By John-Paul Marciano
Sgt. Jim Hanson lay face down in the shallow hole he had dug a couple hours earlier. About an hour after the sun went down, Jim crawled out when he couldn’t advance any farther under withering machine gun fire.
He slithered forward about 150 yards closer to the German front lines to where he was now. It was a chance he had taken every night for the last four nights. He figured it was safer to be closer to the Germans when their artillery fired their nightly barrage and the rounds went over his head. The problem with that logic was if American artillery answered back and the rounds fell short.
That would turn the hole he dug into a grave.
It was 2:15 a.m. July 22,1918 and what was left of Jim’s company found themselves just east of Berzy-le-Sec. They had taken the railroad station by noon Sunday and were advancing on a sugar factory. They began taking machine gun fire from an exposed left flank where a French Division was supposed to be and the advance stalled.
Now here he was in no man’s land while German artillery probed to find the American front line. For the past hour Jim pressed his body to the earth trying to make himself a smaller target. His Springfield rifle lay in the hole next to him; useless in the black of night. His gas mask was strapped to his chest and he used his body to shield his musette bag.
Occasionally a German .77 mm artillery round would explode close enough to seemingly lift Jim’s body an inch or so before gravity took hold and slammed him back to the ground. Stones and clods of earth showered him as he lay prone, afraid to move. Long-range German artillery whined lazily overhead toward some unknown target in the rear.
The cacophony from the bombardment helped drown out the cries of the wounded lying helplessly in the field behind him. His nostrils were filled with dirt from pressing his face to the ground. But even the smell of dirt couldn’t overcome the sickeningly sweet stench of decaying corpses which hung over the area.
As suddenly as it started, the shelling abruptly stopped. Jim lay on his stomach a few seconds longer and then rolled onto his back. He stuck his filthy fingers in his mouth and nostrils trying to remove the dirt but to no avail. Water would have helped but some Hun bastard shot a hole through his canteen that afternoon and now he had no water. He could have stripped another off one of the many corpses he passed but he didn’t think it was worth the risk.
“Bird Dog,” Jim called into the night.
“Ho,” came a muffled reply.
“Chicago,” Jim called.
“Honker!” Jim called a little louder. A shot rang out. Almost immediately Jim heard a thump in the pile of dirt he had pushed toward the German lines when he dug the hole. A German sniper was trying to find the range.
“Y’all right, Sarge?” Honker asked.
“Yeah, fine,” Jim replied as he fumbled for his rifle. He rolled onto his stomach and felt for the firing slot he made himself in the mound of dirt. He gently placed his rifle into the slot and squeezed the trigger. A German Maxim machine gun answered back spraying the area with intermittent bursts. Jim shifted the rifle to aim in the general direction of the machine gun and squeezed off another round. The Maxim gunner replied with another burst to the right of Jim’s hole.
“Hey, Sarge!” Bird Dog called out. “Quit screwin’ round. Yer jus’ pissin’ ‘em off.”
Jim squeezed off another round for good measure and dropped his rifle back in the hole. He rolled onto his back and called, “Hillbilly?”
“Hillbilly,” Jim called a little louder.
Still no reply.
“Hillbilly!” Jim called even louder still.
“Sarge?” Chicago called back.
“Hillbilly’s. sleepin’. I can hear’m snorin’ from here.”