For Veterans Day: Normandy

In memory of Rupert L. Harley.

This section offered in its entirety.

            Waiting.

            The latrines were coated with diarrhea and vomit. Any bucket within reach of a man was overflowing with vomit. The smell of vomit pervaded the ship and even days of continued rain couldn’t wash it away. No man could eat without spitting. No one dared lean over the side for fear of getting swept overboard in this storm, and so the interior of the ship was swept by a tide of vomit and human waste. These carriers, holding thousands of American and British soldiers anchored off the coast of England at Falmouth, had become a trap.

            Waiting.

            Day and night were like alternating buckets of grey and black paint thrown on us. Three days of this we endured, and after holding out longer than most, I vomited as well. We were fighting off frustration, worry, and despair. After three years of drilling and training, after months of marching and target practice and living in tents, we were trapped and bored on these massive ships lined up mere meters from each other on the ocean, waiting to be unloaded into flat-bottomed, cigar-shaped crafts to cross the Channel and invade France, all of us itching to go but with nothing to do but smoke, spread rumors, gamble, eat, puke, and complain.

            Waiting. We were all waiting, all these men crammed onto these ships, and into tents on shore, and into barracks waiting to be crowded onto planes, and into officers’ clubs along the British coast, for the word from Washington. Waiting for the next delay, cancellation, frustration, and I was particularly waiting for a powder keg of young, eager Yanks and Wanks who had been trained, drilled, and thrilled to the straining tip of readiness, to storm the beaches of Normandy all over my single German ass.

            “Hey, Rolf!” yapped the voices at me in the cabin as I slouched on my chair, holding my throbbing head and staring at the cards arranged in a pattern on the table. “Fritz! Were you aus-gepukin’?” Guffaws. Slapping down each card with carefully contained anger, I went on playing solitaire on a table a small distance away from the other men in the cabin, while they hurled insults at me between each throw of the dice. I’d known these men for a year; I had trained with them, dug ditches with them, played war games with them, drank with them, and fought with them, and I knew their insults and moods. They both respected and resented me, and never did I fully turn my back on them, ever. “That a fun game? Bet ya always win whenya play with yourself!” “He always plays with himself.” Guffaws. “So what’s the plan—when we land, do we send him up the beach first?” “Yeah, so he can say a loud howdy-do to his buddies.” Laughter again, but with a dark undertone that warned me like a knife to my throat. I sat up straighter, every nerve taut, but I did not take my eyes from my game.

            “Hey, Videman—howdaya say ‘traitor’ in German?” Recognizing the voice, I smiled a small, evil smile, and went on playing. “Why the sour face, Sauerkraut? You deaf? Hey Krautlout, I’m talkin’ to ya!” Goddammit, he was standing up again. I threw down my cards and turned in my chair, facing him coldly. He lunged against the hands holding him back from me, his face purple as he bawled, “Want to know how I’d like to rearrange that face of yers? Think yer better’n the rest of us? We’re in this war because of you! Know what I think, havin’ to share the same ship with a murdering Nazi?” His friends forced him back and he fell, swearing, into a far cot. The dice had not stopped rolling, nor had Raymond stopped winning, and his triumphant whoop drowned out the yells from my nemesis. I turned back to my game.

            “Shut up, Martinelli, you owe me twenty bucks!” yelled Raymond. “And you leave Geoff alone. Geoff hates the Nazis even more than we do. He’s my friend, and I’ll bust your head in.” Cheerfully, he snatched dollar bills out of the hands that grudgingly held them out, and he jabbed a thumb my way. “And then, even worse, you’ll have to deal with him.” The corners of my mouth lifted as Raymond rolled his cigarette between his teeth. He barely came up to my second button, that seal pup.

            Three days on this ship. It wasn’t so bad compared to my time in the brig, after Leo Martinelli and his friends decided I was a spy and that a beating would make me confess. But worse was the suspicion which was always there, trailing me and preceding me, calling me in to answer the same questions, to tell the same damn lies because I did not have the proper papers. You’re the son of Gerhardt Weidmann? World War I they called it! Yes, that was my father. No, I was loyal to the Allies. Yes, yes, yes, I understood the importance of maintaining discipline, following orders, and obeying the officers of Her Majesty’s Army—and now, the United States Army—as I would my own.

“My father hated the War,” I had said over and over again, “he welcomed his capture. He was held by the British and eventually moved to Paris.” My service in the French army before the fall of Paris had been admirable, and yet they would not trust me. They had not trusted me then, between 1939 and 1940, in the French army. Finally, after they wasted year upon year, after they refused me the missions in Norway, Italy, and North Africa, I was deemed fit to serve.

            And serve I would, should the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces finally mount this invasion. But we were all stuck on this ship bound for nowhere, and as each hour passed my hopes sank. I doubted the command would come. If we did not take advantage of this new moon and Hitler’s relatively weak Atlantic front, if we turned back from the attack without even trying, when would the chance come again?

            Occasionally I pulled out the photo of Rrose Selavy and looked at her. Now I understood why she was laughing; Rrose Selavy was always laughing. Rrose Selavy was a trickster, faithful to no one. After I’d been prepared to give my life—to make me wait this long! To render me helpless, able only to agonize over Catherine and Yvonne and my friends with an ocean between us, to make me agonize about Antonin Artaud without any word. To force me to listen to horrible rumors about German death camps, while the U.S. dragged its feet about whether or not to get into the war. “No, Rob,” I often muttered to myself, “the most unexpected thing is not surprise.” The biggest surprise was no surprise, the blasphemy of boredom, the utter agony of being given nothing, absolutely nothing, to do in the midst of all of this. The opposite of smooth sailing was not a hurricane but drawn-out, drizzly days and nights on a ship at anchor in a peaceful port with everyone seething, and barfing.

            “Cheer up, Geoff.” Raymond walked up to me, stuffing his booty into his uniform. How he reminded me of Heumer with that white-blond hair. “It’s going to go off tonight. I know. I feel it in my gut.”

            “It’s got to happen tonight, or it’ll never happen at all,” I groaned. “If they call it off once more, I think I’ll go mad!”

            “Who’s the broad?” he asked, pointing at the photograph I held. I never took this photo out around the men, but tonight was I careless.

            Raymond O’Connell was like none of my friends in Paris. He was an Irish-American, stocky, uncomplicated. Everything about him was rough-hewn and sturdy, even his religious beliefs. He was a staunch Catholic, a staunch patriot, and a staunch gambler. If Rrose Selavy arched her chin at me, she smiled on Raymond for he rarely lost his money, just as he never lost any of the fights that inevitably erupted over his golden touch.

            Telling the story of the photograph made more time pass, so I told Raymond about how the photo came to me, which meant telling him about Robert Desnos and Rrose Selavy. It was a good story after all, and some of the men turned away from the dice roll to hear it as well. Even Martinelli, my sworn enemy, was bored enough by now to listen. “You’re a romantic, Geoff,” said Raymond when I finished.

