The best approach to tell about Normandy is to mention a single
soldier whom I talked to soon after coming ashore on Omaha Beach.
It was June 1944; I was twenty-one.
Because of the storms that churned up the English Channel
our Third Armored Division wasn't able to land on Omaha until
after the infantry had established a foothold. By that time the
dogfaces were hoarse yelling for armor to help hold the green
pastures they had crawled forward to capture.
In an apple orchard above the beach, we removed the waterproofing
from our armor and found ourselves on the firing line that afternoon.
Once in position against a tall impregnable hedge the first
thing I did was to dig a large trench and even cover the opening
with logs to shield against the heavy artillery and tree-bursts.
Only fools feigned bravery at Normandy. It would have inconsistent
with the situation: The new army from the streets of America
was untried; the front lines were ill-defined in a tangle of
hedge-rowed pastures; and the German army had the psychological
edge, having gained a ruthless image in the world press.
I can remember the skies over Normandy that first night were
aglow with pulsating war lights. Two of the world's largest armies
wanted to move in opposite directions. The deep rumble of artillery
seemed to come in shockwaves from the core of the earth.
With darkness came a light drizzle - it rained often in Normandy.
We lowered our guns so they rested on a hedgerow.
My equipment was an M-15 half-track that mounted an automatic
37 mm cannon and twin .50-caliber machine guns. We had great
firepower and could take on aircraft as well. We carried a crew
of seven. Later, after we got moving, we sometimes "worked
over" a hedgerow prior to the infantry moving forward.
But now, soon after D-Day, it was a stroke of luck to land
in the same pasture with the First Infantry Division. They were
real veterans. In Stars and Stripes, the forces' newspaper,
we had followed their campaigns in North Africa and Sicily, and
all of us knew that a few days earlier, as the veteran division,
the Big Red One had steadied the massive assault on Omaha Beach
while the world stopped breathing.
But, God, how they suffered. Most of us, naive to battle,
looked upon Red One as royalty, but were quick to notice they
enjoyed no comforts of that lofty status.
My gun crew stood almost at attention as they filed through
a break in the hedgerow to set up in our pasture. Harnessed under
Browning automatics, bazookas, .30-caliber machine guns, mounts,
and packs containing ammo, grenades and their scant possessions,
at once they began digging foxholes in the rich, dark earth along
the length of the pasture.
Throughout the night's drizzle, without motion or sound, they
sat like surfaced field animals on piles of dirt near their individual
One of them sat a few feet from my position against a tall
hedge, a blanket draped over his shoulders so as to protect the
working parts of an M1 cradled on his lap. During the several
hours I watched him, not once did he move. Finally, around midnight,
I slung my own rifle muzzle down and jogged around the shell
craters to talk to him. I offered him a dry shelter-half.
"I could use it," he said quietly.
He sounded not at all savage as I had expected after Omaha,
but weary, withdrawn, insensible to the sane world we both had
known in England a few days earlier, before we were quarantined
in the exit pens.
Between incoming shell bursts, we talked soldier talk. He
mentioned the task ahead would be free from worry once the belief
was firm that there would be no way of coming out of it alive.
He taught me the importance of this. It was the beginning of
my gradual process of transforming terrifying combat into a form
of high-risk adventure.
Then we talked about the rain and were pleased it had come,
if only to put down the rotten cabbage odor of enemy corpses
and bloated cows that were scattered about. I asked him about
Omaha, but didn't press when he became strangely silent.
From his accent I couldn't tell if he was from Maine or Colorado,
but the anguish in his voice was unmistakable. He'd been benumbed
from the carnage of battle. He removed the wet blanket from his
shoulders and dropped it near his foxhole. Then he placed my
dry shelter-half over his shoulders, collaring it up under his
steel helmet. You'd have thought I'd given him a fur-lined London
Fog. I noticed he moved his left arm awkwardly.
"Maybe you should go to the rear."
"Oh, no," he came back warily.
But he brought his arm out from under the canvas, rolled up
his sleeve, took a field dressing from a kit hooked to his ammo
belt, poured something onto it, then pulled down his sleeve.
He was not a large man but his arms were thick, and the shot
had ripped open a fleshy part.
"You go back you'd get the Purple Heart."
"I already have that with two clusters. If I go back
they'd transfer me to a different outfit. I'm used to this one."
The light rain made metal-like tappings on our helmets and
formed shiny pools in boot prints cast in the mud near his foxhole.
He said: "You haven't been in combat long."
"Your chin strap is buckled. Concussion could tear your
head off." I unbuckled the strap.
"Did you get a Purple Heart at Tronia?"
"My second one."
"Ever see anything to match these hedgerows at Tronia?"
"Never seen anything to match these hedgerows anywhere,"
he said accurately.
For a week the attack had been going badly because of the
hedgerows, built through the centuries along property lines,
and now high enough to shield the crops from damp channel winds.
The generals had promised Paris would be liberated that summer,
but the English and Canadians hadn't even taken Caen yet.
I was to learn that combat was more tolerable when the army
moved; but at Normandy the army cringed and grew ponderous from
the realization of being part of a deeply committed Crusade that
was unable to cut its way through the hedgerows. Many tanks brooded
against the hedgerows like grounded sea monsters, their powerful
guns lowered in a posture of futility. In such battlegrounds
a frontal attack with tanks and infantry was impossible.
