With the exception of one recruit sitting alone on the front bench and leaning forward with eager interest, the lieutenant observed that his captive audience was utterly unimpressed with his stirring little "thought for today." He knew he could find more esprit de corps in a chain gang. He shrugged and launched his scheduled lecture.
"Because of the pentomic army's small, mobile and self-sufficient battle groups and the very fluid nature of modern warfare the frequency of units being surrounded, cut off and subsequently captured is very high. As early as thirty years ago, in the Laotian War, the number of prisoners taken by all sides was becoming increasingly unmanageable and so the present system of prisoner exchange was evolved. At the end of every month an exchange is made; enlisted men, man for man; officers, rank for rank. This is an advantage for our side since, generally, except for the topmost ranks, no man is in enemy hands over thirty days. This makes any attempts to brainwash the enlisted men impracticable and a great deal of pressure is thereby removed.
"So, if you're taken prisoner, you have really nothing to worry about. Just keep your mouth shut and sit it out till the end of the month. The only information you're required to give is your name, rank and serial number. There are no exceptions. Don't try to outsmart your interrogator by giving false information. They'll peg you right away and easily trick you into saying more than you intend. Now you'll see a film which will show you the right and wrong way to handle yourself during an interrogation and a lot of the gimmicks they're liable to throw at you in order to trick you into shooting off your mouth." The isolated and unnaturally attentive Wims again caught the lieutenant's eye. "You there!" he said, pointing to Wims, "come help me set up this screen."
Wims rose to his feet and one of the platoon sergeants leaped forward. "I'll help you, sir. Wims, sit down."
"I asked this man to help me, sergeant."
Another platoon sergeant and a corporal were already on the platform. They had seized the stand and were unfolding it. The lieutenant spun around. "What are you doing?"
"We're helping, sir," the sergeant said.
"Well, cut it out. You noncoms are too officious and it's unnatural. It makes me nervous."
Wims was now on the platform and had taken hold of the screen cylinder. One of the corporals was tugging at the other end, trying to get it away from him.
"Let go of that screen," the lieutenant roared at the corporal. Wims, misunderstanding, released the cylinder a fraction of a second before the corporal did and the corporal went tumbling backwards, knocking the lieutenant off the platform and demolishing the loud-speaker.
The top sergeant raced outside and found one of the company lieutenants. "Sir, you'd better move the company out of the building right away!"
"It's Wims. He's being helpful again."
The lieutenant paled and dashed inside. He took no time to determine the specific nature of the commotion which was shaking the building. He managed to evacuate the company in time to prevent serious casualties when the structure collapsed.
Captain Aronsen, the company commander, faced two of his lieutenants. "You're not telling me anything new," he said wearily. "I know all about Wims. I've tried everything to get him discharged, honorably and otherwise. I've spent a lot of time setting things up so he could hardly help but foul up and we could bounce him, but what happens? Everybody else fouls up and he stays clean. And as if that isn't enough to worry about, headquarters has notified me that General Harmon B. Fyfe of the General Staff will come down from Washington tomorrow for a tour of this post. He'll visit the bivouac area and observe the tactical exercises. As you know, gentlemen, tomorrow is the final day of the two-week bivouac for this company which completes their sixteen-week basic training program. We'll have the usual company combat exercise which will involve the attack, capture and defense against counterattack of Hill Ninety-three."
"The same as always," said one of the lieutenants.
"It won't be the same as always!" the captain said, banging his fist on his desk. "The area of action, the battle plan may be the same but this time we've got General Fyfe as an observer and Dolliver Wims as a participant and, if I can manage to squeeze the day successfully past that Scylla and Charybdis, I'll promise not to devour any more second lieutenants between meals."
"Sir," offered one of the lieutenants, "why don't we put Wims in the hospital just for tomorrow. It would be simple to arrange--say, an upset stomach."
The captain looked sadly at his junior officer. "It's the only hospital we have," he said. "Besides, I have a better idea. I'm detaching Wims from his platoon and will keep him with me at the company command post as a messenger and I'll shoot the first man who attempts to use him as a messenger or anything else."
"Hah! No need to worry about that, sir. Wims may have us a little shook up but he hasn't flipped us yet."
"I hope we can all say that when tomorrow ends," the captain said fervently.
The company command post had been set up under a cluster of dispirited pines obviously suffering from tired sap but in spite of the ragged shade they provided against the mild, mid-morning sun, Captain Aronsen was perspiring excessively and becoming increasingly unsettled. He glanced uneasily over at the somewhat planetary bulk of General Fyfe surrounded by his satellite colonels and other aides, and muttered to his lieutenant, "If Old Brassbottom came down here to observe the exercise, then why the devil doesn't he go over to the hill and observe instead of hanging around here like a sword of Demosthenes?"