            “Huh-uh,” I grunted, a new habit I’d acquired from my American peers. “Taking this photograph into battle is not a romantic gesture, but a Surrealist one.”

            “Here we go again.”

            “Ahhh, that painter who has that waxed moustache,” snorted Martinelli, who seemed affected by my story despite himself. Suddenly it occurred to me that if I were to cross the floor right now and send a fist into his chin, he would afterwards be my lifelong friend. He was that type of bully.

            “A what moustache?” Raymond asked.

            “Weidmann hung around a bunch of frog poets and art-teests,” chimed in someone from the back of the room. “One of them drew a moustache on the Mona Lisa.”

            “That was Marcel Duchamp” Because the first story had lifted the mood in the room, I told the story of the French soldier in the foxhole at Amiens during the Great War, and carefully amended the story to substitute my “father” in the place of me. Gerhardt Weidmann. But wasn’t he indeed my father?

            The shrill call of the whistle over the intercom yanked us all to our feet. The thrown dice rolled and bounced into a corner and lay there, and my cards fluttered to my feet. “Whatdideye say? Whatdideye say?” yelled a triumphant Raymond, his face flushed like sunburn beneath his white eyebrows.

            In the dark we assembled on deck to be loaded from our transport ship onto amphibian vehicles, called Higgins boats after their American inventor. They were an improvement over the LSTs used previously by the Allies in the Mediterranean. LST stood for Landing Ship, Tank in official military parlance, and Long Slow Target in unofficial grunt sarcasm. The LSTs held tanks, supplies, and bunks of puking men, but these Landing Craft, Mediums—or LCMs—designed by Andrew Jackson Higgins held soldiers at the ready: one jeep plus a squad of a dozen GIs, or a full platoon of thirty-six men. Higgins had also designed the larger LCVPs, or Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel, which carried tanks and equipment in addition to assault troops. All the craft were wooden, since wartime steel was scarce.

            At the sound of the whistle and the command, “Away all boats!” the LCVPs were swung over the sides of the ships by davits and placed into the sea fully manned, but the smaller LCMs were lowered, with only the coxswains aboard, into the roiling water. Then, to mount the flat-bottomed craft, we had to crawl down the side of the ship on nets while carrying all of our gear plus whatever cigarettes, tins of food, personal items, radios, life preservers, rosaries, good luck charms, and anything else the men carried in their pockets, like Raymond’s winnings. There was no way to climb all the way down to the craft, for the net stopped high above the water. Nor could the coxswains keep these unwieldy LCMs still. The boats rose and fell with the waves. Each man had to time the rise and fall of the craft and then jump the remaining ten feet—or more—from the net to the boat’s flat wooden floor. Our battalion captain, Harold Blixbey, went down first. Raymond was second. Some others followed, and finally it was my turn.

            “Jump, Geoff, when the boat hits its crest!” yelled Blixbey from far below. So I hung on to the net and forced my gaze to the floor of the craft below, impossibly far below me, that pitched in the Channel swells. Dangling from the net, I waited for the swell to rise and shorten that distance. The photo of Rrose Selavy was in my pocket for safekeeping. My smallest movement shifted the large, awkward load on my back and threw me dangerously off balance.

            “Hang on! Not yet!” Raymond called up to me. Gingerly I tested the motion of my feet; it wouldn’t do for my boots to catch in the net. And suddenly the boat below rushed upward toward me so fast that it pushed my stomach into my throat. I thought that the ship was rolling into the water. We’ve been hit! I thought, or yelled—but there was no shelling, no alarms, no yells from the men, just a chorus of “Now, Geoff!” from below. It took all my will to step into the air and release that net. I landed, gear and helmet and all, on my left leg. A bullet of pain ripped through the joint, warning me that the ankle was broken.

            Hands seized my arms and helped me to my feet, but I couldn’t stand. My foot flopped uselessly in my boot. “Are you all right?” Blixbey asked worriedly as Raymond slipped my arm around his shoulders to hold me up.

            “Gimme a minute,” I managed to reply.

            I could tell by the solemn expressions on the faces of the men that my fall had been hard indeed. Perhaps they had even heard the bone snap. My ankle throbbed like a second heart, pumping agony and fear. I gritted my teeth but already that strange coldness was enveloping me, rendering me numb and dulling the pain. Captain Blixbey looked worried, his face pale and lined in the weak light. “Weidmann, if you’re injured, tell me now!”

            I tried to take a step, and the pain increased—my foot blazed white hot like a forge. The pain shot up my leg and into my very lungs, and my heart beat wildly as if to avoid being touched by the hot spike that impaled me. “Just let me lean on something,” I gasped. I was panting and sweating, but I met Blixbey’s scrutiny with a stare as steady as I could manage on this tossing boat.

Finally, my commander turned to look out over the sea where a great shout rose from many men. “What in God’s name is going on over there?” he asked. Against the side of the neighboring ship an LCVP craft dangled halfway between the sea and the scupper. There was a groan of metal, and the craft tilted and shuddered, then hung silently. The Americans on board were hanging over the side and gesticulating frantically up to the amused British soldiers back on deck, who shouted good-natured insults and threw colored streamers and ripped paper onto them. The trapped Americans raged helplessly, suspended in mid-air with their craft and covered with this homemade confetti.

            As we watched the spectacle, Raymond eased me to the side so I could lean against the gunwale.

            The American crew cursed and protested and appealed to the Limeys above for help, and more long ringlets of paper rained down on them. They were covered in debris and the streamers got wet and tangled, enmeshing the men. The British were laughing, and so were their fuming, spider-webbed captives.

            “That’s for Concord!” yelled a voice from the deck. More paper fell. The Americans, swearing and guffawing, fought to free themselves. “That’s for Lexington! And this is for the Boston Tea Party!”

            Blixbey bellowed, “Hey, over there! The comedian! Who are you? What is the name of that ship?”

            “The Empire Javelin!” yelled a youthful British voice. “Private Ellery, suh!”

            “Well, this is Captain Harold Blixbey of the United States Army. Lower that LCVP at once.”

            “Davit’s stuck, sir!” came the reply from the deck.

            “Well, you just find a way to get it unstuck, soldier!”

            “Yes, sir,” sighed the voice.

            “And save that confetti for your wedding or by God, the minute we take Normandy I’ll marry you to Commander Rommel’s eldest daughter myself!” He tipped his hat playfully at the deck as a guffaw swept through both the redcoats and their rebel captives.

            “Yes, sir!” Men scurried around on the deck, and we heard the sound of hammering and yells. With all their might the trapped Americans belted out the song, “Here Comes the Bride,” though they couldn’t remember all of the words.

            Rolling his eyes, Blixbey turned back to us. “Rommel doesn’t have any daughters, sir,” I put in saucily, and Blixbey answered with an approving nod, then turned to supervise the descent of the rest of our team. Our battalion was all smiles. My injury was temporarily forgotten except for one soldier.

            “Just a son, eh?” Martinelli glared at me. “Changed yer last name? Geoff, you injured like a fox? A Desert Fox?”

            “Martinelli, shut up,” said Raymond.

