My uncle Tom was my hero back during “the” war, when I was a kid. He landed at Normandy as a private in the infantry . Seeing “Saving Private Ryan” gave us a better idea – feeling I should say – of what that was like. He'd fought all the way to Berlin and left the army three years later as a buck sergeant. When he finally came home and lived for a while at his parent's – my grandparent's – apartment in Brooklyn, I went there at every opportunity to listen to his war stories and, well, just to be with him.
When he died last month his wife, my aunt Rita, sent me his “war diary” which, she said, she hadn't known existed. She sent it to me, she wrote, because she knew how much I admired Tom and his army service. She also remembered that I had met Silas Taylor and his wife, Rebecca, and was always curious about them. Rita never knew them; they were before her time, so to speak. I'd met them once, several years after the war, when they came to New York City on vacation because Rebecca had always wanted to get to know it. Tom took me along went when they went to lunch together in Manhattan, in Greenwich Village. He'd told me about that wonderful friend and soldier, Master-Sergeant Silas Taylor and his beautiful German wife, so I was very anxious to meet them. When I did they certainly impressed, both of them – although I must admit that it was a matter of puppy love-at-first-sight with Rebecca. They were clearly so happy together, or I should say happy at being together. When we parted that evening, Tom told me on the subway back to Brooklyn that they were his best friends and always would be, although he seldom saw them.
The following excerpt constitutes the heart of my uncle Tom's story.
“Silas Taylor was a master-sergeant, I a corporal and we were heading into a town called Teltow, just to the northeast of Berlin as the forward recon unit for our battalion, something we'd been doing since we landed at Normandy.
Sgt Taylor and I met in unusual circumstances. He had just lobbed a grenade into a bunker overlooking the Normandy beach but it was a dud so a kraut stuck his head out and saw Taylor huddled below with his eyes closed waiting for the blast. He aimed at Taylor with a pistol so I stood up and shot him from thirty yards away. The M1 rifle was a heavy unwieldy piece, but accurate as hell. When the German fell on top of him, Sgt Taylor saw me, realized what had happened and lobbed a second grenade into the bunker. It exploded so if there was anyone still inside they were meat. Then he rolled down the embankment towards me while I kept him covered just in case.
Thanks,” he said. I saw the stripes painted on his helmet, all six of them. “What's your company?” he yelled. “Able,” I yelled back. “Things got pretty screwed up on the beach. Guess I better see if I can find them.” I started to walk off in the half crouch everyone used.
"No wait.” He held my arm and looked hard at me with those deep blue eyes. His nose was large, aquiline, over a narrow mouth and chin, the overall effect being hatchet-like. He looked young, not much older then me and I was only twenty-one. It turned out we were the same age, but he had joined the army at sixteen so in 1944 had five years in at a time when the army was expanding fast. He'd already seen combat in North Africa. He told me he was in charge of a special reconnaissance unit and needed someone like me, someone with balls. I explained that my balls weren't brave, that I just happened to be there when the German soldier, who hadn't seen me, tried to shoot him. So I shot without thinking, if I'd thought about it I probably would have run. He just smiled, like a wolf I thought, and told me to follow him.
By the next day the beachhead was secure, the bulk of the German forces having pulled back and the remainder killed or captured. M/Sgt Silas Taylor was a floating dynamo, seemingly without men over or under him – except me. “Let's go find my Colonel,” he said at dawn the next morning. His colonel turned out to be Moultrie Banks, originally of Georgia, now battalion commander.
"Morning, Colonel,” Sgt Taylor said. Banks was seated on an ammunition box examining some papers his clerk had just handed to him.
"Good morning, Silas – or should I say Bon Jour. Welcome to the Command Post. Where've you been and what's the situation?"
"Well sir, the situation here is as you are lookin at it – chaos. But I am confident that American ingenuity and organizational talent will straighten things out pretty darn toot sweet.” Was he being ironic? He was, I realized later.
"I'm sure you're right, sergeant. What are your plans?” This had me raise an eyebrow. Normally a colonel would tell a sergeant what to do, not ask him what his plans are for god's sake.
"Well, sir, it's evident that we need information more than anything else, so that's what I aim to get."
"That's good, Silas,” the colonel said. “Go get it."
"Right..er...I'll need a jeep...”
“Of course you will.”
“And an assistant.”
“um hmm.” Col. Banks scratched his chin over something he was reading in the dispatch.
