Murder at Kasserine Pass
The Bou Chebka road, deep inside the Kasserine Pass, narrowed to little more than a camel track along a dry riverbed and steep cliffs. Rooted in the pale sand, a grove of palm trees jutted out from the ground as if thrown down and forgotten long ago. The remnants of the US 26th Regimental Combat team used the shade of the palm trees to dig their foxholes. Covered in sand and blisters, men hacked until the exposed roots of the palm trees aggravated their progress. Collapsing exhausted, they lay where they fell, swollen tongues aching for water. Lieutenant Meyers walked among his men giving words of encouragement and promised water would arrive when teams returned from Ain Bou Dries up the road. As an officer, he thanked and encouraged his men for their hard fight against the Germans. He hoped fresh troops, supplies, and ammunition would arrive by the next morning, but he couldn’t make promises.
Around two in the morning a mule train arrived with water and Lieutenant Meyers saw every man drank his fill. Some even vomited after they drank too greedily. Others, familiar with working in the heat, sipped slowly and intentionally. Lieutenant Meyers lay down in a foxhole as exhausted as the rest and drifted off to sleep.
At 04:30 Sergeant Thickett woke the lieutenant for him to walk rounds once again. Walking from foxhole to foxhole, he leaned over and checked his men. In the dim light, low in the eastern sky, his outline became visible among the tall palm trees. Approximately 05:00 a single shot rang out far to the left of his position, Lieutenant Meyers clutched his chest and dropped to the ground. Confused men roused by the shot began returning fire into the vast empty valley in front of them, thinking they were under attack. Less than a minute later the firing stopped, and the medics pronounced Lieutenant Meyers dead.
Captain William’s Task Force Welvert.
February 21st, 1943.
Criminal Investigations Division North Africa.
I surveyed the ground where Lieutenant Meyers lay after he’d been shot. It’s possible a sniper took advantage of the early morning light, but further examination of the body suggests the shot came from much closer. The bullet struck the lieutenant on the upper left side of his chest. Damage to the heart and lungs, terminal. Some witnesses report hearing one shot while others heard two or three. The additional shots could have been an echo or edgy trigger fingers. As reported to me; everyone began firing into the valley below. Firing stopped in less than a minute. No further casualties. Witnesses report the shot sounded nearest the last foxhole in the line manned by Staff Sergeant Culver Anderson, Private First Class Andrew Taylor, and Private Jacob Clark. Interviews to follow.
Suspect; Staff Sergeant Culver Anderson.
“Staff Sergeant Anderson, witness say they heard a gunshot this morning from your foxhole around 0500.” said Captain Williams “Did you fire that shot?” Captain Williams said challenging him.
“No sir, I heard a shot and thought the Germans were attacking, so I turned and looked around for them. I didn’t see anyone, so I jumped out of my foxhole and ran along the line and told everyone to stop firing.” Sergeant Anderson leaned forward, waving his hands in innocence. “We are already low on ammunition and we’d need it later if the Germans did attack.” he said.
“Were you aware that the shot fired killed an officer?” asked Captain Williams.
“No sir, not until the firing died down. Rumor spread it might be an officer. I found out later, just like everyone else.” Sergeant Anderson said.
“Were you alone in your foxhole Sergeant?”
“No sir, there were two men with me. Private Taylor and Private Clark. They were sleeping sir, I had the last watch.” said Sergeant Anderson.
“Are you sure neither of them were awake and slipped away? Then maybe they fired the shot?” asked the Captain.
“I’m sure of it sir, I thought the shot came from behind me and when I looked I couldn’t see anyone. It’s possible a sniper hid on the hillside next to us. The sound of the shot may have been further beyond that, but these canyons are pretty steep.”
The explanation sounded plausible, but Captain Williams still didn’t believe it came from the enemy. Captain Williams pivoted one last time and pointed a finger at Sergeant Anderson. “Sergeant Anderson, don’t play games with me. Our witness said it came from your foxhole. It had to be you, Private Taylor, or Private Clark. Which one of you did it?”
“Sir, I don’t know who fired the shot or where it came from. All I know is, while I stood my post, I heard a shot.” Sergeant Anderson said, more agitated than before.
Captain Williams knew men like Sergeant Anderson. These were the men who would do all they could to protect a green recruit. He knew they’d cover for the new guys who were gun-shy or over eager to shoot. The possibility of an inexperienced soldier, with an itchy trigger finger, shooting the lieutenant thinking he saw the enemy. It was possible. He knew he’d never get a confession out of this man. Men like this were a rare breed in the army.
“Sergeant Anderson, we’ve been at Bou Chebka Pass all of 18 hours. Everyone’s tired after yesterday’s fall back. We lost a lot of good men and stragglers are still coming in across the line. These things happen. People get tired or confused, and no one really knows who they’re fighting with every day. Is it possible you or a man with you, mistook the Lieutenant as an enemy soldier this morning?”