"Do you think we'll ever get through these hedges?"
I remember asking.
"If they don't gas us we will."
Occasionally, a shell landed nearby and exploded in a shower
of sparks. In the pastures behind, 105s and Long Toms pounded
the German army incessantly.
I can still remember how, in the lights of the explosions,
the infantryman's whole being was shown alerted, transfixed in
a posture of readiness, his tired eyes probing the dark hedge
where the enemy lurked, reconnoitering for weak spots or artillery
When an .88 scraped through the wet air, he wouldn't flinch,
but read the enemy pattern passively, knowing shrapnel tends
to spray forward and to the sides, not to the rear.
During a lull in the bombardment there came from the jammed-up
battalions behind us the careless crash of a mess kit on armor.
In the heavy air, it sounded like a shotgun going off in church.
The veteran turned in disgust, indicating the noise would attract
more artillery - a concentration. But his speech was limited
to tactical essentials.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I first went across the
pasture to visit that soldier. My lasting impression was his
capacity to absorb punishment. Had it been necessary for him
to pass through some sort of celestial gateway, where physical
appearance determined heavenly caste, certainly he could only
have qualified for God's human junkyard.
And if through the magic of then unknown satellite TV, his
image, for example, could have been flashed to his wife or girlfriend
back home, she would have screamed with horror. In Normandy,
however, he was infantry and therefore what was known as "the
queen of battle." He belonged to "the goddamned infantry"
as they referred to themselves. He was of The First Infantry
Division and as professional a soldier as the American army had.
That night I remember searching his lonely stoicism for some
heroic feature that would make it all balance. There was none.
He wasn't brazen, swashbuckling, or grandiose; nor was he hyper
or the type to strut around. I have never encountered a more
miserable human, and wonder today if his sensibilities ever allowed
him to become whole again - if he survived, which is doubtful.
Yet, there he sat in the rain holding the front, paradoxically
contented, his courage and fear locked in numbed counterbalance.
In the pasture that night, the Germans eventually had found
what they had been probing for and dropped in heavy artillery.
I can still see geysers of dark earth spraying the hedge before
us. Shells whistled in and exploded in a bracket around the pasture.
Behind us, our artillery responded.
"Run for your foxhole," the veteran warned before,
like a spooked woodchuck, he dropped out of sight into his own
burrow. Shells were landing in our pasture as I dived into my
hole near the hedgerow. The shelling continued all night.
By morning when I crawled out of my hole, it had stopped raining.
In the early light the pasture was badly shell-torn. Of more
interest, the pasture was deserted. At dawn, under the umbrella
of the artillery barrage, the First Infantry Division had moved
After a few weeks into the battle, many of our tanks had been
fitted with "hedgerow cutters" - tusk-like devices
made from metal bars, sharpened, then welded to the lower front
frames that enabled them to smash through an earthen hedge, rather
than lifting their soft underbellies to the waiting German '88s.
Then, with the support of saturation bombing by 2,500 planes
- a sight that no one who was there will ever forget - the tanks
and infantry began to move over the ravaged landscape until we
helped forge a major breakthrough at St Lo with Paris and the
Seine River only days away. The 49-day invasion battle of Normandy
was finally over.
Our Third Armored Division emerged from Normandy bruised but
efficient enough to be chosen by VII Corps to spearhead with
Big Red One across France, Belgium and into Central Germany.
At Mons, Belgium, the two crack divisions (with P-47 Thunderbolts
of the 9th Tactical Air Force in support) destroyed or captured
25,000 of the enemy within three days.
But when I think of how inexperienced and fearful our gun
crew was the first few days in Normandy (yet, not so scared that
we couldn't do our jobs for which we were well-trained), I often
think of how fortunate we were to have landed in the same pasture
with the First Infantry Division. They were veterans of North
Africa, Sicily and Omaha Beach; we joined the battle as neophytes.
Their presence made me feel a little more secure, and over the
years I have come to believe that that initial encounter with
the Red One at Normandy can only be remembered as a rare stroke
Andy Rooney, a correspondent for Stars and Stripes
during the conflict, put it best: "The Big Red One,"
he wrote, "was so good it was heartbreaking to see it being
given the toughest assignments . . . as a reward for its excellence."
During the sixtieth anniversary celebrations of Normandy,
my daughter asked: "What was it really like at Normandy,
I told her about the weary infantryman, sitting at his foxhole,
a wet blanket over his shoulders so as to protect the working
parts of his rifle cradled in his lap.
In my symbolic portrayal, I mentioned the frustrations of
the infantryman's struggle: of his incredible resilience that
transcended agony: of his day-and-night vigil at the tide line
of an erupted hell: his perseverance in his quest for the next
I went as far as to mention that his M1-rifle was pivotal
in the thin difference between freedom and enslavement.
I told my daughter: "That shot-up dogface that I encountered
one rainy night at Normandy, helped give the Free World another
chance, and it's a proud feeling knowing that our Third Armored
Division came out of Normandy battered but skilled enough to
thereafter run with the First Infantry Division as a tank/infantry
strike force that historians have since proclaimed to be invincible."