June 6, 1944.
The beginning of the end, the day was forever etched on the canvas of the world map. Granted, the world was spewing flames in those days, but that wasn't the only blaze glowering on around the globe at the time; the fire in our hearts burnt with equal ferocity, if not more. Optimism is strangely contagious, and the fire to put an end to the atrocities of the enemy on the other side of the battlefield had never been more brightly ignited. Our tenacity matched our nemesis' quite poetically, and we were ready to quash out the invaders of our democracy and our sovereignty once and for all, ironically on the foreign beaches of France. I am, of course, talking about Normandy.
I was in the first wave at Omaha beach. The heart of the action. The frontrunners of the liberation army. The salvation of the people of Europe. The brave scapegoats who would bear the heaviest casualties in the course of the invasion. The 29th infantry division was what I called home away from the motherland. Today, I am historically the proud member of the largest amphibious invasion in the history of mankind. But this glory came at the grim price of the scores of souls lost in the process.
It was a jarring feeling, sitting in a landing craft, vehicle, personnel (LCVP, because the army loves acronyms), huddled up like cattle in the narrow space, way more in numbers than could comfortably fit, waiting off the coast of a German-occupied France. You could almost taste death in all its glory, lurking in the air. The worst part of any invasion is the part leading up to it. Soldiers don't get complacent in war. Restlessness increases by the second. Paranoia feeds on the anticipation. I remember the day as if it were yesterday. The landings began, but things quickly took a turn for the ugly. The currents at our front were unusually strong that morning, forcing our LCVP off-course. "We're two miles east of our intended landing spot!" I heard our commanding officer bellow, as our landing craft swerved around in a barely controlled fashion and ran aground on a sandbar while we were still a hundred yards out. Without a manoeuvrable LCVP, we'd have to wade through neck-deep waters, against heavy gunfire from the coast that was sure to start the moment we deboarded the craft. The situation was precarious, to say the least.
The infantry wasn't supposed to invade a Nazi-controlled Europe without air and artillery support. But as fate would have it, the initial landing of the LCVPs going awry due to unpredictable currents made the commanding officers delay the American bombers gracing the sky for the fear of hitting the crafts. The rough seas weren't helping the artillery either. Out of thirty-two tanks of the 741st Tank Battalion deployed 5000 yards from the shore, twenty-seven flooded and sank. Twenty-seven. We were sitting ducks without them. The gate of our landing craft creaked ever-so-slowly. The world seemed to have gone still with the gate being the only exception, opening the path to our impending doom. Nobody moved an inch. Not even a twitch of a muscle. Everything went mute momentarily; and then, the deafening swishes and bangs of the bullets began.
The front-row lads were the first to perish. Ducking quickly under and behind our fallen comrades, the other soldiers scrambled as hastily as they could. There was a hundred yards of sea between us and the enemy, who was perched on advantageous higher grounds. There was nothing you could do in neck-deep waters this far out, except hope that the bullets spared you.
Jenkins was immediately in front of me when he took a hit on his head right through his helmet. Jenkins, barely a twenty-two year old kindergarten teacher from Virginia. Jenkins, a newly-wed expecting father. Jenkins, the son of a Great War veteran. Jenkins, who died in my arms barely a minute into his first ever assignment of active duty. All these details flashed in front of me even as I instinctively covered myself behind Jenkins' lifeless corpse. The tumultuous rain of bullets continued with intermittent explosions of grenades here and there. There is no dignity in dying like herds of helpless sheep, even if it's in a war.
Still clutching on to Jenkins, I stumbled my way off the landing craft into the water. Even as I held on to him as I started to make my way ahead towards the beach, I kept on hearing whizzes of ammunition all around me. The sound of bullets piercing flesh filled the air. My fellow infantrymen were dropping like mosquitoes. Some were being blown to pieces by neatly timed grenades. Severed limbs littered the water all around us. I saw the lives of fathers and brothers and sons and grandsons extinguishing like candle flames running out of wax. I witnessed my commanding officer being punctured with numerous bullet holes not even 10 yards to my left. But I couldn't stop for any of them. Not now. I'd already committed to the decision of landing onto the French shore alive by any means necessary. Even if the means would end up haunting my sleep forever. As I waded through the last stretch of the sea, I could feel my human shield being impaled upon by bullets every few seconds. The entire journey couldn't have taken more than a few minutes, but it felt like eternity. Watching your fellow countryman's body flop over and over by the bullets meant for you can be really disconcerting. Finally taking cover behind one of the motionless tanks near the shore, I let go of Jenkins and let him die in peace at last.
