Once in the basement of his office building, a building on the market square of al-Qarah, he stood outside the main door of the cell block, waiting for a nervous gefreiter to open the door for him. Once he had, Dietrich caught up his breath and stepped into the aisle running before the four cells, two of which held Troy and Hitchcock.
"Sgt. Troy," he called, coughing once and then firming up his voice. "Troy!"
Troy, who had been reclining on his cot with his arm bandaged and his ankle taped, stood up with some wincing and walked over to the cell bars.
"Herr Hauptmann, is this a casual visit?"
"I have a matter to speak with you. It's urgent."
Dietrich looked at the blond private, who had struggled over to his own set of bars in the cell next to Troy's. His eyes still did not seem to focus and he had a large, black lump on his forehead from the rock he'd hit when the jeep overturned in the gully.
"I'm listening," said Troy, smiling. "This'd better be good. I was dreamin' of Rita."
"Rita? Rita Hayworth?" asked the captain, rather smugly.
"No, Rita at the soda fountain in Hatcher's Drugstore back home. Of course, Rita Hayworth!"
Dietrich actually laughed. He'd miss this one 'Rat' for sure, but he had a task to perform. He plunged right in at the deep end.
"Our Fuhrer has issued a new order—"
"Our Fuhrer?" asked Hitch.
"This concerns you, too, Hitchcock. Please listen."
"Do I detect a note of regret in your voice?" asked Troy. "What's this all about?"
"If I may proceed—"
Both men nodded. He nodded back at each one in turn, and then went on.
"Our Fuhrer has issued a direct order to all field officers, whether in Europe or Africa, that any and all commandos be put to death at time of capture. Even to hold you two overnight is forbidden. But I'm willing to do that."
Troy breathed out. "What does all that mean, in English, Dietrich?"
"That was in English, Sgt. Troy.'
"He means he's going to kill us," said Hitch. "I think."
"That's exactly what I mean, at first light tomorrow. I'll give you a little time to prepare yourselves."
Troy swallowed a bit of bile that had come up in his throat.
"This order—you're going to obey it?"
"Until I hear from someone higher up, I'll have to. It could be my head. You know that, Troy."
His voice had softened, but his eyes were shadowed by the bars and the dim bulb overhead. Troy couldn't tell if he was enjoying this or not.
"I guess you've made plans to capture Moffitt and Tully?" he asked.
"Pettigrew? Yes, both of them should be making an appearance soon, judging by the fact that you men usually attempt to break each other out."
Troy left the bars and hobble-walked back to his cot. He sat down on it and placed a hand over his lower face, rubbing it to hide the look of uncertainty on his lips just then.
"First light?" he asked, looking up at Dietrich's eyes, seeking confirmation that any of this was real.
"Yes, Sergeant." Dietrich thought that since this issue of executing his prisoners was solved, he'd change the subject. "Has anything been brought down to you?"
"You mean food? Don't bother," said Hitch. "We won't have time to digest it!"
"Hitch," Troy cautioned. "It could be worse. He could take us out now. Where there's life, there's hope."
"There is no hope, Sgt. Troy. Only acceptance of this new madness of our Fuhrer."
Troy sputtered out a harsh, bitter laugh. "You call this madness? Is that the first time you've said that?"
"To be honest with you, no, it isn't. I've known another time or two when I've called his directives mad."
The cell block got deathly quiet then. Even Dietrich, who had a million jobs to do in order to be ready to capture the rest of the Rat Patrol, stood at the bars reticent to talk, looking at Troy, who seemed to be taking this worse than even his young driver.
"Sgt. Troy …" he finally said. "I'm not unsympathetic to what this order means."
Troy looked up again. "In other words, you're sorry."
"This is unfortunate. It's not my way of conducting a war, but it will at least end your unit's depredations against my men, my supply convoys, my recon patrols. Perhaps your deaths will mean that, in some small measure, this war will be over sooner. Germany will win, of course."
Hitch, who was still standing at the bars, but now having to lean on them as a wave of dizziness swept over him, made a derisive sound. Dietrich looked over at him, and then back at Troy.
"I have to go get ready to welcome the rest of your unit, Troy. It shouldn't be long before I have you all."
