For both American GI Wendell Lett and German seaman Holger Frings, the relentless bloodbath of World War II has become a treacherous prison and a curse. Just as Wendell Lett meets Heloise, a wise Belgian woman who offers him a chance of deliverance from the physical and emotional carnage of war, he is pushed into a reckless false flag mission. At the same time behind enemy lines, Frings becomes a forced volunteer for a similar German operation that takes him to a breaking point. The two enemies’ destructive fates collide in the surprise Ardennes counteroffensive—the 1944 Battle of the Bulge—and both have to finally confront the war that betrayed them.
As Lett tries to find his way back to his beloved Heloise, he and Frings team up to desert their savage overseers while the battles rage around them. In Under False Flags, the absurdity of war is brought to brutal light as each side—whether friend or foe—attempts to disguise their cannon fodder in enemy uniform. This is a gritty war tale that turns conventional notions of valor, heroism, and prestige on its head.
Under False Flags is the prequel to The Preserve, the second book featuring Wendell Lett.
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About the Author
Steve Anderson is the author of the Kaspar Brothers series (The Losing Role, Liberated, Lost Kin), Under False Flags: A Novel, and other works centered on WWII and its aftermath. In The Other Oregon and the novella Rain Down (Kindle Single), he writes about his home state. Anderson was a Fulbright Fellow in Germany, and is a literary translator of German to English as well as a freelance editor. He lives in Portland, Oregon. http://www.stephenfanderson.com
Read an Excerpt
LETT, WENDELL, 21
Corporal Wendell Lett and his buddies spent most of the time crouched or prone, breathing dust and bitter black smoke, the passing NCOs screaming instructions so fast that they ended up asking each other just what the orders were. Hand signals they had down pat in training only confused. Was that halt or quick time, take cover or commence fire? They did what the others did. They didn't even know where the hell they were.
Lett's rifle platoon was heading inland from Utah Beach on the afternoon of June 6, 1944, advancing through Normandy farmlands and orchards. The thumps and cracks of artillery and firefights threw them off. Near or far? Hostile or friendly? Just by hearing, Lett caught on that all these guns, however precise and controlled in training, could prove so unruly and disloyal in the real world of fighting. Then a sergeant passed the word that enemy snipers were picking off anyone from majors to privates, some from just yards away. Another platoon had lost three guys in two hours and another their lieutenant. Lett only saw the first dead from a distance. Six or seven had been lined up along a dry dirt road and tagged for graves registration, looking so immaterial like a supply of olive drab packs and bedrolls. A lone German sniper could play a lot of god, apparently. Yet Lett didn't know one guy who had died. Some of his buddies even started crowing that they had been spared the worst of it. One joker from his squad, Private Tower, showed off the dent in his helmet where he'd caught a ricochet.
One sniper turned out to be a woman, a French civilian with a German rifle. She was up in a tree. Lett and his squad watched another team pull her down. She wore a black beret. She had bright red lipstick and a tomboy scowl, like some wayward bobby-soxer grounded from going out. What were they supposed to do with a prisoner like that? Some argued she was a spy since she was out of uniform, but in her own country? They sent her on back to the POW cage.
Already the front was looking so different from what a man was led to believe, from what a boy wanted to imagine. Before this first day, Lett couldn't help but see his company marching in step toward the enemy in vast formation and full gear, bayonets high and chins up, sworn draftees all of the Army of the United States. The whole company alert, steeled. Like most young GIs, he had seen too many movies back home. And then their Normandy landing had turned out to be a cakewalk. His platoon had strode onto Utah Beach right from an LST, their troop transport ship. Sure, the salt air carried the reek of that black smoke, and of gunpowders, but the latter only reminded him of exploding holiday fireworks. He could hack this, he told himself. He was hoping to make assistant squad leader. For now though, he had to stay in the middle of the twelve-man pack and keep moving like they were told. He still had a teenage face even at twenty-one, with curly hair that clung to his forehead and a quiet tone to his voice. It didn't exactly make a sergeant or lieutenant take much notice, not yet. He knew that.
