My eyelids lay heavily over my sore eyes. I can feel my body, tossed onto the ground. An elbow, a calf, fingers, back, neck — blood.
I wonder what has woken me, and with difficulty slowly peel my eyes open. My right hand, laying across my chest, is clutching the remnants of the parachute harness. My ear against the ground quickly discerns footsteps hurrying towards me. The steps are heavy. I lay as still as possible; the muddy field’s tall grasses providing little cover. I realize there are multiple footsteps and I press my weary body closer to the earth.
The steps draw nearer and I can see the distinctive head and shoulders of a Nazi soldier.
Our eyes lock briefly.
“Over here!” He shouts with authority.
Uniformed men hurry up from every side, and I am surrounded. My heart rate quickens as I watch them close in — guns drawn.
“They want him alive?” One soldier asks, his eyes fixed on the leader.
“Ja,” he answers quickly. “For now.”
I am immensely grateful for the German words I know, and decide to keep it a secret as long as possible.
“Get him up,” the first soldier commands and two more jump to obey.
They take hold of my arms and I wince under their harsh fingers. My sore muscles protest to the quick movement as they pull me to a standing position. I limp forward, my eyes glancing wildly around for any way of escape. The soldiers close in around me, and my head is spinning from the hasty way I was jerked upright. Struggling to remain standing I breath deeply as the soldier looks me over.
“Tie his hands,” he commands, and without thinking I spring to the side.
Ducking between two men, I fling myself away from the group. There are shouts behind me and I instantly realize my mistake. I hesitate only momentarily, and feel the crack of a rifle butt against my skull. I again collapse on the muddy field, blood running down my cheek; it tastes horrible.
I wince as they roll me over, pulling my arms behind me. They tie the ropes tightly. I close my eyes, my forehead pressed to the ground, my jaw clenched.
“Oh God,” my heart whispers, “give me courage to die like a man.”
I’m led across the field towards the road. My boots are heavy and my head feels like it has been split open.
“Hurry up! Move it!” the Nazi accent is strong and harsh.
I try to quicken my pace. The soldiers on each side of me clutch their guns tightly.
We are quickly approaching the town and the road smooths out a bit. I follow through the streets, exhausted. I’m too worn to try an escape with the rope binding my hands so tightly.
Before long I see our destination. It’s a Nazi headquarters. The wall around the outside is thick and high. Barbed wire lines the top. As we reach a more known street, the soldiers form into lines, pushing me ahead of them. I stumble but one reaches out a hand and steadies me. I straighten my back and concentrate hard.
The tread of their thick boots on the cobblestones is loud.
I steady myself again as we near the headquarters. As a prisoner of war I realize I am under some level of protection by the common rules or warfare. I look up at the sky, wondering if the rest of the planes got away safely. How many hours was I out anyway?
“Move it!” Someone yells from behind me and I again quicken my pace.
With one last desperate glance around me, I am ushered through the tall gate and it clangs shut behind us. I fill my lungs with air, steeling myself against what is to come. One more gate and then deep into a building, through to a hallway lined with doors.
Dragged quickly through the corridors, my eyes flash back and forth at my surroundings, hopefully.
But in a moment I find myself disarmed and alone in a cold dark room; no windows, not even a vent. I walk along all four walls, feeling and looking as if that will make an escape appear. It doesn’t. There is a single chair in the center of the room and I sit down heavily.
If only my hands could be free. I begin on that task; anything to give my brain something to do. Eventually I am able to slide one hand out of the coarse rope and bring my sore arms to the front of me again. My hands are scraped and raw, bleeding from the rope. I free my other hand and toss the bonds at the wall.
Heavy footsteps pass outside my cell door and I slide to the floor.
As the mind of so many often does in times like this, mine wanders over my life. I swallow hard thinking of home back in America, Brice my older brother, and the rest of my family. My head lowers to my hands and a quivering sigh escapes my lips.
Slowly a thought occurs to me, the reason they would put me in a cell by myself is to grow my fear — my loneliness. I shake it off.
“I will not fall to your tricks,” I say aloud to the empty room. “By my God, I am more than a conqueror. And no matter what happens, I am in His plan.” I can hear the tears gathering in my voice, but I push past them, determined to stand strong. “Oh God, give me strength.”
I hear a key turn in the lock and quickly fold my hands behind my back. As the door is pushed open, I stand bravely to my feet.