"And murder us all, too?" Troy was getting a bit hot under the collar. He stood up. "We surrendered to you—in uniform—doesn't that count for anything?"
"Not to the Fuhrer. Not to his way of thinking. He wants revenge. This is payback for what happened on the island of Sark."
Troy laughed bitterly again, moving up to the bars so as to be almost breathing on Dietrich. "The island of Sark!"
He'd heard of it, but Hitch, dumbfounded, hadn't. Troy addressed his words to him.
"Earlier this month, Hitch. Men, tied up, tried to escape. The British in charge killed all but one man. Only that one guy made it to London and to a POW camp—alive."
"You summed it up well, Troy. Almost as if you'd been there—but then, you were here, weren't you? Harassing my columns!" Dietrich was getting more uptight the further this conversation progressed. "The more I think about your raids, Sergeant, the more agreeable your death becomes to me."
"It's a war crime to kill the enemy as long as they're in uniform," Troy emphasized again.
Dietrich had clearly heard enough. His emotions had risen off the scale. Anger burned in his conscience over this dishonorable way of treating prisoners and his inability to do anything to stop it. Without another word to the two unfortunate men he had to put to death tomorrow, he flew out of the cell block by the outer door. Through the bars, two stunned desert commandos watched him go.
"I don't think that went well," said Hitch.
Moving back to his cot, Troy's young driver threw himself down on it. Troy himself wished that he could pace, but in this small cell and with his twisted ankle, he had little hope of pacing tonight. Maybe he had little hope of escaping, too.
"I only hope Moffitt and Tully stay clear of here."
His voice but a murmur, he pulled out his cigarettes. Miraculously, he still had them. He lit one with his lighter—also a miracle that he still possessed it—then he lay back on the cot and tried to compose his thoughts and feelings. A disordered jumble of thoughts! A mixed bag of feelings! Like the raw emotion in the captain's erratic voice as he tried to justify Hitler's new madness.
With difficulty putting this tragedy, personal and otherwise, into perspective, Troy let his mind roam through the next few hours. There was Hitch, dying so young, Moffitt and Tully stumbling into this, and even the fact of his own death. This wasn't how he wanted to die. He didn't want to die at all. He wanted to go on fulfilling the tasks he had been given by men like Capt. Boggs. Help the Allies win the war. Prevent the German convoys from getting through. Destroy their ammo dumps and fuel depots. Sabotage their intrigues and schemes.
"We're only doing our job," muttered Hitch from the other cell. As he lay on his own cot, the top of his head touched Troy's through the bars. "Same as Dietrich, or Rommel."
"Rommel—he's a fair man. I wonder how he'll go for the Fuhrer's new order." Troy inhaled long and deeply and blew a circle of smoke into the air. "Will we live long enough to find out?"
"I'd like to live long enough to have another beer with Tully."
Troy laughed at what he was about to say. "I'd like to live long enough to start liking tea—I'd really be old then!"
Hitch laughed. For a short minute, there was quiet in the cells, then Hitch asked, "Do you think we should call the guard? It's getting late, Sarge."
Troy's reply brought both of them off their cots and onto their feet. "Why not?"
"Guard!" they both began together. "Help!"
Troy had brought out his lighter again and set the old mattress on fire, drawing once more on the cigarette between his lips and then crushing it underfoot.
In the shortest breath of time, the old ticking went up in flames and smoke filled the cells, even penetrating the grate in the outer door. The night guard, hearing their cries and realizing the jail was on fire, rushed in. He wasn't alone, but there were only two of them. Once Troy had been shoved into the passageway, and Hitch's door had been opened—somehow the fire had leaped into Hitch's cell, too—they were easy to take by two determined commandos. Hitch tried out one of Moffitt's signature chops to the back of the neck, while Troy went with the American way of landing an iron fist to a Bavarian jaw.
Out cold on the floor, both guards presented no further trouble. In fact, once they had been robbed of their weapons, they looked no more harmful than sleeping boys. After dragging them into the cells and locking the bars again, Troy threw the keys onto a desk in the outer room and he and Hitch made their way upstairs. Each carried a 'borrowed' Schmeisser, or automatic, much like the Thompsons or tommy guns they kept in the jeep holsters. With these, two trained desert raiders could be very lethal.
