April 11, 1945
We faced only feeble resistance in taking Mittelbau-Dora. My men and I were among the 1,500 soldiers of the U.S. 104th sent to secure the camp’s perimeter by late-morning. I was a captain and that allowed me the freedom to scout the mission.
We’d been moving across German lines without break since November. Every day was a blur. All a man could do was worry about the day in front of him and hope to hell to make it to the next.
We passed the tunnel entrance, and then the gatehouse. That’s when the dregs of the Nazi guards, too old, too ill-equipped to mount a serious challenge, salvaged some pride and fired a few rounds into the spring sky. Then they threw down their weapons.
Some soldiers were having a laugh behind me. “These guys are older than my dad,” one dogface said as the guards raised their hands and fell to their knees.
Germany was losing the war and everyone knew it, especially the Germans.
Mittelbau-Dora was a high-value target. G-2 reports said there was an underground weapons factory, directly beneath the camp in a series of tunnels. We had to get a look before the Russians did.
My source went a step further, reporting that Himmler had authorized some new scientific work down there, something they called Wunderwaffen, the so-called miracle weapons that would win the war for Germany. Above ground, we were liberating POWs. Underground, well, who knew what would happen?
I led my men to the side of the camp gatehouse and gave my orders. We would secure the prisoners’ barracks, half a klick up the gravel road. We marched ahead through puddles, into what looked like an abandoned lumber camp.
We were at alert, weapons raised and ready, moving ahead in column formation. We saw no prisoners. I signaled to the radioman to check in with Divisional HQ. “Tell them we’re moving forward. No hot contact so far.” I still had time.
All morning, there had been a foul smell, heavy in the air. The closer we got to Mittelbau-Dora, the worse it was. Pigs? Slaughterhouse? Unclear.
Up ahead, two GIs from another squad were bent over a ditch, a fifty-foot fire pit burning with wood stacked alongside and smoke floating near the ground. Something was off. It didn’t fit with a wood fire in a pine forest. One of the soldiers gave me a cursory salute as we passed, pale like he was about to faint; the other one retched. The dwindling smoke of the near-extinguished fire burned my eyes and I rubbed them. When I opened them again, I understood.
It wasn’t a wood fire. The stacks were bodies of prisoners piled like logs. God, what were we up against? We’d heard rumors, but in war, you never knew what to believe. I froze in my steps and somebody bumped into me. I barked orders.
We ran to the barracks to search for survivors, and that’s when we discovered how bad things were. I’d been a cop in Detroit. I’d seen the bodies from the street wars of the Purple Gang. But nothing prepared me for this. They were stick men. More than a hundred of them. On bunks and the floor, packed in tight. The smell was putrid, worse even than the sight.
These weren’t the Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals who ended up at Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps in Poland. Their red triangle badges indicated they were politicals, sent to the tunnels to be worked to death. They spoke mostly French, some Russian, some German. I counted seventeen dead in the bunks. One man whispered: “Merci, les Américains.” His throat was full of fluid and he sounded like he was drowning. Then he dug a harmonica from his pocket and started to play La Marseillaise. He got five notes out on the rusted Hohner before he ran out of breath, choking. The fellow behind him patted his shoulder blades with the strength of a baby. I doubt the Frenchman was much older than I was.
It was 11:40 hours. Getting late. I had to embark on my mission—something my C.O. only vaguely understood and my men knew nothing about. I turned to Baldwin. “The camp is secure. I need you to take care of this.”
“Cap, we barely started,” he said in his staccato way. Baldwin spoke like an automatic rifle. Rapid bursts. Short pauses. Made sure he always hit target. “Twenty more buildings. Who knows what we’ll find?”
“We scouted the whole area. There isn’t a German soldier worth worrying about for ten miles.” I glanced at my watch. “Stay put and do your best for these men.”
“Where you gotta be . . . sir?”
We’d been through a lot together, and if someone had to know, it would be Sergeant Baldwin. But the risk was too high.
“I’ve got some orders. A joint operation in the tunnels. That’s all I can say.”
