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by Fred Farris
Wednesday June 7, 1944.
“Did I sign my final will?” I ask myself as I hunker down on the assault boat’s cold steel floor. My stomach slushes like a bilge pump, sick from long bouncing on the English Channel’s turbulent waves. Our engine drones like a funeral dirge. This is the second day of the Normandy invasion. Now the French coast at Omaha Beach is just fifty yards ahead through dangerous mine-infested waters. I tighten my grip on my Colt .45 as our hull pummels the choppy sea. A cold spray glazes us.
Think of something else I tell myself. I remember a year ago back home, going skeet shooting with my girlfriend Cindy. I showed her how to hold the shotgun and squeeze the trigger slowly. Standing close behind her and circling my arm around to lift her elbow unleashed a sensual emotion. As she pulled the trigger, the blast jolted her body back against me. The explosion and smell of gun powder fused us together. She giggled nervously, turned around to face me and stretched up on tip toes to put a locket around my neck with her picture inside. For an erotic second we welded together.
Now, a year later, her locket is still there, hooked onto one pair of my Army dog tags. We wear two pair of tags in case one is destroyed. They read, Victor T. Sander, Blood type O.
The fearsome shore is only about forty yards ahead. Our landing target is a small sub-section of Omaha Beach, code named Dog Green. For the next few days my job, as a six-stripe Master Sergeant is director/coordinator and boss of the Dog Green landing. My helmet proclaims BEACHMASTER stenciled in white on olive green. We plunge on. An explosion jolts our boat’s bottom. I cringe.
“Everybody out!” the helmsman screams. “We hit a mine!” My heart skips a beat.
The front ramp clanks down. I shudder under my heavy radio backpack and plunge into frigid water. My pulse jumps as my head goes under. Water soaked gear drags me down. I stumble on slippery bottom. A tattooed hand grabs my shirt, pulling my six foot frame up.
“Thanks,” I sputter at Sergeant Franko, my second in command of our four man team.
We forge ahead through chest-high waves; slog past a half sunken armored tank. Its upper body is wrapped in canvas supposed to help it semi-float. But now only its red radio antenna flag flutters three feet above water, a warning guide to others.
We scramble ashore crab fashion on hands and knees and weave around X shaped steel barriers jutting up to snare boats. The beach is swamped with damaged landing craft from yesterday’s first assault. My cold wet skin tingles as I stumble toward my new job where the war in Europe will be determined. My responsibility for the next three or four vital days is to help expedite a successful onslaught of thousands of men and machines as they plunge into, and onward out of the beach area without major jam-ups. A clogged up beach could result in disaster, like the Brits former forced evacuation at Dunkirk four years ago, just a few miles north. My MP armband mandates my authority. I also speak a few words of French from grandparents.
I remember dad had cheered me at my high school track races during the 220 yard hurdles, especially the day a dog blundered into my lane causing me to fall. The wooden hurdle shattered, driving painful splinters into my groin. I cursed the dog, then wished I hadn’t because it was my own Collie dog, Duke; and also Cindy was watching.
Now I’m on a more dangerous mission. I zigzag through the bomb craters carved by our own Navy’s bombs two days ago. My dog-tags and Cindy’s locket cling together around my neck. But what my dog-tags don’t reveal is a deep inner fear; not of death, but of losing a leg. Gusts of cold wind jab my wet body like icy bayonets. My water-soaked backpack-radio crackles static bringing me back to reality. Thank God it still works. Burned out tanks from yesterday’s landing are piled up hap-hazard amidst wounded guys being attended by medics near a discarded hypodermic needle. Mist turns into light rain. Then migrates into intense rain-gutter spillover.
I work next to Franko and a team of hydrographic men whose job is to guide landing craft in through channels when the tide reaches its height. They are trained to locate and mark underwater mines and sand bars. My metal rim Army issue glasses mist over. The wind spits gritty sand in my face and mouth. I lean into the deluge.
Nearby, a mine-sweeper tank, one with chains on its rolling pin nose, flails the beach to clear a path. Before a mine explodes, it warns a two second hiss like a Cobra’s strike, then springs up hip high and explodes. In those areas not yet swept, mine disposal guys stick yellow colored warning signs in the sand proclaiming the dreaded word, MINES. Another mine explodes, adding near panic to the scene. Even though I’m fifty feet away, I shudder and retrench within myself searching for an unknown protector. A sand crab burrows deeper, seeking sanctuary beneath the beach’s washboard surface. Franko shrinks back. His croaky voice blurts a slurry of damnation at the mines. His caterpillar eyebrows jump.