Slipping through the corridors, they met with some resistance, but by using the tactic of surprise, they overcame it, dropping two more guards—still breathing—onto the floor. It was easy enough to steal outside. From alleyway to alcove to alleyway of al-Qarah, a town on the edge of the advancing desert—and losing to it every day!—they crept. Right at the bottom of a stairway built into the side of an old mud-brick building, they were yanked into an alley and less than gently thrown up against a wall.
Hitch saw the flash of a long knife and yelled, "We're friends!"
"Would you take your Thompson out of my neck, Moffitt?" growled Troy, feeling rather less than polite.
"Oh, yes, good man. Quite. Hope I haven't hurt you."
Troy rubbed his throat. Giving the Englishman an exasperated look, he shook his head. "No, just dented me a little."
"Then I suggest we all get out of here," said Moffitt. "We found these stairs unguarded."
"That means Dietrich is around here somewhere. It's another one of his traps, Moffitt. He left this area unguarded for a reason. C'mon, let's shake it!"
Oh, perdition, there was that voice again! Capt. Dietrich's. Would they never be rid of the man! Stepping out of the shadows, still massaging his Adam's apple from its meeting with the barrel of Moffitt's gun, Troy suddenly realized that Dietrich might be thinking the same of them.
"Yes, Captain? Nice night for a stroll, isn't it?"
Out into the street where Arab shops were fronted by overhangs and sun-blocking fabric had been draped from one building to another, Dietrich emerged with a force of about ten men, not enough to constitute a whole division, but enough to scare even four desert rats into submission. All laid their weapons carefully on the ground, then at Dietrich's nod, kicked them away. Troy still had his M3 fighting knife in his boot. He didn't make a move to reveal it.
"You'll be so kind as to accompany me and my men back to headquarters."
Dietrich had a smooth way of talking, which in an old-time preacher might have been soothing to hear, but his counterfeit politeness had the same effect on Troy's nerves as the buzzing of a rattlesnake's rattle. How many had he heard in the hills and ridges back home in Colorado whenever his horse's hooves stirred up a nest?
Troy turned to look at each of his men and then led the way. The Germans followed. At the steps of the ancient building Dietrich was using as his headquarters, Troy paused. So did his men. What happened next was lightning fast.
As soon as the Germans were within a few yards of them, he turned and rushed forward, followed closely by the three other Rats. In the hand to hand that ensued, weapons were redistributed and shots on both sides were fired. Dietrich went down with a graze on his upper left arm, but rallied quickly enough to square off with Troy. His eyes were afire with the desire to crush Troy to the ground and grind his heel in his neck.
"You're full of surprises, Sgt. Troy," he called out to his opponent whom the dark had almost swallowed up.
"I've got a few more, Captain," said the disembodied voice of the man who had made the desert an absolute hell on earth for the order-loving German officer.
Troy turned sideways and kicked out with his right leg, catching Dietrich in the abdomen, then he closed with him, bent and threw him over his back. Dietrich lay in the sand for no more than two seconds, collecting his shaken wits then, turning over, he twisted himself up to a crouching stance. Troy came at him and, standing up suddenly, Dietrich struck the back of Troy's calf with his booted foot, sending him sprawling as his knee gave way.
Winded, Troy rolled up to his feet again. He spun and his next kick caught Dietrich in the chest, knocking him backward. Closing, they grappled for a hold for several seconds, then Troy brought his elbow up in a smooth motion and caught Dietrich under the chin, snapping his head back. Gripping Dietrich's shirt in both hands, he bent, twisted and threw him over his shoulder again. Pitching himself down on top of him, he and the captain wrestled and rolled under the feet of the other combatants without even so much as knowing whose they were.
Moffitt was doing some damage with the edge of his palm in disabling karate chops, though on balance he got in a few punches, too. Hitch knocked out an opponent with a swing of his whole arm and a clip to the jaw, then he turned around to tackle another, while Tully was still grappling with his. Tired of the back and forth wrestling, and getting nowhere, the matchstick-chomping private reared back and landed a punch to the side of the opponent's chin, spinning the man off his feet into the sand.
