Sunday December 24th 1944.
Somewhere in the Belgian Ardennes, Corporal James Carpenter, ‘Jim’ to friends, was impatiently kicking, but his Harley just wouldn’t start.
Jim was a motorcycle courier in the US Army who, despite bad weather and lots of snow, set off to get bandages and medicine at the headquarters in Bastogne.
The combat unit that he had been attached to found itself dug in at Longvilly, in the forests east of Bastogne. There had been very heavy fighting these last few days.
Although supplies at Bastogne were in short supply, he had his saddlebags full with medicine and quite large quantities of bandages and cotton wool in a duffle bag strapped to the luggage rack,
Besides these necessities, he managed to obtain a bottle of whiskey for tonight; Christmas eve.
He had it safely tucked away in the bag with bandages, which was a smart move because, even though he did not go very fast, he went down on the snowy forest paths a few times.
Still, he preferred these forest paths because on the road to Bastogne there could be German ambushes or military patrols.
Only now he found himself a bit lost, which annoyed him because he wanted to be back at the unit before dark. As it was Christmas eve there was going to be a small celebration ”in the field”.
Mixed feelings of course; on the one hand he was happy to have survived the hell so far, and be able to celebrate Christmas eve with his mates, on the other hand there was the grief over his perished comrades. But even so, everyone was looking forward to the evening, Jim no less than any other soldier. And now he stood stranded in the middle of nowhere with a dodgy motorbike.
“Well, I’ll take out the plugs and clean them for a start”, he thought “and, if need be, I’ll clean the carburettor too, could be damp as well”.
He was bending over the bike when he heard something snap in the wood behind him.
In a reflex he dived head first over the Harley, seizing his rifle in one go from its holder, attached to the front of the bike.
Werner Mayer was observing the unlucky biker from behind a tree.
He was wondering what possibly could be wrong.
When motorbikes were involved he tended to forget almost everything around him and so he actually saw an unlucky biker with a broken down bike rather than an enemy soldier.
Mayer’s damaged ‘wehrmacht’ sidecar combo stood, more or less out of sight, in the wood behind him. His injured NCO, ‘wachtmeister’ Schumann, was sitting, or rather hanging, in the sidecar chair, completely wrapped in blankets in order to keep as warm as possible.
They set out from Noville to check if the forest paths to Longvilly would be fit to transport heavy equipment on. Wachtmeister Georg Schumann was a scout in the German ‘Wehrmacht’ and private Werner Mayer was his driver.
Mayer seemed to be born a biker and no other man could handle the Zïundapp KS750 sidecar combo like he could, on- and off road and even in heavy terrain.
On the way they were quite unexpectedly shot at, and the wachtmeister got hit a few times.
Werner himself escaped miraculously unharmed but the rear tyre had been blown to pieces.
He managed however to get out of the fire line, thanks to the driven sidecar wheel and a few bends in the road.
As soon as he thought it was safe he pulled over to check on Schumann, but he had passed out by then. Werner then checked the combo to see where it was hit and found his rear tyre almost completely shredded and the spare tyre on the boot had been hit as well.
He decided to drive on to try and find a hiding place where he could look after Schumann.
So he started the engine, locked the differential in order to have permanent drive on the sidecar wheel, and carefully proceeded. After a few kilometres he found his spot; a somewhat lower lying shallow hole or pit in the wood seemed to offer some shelter.
After taking care of the NCO’s injuries as best he could, and wrapping him in every blanket he had on board, Werner heard a motorbike.
That was clearly not a Zündapp or BMW… “Scheiße..., a V-twin... Had the enemy come after him”?
He held his breath and listened attentively. The sound came from the opposite direction than he came from, so no enemy pursuers. Next he heard some sputter and a loud bang and then… silence.
From where he stood, he could just about see the forest path where an American soldier dismounted his bike and started to kick.
Werner, being curious, had moved carefully towards the road and stopped behind a big tree to watch.
