Naive complacency gets a resounding wake-up call to the realities of war
The first of June, 1944. We're fit, feisty, and perhaps a tad naïve and fearless, no different than thousands of other newly arriving Yanks. We don’t know exactly where Winchester is in England, but after three weeks of zig-zagging the Atlantic, we longed for a sound sleep our first night on land— but it was not to be.
Air raid sirens jarred us awake, soon followed by the drone of Luftwaffe bombers overhead before thunderous payloads rained close enough to rattle the windows. I got up and inched aside one of the heavy blackout curtains. The rest of my squad quickly joined me, our stupefied faces reflecting the tracers and search lights crisscrossing skyward in the distance.
We watched in silent disbelief as reddish hues grew larger on the horizon. No one knew if it was London or some other hapless city on the coast, nor did it matter; we bristled with rage. Innocent people were dying out there, and it could just as well have been us.
We were told that twenty five miles is all that separates us from German airfields across the Channel. Who would have thought world affairs would have collapsed into such a global conflict that put us here, and only a short jaunt from an entrenched infantry no different than us— a country’s youth forced to come of age learning how to kill.
Sure, America knows there’s a war on, but aside from the inconvenience of rationing, people still enjoy their freedoms and civil stability. To them, daily existence for Europeans has been an out-of-sight, out-of-mind conflict in some distant land— a foreigner’s problem. Home folks cannot fathom such a state of abject fear and misery, of what it must be like to have one’s entire neighborhood wiped out, their homes invaded by ruthless henchmen, or of hopelessly pleading for the life of a loved one forced to kneel before a sadistic Luger-wielding executioner.
My heart goes out to our British cousins. I remember one particular tabloid clipping a local fella shared with me upon arrival; of three small children aged five to eleven sitting on blocks of broken concrete, staring pitifully at a pile of rubble that was their home the night before. My heart sank when reading the caption of how they had gone to bed a loving family... but awoke as orphans.
By tomorrow morn, more families out there will be in the same fix; rendered homeless and their lives devastated while rummaging through ruins hoping to salvage something as simple as a toothbrush or a single photograph. I kept picturing those three kids still in their pajamas, their deadpanned faces frozen in a state of shock, confusion, and despair. My jaw muscles clenched. It's why we’re here— why I’m ever more convinced this war had to be fought.
Twenty five miles runs both ways, you murderous bastards!
I now understand Papa's feelings for his besieged old country, fervently wishing he was able to dish out his own Sicilian revenge. Now, I too want a go at the Jerries, tomorrow if I could— then move on to Berlin for a personal visit with a certain monster I’ve come to despise with immeasurable passion.
The saddest part about the whole mess is that fifty years from now, both armies will meet again. But instead of squaring off with bayonets, we’ll embrace as penitent, snowy-haired old veterans— crying in each other’s arms while standing over the same ground we had left littered with the mangled corpses of beloved buddies from a bygone youth.
Nothing ever changes. Each generation seems to go from one war to the next, its youth destined to mature in battle at the direction of their older, but supposedly wiser patriarchs who had once condemned the very lunacies they had now wrought. And the cycle continues— same tune, different dance.
I expect it will soon be our turn to trip the light fantastic, fresh out of training and about to embark on our maiden mission. We may be here as allies, but until now the war had seemed only an allusion, mere newsreels of far-away places battling things out. But this was no Movietone as another wave of horrendous explosions made that crystal clear. Only this time, a pattern of much heavier whumps has rattled our bones to the marrow, driving home the foreboding realities of impending peril.
“This is really it, Sherlock,” I mumbled under my breath. “We truly are in the middle of a real war here.” May God have mercy on us all.