Friday, June 6, 2014

Beer Fiction: Day of Days

It was nightmare.

We circled in the channel for hours. Seawater and vomit sloshed across the bottom of our boat. Our trousers were soaked in the briny mess. The stench was nearly unbearable. This was the least disturbing part of the day. The boat's engine droned, changing pitch endlessly as we puttered in our circle. The coxswain revved the engine and the transport lurched forward as we moved into our assault formation. Able company was assigned six boats, each crammed tooth to jowl with at least 30 of us.

The flotilla picked up speed. The ocean spilled into the vessel as the boat rolled over the crest of each wave. There seemed to be as much ocean inside the craft as outside. Men stared into nothing. I could see some of them praying, but the whirring of the engine kept any of their words from reaching my ears. Looking out over the water, cliffs grew from the horizon. When they were—what seemed to be—only be an inch high, the rocket boats let loose. A useless effort. Most of the rockets fell short of the beach, with their white, corkscrew tails of smoke, jetting into the ocean. A few moments later, the number four boat swamped in the roughed water. A smaller craft skimmed over to pick up its men, but most disappeared under the water. The other five boats kept moving forward, and soon we were closing on the beach. The arty fire started about five minutes later. At first it was scattered and ineffective, falling in the gaps between the boats, but gradually they zeroed in, and it became more and more accurate, landing each time with an explosion and a geyser of water. The boat on our right was hit. A shell ripped through its deck and the boat all but disintegrated. Tracer fire began zipping over our heads and the bullets made a high pitched whizzing sound as they passed over our helmets.

At fifty yards out I could clearly see the shore—Dog Green sector—a one thousand yard stretch of pristine, undisturbed beach. No impact craters. No pock marks. No shelter. The bombing runs and naval bombardment we were assured of missed their mark, and the DD tanks never made it ashore. That left 300 yards of beach obstacles—angle iron hedgehogs, tellermine tipped pylons and barbed wire to contend with. The boat's engine shifted into a lower gear and the craft began to slow down. The bullets that had been over our heads began smacking the outer hull of the boat; sounding like someone was hitting it over and over with a golf club. I pulled my sleeve up to read my watch. It read 6:36.

"Okay, this is it." I yelled. "Clear the ramp quick. Move fast. Don't bunch up."

The ramp dropped.

Instantaneously Collins, O'Bannon, Valleti, Schmanski and Allenwood slumped to the deck, like jackets falling from the back of a chair. Crossfire deluged the boat, from both ends of the beach. Men were tripping over the bodies of the first men to fall, then diving head first into the water. It was deep—8 feet? 10 feet? It might as well have been a thousand feet. I struggled to orient myself underwater. My Thompson, slung over my shoulder was like a boat anchor, and I let it sink to the bottom of the channel. The life belt was useless. The wool of my uniform and the canvas of my gear, heavy with seawater was too much for the flotation device. The water was black and hazy but every so often clouds of red appeared as I tried to move forward. I could see trails of bubbles as bullets entered the water all around me. I pushed up, and gasped for breath, as my head broke the water, before sinking back down. The sound was unnerving. Loud—no, more than loud—roaring, above the water line, then muffled and muted below. I continued, bobbing like this, until my feet found a sand bar and I could get my legs back underneath me. Finding solid ground, I clawed myself onto the beach, staying low using the shallow, maroon-tinted water for cover.