“This soldier will do.” Taylor pointed at me. The colonel looked up, squinted at me and said, “Who's he?”
Sgt. Taylor nodded to me, so I straightened up and said, “Pfc Smith, sir, First platoon, Company A.”
“I'll need him on temporary duty, colonel,” Sgt. Taylor added.
“Okay, you got 'im.”
“Problem is, Colonel, he's only a private.”
“So what exactly do y'all want, Sgt, a fuckin general?”
“No sir, a corporal will do.” He'd gone too far, I felt.
“Why, what's so good about him.” He didn't bother to look at me.
“Speaks French and German, sir.” I'd told Sgt. Taylor that I'd studied French and German in college, not that I really spoke them – although I did a little.
Now he did glance at me, and nodded. “Hmm, maybe we'll keep him here.”
"Not a chance, Colonel. With all due respect, I saw him first”.
Colonel Banks laughed like John Wayne would have done in similar circumstances, and said to the clerk, “Cpl. Harrington, type up the papers to make this genius a corporal. Maybe we don't have enough of them in this army.”
“Geniuses, Colonel?” Cpl. Harrington asked, lighting the Camel dangling from the side of his mouth with a zippo.“
Corporals, corporal wise-guy, geniuses we got too many, and they all seem to be corporals.”
“Let's get moving, Cpl. Smith,” Sgt. Taylor said. “We gotta get some recon.”
Master-Sergeant Silas Taylor and I wound our way in our jeep through France from town to town right behind the retreating Germans. Our job, basically, was to know where the German units were and whether they looked like staying, in which case our guys would have to come and fight. If they were in full retreat, we reported that and our guys only had to wait until they were gone before advancing, which they much preferred. Only generals preferred to fight, because they didn't have to be the ones to do it. Aircraft could theoretically find out the same information, but they were often hampered by bad weather and could get shot down. I said “basically”, hinting that It wasn't that simple or easy and also involved what was most important to us: not getting caught or shot. Paris was a fiesta of course, a historical event and all that, but it also had a cast of thousands. When Sgt Taylor and I rolled into a French town recently abandoned by the krauts we were the only “liberators”, and boy were we appreciated! Kisses, embraces, homemade wine with a kick. That changed drastically once we crossed the border into Germany though.
At first we worried that the Germans might leave snipers or booby traps or that the locals might try to be heroes – but that never happened. The French were out in the streets cheering when we entered their towns, but the Germans were invisible. Can't say I blame them, especially the villages and towns that had been shelled by our artillery and the smoke was still rising from shattered homes and death-bloated cattle. We'd drive in slowly to the town square (there always was one) where the city-hall was located. We strolled in to talk to the mayor, if he was alive and present, feeling all those invisible eyes watching us from the close-curtained windows. We asked if all the German troops had left and how long ago. The mayor or whoever was in his office answered yes, they went that-a-way: east, as if we couldn't figure that out. We said okay, consider themselves occupied and our guys would be coming through in a few hours and they should just cooperate and they'd have no problems – which was true. Our forces were only passing through and you can draw a forward line as wide as you want, if there's a road it's going to be used and the roads mostly went through towns those days. Sometimes the Germans were dug in and around the town and we were able to determine that by hiding the jeep somewhere and approaching on foot as close as we dared. It meant a fight, but happily without M/Sgt Taylor and his corporal assistant.
We reached the western outskirts of Berlin in May and were ordered to halt in order to give the Russians time to reach the eastern limits. Apparently our political masters had already decided at Yalta that the Russians would be the first into Berlin. Nobody below the rank of colonel knew why we were waiting and probably wouldn't have cared if they knew. The weather was fine and the bullets and shells weren't flying and it looked like the ones who had made it that far in one piece would survive after all.
But the Special Reconnaissance Unit was ordered by Col. Banks – who had been promoted to full colonel from Lt. Col. – to go around the perimeter of the city to the east and see if the Russians were there yet or close or what. So we went, knowing that the Germans were finished and we probably wouldn't meet any resistance on the back roads we used. In fact the only German soldiers we ran into wanted to surrender and we had to politely refuse. They wanted nothing to do with the Russians. They didn't know exactly where the Russians were, but that they were close and out for blood, that they knew. And why not – after what the Germans had done to Russia.
We entered the suburban town of Teltow, east of Berlin, at sundown on a rainy spring day, lots of wind and cold for May. Destruction was minimal, probably caused by stray bombs meant for Berlin proper. We drove down the main drag looking for the city hall.
