Her Finest Hour
A River Standalone Story
By Dawn Natelle
Editor’s Note: This is a prequel to the River series I am currently writing. It happens more than 70 years before the current story. The only character in the story from the series is the river itself. Be warned, there are no transgender elements in this story.
“Dammit Lucy, you’ve scalped me,” Jimmy Johnson cried out, still groggy from his first sexual experience, as his hand felt the short hair on the left side of his head.
“Go back to sleep,” the pretty young Indian maiden said. “None of the other boys even noticed.”
“I’ve got to get on the train to Camp Borden tomorrow,” Jimmy said. “Now you’ve got me looking like all the rest.”
“You’re in the army now, private,” the girl giggled. “They will be shaving your head anyway. Now I have something to remember you by.”
It was true. Jimmy, and nearly a dozen other boys would be boarding a train south tomorrow. About six weeks ago a recruiting officer had stopped of on a morning train, and by the time he got on the evening train, 12 boys had signed up, eight from the trading village of St. Mary’s, and four more from the adjacent reserve.
Since then Lucy had slept with all of them. Jimmy had heard people start to refer to her as ‘the Indian whore’ but he hadn’t heard of anyone actually paying. She slept with each of the boys who had enlisted in the spring of 1940, and every one had come home with a sizable patch of hair missing. Jimmy was the last, and Lucy had pursued him for almost a week. Her final taunt of ‘don’t you want to go to war as a man, not a boy’ had did it. Although the five beers might have helped.
War was in all the news. For years there had been talk about Hitler, and what Germany was doing. A few months ago the mother country had declared war, and almost a week later Canada followed suit. Then, for months and months, recruiting happened only in the cities. Finally, they came to St. Mary’s, and other towns across the northern railway, to bolster the numbers.
In Camp Borden Jimmy went through the gamut of experiences as a recruit. He had a strong desire to excel, and during one of the mindless, numbing full dress marches he decided that if he was going to be in the army, he was going to be the best damned private the army had. From that day on, he pushed himself, and he pushed the other men along with him, stopping to help a lagging soldier, or giving a few words of encouragement when it was needed.
As a result, when his six weeks of basic training ended, and his company was shipped to England, Jimmy was held back. He was given a sergeant’s insignia, and was held back at Borden to help train the next group. He felt bad about missing the trip to England, but was proud of his stripes, which occasionally would tingle on his arm when he did something right, or got one of his trainees to finally see the light and do a task correctly. Jimmy got the reputation for making good soldiers out of the most inept of recruits.
It was the spring of 1942 when Sgt. Johnson was finally sent off to England with one of the companies of men he had trained. He ran into some of the boys from St. Mary’s and found that he had missed nothing by staying in Canada over the past two years. The soldiers had done nothing during that time but train, and march, and get drunk in as many pubs as they could find.
Over the summer Jimmy joined them. Well, except for the drinking bit. Jimmy wasn’t opposed to an ale or two in a pub, but he was moderate, and generally was the one who could be depended on to get his mates safely home. And over the summer word started coming down that something was up. Training started to get more focused, and Jimmy was required to study maps of the French coastline. Soon he was able to identify any port from Calais to Brest, and know where the guns were, and what troops were thought to be in each area.
It was August 18 when he and his company were loaded onto a ship, and that night they felt themselves at sea. Their captain came round and told them that they were participating in a surprise raid in force on the village of Dieppe. Assignments were handed out, and then it was just a matter of waiting.
At about 5 am the firing started, and Jimmy was dropped with his company in the chilly English Channel, told to make his way towards the beaches. The lieutenant next to him was shot seconds later, and Jimmy turned in reflex and fired off a shot, feeling a tingle under his stripes. The machine gun raking the area stopped, and Jimmy yelled at the men to move in. Two minutes later the guns started again, and Jimmy again shot randomly at the shore batteries. Again the guns stopped, and by the time they started up again, Jimmy and almost all of his company were on shore. This happened several times as he made his way to shore. Jimmy didn’t know that every one of the random shots he took hit a German gunner in the forehead, disabling that machine gun until a replacement could scramble into position. The magic of the river crossed oceans.
