Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Frank, Part VII: Survival

A dead soldier lies in the Ardennes Forest

What happened to Frank Strukel after he crested that summit with his buddy, PFC Gordon J. McDonald, and his troop commander, 1LT Thomas E. Burkett? Frank spoke little of his war experiences, so we are left with a smattering of fragmentary evidence and conjecture. When LTC Wallace R. Cheves wrote his book on the 274th Infantry, he did not know the fate of Strukel and McDonald. Indeed, Diane Kessler who has collected the stories and documented the Trailblazers history during World War II stated that many of Frank's comrades were shocked to learn decades later that he was alive.

We can recreate Frank's experience in the Army, on the front lines, and in battle, because he was one piece of a very connected and regimented whole. Once he crested that hill with two other men on an unsuccessful mission, his experiences become uniquely his. And after the immediate death of his platoon leader from German gunfire, Frank's story becomes one of survival.

1LT Burkett's body was found several days later in the snow. Of the three men who left on that mission, he was the only one immediately accounted for, and he was still on the field of battle. Had he weakened and bled fatally from the gunshot wound to the shoulder he sustained at the onset of his departure over that ridge? Or had he been the target of more enemy fire? Cheves account would lead you to believe that the three men were immediately besieged by an assault, and that Frank was able to return fire only briefly and immediately before being silenced. It is likely that the forward offense attempted by Burkett, McDonald, and Strukel, became an immediate protective defense once they realized they had walked into a death trap. Burkett's death left the two young men reliant on each other and their own wits to save their lives.

Alone amidst the German machine gunners and with no foreseeable way back to the safety of their regiment, Frank and Gordon hunkered down into foxhole, either one that had recently protected a German soldier earlier in the day or one hastily dug by themselves. Together they could remain hidden until nightfall when they could try to find their American brethren under the cover of night. With four eyes wide with fear and the sounds of their rapidly thumping hearts booming in their ears together they could watch all angles for approaching German soldiers.

As the late afternoon wore into evening, PFC Gordon McDonald peered out of the foxhole to assess their situation. The drab gray-green of his infantry helmet moving on a backdrop of white snow caught the eye of a nearby German soldier. Gunfire erupted, and McDonald slumped back into the foxhole, lifeless, with fatal wounds to his head.

Terrified that any movement of his own would lead to a full-scale assault on his position, Frank crouched motionless in his dugout in the snow. His lower body was cold and numb from the cramped, distorted position he maintained to keep out of sight. His upper body was wet and warm from the blood of his companion slumped on top of him. He dare not move. He dare not breathe.

Motionless and with the stiffening body of his friend as his only protection from the cold and from the enemy is how Frank Strukel would spend the night of January 7, 1945. 

No comments:

Post a Comment