Franko was our barrack’s cussing champ back in basic training and still is, uttering bolts of expletive fulmination for every occasion. He claims he originated the GI word Snafu: “Situation Normal All Fucked Up.” His creative jargon, plus native Choctaw Indian slang brings welcome humor. His face could be stamped on a copper penny.
“Your education is lacking,” Franko tells me, his Adams Apple jogging. It’s true, I never learned to cuss much. He constantly practices speaking phrases from his Army-issue German language booklet; sentences like “Which way to the train station?” He thinks it will help him meet frauleins.
Two 25-ton tanks emerge out of the deep surf like mammoth war ships thanks to their canvas cocoons. Massive metal caterpillar treads wedge me in closely on both sides. I feel like a sand crab about to be crushed. My heart pounds like on amphetamines. Each hulking tank seeks room on the crowded beach so their crews can shed their waterproof wrappings. They roar with sixteen thousand horsepower voices, demanding parking. They’re jamming up traffic. I yell into my bullhorn at the tank commander’s heads sticking out above revolving turrets.
“Go that way,” I blurt, pointing my Colt .45, and liking the feeling of authority my MP armband gives me. I remember deer hunting with my uncle, our county sheriff, who let me blow his car’s siren. I felt important.
Out at shoreline, white foam eddies across the sand and mint green seaweed forms a ragged edge. A small fishing skiff with its sail furled around the mast lies on its side in a bomb crater carved by our prior naval bombardment. The beach stinks from washed up flotsam.
Overhead, a series of small Navy dirigibles hover, sentinels extending northward forty miles toward Gold Beach and the other British landings. Each blimp trails long chains; deadly spider webs to entangle German dive bombers. Gas masks lie on the sand, discarded by guys who consider them useless.
Heavy humidity curdles in. The drone of motor boat engines and machines grows louder, like a hundred angry race cars. I vault over a pile of ammunition crates, stretching out my long legs to redirect another column of trucks whose double tires spew crystallized sand in my face. It tastes crunchy like fetid potato chips. I unbutton my shirt and tug at my wet clinging T-shirt to let some air in. My pocket diary is scuttled—totally unusable for now.
A Litter-Jeep rolls up, one with a flat board on top of its hood carrying wounded and dead. One body is caked in red and purple dried blood. I wince. The dead boy’s helmet has a letter inside addressed to his mother. A medic steps out of the jeep dangling a cork-tip cigarette from his lips. Franko dubs him “Corky” and buys the cigarette pack to replace his water-soaked one. A cold wind blows out the flame of the Zippo lighter Cindy gave me.
I must write Cindy. Back in basic training she had sent me a box cigars, but I don’t smoke, so she must have gotten her boyfriends mixed up. I gave the cigars to the barracks guys who kidded me unmercifully. Still I remember the texture of her blouse as it rose and fell. She thinks all guys in uniform are handsome, I rationalize. I must never tell her about the cigars.
Urine-colored light spills through the thickening cloud cover. Gear-laden infantry guys struggle through the deep damp sand. Most carry a 9-pound Garand M1 rifle, a steel bayonet and first-aid pouch with a packet of Sulfa to dust into wounds. A guy’s rifle has a condom over its barrel to keep sand out. One shirt pocket, full of grenades, bulges like a brassiere.
We work all night. Low clouds blot out the moon. Headlights cast my own shadow leaping across the beach as I hurdle wooden crates to turn back lost truckers. Franko looks at his wristwatch, timing the intervals between cannon flashes from the inland battle and their following booms. He estimates they’re about five miles in. Little night crayfish crawl out of the sand. I remember eating crayfish jambalaya at a bayou wedding dinner back home. Cindy and I danced to a French concertina and harmonica blend. Passionate chords entered my veins as Cindy swirled and our shadows flickered off pine trees.
Thursday, June 8, 1944.
The beach has a blurred lunar quality. A tapestry of a hundred ships color the horizon. Large landing craft with front opening doors like Noah’s Ark nose onto the beach. Three half-track armored trucks, the Cavalry of the army, emerge. They zoom up the beach testing their machine guns. Staccato blasts rain copper shell casings down on my head.
“Don’t do that here, move on,” I spit the words out like bullets. The gunner’s eyes snap back at me as they move away. My jaw muscles pulse. I wonder what I would choose as my last glimpse of life. They say you never hear the shot that kills you. I’ll never shoot skeet again. Why is it, that when you think about death, you wonder about your mistakes in life? I replace negative thoughts with an image of Cindy at the pool; copper hair and toenails like rows of rubies. When I get to Paris, I’ll buy her a miniature Eiffel Tower and stuff it in my duffle bag.