"I think you mean Damocles, captain," the lieutenant corrected. "Demosthenes was the orator."
Aronsen looked sourly at the lieutenant. "I know what I'm talking about. Fyfe has only to say the word and off come our heads."
The lieutenant lowered his voice. "I don't like the way he keeps looking at Wims. Do you think he's heard about him?"
"You know how rumors travel in the Army."
"Rumors, yes," the captain said, "but the truth can't even limp out of the orderly room." He wiped his brow and shot a venomous glance at Wims. He said to the lieutenant, "I don't like Wims sitting there in full view of the general. Go tell him to take his comic book and sit on the other side of the tree."
At that moment one of the young trainees stumbled into the headquarters area bleeding profusely from a deep gash on his cheek. Between lung-tearing gasps he told how the machine gun, intended to serve as the base of fire for the attacking platoons, had been captured by a Red patrol before it could be set up. They were being led off under the supervision of a referee when he tumbled into a ravine and in the confusion made good his escape.
"Get the jeep and rush this man to the hospital," the captain instructed the lieutenant.
"What about the attack?" the lieutenant inquired. "Someone will have to get word to the forward platoons to hold up until we can move up a new gun."
"I'll send a messenger."
"But they're all out."
"One of them is bound to return soon. If not, I'll--"
"What is the matter with that man sulking behind that tree?" boomed General Fyfe who had been listening since the trainee had blurted his story.
The lieutenant snatched the bleeding recruit's arm and bolted for the jeep.
"Hey, lieutenant, take it easy," the trainee complained, "you're pulling my arm off!"
Ignoring him, the lieutenant was absorbed in desperate calculation. "The base hospital is about twelve miles from here," he muttered as they ran. "We should be safe enough there."
"But, general," the captain was protesting, "that man is the company snafu. He means well but he was designed by nature to foul things up."
"I won't buy that, captain," the general said forcefully. "If a man has the right attitude and still doesn't measure up then it's the fault of the people who are training him." There was a mark of menace in the general's voice as he said, "Do you read me?"
"Like the handwriting on the wall," the captain said resignedly. He glanced at the tree behind which, he knew, doom sat reading a comic book.
"Give the man a chance to redeem himself and I'm certain he'll come through with flying colors. I'll give you the opportunity to prove it to yourself." The general turned and bellowed at the tree, "Soldier! You! Private Wims! Come over here!"
Wims scurried over to the general and snapped a salute. The general flicked his hand in return. "Wims, your commanding officer has an important mission for you."
Wims turned to his captain, his face alight. He braced and saluted smartly.
"Wims," the captain said, "I want you to take a message to the lieutenant in command of the first, third and fourth platoons now in the jump-off area. Do you understand so far?" Wims nodded. "Tell the lieutenant there's been a delay in the attack plan. He's not to move out until he sees a white signal flare fired from the spur of woods on his left. Have you got that?"
Wims nodded emphatically, "Yes, suh!"
"Repeat the message."
"Ah'm to tell the lieutenant there's been a change in plans an' he's not supposed to move until a white flare is shot outta the woods on his left flank."
The captain exploded. "Delay, not change! And I didn't say anything about a left flank! The woods on his left flank and the spur of woods on his left that stick out a hundred yards beyond his present position are two different things! So help me, Wims, if you get this message fouled up, I'll use you as a dummy for bayonet practice."
Wims squirmed unhappily. "Couldn't you write it down, suh?"
"Why? So you can get captured and--"
The general interposed. "Even if the message is a bit garbled the intent should be obvious to the lieutenant if he has any intelligence."
The captain regarded the general balefully and then snapped at Wims, "What are you waiting for? Move out! ON THE DOUBLE!"
Wims trotted away and as soon as he was out of sight the general said abruptly to Aronsen, "I'm going over to the Red lines and watch your Blue attack from there."
Sure, the captain snarled inwardly, now that he's set the fuse he's running for the hills.
The general climbed into his command car and waited while one of his majors dashed into the woods along the path that led to the attack group's staging area. Less than a minute later he returned, followed by a colonel. They jumped into the command car which roared off immediately. As the captain was trying to puzzle out the incident's meaning, three of his runners came out of the woods along the same path.
"Where have you goldbricks been? You should've been back long ago!"
"Sir," one of them spoke up, "there was a colonel a little way back there wouldn't let us pass. Said the gen'ral was havin' a secret conf'rence and for us to wait."
The captain tucked away the strange information for later consideration. Right now there was no time to be lost. "You! Get over to the attack group and tell the lieutenant in command to hold up until a white flare is fired from the spur of woods on his left. All other orders remain the same. If Wims has already been there, the lieutenant is to disregard any message Wims might have given him. If you see Wims, tell him to get back here. All right, move out!