            I sank down to the floor with him to steady me. “Raymond, help me,” I said, low. “Help me lace this boot up again, tight.”

            His look was grave, but he reached for the laces while I wiped the sweat from my face. “You can’t storm no beach with a sprain, Geoff.”

            “Can I climb back up that net with a sprain? Have them lower down a gurney?” I snapped. Raymond loosened the laces, then pulled them taut and slipped them through the holes again. At the constriction my pain ebbed. “That’s better. Look, man, don’t worry about me, and don’t wait for me on the beach—just look out for yourself. I’ll be fine, I promise.”

            Raymond tied off the laces and sat back. “Okay, pal. Whatever you say.”

            I sat back. He squatted beside me. I reached in my pocket for my pack of cigarettes and offered him one. He took it. “Hey,” he said then. “Want a Hertz doughnut?”

            “What?” I asked eagerly. Even though they had served us breakfast half an hour ago I could eat. Raymond pinched the skin on my neck and twisted it. “Ouch!”

            “Hurts, don’t it?” he teased. For that I put my hand on his shoulder and gave him a good shove. He sat down hard, his equipment clattering, and we both laughed. Blixbey looked over at us. I gave him a thumbs-up, then puffed my cigarette and concentrated on my ankle. Knit, damn it.

            Our craft was filling up. Soon there would be no room but for men to stand crammed together. I climbed to my feet and remained upright this time. The sea had grown even choppier. Cold spray exploded over the eye-level gunwales and pelted us in the face. Half of the crew was puking again, already. The waves crashed, the ship pitched, the men heaved, and vomit mingled with the salt water at our feet to form a noxious, very slippery paste.

            At last everyone fell aboard and our craft pulled away from the transport to circle with the others. In this crush of bodies men were forced to empty their guts where they stood. Backpacks, rifles, uniforms, and the backs of heads got coated with vomit.

            “How you doing?” urped Raymond. I planted my feet apart and stayed there. He let go of me and winked.

            “It’s that barf-stink knocking me down!” I declared. The sea water did not wash it off but made it worse.

            The man directly in front of me cranked his head around. I could make out only the glint of light from his eyes. For a wild moment I was certain he was my old British captain, a thin pale little man, who had sponsored my training when the British top brass finally cleared me. I saw the face of Captain Dawson, who would of course not be here on an American LCM. “Oh—no, no, Weidmann,” Dawson was forever snapping at me with his pinched snort. Whenever I picked up a rifle or set it down, or bayoneted a hay bale or didn’t, or shot at a target, or merely tugged at the unending series of undersized uniforms they squeezed me into, he had been there with that groan and his eyes rolled heavenward. “Oh—no, Weidmann, my God, no! My God!” The other soldiers assured me that Captain Dawson did this with every green recruit and that it was, in fact, a display of approval, and sometimes pride.

            At first I had trained with the British 50th Infantry Division, under the watchful, baleful eye of that intense Captain Dawson until one day in March, 1943. I had just emptied my rifle on the firing range and was trying to reload while squirming irritably in my latest uniform, which was long enough in the waist but too small in the shoulders. “Oh—no,” groaned a voice behind me, but it was deep and booming, not Captain Dawson’s. “No, son, no. Who issued you that rag?” Confused by this new voice, I stood up before a man as tall as me. One harried glance at the stars along his shoulders and I stiffened into a salute.

            “At ease, boy.” The general’s hawk’s eyes took in my target, 600 meters away, its core densely dotted with my shots. “You’re no Limey,” he remarked, putting a hand on my shoulder. My eyes followed his down to where my ankles poked out.

            “Private Weidmann, sir,” I blabbered as an afterthought.

            “Oh, the Kraut!” The hand on my shoulder tightened, and I was pulled along beside him into a brisk walk while the other men stopped their target practice to stare. I clutched my rifle and allowed the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force to lead me to his jeep. Captain Dawson’s thin, bony face seemed to have been eaten up by his eyes. “This man’s coming with me,” said the gruff American voice. “29th Division, U.S. Infantry. He’s just the German, so you won’t mind me taking him off your hands, Dawson.” Those gray eyes of his twinkled at my target again. I was a crack shot.

            “Oh, no,” sighed Captain Dawson under his breath. “Oh God, not Weidmann, no. My best man!” And I had given him a nasty glance for that, but his hazel eyes had already rolled heavenward.

            At the American barracks I was thrown a uniform by a lieutenant who fairly glowed to be in the presence of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Yank uniform fitted me perfectly, and it was smarter and of a better cut than the British togs. In time I was to learn that the Americans were paid more, too—almost twice the British were paid—and being healthier and more dapper, the Americans stole the attention of the local girls. This didn’t go over too well with my former comrades, who had always sneaked me dirty looks for my tall frame and thick hair and straight, white teeth—and now they sneered outright. The British soldiers were sallow, blitzkrieg-weary, cynical about war, and somewhat undernourished, whereas the Americans, green from the farms and small towns of isolationist America, were sun-bronzed, healthy, and eager. My own robust skin and body, as well as my enthusiasm to fight again, made me fit right in with them—until they found out I was German.

            I couldn’t comprehend the animosity between the white and black GIs, an undercurrent that turned violent in the pubs on weekends in Salisbury or London. Fights and even gunshots broke out between whites and blacks, and the Army responded by segregating us. I hated it. Many of my friends were in the Services of Supply, and going to a pub with a bunch of white Yanks who trained their suspicious eyes on me, the sole Kraut, was no fun. Several times I managed to wheedle a special liberty from my American commanding officer, which allowed me to accompany the black GIs who had become my friends. This officer’s name was—of all the names he could have had—General Gerhardt, and though he was very demanding he bent the rules for me on the rationale that my ability to befriend both white and black soldiers was good for morale. We were, after all, here for the same reason.

            But the youngster who turned to me now, this weedy kid standing in front of me who reminded me of Dawson, was not anyone I knew. “I just got transferred. Did you play football in Iowa a few years back?” he asked me. “Mason City? I think I know you.”

            “No,” I replied. “Sorry.”

            “I bet you can’t believe I ever played football, but I was keen,” bragged the stranger. He was indeed skinny and he quavered in nervous aggression. “When I got the ball I would bob and weave and no man could get his hands on me. So I figure I’ll just do the same at Normandy. Dodge those bullets.”

            “You do that, son,” said Captain Blixbey’s voice. There was a weight in it. The kid turned around again.

            “Can’t be more than sixteen!” I hissed to Raymond. He nodded and flicked his cigarette.

            As our boat cruised around the mother ship in ever-widening circles, a familiar British accent was carried to me from over the waves. The sound of it made me crane my neck. “Oh, no, no!” it said. “No, lad! You’ve got us in the middle of the 116th! See those transports? See the letter ‘O’ painted on them? That means ‘Omaha,’ not Gold Beach—or did you think that the American beaches are dusted with gold? You got drinking partners among the Yanks, do you? Well then, steer us back to our rightful place. My God, my God, we’re lost, what a disaster!”