“Stop!” Sgt. Taylor said suddenly, and grabbed my arm and squeezed. Alarmed, I braked the jeep. “Did you hear that?” he asked. I shook my head. “Listen.” Then I heard it, a sort of moaning, then a word screamed over and over. “What is it?” he asked.
“Bitte,” I told him: “Please.”
“Yeah, it's a woman, coming from there.” He pointed to a one-story nondescript house on our right that we'd just passed. He jumped out of the jeep, withdrew his Colt 45 from its holster and switched off the safety. He'd complained that he couldn't hit the Eiffel Tower with it, but he preferred it to a rifle for scaring people. I took my M1 from the back seat and followed him to the screaming house. The screamed “bitte, bitte” was now being moaned. The front door was slightly ajar. Sgt Taylor kicked it open and walked in with me on his heels and my goddamn M1 ready to blast anyone who might want to resist M/Sgt Silas Taylor.
What a scene. Three Russkies and a girl. They were all staring at us in shocked surprise. The girl was on the floor with her panties stuffed into her mouth and her skirt up over her hips. One of the Russkies was kneeling between her spread legs with his hard-on in his fist ready to jam it into her. The other two were waiting their turn. We were surprised and shocked as well so the six of us were frozen in a tableau for what seemed like a long time but probably wasn't.
“Get up,” Sgt. Taylor said to the Russkie between her legs, who didn't understand him of course. He grinned, revealing a missing tooth and a stupid moon-like peasant face. He pointed to himself, to his chest, held up one finger, then to the buddy on his right – two fingers, the one on his left – three fingers; then he pointed at Sgt Taylor – four, and me – five fingers. His meaning was clear: we could fuck her after they were through.
Sgt Taylor aimed his Colt 45 at the Russkie's face with both hands and approached him as his erection wilted and he tried to stand up. But Taylor kicked him as hard as he could on the side of his head. The Russkie toppled over and lay unconscious of the floor with blood running from his nose. Getting kicked in the head with a combat boot will do that. The other two tried to get to their rifles leaning against the wall. I screamed “Nyet!” but they ignored me so I had to shoot one of them in the ass. The other one dropped to the floor with his arms over his head. I didn't want to shoot and risk those guys' comrades hearing it, but now it was done so we had to get out of there quick. Taylor pulled the panties from the girl's mouth and helped her up. She was obviously in shock. I took off the unwounded Russkie's belt and tied his hands behind his back. With the other one's belt I tied his feet and my own to tie the wounded one. Might give us a couple of minutes head start.
I gunned the jeep and we took off in a screech of burning rubber. Sgt. Taylor sat in the back of the jeep holding the girl who seemed only half-conscious and might have fallen out otherwise. He'd taken off his field jacket and wrapped it around her.
We drove a good hour in the general direction of our lines before stopping near a stream. Silas asked me to ask her how she felt and if she needed anything. Luckily my inadequate German turned out to be unnecessary because the girl had enough school English to get by and she improved rapidly with us. Oh yes, her name was Waltraud, still, and she was eighteen years old.
She thought about what she might need, and blushed. “I need clothes,” she said in English. Well, that was obvious because her dress was ripped and filthy and she had no panties. “I also like to wash.” She was looking at me as though I needed to translate, then shifted her eyes to Silas Taylor and smiled a smile that would have melted the heart of a harder man than Silas.
“Okay,” he said. “You go on down to the stream and wash up and we'll fix up something for you to wear.” She nodded and started to walk down to the stream, never doubting that Silas would somehow make female apparel appear.
“Wait a minute,” he said. He rummaged in his pack and took out a towel, soap and a blanket and handed them to her.
What are we going to do with her, Sarge?” I asked once she was out of range.
“For now make her some clothes.”
That's not what I meant, but he knew that. I think he didn't answer because he didn't know himself. He took his extra uniform from the pack and his sewing kit. We always carried enough equipment to last us a week. He tossed me the trousers and told me to take them in to her size. I didn't know her size, so I got everything ready for when she came back. Silas cut his sergeant's chevrons from the sleeves of his shirt and field jacket.
“What about underwear?” I asked.
