This is the story of a strange incident. I call it a miracle.
That happened when Company E 393 was retreating from Rat Hill after the Bulge had started a couple of days earlier. We were placed in a series of already dug foxholes located behind a hedgerow at the top of a shallow hill. There was a meadow to the front and a large grove of trees to the left. Usually there were two people to a hole but there was an odd number in our squad and I was alone, which was nice because it was less crowded! The weather had become somewhat warmer and a light misting rain was falling at intervals. The visibility was poor because of the mist. I could seed that the last group of the soldiers retreating from Rat Hill were in a hurry. The last group slid down in a flurry and one large lieutenant was carrying a wounded man over his shoulder.
About 30 minutes later a soldier came over the meadow toward us. He wore a floppy coat and a loose camouflage netting over his helmet so I could not tell what army he belonged to. The man gave a loud shout and jumped into an empty foxhole that had been dug out in the meadow (apparently as an outpost). It wasn’t until he shot at us that I realized he was a German scout. I quickly fired a couple of shots at the scout’s position and then emptied the rest of the clip into the edge of the facing woods where I could see some flickering movements. I fired several more clips at movements in the woods before I noticed that the German scout had poked his head up and fired again. I was surprised because since he was in such an exposed position I had expected him to stay low. Being a scout is not a desired job and if he can see the enemy before being shot, can give the warning and can find cover, he has done his job. Any sensible scout will then keep his head down until rescued. His last shot had gone directly between the two guys in the next foxhole.
Our book told us always to fire around the right-hand side of any object, and I was sure that the German book was just as arbitrary. So I rested my rifle on a branch of the hedgerow and took careful aim at the left edge of the dirt heap that marked the scout’s foxhole and took up the trigger slack. Sure enough, the scout slid his head and shoulder right into my sights after about a minute of waiting. I used the target shooting mode of very carefully squeezing the trigger and as the rifle discharged, I saw the German flop over backward.
I know that according to the literature, people are supposed to be overcome with remorse when they kill someone. I felt like I had won first prize, I was exuberant. There was the feeling that now I had done my duty and any more that I did thereafter would just be dividends.
In any event remorse would have been premature. Just as the people next to me were extending their congratulations I saw a white object attached to a stick being waved from the scout’s foxhole.
My first feeling was one of disgust and betrayal. I thought I had killed him and here he was, obviously wounded, wanting out but still alive. After a little thought, I shouted out for the scout to come out and surrender, using the few German words I knew. My plan was to get whatever food he might have in his pack. I had not eaten for two days. The scout did come out of the hole, but suddenly wheeled and ran with his right arm dangling for the woods where the Germans were.
When the German turned to run, I snapped a quick shot at him but missed what should have been an easy shot. The scout ran into a little dip in the ground where I could not see. I knew he would have to come into view before getting to the woods. Again I rested my rifle on the hedgerow, set the sights at the point where he would come into view, took up the trigger slack, and waited. Sure enough he came right into the sights, running directly away – an easy shot, and as cool as on the target range I squeezed off the trigger. A good marksman, and I was one, knows where his shot will go as the trigger releases, this is known as « calling the shot », and I knew that the shot would go just between his shoulder blades.
Then a genuine miracle happened. My rifle just released a “click” and did not fire. The semi-automatic rifle uses the power of the shot to eject the spent cartridge case and load a new cartridge. If the spent cartridge case is not ejected, the rifle jams in an obvious manner. In this instance, the spent case was ejected, but the next cartridge was not loaded, so I was trying to shoot with an unloaded rifle. This had never happened to me before and never happened again. I quickly jacked another cartridge into the chamber and fired a couple of wild shots just as the scout reached the woods, but with his luck I am sure that I did not hit him.
I was bitterly disappointed at the moment, but much later I began to realize that my luck was also operating. The scout was wounded and out of action. His care would cost the Germans more effort that if he was dead, and so my country was served better with him wounded but living. Killing him under those conditions would approach murder, and a merciful providence had spared me that. I wonder if that scout ever suspected just how lucky he was.
There is an explanation for the miracle. The cartridge, by some manufacturing freak, contained only a portion of its gunpowder, a squib load. When I took the easy snap-shot at the German, I missed because the bullet dropped to the ground before it got to him. The gas pressure was so low the bolt was not driven back far enough to load the next round into the chamber, so I had an unloaded gun with no indication that it was unloaded.
Because I can explain the mechanism of the miracle does not deny that there was one. The probability of a partially loaded cartridge corning through the automated machinery is extremely low. Maybe one in 10,000? The probability of that cartridge being used to spoil two sure-death shots at a wounded man is so remote that I couldn’t even start to calculate the odds.
Isn’t that what a miracle is, something that’s so unlikely as to defy belief?
Radford M. Carroll
Co E, 393rd Infantry.