"Harley Davidson WLA, 750 cc, V-twin engine, about 23 hp, top speed over 100 km/h...", he told himself. The Harley would not start and he watched the soldier, softly murmuring and cursing, bending over his bike.
In order to get a better view, he shifted his weight just a tiny bit.
Beneath his right boot a little branch snapped..
He froze on the spot as he saw how the figure that stood bended over his bike, flew in a flash over it, at the same time snatching his rifle from its container.
Jim was lying behind the bike, his rifle at the ready, staring through the engine into the wood but nobody was to be seen. “So maybe a deer or something?”, he was wondering.
He crawled to the front of the Harley and peeked around the front wheel.
Werner had meanwhile drawn his pistol very, very carefully from the holster.
He did not load his pistol by though, so as not to make a sound.
He saw the American gaze. He apparently had not spotted him and seemed to focus on a point behind Werner, who instinctively looked over his shoulder. He noticed that the outline of the combo was more or less visible, and, worst of all, the man in the combo too.
The American now aimed carefully… Werner’s heart was pounding in his chest.
“No…, scheiße...”, he thought, “not Schumann… not again… not like this…”.
But he really did not want to shoot the biker if it was not absolutely necessary.
And so the only thing he could think of was…:
“Don’t shoot...”, he shouted in English. “Please don’t shoot, that man is badly wounded.
Let’s talk, let’s talk please, but don’t shoot”.
Werner watched the American jump up like a cat and in the blink of an eye he lay behind the engine of the bike again.
The voice scared Jim like hell; he never realized that there was a German that close.
He just saw the soldier with the pistol hiding behind a tree in a flash, and reacted.
“Please Yankee”, Werner said, “let us talk.
It is really no good to shoot at each other, we will not win or lose the war like this”.
“Yeah right, Fritz”, Jim replied “and as soon as I leave my cover you can blow my head off”?
“If I wanted that, you would already be lying on your back, Yankee.
I just had a fantastic view on you as you aimed at my comrade”, Werner replied, “and before, as you were kicking your motorbike, even better”.
Jim had to admit to himself that he had indeed been a perfect target and that “Fritz” had not tried to shoot him. The fact that the German tried to communicate in English, be it with an accent, somehow made his proposal more or less trustworthy too.
Jim decided to risk it; “maybe the mistake of my life”, he thought, “but if it is, I won’t live long enough to regret it”. He got up from behind the Harley, secured his rifle, slung it over his shoulder and brushed the snow from his battle dress. He then walked up to Werner and stretched out his hand, “Corporal Jim Carpenter, US Army motorcycle courier”.
Somewhat perplexed by so much “cool”, Werner came from behind the tree, put away his pistol, shook the offered hand and replied rather formally: “Private Werner Mayer, scout of the ‘Wehrmacht’, how do you do.
My comrade in the sidecar is ‘wachtmeister’ Georg Schumann. He got injured… quite badly.”
And then, as if they just met at some biker rally: “I see you have a problem with your motorbike. Can I be of help, maybe ?” Jim subconsciously chuckled over the situation.
That offer for help was the last thing he expected when walking into the enemy.
He dug a crumbled pack of cigarettes from his pocket and offered Werner one.
“Your NCO is injured, you said? Are his injuries serious? Then maybe I can help YOU”, Jim said.
Both men unwound a bit more as they walked up to Schumann in the damaged ‘wehrmacht’ combo.
Dusk began to fall. It had been snowing on and off, and their tracks to and from the forest path had almost gone. They removed Jim’s Harley from the path pushing it well into the forest.
Next they cleared the pit, and from branches and stuff they made some sort of bench, so the injured party would not be sitting or lying on the cold floor. Then they had made a small fire with brushwood.
Jim clearly had his doubts about starting a fire, but Werner showed how to light even not very dry wood, using a tin can filled with sand and petrol.
After taking care of Schumann’s wounds, and giving him some painkillers,‘herr wachtmeister’
looked a bit better. They then went to work to try and get the combo going again.
