I kept a tight hold on the cross around my neck as the boats bobbed and tottered on the choppy surface of the water, spraying white jets of cold foam into the gray and cloudy sky. The engines grumbled and sputtered beneath our feet, the chilly sea air filled with the sound of the fifty or more boats puttering toward the shore, each filled from front to back with thirty or so mismatched Marines. We sat shoulder to shoulder, hunkered down behind the upright ramp at the front of each boat, clutching our Garands to our chests and muttering whatever prayers we knew. I knew plenty, and I couldn't say them fast enough. I grimaced and shivered each time my boat plowed through a wave, and frosty seawater misted onto my shoulders and pattered on my helmet. My uniform had been heavy before the sea spray soaked it; now it clung to me like a clammy second skin. I could wiggle my toes around in the water in my boots. It would be hard to run through the mud and sand, and I knew it. I tried to breathe. The air was not fresh; it was clotted with the rich smell of soil and burning gunpowder, the result of the shells being lobbed from the warships behind us and slamming into the beaches we were cruising towards. Death was already on all sides of me, and this was the safest place I could be. If there was a safe place in Normandy that day.
"50 seconds!" Shouted the pilot behind me. I turned and glanced back at him. He was clinging to the boat's wheel with one hand, and holding up all five fingers on the other. He winked at me and managed a grim smile, and said simply, "You're gonna be fine son." He wasn't a good liar and knew that I knew it, but I smiled back just the same.
Which one was thumping louder- the shells landing ahead of me or the heart in my chest- I can't recall to this day. I kissed my cross and started my prayers over again. I figured if I had precious few breaths left in this world, that was the best way to use them.
I wiped my sweaty palms down the legs of my fatigues, my fingers wrinkles and drained of blood. I looked like I was dead already. I glanced around at the other men in the boat with me, swallowing spit that wasn't there. Were they as afraid as I was? How many of them were new recruits like me, fresh out of basic? How many had already seen battle and killed for their country like I was expected to do? How many were watching me squirm and saying to themselves, "That kid's goin' home in a body bag"? I sniffed wetly and peered over the bow of the boat as it rolled down a wave, dipping low enough for me to see the shores of France. I saw the smoky shore, littered with fresh craters and steel tank obstacles, but no bunkers. No Nazi machines. No bodies. Not so much as a single Swastika flag. Maybe Omaha beach was a backdoor. Maybe none of us would die. And maybe pigs were flying in my hometown, too.
I ran my fingertips over the tiny shape of Christ crucified on my necklace and closed my eyes, reciting the Lord's Prayer over and over in my mind. I was running out of breath, and it made me nauseous to so much as whisper. I begged God to make me bulletproof, and if he couldn't, to at least forgive me of my sins-and for those I was about to commit. I had never tried to imagine what it would feel like to kill another person, not even with the drill instructors screaming it into my face. These were the bad guys, I knew. These were the ones that had to be stopped. I was a Marine, and my job was to stop them, and that meant killing them. But I wasn't sure I'd be able to touch the gates of Heaven with my hands soaked in German blood. They'd hiss when I opened the gates of Hell.
I was swatted out of my thoughts by a heavy hand slapping my helmet, and hard. I shot a look to my left and found myself staring into the cold eyes of a seasoned Marine by the name of Greer, his lip bulging with tobacco and his helmet resting askew on his greasy head. He said simply, "Cap's gonna talk. Listen up." I didn't question.
I nodded stupidly and straightened my own helmet, gripping the butt of my M1 and squaring up toward the front of the boat. Just as I did, two or three enemy fighters roared overhead. They didn't fire at us right then, because they were circling around. Circling around so they could come in low and hot on the next pass. Then they would shoot at us. When we were easier to hit.
The captain half stood, half squatted behind the protection of the forward ramp as he prepared to speak, slapping ammunition into his Thomson. He held it proudly with one arm, his square jaw set and his eyes grim. If anyone looked bulletproof, it was him. He had the words "From Brooklyn, With Love" scrawled across his helmet and a grinning skull with stars for eyes on each shoulder. I wanted to hide behind the man until the war was over-and immediately hated myself for thinking such a selfish, coward's thought.