“Follow,” a short soldier demands. He grabs my arm giving me no choice, and leads me down the hall. Slamming me into the back of a small space, he closes the door. Breathing hard, I listen as he speaks to his comrade just outside.
“I know that, but he commanded it anyway!”
A second voice rises to a whisper, “but, common rules of warfare! We can’t kill him.”
“It isn’t my decision!” the first voice barks before hurrying back down the hallway. I gather myself together again.
I was ready for death when I signed up as a pilot. I am ready for it now. If that is the worst they can do to me….then they can’t do much. I look up to the dark ceiling, trying desperately to reign in my breathing, and trying to imagine heaven.
A large man with the air of command about him enters the little room. I can feel the amount of power he holds. It would mean nothing to him to put a knife through my chest. He walks slowly to the center, across from me. He straightens his coat, decorated with ribbons; ribbons counting the evils he has committed.
I meet his gaze, as cold and hateful as it is. His long sideburns frame his stoic face.
“Why the mask of bravery?” he asks me steadily.
A shiver runs up my spine merely from his tone of voice.
“It is no mask, God is on my side,” I reply breathing hard.
“Ja! Just as I thought. You can speak German. Very good.”
My jaw tightens. I let my secret out, I realize. It is too late now and I stand firm.
The commander tilts his chin out, speaking slowly, “It is too bad it has to end this way, isn’t it, American?” The word is spat out like a curse but it strengthens me anyway. America, the nation under God. Under God’s command and under His eye.
“What is ending?” I ask, knowing how dangerous it is for me to push the commander.
His thick eyebrows goes up and he turns his back to me, exiting the room.
The minutes seem to drag as I wait — alone.
Eventually the door opens and a thin soldier jerks me to my feet. My hands are clasped tightly behind me, pretending to still be tied.
I’m lead to an office and shoved inside.
The large commander who found out I speak German, is sitting at the desk. A young man stands beside him. Their looks are strikingly similar, but I feel the evil hanging from the elder.
“You will not disappoint me,” he states to the young man. “I will return in one hour.”
Slapping the paper onto the desk he turns and exits the office.
The new soldier shivers and a moment of silence reigns as we look each other over. With great surprise, I see that the young man’s hands are shaking. The fear that had been choking me when I first arrived is almost completely gone. I tilt my head and he looks away. As he sits down nervously in the chair, I recognize that there is a war raging within him.
“Why are you here?” he asks, scratching the back of his neck.
“I thought maybe you would know?” I shoot back.
“I am the one asking the questions,” he barks, exasperated.
I see something in him. Something that I had not seen in the older man. Thinking hard I finally decide what I think it is: doubt.
Forgetting that I am pretending to have my hands tied behind me I bring them to the front and cross my bruised arms.
“I am here because I am fighting the enemies of my God and the destroyers of the freedoms he has given His people.”
A red hue creeps over my captors face. “Freedom? We are bringing unity for the strong,” he recites and I notice the lack of passion — lack of conviction.
I lean my weary body against the wall, “You destroy the order God has created, placing yourselves above your fellow men.”
He rests his head in his palms as if suffering from a splitting headache. With a glance at the door he suddenly looks me full in the face and asks, “Do you realize I am about to kill you?”
My cracked lips actually form a smile as I feel like he is practically begging me to tell him about the LORD. “Only if you want to send me to a world where sorrow, pain, and loss no longer exist. Jesus Christ has taken the sting out of death for me.”
“Oh believe me, we can make you feel it,” he replies, his eyes look weak and tired.
I look at him searchingly, willing him to understand. “Of course, I will feel the pain in my body, but only seconds later my soul will be free.”
His eyes study my face almost desperately. He speaks in a whisper, “What do you mean free?”
With surprise, I realize I am fighting back tears. I nod my head, “When we are completely surrendered to Him, we are freed.”
His mind tries to grasp the words which must be so foreign to him. “When we give up, we are free?” he asks, mostly to himself.
I jump on the question, “I know it sounds completely backwards, but it’s true.”
He sits for a long moment. Looking into my eyes, as if trying to search my soul. I pray for him all the while.
He suddenly shakes himself and I inhale deeply as resolution takes over his face.
