Chapter Three: Memorial Service
July 14th 1944
After 30 or some days of the Normandy campaign, the 101st left France and returned to England in LSTs, one of the finer ideas that army ever had. We were promised three day and three nights of hard fighting and we'd be out of there. But the longer you stay in the army, the faster you learn to realize, there are no such things as promises.
Three days of an organized drop with a tight drop pattern, quick formation and quick achievement of the objectives turned into 30 days of moving in and out of towns, leading attacks and watching your buddies get killed. There were no promises; it would have saved a lot more lives if there were.
How ever, we had good billets that summer in England. The officers were in brick houses that were astonishingly beautiful while the enlisted men were in comfy stables and barns compared to Normandy. Kent, Gerdnar, Michells, Miller, Cameron and I shared a lovely two story house. It had a garden in front with numerous flowers and a white fence that ran the length of the house. A small stone path led from the gate in the fence to the front door. It was owned by an elderly couple who left when the war began to move in with relatives in Ireland. A next door neighbor took care of the house.
Kent and I shared the second floor bedroom while Gerdnar and Cameron shared the room across the hall. Miller and Michells occupied the guest room downstairs. Our living conditions were much better and the food was not half bad. We had a portable radio in the living room and it was on from 0700 all the way to 2300 as long as the AFN broadcasts lasted.
The only bad thing about the radio programs was annoying SHAEF messages that told us to keep clean and salute more often. It was like a never ending commercial. Sometimes when we didn't like the song we switched to the German radio and listen to Lord Haw Haw and Sally talk. They played so good songs.
Past the various training exercises, night problems and field problems, parades and inspections, we were given passes and tickets to concerts, but most of us spent the day relaxing and talking.
Earnest and Carl commandeered a car from and Englishman and drove us to the Southampton's, where we, and the radio, would sit under the sun and swim. None of the two activities was any good for a radio so we put it under an umbrella and kept it from the water. We also took jeeps with the .30 cal still mounted on the back out to beaches as well.
The week after we came back from Normandy, we the 101st Airborne Division invaded London. The first day was a day, and night, of being praised as heroes, being brought food and drink, being drunk, celebrating and partying to no end. But we might have over done it, just by a little. The local newspaper compared it to the Blitz and declared it the wildest week of the year.
I have little memory of that week past one night in which I found myself, Miller, Kent and Cameron in a pastry shop, drunk as hell and planning to buy cream puffs from several unsuspecting girls managing the shop.
"Does anyone, like cream puffs?" I asked, smiling drunkenly at the puffs.
"I, happen to like chocolate better." Kent replied looking at some chocolate cookies.
"Cream puffs you say?" Cameron asked, he walked over in a march and said imitating the battalion CO, Colonel Smith, "Cream puffs you want? I'll give you cream puffs!" One of the most famous catch phrases of the colonel when asked for something was to rely kindly and then hit you in the face. Cameron missed me by a few miles and crashed into the counter. The girl behind the counter leapt back in fear.
"I guess we'll be taking a dozen cream puffs." Miller said to the girl. The girl nodded and took out all of the cream puffs there was and stuffed in a giant box and shoved it towards Miller. He paid her with a large bill and we left the store with over three dozen cream puffs.
We piled out into the street sing "Shoo-Shoo Baby" in a loud raucous. Down the road we found Paten, Buck, Earnest and Carl liberating liquor with some guys from Able and Dog. They were drunk and we joined in, taking bottle after bottle of anything we could find. They joined us in our singing as we paraded down the street searching for more fellow paratroopers.
The memory ends with unpleasant brawl in the street when we collided with several officers and men from the infantry, claiming that they were better. We would have killed the officers if not for Tyler and Micker, who was CO of Fox Company and a group of M.P.s, who found us and stopped us.
"Hey Jonesy, we're going out to Brighton. You coming?" Buck asked. I was sitting in the living room with half the guys from third platoon, the Old Army guys. Half of E Company is now made of replacements.
"Brighton? Any chance there's a beach there?" I asked, knowing perfectly well there was a beach at Brighton.
"You bet. A perfectly fine beach." Buck replied.
"Even finer with some naked girls strolling down it." Miller said. We all laughed.
"You wish Miller. There ain't no such thing as naked girls no more. You get the WACs and nurses with their shirts buttoned up to the top and they are not coming off." Kermen said.
"Kermen, you don't have the skills to get them unbuttoned. You don't even have the skills to get a girl." Cameron joined in.