The cover of the tank finally allowed me to swing my rifle hanging around my arm listlessly onto my hands and to spring into action. I started aiming for the villains on the most fertile positions on the battlefield, eventually hitting four of them on one of the bunkers fortifying a gully near me, one of the five which were the only exits out of the beach, which was otherwise covered by tall cliffs on either ends. That was the only thought I gave about the four German lives I'd just taken. That is both the beauty and horror of war; it reduces people from both sides to just numbers.
While I was scoping the fortifications around some other areas, the beach was still booming with bombs all over the place. A few came dangerously close to where I'd been nesting temporarily. It was getting increasingly perilous by the second to stay put in one place, not to mention the huge machine gun perched ominously on the central bunker, spewing out huge 7.62 mm calibre bullets. I was planning my next move when Petty joined me in the relative safety of the tank I was hunkered behind. "The Destroyers have arrived for support. The landings should get much easier now," he shouted over the roar of the incessant gunfire. I turned to face him momentarily. Around thirty, about six-foot four, his towering persona matched his immensely calm attitude in an otherwise obviously tense situation. There was a sense of adulation for his division, his army and his country in the nonchalant matter-of-factness of his talk. You could tell he was a patriot. "God knows we needed it. Come on now, help me in clearing that gully over there, it might help us reach higher ground," I said, pointing to where I'd previously neutralized the four Germans.
It's weird, but you eventually get used to the intermittent blasts and the continuous gunfire around you. What you never get used to though, is the sound of bullets tearing human flesh. Once registered by your brain, that sound never leaves you. The whizz of the bullet's journey and the thud upon arrival to its intended destination collectively makes for a very dark auditory experience; it traumatises you for life.
It was almost midmorning. The summer sun was out. I wondered for a fleeting moment about how different the situation would be to be there on a sunny French beach in June without the ongoing conflict. War ruins more lives than it could ever take.
Petty and I started mobilising. Our commanding officer had perished early in the assault, so our squadron had been scrambled without our leader. It was just the two of us for now. The next thirty minutes were packed with a lot of action. We killed eight German soldiers between us. Petty was a much better marksman than I was. He was a natural. He shot five times, hitting the target every time, three of them on their heads. It was fascinatingly impressive. On the other hand, my efficiency with bullets was not a hundred percent, to say the least. But I had more pressing issues on my mind. "We'd better get going, this perch isn't safe to be on for much longer." Petty agreed. "That gully you cleared, it seems safe to go through now," he said. "I'll cover you, make a run for it." I grimly nodded. The moment of truth had arrived. I was going to be exposed to direct gunfire for the first time. I braced myself. Jenkins had done his job; it was time for me to do mine.
Petty did exactly what he said he would. His immaculate shooting towards the bunker diagonally located from the gully gave me enough cover to dash to it alive. I dived to get behind cover of the sand barriers fortifying the gully safe from the line of sight of the diagonal bunker, hitting my shoulder on the rocky wall there. I cried out in agony for a moment, but there was no time to be worried about bruises on a battlefield. I quickly turned and crouched at the edge of the bunker, with my back on the fortification. I took a mirror out from my pocket to see beyond the wall of sand without exposing my head to the gunfire. I slowly extended the mirror out of the barrier's protection over my head. I could see the Germans hunkered behind their sand barriers, guns pointing directly in my direction. Even as I made sense of my bearings and before I could even analyse how I would cover Petty so that he could join me, there was a sudden shattering sound directly over my head. The Germans behind the sand barriers had seen and hit the mirror in my hand, breaking it to pieces.