It was madness. Hundreds never made it to the beaches, and almost no other company had as few casualties as Jimmy’s company E. They ran up to the seawall, and then waited. Nothing happened. Where is the air support, Jimmy wondered? Why has the navy pulled back?
At 10 a.m. an order to retreat came in from the generals. Retreat where, Jimmy wondered? Were they expected to swim back to England? All around him companies were surrendering to the Germans. ‘I didn’t go through all that training and hard work to spend the rest of the war in a German POW camp’, the young sergeant decided. So he gathered all of his company, and parts of two other leaderless ones, and headed over to the harbor.
The 43 men overloaded the fishing boat they commandeered, but Jimmy managed to get the engine started, and the boat slipped out of the harbor. It was unnoticed at first, and then miraculously was far enough out that shore fire caused minimal damage. Two soldiers were wounded by rifle fire, but more importantly, one engine was destroyed.
The boat limped northwest on the other engine, until that sputtered and died miles from the coast. It was just a matter of whether they would be picked up by the English, or picked off by the Germans.
Luckily it was the English, and Jimmy’s men were among the few Canadians from the raid to make it back to England. For two hours Jimmy was a hero. Then he spent the next four days in the stockade. Apparently yelling and cursing at your colonel is considered insubordination, even if the man had sent a thousand good soldiers to their death, and another two thousand to POW camps in Germany. A third of the attack force was lost, and Jimmy completely lost it as he was reporting to his colonel.
After four days, wondering if he was going to be shot or just dishonorably discharged, Jimmy was brought before a group of generals to detail his experiences in Dieppe. He complained about what he had seen go wrong. Being dropped so far from shore, lack of air support, lack of naval support, lack or any element of surprise, and general confusion. As he spoke, Jimmy noticed one American lieutenant general in particular. His name was Eisenhower, and while Jimmy had never heard of him before, he was impressed by the 52-year-old man’s manner and probing questions.
Jimmy was not sent back to the stockade, but was sent back to his unit, and officer training. Apparently Lt-Gen. Eisenhower had recommended to the Canadian forces that Jimmy had potential, and should be promoted. The Colonel who Jimmy had berated was irate, but his superiors wanted to impress the Americans who were starting to flow into Britain, so Jimmy wound up with a Lieutenant’s insignia a few months later.
Jimmy trained with a new company that soon began to love the honest, hard-working officer. His non-coms were impressed by the fact that he had been one of them, and his captain was impressed by the fact that whatever mission he was sent on, Lt. Johnson was sure to succeed. His training experience in Canada helped. When he found a man who was less than perfectly trained in anything, Lt. Johnson worked with the man until he had perfected the skill. Soon B company was considered the crack unit of the brigade.
There was a lot of training time too. After the debacle at Dieppe, no further raids were made on the coast of France, although Jimmy felt that early in 1944 such a raid could be successful. But as the year wore on, the soldiers, even lowly lieutenants, could tell that something was building.
Company B was in one of the lead craft that headed towards Juno beach on June 6, 1944. Their reputation as a crack company had earned them that dubious honor. This time the troops were in landing craft that could take them much closer to shore. As they huddled in those tin-cans, Jimmy heard a massive naval bombardment pelting the coast with bombs. Overhead squadron after squadron of fighters made sure that no German planes could strafe the men in the boats. Jimmy knew that General Eisenhower was in charge, and this calmed him.
The front of the landing craft opened, and Jimmy’s well-trained men flooded out, spreading out as they had been trained. Jimmy stood in the back of the boat, and fired one, two, three random shots at the shore.
“What the hell are you doing, Johnson,” the captain yelled at him. “You can’t hit a damned thing at this distance.”
Lt. Johnson turned and looked at his captain, and was amazed to see a red spot appear on the man’s forehead before the body slumped to the deck. Jimmy turned again, and fired. The machine gun stopped, and Jimmy felt the familiar tingle on his lieutenant badge. He then waded into the Channel, not far behind his men, occasionally stopping to fire off a round when he heard machine gun fire in the area. With every shot he felt the tingle, and the machine gun stopped firing.
Company B was first to the beach, and then first to the dunes where they were finally protected from enemy fire. Jimmy looked up and down, and was relieved to see almost all the familiar faces staring back at him.