I lay there for who knows how long. It seemed like hours. I could see the beach spread out before me—literally a hell on earth. Mortar shells fell all around me. An LCA was engulfed in flames not twenty-five feet from my position and machine gun rounds zipped and whizzed, above my head. Not only were we attacked by the enemy from the cliffs an bluffs above the beach, but enfilade fire poured across the beach from two enemy positions near the where the beach road led inland. The beach was littered with debris—weapons, helmets, equipment and bodies. The bodies were everywhere. Wounded men had dragged themselves ashore, and stuck themselves with morphine syrettes, only to pass out and drown as the tide rose. Others were mowed down as they dashed for cover behind the beach obstacles. I heard Lt. Tridick yelp out "Advance with the wire cutters!" just before he was scythed in half by machine gun fire. Order gave way to chaos. The men were not fighting they were simply trying to stay alive. No officers could be seen and no one was barking orders. Those uninjured were dragging the wounded towards what little shelter there was. German machine gunners along the cliffs rained fire down on their helpless souls. Men were wailing and moaning, their entrails dragging behind them as the crawled over the sand. Martin Chavir, a Radio Op from Baker, flopped down next to me. He was babbling incoherently, he had a gaping wound on the left side of his head, and was blinded. His uniform once drab was now a hideous shade of blackish-red. Grabbing him by the suspenders I dragged his body toward a hedgehog, where a medic was taking shelter, huddled behind mere inches of steel.

"Do what you can." I said and moved forward. Glancing back I saw the Medic's red cross emblazoned helmet jerk slightly to the side. His body melted onto to Chavir's. I knew I had to keep moving. Leapfrogging from obstacle to obstacle, I zigzagged my way up the beach through the maze of bodies and wreckage. All the while grabbing at men, pulling and urging them to keep moving off the beach. Many collapsed as I pulled at them, others pushed ahead towards the next hedgehog. Finding a crater, I dove in. From my hole I could see a few helmets clustered behind debris at the base of the seawall ten yards away. Scurrying across the sand on my hands and knees, I rolled to cover at the wall's base. Lying on my back, I gasped for air.

"Sarge! Sarge!" I heard some yell. Looking to my right, I saw Mike Stanton a private from Able, peering over a pile of rock and shingle, waving at me. "C'mon!" he yelped.

It took everything I had to rise up again. Sore and soaked, battered and bruised I dashed towards him. Machine gun fire trailed my heels as I pitched into the ditch, landing behind the pile of rubble. Sitting upright, I pushed my helmet back to see Mike nervously staring at me to see if I was okay. His concern shifted to a smile. "Glad you made it," he chuckled. "Yeah," I huffed.

The ditch afforded us reasonable protection for the first time since we hit the sand. Finally, I could see out over the beach, back towards the water. Baker company was now moving onto the beach, with little more luck than Able. We were at the edge of our sector, just to the left of Omaha's westernmost exit, a draw in the coastal ridge that led off the beach, inland toward the village of Vierville. Smoke and fire filled the landscape. Men dove for cover, and ran in every direction possible. A few Shermans—toward the eastern flank—rolled up the beach, but were halted by obstacles. One burst into flames, its crew climbed out only to be riddled with machine gun fire. I looked at my watch. We had been in France for thirty-seven minutes, and most of Able company was lying face down on the beach, mutilated and mangled—one hell of a welcome. Mike was sitting with his back against a pile of rocks he held his bayonet in both hands with the blade extending up over his gas mask bag. His pose reminded me of a knight, the kind you see on a stained glass window.

"D'you loose your rifle?" I asked."Yeah, "he answered wiggling his bayonet. "This is all I got.”

"I dropped my Thompson in the water. But I still got the ammo.” I said reaching behind my back and tapping my magazine pouch. "A whole lotta good that'll do me now, huh?" I added, rolling my eyes. "Mike, We can't stay here. We gotta regroup and make our way up the draw." I said, making a gesture with my hand toward the path. "Who's that over there? Is that Dole and Voltner?" I asked, peering up over the rubble. When I moved to belly crawl out of the ditch toward the two GIs, Stanton grabbed my leg.

"Sarge… I… I can't. Wait. Just a minute..." He stammered. "…I have something… I brought something. Look. It's here." He continued, and reached into his waterlogged musette bag, and pulled out a gold can.

"Is that beer?" I asked as I slumped back into the ditch.

"Yeah," he smiled, the worry evaporating from his face temporarily. "I brought it with me. My uncle sent me a couple cans last month. He wrote me and said, When you get where you're going, have a drink on me!'