I was behind enemy lines now, with no way of knowing if it was safe to prop my head up so that I could help Petty join me. I had barely begun running through my options when a looming figure jumped over the sand barrier and rolled over four feet from me, startling me, which I shouldn't have been, given the circumstances, but my surprise was shortlived and I could only point my gun at the figure before I realised that it was Petty. "Take it easy man, it's only me," he said as he dusted himself off. I lowered my weapon and asked him with a mixture of doubt and admiration, "how'd you get here without cover? I was just about to start working on it." He let out a snort, as if he found it unlikely, presumably because of the not-so-perfect shooting I displayed earlier. He didn't say anything though. "Let's get moving, shall we? It's going to be a long crawl." Petty nodded as the both of us cautiously began our journey in hostile territory.
I did not have a watch on me, so there was no way to accurately tell time, but by the way the Sun was beaming onto the back of our heads, I guessed that noon was creeping up on us. By the time we creeped our way up the gully into more open ground, we caught up with a couple more fellow soldiers trying to sneak up on the Germans like Petty and I were trying to do. Barnes was the youngblood, the ever-so-enthusiastic private who always talked about war in terms of kill counts and head shots. I always felt my stomach churn listening to him and his company dehumanise war like that. Although, it looked as if war had finally caught up with him, as I saw him clutching his left arm over a makeshift tourniquet he'd made out of what seemed like his other sleeve. I did not know the other soldier, but anybody wearing the color of your country is a welcome sight on the battlefield. "Jesus Barnes, you took a hit?" Petty clicked his tongue with a hint of impatience. "It's a flesh wound, I got lucky." "Well, can you operate your weapon?" I asked the pressing question to which he nodded unconvincingly. The other soldier introduced himself as Sergeant Jeremy Smith of the 1st Infantry division, fighting alongside us on Omaha beach. But before we could share pleasantries, there was a sound that was close enough to fill us with dread and chill our spines. It would only have taken a few seconds for everything to happen, but it felt like an entire lifetime had passed us by in those few seconds. The ominous sound was of the clink of a grenade, landing just a few feet away from us, moments before it went off and left us all scrambling for safety from the blast.
The explosion spared me, barring a few debris. I quickly gathered myself up, dusted off the soot from my uniform and scanned the area for my allies' whereabouts. Petty was up too, his rifle cocked and looking decidedly unpleased at what had just occurred. He had managed to clear the blast radius of the grenade in time. But where there was one, there could be more, so his alert scouting of the vicinity in search of the perpetrators of the attack on our newly formed squad was understandable. Sergeant Smith wasn't so lucky. He was lying there, clutching his face, writhing with what can only be described as indescribable agony. Seeing Barnes to my left coughing out the soot from his lungs and stumbling onto his feet, I quickly made my way to the Sergeant, to check the extent of the damage. It wasn't too good; the right side of his face had been burned badly from the impact of the explosion, although his eye had been thankfully spared. "Can you get up?" I asked him, as I fished into my utility bag to find some first aid. By that time, he had collected himself. He nodded, and slowly and painstakingly sat up, still wincing silently as I applied some medication on his burns. "It's fine, I'll be fine," was all the sergeant said as he gently brushed my hand away and got back on his feet. There was a sense of relief in me, although I'm not entirely sure why. The ongoing war had made me feel that a man with a burned face in endless pain was somehow okay as long as he didn't die and leave me a man short in the heart of the action. I remember feeling nauseated because of the thought. But you don't really have time to process anything of the sort on the battlefield. Even as I was standing up, there was a loud shout over the ever-present rumbling gunfire. "TAKE COVER!" Just as I looked up, the Sergeant pushed me away from what was the direct trajectory of enemy bullets. Somebody was shooting from the cover of the rocks directly in front of us, and just as I rolled over because of the Sergeant's shove, he was impaled right on the chest with automatic rifle ammunition. He stood there motionless for a fraction of a second, before he fell to the ground on his back along the momentum of the bullets. The relief in my chest moments ago sunk down to horror in my stomach in no time.
I ducked and reached for my rifle, but before I could even swing it in my arms, Petty had shot the attacker on his head. Even as another German soldier popped his head out of the cover and began shooting at Petty when he too, fell prey of the outstanding marksman's bullet. There was a loud thud and then, silence. The clearing went eerily calm for a battlefield.
