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They had numbered about sixty at dawn. Now just seventeen still stood. The others had been killed or wounded. The survivors faced the hundred yards of open ground where the company had been butchered. Twice they had tried to cross it. Twice they had stumbled through the mud, firing from their hips, screaming defiance. Twice they were forced back by the same drenching German fire that had cut down their comrades.
Beyond that open stretch of land stood the outskirts of Ortona. Between lay abandoned vegetable gardens and olive trees so torn by shellfire that they looked like twisted fenceposts. A tight row of two- to three-story buildings faced the open ground. Explosions had shattered all the windows. Enemy paratroopers were using the openings to snipe at the Canadians. More snipers were on the rooftops or dug in at the base of the buildings. Still more paratroopers hunched behind machine guns, MG42s, whose rate of fire was so fast each long burst sounded like someone ripping a sheet in half.
The Canadian dead lay scattered in the open, broken toy soldiers in wool khaki uniforms. Most lay facedown, arms stretched ahead of them. The survivors hated leaving the dead where they had fallen. But it had taken all of them just to bring out the wounded.
In a few minutes Lieutenant John Dougan expected to join the dead, for he was about to lead the men in another charge. Dougan thought it madness. His company commander agreed. Major Jim Stone had said as much into the radio handset. But the battalion commander on the other end had told him to get on with it.
Stone, Dougan and the company sergeant major had then huddled in a ditch running with muddy rainwater. Stone decided only a third of them would attach. The others would fire everything they had from the ditch. They would try to make the Germans duck from their guns. Stone was a fair man and brave as a lion. He broke a match into three lengths, dropped them into a helmet, and each man drew a piece. Dougan never won gambles. His was the short one.