Monday, November 5, 2012

Fireflies of World War II

A long-a$$ f*cking time ago, in a town called Kickapoo, there was a TV show that blazed like a fiery comet in the night - until it was snuffed by ungrateful fans and terrible support by its network home.

Firefly was Joss Whedon's unique vision of science fiction, and probably the very best science fiction series since The Next Generation. If you're into Sci-Fi at all, and don't mind the kind of smart humor that is Whedon's trademark, you owe it to yourself to watch the Firefly TV-Series and the following movie "Serenity". Those that know will agree. Those that don't know need to change that.

About two years ago, I tried to apply as a writer to an online MMORPG focused on the tank warfare of World War II. One of the application requirements was a WWII tank short story, and during my research into the subject I came upon a variation of the venerable Sherman Tank - nicknamed "The Firefly".

I never finished my application. Instead I wrote a piece of Firefly Fan Fiction, with a somewhat familiar crew in somewhat unfamiliar circumstances...

„We cannot get out,” the dark voice said, ominously. “A shadow lurks in the dark. We cannot get out. They are com-“
“I swear, by all that is holy,” said another voice, less ominous, but impressively irritated, “should those words escape your mouth one more time, I will personally stuff your entire being into the breech, fire you towards the Jerries and take my chances with a court martial.”
“I would like to think you’d receive a medal”, said a third voice, this one belonging to Trooper “Chaplain” Book, the crew’s loader.
“Not unless he dies, I won’t”, complained Sgt. Malachi Reynolds, his words still heavy with irritation. “He survives, they’ll probably take me to The Hague. Crimes of War against the Germans, and all.”
“Now why would I do that?” asked the owner of the first voice in a slightly teasing tone.
“Do what now?” asked Reynolds.
“Survive.” said Trooper Wilbur Washburne.
“Just to spite me. Now shut up. There’s shadows lurking in the dark.” Despite his gruff voice, Reynolds’s mouth was grinning beneath the binoculars as he scanned the countryside for German tanks. Washburne, annoying wise cracks notwithstanding, was arguably one of the best drivers of the War, and Reynolds was, for the most part, lucky to have him. Unfortunately, their Firefly Tank was in no condition to drive. Even worse, Washburne had been right. They could indeed not get out.

It had been one of those things that shouldn’t happen in real life. 15 hours ago, their troop came under artillery fire. Encased in their hull-down position with earthen berms on all sides, they were not free to maneuver, and it had cost them. One shell came close enough that the ensuing explosion knocked off one of their tracks. Only seconds later another shell hit directly from above, impacting just aft of the main hatch. It was a dud. And still it did enough damage to take them out of the fight. It was a dud, it struck like the fist of God and by rights they should all be dead. Yet, locked in his tank with three other male human beings of questionable body hygiene for almost 15 hours now, Reynolds debated if he should indeed be grateful.

On impact, the shell had bent the entry hatch beyond repair, then continued downwards and embedded itself in the bustle, the armored box that had, until recently, housed the tank’s radio equipment on the back of the turret. They were immobilized, trapped and cut off from communications. And when the dust had settled, they found out they were alone. The rest of their troop had by now moved into their new positions further south, near a small French village overlooking (French) Interstate 158, and with intermittent fire still coming from the German Artillery, nobody would come looking for them for quite some time. It had been too long already.

“Mr. Cobb. There’s an awful amount of quietness emitting from your station.” Reynolds remarked, still surveying their surroundings.
“Ain’t nothin’ to shoot, ain’t nothin’ to talk about.” Trooper FC Cobb, the crew’s gunner, replied darkly. Cobb, maybe not the brightest crayon in the box but easily the most colorful; was one hell of a marksman, but he wasn’t prone to conversing about the finer things in life. As Cobb liked to say: ”Too hard to talk over the shootin’.”
“He just warms my heart. Doesn’t he just warm your heart?” The soft voice of Washburn came from the driver’s seat with an audible smirk. It was followed by the unmistakable sound of a Zippo lighter opening.
“Could light you up, too.” Cobb’s voice was a menacing growl.
“I believe it is the Lord’s light that guides and warms us from within. It should be quite enough.” Chaplain Book interjected, diffusing the situation smoothly by mentioning the Almighty. Nobody argued with the Big Shepard. Book was a black man, and as such uncommon in tanks, but to Reynolds and his crew that didn’t matter. He was on the crew. He had fought and bled with his crew, and not one of them would hesitate to give their lives for Book. To his crew, the only color of importance was the red of their blood and the green of their uniform. Well, it had started out as green. By now it was more of a brownish color.

“Not to question the Almighty’s warm touch, but how about we launch some good ol’ fashioned mortal fire into the oncoming Hunnish Hordes?” Reynolds’s eyes twinkled as he turned away from the binoculars. He shrugged, with a grin. “Just in case…”
The atmosphere inside the tank changed in an instant. Gone was the laconic manner, replaced by cold efficiency. Well, except for Washburn, who still had nothing he could do and simply started muttering darkly in his driver’s seat.
“Target: Six, no Seven. Look like Tigers. Some Panzers and Artillery, too. Coming up from the south on 158.” Reynolds said, again looking through the binoculars.
Cobb swiveled the main turret until it pointed to the south-west. “I see ‘em. Range?”
“I’d say… 2600 yards?” replied Reynolds.
“I’d say so, too.” agreed Cobb.
“Long shot. Think you can do it?”
“Vera can do it.” Cobb said confidently, fondly patting the tank’s inside hull. Weapons of death and destruction were one of the few things Cobb openly showed affection for. That, and the women he preferred, the ones that don’t mind not being asked their name or not being kissed on the mouth.