Barnes did a rendezvous of the rocks around the clearing to check for any more German belligerents. After his all-clear signal, I quickly went to check on the Sergeant, Petty just behind me. I could feel a weak and thready pulse; he still had life, although for how long was a question to which I didn't have an answer. He coughed and gently opened his eyes. You could see death creeping up on him. He weakly nudged towards his breast pocket and said, "there's a letter with a picture of me with my company and another one of my wife and I. Just try and get those to her for me." I nodded, and gently fished it out of his pocket and kept it in mine. We locked eyes, and the sense of realisation of what he was actually asking me to do dawned on me. The dread of the responsibility set in even as I gently nodded at him, and without saying a word, took my rifle in my shaking hands and pointed it directly at him. He closed his eyes and let out a weak but distinct sigh, as if to be finally free of the burden of the war and the toll it had taken on every single one of us. My hands suddenly became really sweaty. They were shaking uncontrollably. The rifle's weight suddenly seemed too much for me. I had a hard time concentrating, when suddenly, there was a loud bang right next to me. I looked up in horror to see Petty holding his rifle over the Sergeant, its muzzle letting out a wisp of smoke. He'd pulled the trigger, without saying a word, putting both the Sergeant and I out of our misery.
The three of us carried on, still recovering from the shock of the loss of the Sergeant and the events that led up to it. None of us talked about what had happened. But you don't really get time to grieve when you're under constant threat of death yourself. It wasn't long before we encountered a company of five German soldiers. After a tumultuous exchange of gunfire and hand grenades, we came out on top even though we were outnumbered, partly because of the revelation that Barnes too, was a natural with guns. Even with an injured arm, he managed to kill three of them, hitting all of them in their heads. It seemed like Petty was going to have some competition, who only managed to hit one this time around. It was well past noon by that point, and we made our way towards the clearings near the other gullies in a hope to find other allied troops there. We were dangerously outnumbered, no matter how talented my fellow soldiers were.
On our way, we came across a machine gun turret over a small fortification. Cautiously taking cover, we scouted the area for any sign of enemy activity. Sure enough, we laid eyes on two German soldiers strolling their way to the turret with what seemed like a bottle of water in their hands along with guns slung on their shoulders. Before we could gather ourselves to the best possible approach to handle this, Barnes, the youngblood, the ever-so-hotheaded youth of our 'squad', opened fire at them. He hit one of them straight in the heart, but in doing so gave away our element of surprise. The other soldier ducked and ran towards the turret, the gun on which had suddenly come to life and swung right at us, in the direction of the gunfire. What we failed to consider was that the two soldiers would have never left the turret unguarded when going to fetch water from a nearby stream and there would atleast be a third soldier hiding somewhere inside, if not more. The machine gun, with its giant bullets, opened fire at us.
We could do nothing but take cover. Any attempt at aiming for the turret would require one of us to prop our heads out, and that would essentially be suicide in the circumstance. Barnes looked distressed; he seemed to be blaming himself for the pickle that we were in, and rightfully so. He seemed like he was preparing to open fire at a freaking machine gun. But just as he was about to prop himself up to what would have been his inevitable demise, Petty pulled him down. "You'll be no use to us dead," he bellowed. His back against the rocks we were taking cover behind, Petty pulled out a grenade, took a deep breath, exhaled out audibly from his mouth, pulled the pin out and threw the grenade at the turret without looking. It was crazy for two reasons: We'd only got a few moments' time before to judge the direction and distance of the turret, and the distance would have probably been between twenty and thirty yards. Moments later, there was a loud bang, which ultimately culminated into stoppage of the machine gun fire. Petty had somehow miraculously hit on target without looking.