“Where is the Captain?” one of the sergeants shouted.
“Dead,” Jimmy said, remembering the ring of red and look of surprise on his commanding officer’s face as he died.
“You’re in charge then, cap,” Sgt. Wouters said. “What now?”
Jimmy looked around, and made a decision within five seconds. “Those poor bastards out there are being slaughtered. We need to get out of here, and silence the batteries above. Move out.”
Company B then stormed up the dunes and made their way to the bunkers, half of the company going each direction. The shore defenses concentrated on the beaches, and only small arms fire bore down on the men. One group headed east, with Jimmy in command. As soon as someone started sniping at them, a shot from the lieutenant’s rifle would silence them. Methodically the men made their way from one fortification to another, cleaning each out one by one until there was a huge section of Juno beach that was no longer being heavily defended.
Eventually the two squads reunited, and Jimmy was dismayed that Sgt. Wouters had lost five men. No one in Jimmy’s squad had been shot. Three of the five were injured, the sergeant reported. They should be okay until the medics get to them. Privates Corson and Ormston didn’t make it.
Jimmy was hurt. He had lost two of his men. He didn’t like the feeling, and promised himself to make sure no more died. “What now, captain,” the sergeant said.
“We are going back to jail,” Jimmy said. The men all knew of his time in stockade. It was one of the things they loved about their leader. “The town jail here is used to hold members of the resistance. We are supposed to free them.”
The jail was lightly held, and the four men there surrendered in surprise when they found a full company of Canadians bearing down on them. Little did they know it was the only company off the beaches already, but they were locked into the cells and five women were released. Apparently all the male resistance leaders had been moved to more secure location. The Germans were quite sure that the females were incapable of causing them problems. They were wrong.
Yvette Leblanc was a pretty teenager who spoke halting English, but was able to speak with the lieutenant. Jimmy assigned two of his company who were from Quebec to interrogate the other girls, all under the age of 30.
It was Jimmy that scored first, when Yvette told him about a squad of Tiger tanks that were off on a training mission a few miles inland. The tanks would be called in as reinforcements soon, and could cause havoc on the landing. Yvette said that there was only one bridge big enough to support the heavy Tigers.
“Damn,” Jimmy said. The tingling under his badge told him this was important. “Is there somewhere we can get some heavy armor? Tank-blasters?” There was no time to wait for the heavy stuff to get off the beaches.
“Oui,” the girl said. “The Germans have an armory about two miles to the west.”
“Com’on guys,” Jimmy shouted, “we’re going Tiger hunting.”
As the men deployed around the armory, Jimmy was shocked to find the five women arrayed with his men, carrying German guns they had picked up. He considered sending them away, but a tingle warned him not to. He just shook his shoulders and assigned them positions along with the men.
The armory was better defended than the jail had been, but in a ten-minute firefight it was taken, with only one injury to his team. One of the girls’ guns had misfired, giving her superficial wounds to her hands and arms.
Inside the armory, Yvette was able to point out the anti-tank cannon, as well as the ammunition for it. “Does someone here know how these things work,” Jimmy yelled at his men.
“Oui, I do,” Yvette said. “I will fire the gun for you.”
“Non,” Jimmy replied. “You will teach my men how to fire the gun. You said there were six tanks out there. I want six guns to take them out.”
“No can do,” Sgt. Wouters said as he searched through the weaponry. “There are only four of the guns. Lots of ammo though. The shells are big buggers though. I don’t think a man can carry more than two.”
Yvette tried to plead to be able to fire one of the guns, but Jimmy insisted that she stay near him, to identify the terrain around the bridge. The girl was starting to admire the forceful young lieutenant, so she acquiesced, and started Tiger Busting 101 training with twelve men, three per gun, and four others as a backup for each gun. The men left less than an hour after arriving at the armory, carrying off four guns and forty shells, heading two miles down the road towards the bridge.
“Where the hell is Company B?” Colonel Scott yelled at a major.
“They apparently were first off the beach,” the major replied. “There were a couple of men wounded, and they reported that the company cleared most of the pillboxes.” That solved a question for the colonel. How the Canadians had such an easy time of it, while the Americans were being plastered at Omaha and Utah.