With that, he punctured the lid of the can with his bayonet and a spray of white foam exploded over the two of us. He laughed and took a swig. He closed his eyes as he swallowed, but only for brief second. When he opened them up again, he wiped his chin and offered me the can. "It's Ballantine." He said and smiled again.The moment the beer touched my lips I could have been anywhere but where I was—back in England, back in the States. Hell, I could have been in my own backyard. It was a fleeting instant of normalcy in the most un-normal situation I had ever been in. My lips were gritty from the sand and I spit the course grains from my mouth before tipping the can back for another taste. Looking down the side of the can I saw Hanley running toward us. Then I heard the noise. The land mine threw him nearly ten feet in the air. I dropped the can and saw the horror rush across Stanton's face. I grabbed him by his pack and drug him out of the ditch. 

"Keep it together Mike. We've got to go. If we stay here we die." Saying that I threw Stanton onto his belly, and dove onto the ground next to him. We made our way the 20 or so yards across the shingle to Dole and Voltner. Sliding into their ditch I asked, “You two made contact with anybody else? Officers? Beachmaster? Anyone?” 

The answer was no. I knew we couldn't stay there; we needed to head east down the beach. "We need to head down the beach, see if can meet up with what's left of the company, or Baker, or somebody. We can't sit here." Crawling away, I looked back at the three men. None were moving. "We've got to go." I shouted. "Sarge, we're stayin' here." Dole answered, "We can lay low until someone comes." 

"We've got to keep moving. They're mopping us up. If we stay here, they'll zero in on the wall. We'll be sitting ducks." I pleaded with them. Shifting my eyes to Stanton "Mike?" I questioned. He just shook his head. I turned away and slithered out across the shingle. When I crawled about ten yards away I heard a whoomp! followed by explosion behind me, then a searing pain shot though my left leg. A two-inch shard of metal was embedded in the back of my thigh. Thick black smoke billowed from the ditch where I had just been. I could see Voltner slumped backwards, his helmet off. Stanton and Dole were not visible, but a shoe was laying on the edge of the now much larger ditch. Looking away and trying to ignore the pain I pulled myself along the sea wall. I clawed myself along, trying not to focus on the carnage down on the beach. The assault waves kept coming ashore. I looked out past the obstacles and barbed wire, out to the channel and saw an expanse of ships that formed a thin black line on the water's horizon. 

Exhausted and growing increasingly weak, I pushed on. I must have dragged myself clear into the next beach sector. I hadn't seen anyone since Stanton, Dole and Voltner, not anyone alive or not severely wounded at least. But, then ahead of me I saw what at first I thought was pile of bodies, until a helmet popped up, then another. The enemy was still firing, but it had lessened. A Sherman rolled past. A kid who looked maybe seventeen dashed, towards me. Kneeling down he said "Woah! I gotcha," as he grabbed me under the arms and pulled me toward the other men, slumping me down against the seawall when we reached the group "Medic!" He yelled, "Hey, Doc! Over here!"

"Who…who are you with?" I asked weakly as he poured water from his canteen into my mouth. "5th Rangers. You in the 116th? Charlie Company?"

"No, Able," I whispered as the Medic arrived. Tearing at my bloody trouser leg, the Medic looked at the Ranger and said one word "Priority." I felt a prick in my leg and then a warm calmness overcame me, and closed my eyes. I woke up two days later in a makeshift field hospital, overlooking the beach. The doctor saved my leg, and I got a trip back home. I was told that almost all of our officers had been killed and I was just one of two NCOs still alive. It was confirmed later that one hundred and twenty two of Able company's nearly two hundred men died on the beach or in the water. But we still got through.

Years on now, during the first week of June, while the kids play catch in the backyard, the hotdogs sizzle on the barbecue and the sun shines down on us, I make sure to I have at least one can of Ballantine waiting for me in the refrigerator. No matter how far in the past that day is. The thing I remember the most—my most vivid memory of that day—isn't the blood or the death, it was that long swallow of Mike Stanton's beer I took. It was the one good thing about that day. It's the only thing I want to remember.