Northwest Africa, spring 1942
Danny, somewhat short of stature, jittery and quick-moving, with ruddy cheeks and closely-cropped hair, came from a farming community near Elyria, Ohio. He maintained a constant stream of nervous chatter, complaining about the weather, their driver and his vehicle. His youthful exuberance at times, Jack thought, could be refreshing albeit wearying.
Because of his aptitude in telegraphy, he was plucked out of basic training and sent to O.S.S. His expertise gave him military importance, which was recognized by Bill Donovan.
In his hometown, his Uncle Lyle, the railroad ticket master, allowed Danny to root around the depot storage room where unclaimed baggage and old telegraphic equipment moldered on shelves. Danny’s fascination with the telegraphic keys and their clicking sounds captivated his imagination, and he spent hours sending make-believe messages. His uncle was amazed that he had mastered the Morse code within days.
At age eighteen, Danny volunteered for military service. His accelerated program at the Signal Corps at Camp Crowder, Missouri, left him little time to socialize. Like any young fellow with a normal allotment of hormones, he was ready and eager to connect with a woman. On a weekend pass to Joplin, he was cajoled by three barracks buddies to join them in a visit to a cathouse and get his ashes hauled.
“Gosh, do you think it’s okay?” Danny asked. “Sure I’d like to go. I won’t get the clap or syphilis or anything like that, will I?”
“Wear a rubber, you’ll be okay,” one of the buddies replied. “I just wouldn’t swap spit, that’s all.”
“What about a blow job? Is that okay?”
“Jeez, Danny, how the hell would I know? Either you come with us and get laid or ya don’t.”
“Okay, I’ll take my chances. I’m comin.’ I wouldn’t miss this for nothin’.”
The following day Danny seemed to strut and swagger just a bit.
Jack had remembered what Wild Bill Donovan said about Danny being a fine radio operator, but a kid who was socially immature. Jack was confident that Danny’s competence as a radio operator wouldn’t be impaired by erratic behavior, and that he could be kept in tow.
Akim, an Egyptian with mahogany skin and a black beard, was hired to drive Jack and Danny north toward Tunis. He placed Jack’s two suitcases on the roof of the 1931 black Citroen four door sedan. With coarse hemp he fastened the suitcases to the spare tire in the back and to the headlamp stanchions in front. Jack sat next to Akim while Danny sat in the back with his suitcase that contained a radio transmitter and receiver packed among clothing.
Akim, middle-aged, and lean, had classic Semitic features, a prominent aquiline nose and piercing black eyes. His nasal hairs merged into his thick and end-curled mustache. He wore a soiled turban and a long gray-striped night shirt-like garment, a caftan. His English, although accented, was easily understood.
After approximately 250 kilometers on rough roads, in the warm afternoon sun through the monotony of the desert scene and the sleep-inducing hum of the vehicle’s motor, Akim startled the passengers with a pronouncement from his high- pitched voice. “The road ahead is blocked by a sentry. I cannot go beyond that point.”
“Why?” Danny asked.
“The Vichy camp is ahead. The sentry will stop us.”
“Go around him.” Danny demanded.
“That, my friend, is certain suicide. I suggest we wait until evening when it is dark; then perhaps we can plan a different route. For now, maybe we can find a Bedouin who will offer us the hospitality of his tent—maybe a tasty leg of lamb and some tea.” With a sly smile, he said, “Take my advice: do not attempt to sleep with one of his wives or one of his daughters, or you may have your testicles prepared like shish kabob.” He laughed and pounded the steering wheel but stopped abruptly when neither Jack nor Danny seemed to appreciate his humor. Akim snorted up a mucous wad and ejected it out the window. “I wished only to make a joke.”
“We’ll take our chances with the sentry,” Jack said. “Remember, we’re non-combatants, scholars and our credentials are in order.”
The driver mumbled into his beard. “May Allah be merciful and bestow upon you quick wisdom to spare your lives.”