“No, Sir, I’d just met these men last night. I’d have known if anything were wrong and nothing looked out of sorts. If there were anything, I’d have told you.” said Sergeant Anderson.
“That will be all, Sergeant. You’re dismissed and I’ll be in touch if I need you. Captain Shugart is taking over your company.”
“Thank you, sir!”
Suspect Private First Class Andrew Taylor
“Private First Class Taylor, I am Captain Williams with the CID. Do you know what the CID is?” said the Captain.
“Yes Sir, the CID is the Criminal Investigations Division of the United States Army Sir!”
“Very good soldier. You’re young to be a PFC. You’ve done well in the Army. I expect you’ll be a corporal before long.”
“Yes Sir, I served in Junior ROTC in High School. They gave me a bump in rank when I enlisted.” said Private Taylor.
“Wow, Junior ROTC. You have the makings of an officer. Do you think you will try to be an officer someday?” asked the Captain.
“Well, geez sir, I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it much until the war started. I thought I’d have to go to college first.” said Private Taylor.
“No, of course not, son. Men of all ranks get promoted to Second Lieutenant. They’re called field promotions. Have you ever heard of those?”
“Well, yes, sir. I’ve heard of them, but I thought you needed to do something brave. I didn’t think I’ve done anything brave yet.”
“Well, corporal. It takes a special soldier, someone with real leadership, to get promoted in the ranks. Especially to the rank of officer.” Captain Williams called him a higher rank to gage Private Taylor’s reaction.
“I’m only a Private First Class sir. I have to wait a few more months to be a corporal.”
“See, there you go. Honesty. Honesty is an outstanding trait to have as a soldier. I think we should make honesty a prime factor in the field commissioning program. Don’t you?” Said the captain.
“Well, I think so sir, I think it would be important.” said Private Taylor.
“That’s good, soldier. I’m really glad you said that and that brings me around to a question I have for you. Did you hear the gunshot this morning?”
“Well, yes sir, I heard it.”
“Do you know where it came from?”
“I’m not sure I know where it came from. It sounded nearby, but I couldn’t be sure. I took the first watch and fell asleep around 2am.”
“You were sleeping? You had a rough day yesterday, and we lost a lot of good men. We lost another man this morning. What do you know about that?”
“Yes sir, it was a hard day yesterday.” Private Taylor rubbed at his eyes as if trying to block out the images. “I heard someone was shot, but I don’t know much about it. Was it a sniper, sir? That’s the rumor. Is that why I’m here this morning?” asked Private Taylor.
“Yes, corporal, I mean Private Taylor. We lost a good man this morning. Lieutenant Meyers died around 0500. The rumor is it came from a location near where you were sleeping. It’s an unfortunate way to have a vacancy, but Lieutenant Meyers died because of that shooting. Now we have a company without a lieutenant. We have a poor dead man who will never know justice. The truth will have to come out someday. If we could solve this mystery right away. Things may just fall into place for the right person. Maybe even a new Second Lieutenant could rise through the ranks? What do you think about that?”
Private Taylor wiggled in his seat. He looked excited or uncomfortable. It was hard for the captain to tell. “Honestly sir, I woke up when the shooting started. I don’t know where the shot came from,” he said.
“Thank you, Private. I’ll let you go and if I need anything more, can I count on you to be honest with me?”
Private Jacob Clark
“Private Clark, I am Captain Williams, the lead investigator for the Criminal Investigative Division. Witnesses say you were near the location of the shot fired this morning that killed Lieutenant Meyers. Is that correct?”
“Yes, sir, I heard the shot, it was only one shot.” said Private Clark.
“Do you know who fired the shot?” asked Captain Williams
“Sir?” said Private Clark
“The shot, did you see who fired the shot?” asked the captain.
“I remember nothing. It all happened so fast.” said the Private.
“If you knew who it is, are you aware it is a crime to withhold information about the person involved?”
“Are you saying you know who fired the shot?” asked the captain
“Sir, no, sir. It all happened so fast.”
“Did you know that covering for someone is also a crime? Maybe you know who fired the shot and you just don’t want to say. It’s called being an accomplice to murder.” said the captain.
The kid looked dumbstruck. “I didn’t know that, sir. Honestly, it all happened so fast.”
“Did you also know there is a second crime being committed by the killer if they are threatening a subordinate to covering up a murder? It’s called retribution. If, someone you know is telling you they would hurt you or kill you for telling the truth about this killing, then creating fear of retribution is a crime.”
“I didn’t know that, sir.”
“Yes, Private Clark. It is a crime and a very serious one. We do not look kindly upon those who threaten retribution to subordinates. If you know anything you are free to tell me. I will make sure you are safe from the one threatening you, and I’ll have them removed immediately. Is there anything you’d like to tell me, soldier?”
“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t know what you mean. I was in my foxhole this morning when I heard this rifle shot, and I jumped, I don’t remember anything after that. Then everyone started shooting.” said Private Clark. The young man looked sullen and weak. He slouched in the chair, staring into the distance, a hundred miles away.
