Bastogne is surrounded. Jack’s aid station is overflowing with wounded, Axis Sally is mixing propaganda with popular music on Radio Berlin. Of three wounded men huddled near the radio, Frank is having none of it.
“Play the goddamn song, you Nazi bitch!”
As if on command, the orchestra strikes up the tune, and Sal attempts to pacify his friend.
“Gee, Frank. You sure have a way with women.”
“I’ll be home for Christmas
You can count on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree”
While Bing Crosby croons and calms the room, Sal turns to Slim. Together, they look on the bright side.
“You know it’s not so bad being surrounded.”
“Yeah, now we can attack in any direction. We got ‘em right where we want ‘em.”
It’s anyone’s guess as to how they are so upbeat, since each faces the prospect of losing a limb if he is not soon evacuated to a fully staffed and stocked field hospital. Perhaps it is because they are still drawing breath and they have each other. Oh, and the cognac.
As the Germans tightened the noose around Bastogne, painkilling medicines dwindled to desperate lows. The chance discovery of a cache of cognac in a boarded-up warehouse saved the day. And though some medical supplies were finally being airdropped into Bastogne, cognac remained the analgesic of choice among the men. Another warehouse gave up a dozen pallets of flour, just when rations were running low. Yet, with eggs and milk hard to come by it took all the ingenuity the cooks could summon to come up with a passable, almost edible pancake. But they did, to the endless gripes of the men on the line. Many swore that if they survived the war, they would never eat another pancake.
As if taunting Frank from afar, Axis Sally throws another stinging jab.
“Home sweet home and you’re not there. Don’t you hear your sweetheart calling you? Come home, come home.”
Before Frank can sputter out a single invective, a soldier with a critical chest wound languishing nearby suddenly cries out in reaction to something familiar in Axis Sally’s voice.
With great effort, the soldier raises his head to look with bloodshot eyes at Frank, Sal and Slim whose attention he has captured.
He adds meekly, weakly to Frank.
Frank’s not buying it.
“Yeah, sure. Nice voice. But she probably has the face of a goat!”
The confused soldier is ready to defend his Caroline’s honor. Slim lays a gentle hand on the soldier’s shoulder.
“Hey, take it easy.”
The soldier’s head drops like a rock as he succumbs to exhaustion. A spray of snow chases Corporal Wallington and an orderly he calls Beagle into the building as they carefully stretcher another wounded man in. The two have been Jack’s indispensable aides ever since he landed at Cherbourg and the corporal and orderly, Private Begala, were assigned to him. Wallington was quick to give his subordinate a nickname, and it stuck.
Chiwy clears a space as Jack’s aides carefully carry the wounded man through the congestion of bruised and broken bodies. Working together, Jack and Chiwy remove the soldier’s bloodied field dressing and clean and redress his wound. When Jack offers the soldier reassuring words, the valiant defender of Caroline’s honor recognizes the doctor’s voice and perks up.
“Doc! Hey, Doc!”
Jack steps over to the grievously wounded soldier and instinctively palms the young man’s forehead. He is alarmed at the heat the soldier is generating and calls out to Renee who is carefully picking her way to the washroom carrying her basket full of soiled laundry.
“Nurse! Renee! Get a cold pack for this man!”
Renee sets down her basket, makes her way carefully across the crowded floor, and rushes up the stairs and out the door. She quickly returns with a rag packed full of snow. This time the wounded see her coming and make way for their favorite Belgian as best they can. With a practiced smile for her admirers, she reaches the feverish soldier and holds the pack against his burning forehead as Jack takes his blood pressure. Momentarily revived, the soldier musters all the energy he can.
“Doc! I gotta write a letter... to my Caroline.”
“She’s... she’s really swell. I got her picture right here.”
The soldier pats the chest pocket of a jacket he no longer wears. It was cut away and set aside when Jack did what he could to stem the man’s bleeding and ease his suffering. Jack unfolds the wadded jacket and locates the photograph. It is ruined by mud and blood. The image is completely obscured.
“Say, she’s a real catch.”
Renee leans in with curiosity to see Caroline’s photo and gives Jack a puzzled, questioning look. When she understands what Jack has done and quickly brightens at his kindness, Jack nods to her in acknowledgment. He returns the photo to the jacket pocket then gently pats the soldier’s chest.
“Here you go. You’re a lucky guy.”
“Doc! I gotta let her know... that I’m coming home for Christmas.”
He shows the soldier nothing but encouragement, but Jack is in turmoil. Trained as a generalist, he was accelerated through medical school and rushed to France, then on to Belgium where he is standing in for a surgeon down with pneumonia. He is acutely aware that he lacks the skills needed to treat the most severe head, chest, and abdominal wounds. With the 101st Airborne Division’s field hospital west of Bastogne destroyed and all evacuation routes out of Bastogne blocked, Jack is face to face with his worst fears. No one is going anywhere. Many of these boys aren’t going to make it. It is a painful reality punctuated by occasional moans and cries of distress throughout the dank, darkened basement.
Together, Jack and his nurses can plug holes, stop hemorrhages, restore fluids, set simple fractures, debride and irrigate wounds, fight infection, alleviate pain, perform some simple surgeries, and do several other things they didn’t know they could do. But the most serious cases, like the young soldier prone before him, must wait for the hands of more experienced surgeons. And mangled limbs like Sal’s and Slim’s must remain, for now, stubbornly attached, unless gangrene sets in and Jack is compelled to amputate.
Jack’s only hope is to prolong as many lives as possible as they await Patton’s breakthrough to Bastogne. Once that occurs, the evacuation of the wounded to surgical hospitals in France will be possible and more of them will survive their wounds, retain their limbs, and see their families once again. In the meantime, Jack is alone with dark thoughts as he kneels by the feverish soldier. He feels he is failing these men and this soldier, in particular, who will be lucky to survive the night. The soldier’s blood pressure is dangerously low and his pulse is weakening. Jack looks up at Renee with resignation. Her tender expression in return speaks volumes and, in an almost electric moment, Jack suddenly understands Renee’s extraordinary compassion. Yes, this soldier may be dying. But he is alive now. Jack watches with wonder as Renee continues to gently stroke the soldier’s forehead. Uplifted, Jack is moved to learn the young man’s name and turns the soldier’s dog tag toward the light of a nearby lantern.
“OK... Pearson. We’ll write your letter.”