The vehicle stopped about fifty yards short of the sentry’s post. The sand and accumulated dust and mud had reduced visibility through the windshield to almost complete obscurity. Akim picked up a soiled rag from the floor and got out to clear enough of the windshield to permit better vision. With Akim out of the vehicle, Danny leaned forward and whispered to Jack, “That guy stinks like a pole-cat that keeps whiffing us. How can you stand sitting next to him?” Without waiting for a response, he continued, “These people are goddamn filthy.”
Jack turned towards Danny. “Don’t be so judgmental. He may have a sour stomach and is just farting to relieve pressure.”
“Farting, my ass! I bet he’s got a load of shit in his diaper.”
“We have more serious problems right now.”
Akim returned to the driver’s seat. “I don’t like the looks of this. That guard could make trouble, and I don’t want them to take my car.”
Danny looked around nervously; he snapped open his suitcase and felt around the clothing until his hand clutched the Smith and Wesson. He lifted it out, opened the safety, then set it under his right thigh.
Akim drove slowly and stopped at the gate, then waited until the sentry, an older French non-com in foreign legion uniform approached from the kiosk and spoke to him in French. Akim conversed easily for several minutes then turned to face Jack. “He wants to know who you are and what you are doing here. He wants to see your identification.”
Jack, as Ben Wilson, reached for his wallet and removed his driver’s license, then took a letter from his packet. The letter stated that he was a scholar seeking information on the cultural patterns of nomadic people in the Mediterranean Basin.
The sentry looked at the license and the letter, then removed his hat and scratched his head. He asked the driver to explain the letter’s meaning. Akim translated the letter to the suspicious sentry who peered into the vehicle. He conversed further with Akim who in turn said to Jack, “He respects your noble purpose but wonders if you know that there is a war going on. Besides, he says, you are an enemy alien, and you have no right being here. He is obligated to call his superior officer who will order the arrest of both of you.”
Jack turned around to see Danny concealing his gun. He put his hand on Danny’s wrist to restrain him. There had to be a peaceful way to deal with this sentry. Money? Of course. Jack leaned toward the driver and said, “The sonofabitch wants baksheesh. Tell him we’ll give him American dollars—five of them, if he lets us through. We got reservations at a hotel in Kasserine.”
Akim gave the message to the sentry who listened, then shook his head and glowered.
Danny leaned toward Jack. “What the hell are we gonna do, Ben? We’re in the middle of a goddamned desert with a zillion enemies who probably have us in their gun sights already.”
While Akim and the gendarme haggled like a bargain seeker and a peddler in a Mid-Eastern bazaar, Danny became increasingly agitated. He wiped perspiration beads from his brow and neck and strained to listen to the conversation in French, which he did not understand at all. He reached for a cigarette from a pack of Camels and lit it with his Zippo lighter. Taking short nervous drags on the cigarette, he looked at Jack. “Ben, you want a smoke?”
Jack shook his head absently while he watched the animated conversation at the sentry’s post. He turned to Danny. “How many packs of cigarettes do you have?”
“Two cartons. Why?”
“Quick! Give me a carton.” Jack yelled to Akim and waved the carton. “Tell him we’ll give him these.” Jack knew American cigarettes had long been a favorite among foreigners who paid dearly for them. He watched as the sentry’s eyes widened. The sentry pushed Akim aside and headed for Jack’s outstretched hand holding the carton.
The sentry snatched the carton, opened the cover and counted the ten packs, then hurried back to his kiosk to raise the barrier. “Allez! Allez!” he shouted and saluted as Akim put the car in gear and sped, its squealing tires spewing dirt and sand.
Danny looked out the rear window. “Jeezuz, that was close. My ticker’s still thumping.” He wiped his brow again.
Jack said, “Listen, I say we make no more stops till we get to that damned hotel.” The road known as the Kasserine Pass was hardly a modern highway. Actually, it was a narrow ribbon of earth cleared of boulders and rocks. It curved around the foothills of the barren Atlas Mountains as the automobile continued to bounce over rough terrain. From on high, the vehicle presented an easy target for a marksman.