They dug in for their first night on the line. Lett shoveled away with his foxhole buddy, Sheridan, the two flipping dirt at each other like boys on a camping trip, then cursing when they hit roots and rocks. At that point Lett could still claim he wanted to make a difference. The morals looked clear-cut: Hitler and Tojo were the aggressors, and the free nations of this earth had to defend themselves somehow. A deeper motive had become clear to Lett once the drill instructors and trainers stopped shouting at him and began to show him the ropes. It sounded corny to tell it, but Army life gave him a kind of structure. He had been raised an orphan. His father was an alcoholic moonlighting as a salesman. His mother died from overwork. Dad finally killed himself after Black Monday, 1929. The head nun had revealed all this to him at an early age if only to show him how good he had it raised in a Mennonite orphanage, where the aging nuns clung to a strange old German dialect. He didn't talk about his upbringing much, since these Mennonites spoke the enemy's language and were one of the sects, like the Amish, that raised their own to be noncombatants — conscientious objectors, the War Department called them. As a boy he had dreamed of running off to Spain to fight the fascists like one older orphan did. Yet the Mennonite elders had warned them: "It takes far more grit to swear off arms than it does to bear them." Even when Pearl Harbor hit, they had preached conscientious objection. Lett might have leaned that way too if the mission didn't look so clear. Besides, anything beat toiling away on his own in Columbus stuck in a boarding house and working three two-bit jobs, saving money for night school even though real jobs were still scarce. So he had volunteered before the draft found him. He hadn't done it out of pure patriotism. He knew few who had. He thought it would give him a leg up. And he was sure to meet a girl that way, somehow.
Lett and Sheridan's digging took them till dusk. They settled down inside their two-man foxhole, Lett's muscles aching and his sinuses tickling, the earth fresh around them, showing wiggly worms. Their line edged a field and a low hill beyond, but they couldn't see it anymore. When full darkness came, the platoon sergeant passed by to check on them and the rest. Then it was just he and Sheridan. Sheridan didn't talk much, wasn't always ribbing or boasting like other guys. Lett could appreciate that. But Sheridan had been getting quieter. He gazed around with bulging eyes as if he still couldn't believe this was all happening to them. They listened to far-off shelling and pops of gunfire.
"For the duration plus six," Sheridan said. "That's what we signed up for. It will be like this every night. You know that, don't you? It's just a chain gang, Wendell."
Lett didn't answer. He pretended he was asleep. He told himself Sheridan was weak. He would show Sheridan otherwise.
Early the next morning, Lett volunteered to join a team of five from another platoon going to check out a farmhouse on their left flank. The company S-2 — the intelligence officer — had heard about enemy activity in the area, and Lett's lieutenant wanted him to fetch their platoon water while there. Already some canteens were running out.
The house was the standard gray block built of uneven stones, been there since before America. Lett didn't know the GIs in his team. Their sergeant led them to the house using caution and checking windows, which were shuttered. Lett lugged along an empty jerry can.
They kicked open a door. Screams met them. A family stood at a table in candlelight, all having jumped from their seats. The balding father looked about thirty-five and his wife was fuming, shielding a skinny boy no more than ten years old. The sergeant asked in broken French if they'd seen any Germans here. They hadn't. Pointing downward, the father said something about the family living in the cellar now. The sergeant sent two down to check it out, and took another along to check out the upstairs. This left Lett to watch the family. The front door had swung shut, bringing dimness, and the candles' tiny but sparkling flames mixed with slices of morning coming through the shutters. They stared at him a moment and went back to eating, tearing at their bread and slicing off hunks of a soft white cheese. The aromas made the room smell like a deli. Lett shouldered his M1 Garand rifle, sat on his jerry can, and pushed his helmet back off his forehead. He imagined himself plunking down and digging in, maybe learning a few words of French. This was his first real contact with locals. Times like this, he had told himself, would only reaffirm why he was doing this.