An old man carrying a bucket wobbles into the scene at water’s edge, as if immune to mines. His rounded shoulders lean toward his damaged boat in the bomb crater. He wears a green pointy leprechaun’s hat.
“Damn this damp,” Franko slurs, wiping beads of mist off his nine-day-old beard.
“When we gonna get some dry clothes?” he adds, scratching his crotch.
“Maybe in Paris. Its only ninety-five miles ahead.” I crack a sardonic grin and help him pull his poncho down over his backpack radio.
“You look like Quasimodo.” I add. He spouts a new cuss word.
“Where are the 89th Engineers?” a voice yells. Jittery GIs forge onward. Rumors ricochet through my mind. A Panzer tank counter attack is imminent. They could drive us back into the sea. Every quarter-hour is crucial.
A 5-man squad, the basic infantry unit, plods forward. They’re teammates, a cadre of comrades, joined together by fortune. Gloriously different from one another, yet each soul facing fear alone because war happens inside a man. The wind has plastered one side of their helmets with encrusted sand. Several squads re-group and turn inland.
A Sargent yells, “Sound off—cadence count—sound off !”
Five voices respond as one, in a marching song, one of many ballads soldiers chant.
“One—Two—three—four—I gotta gal who lives on a hill ...
...she won’t do it, but her sister will.”
As their voices fade up over dunes toward deadly challenges, there is a magnificence about their unity and unison. You can tie two cats together by their tales, throw them over a clothesline and you have unity, but not unison. Infantry squads have both; fused together like iron filings clinging to a magnet of self-preservation and camaraderie.
Brigades of boots stomp by. I unsnap and re-snap my gun holster nervously. I’ve been awake over thirty hours. My pulse pumps like an oscillating piston.
For our headquarters, Franko took over an ancient tin roof hut used by German coastal defenders. The bloody corpse of a German shepherd dog lies nearby, its guts splayed out making red stains in the sand. I flinch and motion to a medic to remove the dog’s bloated carcass or bury it. More dead bodies aren’t good for morale, I wonder if I’ll ever kill another deer. A Jeep chugs by pulling an open-bed trailer of plastic containers resembling small beer kegs. They’re marked ETO BLOOD BANK (European Theater of Operations), as if war were grand opera augmented by booming kettledrums.
Overhead the row of navy barrage dirigibles still stretch northward about every hundred yards, Our ack-ack gun’s orange tracer bullets streak up to drive them away. Two of the blimps have fallen on the beach, slowly deflating and whooshing like giant wounded walruses.
A lost compass in the sand speaks to the confusion. Two sequoia-size construction cranes crawl off a barge, then turn around and lower huge artillery cannon from the barge down to the ground. I sprint twenty yards in the deep sand—blowing my whistle at trucks which have collided in a fender-bender blocking traffic. One truck hauls hundred-gallon drums of high octane gasoline with top priority for delivery to Sherman tanks, now inland, that only get four miles to a gallon.
“Back off for Chrissake,” one driver screams.
Both guys spin their wheels kicking sand in my face. I feel the lash of frustration like Pegasus yoked to a plow. A two-man Bazooka team stumbles by.
Over at water’s edge the gaunt old fisherman has returned. He drags his skiff out of the bomb crater, dismantles its mast, turns the hull upside down and starts painting its bottom red, oblivious to latent mines just yards away.
There is no sunset—only ominous stains on the darkening gloom. Unease quivers my stomach as we continue working. Franko noses up in a Jeep that had been abandoned. His upper lip glistens with mist and sweat. Thick fog rolls in like a shroud.
“Now we got wheels.” His voice subdued to a hoarse cackle from yelling. He puffs on a damp cigarette cherry-red tipped in the night and zooms away. I wave my flashlight beam in sweeping shafts of wet gray flannel, to the right, to the left. Soldiers unload artillery shells as big as weight-lifter’s biceps from barges into trucks to be forwarded inland.
It’s been nine days since I looked in the mirror and shaved off my rust colored stubble. It itches under my chin-strap. Night hangs heavy in the dark air, augmented by our own cannon’s throbbing echo from inland like distant bowling balls. Both armies blast all night to unnerve each other. Lightning bolts lighten the scene making trucks look ghostly white. Truck drivers unload all night—electric generators, coils of telephone cable, chemical toilets, flame throwers, hand grenades nestled in cardboard cartons like vulture’s eggs, chains of belted copper cartridges ready to be fed into machine guns and a thousand other tools of war.
Friday. Jun 9, 1944
A nervous dawn sneaks in. Shifting gears grind up over dunes. Morning fog muffles the scene again—ominous, menacing. I recruit some idle landing-craft drivers whose boats were damaged, to push some left-over German barbed wire into a circle to impound Kraut prisoners trickling in from the inland battle.