“That is Corwin’s company, isn’t it?” the colonel asked.
“Apparently he was shot during the landings. Lt. Johnson is in charge now. They say he took the men inland.”
“Well he better have a damned good reason,” the colonel shouted. “Orders were to stay at the beach until at least noon.”
Jimmy surveyed the terrain around the bridge, assisted by the pretty Yvette. The girl had apparently not eaten in two days, so Jimmy gave her his field rations on the way over, and ordered his men to do the same with the other girls. Even the wounded girl was still with them, although the other three had dropped their guns and were just helping her. Yvette, kept her rifle though, and apparently knew how to use it. Jimmy had seen her pick off at least two of the German defenders of the armory, as many as most of his men.
Jimmy soon had four gun emplacements selected. The plan was to let two tanks get off the bridge, and then the first two guns would fire from the left. As soon as they did, Jimmy would have a squad of men run from a barn to a nearby abandoned farmhouse. That should cause all the tanks to track to the left, and the two guns at the right would start firing at will until all the tanks were destroyed. It was a good plan. All that had to happen now is for it to work.
It did. Like clockwork the string of tanks came into view. It stopped on the far side of the bridge, and some of the infantrymen who were riding on the backs of the tanks ran out and checked under the bridge for explosives or other problems. Finding nothing, they hopped back onto their rides, and waited until the tank commander ordered his column over the bridge.
The first tank crossed the bridge, and took up a covering position to the left. Then a second tank crossed and took up a position at the right. Then all hell broke lose. Both of the first two shots were perfect, and obliterated the first two tanks, including the commander. Germans in the other four tanks noticed the small group of Canadians run to the farmhouse, and as predicted all four tracked their cannon at the house.
By now a third tank was in the middle of the bridge, and it was the next to be destroyed, again on the first shot. It took five other shots to take out the final three tanks. The infantry riding on the first two tanks had been killed in the initial blasts, and several on the third. The riders jumped off the other tanks, but were quickly picked off by the Canadians, except for two. They were killed by Yvette, sniping from her position next to Jimmy.
Jimmy really wanted to head on to Caen, the ultimate goal of the Canadian and British forces, and largely undefended. But he had the wounded girl to worry about. He just hoped that his superiors would get troops up there before the Germans reinforced the strategic city.
Back at base Jimmy was called in by the Colonel to report, and was given a field promotion to Captain. Colonel Scott didn’t say anything, but resolved to recommend the young captain for a Victoria Cross. Taking out the tanks, plus destroying the pillboxes at the beach had done more to secure success for the Canadians at Juno than anything else.
It was October before Capt. Johnson saw action again, although be this time he was a Major. Apparently General Eisenhower himself had heard of the exploits of the man he had met as a sergeant, and had pressed for the additional promotion. One of the general’s aides suggested bringing the young Canadian over to the Americans as a liaison officer, but General Eisenhower refused, noting that ‘men who fight like that are needed to kill Germans, not to push papers.’
The Victoria Cross never did materialize, however, held back by the colonel that Jimmy had insulted after Dieppe. That man was a major planner for Operation Market Garden that summer, and made sure that Jimmy’s battalion was not involved. Of course, Market Garden turned out to be one of the biggest debacles of the war, exceeding even Dieppe, so Jimmy avoided that mess.
Instead he spent time bringing his battalion up to what he insisted as peak operational status. The men were astounded to see a major sit down with a private and teach him the proper way to clean a rifle. Word of his past went through the ranks, and the men started to refer to him as Major Sarge, although never to his face. Not that Jimmy cared. He was proud of his roots.
In September, Jimmy was brought into the planning for the Battle of the Scheldt, the attempt to clean up the Market Garden fiasco. Jimmy was glad that the Canadians were to be a major component of the battle, so they could redeem themselves for being at Market Garden, even though that mess had largely been caused by poor planning, not failure by the troops.
On October 2, the attack started, and it continued until November 8, when the Wehrmacht was finally pushed out of the peninsula. But it was still early October when the battalion field kitchen opened, and Jimmy discovered that random Dutch citizens, nearly starved, started to appear at his gates. He ordered that the civilians should be fed, and sent away with a loaf of bread and some k-ration packages.