“And yet it was you I was asking.” Reynolds voice was calm, his eyes locked onto the distant column of approaching German tanks. The question was not one of trivia. The effective range of the Firefly’s 17 pounder 3-inch main cannon against the thickly armored Tiger tanks was measured in hundreds of yards. This would be the better part of two miles, and only a perfect hit at the joint of turret and body would even have a chance of penetrating.
Vera can do it.” Cobb repeated, his emphasis on the name he had given their tank’s main gun, indicating that she was the only questionable part of their intended long-range attack.
“Then who are we to stand in her way. Loader, load one.”
Book turned, took one of the Armour Piercing, Capped, Ballistic Capped (APCBC) shells from the rack and held it in his hands for a moment. “May the Lord guide you on your path.” he softly whispered to the shell, then jammed it into the breech to his right. “Loaded One, ready.”
“I’ll just sit here and do nothing then.” Washburne said dejectedly.
“And do it amazingly well despite the lack of qualification.” said Reynolds, still staring through the binoculars. He was waiting. If he remembered the designated alternate locations correctly, the German tanks would pass right in front of their fellow A and C squadrons, now concealed within the forest overlooking the road. Their commander would wait until the Germans had come well within firing range before opening up. It would do no good for Reynolds to spoil the surprise.

When it happened, it happened fast. A and C squadrons opened fire and the German tanks vanished behind a thick veil of smoke, earth and dust.
“Permission to Kill, Sergeant?” Cobb growled eagerly.
“Why, so nice of you to ask. Kill away, Mr. Cobb.”
What followed were almost 15 minutes of one-sided excitement. Relegated to the essential role of artillery – although Cobb’s proficiency with the gun made it more of a sniper rifle – it fell to Book to load, Cobb to shoot and Reynolds to call out targets, while Washburne sat in his seat, and tried to read the loose-leafed fantasy manuscript he had bought from some Brit writer during their short stay in England several months ago and could not stop quoting from.

The only exciting moment came when one of the Tigers tried to lead the German elements into a flanking attack. The Tiger’s commander evaded the incoming attacks with astounding skill, deftly hiding behind smoking wrecks, then popping out to fire a few deathly accurate shots, all the while leading the remains of his force closer towards the exposed Allied flank.
“Mr. Cobb?” for the first time Reynolds’s voice had an edge of concern to it.
“I have him.”
“Loaded, ready. Righteous.” Book had a way with words.
“Speed about 15 miles, going north, north-east. Range… 2400 yards.” Reynolds called out, his experienced eyes quickly evaluating the situation.
The tank bucked, the enormous muzzle flash briefly blinding the entire crew. The shell left the muzzle at a velocity of almost 4000 feet per second, travelling in a shallow path from the elevated barrel towards a spot a scant fifteen yards in front of the moving Tiger Tank. 1.8 seconds later, the shell had traversed over 2419 yards and hit the Tiger, who in the same time had covered just these fifteen yards, right in the weak spot beneath the turret. It plunged through the 60mm thick armor with ease, exploding inside the tight compartments and shredding the German soldiers in fire and shrapnel.
“I have him,” Cobb said again, a hint of satisfaction in his tone. Weapons and Women.

With their leader vanquished, the rest of the German forces fell into disarray and quickly followed his example of horrible death. Even their counterattack later in the day lacked the clear determination and skill of that one tank commander, who might have turned the tide of the battle if not for Cobb’s magnificent shot.

After all was said and done, Cobb claimed six kills, five of those the dreaded Tiger tanks. He was credited with none. Apparently, the German commander leading the flanking attempt was an infamous tanker ace with over 90 kills, and it was decided at a higher level that the prestige of the kill would fall to some half-blind gunner in A squadron – who happened to be the son of a cousin of some senator or other – and not to the gunner of the outlaw crew that accepted a black man as one of their own, claiming to have made the shot from a ridiculous distance. But Reynolds didn’t mind. It wasn’t his way. He had not come into this godforsaken country to become a hero. He had come to fight a war, against the purest evil the world had seen in his lifetime. That was the plan. And it was a good plan. Also, he knew that Cobb would most definitely not let it go, and he could only imagine the pain that politically connected young gunner was about to be subjected to.

But that was still days away. For now, Reynolds and his crew were still trapped inside their tank, with nothing to do but wait for someone to find and rescue them. Cobb had wanted to send some shells into the French village, arguing that would surely get some attention, but in the light of them being here to actually help those poor Frenchmen, Reynolds thought it counterproductive. And so they waited.

“The hatch is shut,” said Washburne in that same dark and ominous voice. “It was made by those who smell dead, and there it will keep them. The hatch is shut…”

For more of Joss Whedon's fabulous creations, check out "Dr.Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog", "Dollhouse" and his legendary run on Marvel's "Astonishing X-Men". Oh, and that "Avengers" movie was pretty good, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment