by Tim Baker
The last thought to go through Bill Kilroy’s mind before he died was of the man who had saved his life.
To say that there was silence in the hospital room would be a half-truth. There was no noise that would disturb a person trying to read a book but there were a wealth of sounds that Kilroy was tired of hearing. He was tired of hearing the various beeps and hums and drips made by the assortment of machines connected to his frail body. Despite the advanced technologies making them barely audible, he heard them as if they were freight trains, much the same as the snowflakes that night in 1944.
To him the sounds of the machines did nothing but remind him that his life was in the hands of others.
The 83-year-old Kilroy looked at the faces surrounding his bed, tears in his eyes his only method of communication. Gathered in the small room were Sylvia, his wife of 59 years, their four children and nine grandchildren.
Sylvia held Bill’s left hand and stroked it lovingly while his oldest son, Carl held the right. Carl was approaching sixty now and served as a constant reminder to Kilroy of the last time his life was in somebody else’s hands.
Over the years Kilroy had gotten used to explaining the reason his oldest son’s name was Carl instead of William Jr., which was the name of son number two. Regardless of how many times he answered the question, the story never got any easier to tell.
There were six of them; Kilroy, Corporal Carl Benson and four PFCs, Al Kidd, Howard Archibald, Bruce Jordan and Wayne Palmer. They served with the 101st Airborne during the Second World War. They called themselves Kilroy’s Killers and they took advantage of every opportunity to leave the legendary graffiti “Kilroy Was Here” as a calling card, with one slight modification, they changed it to say “Kilroy’s Killers Were Here”. One time Archibald even used his bayonet to carve it into the chest of a dead German soldier. With the exception of Benson, whose wife was expecting their first child, all of the men were single. In the year they had been together they developed a camaraderie that rivaled that of the closest brothers. Having been together the longest, Kilroy and Benson were especially close.
On Christmas Eve, 1944 the Killers were on patrol in a forest near the Belgian border. Creeping silently through the thick trees, they spaced themselves far enough apart to minimize the chances of a slaughter should they be fired upon, yet close enough together to maintain visual contact with each other.
They moved slowly and deliberately, each man as taut as a bowstring ready to react to a hostile situation. The forest was deadly still. So much so that even the sound of snowflakes landing gingerly in the thick canopy of pine needles above was like a cacophony to their heightened sense of alert.
After two hours they stopped to check the map coordinates. Reaching into the cargo pocket of his pants, Kilroy produced the map and his compass. While the others formed a perimeter, Kilroy and Benson consulted the map and discussed their strategy in barely audible whispers. Nobody else made a sound.
As Kilroy pointed to a spot on the map and looked to Benson for confirmation, the stillness was broken by a small metallic click. Instinctively, Kilroy stuffed the map into his pocket while he and Benson spun around and brought their tommy guns to the ready.
All six men scanned the forest in front of them and all six men saw the same thing; trees covered with a blanket of fresh snow. The flakes that fell steadily restricted vision to less than one hundred yards. Kilroy squinted into the whiteness but saw nothing.
Using hand signals, he motioned for Kidd and Palmer to check the left flank and Archibald and Jordan to check the right flank. The men followed orders and began creeping off in search of the source of the sound.
For five agonizing minutes nothing happened. Despite the snow and the freezing temperatures, Kilroy felt sweat dampening his armpits.
Without warning the still air was shattered by the sound of machine gun fire. Kilroy heard Al Kidd scream that he was hit and Wayne Palmer returning fire from the left. Kilroy and Benson ran toward the skirmish. They came upon Kidd lying next to a tree wrapping a field dressing around his right leg. With a silent nod to let them know he was ok, Kidd resumed wrapping his leg while Kilroy and Benson continued past.
When they saw Palmer lying in the snow firing to the east, they took positions behind the biggest trees they could find and obtained a fix on the source of the gunfire.
“Kraut patrol sarge,” Palmer yelled. “They were as surprised as we were.”
For several minutes there was nothing but pure chaos until finally the German guns fell silent. Kilroy jammed a fresh clip into his tommy and looked over the forward site but all he saw was smoke drifting lazily off the tip. No movement and no sound, except for the falling snow. It was as if nothing had happened. After a few minutes he signaled to Benson and Palmer to advance on the Germans.
The two men crept silently towards the enemy. From their right, Archibald and Jordan came out of the trees and together, the four men closed in on the German patrol. Kilroy brought up the rear keeping a watchful eye out for any additional Germans who might sneak up on them from behind.
There were seven bodies lying in the snow, which was now turning dark red with the flowing blood.
The site of the dead men, or boys actually, made Kilroy pause and withdraw into his thoughts. Seven boys who were alive five minutes earlier now lay dead in the snow. Seven boys who were probably sharing thoughts about what they would do after the war, or perhaps what they would do that night when they returned to their unit. If it had been just a little different there may have been six American corpses instead of seven German ones. He thought about Sylvia and how close he had come to never seeing her again.
His reverie was broken by Benson screaming.
“Sarge, watch out!”
Kilroy looked up in time to see one of the German soldiers raising his rifle to fire at him. There was no time to react; in a milli-second his mind resigned itself to the fact that his life was over. Again he thought of Sylvia and in his mind he apologized to her for getting killed before they had a chance to marry. He wondered if he would be buried at home in Connecticut or if they would bury him here in Germany. He didn’t want to be buried in Germany, far from all those he loved.
The sudden blur in front of him shocked him out of his thoughts and he watched in silence as Carl Benson dove at the German just as the barrel of the enemy machine gun belched flames. There were several shots before the gun came up empty. Benson landed in the snow next to the German with a thud. Kilroy brought his tommy up and fired at the German until his clip was empty.
When the gun refused to fire anymore, Kilroy threw it to the ground and rushed to the side of his friend. Somewhere in the back of his mind he heard a commotion as the rest of the squad emptied their guns into the other German bodies.
He turned Carl over and looked into his eyes. They stared upward as if watching the falling snowflakes but Kilroy knew they saw nothing. There were five bullet holes in a line from Benson’s right ear across his throat and down to his chest.
He was dead.
Kneeling in the snow, he cradled his friend’s head and tried to will life back into him. For the second time in five minutes he was shown how easily the chasm between life and death could be crossed. He looked into the eyes of the man who had made the ultimate sacrifice and wondered what his last thought was.
Then he cried.
When his first son was born three years later, there was no deliberation about what to name him. Carl Benson Kilroy was a living memorial to the best friend Bill had ever known.
Lying in the hospital bed looking into his son’s eyes, Bill Kilroy thought about the man who had saved his life and he cried for the man who had died before meeting his only child. As tears rolled down his cheeks, Bill Kilroy died.