"You! Get over to the second platoon in the reserve area and tell them to rush a replacement machine gun with support riflemen to the tip of the spur; base of fire to be maintained twenty minutes. Signal end of firing with white flare."
The captain dispatched his last runner with additional tactical revisions and then took time to consider the odd fact that the general had one of his colonels delay his messengers. Was he only testing his ability to improvise? Yet he seemed unduly anxious to have him use Wims. Why? Suddenly, into his mind flashed the scene of the general calling Wims from behind the tree and he knew what it was that had been screaming for attention at the back of his mind these last hectic minutes. No one had mentioned Wims' name within earshot of the general and yet Fyfe had called Wims by name!
Wims had not been included in the company briefing and he wished he had had the courage to ask the captain where the jump-off area was, but the captain had been so angry with him he had not wanted to provoke him further. After a while of wandering he came upon two of his own company's flank pickets nested in a deadfall a short distance beyond the edge of the woods. They greeted him with hearty hostility. "Git outta here, Wims. You ain't got no business here."
"But Ah'm lookin' fer the lieutenant. Ah got a message fer 'im from the captain."
"He's over there on that hill," one of them replied, spitefully indicating the hill occupied by the Red force.
"Thanks," Wims said gratefully and in all innocence headed for the enemy hill. He lost his bearings in the woods and when he finally came upon the hill he had made a wide swing around the left flank and was approaching its rear slope. Immediately he was spotted by several trainees of the defending force foxholed on the lower slope. Since he came so openly from their rear area and alone, they assumed he was one of their own men.
As they let him come within challenging distance, they saw, pinned to his tunic, the green cardboard bar that identified him as a messenger. The bars were worn so that noncoms wouldn't be snatching for other duties, messengers idling between missions. As had always been done, both sides in this exercise were using the same device to identify their messengers, never expecting them to be delivering messages behind enemy lines.
The challenged Wims explained his mission and he was passed through with the information that most of the junior officers were on the forward slope. Wims climbed up the hill, inconspicuous among others scurrying about on various missions, many of whom did not wear the identifying red armband of the defenders.
He reached the crown of the wooded hill without finding a second lieutenant who was not a referee. He had almost reached the bottom of the forward slope when a small bush jumped up and yelled, "Hey, jerk! Why'n't ya watch where ya goin'?"
Wims pulled back just in time to avoid falling into a well camouflaged machine-gun nest. One of the foliage-covered gunners, thinking Wims was about to topple on him, jumped aside. His ankle twisted under him and he fell, catching the barrel of the machine gun just under the edge of his helmet and sagging into unconsciousness.
A platoon sergeant heard the steely clatter and rushed over. "That's funny," he growled ominously, "I coulda sworn I set up a machine-gun emplacement here but it's makin' noises like a boiler factory."
The assistant gunner pointed to the unconscious gunner. "He fell an' hit his head. He's breathin' but he ain't movin'."
The chattering of a machine gun from the woods opposite the hill was noted by the sergeant and he knew the Blues would be coming soon. He turned to the gunner. "Get up the hill an' snag one of our looeys or a referee. Tell 'im we got a man hurt here, needs lookin' at."
The gunner dashed off and the sergeant jerked his thumb at Wims. "You! Get on that gun!"
"But Ah got an important message fer the lieutenant," Wims protested.
The sergeant, annoyed, glanced at the green bar. "What lieutenant?"
"The captain said the lieutenant in charge."
"Gimmee the message. I'll tell 'im."
Wims started to protest but the sergeant's eyes crackled. "Well, the captain said fer the lieutenant not to move out 'til he saw the white flare fired outta the woods on his left."
"Not to move out?" the sergeant echoed doubtfully. "That don't sound right. Are ya sure he didn't say not ta fire until we saw the white flare?"
"Maybe that's it," Wims said agreeably.
"Maybe!" the sergeant roared, "whaddaya mean, maybe?" He grabbed Wims by the collar and pushed his face against the boy's as if he were about to devour him. "Is it YES or NO?"
"Y-yes," Wims agreed nervously.
"What's your name, soldier?" the sergeant asked.
"You don't happen to be a gen'ral do ya?"
Wims looked confused. "No," he ventured.
"Well then say so!" the sergeant screamed.
"Ah'm not a gen'ral," Wims said, desperately trying to please.
"Are ya tryin' ta get wise with me? WHAT IS YOUR RANK?"
"Now, what's your name, soldier."
Wims finally understood. "Private Wims, Dolliver."
"That's better." The sergeant's eyes narrowed as he searched his memory. "I don't r'member seein' ya 'round this company before."
"Ah don't recall seein' you 'roun' here either," Wims said in suicidal innocence.