Jack turned to look at Danny slouching in a subdued state, breathing slowly. Danny aware that Jack was looking at him, sat up and asked, “What’s up, Ben?”
“I’ve been thinking: can you imagine what a trap this would be for an army moving through here? There’s no way to take cover. Planes could strafe columns of men. Hell, it’d be a bloody massacre. Why don’t you take some pictures of this? You have your Leica and that Bolex motion camera…start taking photos. Someone will want them at Allied Headquarters, I’m sure.”
Danny lowered the soiled window and took a number of 35mm still photos; he placed the camera on the seat and picked up the motion picture camera, then leaned out the window to direct the lens forward to show the condition and formation of the Pass. After five minutes of shooting, Danny brought the camera inside the sedan to re-wind the motor. A sharp metallic ring startled him as well as Jack and the driver. Quickly he wound up the window, then looked about and saw a bullet hole in the metal window frame next to him. He jerked away from the window and shouted, “Some sonofabitch is aiming to kill me!” He grabbed his Smith and Wesson and started to roll the window down.
Jack turned to face him. “Dammit, put that gun away. Hit the floor. Now stay down. There’s a good chance that whoever is shooting got off a lucky shot.”
“Yeah, lucky for me.” Danny huddled below the window holding his pistol with both hands.
Turning toward Akim, whose normally dark complexion had taken on an eerie ashen shade, Jack said, “Can’t you go faster than 45 kilometers an hour?”
Akim shook his head. “Speed will stir up rocks on the road. I have already replaced a gasoline tank and a fuel line this year. ” His explanation, however plausible, did not relieve his passengers’ anxiety and eagerness to get away from the shooter.
“Get this crate the hell out of here!” Danny demanded from his cramped position.
“If I speed, we might not get to the hotel before we run out of petrol.” He pointed to the instrument panel. “Look at the gauge; you will see that the fuel needle bounces between low and empty.”
Jack shook his head and moaned.
Danny more vocal, said, “Goddamnit! Why the hell didn’t you fill a few cans before we started? You knew there would be no service along the way.” He uttered more invectives as he lay huddled on the floor.
“Allah will provide,” Akim sounded confident. “As soon as we find more shelter, we shall stop.”
“l hope you’re not thinking of pissing into that tank,” Danny said.
Akim laughed. “My friend, you overestimate my power.” He continued to drive at an agonizingly slow pace while Jack glanced frequently at the gas gauge needle that hovered ever closer to empty.
The ominous sound of the sputtering engine occurred just as the sedan rolled to a stop on the shaded side of a hill. Akim tried to start the car several times, but only the hollow whirring of the starter motor could be heard.
“Shit! Now what?” Danny’s frustration led him to kick the back of the front seat. “Are we just gonna sit here and wait to be picked off by some fucking, crazy Kraut, Frog or Ayerab?” He grabbed his gun, held it at his side, peeked out the window and surveyed the hills for a shooter.
Akim walked to the rear of the vehicle.
“Now, where’s that crazy sonofabitch going?” Danny asked Jack who shook his head and shrugged. Both watched Akim as he opened the large boxy carrier fastened to the luggage rack at the rear of the car. He struggled to lift out a five-gallon jerry can, set it on the ground, opened the gas filler cap, and then poured in the contents. The sound of fuel splashing into the empty tank was reassuring. Danny remained skeptical. “I hope this damned crate starts.”
Akim, smelling of gasoline, pumped the accelerator pedal several times, turned the ignition key, then stepped on the starter. The starter motor cranked but the engine did not turn over. Akim got out of the car again and started to rock it from side to side.
“What is this, some kind of Arabic ritual to scare this heap into starting?” Danny asked.
“No, it is to move the gasoline to the engine.” Akim returned quickly to the driver’s seat and depressed the starter button. The engine roared to life while a cloud of black smoke belched out the tail pipe. Akim smiled broadly. “Allah be praised.”
Danny sat back. “Where do I go to change my religion?”