Troy leaned up off his taller but not broader foe. Clenching his shirt, he laid his fist against the side of Dietrich's head, then he threw another until he had knocked the captain out. Quite out. No accident there, that was his intention. He was tired, his arm hurt, his ankle ached and its wrapping had come all undone, so he wanted to end this thing without further delay.
He stepped off Dietrich's inert body and, breathing as hard as a steam engine on full boil, he left him lying in the sand, bleeding from several cuts. The captain's chin was doubly bruised by Troy's knuckles.
Cut and bruised in the same way as Dietrich, Troy found he had one more thing to fight that night. He danced around trying to shake off the offending bandage still clinging to his ankle. Finally, he had to stoop, grab it, and yank it off. Moffitt, on the sidelines, watched the whole proceeding in awe, not daring to interfere between an angry man and a piece of gauze. Once Troy had convinced himself that he was free of it, with a nod he gathered up his men and together they beat a trail to the outside steps leading to one of the rooftops in the town, stopping only once to pick up their discarded weapons.
Like the stewards on the Titanic, some of Dietrich's men rallied enough to grab their guns and turn them in the direction of the fleeing desert rats. A few shots rang out over their heads as they climbed the steps to the roof and found the rope and grappling hook Moffitt and Tully had used to scale the wall.
Taking a quick assessment of his leader, Moffitt turned to ask, "Can you make it on that leg, Troy?"
"No sweat, Doc."
"I'll take the rear and keep a lookout for Dietrich's guards."
Troy nodded, then hand over hand each man went down the rope. Like four shadows, they jogged out across the sands from the walls of al-Qarah. One of them limp-jogged, but he made it on his own. Tully's jeep had been left in the dry bed of an old waterhole, or wadi. Since this one jeep was all the transportation they had, they had to make do.
The spirited Willys MB hit the hard-packed road that led out of town and kept going. Dietrich emerged, battered but alive, from the gate and watched it go. Even if he sent out his own fast Kubelwagen and a couple of armored cars—half-tracks were too slow—he couldn't catch them. He wasn't even sure if he wanted to. He really feared the repercussions of the new and likely soon to be infamous order of Der Fuhrer—to kill all commandos, even in uniform, without trial or appeal to judgment.
Not wanting to commit unjustifiable murder, and possibly add a war crime to his name, he preferred to wait until Field Marshall Rommel weighed in on it.
Days later, he heard again from his old mentor. Major Ernst Meindl had an update for him regarding the killing of Allied commandos. Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel had chosen to ignore Hitler's Commando Order, instructing his commanders and officers in the field to do likewise.
Dietrich breathed a sigh of relief. Even though his jaw still hurt days after Troy's punch, he knew he never could have killed him outright for being a commando. He was only doing his assigned job in this war, and merited the same fate as any captured soldier under the Third Geneva Convention, Article 3. That article prohibited acts of violence against prisoners of war, or executing them without a trial.
Other leaders, not of the same ethical caliber as Rommel, Meindl or Dietrich, took special delight in putting to death all kinds of captives who fell into the hands, even captured airmen who bailed out of their burning planes. Once even a war correspondent, Joseph 'Joe' Morton, was executed.
In after years, while pushing around the papers of his oil refinery business in Benghazi, Hans Dietrich sat at his desk and picked up the framed pictures of his loved ones. He grew reflective. Gazing at Layla, Amira and Amir, he knew he would look back on the Commando Order of the then-living Fuhrer and the barbarism it produced as one of the blackest stains on his homeland, amid so many others of the same hue.
Many more times during the war—in battle and in truce—he had met Sgt. Sam Troy, Sgt. Jack Moffitt, Pvt. Tully Pettigrew, and Pvt. Mark T. Hitchcock, that tight-knit band of commandos, on the desert. Like usual, they shot up his recon patrols, destroyed his convoys, sabotaged his bases, kidnapped his superiors, and slipped out of his traps. But even with all of their depredations, and these were as many as the grains of Libya's sand, he never felt less grateful that they had 'gotten away' that night in al-Qarah.
As the years crept on and his hair began to age into gray, he gladly reflected that he hadn't, even though to save himself, fallen into the same trap and become a barbarian himself.