Not the truth, not about how he'd tried to bail out but had been too close to the ground and his 'chute hadn't opened; not that he'd been seen trying and failing to get out of the cockpit through a sheet of flame blowing back from the engine; not about how he'd tried to land his shot-up airplane and blew it, and rolled over and over down the runway in a ball of flame and crushed aluminum. Or that they really didn't know what the fuck had happened to him, he just hadn't come back; and later some tank crew had found the wreckage of his Mustang with him still in the cockpit, the body so badly burned they couldn't tell if he had been killed in the air or died when his plane hit.
He didn't have to type the letters, either. The first sergeant just took one from the file and retyped it, changing the name. But Archie had to sign it, because he was now the Old Man and that's what was expected of him.
And he was always getting bullshit pep talks from some major or light colonel at Group that he was supposed to pass down the line.
Like what he remembered now, staring down at the Kraut staff car:
"Dooley, what interdiction means is that you and your people are supposed to engage whatever you come across, like one fucking Kraut with a rifle, one motorcycle messenger, not pass him by to go looking for a railroad locomotive, or something you think is important, or looks good when you blow it up. The motorcycle messenger is probably carrying an important message. Otherwise he wouldn't be out there. You take out a Kraut staff car, for example, you're liable to take out an important Kraut officer. Interdict means everything that's down there. You read me, Captain?"
"And pass the word to your people, and make sure they read you, and read you good."
And Archie had passed the word, and gotten dirty looks.
And now there was a Mercedes staff car down there, and it wasn't like being in a dogfight, it was like running over a dog with your car; but you had to do it because you had told your people they had to do it, and Archie believed that an officer should not order anybody to do what he wouldn't do himself.
Archie banked his Mustang steep to the right, lined up on the cloud of dust boiling out under the wheels of the Mercedes, and when he thought he had him, closed his finger on the trigger on the joystick. When he saw his tracer stream converge on the Mercedes and he didn't have to correct, he thought he was getting pretty good at this shit.
The Mercedes ran off the road, turned over, and burst into flames. Maybe a couple of bodies had flown out of the Mercedes, but Archie couldn't be sure, and he didn't go back for a second look, because if he did and saw somebody running, he wasn't going to try to get him.
He leveled off at about 500 feet and started looking for something else to interdict.
And at 2105 hours that night, at Afrika Korps General Hospital #3, near Carthage, Tunisia, the chief surgeon and hospital commander, Oberst-Arzt (Colonel-Doctor) Horst Friederich von und zu Mittlingen, pushed his way through the tent flap of the tent euphemistically called "Operating Theater Three" and reached beneath his bloodstained surgical apron for a package of cigarettes.
The hospital's name implied something far more substantial than the reality. General Hospital #3 (which served the Tenth Panzer Division) was a sprawling collection of tents and crude sheds, most of them marked with red crosses to protect against bombing or strafing. The tents served as operating theaters, the sheds as wards. Both were covered with the dust raised by the trucks and ambulances - and sometimes horse-drawn wagons - bringing in the wounded and dying.
Von und zu Mittlingen was a fifty-two-year-old Hessian trained at Marburg and Tübingen. Before the war, he had been professor of orthopedic surgery at St. Louise's Hospital in Munich.
Excerpted from Secret Honor, by W. E. B. Griffin. © January 10, 2000 , W. E. B. Griffin used by permission of the publisher. No part of this book can be reproduced without written permission from the publisher
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