“Raus,” I bellow at a straggling German Captain wearing a Nazi swastika Iron Cross around his neck. Franko steps in, invokes damnation on the Kraut and confiscates the medal as a souvenir. The Captain’s Hitler-like mustache sneers silently.
“Tirez les sales boches,” Shoot the filthy Germans, the old fisherman yells.
Anger penetrates my mind. An emotion that, heretofore I had subordinated under my Christian constraints. Vibrations of self-preservation unleash themselves in my mind. I clench my fist. What would I be capable of?
The air smells of decaying fish killed offshore by mine explosions and washed up on the beach. Streaks of blood-red sand look like one of those crazy modern paintings. A seagull wails and dive-bombs the vast sin and yet nobility of it all.
Franko offers me a chunk of C-ration cheese. It tastes like glue. Will the sun ever come out? A soaking wet infantry Corporal lugging his half of a thirty-pound mortar blurts “Let’s Go!” to his partner. A private, assigned to shit-trench duty mumbles, “Fuckin’ Nazis.” Acne scars twist on his teen-aged cheek. His pocket diary will tell tales of macho zeal and camaraderie. My pocket diary soaking wet and useless.
Corky, the medic, drives up and helps graves registration men identify corpses; surreal; Jesus, the dead look right back at you. Their scorched souls plead to be heard just once more. Cadavers’ personal effects, in plastic bags, are tied to tattered sleeves. I wince. The thought of going home in a bag causes me to think about things I forgot to do—important things, like thanking dad again for my first old Ford. I struggle to think clearly in a blurred world. I look at the dead boy, once a vital force, a mystery of a world I cannot fathom. Does his essence spill out on the ground with his blood, or does it rise, or return to his mother to reconstruct? Touching Cindy’s locket helps me back to reality. I feel her fingertips on my face. Or is it sand fleas? Time is too important to sleep. We work into the night. Crimson taillights criss-cross as the dark ocean pounds the surf.
“Go that way ... GO!” Franko screams. Flashlights stab shafts of light at a radio truck flying a pennant on its ten-foot antenna bending in the wind. It proclaims, CHIGAGO CUBS, their talisman of bravado and hope. I feel like my knees will give out in the spongy beach. Damn this damp, I scowl, kicking the sand.
To save my waning voice, I blow my whistle, and flash back to the sound of a referee’s whistle. I squint into the dank dark. Dozens of truck headlights cast eerie shadows. Gears’ grind whines all night like wolves. Nobody sleeps. I switch my radio temporarily to BBC. It blares the beat of Rule Britannia, but no news. Night creeps by as slow as quicksand. I sit in a burnt-out Jeep and catnap and think ahead to Normandy.
Next morning, a chaplain with a white priest’s robe over his olive uniform offers communion wafers to a kneeling man whose lips quiver. I think about running across the beach area that hasn’t been swept for mines, to evict the old fisherman still painting his boat, but mines are probably still under the sand waiting to disembowel you. Deep in my gut a fear creeps up. Don’t do it.
About noon, the big boss Generals arrive with their galaxy of sycophant Colonels flaunting gold eagles on their shoulders. They set up a box-car-size tent headquarters with map-plastered walls. Signal Corps guys roll reels of orange-colored telephone cables out from under the tent’s side walls. They slither like Coral snakes up over the dunes. Telephone is preferred over radio because radio can be intercepted by the enemy. Vital commands zoom through wires like war chariots. Majors and Master Sergeants scurry in and out.
A medic’s Jeep stops at their makeshift tent nearby. Its driver lights a cork-tip cigarette. I glance at my watch. Its18:00 hours back in England. Dinner time, but here the bloody scene kills my appetite.
“Howzit going up front?” I ask the driver.
“We’re only about nine miles in but Paris is getting closer—here’s to Paris.” He raises his canteen in mock toast. My backpack radio crackles. He points a gauze wrapped finger at it.
“Heard any news from the Italian front? My brother’s with our 5th Army there.”
I dial BBC, but only static sputters back.
“Thanks for trying. He’ll probably get to Paris before we do,” he smirks.
I think of a region just a few miles ahead in Normandy called Calvados where my grandfather grew up. Grampa Sander had reminisced about making Calvados brandy from apples. He had served a shot glass of it at his birthday parties. Americans call it Applejack. I remember feeling it burn my throat. Grampa talked about old battles that bloodied the ground ahead. Belleau Wood in 1917 and Agincourt in Normandy in 1415 in the Hundred Years War. Bullshit .. it’s more like seven hundred.
