The Indoctrination of Private Paul Mackenzie (Short Story)

This is my response to my 6th assignment in my Creative Writing class. It is a story of about 3000 words with a “plot”. The story and characters are fictional.

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The Indoctrination of Private Paul Mackenzie

Private Paul Mackenzie had a thought.

“Anyone who thinks of Holland as wooden shoes, windmills and colorful tulips, ought to visit here during the war in the dead of winter.”

January 1945 would go on record as an abnormally cold month in southern Holland.  Paul McKenzie, a newly recruited Private with the Canadian Army, would always explain that if you wanted to feel cold all you had to do was go to his home town of Winnipeg, where the rivers would freeze solid from the end of October until the beginning of May.

Naturally, nobody paid much attention to Paul’s musings.  He was new to the regiment, only arriving a week ago.  The other soldiers had learned never to make friends with the new guys, mostly because they thought that the fresh recruits would be killed quickly, and there was no point in befriending them.  To make matters worse, Paul was only eighteen, and he looked like he was fourteen.  Looking young always leads to an immediate lack of respect.  In fact, some of the soldiers in the regiment started calling him “Youngster”.  It was a nickname that Paul didn’t like, but he had no choice but to accept.

For Paul, it was a good time to join the war effort.   The Allies had invaded Normandy in June, and now the Germans were on the run, retreating back toward the German border.  Everybody knew that the war would soon be over. There was an excitement that the victory was close at hand.  However, now that winter had come to Europe, the victory march had halted. The final push on Germany would have to wait until spring.

Paul had been assigned to Sergeant Stackhouse’s platoon.  The Sergeant was a large man, over six feet tall and with shoulders that seemed to be just as wide.  Paul was in awe of the Sergeant’s strength.  One night Sergeant Stackhouse showed how he could lift a Lee-Enfield rifle shoulder high, with a straight arm extended, and only holding onto the end of the rifle’s barrel.  The Sergeant’s elbow never bent or broke.  When anyone else would try the feat, their elbow would bend, or for some, like Paul, the rifle would hardly leave the ground.  After everyone else had tried the stunt, the good Sergeant took off his size 11 boots and tied the laces around the end of the rifle.  Then he performed the stunt again with his boots dangling at the end of the rifle, just to show he could still do it with even more weight added.

Also in the platoon was Corporal Kline.  Paul had already decided that he didn’t like Kline.  Paul saw him as lazy and shifty.  Kline was always shirking his duties, but when there was an opportunity to impress the Officers, Kline would be there.  Paul had learned to be wary of Kline, but still, they were members of the same platoon, so he had to trust him.  Didn’t he?

One night Sergeant Stackhouse met with the entire platoon.  He described a mission that they were going to undertake in about five days.  The plan was to take two boats over the Maas River and attempt to capture a German soldier for interrogation.  Paul listened to the plan intently.

The whole time that the Sergeant described the mission he was smoking.  Along with the cigarette he was currently smoking he had a second cigarette resting over his right ear.  When the first cigarette became so short that it was burning his fingers, he instinctively retrieved the second cigarette from his ear and lit it from the burning butt of the first cigarette.   During this maneuver, he never stopped his instruction for a second.

Later, as the second cigarette burned down to a nub, Stackhouse needed another cigarette.  Without stopping, or looking over, he called upon Corporal Kline who was sitting to the Sergeant’s left.

“Kliney, gimme another smoke”, the Sergeant said as he reached his hand towards Corporal Kline.

However, Corporal Kline wasn’t paying attention to the Sergeant’s request. In fact, Kline was fast asleep with his chin on his chest.  Once the Sergeant noticed that Kline was napping, he used the same hand that was requesting the cigarette to whack Corporal Kline on the top of the head.

Kline awoke with a start.  Paul thought this was hilarious, and he began to laugh.  Paul was still tittering when Sergeant Stackhouse took Kline aside for a brief talk.  After the “talk”, things got serious again, and the Sergeant continued with his explanation of the upcoming mission.

Now, Kline seemed to be far more attentive.  Paul wondered what the Sergeant had said to Kline to straighten him out so quickly.  Paul looked at Kline, who was now watching the Sergeant’s instruction with great interest.  That made Paul grin a little.

Unfortunately, Kline noticed Paul’s smirk.  He got up and slyly walked over behind Paul.  Then he calmly bent over and whispered menacingly into Paul’s ear, “You think that’s pretty funny Youngster? Just wait. Your day is coming.”

*        *       *

The night of the mission finally arrived.  It was a perfect night.  Dark, overcast, and no moon to showcase their clandestine river crossing.