Without warning he jumps to his feet and opens the office door, looking out in both directions. He strides back to the desk without a glance at me and pulls what I’m sure is a cigarette lighter, from the top drawer. Picking up the stack of papers he is back across the room and out the door. I blink, not having the slightest idea why he left.
I look down at my blood coated hands and back to the door as he steps into the room again. He seems jumpy and sits in the chair only to stand back up and pace the room.
Only a few minutes later I hear a voice.
“Hey! Fire! Help!”
I glance at my captor. As if he had been waiting for the call, he takes my arm in a firm grip and pulls me into an adjoining office and then into the hall.
My eyes take in everything as he drags me deeper down the hallway. I wrestle with the decision to trust him. As soldiers fill the hall, I realize I have no choice.
I run with him towards a black door. It’s an exit. He hesitates before pulling it open. Instantly an alarm blares loudly in our ears. The young man slams the door behind us and glances across the yard to the execution wall. He turns his eyes away, dragging me behind him. “You’d better start praying,” he tells me and my heart leaps. Here, a Nazi is reminding me to pray! I glance up at the sky and breath deeply, remembering that everything is in God’s hand — everything.
I again pull my hands behind my back, and hurry along beside the young Nazi. His grip on my arm is tight and I sprint to keep up, easing the pain. Approaching the gate I watch my captor straighten his shoulders. He steps quickly towards the inner gate and tosses his head.
“What are you doing?” one of the men asks nonchalantly and I recognize an air of familiarity between them.
“What?” the soldier beside me gasps. “You didn’t hear?”
The other soldier shakes his head, glancing at me.
“A fire was started and the commander, so infuriated, decided special treatment was necessary for the new prisoner.”
The other man laughs but it comes out shakily. I swallow hard.
I wouldn’t want to be him.” another says loudly. I remain silent, still confused.
“See ya boys for a game later!” my captor calls as the gate is opened for us and he pushes me through.
Turning right, we hurry along the fence towards the other larger buildings. I notice the huge gate at the end and glance at the man beside me, waiting for instructions. His eyes dart back and forth across the wide compound. The wall surrounding the yard rises high. I notice the way the soldier eyes the guards at the second gate — fear.
He scans the wall and I guess he is going to attempt to make it over.
An especially loud shout shoots through the air and I jump. The soldier grabs my sleeve, his fingers pressing painfully on my bruised skin beneath it. His hands are shaking. It can all easily be a trick. I refuse to get my hopes raised. I wait on the LORD, as I run.
Reaching the thick wall he gasps out, “Give me a boost!”
I look up at him. His blue eyes full of fear, very close to panic. I look up at the top of the wall and then brace myself beside it. The soldier grabs onto my head with one hand while slipping his booted foot onto my cupped hands. Grabbing the top of the wall with his free hand, he pulls himself up. I give him more leverage by pushing on his feet as he ascends.
He reaches the top and squirms under the wire and onto the other side.
The shouting behind us fills my soul with a choking fear. I take a huge breath through my teeth. There is no reason the German I just helped over the wall should wait and help me as well; I am the enemy in his eyes. Tears fill my own as I see his head peek back over the wall. His hand reaches out towards me and I grasp it tightly. Pushing with my boots against the wall I pull myself up and duck quickly under the wire. I scramble through, fleeing for my life as I hear a gunshot ring out. We both drop to the ground. The wire has torn through my jacket and my back is bleeding again. I wince hard.
I know we must hurry, especially if we were spotted. I look at my companion, not sure what to expect.
Tipping his head forward, he reaches out with his hand. I study his face, never wanting to forget this moment as the light of Christ reigns so brightly onto the breaking soul of a young Nazi. I grip his hand, and squeeze it hard.
“Here,” I tell him, reaching quickly into my deep army pocket. I pull out a small German New Testament. “Read it.” I tell him. “You will find the answers to your questions.”
He grasps it tightly before slipping it into his coat. “Thank you.”
“You saved my life,” I realize. “I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s all right,” he says quickly. “I’ll probably be changing it anyway.”
I hesitate before speaking, “I know you’re carrying a lot of baggage. Never forget what you need to remember, or remember what you need to forget.”
He doesn’t look away, taking in every word.
“Turn to Jesus Christ. He deserves our everything. And He is the only One who can make you a new man.”
His brow tightens seriously and he nods. “A new man.”
Short story companion to Maggie Joy’s WW2 novel “The Star Under the City”
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