Front lines, p.1
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       Front Lines, p.1

         Part #1 of Front Lines series by Michael Grant
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Front Lines


  DEDICATION

  I dedicate this book to the magnificent Kurdish women soldiers of Kobani. How could I not?

  And to my equally magnificent

  if slightly less deadly wife,

  Katherine (K.A.) Applegate,

  our son, Jake, and daughter, Julia.

  1942

  War rages in Europe, China, Southeast Asia, and Northern Africa. Millions have died. Much of London has been bombed to rubble. In the Atlantic, German submarines sink more than a thousand ships. The western Soviet Union has been conquered by the German army, the Wehrmacht, and in their wake come the SS death squads. Throughout conquered Europe the Nazis have begun the systematic extermination that will come to be known as the Holocaust. And in Amsterdam, on her thirteenth birthday, a girl named Anne Frank receives a diary.

  Never in human history has a more terrible evil arisen to test the courage of good people. The fate of the world rests on a knife’s edge.

  Among the great nations only the United States has stayed out of the fight. But in the dying days of 1941, Germany’s ally Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and brings America into the war.

  Adolf Hitler is said to be dismissive of the Americans as a self-indulgent, mongrelized people unwilling and unable to fight.

  He is mistaken.

  FLASH: “In a surprise ruling with major ramifications, the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision in the case of Becker vs. Minneapolis Draft Board for Josiah Becker, who had sued claiming the recently passed Selective Training and Service Act unfairly singles out males. The decision extends the draft to all US citizens age eighteen or older regardless of gender.”

  —United Press International—Washington, DC, January 13, 1940

  “We interrupt this broadcast to take you to the NBC news room. From the NBC news room in New York: President Roosevelt said in a statement today that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, from the air.”

  —NBC Radio News, December 7, 1941

  “Lastly, if you will forgive me for saying it, to me the best tidings of all is that the United States, united as never before, have drawn the sword for freedom and cast away the scabbard.”

  —British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the US Congress, December 26, 1941

  CONTENTS

  Dedication

  1942

  Prologue

  Part I Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Letters Sent

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Part II The Opening Days of 1943

  Interstitial

  Letters Sent

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Interstitial

  The Battle of Kasserine Pass

  Author’s Note

  Bibliography

  Back Ads

  About the Author

  Books by Michael Grant

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  Prologue

  107TH EVAC HOSPITAL, WÜRZBURG, GERMANY—APRIL 1945

  I’m not going to tell you my name, not right away.

  I’m in this story, and you’ll see plenty of me. But I don’t want to tell you this story in a way that makes it about me. I don’t expect you’ll understand that, Gentle Reader, so let me try to explain it like this: I’m not the hero of this tale; I’m just alive to tell it.

  As I type this I’m sitting here safe in this hospital waiting on the official announcement that we have won this war. I’m here alongside a bunch of other women and girls hurt as bad or worse than me, some a hell of a lot worse. All around me are women with stumps of arms or legs wrapped up tight in white bandages or casts; women with half their bodies covered in gauze; women who can’t hear or can’t see or who are glad they can’t see so they don’t have to look at themselves in a mirror. Some are on their cots, some are in wheelchairs, some are just standing, staring out of the tall, dirty windows. We play cards sometimes. We listen to the radio. We talk about home, about boys and husbands.

  We wait.

  It’s funny that they keep the men and women separate here, because we sure weren’t separate up on the front line. But they’re just across the hall now, the guys. The people running this place tell us we aren’t to fraternize, but we are all of us done taking orders. So we stumble or shuffle or roll ourselves over there after evening chow because they’ve got a piano and some of the boys can play and some of the girls can sing. No smoking, no drinking, no fraternizing with the opposite sex, those are the rules. So naturally we smoke, drink, and fraternize most evenings.

  At night we cry sometimes, and if you think that just applies to the females then you have never been in combat, because everyone cries sooner or later. Everyone cries.

  We are the first generation of female soldiers in the American army. Lucky us.

  My sisters-in-arms are still out there right now, flushing out the last German strongholds, and more of us will die. This war isn’t over yet, but my part of it is.

  Anyway, I’ve had this feeling nagging at me, this feeling that once they declare the end of the war, all my memories of it will start to leak away, to fade and become lost. Will you understand, Gentle Reader, if I tell you that this is something I both long for and dread?

  There’s a typewriter here, and I’ve taught myself to be pretty quick on it. There isn’t much else to do, and I want to get it all down on paper before the end.

  The snap of the keys striking the page soothes me. Is that because the sounds are something like the noise of gunfire? That’d be something, wouldn’t it? For the rest of my life am I going to hear a typewriter and be back on some beach or in some freezing hole?

  Well, let’s not get too deep. How about I just tell the story?

  I’m going to be just as honest as I can about each of the people in it. I know these women and men. I sat many a long hour in troop ships and foxholes and on leave drinking beer and swapping stories. There isn’t much about them I don’t know, and what I don’t know, well, I’ll make up. But it’ll be as close to true as any war story can be.