"As soon as we hit the beach I want everybody to spread out. The marine in front of you goes left, you go right. The marine in front of you goes straight, you fall back. Keep plenty of space between men. They're holed up with mortars and mounted SMGs up there in those bunkers, and a group of men is an easy target. Keep spread out and keep moving. Proceed directly to the seawall. You dawdle you die, is that understood?"
"Hoo-ah!" we all shouted together, our voices muted by the roar of the ocean around us.
My stomach felt empty, fear rolling around in my gut like a cold bowling ball. At the front of the boat, a Marine retched and vomited onto the steel flooring, followed soon after by another. They continued that sick song until they had nothing left. The captain patted one of the men on the back and said something to him I couldn't hear. Then he simply said, "Remember your training, and you'll see your families again."
My skull echoed with his words.
They're holed up with mortars and mounted SMGs. You dawdle you die. You dawdle you die. You die. You die. Die. Die.
The corners of my eyes felt hot and I was fighting tears, my knuckles bone white as I gripped my Garand like it was a plane ticket home. My ears popped and filled with cotton as an artillery shell plowed into the beach with a mind-shattering thud, kicking a dark plume of dirt and sand into the ashen sky. It took me a minute to realize I wasn't hearing what we called the "missile whistles" overhead anymore; the battleships behind us had already stopped firing. That meant that the Nazis were shooting at us. We hadn't even set foot on the beach yet, and already they were trying to kill us. What would we do when we were in plain sight? Where would we hide? How did I pray my way out from under a mortar shell?
Someone near the front of the boat suddenly bellowed, "Ours is not to question why…"
And everyone around me responded, "Ours is but to do and die!" Mine was quiet and half-hearted.
As if on cue, we heard the engines. They started as insectile whines high up in the atmosphere, but rapidly deepened and built into the deep growls of powerful aviation. The fighters were on their way back, falling from the sky like hornets.
"Luftwaffe, comin' in fast and low!"
There was a loud crackling sound as the planes opened fire, the gunshots loud enough to make my ears ache even though I was already half deaf. I felt, as well as heard, each individual shot, the water hissing on all sides of us as the hot bullets slammed through the surface. There came the loud grinding sound of metal striking metal, and the unmistakable thudding sound of bullets through bodies. I cried out and hugged my knees to my chest as they streaked over our boat, flying low enough for me to see the bolts on their bellies and the blurred images of Swastikas on the underside of each wing. I felt the heat from the exhaust on my face, and almost as fast as they had come, the fighters—a deadly trio of them—pulled up and disappeared into the low-hanging clouds. The sound of their engines fading was punctuated with shrill, high pitched screaming from behind us. The screams came from the boat that now drifted lazily in the wake of the others, the boat that had taken the worst of the hits. I couldn't stop myself— I stole a quick glance behind me. I saw several marines floating face down in the rough waters, their swaying bodies framed by a crimson cloud of spreading blood. Another man was slumped backwards over the edge of the boat, his lifeless arms dangling into the water. His face was destroyed, obliterated by a profusion of wounds. Nobody in my boat had taken a bullet. The prayers had worked.
I didn't have time to congratulate myself or Jesus for the power of prayer. As I watched the faceless corpse toppled over the edge and into the ocean, the pilot called over my shoulder: "Clear the ramp!"
His words were echoed by the pilots of the boats on all sides of us, and then the doormen were furiously cranking the valves. The chains clinked and rattled and the ramps slowly began to lower, the boats nudging gently into the sand and coming to a slow stop. But nothing else was slow and gentle on that bloody 6th of June, in the war-torn year of 1944. Not even the swaying of the dead men in the water as they waited to be joined.
The ramps hadn't even lowered completely before the gunfire began. I saw six sporadic lights flashing through the billowing smoke and soot, and I instantly knew they were muzzle flashes. I threw myself to the bed of the boat as the bullets began to rip through the metal walls and the men inside them. I felt like I was in a giant blender; like the krauts were making a Marine smoothie and I was inches from the grinding blades. My comrades were bottlenecked; they tried to run out the front of the boats and were intercepted by hot, criss-crossing streams of bullets. I watched in horror as the backs of uniforms ahead of me exploded out in violent sprays of blood, as men screamed and fell over each other. I could hear bones cracking and popping as bullets passed through rib cages and shoulder blades, tearing through muscle and flak jackets. They tore through the Marines and kept going to strike the Marines behind them, before finally lodging themselves in the steel of the boats. Every second I stayed alive was a gift from God.