“More than I wanna know about any spook business your brother’s involved in.”
I knew what he meant.
Leon Baldwin had joined the 104th in December, transferring in from the First Division. The Big Red One was a strong unit and I was glad to have him join.
He was a small, wiry guy from Atlanta. When I first met Baldwin, I wondered how he passed the army physical and whether he actually ate, because there seemed to be nothing to him physically, except unlimited energy. But he proved he was all soldier and a natural leader. He also knew when to steer clear.
“Battalion aid will be on its way,” I said. “Don’t feed anybody anything. Liquids only. Tag ‘em if they can’t sit up or speak, move ‘em outside if they’re able.”
I turned and made my way. I was to rendezvous with British intel inside the tunnels at twelve-hundred hours. Jordan had infiltrated the site a few weeks earlier, working undercover for the Office of Strategic Services, the top U.S. spy agency. My mission was to get Jordan out and let the Brits exfiltrate any German scientists and equipment of value to the Allies.
That was the plan, but nothing was easy. Now that the Nazis were near defeat, cooperation between the Allies was getting rough. Each country was in it for its own interests. All I cared about was Jordan. It was too late to worry about anything else.
I jogged back to the tunnel, alone, gravel flinging from my boots. Once I passed the gatehouse, I hit it double-time, like a drum solo reaching a crescendo. After what I’d seen at the prison camp, I didn’t want to think about what the Germans would do if they discovered a spy.
I hit the entranceway and nearly skidded in front of the two American MPs at their post in front of a jeep. They looked like a couple of linebackers right out of college.
The MPs were dwarfed by the entrance to the tunnel, a rectangle built of concrete wide enough for two locomotives, with two sets of railroad tracks underfoot. The Germans had built wood scaffolding overhead, draped with a camo net, making the entrance invisible from the air.
“This is a secure area,” the first one said, stepping forward.
“JIC-Two,” I said. JIC referred to the Joint Intelligence Committee. The “Two” I threw in to set them back on their heels. “I’m following up on a report of incendiary devices, if you boys want to join me.” I drew my pistol.
“Ah, that’s all right, sir.” He saluted and his partner stepped back, staring at the ground.
Twenty paces into the tunnel, it was a new world. Wet. Colorless. It was all black and gray. No vegetation, no birds, no sign of life at all. Carbide lamps hissed overhead, releasing a faint garlic smell and lighting the tunnel in a yellow haze.
I ran down the tunnel, my shadow shortening as I approached each lamp and then elongating again. My footsteps echoed off the distant walls and sixty-foot ceiling, sounding like a squad. It was cold enough to see my breath. The tunnel seemed to go on forever until it opened up onto a central area three stories tall, carved out of solid stone. This was Mittelwerk, an underground factory spread throughout five miles of tunnels dug in an abandoned gypsum mine.
The floor was smooth and level, embedded with perfectly laid small-gauge rail tracks. The walls were set uniformly straight with sharp right angles. I had to give it to the Nazis; they built the place to last a thousand years. It was like an underworld Ford factory, stretching out as far as you could see. No woody station wagons here, though. At Mittelwerk, they used prisoners from Mittelbau-Dora as slave labor to build the V-2 rockets that bombed London and the Belgian port of Antwerp. We didn’t know what other weapons they had built down here.
I could see the Nazis’ vast ambition laid out before me. They planned to conquer the world, enslaving people to build the very weapons that would destroy them. There must have been thousands of people working here just days ago. Now it was quiet as a Detroit snowfall.
I shook my head to get clear. I listened for a moment. Nothing.
I was to meet my contact at Bay 47. I didn’t even know his name. British officer “F” was all they had signaled. I’d be temporarily under his command as part of a program called T-Force. There was a four-minute window to meet him. If one of us didn’t make it, the other had to decide whether to go in alone or call the operation off.
I squinted to read the map Jordan had prepared. There were two long S-shaped tunnels, A and B, that ran parallel, connected by a series of numbered chambers every thirty meters.
