Prime time of youth is abruptly lost when facing harsh realities of coming conflicts
“Ye-e-e haw!” some smart-ass yelled.
Our CO whirled and lit upon the panic-stricken GI like a pit bull, their noses an inch apart. “Shut yer goddam yap, you dim-witted schmuck! This ain’t no Georgia lynchin’ you’re goin’ to! A few hours from now, you may be dead!”
I had never seen Captain Burke so worked up. His words echoed with a prophetic ring as he shoved the trembling GI back into line. Speculation as to when we’d be invading Nazi-occupied France had just been answered, but questions now were— where, and what could we be facing given his hair-trigger reaction?
It was the 5th of June, 1944 and our platoon was part of a whole division climbing aboard troop transports idling within the compound. Destinations were kept secret, but were told we’d learn more once reaching staging areas. The massive convoy began moving at about nine in the evening. Though overcast with rain imminent, we were surprised to see so many civilians lining the streets at this hour. Despite hardships and shortages, the Brits had been gracious hosts and seemed to know what was happening. Scores were crying, others cheering and waving little flags.
“Good luck, Yanks” and “give them bloody Heinies a boot in the arse from the King” could be heard above the rumble of passing trucks packed with troops in full battle gear. What a terrific country, England. The British feared the worst but hoped for the best; every life precious and every smile dear as they rallied around us Yanks. Their beaming faces conveyed a clear message— we’re all in this together.
Traffic was slow but steady despite the congestion and narrow streets. Once clear of Amesbury, the pace picked up and it wasn’t long before we learned where the mystery trail ended. Portland Harbor was a strategic port in Weymouth, southern England. The site was a mind-boggling convergence of men and equipment, with an equally staggering number of vessels waiting to load columns of half-tracks, tanks, and countless tons of fuel and supplies. Words could not describe the spectacle as our transports rolled to a halt to await further directives.
Captain Burke wasted little time convening the unit. “We’ll be stagnant awhile, boys, but after briefings, I suggest stealing whatever shuteye you can. You’ll be glad you did before we get to where we’re going.”
I don’t know if simply young and naive or just too damned stupid to know any better, but up to now, few had shared thoughts of what the invasion would be like, much less of getting wounded— or killed. Perhaps it was nature’s way of numbing neurotic fear, but whatever the reason, the adrenaline's pumped. Nerves twitched and every muscle taut from raw apprehension. ‘Shuteye,’ he said? Impossible.
A steady rain was falling as Burke ordered everyone closer to his satchel of maps spread beneath a tarp. O’Reilly held a flashlight as Burke pointed to a five-mile stretch of beach along Normandy's coastline. “We’ll be landing here,” he said, pointing to a sector at the eastern flank marked OMAHA in big black letters. We stood silent, digesting details and the reality of the landings given it was the first time we’d ever heard such code words. A logistics officer approached and whistled for Burke’s attention. While awaiting his return, my best friend nudged me while tapping a finger squarely on "OMAHA".
“Wait just a daggon minute,” Frankie said. "Did y'catch the name, Boomer? Ain’t that the bangtail Charlie said had won the second Triple Crown for the only stable ever to win two of ‘em in history?"
“Yeah, so what! F’get about it!” I was jumpy. Jaw muscles worked overtime as Frankie rekindled foreboding thoughts of a betting pool we'd made on the Belmont Stakes last night─ our last night in England.
“I knew it! It's an omen, Boomer. Pensive is a shoe-in for another second Triple. We shoulda booked a bundle on him instead of a lousy penny-ante pool for giggles and grins. Damn!”
Frankie tried pressing his point, but I cut him off. “I don’t wanna hear another word! Nada! I got a bad feeling about this, so drop it!” and hand-sliced my throat to end the conversation. I didn't mean to rip into him, but couldn't help it; my emotions were flaring. I kept thinking of how we picked horses from my hat at Tupper’s Tavern only an hour before getting word we were going in. Tonight's invasion in parallel with the Belmont is too damned eerie. I know the betting pool was all in fun, but what if Frankie's right? What if pre-race odds do mean something? I caught a goddam 50:1 shot. Of all the rotten luck.
“Ease up, Boomer m'boy,” Howie butt in. “Why you chompin' on Frankie’s ass? Jealous ‘cause I pulled Pensive?”
I didn’t utter a word, but my glare said he’d best shut his yap. I could still see his smarmy mug at Tupper's, gloating over plucking the heavy favorite. Though no one would admit at the time, but I guarantee behind all the playful bantering, each of us were secretly covetous of Howie’s "sure thing"… each steeped in subliminal fear when identifying with our equine counterparts; each weighing personal odds of even finishing, let alone of hitting the board when our landing craft springs open across the Channel at nearly the same time as a field of hopefuls will be busting loose from Belmont's starting gate. Frankie's right; it's too damned eerie— it must be an omen!
Howie hesitated but chanced defiance anyway. “There you go again with all that superstition nonsense. Well, here’s a presage you can munch on. Someone once said fools and their money are soon parted, and since you both qualify from dining on all that 'mojo magic' crap, so you might as well stick those omens up your tailpipe. Pensive is about to spank you where it hurts most, boys— on your wallets.”