  I’m in a fever to tell it all, right now before it fades, before I start to rewrite the truth and make it more acceptable to myself and you. See, Gentle Reader, I know the rules of war stories. I know I’m supposed to present a tale of patriotism, of high-minded motives and brave deeds, hardships endured with a stiff upper lip and a wry grin. I’m supposed to tell you about the brotherhood—and now sisterhood—of soldiers. But there’s one thing I cannot do as I pound these typewriter keys, and that is lie.

  My body is damaged, my mind is too full, my soul too raw. The things that I saw and did are too real. If you’re looking for the kind of story that will puff you up with an easy reflected pride, I am not your girl. If as you read this you come to admire these soldiers, I want it to be because you know them with all their weaknesses
as well as their strengths.

  You may imagine that any war story must be all about righteous hatred of the enemy. And yes, you’ll hear some of that. I was at the camps. I was there. I saw. So, hate? Sure, I’ll show you some hate.

  There will be hate.

  But I suspect over time the hate will fade, and it will be the love that lingers: the love of the woman or man standing next to you in a hole; the desperate love of a home that seems farther away with each squeeze of the trigger; the fragile love for the person you hope—or hoped—to spend the rest of your life with.

  A moment ago I reached the end of a page and ripped it from the machine, and in trying to insert the next sheet I made a mess of it. My fingers shook a little. I feel jacked up, high and wild, a twanging nerve, a guitar string tightened and tightened until it’s got to break, till you kind of wish it would just break. I’m sweating, and it isn’t hot. But as long as I keep hitting these keys, as long as I don’t stop, maybe that will all pass. I don’t know.

  We are the first generation of young American women to fight in a great world war. “Warrior Women” is what the newspapers like to say. But when it all began three years ago, we were not any kind of women; we were girls mostly. And with the wry mockery that comes so easily to men and women at war, we made up our own headline and called ourselves not warrior women but soldier girls.

  As I sit here pounding feverishly on these keys, I feel as if I am all of them, every soldier girl who carried a rifle, dug a hole, slogged through mud, steamed or froze, prayed or cursed, raged or feared, ran away or ran toward.

  I am Rio Richlin. I am Frangie Marr. I am Rainy Schulterman and Jenou Castain and Cat Preeling. As long as I’m pounding these keys I’m all of them.

  This is the story of what happened to a few of us who ended up on the front lines of the greatest war in human history.

  PART I

  VOLUNTEERS AND DRAFTEES

  1

  RIO RICHLIN—GEDWELL FALLS, CALIFORNIA, USA

  1942.

  Remember 1942? It’s been a long three and a half years since then, hasn’t it? In 1942 the Japs were unchecked, rampaging freely across Asia. The Germans had taken all of Europe and some of Africa before running into trouble in the Soviet Union. Our British allies had been hit hard, very hard.

  And we Americans?

  Well, we were just getting into it. Still with plenty of time to worry about the little things . . .

  “Rio Richlin, stay out of the sugar. Heavens, girl, the ration for the family is thirty-two ounces a week, and I’m saving for your sister’s birthday cake.”

  “I just used a teaspoonful for my coffee, Mother.”

  “Yes, well, a teaspoon here, a teaspoon there, it adds up. Who knows what Rachel is getting to eat?” Mrs. Richlin says. She has deep and dark suspicions when it comes to navy rations.

  Rio is sixteen and pretty; not a beauty, but pretty enough. Tall for a girl, and with the strong shoulders and calloused hands of a farmer’s daughter. Rangy, that’s one word. If she’d been a boy, she’d have played ball and you’d expect her to be able to throw from center field to home without much trouble.

  Her complexion is cream in the mild Northern California winter and light-brown sugar during the long days of summer, with faint freckles and brown hair pulled back into a practical ponytail.

  “I guess the navy is feeding her; wouldn’t make much sense to starve your own sailors,” Rio points out.

  “Well, I don’t suppose her captain is making her a nineteenth birthday cake. Do you?”

  Mrs. Richlin emphasizes what she sees as her conclusive statement by taking the ration book with its multicolored stamps and fanning it out on the table in front of Rio. “You see the situation. Thank goodness for the cows. I trade my milk to Emily Smith for her coffee ration, otherwise your father and you would have nothing to drink.”

  “There’s always beer.” This from Rio’s father, Tam, who rushes through the kitchen on his way to the feed store he owns. “But not for you, young lady,” he adds quickly, pointing at Rio then winking.

  It’s a spacious kitchen with green-painted oak cupboards on most of one wall, a battered and well-used white-enameled stove and oven, a long porcelain sink, and a deeper tin sink beside it. There’s a bare wood counter so long-used that dips are worn into the edge where three generations of Richlin women have kneaded bread dough and chopped carrots and parsnips and sliced tomatoes fresh from the garden.

  In the center of the room stands a round table—antique, quarter-sawn oak—surrounded by five chairs, only two of which match and all of which squeak and complain when used.

  The house is old, having passed down from her father’s great-grandfather, the Richlin who settled in Gedwell Falls after coming two thousand miles in an ox-drawn wagon. Rio has never doubted that she will spend the rest of her youth in this place, going to school, doing her chores, and spending time with her best friend, Jenou.