A cameraman stands on a pile of truck tires shooting the scene. Over at shoreline, the old man and his skiff are still there. A few townspeople have gathered atop the dunes waving French flags. Two small boys, innocently ignoring possible mines, run down toward the old man painting his boat. I yell, “Get out,” waving my arms because mine sweepers have only swept half that area. They yell back, “Vive Americane” and keep running.
Quartermaster guys set up a field kitchen next to the medic’s tent. Distorted echoes of pots and pans clink against portable propane stoves. I miss the aroma of Cajun cooking back in the bayou.
“Jesus, Sarge, you gotta take a break, you’ve been up for almost three days,” Franko says nodding toward our shack. I’d give anything for a warm dry bed. As I duck into the hut, raindrops drumroll on the tin roof. I turn toward a canvas cot. Something dark under it moves. I unsnap my holster. Three tiny brown puppies lie there, born before the mother died. I pick them up and hold them in one hand. They are cold dead. But no; the third pup is still warm—new life among death. The sad little thing whimpers and opens its tiny eye slits. But how to feed it?
An idea pops into my head, but I fight down the impulse. My breath stops short in my throat with exciting suddenness. I sense danger in the roar of big waves over at shoreline where mine sweepers haven’t yet swept ... where the old man is bent over his boat. I bolt over to the field kitchen next door; beg a can of condensed milk and pour some on my little finger and stick it in the puppy’s mouth. It sucks ravenously. It will die soon. I chew my inner lip at a crazy thought forming that violates my instinct. I grab my canvas gas mask bag, throw the mask out and gently place the puppy inside its hollow, together with the milk can and some K rations.
Time is crucial. Hesitating again, I clench the bag to my still damp chest.
“YES!” I blurt, suppressing fear. I bolt toward the fisherman’s boat, vaulting over the forbidden beach like a hurdler lengthening my stride to take fewer steps. I thrust the package into the fisherman’s lap. The old man’s eyes flash startled silent questions.
“Bon chance,” I yell into the heavy air. My French wholly inadequate.
I turn, quickly retracing my steps, trying to step in my same safe footprints back to the hut. About two-thirds there, I think, I’ve made It. Cindy will be proud of me.
“Shiiit,” I blurt as a dreaded click-click signals a Cobra’s hiss-ss. Two horrible heartbeats lapse. I instinctively reach for my .45 to fight for life. My mind panics. Eardrums detonate.
Hot agony shoots through my knees and legs. Steel shards mangle my ribcage driving air from my lungs. I hear myself scream. A fiery kaleidoscope cauterizes my brain. Heartbeat jumps.
Intense agony. Ground comes screaming up. Bloodied eyelids flutter into dark silence.
* * *
I crack my eyes open and squint. They hurt. A dull ache throbs my lower body. I dare not make a sound; shrinking, as a wounded man would, from the remembered explosion. A white uniform holding something over my head materializes ... A bottle of blood plasma hanging above me comes into focus.
“Hello Sergeant, welcome back. You are one lucky guy,” a nurse says.
“Where ... am I?” I stutter—mind gradually clearing.
“You’re in a hospital in Paris. You’ve been here a long while.”
She smiles, professional and reassuring. My focus zeros in— memory returning. I exhale a sigh of relief and try to wiggle my toes, wondering about my wholeness, but fearing the worst.
For a long second I hold my breath—compelled into every soldier’s secret mind. I had come a long way from the dark sands of dread.
“Am I ... w-whole?” I stammer, turning my face to the wall. Will I be able to walk? In the corner of my mind a fearful illusion of a falling star plunges to earth in a graveyard. Will I be confined to the little room on the second floor of my mom’s house where I grew up? I wouldn’t want Cindy to see me. Waiting for the nurse’s answer is eternity.
“You are fine now and after some exercise therapy, and more rest, you’ll be kicking footballs.” Her smile widens like sunshine.
“Thank you God,” I whisper, almost unbelieving for a moment.
“You must be hungry. I’ll bring you some warm soup.” She smiles again.
I finger my dog tags. Cindy’s locket isn’t there. I blink.
“Your locket is with what’s left of your clothes. I’ll get it for you.”
I open the locket and wipe a crust of my dried blood off Cindy’s face. A golden sun glints off the window casement and the Seine glistens on the horizon.
“Can I get you anything else?” She smiles, adjusting my pillow.
“May I have a pencil and paper please. I can still write, thank God. And oh yes, would you get me a little souvenir replica of the Eiffel Tower... I’m going home.”
Note: The author of “Normandy Diary”, Fred Farris, is a 94-year-old former Army infantry Sargent from WWII. However, the story is fiction, not memoir.