            I leaned across Raymond to put my mouth as close as I could to the gunwale and yelled: “You missed a great Spam breakfast, Captain Dawson!” In a far boat, I saw a dim form turn in the grey light.

            He called back, “Oh, Christ. Such a caterwaul as that could only come from one man. Lower your voice, Weidmann, or you’ll alert the whole Jerry coast.” The men around me chuckled.

            “I can take them down from here!” I bellowed.

            The boat pulled closer. Dawson’s answering snort had humor in it. “Had you not bailed on us like the star-struck glamour-gadding Wanker you are, you would have had a splash of rum with fried egg sandwiches this morning instead of your vile American Spam!”

            “Please don’t say ‘splash,’ sir,” urped someone. Captain Dawson raised a hand to me and his astray craft accelerated out of our line.

These small jokes and pranks heartened us, yet now all we could do was wait again. Clutching our rifles, standing shoulder to shoulder and chest to back, we were hurtled at last across the heaving ocean. Only a faint sliver of moon guided our path across the surging black water. I couldn’t imagine how the driver knew where he was going. Riding in the amphibian craft was worse than circling the ship in it and whatever we had not already spewed came up and ended up on a neighbor and on ourselves. I resisted as long as I could, then coughed up stomach acid. “God, when are we going to make shore?” I groaned. “I’m ready. I was ready five hours ago!”

            A voice warned us from somewhere, “Savor the sea, boys. The sea is life. The beach is death.”

            “The beach is victory!” yelled someone else. There were a few feeble cheers. Someone wretched again.

            Raymond, standing at my side, reached out to tap the shoulder of the youngster in front of me. The boy looked back again. “What’s your name, kid?”

            “Matthews. Timothy Matthews.” His voice trembled, and his rifle was fairly shook in his hands.

            “Well, this here is Geoff Weidmann, and I’m Raymond O’Connell. We’re pleased to meet you.”

            “Listen, Tim. I lied about my age, too,” I told the kid soothingly. “And during my first mission I was as scared as you are now. No—don’t deny it.” Unable to put up my hand because of the press of bodies, I talked over him. “That makes it worse. Accept it. Never fight your fear. You’ll have plenty of enemies out there without making one of yourself.”

            The kid nodded like an automaton. “Right.”

“You’ll be okay, Tim,” I added.

“Sure. Yeah. Uh, thanks.” Then he faced forward again. His shoulders shuddered, and the back of his neck beneath the cropped hair looked very thin and vulnerable.

            The air brightened almost imperceptibly, but I felt the change. A knot tightened in my stomach and I urged the craft on to beat the dawn. The LCM flew over the water, chopping against the water like a dull ax against wood. Dawn was our enemy. I strained for any sign of shore, saw none, and suddenly the thought formed—I was invading France again. How strange.

            “What’s strange?” said a soldier close to me. When I didn’t answer he said, “Yeah, sure is.”

            Land appeared as a dream, a darker grey against the sky. No—a wave, it had been a wave. We pushed on. The wave crested, held, and hardened into a horizon. Distant explosions reached our ears and they flashed like lightning, but the sea around us was still. Our craft slowed, and my heart beat fast. We took position between the minesweepers and the destroyers. From the German batteries on that occupied shore came no fire upon us even as they endured the shelling from the sky. The flares being dropped on the shore to mark paratrooper landing spots were called, of all things, “Christmas Trees.” The warships were not due to fire on that shore until 0550 hours, so we held position and waited again. The silence seemed to reach into us from the few surviving stars and the men did not raise their voices above a whisper, as if in fear that the Germans could hear us even out here.

            When the Germans finally opened fire our dim dawn swelled with an unnatural sun. I went from hearing nothing to being deaf in my ringing ears. Our answering artillery knocked us sideways from the concussion. Shells passed overhead and some fell short. Men ducked. Geysers erupted silently in the sea around our boats in this din. The destroyers were now shifting their fire, moving it inland and further along. I thought of the towns imprisoned along that coast, the innocent residents there being shelled by their liberators, being wounded, getting killed. Each salvo from a destroyer knocked the ship backward each time it fired, and it sent a clap of air into our ears and huge waves crashing against our boat. Drifting smoke and clouds of debris obscured everything now. Shells fired at us from the coast screamed right by us. They were aimed too low and they overshot their targets. Among us no shout could be louder than a look. We stood awed at the overhead tentacles of flame. The battleships continued to fire but now our Higgins boats raced toward land.

            The firing continued for five more minutes, and then abruptly stopped. The silence was more painful than the din had been. “Look at ‘em,” Raymond bellowed in my ear—he had to. At the top of the bluff were bunkers, well concealed, and all along the hillside were pillboxes and trenches, but no one fired on us. It didn’t look as if the hillside had been touched by any of the destroyers, and not from our planes either which were supposed to have bombed the coast. The Germans weren’t out of commission; they were simply watching us. They were waiting. I felt frightened, a creepy sort of fear. “Where is the goddamned air force?” Raymond asked.

            I scanned that lurching beach. “What are they waiting for? Why don’t they shoot us already?”

            We torpedoed closer. The DD tanks that had been sent ahead of us to cover our assault rose up now. They had foundered, still far out to sea, and what men could escape were bailing out. Someone said, “Shit.” Our craft overtook them and continued, now wholly exposed, toward the yellow sand.

            “We’re on our own, pal,” yelled Raymond.

            Far from shore, before our craft could land, the bullets rained down on us. We wouldn’t have been under heavier fire if God pissed bullets. Metal demons whizzed above our heads, bounced along the craft, and hit some of the men. They fell like cut wheat. This barrage forced the coxswain to lower the door where we were.

            I yelled at Raymond, “Don’t wait for me.” The columns of men half-jumped, half-fell into the water. I jumped and went under, plunging into a green-gray, garbled twilight of limbs and muted shrieks. Salt water filled my ears and eyes and mouth. Bullets zinged past me in the water as if through mere air; the sea offered no protection. I hit the bottom like a stone. Frantically I inflated my Mae Vest—the standard issue life vest—and dropped my pack. With that weight gone the vest carried me upward, and I broke the surface and gasped for air. I found I was still clutching my rifle. My body pushed against the bobbing weights of men already dead, of men dying horribly, shot, paralyzed and drowning. The water was a brilliant red. The iron tang of blood remained on my tongue as I slogged desperately for shore.

With a foothold in the sand I surged forward with all my strength, which placed itself suddenly and effortlessly at my command. My limbs felt light and obeyed me like a mechanism. I charged out of the surf and into the hail of bullets, letting out an exultant roar that bared my stinging teeth. I was heedless of fear—not void of it, but too busy. Fear was like the slight pain in my ankle, long healed, merely sore.

“We’re off! We’re way off, dammit!” Raymond yelled from somewhere as we ran. “Half our boats ain’t here and we’re in the wrong place!”