He shared smiles with them, including maman, but they didn't offer a bite. He thought about trading some of his K-ration packet for some of that smelly cheese.
They heard a faint "whump-bang," and another. Enemy artillery. Lett had already learned to recognize this sound as the dreaded 88 mm gun; those veteran GIs who'd survived North Africa lowered their voices whenever they spoke of 88s.
A shell landed, not far, enough to jingle the windows behind their shutters.
The father rushed to a shutter and listened.
Another shell soared in, rattling the shutters and simple open china hutch.
The father glared at Lett. "You fool!" he shouted in English. "You breeng on us!"
The two GIs rushed from the cellar, the others back down upstairs. "Move it!" the sergeant shouted and ran out the door, leaving it to bang against the wall.
The family started to file back downstairs to their cellar, the youngest boy first. Lett waved hands at them. "No. Come with us!"
Shells landed closer, making chairs hop.
"Non!" shouted the wife, heading down.
"Dammit, come on!" Lett shouted.
The father scowled at Lett from the cellar stairs.
"I don't think it's safe," Lett muttered in English.
"It is safer than you," the father said. He ducked his head and stepped down, pulling the cellar door shut behind him.
The 88 shells pounded at the earth, shifting the whole house. Lett lunged and tumbled out the front door as another explosion spewed dirt in his face. He gritted his teeth, expecting shrapnel. He ran around craters and slipped on something — intestines had scattered from a torso, ripped open. He passed a severed foot white as porcelain, a helmet glistening red. Explosions rocked the ground. He sprinted for a wooden fence. The sergeant cowered there, his back to the shelling. Lett grabbed him by his web belt but the sergeant clawed at the fence. Lett let go and pressed down as low as he could, his helmet rim digging into earth, forcing himself into the weeds and dirt with toes and knees, elbows and hands like some crazed upside-down snow angel.
The shelling stopped. Lett stood, his legs wobbling. The fence was scattered, its pickets bloodied. The sergeant was gone, as if evaporated. Lett couldn't hear. A pressure had filled his ears and head, surging with a sharp ringing sound.
His legs found his feet. They carried him back to the house. There a heap of charred stones and blackened timbers smoldered, the embers popping and burning in little spots. One wall still stood, with a shuttered window. Lett stepped onto the heap. The center was a crater of churned earth. He looked down in, his eyesight suddenly sharp. He could make out every detail, from the scorched woodgrain shiny like fish scales to the smallest shard of china. Stones and earth had collapsed into the cellar. He counted three hands protruding, two bloody feet — not together, and the chalky bone of what looked like a hip.
He shuffled back toward his platoon, stunned and wooden like a marionette being dragged along. Cow carcasses lay among more craters, some butchered into shreds of flesh, others whole with legs stiff and straight out. A dog sprinted by as if crazed, heading who knew where.
A tent held their command post, just inside an orchard. A fold-up desk stood outside the CP. Platoon lieutenant Reardon sat shouting into a field telephone. No one seemed to notice Lett. He slumped down on a pile of packs and gear a few yards away, leaning on his M1. A medic came and looked him over, patted him on the shoulder and headed off. He sat there a long time. He relived the scene and a hot shudder seized him, as if his skin had been ripped off and his heart hung out in the air, raw from the exposure. He couldn't breathe. He started gasping. The medic came back and pressed a pill into his hand.
"I didn't get the water," Lett muttered. "I don't even have the can."
"You got a canteen," the medic said, but pressed his own canteen to Lett's lips.
Some time later, the medic was walking him along. "You got to get back to your hole," the medic said. "It's heating up. We're staying put for now."
"Okay," Lett said.