"You don't either, Cam." Michells chuckled.
"Yeah, yeah. You two, and you, are too ugly to get any girls." I said referring to Kermen, Cameron and Michells, "Are we going to Brighton in the first place or not? We are wasting daylight here!"
"Yessir, we are going out to Brighton, sir." Buck got off the couch, "We are moving out at, 1230 hours, sir."
"Well done private. Everyone outside to the troop transport on the double." I said.
"Who made you leader?" Kent asked. I tapped the silver bar pinned on the hat I just put on. He chuckled and put on his own hat.
The guys picked up their various affects and headed outside into the July sun. Gerdnar who was fiddling with the radio was last one out. Paten slipped into the driver's seat and Kermen next to him. Kent, Cameron, Gerdnar, Michells, Buck, Miller and I squeezed into the back seat of the jeep and headed for Brighton.
A few more trips out to the beaches and no signs of any naked girls ended the summer. According to Cameron and Michells, more than a dozen drops have been planned up division but all of them scratched due to the fact that the DZ was constantly being overrun by infantry.
July turned into August, the nice warm weather turned into a cold breeze. Promotions were made and medals received. Kent and Miller made first lieutenant. Richards, Buck, Paten, Kermen, Earnest, Carl were promoted to corporal.
Replacements came in floods. Cap, who was MIA in the first days of the Normandy campaign failed to show up later and was marked KIA, thus I received a replacement called Maren straight from basic.
I hoped that Cap was out there somewhere still combing his hair every morning with that comb he always carried. In the first days I hoped to see his read hair popping up among the men and making his way to report to me what was happening. He'd take out a cigarette and I'd give him a light. We'd marched on with the rest of the company and talk about the various events that needed tending to in various places. Having him gone left the men disheartened and large gap in the platoon no matter who filled it in physically.
Maren is a good soldier, the kind that never questions an order. This can help the platoon or get it killed. A good soldier has to trust the decisions of his CO and of his personal opinion. At the moment Maren has no opinion on much of anything.
August 28, 1944
August 28 was a Sunday. It was announced that a memorial service for those that gave their lives in Normandy be held that day. This meant giving up a perfectly fine Sunday morning. If it was up to the men in the company, we'd mourn for our dead comrades all week, any week, but giving up a Sunday morning for such a cause was not of common interest.
We rode in buses to a place called Littlecote where the service was held. I assumed it to be a long list. Casualties were heavy on the drop and during the 30 something days we spent there.
I watched the hills of England pass by, I longed for my two story brick building, the place I know called home and was my home. I dreaded another jump and the thought of leaving my billet. I wanted this to last as long as it can, which I now suspect will not be that long. I dreaded this for one main reason, the thought that I might not return to the billet or return anywhere alive.
Everything else was the same, the grass in the wind; the trees in the forest, the Brits going about their Sunday business, yet the men from that summer at Camp Taccoa, the men who made it through D-Day were not the same. War changes people, you don't know how but it does. There's a difference between a person who has been in combat and who has not. The man who was under fire and who has seen and killed the enemy thinks differently of life the next time around.
Be it that you are a replacement, or you jumped with the company on D-Day, the guys in our truck wanted nothing more to go back to their billets and barns and eventually go back to the States.
"Look, some one's trout fishing." Maren pointed at an old man by the bridge up ahead. We crossed the bridge and looked back at him.
"Trout fishing," Some one repeated, "I use to go trout fishing back in the States."
"I went fishing every week with my old man." Another voice joined in, "And my god, we'd go home with a load of fish."
"I miss fishing," The same someone said, lighting a cigarette and letting the smoke drift slowly above his head. "I miss the diner; they cooked fish the way it's supposed to be cooked. Here, they got fish and chips. God, I'm sick and tired of it."
"It's the nation dish." I said.
"Yeah, yeah, national dish. More like national shit."
We moved past more hills and a herd of cows. We reached Littlecote shortly after that. The band played and we fell into position before the platform.
The chaplain read aloud a prayer. I no longer believed in God. If there was such a man called God, who was cause of miracles and such and ruled over humanity and watched us, Cap would be alive, so would be Gort and Nicks and Ylter and Fenchurd and the rest of the casualties of this war. Nevertheless, I found the prayer fitting.
General Williams was the next speaker, only to be drowned out by a formation of C-47s. They circled overhead at low altitude, dipped their wings in salute and as the General finished left the field. Those were the same C-47s that carried men to their death in France.
