We were loaded in barges off Normandy . . . when the assault boats started into the beach, we got everything . . . Artillery, machine guns, small arms fire, mortar shells, mines. They banged us up some on the way in . . . when the ramps went down men began to drop. —Pvt. George Gutschke to the Associated Press July 12, 1944
Channel Coast off Normandy. 0715 Hours.
The morning is raw and the Channel full of menace. Winds whip the sea. The sea seethes and writhes and heaves our assault barge into its transport with a clang.
And all over our barge doughboys retch.
Soaked, swollen with gear, I try rejiggering the life belt that rides under my arms and strangles my chest when a wave arches its back, lifts our barge then lets it fall.
“Will somebody shoot my ass and end this goddamned misery?” I groan.
“Easy, Tex,” says my squad leader as he paws the crown of my steel helmet, “we’re gonna get our chance soon enough. You didn’t take your pills didja?”
The Army plans for everything – even seasickness. They issued anti-seasickness pills with our gas-impregnated uniforms, gas masks, ammo bags, haversacks, bandoleers, bayonets, bandages, chocolate bars, French Language Guides, leggings, rubbers, smokes, Zippos, raincoats, drawers, shelter halves, lifebelts, cartridge belts, sulfa powder, paperbacks, French folding money, socks, spoons, K rations, D rations, entrenching tools, chewing gum, insecticide, ass wipe and two tidy vomit bags in the event of mal de mer—that’s French for “seasickness” and it ain’t in the language guide either.
When they issued the pills, they told us to take two pills before eating then one every four hours. But they dried my mouth, blurred my vision, and laid me out—everything but cure my nausea. I wasn’t the only one either. Every head on our transport had a soldier in it vomiting. So I gave up and pitched the goddamned pills over the side when I threw up over the rails.
More waves slam our barge and I brace myself against the gunwale. Then hitching my rifle on my shoulder, I crane my neck and eye the big effort.
Under a gray morning sky, countless gray ships swarm the back of an angry gray sea. We crossed the Channel in long columns undercover of night expecting an attack that never came. Now we ride anchor off the Channel coast, seesawing on the rolling gray swells with gray barrage balloons in tow.
“In all the wars in all the years,” I mutter, “this is the greatest magic trick of ‘em all.”
“Answer me one question, Tex—” says Wee-Gee in front of me rolling his shoulders and fiddling with the straps on his gear.
“How did I get stuck haulin’ two stovepipes full of TNT on that beach, huh?”
“Damned if I know. Orders maybe?”
“Fine lotta hell this is—”
“Hey Wee-Gee, take it up with the chaplain will ya?” says a dogface.
I turn my attention back to the big show, lean forward and give a squint: “Gee, will ya look at that!”
“Yeah. Yeah, Yeah.” says Wee-Gee, “I got two eyefuls already. Can we get this goddamned show on the road?”
“No—not that! Look who came to dance!”
Wee-Gee jerks up, chins the thwart, and with mouth hanging open throws his head back laughing. “Well I’ll be damned,” he says. “Hey fellas, get a load of those shitheads!”
While drilling to crack Hilter’s Atlantic Wall back in England, some vets had rode our ass, bragging how they would sit this one out and while Fritz used our ass-end for target practice, they’d stay in good ole England to eat and drink and make love to every woman they met.
Evidently this critical bit of military intelligence had escaped Supreme Allied Command, since these blowhards now crawl down the nets into a bobbing assault barge.
“Hey!” hollers one of our riflemen standing at the bow ramp, he already has his bayonet fixed on his rifle.
Across the waves, piss-pots pop up here and there above a gunwale.
“What the hell do you want?” yells one of our tormentors.
“Dunno if you know or not,” shouts our rifleman, “but these boats—they’re not goin’ to England!” The rifleman then points in the direction of England and yells, “You’ll wanna to catch one goin’ thataway!”
Our barge cuts loose with a barrage of jeers.
And after a lull in the laughter and the last of the obscenities, the other boat shoots back, “Thanks for the dope and fuck you!”
“We’re gonna be right on your ass,” fires another.
“Yeah! We gonna see if all that trainin’ took!“
And as the razzing eases up, each man goes back to sweating it out in his own way.
One dogface moans he has a newfound pity for sardines in a tin. Another cracks, “Hey, Sarge! Is this trip necessary?”
The sergeant yells, “Unhook those chinstraps!”
Someone whistles: “Ole Uncle Charlie’s not gonna like that! Not one bit!”
“Well, Uncle Charlie ain’t in the boat now is he? So unhook ‘em!”
Soldiers fidget, checking and rechecking their gear; some stand dazed, pale and weak with seasick stomachs.
Someone had put it all down in a complex schedule—we were supposed to mop up Kraut resistance in the evening, but Uncle Charlie wants more infantry on the beach in the early morning, so here we are—waterlogged, cold, legs cramped, bellies turned upside down and inside out.
Suddenly the cox’n gives her the gun. Gears grind. The diesel throbs. And then and there all the bellyaching, fidgeting and wisecracking does an about-face.
I take a last look up at the transport, its deck jammed with drab men and matériel silhouetted against the gray morning sky where soldiers press the rails to watch and wait their turn.
One yells, “Good huntin’ fellas! Give ‘em hell!”
Another half-heartedly waves. Some guys give a thumbs-up. A few nod good luck while many others absently smoke. One kid gives the V sign for victory.
And as our assault barge chugs forward and leaves the transport, I watch the big 337 painted on her bow slide away.
There will be no backing out now.