Emma’s Song – A Story of Love (Part 2 of 5)
The sound of the approaching train’s whistle startled Emma as she stood holding Paul’s hand. He looked down at her face as snowflakes touched her pink cheeks. Paul wiped them gently away with a warm touch of his hand. The gesture did little to comfort Emma in the moment. Finally in a blast of white steam and a great billowing puff of black smoke from the train’s stack, the forward movement of the iron machine stopped at the station. A paunchy conductor with a full mustache that covered both his lips stepped down and called out, “ALL A BOARD, WE HAVE A SCHEDULE TO KEEP!”
Paul smiled and then gave Emma a kiss as he gently touched where their baby was still growing. “You take care of the young one until I return, give him a kiss each night for me.” Paul was sure they would have a son. She pulled him tight and squeezed him closer. But, her loving grip and flowing tears could not stop his leaving. Paul then turned to his mother who stood waiting in the slowly falling snow. She touched his face as she smiled, “You be safe, and come home to us. Please, come home.”
Paul gave a final hug to his mother as he said, “No matter what, I will not leave you wondering of my fate should something happen. Once in your life is enough to be left without answers.” The impatient conductor called out, “All onboard!” The engine’s movement engaged the cars iron coupling with a sharp metal sound as it began to move. Paul kissed Emma and smiled. Then he released her hand as he stepped onto the slowly moving train. “I WILL WRITE TO YOU.” He shouted over the sounds of screeching metal wheels on the tracks. The snow fell even harder. Paul watched until he could no longer see the station platform. Emma and his mother disappeared in the falling snow.
Paul’s basic training passed quickly and before long, he and thousands of other men were arriving in France. Their arrival came as the United States officially joined the war; it was April 1917. Paul’s junior rank gave him command of a small platoon of soldiers. A total of twenty enlisted men. All were new to the army and had no military experience. The only real soldier was a crusty sergeant, named Sam Henderson, who had been in the army for fifteen years. Paul knew his military training, but he also knew the skills of the sergeant could keep him and his men alive.
The commanders of the army in France wanted to gather as much information quickly before engaging the enemy in the field. Paul’s platoon was selected to recon a small town and gather information on the enemy’s strength and positions. The young lieutenant breathed deeply as he prepared to lead his men towards the distant town. He felt his hands shaking as he quietly sighed; the old sergeant was the only one that noticed and gently nudged Paul with his rifle. “Don’t worry sir, the enemy don’t want to make us mad just yet. They’ll want to see how much we Yanks want to fight. We’ll do a quick reconnoiter and be back in time for supper. Cold coffee and dried biscuits.” They both laughed. The sergeant shouted, “MOVE OUT, TIME TO EARN YOUR KEEP!”
The column of men moved along the muddy road. It was spring but the warmth of the sun had not yet returned and dried the mud. The road was littered with blast holes from mortar fire. When they neared a school house on the edge of town they heard the first shot. At first only the one, then suddenly gunfire came from the town. The inexperienced platoon of men ran for the school house. The sergeant tried to get them to fire back at the enemy and not get penned down in the school, but the young inexperienced soldiers were scared and only wanted to hide themselves in the building.
Once inside the sergeant gave orders to cover the windows and return fire. It took Paul a moment to get his thoughts organized, but then he moved from man to man trying to get them to defend their positions. He was calm as he reassured each soldier that they were going to be okay. The old sergeant moved next to Paul and said, “I thought you had never done this before?” Paul placed his hand on the sergeant’s shoulder and said, “You ever tried to get a group of school boys to work together?”
As he spoke those words mortar shells began falling around the building. The sergeant called to the Lieutenant. “We can’t stay here, they’ll zero in on our position quickly!” Paul looked around the room and he saw a coal oil can in the corner. He moved to the window in the back of the school and looked out before returning to the sergeant. “We’ll set the front of the school on fire, hopefully the smoke will give you cover to get the men out the back and into the tree line seventy-five yards away. I’ll keep two men with me to cover your going. You take the others and make a run for it. Once you are clear, cover us and we’ll make our way to you.” The sergeant tried to argue with Paul, but he gave him an order to take the men and go as soon as the smoke gave cover.
Within a few minutes they were ready to put their plan into action. The fire began burning the old wooden structure quickly, billowing thick black smoke. The sergeant and sixteen men prepared to move out. Once more he returned and said, “Sir, are you sure you don’t want me to stay?” Paul shook his head as he handed him a neatly folded piece of paper with a name and address written on the outside. “If I don’t make it, promise me you’ll get this to my wife.” The sergeant took the note and snapped a salute to the lieutenant. Paul barked out the order, “GET THEM OUT OF HERE, NOW!”
Before long, heavy mortar fire pounded the burning building. The school billowed black smoke and fire into the darkening evening sky. By the time nightfall came the school was reduced to a smoldering pile of ashes. The sergeant’s men returned weapons fire towards the enemy positions until darkness came. Only one more man made it out of the school before it burned. Paul was not that man.
The next morning the sergeant moved through the injured men looking for those missing from the platoon. Four had been wounded and were in the hospital. Two men were unaccounted for. The soldier that made it out reported the lieutenant was directing rifle fire towards the enemy as flames consumed the building. No one knew if he and the other man had been killed or wounded. A day later when the town was secured, the sergeant took a squad of men to look through the burned building for Paul and the other soldier. It was useless. The mortar fire destroyed the building and fire burned the rest. The old sergeant remembered the note Paul had entrusted to him and the promise he made.
Three weeks later Emma heard a knock on the door. In her arms she held young Paul Jr. She craned her neck to see who was at the door and recognized the silhouette of the telegram boy. Her heart went cold. As she opened the door, the boy’s eyes told what she knew in her heart. He removed his hat and handed it to her. “I am sorry ma’am.”
Emma opened the telegram; the words were difficult to read through her tears: The U.S. Army regrets to inform you Lieutenant Paul Nobel is missing in action.
The date was July 13, 1917.