The Canadians boarded two small black boats and set off, paddling as quiet as they could.  As they paddled, they scanned the far shore for any German activity.  They saw no movement and heard no noises.  All looked well, and so they continued their journey.

Once they got to the other side, they very quietly hauled the boats up onto the shore.  Sergeant Stackhouse told Corporal Kline and two Privates to wait by the boats.  The Sergeant took the rest of the platoon, including Paul, into the forest.  They slowly crawled through the woods for about 300 yards, trying to be as quiet as they could.  They were especially good at keeping quiet, as the Sergeant had forced them to practice their stealth every night for the past week.

Soon they got to a road.  The road was dark, and to Paul it seemed very ominous.  Paul felt a lump in his throat.   He knew that this was the road that lead directly to the German positions, and that scared him a little.   He quickly swallowed those thoughts and concentrated on paying attention to what the Sergeant had to say.

Sergeant Stackhouse whispered, “Private Mackenzie and Private Morris.  You two wait here at the road. Don’t make any noise.  I want you to stay alert and keep a lookout for enemy patrols.”

Paul and Private Morris nodded in agreement.

As quick as a flash, Sergeant Stackhouse and the remainder of the platoon departed.  The last that Paul saw of them were dark silhouettes tiptoeing northward, up the road.  In the Sergeant’s silhouette, he could clearly see the outline of the Sten machine gun he held in the ready position.

Paul and Private Morris sat in the woods.  They barely whispered two words to each other the whole time.  They just sat, watched and listened.

It seemed like hours, but it was only about ten minutes later, when they saw some dark figures coming towards them from the North.  It was Sergeant Stackhouse and the rest of the platoon, plus a German prisoner!  There was a potato sack over the German’s head, and it was tied with a rope at the neck.  Stackhouse walked behind the prisoner and held onto the end of the rope with one hand, and had his Sten gun pressed to the German’s back with his other hand.  It was the machine gun on the captive German’s back which told the prisoner which direction to walk.

Stackhouse only nodded his head in a motion to Paul and Private Morris to follow him. Not a word was spoken as they quickly travelled back through the forest back to the boats. Swiftly, they boarded the boats and hastily paddled their way back to the friendly side of the river.

Once they landed, the Sergeant removed the bag from the German’s head.  It was the first time Paul had seen an enemy soldier. The German was very young.  He seemed to be frightened, but was trying to be stoic and show no fear.  He was consistently avoiding eye contact with the Canadians.

Sergeant Stackhouse gave the next order, “Private Mackenzie and Private Morris, march our prisoner back to HQ for interrogation.”

Paul was proud that the Sergeant had trusted him to such an important duty.  He and Morris quickly carried out the task.  Strangely enough, though, Corporal Kline followed them the whole way.

At the HQ tent, Lieutenant Felix, the only person in the Regiment that spoke German, began the interrogation of the prisoner. Things did not go well.  Lieutenant Felix, leaned over the prisoner, asking questions in German, but the young soldier just sat in his chair and remained silent.  It appeared that he had nothing to say.

Lieutenant Felix decided he’d had enough. “Let’s let him stew for a little while,” he said. “Maybe he’ll talk later.  I will be back in 20 minutes. Mackenzie and Morris, I want you to stay here and keep guard of the prisoner while I am away.”

It wasn’t long after Lieutenant Felix had left the tent, when Corporal Kline entered.  “Did he spill his guts?” Kline asked.

Paul answered dutifully, “No Corporal, he didn’t tell the Lieutenant anything.”

“Well isn’t that dandy,” Kline whispered grimly.  “We may have to do something about that, won’t we? Maybe I can get him talking?”

Kline stood in front of the prisoner and stared at him menacingly.   The young German looked away from Kline’s stare.  Kline grabbed the prisoner’s head and forcefully turned it so that the German was looking straight at Kline.  As the prisoner noticed Kline’s expression, a look of fear began to appear across his once stoic face.

Corporal Kline moved quickly.  Using the butt of his rifle, he struck the young German in the side of the head. The German fell sideways off the chair onto the ground in a heap.

Kline began to yell, “So you won’t talk, eh? You fucking Nazi!  Maybe now you will want to tell me which night you bastards are going to attack!  Tell me! Tell ME!”

The German looked up with fear in his eyes, terrified and helpless.  Blood was beginning to form under his nose and on his ear.  Still he did not speak a word.

Paul was fearful.  He looked over toward Private Morris, and noticed that he had just left the tent.