Not gonna make it I'm gonna die here I'm gonna die here— that's what kept running through my mind, like constant, erratic Morse code.
I suppose nowadays, they call it "shell shock". Easy to analyze when you're not being shot at. But I saw everything happening in slow motion as I lay in the boat, clutching my rifle as if it would somehow keep me safe. I watched as the bullets punched through the pilot's helmet with a metallic pang, knocking it off of his head and taking the upper half of his skull and hair with it. He pitched backwards and collapsed over the wheel, more bullets chewing up his back to make sure he wouldn't be returning to bring our armor to the beach. I tried to avert my eyes, but all they found to look at was the soldier who had slapped me standing up to fire, his finger pumping the trigger. I watched the spent shell casings fly from the chamber and drop and scatter into the bloody mess beside me. Then I watched as a line of wounds traveled up his front, exploding through his hip, lower back, stomach, chest, neck, and finally his head. Greer was dead on his feet. He tottered for a few moments as blood gushed from his holes, and then—almost like his legs suddenly realized they were dead—he simply collapsed beside me. His mangled face smashed hard into the steel, inches from mine. His one remaining eye hung lazily open, staring into me. I felt a piece of my life fall away as I looked into what was left of that man's face. I felt as dead on the inside as he was on the outside. I considered putting my rifle in my mouth, and ending the horror by my own hand. My prayers hadn't saved him.
And then the captain's voice reached my ears, faint and distant over the hurricane of gunfire and the chaotic resonance of destruction on Omaha beach. I felt him touch me from over the edge of the boat, his gloved hands damp with the dark water sloshing up between his knees. He shook my shoulder and screamed into my ear loud enough for it to hurt.
"Snap out of it Sam!"
I shook my head and suddenly everything was louder, as if someone had un-paused a movie in the middle of the climax. I looked into his face like a deer in the headlights, his eyes wide and insane beneath his Graffiti helmet.
"—a dead man!"
I stared at him stupidly as the shock refused to release its iron grip. My mouth hung agape.
He grabbed a handful of my fatigues and shook me, then yanked me toward his face. His breath was hot on my face, and smelled of cigarettes and coffee.
"I said if you stay in there, you're a dead man!"
I hadn't realized that aside from the bloodied piles of corpses in front of me, I was the only one left in the boat. One of the dead bodies in front of me twitched and jumped as bullets tore into it, and one of them grazed the tip of my boot. Another cluster of rounds slammed into the dead pilot behind me. I felt his blood splatter onto my neck as he was rag-tossed into a different direction.
Time to move, I thought.
I snapped out of my daze then, as I stared at the frayed leather of my boot, and threw myself over the side of the boat. I kept a tight grip on my rifle as I plunged into the cold water, and let me tell you, that water was cold. I kept my eyes on the muzzle flashes in the fog as I pumped my arms, my boots sliding around in the sludge below the surface of that chilly, stinky ocean water. I stumbled over the bodies and helmets resting on the sea floor, and I saw that the foam floating around me was pink. The captain put an arm around me and helped me to shore the best that he could, his left arm quaking and spasming as his Thomson breathed fire toward the bunkers. When we reached the shore he sprinted forward, his boots digging into the bloody sand. Head low, he beckoned for me to follow.
"Now get your ass to the seawall! Let's go, Sam!"
Mortars whistled down from the smog-choked sky and exploded on opposite sides of the beach, finding their mark for the first time and sending screaming men flailing into the air. They fragmented before they hit the ground, like tufts of leaves. I saw one man reduced to a head and torso before landing on top of another running Marine. His arms and legs were scattered into the air, one of the limbs—I didn't care to identify it—landing right in front of me. I hurdled it and ran for my life, leaping over screaming soldiers and corpses alike, some in one piece, some in hundreds. I saw a shiny, colorful collage of reds, blues and yellows from the corner of my eye; it was a man who had been blown in half below the waist, his intestines spilling out from the tattered remnants of his torso. He was somehow still alive, his chin drenched with blood. In one spasming hand he held a picture of someone I couldn't make out, his bright blue eyes glued to it. As I ran past him they shifted to me only briefly, and an instant after, his head dropped to the sand. The picture fell from his slack fingers and fluttered away in the breeze, until another running soldier's boot smashed it into the sand.
