“At ease, son,” Patton said in his incongruously high-pitched voice.

“Yes, sir.”

That was all that Nate could think of to say.

“What’s your name sergeant?” Patton asked, glancing at Nate’s stripes.

“Nate McKinley, sir.”

“Well, Sergeant McKinley, I watched you out there just now, and damn it, I like the way you drive. I need a driver like you. My driver, Sergeant Mims. He’s been with me since before D-Day. Gone home. Had enough points, dammit. I need driver, and son, you’ve got a new assignment.”

“Thank you, sir,” Nate gulped.

“What unit are you with, son?” Patton asked.

“I’m with the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, sir.”

“Oh my God, you were with the outfit that was...that was massacred by those bastards.”

“Yes, sir,” Nate said, reaching for his camera. “And I have the pictures.