Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Military Memories: Overseas service & D-Day

What were they thinking when they got there? What was Uncle Bernie thinking on D-Day as he headed onshore in the landing boat carrying all his gear? Was he a strong enough swimmer? Would the waves pull him down? A prayer or two would have been offered, to be sure, and then he jumped.

Years later and after a couple of beers on a warm summer night he might be coaxed into telling the story of how he landed at Omaha Beach on the coast of Normandy on D-Day. He always put a humorous filter on it, making fun of himself and keeping it light while he made himself the butt of the jokes. The heaviness, the pure terror of it was well hidden. Here's a recap of the story he told about D-Day. Maybe we'll never know the full truth of it.

Uncle Bernie wasn't a strong swimmer, or at least he thought as much. Growing up during the Great Depression was hard enough with the five other siblings of his parents, Helen and Lee Kelly who lived in the tidy house at 89 West main Street in Frostburg, Maryland. There was no time at all for the kids of the family to enjoy the pleasures of summer in the community pool. So Bernie knew how to swim but hadn't spent enough time in the water to be confident in his ability. And there he was on the landing boat on D-Day expected to swim to shore while loaded down with his pack and gun.
Now I have to say here that my brother says he thinks he remember that Uncle Bernie landed the day after D-Day, but I'm not here to split hairs and Uncle Bernie is, sadly, no longer with us. Brother and I were saying that the old people are gone too soon and then we're left discussing how events unfolded.
The landing craft sustained small arms fire to such a degree that their progress was halted and so the drivers stopped in 8 to 10 foot waters instead of moving forward to shallower waters that would have allowed the men to walk ashore. The men's packs were big and heavy, holding three day's worth of food and supplies. Plus, they carried a bulky 8 pound rifle and heavy ammo. No life jackets either. And the water was a cold 54 degrees and rough because a storm had just passed.
So there Bernie was, maybe not too confident in his swimming skills, and he could easily see that they were stopping too far out, and then he could easily see that the men who jumped into the water with pack and rifle were sinking like stones. He refused to jump. So his sergeant pushed him. And of course he sunk like a stone.
He was a "good enough" swimmer and smart enough to figure out that he needed to lose that pack and ditch the rifle if he was going to survive to get to short, where a whole lot of hell was breaking lose. So that's what he did.
He made it onto the beach and saw the horrors of war and all the dead boys there. He took a rifle and a pack from the littered beach and started fighting for his life. 
Details get fuzzy at this point. The Fog of War they call it. Or maybe there were details Uncle Bernie didn't want to talk about so he just wrapped it all up in typical phrases often used to describe the scene.
Uncle Bernie lived to fight on. He made lieutenant at some point but was busted down for some infraction of the rules he probably didn't agree with. He served under General Patton and went on to the Battle of the Bulge. Yeah, he told stories about it all. But we could tell, the story he liked to tell the most was about landing on D-Day.
File:Into the Jaws of Death 23-0455M edit.jpg
D-Day landing at Omaha Beach, "Into the Jaws of Death, June 6, 1944. Wikimedia Commons.
This post is following the blogging prompt for the month of May, Military Memories, from Jennifer Holik. Thanks, Jennifer!

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