"We need some bangalores over here, we gotta clear the wire!"
"Someone get some bangalores to the seawall, now!"
The shouts grew louder as I approached the sea wall, my lungs burning for fresh air as I breathed in vaporized dirt and flesh. I darted between the iron tank obstacles that dotted Omaha before finally throwing myself behind one, wrapping myself into the tiniest ball I could manage. The sand beside me erupted as a German shot at me, some of the bullets ricocheting off the metal obstacle just behind my back with a deadly sounding shriek. Another bullet buzzed by my ear. Beside me, a middle-aged Marine took several of the bullets that had been intended to kill me. They penetrated his stomach and knocked the air out of him; the sharp breath expelled by the force of the impact was full of blood. He gasped wetly and toppled forward, writhing in the sand like a bug before dying. I watched as his limbs became still, as his blood flowed in thick rivers from his body and saturated the sand around him. That man had died in my stead. Somehow, I was still alive.
Sitting duck here I'm a sitting duck— the Morse code was beeping away again.
I dropped to my stomach and brought my rifle to my eye, peering through the reticule and lining the sights up with one of the muzzle flashes. I could dimly make out the shape of two Nazis huddled over one of the mounted sub-machine guns, one feeding bullets into the beast, the other firing nonstop as the barrel began to glow red. I gritted my teeth together and made myself fire, my finger pumping the trigger back five, six, seven times. The barrel of my Garand flashed and spat rounds back at them as I fired at a person for the first time in my young life, my muzzle rising with each shot. I saw one of the machine gun flashes stop for a moment, and took advantage of the opportunity. I ran a few more feet and then dove for the seawall, my face plowing into the sand just as another barrage of bullets embedded themselves in the hill just above our heads. Those of us who had been fast enough—or lucky enough—to escape the boats alive were now pinned down by the bunkers. A long line of curled and rusted razor wire had been put in place to keep us there—and until the demolition crew got the bangalores they needed, we were stuck.
"Where is McHail? He should have been back here by now!"
I rolled onto my back and looked down the line of quivering soldiers who sought refuge behind the wall of sand. I felt relief for the first time in what felt like years when I saw the captain, shouting into a radio. His arm was bandaged and bleeding, but he seemed to be fine. A medic hovered over him with a tiny syringe of morphine, but the sweaty captain kept shooing him away with one filthy arm.
"Take it to Sandelson, he's legless for God's sake!" he roared, and then went back into screaming into the radio. Somewhere down the line of men, there was a bone-chilling chorus of screams. I saw more medics scrambling around a makeshift field hospital, hastily passing each other bandages and bottles of chemicals as they struggled to save their brothers in arms. My brothers in arms. That was when the hatred first began to build, a dark hatred I had never felt before, and if the situation had been different I would have been afraid of myself. Never in my 18 years of life had I wanted to kill someone. But at that instant, I felt like my glass constitution had become more like concrete. God had made me bulletproof, if he had been listening at all. Part of me wondered if God had left the phone off the hook that day in '44.
"Tell McHail to get his ass over here with those charges or I'm gonna kill him myself!" The captain was shouting. There was a garbled and staticky response from the other end, which could have been German for all we knew.
"Sir!" I yelled, keeping well below the seawall as I inched toward him. He looked at me with fierce eyes. My new-found fortitude was no match for that face.
"What the fuck do you want, private Hodges?"
I took a deep breath, and said what I felt I should say. I was going to do what I felt I should do. Maybe it's just something Marines in combat get; maybe all the horrors I had witnessed in such a short amount of time had scrambled my brains like eggs in a frying pan. To this day, that one was the decision that altered my life forever—and I'm still not quite sure why I made it.
"Where are the bangalores, sir?"
The captain stared at me, his brow crinkling in confusion. His contact on the radio kept squawking.
"You, Sam? You're volunteering to retrieve those charges?"
I ignored the surprise in his voice and nodded. My head weighed ten tons.
"I can do it, sir. I can do it!" I tried to sound as brave as I could. I didn't think it was working. The captain frowned, then gestured toward the opposite end of the beach with his uninjured arm.