He frowned, then tossed a pair of his skivies at me. We waited. I considered asking him what we were going to do with her after getting her dressed, but decided it wasn't a good time for that. Silas Taylor was staring straight ahead at the path she'd used to get to the stream. Finally she reappeared wrapped in the blanket. I told her I wanted to measure her for clothes, but she didn't understand at first. So I showed her Sgt Taylor's fatigue pants and shirt which he'd laid out neatly on the grass, and the skivies that I held up. She laughed at them and we laughed, too. She dropped the blanket and stood there shivering in her ripped dress. I'd already used my belt to tie up the Russians so I asked Silas for his. He took it off and walked up to her. He had to put his arms around her to use the belt as a measuring unit and he didn't seem at all uncomfortable doing it. He was a skinny guy then, but a little more than half his belt encompassed her waist. I held his pants to her side for the length and Sgt. Taylor and I got to work with our sewing kits. When we were finished she went behind a bush and put on her “new” clothes. Actually, considering the circumstances and the clothes, she looked great – too great. Silas frowned and said we'd have to cut her long black hair. She got the point right away, so I guess the only one surprised was me. Was she to stay with us disguised as a G.I.? That was crazy of course, but M/Sgt Silas Taylor was the kind of guy who did crazy things in the army and got away with them due to a combination of courage and luck – something like Lawrence of Arabia from another time and place. And he had already fallen for her, who some time later became Rebecca Cornelius Taylor, whom you may have heard of. Actually her real name wasn't Waltraud Cornelius, the name she had been using, but Rebecca something. You see, she was Jewish and a German family in the town she lived in – near Dresden, I think – gave her their deceased daughter's identity. The daughter, name of Waltraud and the same age as Rebecca and her best friend, died in the bombing. Rebecca would have to go to a place where neither she nor Waltraud was known though, so she went alone to Berlin with her friend's ID – they looked enough alike, and school records. She found a job as a waitress and registered as a student in the university. She found a one-room flat in a working class section. She discovered later that the flat had become available because it's former tenant was a Jew who had been deported to a camp.
M/Sgt Silas Taylor had a special relationship with Col. Moultrie Banks. I never found out exactly why, but it had something to do with their previous duty in North Africa, where Banks had come to rely heavily on his young sergeant, who had done him some great favor. I asked what, but Silas just shrugged it off. So now, in Germany, Sgt. Taylor was a law unto himself. He added another soldier to our recon group, making us a melange a trois, but not the kind you might be thinking of. Silas and Rebecca were literally inseparable. Once he got her combat boots and a helmet and an M1 and blackened her chin a bit, she passed for a young G.I., of which there were many. She was an excellent actor and mimic. She imitated Silas Taylor to a T, including the way he walked and talked. I sometimes wished she'd imitate me, for I suffered the pangs of jealousy and unrequited love. But I always remained loyal to Silas Taylor and, mostly, to her, even now.
Everything changed once we were in Berlin for good. We had to wait for the Russians to loot and rape their way through before we took over the western zone along with the Brits and the French. The bulk of our army had to move back to the zone agreed at Yalta by our esteemed leaders. But that's all history; look it up if you want to. Silas got us both assigned to M.I. so we could stay in Berlin and he fixed up Rebecca in an apartment there. “Fraternization” was frowned on at the beginning of the occupation, so he had to keep his relationship with Rebecca secret. When the thaw came though, he married her as soon as it was possible. That's when she took over. She convinced him to get a high school equivalency diploma while still in the army and then when they were back in the States she enrolled in the University of Alabama. Rebecca became an anthropologist with a second major in philosophy.
When she came to the States as Mrs Taylor, she kept Cornelius as her other family name in honor of the people in Germany who had saved her, but kept Rebecca instead of Waltraud, a happy decision in my opinion. She relates the history of her escape from the Nazis – and the Russians – in her Pulitzer prize winning book Tales of Love, Grief and Beauty under the name Rebecca Cornelius Taylor. (Still in print, available from Amazon.)
She died of lung cancer (she never smoked) when she was only thirty years old. She always insisted that she wouldn't live long, that she'd survived the Nazis, the allied bombing and the Russians so she was living on borrowed time. On her deathbed she told Silas that he should remarry. He said he never would and she smiled and said okay, she'd wait for him. She believed absolutely in an afterlife and reincarnation. Silas said he believed it because she did, which means that he wanted to believe it. I don't know about all that, but I do know that Rebecca somehow knew a lot more about everything than we did. Silas stayed in the army, became a battalion Sergeant-Major and retired after thirty years of service. He outlived her by almost fifty years. He never did remarry. I loved her very much, sure, but I know that Silas loved her more.”