I made a short right turn into Tunnel B and started running again. It was lined with a dozen workshops, each one numbered and labeled. There were half-built rockets, hundreds of control panels, helmet-shaped gyroscopes, motors, and tools laid out. Not a worker in sight, as if they’d all gone on lunch break and never returned. I ran almost a mile until I came to what I was looking for. A white “47” painted in two-foot numerals on the rock wall at eye level. Danke for German orderliness.
Bay 47 was the final stage of the plant. I passed two giant specimens of fully assembled V-2s. One was erect and spanned nearly the full height of the tunnel. Another was loaded horizontally on rail cars. The fins alone were taller than I could reach.
The scientists behind the V-2 were far ahead of the Americans. No one had ever thought on such a grand scale. The V-2 traveled five times faster than the speed of sound. It was a weapon of sheer terror.
I thought of the civilians we’d met in Antwerp, in northern Belgium. They had endured two months of V-2 pounding, going about their lives knowing there would never be a warning. The V-2s flew so quickly they were silent until they struck, leaving a crater the size of a city block, four stories deep.
I paused to examine the map. Next to Bay 47, the word “descend” was written in Jordan’s neat handwriting. I looked around. No signposts here. You had to know what you were looking for. Then I saw it, the rounded top of a metal ladder that led down an almost-hidden shaft to a lower floor. I felt relief that I’d found it. I climbed ten steps down the ladder to a landing where I faced a black metal door with no number —Dunkelwerk, the secret lab within the secret plant. The dark factory.
Jordan never explained what the Germans were doing at Dunkelwerk, only that he had to infiltrate it and slow them down. Now that I had seen the scale of Nazi brutality in the camp, I had to wonder what he thought he could achieve.
I glanced at my watch, the silver one that Jordan had given me. There was a metallic taste in the back of my throat, and things felt shaky for a second. It was 11:58. I had two minutes. The smell of sweat and disease from the prisoners stirred my stomach. We were going to make it. We could get out alive. But where was F?
I breathed silently and listened for enemy soldiers nearby. I was cold now. It was noon and I hadn’t eaten since battle breakfast at zero five hundred. I heard nothing but water dripping. I waited the four-minute window. No F.
I waited another two minutes. That was the limit. T-Force operated with no backup rendezvous or timeslots. These were single-shots. Get in, get what you needed, and get out before anything could go wrong. Timing was so tight, it was a miracle when the operations worked. A no-show or a dead scientist, that was the norm.
I should have called for backup. I could have brought Baldwin into it. I could have done it five different ways.
I had a bad feeling. It was like when you knew there were enemy soldiers just beyond the next ridge. You hadn’t seen them, or even heard them, but you just knew.
I looked at my pistol and checked the clip.
Jordan had goaded me the first time I had used a weapon. We were boys and our dog, Boxer, had been missing for a week. There was a rabies scare all summer. Jordan found her, disoriented and snarling in the woods behind the farm. Jordan said we had to take care of it ourselves. He loaded the clip and then handed me the old Springfield rifle from the barn. “You have to kill it, to protect the farm,” he said. “You have to be brave.”
He never had to tell me again.
I slipped open the door to Dunkelwerk.
A narrow corridor opened up into a well-lit chamber. The air was still and it smelled of carbolic, like the army hospital at Camp Adair where I had trained. I didn’t know what to expect. But not this. It looked like a laboratory that had been hit by a tornado. Papers littered the floor. Filing cabinets circled the room, drawers yanked open, contents spilled. Was I too late? Maybe Jordan had gotten out on his own. Or had the Germans fled and taken him as a bargaining chip?
I looked for any sign indicating that people were still around. I could make out steel cabinets and racks of electronic equipment, vacuum tubes, wires, and complex instruments.
A strange looking wood-and-steel chair stood at the center of the room, with a tangle of wires running up its back. I could see that there were posts in the ground where other such chairs had been, evenly spaced out across the lab. There had been a dozen of them, but now there was just one, under a bare light bulb, like a barbershop that had fallen on hard times. I counted a dozen gurneys around the perimeter. I pulled the sheet off the nearest one. It held two emaciated, identical, naked corpses. I almost jumped. What the hell was this place? What had Jordan gotten himself into? What had he gotten me into?