"McHail headed after them down there and didn't come back. All we need you to do is get 'em, bring 'em back here, and we can blow this fence and advance on those bunkers. Trade me!" He yanked the Garand out of my hands and shoved his Thomson against my chest. It was dirty, and the metal was still warm from all the shooting he had done.
"Plenty of ammo left in her," he said. "Aim for the gut and the kick will hit 'em in the face!"
I nodded my heavy head again and began to crawl away, more Nazi mortars whistling and squealing overhead and crashing into the beach like a ground-level thunderstorm. I looked out, and nearly vomited right where I had to crawl.
To my left, the ocean had turned a bluish, greenish-red. Several of the boats were overturned and on fire, the marines inside reduced to charred husks as the flames ate away at their bodies. Even as the waves washed in, the flames kept burning.
Bullets hit a flamethrower- beeped the Morse code.
The rest of the beach looked like an alien planet, or maybe the surface of the moon. It was covered with deep, scorched craters, and littered with the remains of hundreds of American boys. The waves washed in pink, spilled over the bodies that lie in quiet death on Omaha and washed out crimson, carrying pictures, shells, syringes, and limbs back out to sea. It was hauntingly peaceful; there were no more living men left on the beach, save for the few screaming wounded (who would be dead soon enough), and so a few moments later, the mortar fire petered out and stopped. Now all the machine gun fire was directed toward the seawall. I knew it would remain a stalemate until the second wave of Marines arrived, and I knew that unless I could get to the bangalores, the next wave would suffer the same fate we had and the bodies on the beach would quadruple. I pulled myself away from the grisly sight on the beach and squinted along the base of the wall. Between piles of empty weapons and empty bodies, I spotted the box of bangalores near a demolished medical supply drop-overturned and spilling the explosives into the sand. A soldier, I guessed ot was probably McHail, was tangled in the barbed wire. His front was stained with red, and a coil of intestine was slipping out of a collection of ragged bullet holes in his abdomen. In his hand was a pistol, but the clip was missing.
Ran out of ammo- the Morse code chimed in. You better hope you don't.
The bangalores were further away than I thought. I spider-crawled around the makeshift hospital, refusing to look at the source of those screams. I slithered past the pile of weapons. I swallowed hard and rubbed bellies with the dead. After a million or so years of dragging myself through carnage, I was within reach. I stretched out my arm for the bangalores, my fingers brushing the leathery surface of the plus-sized dynamite—and saw a streak of black dart through a concealed hole in the barbed wire.
The Morse code reminded me that the krauts had access to the beach too. They can come right down to the seawall, Sam. Pray harder.
I was done praying. I lifted the Thomson in the direction I had seen the streak—and found a young Nazi staring back at me, licking his lips nervously. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, shouting out in German. Bright blonde curls of hair poked out from under his smooth black helmet, his young eyes wide and blue in his dirty face. His MP-40 shook in his hands, and I realized that the Thomson was shaking as well.
This kid is lucky to be a teenager, I thought. I had heard of Hitler Youth before, but I had certainly never seen one. I knew they weren't to be spared for their age. I knew they were every bit as crazy as the Fuhrer himself. But my God, the kid was lucky to be a teenager.
"Drop the weapon now," I demanded, trying to add authority to my voice. The young Nazi stared at me blankly. His face suddenly changed, into a mask of hatred.
"Halt, oder ich werde schießen!" He yelled. I took a deep breath, my heart racing in my chest. I did not want to kill a child, for God, for country, or for a million dollars.
Please God; don't make me kill a kid, I prayed to the empty sky.
"Drop your weapon now!" I shouted louder. The terrible, destructive sounds of D-DAY raged on around us, but we were locked in our own war, our own private struggle for supremacy. Our own struggle for survival. I rested my finger on the trigger and so did he. It felt like we were standing on a minefield, and one false move would equal death. My heart pounded against my ribs like a bass drum, and sweat poured down my dirty face. If it had gone on much longer, I might have dropped dead of a heart attack and you wouldn't be reading this painful memory today.
"Ich werde nicht zögern, Sie zu töten!" He screamed. A tear fell from his young eye and dribbled down his cheek. I watched it fall and fought back my own tears. I kept my eyes on his, those pale, hypnotic blue eyes, and carefully reached toward the bangalores. He cried out and lunged toward me, jabbing his rifle at me as if it were a sword. He suddenly lifted it to his untrained eye, and time stood still.