Then a lieutenant from regimental HQ read out the roster of the men who were killed in action. The list was long, 414 total of both the missing and killed. The sun was hot and standing there was almost unbearable. It was like a swarm of bees that did not go away.
"Captain Micheal D. Ablemen." The lieutenant read. Hendricks was the CO of Charlie Company. I never met him but was told he was a doctor back in the states. Jokes were made that he should have been CO of Able Company due to his name.
"First Sergeant Jefferson Cap." I winced at the name. I wanted to scream at them that Cap was not dead. He's out there, you'd find him if you looked. Of course I knew he was dead. Even though most of men standing in the lush green field of Littlecote, knows whether his friend was killed or not, having it read to you made it official. I didn't want it to be official.
"Private First Class John Fenchurd." After settling down in St. Marie du Mont, Fenchurd found a cellar full of liqiour, grabbed two friends, got drunk and by accident shot himself in the arm with his pistol. He severed a main artery and died before the medic, who was drunk, himself somewhere else. It was a needless casualty. Fenchurd was a good soldier, with a girlfriend back home whom he wrote to everyday.
"Private First Class Benjamin P. Gort." The last time I saw Gort was when we took Carentan. Gort and Buck never went anywhere alone, considering Gort was an ammo carrier and Buck was the machine gunner. Gort showed up after our makeshift company took the guns. Gort found Buck after the battalion moved in St. Marie du Mont. Then we moved out following a road covered with dead bodies and lost contact with F Company too many times to count, but we reached Carentan and the order was give to attack at 0600 hours.
Tyler sent first platoon down the road and met heavy machine gun fire. No one moved. Tyler screamed for the men to move out, still no one moved. Tyler ran up and down the road barely missing the machine gun bullets. He screamed and shouted and kicked like a child having a fit, yet no one moved. The machine gun stopped to reload.
Buck opened fired with the .3o cal in the MG42's direction and finally we all moved down the road. Gort was with Buck and they moved out with the rest of the company. That was last I seen of him. Later after we took Carentan, I found out he was hit by a mortar and made it the aid station with Buck helping him before he died. Buck was in a state of desperation. Linnings who also part of the machine gun squad was MIA, Ryan was KIA and Richards was evacuated with over 20 pieces of shrapnel along the left side of his body. He was the only one left in the machine gun squad.
"Sergeant William Linnings." I didn't see Linnings the whole time. Like Cap, he was first listed MIA, then KIA and like Cap I hoped he was still alive out there. Linnings was cheerful and always happy, seems like yesterday when I found him stealing peaches from the mess hall. He smiled at me and told me he wasn't stealing but liberating. "Because the peaches was going to be eaten by people like Colonel Smith, and the peaches would hate that."
The list went on and on and on, drawing moans from the soldiers who knew the deceased. Finally it was over and we marched off the field with the band playing "Onward Christian Soldier". I was glad it was over. The names would hit you in the face like bricks. It said with each name to you, "He's dead, be happy you are not dead yourself!" You don't care about your dead comrade at first, when you see him get shot and fall down. You'd leave him there; feel happy it was not you. But then later you'd think back and feel guilty and miss him.
The weeks following the Memorial, Buck and rest of the guys who usually went with him, took their very last trips down to the beaches. I decided to stay and write letters home.
I had a neat stack of letters to everyone I know, I decided to mail them tomorrow. It seemed like a fine day to be at the beach. I walked down the stone path and out into the garden. I looked up.
The sun was bright, the clouds big and puffy, remind me of an August day two years ago back in Georgia. Running up Currahee with a full pack, three miles up and three miles down. I, in a way missed it.
I continued to stare up at the sky and think about the war. I know there was a long way to go before it was over, the infantry would soon slow down and stop overrunning the DZs. I would have to leave my billet and hope to return to it, or return to something, in one piece.
Clouds sailed over and covered up the sun. I watched as it moved from beyond the hills far away and move closer. Rain was upon us. I could feel the drops of raining as they hit my face. It was sincere and candid, hitting with a force brining you back into reality. I stood out there while others dashed for cover. I stood staring, soaked by the rain and enchanted by its ability to make things so clear.
War was hell, no one wanted to fight it. But if we did not fight for our country and everyone stayed home and hid, Hitler would have conquered the world. Would it be better if some one else's son was dieing out here? No, it would not be. I'd rather die fighting for my country than let someone die in my place, because this is my place, first lieutenant of third platoon, E Company, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne, First Allied Airborne Army.