Kline was fuming that the German did not answer the questions.  He lunged, and began kicking the German prisoner directly in the stomach.  The German grunted horribly and grabbed his abdomen in obvious pain.

Paul reacted.  He quickly grabbed Kline’s arm and said, “Leave him alone Kline!  You’ve done enough.  You’re going to kill him!”

Paul’s intervention had stopped the kicking, but now Paul was shaking badly.  He was in a panic as he thought to himself, “Did I just grab the Corporal’s arm?”

Corporal Kline looked at Paul, “What are you doing Mackenzie?  Are you protecting him? What is going on? Are you a Nazi too?” Kline was fuming mad at Paul, but he again turned his attention toward the German, “Mackenzie, you are a weakling, and I am going to deal with you, once I finish this guy off.”

Paul shrunk away, shocked at what he thought Corporal Kline was about to do. Kline lifted his rifle and slowly placed the barrel in the German’s mouth.  The German soldier instinctively closed his eyes.

Just then, Sergeant Stackhouse roared into the tent.  “What in blue blazes is going on here?” he roared. He looked directly at Corporal Kline and quickly figured out what was occurring.

“Kline!  You shoulder that rifle immediately!” Stackhouse ordered.

Kline shrunk.  He immediately obeyed the order.  He placed his rifle on his shoulder and backed away from the prisoner.

The Sergeant looked at the German, who was bleeding from the side of the head and in obvious pain. “Mackenzie, go fetch a medic to look at the prisoner’s wounds.”

Paul was glad to get out of that tent.  He scurried off to find a medic.

*        *       *

In the days after the prisoner incident, Paul tried to avoid Corporal Kline.  He wanted to put the whole debacle out of his mind.  Kline was now more subdued, and it was clear to Paul that Sergeant Stackhouse had admonished him in some awful way.  Paul was glad for that, but he was still very concerned.  It was hard to forget about the circumstances.  However, the Regiment was now training for a significant operation that was coming up at the end of January.  The business of the training regime helped Paul take his mind off his troubles.

The upcoming operation was very important. It involved more than one regiment in a pincer attack on a small ferry harbor located along the Maas River.  The harbor, named Kapelsche Veer, was home to an unusually large number of German troops, a stronghold that the Allied Generals felt needed to be dealt with.  The operation was fairly complex, but Paul’s platoon had a much simpler task; to take out two machine gun nests that were meant to thwart the Canadians advance on the objective.

Paul was a little nervous about the operation, but soon enough the day of the operation arrived.  There was no time to be nervous anymore.

Two hours before twilight, they were driven in trucks to the edge of a dike. The rest of the way they went on foot. The ground was snow covered, and they wore white camouflage over their dark brown wool uniforms. However, the snow, once pretty and white, was quickly smashed down under the marching boots, and it soon turned into a muddy mess.

They continued to march down the length of a dike to arrive at their start point.  Corporal Kline was marching behind Paul. The whole way Paul could feel the Corporal’s hot stare on the back of his head.  Paul knew that the Corporal was not ready to forget about the prisoner incident.

When they arrived at the end of the dike, Sergeant Stackhouse told them all to get down low. It was quiet now, but they could hear the ominous sound of tank engines rumbling off in the distance.

The terrain around the harbour was a polder, a low area of land that was surrounded by dikes.  There were absolutely no trees.  In fact, in the growing twilight you could see only one tree in the distance, a large oak that was situated next to a lone farmhouse.  This was the harbour, their final objective.

Soon the artillery barrage began. A tremendous amount of artillery was brought down upon the German positions.  The shells flew over the soldiers heads and impacted into the polder between their position and the harbour.  The soldiers kept their heads down and listened to the ominous sound of artillery shells whistling overhead.

First the shells started to impact in the vicinity of the farmhouse, but spotters soon started to direct the shells to fall closer and closer to the Canadian’s position and finally the shells were even falling just on the other side of the dike from where they were crouched.

They waited, shivering in the coldness of the morning twilight.  Sergeant Stackhouse passed around a flask of rum. “Soon it will be time to go boys.  We’ve got a little time for a rum ration. It will warm you up and give you courage.”

Paul had never had rum before, but he swallowed his gulp without a problem.  His mind was clearly stuck on whatever lay beyond the dike.  The butterflies in his stomach were busy turning his gut into a painful knot.

Paul looked over at Private Morris and noticed he looked a little pale.  “Morris, how are you doing?  Are you scared?” Paul asked.

Morris answered back, “Who wouldn’t be scared of this?”

The rum did warm his stomach.  Paul soon felt a little better, and he didn’t notice the butterflies anymore.