Son of a bitch! I thought. Those Higgins deathtraps had swung wide with every breath of wind, and then we had sat forever off the coast, waiting for H-Hour while slowly drifting. God damn it! The transports that were supposed to guide us in hadn’t shown up either. Even the DD tanks that didn’t hadn’t sunk were nowhere in sight. As far as I could tell we were north of Les Moulins, our target—that was my gut feeling. Hoping someone would hear me I yelled into this chaos:

“Look, men, take it from here! From where you are!” The other half of E Company wasn’t here, either. I ran up the beach with my rifle at the ready. What seemed to be a bolt of lightning flashed and I sprawled onto my stomach in the moist sand. I crawled forward, chin and stomach against that sand until I was at the shingle, the low wall of sand that separated the beach in front of us from the upward slope of the tidal flat behind us that was dry because it was low tide. The shingle was lined with nasty-looking razor wire, impossible to climb through without blowing a hole in it. Bullets from the bluff ahead stabbed the air over my head. I and the other men—other men? I looked around.

Less than one third of them were still moving. The others lay bleeding or blown up on the sand, or were tossed in the crimson waves. As I watched, another craft lowered its drawbridge door and every man inside—every last one—took a bullet and fell before they even hit the water. That boy I had just met, that Tim, was sprawled on the beach behind me and staring up at the sky, his face smooth now and devoid of fear. My stomach lurched painfully as I saw bullets continue to pick off men. For the Germans, it was like stomping grapes in a barrel. Between the ocean and their strongholds up the cliff we were pinned to the sand, cowering behind that shingle, and behind us the tide was rising.

Metal obstacles had been placed here to ward off foreign landings at high tide. They stuck up like crooked metal crucifixes on the beach. Their shapes were menacing but they provided shelter from the gunfire, although as the tide rose they would be deadly too; some had mines attached. Behind me Raymond managed to crawl to one and take shelter from the gunfire briefly, then continued his mad dash up the shingle to me. Commander Blixbey threw himself beside me, sand clinging to the sweat around his eyes. The look I saw in them was stoicism. “I was told to expect high casualties,” he said. Well, no one had told us to expect this.

Raymond made it and threw himself down on the sand on my left. “Been waitin’ for ya,” he teased—trust him to muster up some humor. He pressed a flask into my hand. “Took it off someone. He ain’t using it, now.”

“Alcohol is food,” Captain Blixbey said. I took a swig of the whiskey, handed it to Blixbey, then passed it back to Raymond. “I can’t even feel it.”

“Captain, we can’t stay here,” I shouted over the din. “Even before the tide reaches us, the Germans will shell the flat.”

“Weidmann, we are not going to stay here,” he yelled back. “We’re going to accomplish our objective. First we have to regroup and blast this wire. Then we’re going to cross that beach and get up that escarpment. I need one of you to spread the word. Tell the men to round up all the Bangalore torpedoes they can carry, and then you meet me back here.”

“I’ll go, sir,” said Raymond, and before I could stop him he took off, running bent over across the exploding sand. He disappeared into the smoke.

“We need that radio,” Blixbey said. “Our new coordinates—”

“Johnson’s dead, sir, and the radio’s smashed,” I said.

Blixbey’s small face was pouring sweat. He reached up to unhook his chin strap, then wrestled with it, shrugging off my help until he mangled his helmet from his head. In a rage he hurled it at the sand. “We can’t just sit here!”

But sit there was just what we did. We crouched behind the shingle as more transports came in. Whenever I could I ran back and forth through the gunfire, to the sea to pull in floundering men, back to the shingle carrying what the dead had dropped: a ration tin, a working rifle for my captain, one Bangalore torpedo. With this I managed to blast a small hole through the wire. Whenever I raised my rifle to fire upon the bluff Blixbey would yell, “Who the hell can you see to shoot at?” and each time I said, “Nobody, sir.” I just didn’t know what else to do.

Planes appeared in the sky, two bomber planes high over the coast. They dove sharply and angled to fly along the beach. “Look out!” Blixbey shouted. We flatted ourselves against the obstacle. More bullets peppered the sand in lethal lines as the aircraft shrieked directly over us. Scores of men fell.

“This is a blood bath, sir!” I screamed.

            Suddenly I was obscenely angry. It was one thing for me to come here expecting, even welcoming, my own death; it was another to be the sole immortal on the beach and watch hundreds of men die right before my eyes. Our destroyers scored hit after direct hit, yet the pillboxes survived and return fired on us. More and more boats arrived, more and more drawbridges lowered, and more and more men fell, dead before they could drown. And if it was like this here what was going on at Utah Beach, and Gold, and Juno? If we didn’t move forward soon no one would link up with the Airborne and the free French divisions inland, and no one but the remaining DD tanks could protect the Services of Supply hauling their equipment and rations inland too. There could be no other Allied invasion on the scale of Operation Overlord, and if Overlord failed the war would be over, today, within hours.

And how did I know modern firepower would finish me off when nothing else had? Now, seeing the wholesale slaughter of the 116th, I wanted revenge. I wanted to see this mission through to the end, to drive Hitler out of France, to march with my men into Paris and to go home. Home. The thought of embracing Catherine again, and reaching out to clasp Desnos’s hand, finding Yvonne, releasing Artaud from that place of mind-torture, galvanized me. How could I want to die when they were waiting for me, counting on me? We had to break through.

Through the haze I could hear, cutting across the screams and the men yelling at each other to speak up, a Commanding Officer bellowing at the top of his lungs: “Lieutenant, get your men moving! Get these men off their asses and up that bluff!”

“He’s a madman, but he’s right,” Blixbey said. “The men are in disarray but we can’t go back.”

“Sir, I’ll go,” I said.

I pulled myself on my stomach through the blast opening in the wire. Blixbey shoved me from behind until I was clear. Seeing a metallic gleam on the green bluff ahead, I quickly rose to one knee and fired my rifle. A soldier fell out of the brush and disappeared behind the swamps.

Other men—Commanding Officers and infantry alike—had the same idea. They crawled through small openings in the wire and snaked across the beach alone, or in improvised squads. I recognized a few from F Company, never intended to flank us. Now I realized that probably every sector had landed off target. The plan was abandoned.

Some of the men managed to run to the bluff; others, soaked and exhausted, slogged across the beach as though against a strong wind. Many were quickly cut down in the hail of bullets, or blown apart by the concealed mines, but others made it and began picking their way up the grassy hillside. Oddly enough it was the charging line of men at the front who suffered the most casualties. The stragglers behind practically strolled all the way to the shelter of the bluff, encountering little if any fire. I clamped my helmet onto my head, rose up from my knees and firing my rifle from the hip, sprinted straight up the beach toward the mined swamps. For some reason it was then that I noticed that Omaha Beach was indeed dusted with gold sand. It was beautiful and clean, winking in the sun. No artillery fire had marred it.

            I kept running, now firing high into the air at the casements on the cliff. The sand erupted into small explosions behind me, but I was running faster than a man could swing his gun around, dodging the gunfire as no human being could. My plan was to frighten them out of their wits.