  She’s also never doubted that she’ll marry, have children, and keep house. When they discuss these matters, as they often do, Jenou always emphasizes to Rio the importance of marrying someone prosperous. “Money and looks, Rio,” she always says. “Money and looks.”

  “What about kindness, generosity of spirit, and a sense of humor?”

  To which Jenou invariably responds with a despairing shake of her head and a slow repetition. “Money and looks. In that order.”

  Rio assumes, has always assumed, that she will be like her mother, who is like her grandmother. For the most part Rio accepts that. But there is a small voice in her mind and heart that senses something off about it all. Not bad, just off. Like she’s trying on an outfit that will never fit, and isn’t her color.

  This dissatisfaction is vague, unformed, but real. The problem is, being dissatisfied does not mean she has any better goal. Or any goal at all, really, except of course to get through her final year of high school with grades that don’t disgrace her and the family.

  Rio sweeps her math work sheet into her brown leather book bag, slings it over her shoulder, kisses her mother on the cheek, and follows her father toward the front door.

  Her father is stopped there, framed in the doorway against the early sunlight of the street beyond. He’s a tall man with a face carved to leanness by the hard years of the Great Depression, when he kept a roof over his family’s heads by taking on any work he could find, often going straight from his shop to mucking out cesspools or painting barns.

  In the teasing voice that is their common currency, Rio says, “Come on, Dad, some of us have places to . . .”

  Rio focuses past him and sees a uniformed telegram delivery boy.

  Rio’s heart misses two beats. Her steps falter. She tries to swallow and can’t, tries to breathe but there’s a weight pressing down on her chest. She moves closer. Her father notices her and says, “It’s probably nothing.”

  “Is this the Richlin residence?” the delivery boy asks. He mispronounces it with a soft “ch” instead of the correct “ck” sound.

  He should be in school, that boy. He can’t be much older than twelve. Maybe this is an early delivery before heading off to school. Maybe . . .

  Tam Richlin takes the envelope. It’s buff-colored, thin paper. He hesitates, turning the envelope as if he can’t find the right way around. He licks his lips, and Rio’s unease deepens.

  “What is it?” Her voice wobbles.

  “Thank you,” Mr. Richlin says. The delivery boy touches the brim of his cap and speeds back to his bicycle, relief showing in the quickness of his step.

  “What is it?” Rio asks again.

  He licks his lips again, takes a deep breath. Suddenly urgent, he tears the envelope open and draws out the sheet. He stares at it. Just that, just stares, and Rio knows.

  After a terrible long silence in which the world stops turning and the birds stop singing and the breeze does not blow, she reaches for it and takes it from his nerveless fingers. The words are all in capital letters.

/>   THE NAVY DEPARTMENT DEEPLY

  REGRETS TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR

  DAUGHTER RACHEL RICHLIN . . .

  Rio makes a small, whimpering sound. She looks at her father. He sags against the door jamb, head bowed. She sees him in profile only, a dark outline of a man looking at nothing.

  . . . YOUR DAUGHTER RACHEL RICHLIN WAS KILLED IN ACTION IN THE PERFORMANCE

  OF HER DUTY AND IN THE SERVICE OF

  HER COUNTRY.

  “Tam? Rio?”

  Rio turns guilty eyes already glittering wet to her mother. Her mother sees the telegram and the expression on her husband’s face and the way he slumps there like every ounce of strength is gone from him. She falls to her knees, falls like she’s been shot, like the muscles in her legs have just quit all at once.

  “No, it’s . . . ,” she says. “No, it’s, no. No. No. No, no, no, no. Not my baby, not my baby, not my baby, please no, please no.” It starts off denial, ends up pleading.

  Rio runs to her mother, kneels beside her, puts her arms around her mother’s shoulders—though what she wants is for her mother to comfort her, tell her that it’s a joke or a mistake or a simple impossibility. Her mother is shaking. Saying No, no, not my baby, please, please, over and over again, as if saying it will make it true, as if it’s a magic spell to ward off the wave of pain coming her way.

  Tam Richlin leans there with head bowed and says nothing. His fists clench then relax as if he simply lacks the strength to go on. But he says nothing. Nothing, no sound, as his wife howls in plain misery, howls into the hollow of her surviving daughter’s neck.

  Tam Richlin says, “I best go open the shop.” And with that he is gone.

  Rio moves her mother to the sofa, literally physically having to take her mother’s heaving shoulders and lift. Rio goes to the kitchen to make tea, because isn’t that what people do at moments like this? Don’t they make tea? As the water heats, she sets out the good silver tea service, focusing for as long as she can on the placement of the elements: the pot, the sugar bowl, the little, slightly mismatched cream pitcher, all of it clattering because her fingers are clumsy. It feels right, somehow, using the good silver, the silver that only comes out for Christmas, baptisms, rare occasions when some important person comes calling, and when sisters die. The person you used to gossip with, quarrel with, share clothing with, learn from. . . . The person you wanted to be like when you grew up. This day could not be marked with tea from a chipped old china teapot.

 

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