Losing Private First Class Molina

By Edgar Valderrama

A scene in “Saving Private Ryan” brought Private First Class Molina front and center in my mind. I knew him casually and can’t even remember his first name. He was Mexican American from California. He once saved our squad from extinction, but that is another story. He had just returned from a short vacation in the hospital. A piece of shrapnel had torn out a piece from the bridge of his nose, and he was put back in combat the moment it healed.

Our infantry battalion, the 2nd, was about to cross the Sauer river. This was 1945, and it must have been spring because the snow had been replaced by a cold wet drizzle in a world of mud. In front of us was the famous Siegfried line of fortifications, manned by the elite cadre from an S.S. officer’s school, no sixteen or sixty five year old Volkssturm troops hastily thrown into combat by Hitler.

Our job was to cross the river in assault rowboats and climb up a very steep, very muddy cliff, taking three steps up and sliding back two. Concrete bunkers bristling with machine guns dotted the hill. We “slept” in wet holes just out of the line of fire, near the river bank. The 1st battalion had tried to cross the river first, in an attempt to capitalize on the momentum of our advance and the enemy’s headlong retreat. Most of them had floated downstream full of holes.

All that night, courtesy of General Patton, every available artillery piece, augmented by tanks and even anti-aircraft guns, ceaselessly pounded the cliff and beyond. The sky was streaked by tracers and it sounded like an endless freight train howling overhead. The many calibered guns furnished the kettledrum bass and snare drum midrange to this “River Crossing Overture.”

It was our turn now to cross the Sauer River and crawl over the “Siegfried Line.” The artillery barrage was to continue till the last possible moment. Concrete bunkers are immune to artillery shells, their only weakness is the steel door on the side or rear. Their occupants must have been dazed, though, because we made it up that slimy hill to within range of “our” pillboxes’ vulnerable side door without being machine gunned too badly.

There was sudden silence as the cease fire order was given and obeyed by the hundreds, or maybe thousands of guns covering us. PFC Molina was preparing to do his stuff. He had to place an explosive charge tied to the end of a long bamboo pole against the steel door while we fired our rifles at the slits in the bunker keeping the enemy cliff dwellers at bay. The charge was lit and set against the door. Molina was still stretched out, about to pull back.

One of the tanks had one shell left in their gun’s chamber. The gunner figured he could clear his gun and that a few seconds delay wouldn’t make any difference to the war. You have guessed right. It was aimed at the exact spot occupied by the stretched out Molina. We saw PFC Molina reach out to infinity as his body disintegrated and dispersed in a flash and a puff of smoke. His life was a sacrifice on the altar of friendly fire. I doubt all of him was ever buried and I suppose the gunner received a reprimand.

The door was blown open. Four or five dazed German soldiers came out with their hands over their heads. They were deaf and had blood running out of their ears and noses, maybe even from their eyeballs. I found a beautiful Luger 9mm. pistol inside, which I kept till the 50’s, but that too, is another story.