Frankie snapped at Howie. “Boomer said to zip it, big mouth, or I will!”
“Shaddup! All o’ you numbskulls,” Captain Burke yelled upon rejoining the group. “Save yer musclin' for the enemy. Now pay attention!” Burke first relayed boarding instructions and then hit us with a final volley of details he insisted we memorize. “When that ramp drops, yer t’move quickly and don’t be bunchin’ up. Stagger paths between any cover you can find, and above all, avoid diving into old shell craters. The Gerries already have ‘em pinpointed— capisce?”
I listened closely, grateful Burke was our trusted CO. All through training we've been so dependent on him; his entire being devoted to giving us every edge possible. Now, I watched as his methodical mind processed every detail. He studied landing crafts, their caliber of guns and depth of free-board. He examined and re-examined topographical maps and worsening sea conditions. Once satisfied with briefings, he dismissed the outfit but motioned for me to follow him a fair distance off to one side.
Certain we were out of earshot, he turned to me. “Now you listen, and listen real good, soldier.” Burke’s steely eyes narrowed like the tip of a cutting torch. “If anything should happen to me, don’t you dare let my boys down, or so help me, Boomer, I’ll come back and haunt you ‘til you git tired o’ pissin’ the bed at night. Are we clear on that?”
“You can count on me, sir.” I snapped a respectful salute. I thought of how Houdini had failed to breach the paranormal, but something tells me this country cracker would probably do exactly what he said.
“At ease, Sergeant. I know you’re uptight and scared as hell. So am I, but these kids are gonna need us— and need us bad. It’s time to be a leader, understand?”
Burke paused before looking me in the eye. “Ya know,” he smiled, “in ways, you remind me a lot of myself. It’s that sixth sense you got. I seen it for a long time now and believe me, it’s a gift. Trust it, and use it wisely. Squad leaders come and go, but you’re one of the best I’ve ever trained. Do you remember when you had the guts to stick up for Maloney with Major Edwards back at Fort Dix?”
“Major Edwards? Sure. A solid officer, I thought.”
“Yes he is, and he had some solid things to say about you, too. He said you had spirit, that you’re a natural with genuine concern for the squad. I knew all along he was right.” Burke nodded toward the platoon. “Those boys trust you, Boomer. They look to you for answers.” His deadpan face moved closer. “Up to now, they had me wipin’ their behinds. But now, they got you to help out when the shit hits the fan, and believe me, it’s gonna. In a few hours, all hell is gonna break loose and it ain’t gonna be nothin’ like you seen in training. This is for keeps, son. Good luck, and may God bless us all.” He extended his hand and walked off as briskly as his salute.
Hmm, may God bless us— all?
Burke's parting words left a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. I wonder which prayers God will be listening to in the coming savagery— American or German?
I lingered behind to ponder his comments. For a while, my eyes remained fixed on the pitch black horizon that lay beyond the giant turrets of a battleship prepping for departure. I then looked toward my platoon, observing how pockets of closer friendships had huddled together, many of them munching on Red Cross donuts, chatting, or smoking. Their bodies may be hardened with the glint of battle in their eyes, but their perky faces were a ruse. I’d wager everything I own that most were scared witless, their feeble legs barely supporting the body’s sense of dread.
Portland Harbor teemed with thousands of them, all waiting to be herded aboard transport vessels like cattle. I wondered how many had entered the Army thinking the service was only about wearing snappy girl-getting uniforms, or for sharing photos of brides and babies with barrack buddies. Who would have thought world affairs would have collapsed into such a conflict that put us here, only twenty-five miles from an entrenched infantry no different than us— a country’s youth forced to come of age learning how to kill?
Humph, infantry, from the archaic word, infanteria… meaning, young boys if high-school Latin serves me right. How apropos, I thought... knowing "we kids" were about to hurl ourselves into the coming brutality, no different than for Germans. Their kids must be special to someone in Hamburg or Munich, and every little hamlet in between. The only difference? Allegiance; each side preconditioned to obey orders in defense of different ideals.
I smirked. My mind must be drunk on adrenaline as the suicidal lyrics of Tennyson’s poem suddenly popped into my head: "ours is not to reason why… ours is but to do and die; into the valley of death, into the jaws of hell, blah blah blah…"
Yes, how apropos. My eyes returned to the sea. No doubt, fifty years from now both armies will meet again. But instead of squaring off with bayonets, we’ll embrace as penitent old men— crying in each others' arms while standing over the same ground we'd left littered with mangled corpses. Nothing ever changes. Each generation seems to go from one war to the next, its youth preordained to mature in battle at the direction of their older, supposedly wiser patriarchs who had once condemned the very lunacies they themselves now foster. And the cycle continues; same tune, different dance. It's our turn now to trip the light fantastic. Just a naive bunch o' snot-nosed kids fresh out of training and about to embark on our maiden mission— the biggest military invasion in the history of warfare.
I filled my lungs with the cool and curative sea air for a final moment of solemnity, watching countless vessels somehow slide through darkened waters without a collision. “50:1 odds or not, we’re at the starting gate, Boomer m'boy. Our youth is about to be left behind forever,” I muttered to myself, where fitness, stamina, and courage will be put to the ultimate test. The flag is up, boys; it's time to be a man.