War Games: The European Theater

“They’re over there,” we said, squatting around the small campfire the G.I.’s had built to warm themselves and their rations. The woods were gray with snow, and the sky overcast. Tanks and APC’s (armored personnel carriers) sat around grumbling. Us kids eagerly spooned up pink slabs of greasy meat and yellow morsels of pound cake from the ubiquitous green C-ration cans, our bicycles parked in the brush at one side. Our ages ranged from twelve to an over-the-hill fourteen.

“What’d you see?” an officer asked, generously offering more C-rat cans. Most of the food we was older than us – you could tell by the packing date – but it was there, and we were more than willing to be bribed. The G.I.’s ate the same fair, though not with as much interest and gusto as us military kids. I reckon that comes with eating the same thing morning, noon and night for weeks. We’d be going home to our warm suppers and beds that night; they wouldn’t.

“There were about three tanks,” I lied, pointing to a thick tree line on the opposite side of the long field. “And a couple of those – .” I pointed at the APC’s. “With about thirty guys eating lunch.”

The officer’s eyebrows arched with interest as he turned, contemplating the far line. The G.I.’s had been separated into opposing groups, both given tanks and guns to ‘fight’ with. And us kids – dissemblers of misinformation, sometimes mixing a bit of reality with imaginative spice, were regarded as a source of military intelligence. How little they knew we often had a devious plan, and were playing a game within the game.

We weren’t the innocent young boys we pretended to be. We had wandered the woods extensively, passing through enemy and friendly lines with impunity. Such was the life of an overseas Army brat – mixing with the G.I.’s on maneuvers, and generally spreading chaos among the groups of training troops. It was what we called “entertaining ourselves” and it was a game we loved. Making plans in the woods or while listening to officers, we would go from camp to camp, spreading intentionally twisted versions of the truth, or the truth on a silver platter. We often attempted to mix up both sides, sending them charging in the wrong direction, or sometimes pitting one under-classed outfit against a well-armed ‘foe’. Sometimes it we succeeded. Sometimes we did not. Sometimes we just didn’t know if the results were just a typical military screwup, or the results of our disinformation to our foe. But we played a game within the game, entertaining ourselves, and playing with our “friends”. Everyone knew we weren’t supposed to be there, ourselves included. The regulation was something like “Dependents WILL NOT fraternize with Troops in the Field” and if you found yourself in a zone where the troops were training, you were supposed to get out. But us kids sought them out, relishing the sight of tanks and guns, rubbing shoulders with the troops in the field, and most of all, doing something we wanted to do – knew to do. And that was to train for war.

It wasn’t uncommon to be riding through the woods and come across G.I.’s infiltrating an area. You’d see their helmets and rifles moving through the brush, their packs bobbing across the landscape. And us being American kids, the G.I.’s often welcomed us into their camps, sharing their food and sometimes giving us a tour or ride in their vehicles in exchange for some conversation. They always seemed interested in what we knew about “the other side” – and we hoped that by controlling the information, we could control their direction, giving them unexpected results. The officers especially seemed interested in what we had to say, since this spared them (and their troops) the effort of collecting the information themselves. And what can I say? It was fun “playing” spy-counterspy with the soldiers .

I remember us kids sitting on our bicycles at the edge of a field. There was the rumbling of tanks to the left, rumbling to the right. There had been opposing companies parked on each side; we had run back and forth, telling each one where the other was. From the way they had talked and had acted surprised, neither knew of the other’s existence. In what we hoped was a stroke of luck or our own devious design, both sides had decided to attack the other’s position. I had enjoyed watching all the soldiers rushing towards their machines, climbing the tanks and starting them up. That’s when we had left.

The tanks to the left burst with a clanking roar from the woods, spraying leaves and crushing bushes on each side. A moment later another row of tanks burst from the other side. Sharing thrilled grins, we watched the huge metal dinosaurs lumbered towards each other, shaking the ground beneath our feet. Suddenly a tank on the right lurched to a stop, smoke billowing from its engine vents. The other tanks kept on coming. A second and a third tank lumbered to a stop – one throwing a tread, it’s sprockets spinning uselessly. Another began spouting thick smoke from its exhaust. I was amazed at how many of the mechanical beasts simply broke down under the effort. Some, I’m sure, were intentional – surely their operators had been informed that they were “dead” and had turned on their smoke generators to signify the fact. But others – ones such as the one with the thrown track – were pure mechanical breakdown.

The tanks roared past each other, turrets swiveling like long snouts, then continued on, attacking each others position. Men began yelling in the far woods; there was the rapid snap “ratatatat” of small arms and the bang!-bang!-bang! of heavy weapons – .30 caliber and .50 cows kicking in. Us kids, satisfied by the mayhem, watched as a couple tank crews emerged and wrestling with their hoods, began working on and cursing their machines. One stood by his tank’s side and futility kicked its sprocket, spouting curses, then taking a piss. Mounting our bikes once again, we faded into the woods, knowing our job was done. We had once more fouled up someone’s battle plan. Now it was time to look for some more victims – and some more fun.