Beyond the beach, someone had managed to mark a path through the treacherous, mined bog with bits of cloth, and more and more men survived its crossing. More and more men were reaching the bluff. Once I had crossed the swamp too, I realized that the casements above us were not able to fire straight down. From here, any soldier was protected by the cliff and could easily scale this bluff. My knees were knocking together after wading this mined water. I collapsed and sat in the dirt for a moment. Something was heavy in my pocket; I reached into it and withdrew the flask of whiskey. Raymond must have placed it there before he ran off.

            Raymond. He was probably dead by now. “I should have gone in his place,” I said to no one in particular. “I should have landed on Normandy alone. The Germans could shoot me, wait until I rise again, and shoot me again. Shoot me and shoot me a thousand times instead of killing thousands in one hour.”

            It all sickened me. The beach was strewn with bodies. The waves threw up and sucked down bodies. Bodies floated far out to sea. Men were floundering, screaming, drowning in the water. Men were scrambling, screaming, and dying on the beach. “This is the Somme all over again,” I told a young American who squatted, suddenly out of nowhere, next to me. I offered him a swig from the flask, but he held up a purloined tin of Spam and grinned. He had a gold front tooth. “Good for you,” I said. “We all need a second breakfast.”

            “We all need a second wind,” he returned. “Lots are losing faith.”

            “Yeah,” I said. As he watched me, I wiped the sweat from my face and then stood up to scan the bluff. He stood and did the same.

            The escarpment must have been at least two-hundred meters high. There was no way an ordinary man could throw a grenade that distance, but perhaps I could do it. I unclipped my grenade and released the pin, then sank my shoulder low and hurled the thing upward with all my might. “Whoa,” said the soldier as it rose. It climbed higher and higher and finally dwindled to a speck.

We both couldn’t help chuckling when a small explosion at the summit sent out a dainty plume. Then a faint voice from there cursed me and the mother who bore me, and informed me that Allied grenades were no match against German cannons. I could have been imagining it, but the voice sounded panicked. My companion cheered, and a whoop went up from the beach and from our soldiers climbing the bluff. Some of the men fairly screamed with laughter. They needed someone to lead them.

            I contemplated a way to get back to Blixbey. The Germans above were almost certainly lying in wait for me now. “Climb,” I told my companion, and then I climbed another trench several hundred meters to where it met another, which scrambled down to the ground again. I slogged slowly through the marsh, testing the murk in front of me with the tip of my long knife. If I jabbed a mine my arm would be blown from my body, but what was such danger to me? Me, who could not die? But my path was clear, and as best I could I marked it with bits of cloth I ripped from my uniform. Bursting from the marsh I ran pell-mell across the sand, surpentining to avoid the swarm of bullets that flew around me like enraged hornets.

            I reached the shingle while the men behind it urged me on. I climbed through another hole in the wire and dove onto the flat, safe now. Bullets splattered the sand harmlessly, and hands reached out to jog my shoulder and slap my back. The tide was rising and everyone had moved forward, forsaking the refuge of the mined obstacles to flatten themselves on the firm sand.

            I took out the flask, put it to my lips, and spilled whiskey down my front. My hands were shaking uncontrollably but I held the bottle high for one stupid, reckless moment in salute while men’s face beamed in desperate adulation. Madmen, all of us. Then I capped the flask and tossed it to another solider, and began crawling back to where Blixbey still lay. Now he barked coordinates to someone on a phone held by a soldier whom I didn’t recognize.

            Blixbey slammed down the receiver and jabbed a thumb at the private, who scrambled across the shingle bringing the radio to the next CO. Then my captain looked up and saw me. I dove for his patch of sand and Raymond was there to pull me to safety.

            Raymond and I exchanged punches the way Desnos and I used to, like a couple of schoolboys. “The bluff isn’t what it looks from here, sir,” I reported eagerly. We three put our heads together against the bullets. “The slopes are cut through with trenches, abandoned, and the bluff provides protection. It’s a cinch for any man, once he crosses the swamps, to climb them. There’s a few marked paths through the mines.” I drew a rough sketch in the sand with my finger.

            “Good work, Weidmann,” Blixbey said. “Nice throw, too—Lieutenant.” Raymond beamed with pride at me. But then Blixbey caught my chin-strap and pulled my face close. His nose practically touched mine. “Now, Hot Dog, you listen to me. Considering our warships haven’t made a dent up there, I suggest you stop trying to fight this war all by yourself!” He released me with a vicious shove to my chin. “We’re going to—we are all going to charge that escarpment. I need you to transmit our plan to the rest of the men. Got that? You’re going to lead them, not run ahead all by yourself like you’re goddamned Superman.” Raymond had brought a few of those comics from home and they had been passed from man to man until they were practically falling apart. “Now take it down a notch! Get off your butt and use that energy of yours to boost the morale of your men, Lieutenant.”

            “Yes, sir!” I replied. “I’m on it, sir.”

            “Weidmann, calm down.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            Half crawling, half running, stumbling across the narrowing beach, Raymond and I managed to spread the word. Many of the men were fresh, having come in on the second wave. Some stared at us with wide, uncomprehending eyes, others were weeping, and some had soiled their pants in fear. This was not what they had trained for—even seasoned infantry quailed before it. This was far worse than Africa or Sicily. Mute and terrified, they listened to me issue my orders. A mission, any mission, would rouse them. They needed something, anything, to do.

With Raymond’s help I organized a ragtag team, all strangers to each other. “On my signal!” I bellowed, then brought down my arm. Flashes followed it, holes blown in the wire. Behind us the tide had crested, and all of the obstacles were covered. Waves of Higgins boats were still coming in, but now they unloading hundreds of meters out to sea, in water two and three meters deep. Infantrymen bobbed like corks, slowly slogging inland, sitting ducks in the water and sitting ducks on the crowded beach. Some transports did unload close to shore, and some of these were blown apart by the mined obstacles. More and more exhausted infantry hauled themselves onto the sand, and more and more dead bodies tumbled in the waves.

This couldn’t go on. We had to move inland as a force. I inched my way through a hole in the wire, wondering if any of those petrified boys back there would actually follow me, but they did. Every single one of them did. They had blown holes through the wire and now wriggled through on their stomachs too.

            Tasting acid in my mouth I held up my arm, then threw it forward and ran for the marked paths dotting swampland. With a roar, the men rose up from the dwindling shingle and followed me. A primitive force made me aim my rifle at the bluff and fire it repeatedly, each time causing a body to fall. But behind me, despite my best efforts, bodies also fell and lay face down in the golden sand of Omaha Beach.

            I fell back, covering as many men as I could. Most of us made it to the swamps and there, the bullets stopped. There was a roar overhead and gratified, I looked up. The warships far out to sea were shelling the top of the bluff again.

            “Lieutenant!” yelled Raymond from the bluff. “Hurry up!” I clamped my helmet tighter on my head and hurried after him. I reached the bluff. The men were climbing, and from behind us another wave of infantry rose up from the shingle and charged.