Pacing back and forth across the tent, Captain Williams looked into the private eyes. He’d seen this before, after a fight. Unfortunately, the captain felt each man knew something he did or didn’t want to say. Confessions didn’t come easy. Captain Williams thought about a case six weeks ago where a junior enlisted and a captain fought behind a bar in Morocco. The enlisted man should have been court martialled, and the officer reprimanded. Turns out the two men knew each other from high school and they fought over a girl they both knew. Neither confessed to starting the fight, and no witnesses came forward. The answer stared him in the face, but the guys covered for each other. Captain Williams believed the same thing might happen here. He released the private and stood at the tent flap, trying to piece together everything he knew. The men on the line were all lying to him, that much he knew.
Kasserine Pass February 19, 1943
As Rommel’s 10th panzer division plowed through the defenses covering the Kasserine Pass, the 26th armoured brigade and the 26th combat team dug in along the canyons running west towards Thala Tunisia. The Americans put up stiff resistance, then withdrew. Hours of gunfire and hundreds of dead and dying littered the sand in their brutal retreat. Around 3,300 Americans were killed or wounded and over 3,000 were taken prisoner. On the southern flank, Lieutenant Meyers and the men of the 26th combat team held on as long as they could.
“Lieutenant Meyers! We need to get those men out of those holes and behind the tanks!” Yelled Sergeant Anderson.
“Sergeant Anderson! You will leave those men where they are. They are the only thing between Rommel and Algeria! Do you understand!”
“But sir! They are getting massacred out there! I just saw three men get run over in those shallow holes. They have to pull back!”
“Sergeant Anderson, I will not tell you again! See to your men that is an order!”
As Sergeant Anderson left the lieutenant, his anger fumed. He ran towards his line and did what he could to check on his men. Those men left held out as long as they could as the Germans moved closer and closer. He knew they couldn’t hold the line. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Meyers carried armfuls of ammunition to his men until he ran out. His radio man died early in the fight, and the two men who followed already wounded. Grabbing the radio, he jumped into a crater and found a soldier lying on the ground. Two men lay beside him, already dead as this one stared into the sky.
“Soldier! Return fire!” said Lieutenant Meyers.
“I can’t sir!” The words came out in a hopeless tone. “I’m out of ammunition. We all are. That’s how they died. They just ran out, then they got shot.” The exhaustion was clear. The battle raged on and everyone fought on as best they could. “Lieutenant, what do we do?” He said pleadingly.
“Private! What is your name?” he asked.
“Private Clark sir!”
“Private Clark, you are now my radio man. Get this thing working and listen for orders. Do you understand, Private?” he said.
“Yes, y’sir.” he struggled to talk from lack of water. He moved slowly, but he made it to the young lieutenant’s side and grabbed the radio. No sooner than he’d picked up the handle, and he heard the words.
“I say again, pull back… pull back!”
“Lieutenant! They ordered us to pull back!” The words came out in a half shout.
Without hesitation, Lieutenant Meyers gave the signal for everyone to pull back. The Germans held nothing back that day. They took Kasserine Pass, and they intended to keep it. By nightfall every man, not killed or wounded, pulled back to Bou Chebka Pass. The Germans came from the east and Sergeant Anderson guided his men out of the fight. Lieutenant Meyers directed them south and along the cliff walls. By midnight, they were digging in and waiting for reinforcements.
“Private, get over here and start digging. Two men per foxhole all along this line. The rest of you follow with me.” said Sergeant Anderson.
“Sarge! When do you think we’ll get some water?” asked a soldier.
“I’m working on it. Even if I have to take the Lieutenant’s canteen myself.”
All along the line, the remaining 110 men dug in and waited for anything that looked like help. Tank and truck noises echoed through the canyon. Everyone felt on edge.
“Sarge, what do you think happened today?” asked Private Taylor.
“We suffered a loss today, kid.” His expression, mild and disappointed. “We suffered a big loss today.”
Sergeant Anderson kept watch as Private Taylor and Private Clark dug the foxhole. Private Clark fell silent and moved at half the speed of Private Taylor. Private Taylor nodded at the sergeant. They both looked at the young man struggling to keep sand from falling back into the hole. A look of concern and understanding crossed the sergeant’s face. Taking the shovel from Private Clark, he began digging and let the man rest. He finished the hole and told the others to get some sleep. Each man took a 2 hour watch, leaving Private Clark last. Midway through, around 0500, a shot rang out.
“Private! What did you just do?” asked Sergeant Anderson.
“He wouldn’t let us leave. We were there all day. He had to die.” The rest of the men opened fire. Then the shooting died down. “We can’t go back. We can’t.” Tears left dusty tracks down his face. The poor boy cried.
“What do we do, Sarge?” asked Private Taylor.
“We keep our mouths shut, that’s what we do. I’ll send him back to the aid station when they get here. He’s done.”
The author created the thoughts and characters. This is a story of fiction. The events related to World War II have some factual information, but most details are from the author’s imagination.