It was not easy to repair the spare tyre, for a bullet had gone straight through it.
Eventually they managed to fix it, using leftovers from the tube of the rear wheel.
Finally the rear wheel was replaced by the fixed spare wheel and the job was done.
When they checked the Harley to see what was wrong, Werner could hardly stop laughing when they discovered that Jim simply ran out of patrol. Jim was taken aback, feeling quite stupid..
He had left the petcock on ‘reserve’ last time he filled up, and used all petrol to the last drop.
They filled the tank from one of Werner’s jerry cans. To make sure, Jim tested if the engine would really start. Werner was fascinated and observed the ‘ritual’ closely;
choke fully on - petcock, ‘on’ - full throttle - contact ‘off’ - kick 3 times.
Then contact ‘on’ - ignition switch fully to ‘post’- throttle open a tiny bit - and kick...
Nothing... no life. Choke one click back, kick… Nothing… still dead.
Choke one more click back, kick and... lo and behold; the V-twin came to life with lazy, fat strokes…
Werner was delighted by the sound; what a motorbike…
Jim left it running idle for a while and then shut it off.
So now both bikes were ready to use again, but it was too late to leave now.
It was almost dark now and it started to snow as well.
Neither of them wanted to risk a confrontation with an enemy patrol, so they decided to stay overnight right here. By the very last rays of daylight they finished arranging the camp.
Using tarps they create a small shelter, mainly over Schumann. From a little pile of tree-trunks they found a bit further along the path, they collected the smallest and driest for the campfire.
A fallen tree that was lying across the pit was shifted at the cost of lots of effort and sweat, but now it could serve as a backrest.
They settled down by the fire, all three in a row, blankets and rain capes over their shoulders, the wachtmeister in the middle. This way they kept each other, and especially Schumann, a bit warm.
From the sidecar Werner had dug some sea biscuit and a tin of leek soup, which he heated over the fire. He could only find one spoon, so Werner and Jim used the spoon in turns.
And he who had the spoon fed Schumann too.
Sitting by the fire, the men got to talk, be it with ‘hands and feet’, so to speak.
They learned a bit more about each other’s backgrounds.
They were roughly the same age; Jim a good 26, Werner almost 30.
When Jim wondered about Werner speaking English, he explained that he used to be a teacher in the German language and in history at a high school in Chemnitz, where he lived with his wife and 2 daughters. During his studies he also followed English courses. “Aha… I see”, Jim said.
He told in turn that he came from the Detroit area where he worked with his sister and her husband in the general store of his parents. He knows a few German words since his grandmother, on his mother’s side, was of German origin.
Schumann did not take part in the conversation, he understood just a little bit, but did not speak English at all. Besides, he passed out now and again.
“Schumann is a professional soldier”, Werner said, “from the Hamburg area, north Germany. Not a combat soldier though, he was a trained technician, but long before the war he joined the army as a gunsmith. He is well over 45and he has a son in the “Luftwaffe” about whom he worries constantly”.
They continued talking in low voices about all kinds of things… except about the war.
Neither of them talked, nor asked about their respective missions.
They seemed to have a silent agreement not to let the damned war disturb this peaceful meeting on Christmas Eve under any circumstances.
Every now and then one of them had to get up from the comfortable, ‘safe’ place to put some more logs on the fire. And Jim went up to the Harley when he remembered that he had a bottle of whisky on board. Smoking and drinking, they chatted through the night.
They discovered that they shared a passion for motorcycles. For Jim it was all about riding, but Werner read everything he could lay his hands on concerning motorbikes. He also knew a lot about the bikes of the allies. Not only Jim’s Harley, but for instance the Royal Enfield WD 350 and the 500 cc BSA M20 of the Brits. And that had nothing to do with his job in the Wehrmacht, that was pure interest and motorcycle passion. For both of them it was the reason for ending up in motorcycle units.