We immediately sprung into action. Our guns cocked, we propped ourselves up out of cover to find a lifeless arm hanging by the machine gun. Another soldier had been seemingly thrown out of the fortification in an attempt to get away from the blast radius, sprawled on the ground a few yards away. We quickly made our way down. I went straight to the turret to ensure that it had been cleared, while Petty made his way to the German lying on the ground up ahead. I quickly looked around the fortification. There was one more dead soldier lying inside, along with the one at the machine gun handle. It was secure. As I made my way to Petty, Barnes alongside me, I found him standing right next to the German soldier, his gun cocked, the barrel touching his head, Petty's eyes menacingly calm. The soldier was unarmed, and was saying something in German, with dread in his voice, his hands folded, as if praying to Petty not to kill him. Petty laughed, almost maniacally, and said, "too soon to be taking prisoners, kid." When I heard those words, a chill ran down my spine. The German, I noticed, was in fact just a kid. Barely 20 years old, his face had the frantic urgency of a fish out of water, death imminent. "He's unarmed, Petty. He's surrendering. It's against the code." He snapped his gaze towards me. "You think this German filth would let us live if the tables were turned?" He hissed. "It doesn't matter. It's wrong. Lower your gun," I said. "Or what? You're gonna stop me?" Petty smirked. "You couldn't even pull the trigger to let the Sergeant rest in peace." And then, something happened. The chill down my spine gave way to heat bubbling up in my head. As rage gave way to what can retrospectively only be described as insanity, I found myself lifting my rifle and pointing it at Petty.
My hands weren't shaking this time. The smirk wiped off from his face and was replaced almost instantly by a scowl. "You think you have the balls to do it?" He shouted. "Put down your weapon and let him surrender." My voice was astonishingly calm. "What the hell are you doing?" Barnes was standing about ten feet to my right and was in utter disbelief at the events that were unfolding in front of him. "Are you out of your mind?" Barnes directed that towards me. "You're pointing a weapon at your fellow countryman for a German soldier!" "He's just a kid! You cannot kill an unarmed kid in cold blood!" My voice was almost as maniacal as Petty's eyes had been before. "Try and stop me!" Petty bellowed as he lowered his finger on the trigger and a glaring bang of gunshot echoed over the dissipating distant gunfire of the beach.
The moment seemed to last forever, and it ended with the horror of realisation in Barnes' eyes as he saw the wisp of smoke coming through the muzzle of my rifle. The bullet had pierced Petty's forehead and killed him instantly. He fell to the ground with a loud thud right next to the German soldier, who was staring at me, wide-eyed and in disbelief. "What the fuck did you do?" Barnes was utterly shocked. "You fucking traitor!" He raised his rifle to point directly at me and I was just not quick enough. But before he could shoot, there was another loud bang, and I swirled to see the German holding Petty's rifle in his hands, pointing it directly at Barnes. The bullet tore right through his sternum and his heart as he fell on his back, a lifeless corpse. I turned to face the German, a mixture of horror at the turn of events and gratitude towards him for saving my life. Our eyes locked for a second. They perplexed me, there wasn't gratitude in them like mine had, but they had relief. Relief of not getting killed. Relief of getting out of a confirmed death trap. I read his eyes just in time for him to point his rifle at me next and pull the trigger right as I ducked out of the way and fired back. His bullet found its target on my left arm and mine on his stomach. He cried out in agony and collapsed just as I rolled over on the ground clutching my arm. Still holding my arm, I got up and saw him writhing in pain, both his hands clutching the bullet wound tightly as spurts of blood oozed out of it. His gun was lying on the ground beside him. I quickly ran upto him and kicked the gun aside. Standing directly on top of him, the muzzle of my rifle touching his forehead, I let out a sigh and said, "I guess Petty was right about you after all," before shooting him in the head.
I was able to hold the fort at the turret for twelve hours before more allied troops arrived. As the adrenaline wore off, I realised the gravity of what I'd done. I picked up the trinkets I found in Petty's and Barnes' pockets, as if getting letters and photos back to their families would make up for me being responsible for their deaths, directly or otherwise.
I never told a soul about what happened on that clearing near the turret that day. I have battled with it all my life. I've been showered with all sorts of bravery awards following the war that I've never really been able to accept. I've struggled with PTSD. I've had three divorces and I never had children. In a way, I lost my life on that field that day as well. Of course, nobody would feel sorry for me if they knew the truth. The war took a lot from everyone. The war is the reason everything transpired the way it did. That's how I've been able to live till now, believing that. But now, as I'm lying here in my bed, waiting for death to finally free me of the burden of the war and the toll it took on me, I'd like to say the truth. Or atleast write it. I'd like to die an honest man, even if I end up being the villain of the story I was once a hero of. The Germans may have lost that war, but the true loser here was humanity.