            Appalled, I took one last wild look at the beach, at its carnage of dead and maimed. The sea positively roiled with bodies. There were more dead men out there than I had ever seen alive at any time in my life. And here I was—I had crossed that beach of death twice. I could have crossed it a million times myself in place of the brave, decent men out there, and died and rose and fell again in their places. And here I stood, unharmed, untouched! Not even bruised.

            I felt a commanding hand on my shoulder. I wanted to sink to the ground under the weight of the sorrow I could feel in its heaviness, but Captain Blixbey gripped my arm with his other hand and shook me. “Let it go. Let it go, Lieutenant. Turn around, face the bluff, and climb.” I obeyed.

            At first we climbed in squads, then some of us broke away to clear the many smaller trenches around the main ones. These offered places for lone Germans to ambush our lines. I was one of these lone snipers. I moved silently along the path, sneaking up on pillboxes and on hidden lookouts and picking off the men in them without any sound except for the sharp, sure retort of my rifle. They were still my people, the sons of my neighbors, the nephews of my enemies, the relatives and friends of strangers, and the best that I could do was to make sure that their deaths were swift and painless.

            Suddenly my rifle was shot, clean as spit from Benjamin Péret before a priest, out of my hands. I recoiled. My rifle gleamed in the grass. As I reached for it, a small movement above me made me look up. There, almost completely obscured by brush, was a cement pillbox manned by a single German soldier with his machine gun trained squarely on me.

            I froze, but the blond soldier behind it was beaming such a look of joy that I wondered if I knew him. “Kamerad!” he called out, then leaped out of his hidden pillbox—he left his machine gun and scrambled over the wall and with hands in the air approached me, who was unarmed. I watched him suspiciously.

            “Kamerad!” he babbled, his hands pumping in the air in a silent cheer. “I am not German! Polish. Pole.” He pointed to himself. “Prisoner. We all decided, before you came, we won’t shoot Americans.” He came to a standstill close to my rifle, and I quickly laid my hand on it. “Don’t shoot!” he begged.

            Rifle in hand I rose to my feet, then covered him while I swept the area. We were alone here. My knees were shaking, but I trained a stern look at my prisoner. “Geben Sie auf?”

            “Yah! Yah!” He nodded emphatically, then blinked. “Jah. Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

            “Ich bin Deutscher, aber haben Sie keine Angst. I’m with the Allies. I won’t shoot you if you show me the safest way to the summit for my men.”

            “Anything! But then I get to go to prison camp in America!” He blessed the nation with two index fingers held aloft in a bodily victory salute.

            I chuckled and prodded him to start walking. He would get shipped off to merry old England instead. But let him have his dream of going to America. I had that dream, myself.

            We reached the squads, and I called out for the men to wait. The Pole and I walked ahead, and behind us the men fanned out to clear the pillboxes that he pointed out. With frantic glee, more and more conscripted soldiers surrendered—Poles, White Russians, Czechs, even Asians. Some were sent ahead like my prisoner, and the others were marched back down to the beach where they sat, prisoners of war, in groups along the edge of the bluff. Their gratitude to be liberated was genuine—in fact it was almost embarrassing—and I had half a mind to suggest that they be issued rifles too.

            Whereas the foreign soldiers surrendered in droves or ran the first chance they got, the German soldiers remained at their posts, firing hellfire and curses back at us with surprising tenacity. When I took cover from the gunfire in a shallow trench, for the first time I got a good look at the German strongholds that had rained down so much destruction. My heart sank. No bullets, no grenades would penetrate those thick concrete walls! Our enemies were dug in, and we were simply going to have to rush them, as we had rushed the beach. The men were all looking at me, and I saw terror creep back into their eyes. This would not do.

“All right, hooligans! We know it’s suicide to rush them, and they know it’s suicide to rush them,” I commanded. “So rush them is what we’re going to do! But first we’re going to create such a racket it’ll scare the piss out of them. Only someone insane would run toward those bunkers and right up to their big guns—and that’s what we are! Insane! We’re not soldiers—we’re lunatics!” I paused to let the men answer me in a chorus of shouts. “Believe you me, none of those Krauts in there actually thinks we’re gonna run across that damn field and take that damn stronghold. So first, on my mark, we’re going to throw a line of grenades in unison at those cannons—no, I don’t expect the grenades to take out the cannons—and then we’re going to charge, firing and screaming at the top of our lungs like Ganges Khan. No, our bullets won’t take out those cannons either, nor are they likely to kill or wound one damn German. What our grenades and bullets and shouts will do is scare the living hell out of them! Men, when they hear us coming, they are going to shit their pants!

“So what are we, men?” I finished. “Men, or madmen?”

Following my arm they pumped their rifles in the air. “Madmen!”

“Are we lubbers, or are we lunatics?” I yelled. Blixbey, holding a position nearby, looked over at me and for a moment it seemed that I was in his place; I was the one lying behind that large rock, clutching his rifle, and looking over at this maniac that I had become. Artaud was right—I enjoyed combat. I had always enjoyed combat. I wanted to take that bunker, I wanted to see the men inside of it watch us in disbelief as we bore down on them. It was an impossible, stupid mission, and precisely because of that I thought of it. And these men raised their rifles again and bellowed, “LUNATICS!” because they could tell that I was enjoying myself. I was having a great time, dammit, and they would follow me right off a cliff if I led them to it—and briefly I wondered if that was not indeed where I was leading them. Artaud wasn’t half the madman I was.

“On the count of three,” I told the men. “One.” Each man rising to one knee, we readied our rifles. I pulled out a grenade and they followed suit. “Two.” We all crouched.

“Three!” I cried. I heard the staccato snaps of many grenades pins being pulled. We stood as a group. Their green ovals whipped through the air.

“Charge!” I yelled before the tiny projectiles hit the ground. With a hideous roar the men rose up, and for a second that bunker with its cannons pointed right at us was framed in the serene backlight of the sun. As we, howling and gobbling, ran toward it, I caught movement in the opening. Someone managed to fire off one single round before our grenades went off. Smoke filled the sky and rushed toward us, pelting us with stinging ash and debris. The air was filled with shrieks—from their men, and from my men. I saw my men falling and dying, and living and running, before everything was lost in the smoke and the bullets.

I fell, hard. I clutched the wound in my thigh. I had been shot clean through; in seconds I was able to stand. There was almost no blood. I hobbled relentlessly forward. The smoke was drifting now, thinning a bit, and the retorts of the cannon flashed around me. I stumbled over one body, then another. Ahead of me I heard shrieks in German—high pitched, panicked cries of disbelief—just before the second round of grenades exploded inside that bunker.

I threw myself forward. My remaining men had reached the bunker. With their grenades and guns, they were killing the Germans now trapped inside. I reached out, touched something unbelievably hot, and snatched my hand back. It was the cannon muzzle. “Lieutenant!” yelled a voice in the swirling smoke.

The voice was right next to me, but I couldn’t see a thing. Black dust was pouring out of the bunker. It hung around us in a grotesque haze, smelling thick and sweet with skin and hair. I dropped to my knees so that I could breathe, and felt a swallow of burning whiskey convulse from me. I spat repeatedly, my mouth burning.