I walked slowly counter-clockwise around the periphery, trying not to make a sound. A soft scraping near the entrance acted like an electric shock. I ducked behind one of the large metal cabinets where I stood perfectly still and counted to ten. I heard nothing more. I peered from behind the cabinet. Still nothing.
My eyes were drawn toward a large wooden door at the far end of the room. Two German guards emerged, shuffling, and talking loudly. Their hands were full, and their rifles were slung on their backs. The first was straining under the load of two metal gas cans that sloshed as he walked. The oily smell of kerosene filled the air. The second, who looked barely twenty, held a bundle of long brown tubes in his arms like firewood. It wasn’t hard to work out what they were up to. Hitler had given the Nero Decree: burn everything that might assist the Allies. This was a complication I didn’t need.
“Halt,” I called. I pulled my Colt M1911 and aimed at the closer of the two. “U.S. Army. Surrender.”
The two soldiers swung to face me, and the second one dropped part of his load. I braced for an explosion that didn’t come. The first turned pale as the moon and then there was a large, growing damp spot in his pants.
“Hands high,” I jerked my left hand and pointed it upward. They gently put down their wares.
“Wir geben auf,” the first one said. They were giving up. No surprise there.
“Mausers down,” I said. “Slow.”
I approached them, leading with my pistol.
I was close enough to smell the sweat and urine.
I thought about what I’d seen earlier, the survivors, the fire pit, and the bodies on the gurneys around the lab. They knew what went on at Mittelwerk. They were part of it. I wanted to blow it all to pieces.
Something in me snapped.
I heard two gunshots, then two more. The bodies were on the ground. I had felt the recoil in my arm and the ringing in my ears. Had I pulled the trigger? It was as if a film had jumped a few frames and I had missed what happened. The Colt was in my hand and four casings were on the ground.
I holstered and stood stunned for a moment. They deserved it. Now I was as dirty as they were. God help me.
I sniffed something sour and then a thin hand gripped my face from behind. I struggled until cold metal touched the back of my neck.
“So, you are the brother,” the voice behind me said.
“Turn around.” He gave me a shove and then his eyes appraised me from top to bottom. “I know you.” He blinked. “You are Jordan’s twin.”
The man with the pistol was younger than me. He wore a lab coat with a dark wool sweater and tie underneath. He had thin brown hair and steel-rimmed glasses that magnified his eyes and gave him a mousey look. He had a pencil neck and the face of a teenager, but he had a Walther P38 pointed at my chest and that tipped the scales.
“Herr Doktor Panzinger,” he called out. “Der Bruder ist hier.”
A second man appeared, coming from the same doorway as the soldiers. He was taller, a few years older, and wearing a tight gray SS uniform beneath an open white lab coat. His left collar tab showed four silver pips, indicating Sturmbannführer, major. Wavy hair, warm eyes. He moved with the confidence of a movie star accepting an award. He held a heavy book in his hand, a volume of Birds of America.
I might have been able to tackle one of them, but now my odds were much worse. Still, they could lead me to Jordan.
“Good that you have arrived,” the major said. “I always like to meet healthy twins.” He saw that his book had caught my eye. “Audubon was brilliant. Far ahead of his time.” He tapped the cover with his index finger. “Not a German, but not an American, either. He was a true scientist.” He tapped again. “Even today we have a lot to learn from him. I am working on a new translation.”
“Where’s Jordan?” I said.
“Of course, of course. Your brother is fine.” He looked at me as if I were an old friend. “We knew you would come. You are the older brother, yes?”
“Yes, like the barn swallow, you have a sense of family duty. Whereas Jordan, he is more of a . . . he is like an American swift, always in flight.” He slid open a brown cardboard packet of cigarettes, tapped one and lit it. “Very dangerous work, spying.” He exhaled a plume of smoke and watched it swirl in the still air. “He denied having a brother. But we found the photo. Naturally, we were very interested. Would you like to see him?”