The artillery barrage built up to a grand crescendo.  Then, as quickly as it had started, it stopped.  A few seconds later, after the echoes had subsided, it became eerily quiet.  The men then began to hear the sounds of wounded Germans.  Some were crying out for help, and some were moaning eerily.  Sergeant Stackhouse knew exactly what was to happen next.   He gave the order, “Let’s go boys!”

In the light of the morning twilight, the platoon rose and climbed up to the top of the dike.  At the top, the platoon split off into two groups.  One went to the left, and the other group went to the right.  As he crested the dike, Paul looked to the left and to the right and noticed hundreds of Canadian soldiers all advancing over the top of the dike at once.  The sight was awe-inspiring; it gave Paul a renewed burst of courage.

Paul’s group continued down the dike to the left and moved towards a sandbagged fortification about 100 yards away.  This was the machine gun nest, their immediate objective. Normally, the German machine gun would be deadly, but it appeared that the German stronghold had taken a direct artillery hit.  Paul breathed a sigh of relief that the machine gun was silent.  Still the Canadians approached with caution.  When they were about ten yards away, Corporal Kline crouched down and motioned to Paul to approach the nest and take a look.

Obediently following orders, Paul scampered over to the machine gun nest.  As he got close, he heard a moaning sound coming from inside.  He cautiously climbed up onto the sandbag wall and peered inside.  Paul was shocked to witness a horrible scene.  He saw three mangled and bloody bodies slumped over.  The carnage was something Paul had never seen before.  He was shaken, but he did not panic.  He managed to hold his composure.

Over to the left he saw a very young German soldier cowering across from the bodies.  He didn’t look like he was even 18 years old.  Paul realized that this was the source of the moaning.  The German soldier’s helmet was missing, and he was crouched down, holding his blood covered hands over his ears.

Paul stood up and brought his rifle up, so it was pointed toward the German, then he commanded sharply, “Hände hoch!  Hände hoch!”  First, the young German soldier was startled, but then he quickly obeyed the order and put his bloodstained hands up in the air.  His hands were trembling, and his face was full of fear.  He was clearly surrendering.

Up to now, Corporal Kline was cowering several yards away from the machine gun nest, but now he decided to come forward and assess the situation. “Lookie what we have here,” he said. “What are you waiting for Youngster?  It’s time for your first kill.  Do it.”

Instinctively following orders, Paul tensed up and raised his rifle to his line of sight, and then aimed it directly at the Germans chest.  He squinted as he took aim and readied himself to pull the trigger, then, in a surprising move for a brand new recruit, he had a moment of independent thought.

“No Corporal. He is wounded.  He is surrendering.  I will take him prisoner, but I won’t shoot him,” Paul explained.

Kline couldn’t believe it.  He was fuming.  “I gave you an order Private Mackenzie!  I am so sick and tired of you not listening to my orders.” Then, he yelled back at the others in the platoon, “You men are my witnesses. Private Mackenzie is disobeying my direct order.”

Paul began to obey Corporal Kline’s order.  Again, he lifted his Lee-Enfield rifle and pointed it at the wounded German. The young German was trembling.  As he began to anticipate what he thought was about to happen, he closed his eyes and turned his head away.

Paul was ready.  He could have done it, but he knew in his heart and mind that this man wasn’t an enemy soldier anymore.  He lowered his rifle and said, “No I won’t kill him. This man is wounded, and he is my prisoner.”

Kline fumed. He wasn’t going to have a lowly Private disobey his command.  He quickly lurched forward in an attempt to strike Paul with his rifle butt.

Just then, Paul saw Sergeant Stackhouse appear behind Kline.  With his powerful arm, he grabbed Kline’s shoulder.

Stackhouse roared, “There will be none of that here!”

Paul had a good view of Kline’s face.  He saw that it immediately filled with shock and fright.

“Private Mackenzie is correct,” Stackhouse thundered. “This man is wounded.  He has surrendered, and he is now a prisoner.”

Corporal Kline shrank.  His boldness had completely vanished.

Sergeant Stackhouse looked at Kline with disgust.  “Kline you stay here with me.  Private Mackenzie, take Private Morris with you and transport the prisoner back to the Military Police depot.”

As they began to march the wounded prisoner back to the Military Police depot, Paul noticed that Corporal Kline had a look of dread on his face.  Obviously, he did not appreciate the thought of another private talk with Sergeant Stackhouse.

Paul smirked when he saw Kline’s face.  He wasn’t sure if he would have any trouble with Corporal Kline in the future, but he had confidence in knowing that he could stand up to him.

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