Raymond’s face was level with mine. Then I recognized two other men. I looked around and in the lifting haze I saw the field we’d just crossed. Nearly the entire squad lay on it. Two men were all I had left, plus Raymond. Where had he come from?

“We just overran two bunkers and slaughtered everyone inside,” he shouted to me. “The men are marching inland, but I came back to find you.”

Inland! I thought.

The dust cleared, though the black smoke hung over us like shades of the dead. I rose up and peered through the opening into the bunker. Raymond and the other men followed suit. We stood and looked at the carnage inside. Raymond eyed the menacing cannon jealously. “I wish we could turn this baby around and fire it on the second line of strongholds!”

“So do I, Raymond,” I replied. “So do I.” Then for some reason, I thought to check my watch. It was waterproof, bought especially to survive the invasion, but I had not even remembered it until now. The time was 1330. We had been in France a little over seven hours.

            Thousands of American, British, and Canadian soldiers lost their individual wars that day. But we all won the battle. By late afternoon, the coast of Normandy was more or less under the control of the Allied Forces, and Omaha Beach was secured for continued transports. LCTs anchored offshore, and Higgins boats ferried the wounded to them at last. Columns of men came ashore and walked calmly up that beach, that scene of carnage, to the embankment. I knew that somewhere in these reinforcements was Ernest Hemingway, Desnos’s friend, a war correspondent for Collier’s. Tanks, trucks, ammo and food were rolled ashore. Airships hovered in silent menace over the battered German fortifications. It was a sight indeed. As I stood on the cliff looking over that stolen beach of gold, I wished Franz could have seen it with me.

Unlike Omaha, Utah Beach had been quickly taken. Those troops moved steadily inland toward Saint Mere Eglise to meet up with the 82nd Airborne Division. In the Bay of the Seine, north of our objective, the British Second Army overran Gold Beach, and the valiant Ninth Canadian Brigade crossed Juno to make the deepest penetration of any Allied force that day. I thought of Captain Dawson too and hoped he lived to savor this day.

We struggled inland. Here there were moments of peace even in war: when the German guns overheated and the artillery stopped firing, when my muzzle was pointing down into a trench that suddenly sprouted upraised hands, or when our German prisoners burst into irreverent guffaws because their commanding officer, a sneering whip of a man, refused to stand in the same line with his own subordinates, until a gun muzzle shoved by Raymond against his nuts made him obey. Occupation had been hell for everyone, our enemies included. For those of us who stormed Omaha hell was oddly interspersed with moments, like the time Raymond and I met at the bunker, of acrid calm. Capture was a mercy for our prisoners, many of them old, shrunken men and mere boys. I marveled at this travesty of Hitler’s army—elderly men and children!

“What would be next? Conscripting women and girls?” I bit out. But as I said this I wondered how many women and girls had been prostituted by their invaders. I wondered if Catherine and Youki and Nusch were eyed hungrily, and—even—mental patients in asylums.

I turned to Raymond to ask him if I should banish this fear, but to my surprise I locked eyes with Martinelli, my mortal enemy. Blixbey had made it, and Raymond, and Martinelli, and two others from my company. The rest were dead, or wounded and on their way back to Britain. According to Blixbey three had sustained severe wounds while still in our craft. The coxswain had wheeled the craft around and brought them back to our LCT, and that was all those soldiers would experience of Operation Overlord. Surely they were disappointed, but I was glad for them. I seek the gold of time. These men had more of it, now.

We sat around a campfire that night, gobbling rations and smoking, and bragging as only newly-tested veterans can. Blixbey sat next to me, the new Lieutenant, and he looked around at our bedraggled group. He set down his tin and looked as if he were about to say something, but changed his mind and just gazed into the fire. Then he reached into his pocket and held the pack out to me. “Weidmann,” he said as I took a cigarette, “when word reaches Washington how you and your men charged that bunker, you are a sure candidate for the Purple Heart.”

“Paris is the prize,” I said quietly. “I have a sister-in-law there, my aunt, and a friend, Robert Desnos—and another friend, Antonin Artaud, who’s in the mental hospital. I’m afraid of what could be happening to them.” Christ, the thought of Artaud gutted me—was my pilgrim even alive?

He lit a match for me. “You often mention this Artaud.” That was strange; I thought I had talked most of Desnos. “You and he must have been inseparable.”

I blew out smoke and told him, “Actually, we had a falling out. When I had to flee Paris, he and I had not spoken for two years. I went to the asylum to see him but he did not acknowledge me. He did not recognize his mother at first, either…” My voice trailed away.

            Blixbey was quiet after this but the rest of the men started in again, jabbering about my exploits. “Man, that throw is a story to tell your grandchildren!” Whenever Raymond became excited, his protuberant ears and teeth always seemed to stick out even more.

            “But you’re right. He and I are inseparable,” I told Blixbey. “Artaud is my teacher. Nothing changes that.”

            Martinelli shoved his ugly, ruddy face into the circle, a wide grin on his face. “Did you see how Geoff charged that bluff the first time? And how high he threw that grenade?” As if I had not meant it to be seen by all. “He was gonna take on the whole German army with one rifle, two grenades, and balls!” The men whooped heartily but I fixed a hate stare on Leo Martinelli. “He must have crisscrossed that beach ten times before I even adjusted my helmet strap! I could just about see those Krauts training their guns on him and swearing through their teeth: Gott in Himmel! Verdammt!” I was surprised that he would pronounce these phrases correctly, for he certainly hadn’t learned them from me.

            “Scheiss!” chimed someone else. There was more laughter and several hands clamped on my shoulders and shook me affectionately, but I was still glaring at Martinelli with dislike. Raymond waited knowingly.

            He stood up and I did too, and we walked to the edge of our camp to where the glow of the fading sun was still faintly visible in the West. Martinelli trotted along behind us. “How many casualties do you think there were, Geoff?” Raymond asked quietly. “Including Germans?”

            I blew out smoke and shook my head. “I don’t know, Ray. Thousands. It does no good to ask.”

            “Geoff, you can storm a beach with me any time!” Martinelli bellowed.

            I contemplated his thick frame, his gesticulating hands, his round, red face. “Any time?” I asked. Raymond stood waiting to see what I would do. “And any place?”

            “Just name it,” replied Martinelli.

            At that I smiled, and was rewarded with another flash of gums. I leaned down as if to adjust my boot laces, then quickly stepped forward and landed a punch into Martinelli’s stomach. Not hard, I didn’t hit him too hard but enough to knock the wind out of him. He staggered backward and Raymond stopped his fall by grabbing him under his arm. “Just don’t hit the beach ausgepukin’ before Geoff does,” he said. His laughter rolled out of him, and was echoed good-naturedly by other men close by, men who didn’t know what the joke was and who didn’t care, men who were tired and shocked and relieved and jubilant all at once. Swaying on his feet, Martinelli fought to recover his balance, giving me now a small, sheepish grin. This time my answering smile was genuine.

One thought on “For Veterans Day: Normandy

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