I nodded slowly, doing my best just to breathe. I didn’t know how we’d get out, but finding Jordan would put me halfway home.
Panzinger said something in German I didn’t understand. His sidekick with the glasses went back through the door and rolled in another gurney. Jordan was stretched out on it, strapped down. The first thing I saw were dark stains on his white shirt. Then I saw him. He was emaciated; his face waxy and gray, with dark rings around his eyes. He wasn’t as far gone as the prisoners in the camp, but something had been extinguished in him.
My heart fell like a parachute drop, a sudden fall and then a slow float to the ground. This couldn’t be my brother. What they had left was more of preserved specimen than a human. He looked up at me and there was terror in his eyes. It was Jordan all right. He tried to reach out his right arm toward me.
“What have you done to him? This is torture!” I was shouting.
“With some rest, he will be fine,” Panzinger said. “Jordan has made a real contribution to our project.” His eyes were bright and he smirked as if he had just solved a tricky mathematics problem. He nodded. Panzinger’s helper nodded, too.
Jordan’s face twitched and his shoulders twisted sideways uncontrolled, like a snake. “Jack, you made it.” His eyes bounced like pinballs, jumping from me to Panzinger, to the equipment at the center of the room.
I ignored Panzinger and moved closer to Jordan. “I’m here,” I whispered.
Jordan clutched my hand. His head whipped from side to side, feverish. “You have to destroy it. All of it,” he said.
“We need to get you ready for the experiment,” the assistant said. “Jordan can sustain another round.” His eyes were excited. He picked up a clipboard and skittered over to the control panel beside the chair.
“You’re surrounded,” I said. “There’s no way out for you.”
Panzinger flicked his cigarette to the floor and ground it with his boot. “Research on twins has been the keystone of our work here,” he said. “We shall perform one more test, now that you’ve arrived.”
He swept his right hand toward Jordan as a signal to his assistant to proceed. “It takes only a few minutes.” He looked at his watch, then he glanced at the chair with the wires sticking out. “By comparing results on two identical bodies, we can determine the correct—”
The lights flickered and we heard the low grind of iron heaving under a heavy load. Tanks overhead. The rumbling of caterpillar tracks echoed through the chamber. Maybe Sergeant Baldwin had a change of heart. I had to stall for time.
Panzinger looked up, acknowledging the arrival of an American tank corps. “Oh,” he said, undaunted. His eyebrows flashed up and down. He was still smirking. Nothing threw this guy.
“Your brother tried to fool us with his endless equipment delays, but we got what we needed.” He looked over at the other man and flicked his chin. “Finish it,” he said.
His assistant looked disappointed. “Herr Doktor, we should wait for the other—”
“No more waiting!” he shouted. Then his calm returned. “Now we go to the backup plan.” He stripped off his lab coat and jacket, throwing them to the ground, and he pulled on a heavy wool overcoat. “Gather the documents.”
They wanted the same thing I wanted, to escape with their lives. “You won’t get there without me,” I said. “The Red Army is within three kilometers right now.”
At the mention of the Russian Army, Panzinger’s assistant froze. Every German knew. There was no surrender to the Russians.
“You have a way, Captain Waters?” Panzinger gazed at me as though I’d suddenly become interesting.
“Leave us here and I’ll give you a way out,” I said.
The assistant twitched. He was perspiring.
“What do you have for me?”
“I know exactly where the American and Russian troops are located. I scouted the area this morning,” I said, holding out the map.
He took it from me, noting the Russian positions immediately without revealing his destination. “We need to get north of the forest,” he said.
“Take this route.” I traced a path on the map. “But your chances of getting out alive are fifty-fifty at best,” I said. “You’d be better off surrendering to my unit.”
“I appreciate your candor, Captain Waters.” To look at Panzinger, you’d never know the war was lost for Germany and that he was surrounded by two enemy armies. “I agree with your assessment,” he said, handing back the map. “But we have our plans and they do not involve show trials held by the enemy. I’ll leave you here to make your own way.”
