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First day at a new job always proves interesting.
My moment of truth, the day I lost my soul, so to speak, came on a dreary day in mid-November. I was with a British unit in a forward position when out of nowhere our little sector came under attack.
It started with a brief mortar barrage, which was largely for the purpose of destroying the barbed wire in No Man's Land, the area of tortured earth that separated the front lines of each side.
After about a half-hour, we heard the voices coming from the German side, of commanders ordering an assault group to press forward.
The Brits seemed to know what was coming, for the machine gunners quickly manned their position, and the riflemen stood at the ready.
"I want you back and out of the way," the British captain said to me quickly, between barking out orders to his men. "If the worst happens, and we get overrun, don't try to be a hero. There are worse things than surrendering, especially since you are technically a neutral."
"Some neutral," I said. "I don't think those Jerrys coming over here will appreciate the niceties of international diplomacy."
"Just stay out of the way," the captain said. "We can handle this. It's probably just an exercise, just to let us know they're still out there."
It was a little more than that, as we could hear some skirmishing on either side of our position. But the captain and his men were cool under fire, and they quickly began to take their toll on the gray-clad Germans who were coming through the mist.
How can I describe the chaos of that moment? There was the constant clatter of the machine guns, the popping of the automatic rifles, the strident voices of the officers and the desperate cries of the men who were hit by the return fire of the Germans.
As for me, I was glad I had just the day before cleaned and oiled the automatic pistol I carried with me. I had it out of my holster, just in case.
At the height of the fighting, a half-dozen German soldiers made it into our trench, and the fighting was hand-to-hand in many areas throughout the trench.
Looking around the corner from where I was standing, I saw a large German and a British sergeant wrestling in the mud on the floor of the trench. The German had a large knife in his hand and he had the smaller British officer on his back, with only the Brit's desperate maneuvering keeping the German at bay.
I didn't hesitate. I reached out and fired twice at the German's neck. He slumped heavily onto the sergeant, who quickly rolled the dead man over and crawled shakily off the floor. Another German soldier turned his rifle in our direction, and I shot him three times.
At that point, an artillery barrage commenced from behind us, and the German attack quickly ground to a halt.
The sergeant and the captain both couldn't thank me enough, but the incident left me shaken. I was amazed at how easily killing men in combat came back to me. Moreover, any lingering thoughts of neutrality were left shattered by my actions.
Needless to say, no mention of my role in the day's activities was mentioned in any official reports. It was just one of those little things that happen in the fog of war.
It was getting on toward the end of the year, just before Christmas, when I was abruptly pulled from the French unit where I was staying and ordered back to Paris. I had begun to wonder if the U.S. Embassy had forgotten about me, even though I sent periodic dispatches back to the ambassador.
It was just gone dark when I trudged up the stairs to our apartment, having come straight from the front. Mr. Stark himself had met me at the staging point at the rear, and had told me to go home, take the holiday time to get my bearings and come see him after Christmas.
I was tired and dirty, and I wondered if Madeleine would even recognize me. I hadn't had a haircut, and I hadn't shaved for several weeks, which made me appear as a street bum.
I stopped just outside our door, as I heard from inside the sound of Madeleine's voice singing a lullaby to our child.