Jim told that he was still saving for a bike of his own, but meanwhile he often took his father’s Triumph Tiger 500 from 1937 for a ride; “Dad hardly ever used the bike anyway…”. Werner proudly told that shortly before the war he found himself a '34 DKW KM200 two-stroke single cylinder.
By and by the conversation dried up , and to his companions’ surprise Jim took a mouth harmonica from his breast pocket and started to softly blow Christmas songs. Werner just stared at Jim for a few seconds but then started to sing or hum along with the songs he knew.
When “Silent Night” was on, Jim put his harmonica aside and sang along in German.
The other two look surprised at him. Between two strophes he grinned at them, winked and said: ”Großmutter”, grandmother… They nodded understandingly.
The booze kept the men warm and it numbed Schumann’s pain more or less.
But it made them drowsy too and eventually it got quiet and they dozed off by the fire.
Just before they would fall asleep, Werner pointed at the stripes on Jim’s sleeves and said: “Corporal isn’t it. You are a corporal, right ? Well, then you have a wonderful future ahead of you…”,
When Jim looked at him questioningly Werner started to chuckle and explained;
”Well, Adolf Hitler was a corporal once and look how far he got in life….”.
And then he burst out laughing. Jim also started to laugh and even Schumann seemed to smile.
They were laughing harder and harder, louder and louder. They just could not stop laughing.
”From extortion, stress, fear, frustration, home-sickness, grief and sorrow they laughed and laughed,
till tears were rolling down their cheeks and their shoulders were shrugging… and they themselves did not know anymore whether they were laughing or crying.
Sobbing and shrugging they eventually fell into a restless sleep.
On Christmas day the men awoke very early. It was cold and everything was covered in hoar-frost.
The fire still smoldered so they stoked the fire in order to warm up a bit before they would leave.
Werner made a pot of tea, melting snow in the old soup tin, and they had sea biscuit and cheese for breakfast. He had some rations on board at all times, because they had to be self-supporting for days sometimes on their missions.
After having nursed Schumann’s wounds, they helped him back into the sidecar.
The poor brave wachtmeister hardly made a sound, but he sometimes could not help groaning when a twinge shot through his body.
He gratefully let them help him and he never complained even once.
They then helped each other to move the motorbikes back onto the forest path.
Werner was desperately hoping to find the German lines, but should he run into an Allied patrol, he would surrender immediately in order to get medical help for the wachtmeister.
At farewell , the two young men silently shook hands, with lumps in their throats and watery eyes.
What could still be said ?
Then Jim walked up to Schumann, who took Jim’s hand and held it with both his hands.
Since the beginning he had not spoken a word, now he said in a weak voice in German: “Good luck to you, son… Be careful… Stay alive...”.
He looked Jim in the eyes and whispered: “merry Christmas” then he passed out again and only then did he let go of Jim’s hand…
Later that afternoon Jim got back to his unit.
His comrades were very happy and relieved that he got back in one peace after being out there somewhere the whole night. Though they would never ever openly admit their concern of course.
So they noisily made teasing remarks about the almost empty whisky bottle, and the words ”farmer’s daughter” and “private party” were often heard,
Then Jim’s thoughts went back to yesterday afternoon.
“It’s no less than a miracle that I’m still alive”, he realized.
How bizarre that, thanks to somebody’s motorcycle passion, he was still alive today.
Any German other than Werner would certainly have shot him, instead of offering to help with his broken down bike and giving him fuel.
When the chaplain came to see how Jim was doing and to inquire what happened to him, Jim asked, “is it wrong to be friendly with the enemy, father ? Is that treason ?”,
The army pastor looked at him and said earnestly: “Not at all, son. Don’t you worry.
That had more to do with” kindred spirits” than with nationality.
And it went a lot deeper than a mutual hobby, but… you would know better than anyone.
Wouldn’t you, James ?”. As the pastor walked on, he said:
“Oh, and err… James, Merry Christmas! Or should I say Happy Christmas ?”.