“You’ve got to help my brother,” I said. “Please, give him something.”
“It is just a question of time as he leaves the stasis zone. He will be fine within a few minutes. One officer to another, you have my word.” Panzinger nodded and seconds later, they were gone.
I turned my attention to Jordan and began unbuckling the straps. “Jordan, we gotta go.” His eyes were cloudy.
“I can’t fix this . . . Leave me.”
“You’re gonna be okay,” I said. “I’ll get you out of here.”
I heard a metallic click and smelled a brief whiff of tobacco. Then a heavy blanket of kerosene. That lying bastard . . .
A deep rumble emerged from the chamber. There was a whoosh of hot air and a crack like a mortar shell as the air caught fire in a giant explosion. I saw Jordan scream, and I watched in disbelief as the wall in front of me was blown out and a steel girder fell, missing me by a few feet. For a split second, I watched the smoke and debris swirl in front of my eyes, and then a pulse of orange flame lifted me high into the air while huge chunks of stone and steel fell from above. I felt like a twig in a windstorm.
I fell to the ground and everything was silent. I saw the tunnel walls collapse but I heard nothing. I thought of Boxer, twisting and howling when I had fired into her. It was right to kill her. She was mad with rabies. Better off dead.
Then everything went blue, then orange, and finally black.
That was the last I saw of my brother.
* * *
American Evacuation Hospital
April 15, 1945
When you come out of a coma, it doesn’t happen all at once. It’s like emerging from a long dream. The only difference is the dream keeps pulling you back.
That’s how it was for me, anyway. One minute, I was in a tunnel below Mittelwerk, and the next minute . . . I was a little fuzzy on all of that. There was an explosion. Then darkness. But I couldn’t leave the tunnel, not without Jordan.
That’s why I kept getting pulled down. I had to find out what had happened. I would spend days, years, exploring the darkness. It was beautiful and quiet, like swimming underwater at night. The air was cool and moist. I would spend a lifetime down here if that’s what it took.
But every once in a while, I’d hear something. A ripple on the surface would pull me up to the real world.
I heard a voice in the distance, soothing as a summer rain.
“You’d like San Moreno,” she said. “You could come visit, when this is over. I bet you’d like that.”
It sounded swell, and I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it myself.
I felt something warm and soothing on my face. The smell of Barbasol shaving cream. Then there was a soft scraping and suddenly I was back on the surface. I opened my eyes.
“Look who’s awake,” I heard her say.
I blinked. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to be here. I looked at her and I saw her high cheeks, the roundness of her lips. Not a nurse. A uniform I didn’t recognize.
She had a straight razor in her hand. She wiped it on a cloth, dipped it in warm water, and went back to work. She drew the razor across slowly, gently along one cheek, then the other. She followed the curves of my chin with the razor, never pressing too hard, never cutting. The strokes were long and soft and luxurious. She wiped me down, and it felt like teasing.
“My name’s Faith,” she said.
I thought I was still dreaming. Or maybe she was a ghost or something worse. I didn’t want to appear foolish, so I said nothing.
“You’ve had a lot of people very worried,” she said, holding the back of my head with her left hand while gliding the razor above my lip. Her hand was warm and I wanted her to keep it there forever. To never let go.
She leaned forward and whispered into my ear. I felt her breath on my face.
“Everything’s going to be okay.”
Then there was a crash. Someone had dropped a metal tray and it clattered on the floor. I heard a bottle roll, and someone cursed. I looked past Faith and took in the whole room. A sea of hospital beds, as big as a football field, filled with the dead and dying. Doctors and nurses and equipment and charts and someone rolling a trolley. The noise got louder and I saw the whole room in chaos. Men wearing lab coats were approaching. It was too much.
“I can’t do this,” I said. “Not yet.”
“I’ll be here when you’re ready,” she said. She squeezed my hand.
I smelled the sweetness of her perfume. I clamped my eyes shut. I went back down into the darkness, into the tunnels again.
I had to find Jordan.