Lett made it back to the line, to his hole. To Sheridan. Sheridan would listen, Lett thought. The truth was, he'd tell old Sheridan, the only thing they'd done by checking out that house was let the German spotters zero in on them there. S-2 had no idea. He climbed into his foxhole, crouching next to Sheridan. Sheridan had his head resting against the dirt wall. Lett thought he was sleeping. Then he saw the hole where Sheridan's nose had been, and the blood and the blue, gray and pink of brains oozing out from the back of his helmet, down his collar. A sniper? Shrapnel? Lett sunk down, his chest seeming to expand and contract at the same time, squeezing at his organs.
The shelling returned, more 88s pummeling their line. Its thunder- wake left men screaming and wailing, the medics and squad leaders rushing around to quiet and brace them for the assault that could come. Only more shelling came. Lett had compressed into a ball down in his hole. He spent the afternoon this way, sharing the hole with Sheridan, the smoke dimming the sun and the shock waves slowly sending soot and mire down onto the poor bastard, first a dusting, then a covering, a brown shroud.
Days became weeks. Lieutenant Reardon died, and two sergeants, and five more grunts after Sheridan. They advanced into what locals called the bocage — hedgerow country. For miles inland Normandy was laced with little fields, each sharing four to eight-foot- high ridges overgrown with centuries-old hedges, bushes and thick roots, all loaded up with frantic krauts itching to cut down Lett's buddies from every direction, camouflaged and firing everything from sniper rifles to rocket launchers to cannons. Hedgerow country combined labyrinth and slaughter. A man entering a field got hit from all sides. A man hugging a hedgerow for cover got a barrel pressed into his temple or buried alive as a German tank came charging through.
They were never rested, never taken off the line. It was march, attack, take casualties, seize the objective or pull back. It was pick 'em and put 'em down, dig in for every night. Secure vulnerable open land with mines and booby traps of wires strung with grenades. Lay down the "commo" — phone lines running three hundred yards back to the CP. Dig forward outposts for sentries who trembled through their two hours' watch in the dark, listening for Germans all around them, some of those sick bastards even trying to chat them up from across the line. Huddle in a hole. Dream of sleep. Worry about doing it all again. Next day, move out and attack and lose men and gain or give up ground, never really knowing what had transpired or if any real military objective had been won; then pick 'em and put 'em down ...
As they slogged onward they learned to lighten their loads, tossing any gear they didn't need. Lett reduced his mess kit to just a spoon he kept in his trouser pocket, polished by the wool. The only reason he kept his thick little GI bible in his left breast pocket was for the added protection it was supposed to give. Men even ditched their toothbrushes. Some turned inward, and selfish in their worry. They stole others' blankets and half tents, shovels and the extra underwear they themselves had just tossed to lighten their load. The selfishness waned after the first few weeks, and stopped cold once each had faced death. Then the superstitions and talismans appeared, everything from rabbits' feet to coins to murmuring incantations before an assault or a good pounding. If a GI thought the simplest saying or routine was keeping him alive, he would keep repeating the ritual — until it didn't. Lett heard everything from epic poems to math equations, saw men tap their helmets to their own codes, stand on their heads, chew on dirty grasses like tired cows.
Lett had gotten another foxhole buddy, the joker Tower, from New Mexico. Tower stepped on a mine less than a week later, a Bouncing Betty mine. The Germans designed Bouncing Betty to launch a couple feet up before detonating. Bouncing Betty blew off a man's bottom half. In no time she was making men plead with the ground under their feet whenever they traversed new terrain, making promises, cajoling, sobbing, anything to convince the ground to favor them. Lett had watched from afar as medics made POWs haul away Tower on a litter, covered with a blanket, just pale-green arms hanging out. Next to Sheridan, Tower had been his best buddy. They went all the way back to the Army reception center. They had hit dance halls together in the states and pubs in England, and Tower got all the girls just like the swell guy in the picture.
On the morning of the day he died, Tower had told Lett that no amount of superstition was going to help them. The truth was, it was a numbers game when a GI looked at it rationally. Tower had said: "How many times can a man toss a quarter, and have it just land on tails?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Under False Flags"
Copyright © 2014 Steve Anderson.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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