At the end of the battle, a general came to complain to Major Johnson about his misuse of army supplies. “You let your men go on short rations, so you could feed the Dutch,” the man yelled.
“I did, and I would do it again,” the major said. “These are our allies, and we are liberating them. I had no intention of liberating corpses. Do you know what the Dutch are calling these times? The Hunger Winter.”
“Well, since you like the Dutch so much, you can stay with them. Your battalion was the star in the fight, but I’ve decided you are too much of a loose wheel to get the promotion to colonel some say you deserve. Another man will take on the regiment you would have led in the march to Berlin.”
For the next few months Jimmy followed the news of the march into Germany and the eventual surrender of the Germans. He was content to continue his mission of policing the Dutch territories, made quite easy by the fact that the Dutch people loved him as much as his men did. He was even feted by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands when she returned to the country after leaving exile in England. Her daughter Juliana had been in exile in Canada, and that, plus the Canadian efforts to liberate her country forged a bond between the two nations that is maintained to this day, when thousands of tulip bulbs are sent to Ottawa each year.
Lucy Reddove sat on a hill overlooking the ceremonies at St. Mary’s. Her type would not be welcome in town, but she had walked down the river to this location where she and her three children could see the pageantry. It was a special celebration for the end of the war, with 17 of the 21 men that St. Mary’s and the reserve had sent to serve were to be honored by the village. Lucy was happy to be away from the crowds. She was considered a whore by the villagers, and hated that the church ladies of the village called her three children bastards. But it was now true that she was a prostitute, augmenting her welfare check by the gifts of gentlemen callers. She had slept with every boy who had gone to fight, free of charge: all 17 of the men on stage, and the four more recent enlistees who were still in Europe for the clean up operations. Not one of them had died or been injured in battle.
Six of the men on the stage sat at the back. They were the native soldiers. At first the village had planned on only honoring the white veterans, but when Major Johnson heard of this he was irate, and insisted that he would not appear unless all the soldiers were served. This didn’t mean that their families could appear. The whites would not abide by having ‘dirty Indians’ at their celebrations. A few parents and relatives were on the hill with Lucy, and a second celebration was planned by the rivertalker later in the day in the reserve.
Lucy looked at the handsome Major as he spoke to the crowd as the ranking officer.
“Who dat?” asked her three-year-old daughter, Janie.
“That is a hero,” Lucy said quietly.
“My daddy is a hero,” six-year-old Jamie said. “He went to the war, and won’t be coming back.
“No, he won’t,” Lucy said, looking at the boy and comparing how much he looked like the young major on the stage. Jamie just had a darker skin tone. Otherwise, he was the spitting image of the boy Lucy had seduced seven years earlier. She would never tell the boy who his real father was. Instead he would be able to tell people that his father died a hero in the war.
The daughter Janie, with her reddish hair, uncommon in a native person, looked a bit like a red-haired private sitting to the Major’s left. And the baby, not yet a year old, probably would grow up to look a lot like one of the four who were not present.
Lucy sighed. Her days as a prostitute were over. It is not a profession one can retire from with a pension. Luckily, still under 30, with her good looks not marred by drink or drugs, she still could attract men. But Helmut Audette, a trapper who had used her services in the past, had asked her to marry her. Annually, for the past four years. This year, with the war clearly winding down, Lucy had agreed. Helmut was building them a cabin far out on his trap lines, alongside the river. Lucy had no desire to stay in the village or even the reserve, although there she was treated like a human. She couldn’t be married in the village church, but the rivertalker had promised to give her a native ceremony, all she and Helmut wanted.
Lucy looked at the young woman standing behind the major, intently listening to him speak. That must be the French girl he was marrying, she thought. She was pretty. Then Lucy smiled. “You may get him, but I got him first.”
“Is it over,” Janie asked.
“Yes it is,” Lucy said, reaching over and touching the doll that her daughter had carried all her life. She felt a tingle, and at the same second, the major felt a final tingle from the insignia on his shoulder. He looked up, and saw Lucy, and three children, standing up to leave. At that moment, the river magic left the doll, and it was suddenly just a doll.
“Don’t forget your doll,” Lucy said to Janie. Her doll that was stuffed with the hair of 21 men who lived.
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