I closed my eyes, and I pulled the trigger.
The Thomson exploded to life in my hand and I heard the young Nazi cry out—punctuated by the heavy sound of his body falling to the ground. I smelled the blood before I even opened my eyes, and I knew that I had succeeded. To this day, I wonder if it was a success at all. I wonder if it might have hurt less to just take my bullets and drop over. I know it would have hurt less than what I had to look at when I pried my eyelids apart.
The Hitler Youth was lying on his back, the stripe of gushing wounds I had put there plastered across his chest. He breathed quickly and rapidly, a tiny rivulet of blood appearing in the corners of his mouth and trickling over his cheeks. I puffed out all of my air in a heavy sob and knelt beside him, looking into his pale blue eyes through swimmy vision. He looked back in mine, and did the last thing I would have ever expected to see in my entire career as a Marine. He laid his rifle in the sand, and offeredme his small, gloved hand. I stared at it, then back at his face. He nodded slowly, tears still spilling down his soiled cheeks. They mixed with the blood. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down in his throat.
I hesitated, and then I took it. Our fingers wrapped around each other, and he lifted his head from the dirt. He gurgled in his throat as he tried to speak, his reddened lips wavering with weak uncertainty. His pristine Nazi helmet tumbled off.
"Some-" he attempted, and then stopped to think. He squeezed my hand tighter. "Some—day, this en—ends," he said slowly. His voice was almost prepubescent, and my heart broke with every word of broken English he tried to say. "I—for-" he coughed, and blood spurted out of his mouth. I felt my sanity draining with his blood. His breathing slowed. Death breathed for him.
"I'm listening," I said, my words thick with tears. My throat wavered, and I sniffed. I wiped a tear away from my eye, and it left a clean path in its wake. I wasn't angry anymore.
"I—forgive this," he finished. "Ich sterbe für das Vaterland." He reached into the pocket of his uniform with his free hand, and removed a tiny, frayed ID card. His glove left glistening bloodstains on the paper, and in the time it took me to notice—his head had fallen to the sand, his young eyes open to the world and seeing nothing at all. His grip on my hand loosened and went slack. As I began to sob, I folded his arm across his chest and held the young man's ID card up to my face. Through tear-filled eyes, I read what it said:
Scharff Kramer, aged 14.
I hooked my fingers around my crucifix, snapped the chain off my neck, and left it in the sand. Then I brought back those goddamned bangalores.
What happened on Omaha Beach on June 6th, 1944, is history now. Operation Overlord, a.k.a. D-DAY, was a success. The Allies stormed the cloudy beaches of Normandy, and after more fighting and bloodshed than I would ever want to write about, overcame the German forces there. People died, and people killed. That's what it boils down to. The blood of thousands of people was spilled, so that we might prove a point to one another. I killed a 14 year old boy to blow a hole in a wall. He died to defend a Fuhrer who would kill himself rather than face his own fate. And I will not pray to a God who won't listen to me anymore.
To this moment I carry Scharff's ID card with me everywhere I go. I see his young face when I close my eyes, I hear the gunshots in the night when I try to sleep, and I murder him again and again in my nightmares. Anymore, all I have to worry about is making it to the bathroom on time and remembering my heart pills. I'm deaf as a post now, too. I can't even hear my own gas, but the pretty young nurses never miss it. I can't hear a thing, but Scharff's final words reverberate in my mind, and no matter how much old age settles in, I will never forget them. We met only briefly; locked eyes for mere seconds. But in those seconds before I shot him, he was able to change my life forever. He was capable of forgiving the man who had shot him; a 14-year-old boy understood something that the thousands of soldiers slaughtering each other around him could not: that perhaps violence is not always the answer. Perhaps we as civilized creatures should not be so quick to destroy one another, and beyond that, to destroy ourselves. Perhaps we should not let rage kill our compassion. My sole regret in life isn't the corps; and it's not turning my back on my religion when I left that cross in the bloody sand. My regret is that I had to murder a child to understand a lesson we should all know. I can only hope, now that I don't pray, that future generations to come will not make the same mistakes we make as humans at war; that they will learn to coexist and work together for that Utopian world we all strive for. I hope we all learn that praying won't change the world. That only our actions can. I hope that one day, we will all live in peace. I think Scharff would like that.