Home > 2011 Posts, About Dave > An Infantry Sergeant

An Infantry Sergeant

On the morning of June 6th, 1944, my Dad landed in the second wave at Utah beach. He was a squad leader. Before midnight, he’d earned four Bronze Stars and a field-patchable shrapnel wound with Purple Heart frosting.

Among many battles that Dad fought in France, one of the deadliest was the struggle to take Saint-Lô from the Germans. The allies had to win there or they would never break out of the Normandy peninsula. And the Germans had to hold. After the city of 400,000 changed hands far too many times, Dad and his surviving buddies did finally take it. His main memories of that battle were bone-gnawing fatigue and the fact that by the end a man could stand on a pile of rubble anywhere in the city and look straight across to the other side. In any direction. There was no city left at all, just smoking ruin, dead soldiers and crows.

Utah Beach on D-Day

Then, Dad and his unit moved on to the next fight, and the next one, and the next in an endless string of vicious, grinding, house to house, street by street, bridge by bridge, village by village battles. As every soldier there said in what is now a famous line from Saving Private Ryan, “The only way home is through Berlin.”

Exhaustion was a permanent state. Each time Dad and other non-coms roused their men for yet another assault, they’d say, “Just one more time.” These men lived only in the now. Either they’d live through the next few hours or they wouldn’t. But for them, it really would feel like just one more time. So they checked their rifles, dragged themselves upright and drove again into the steel fangs of Panzer tanks, Zvezda mortars and Krupp machine guns. Just one more time. 

Exhausted Marines in the Pacific

This farm boy from western Missouri fought his way through France, toward home, every remaining day of 1944 until a German mine in the frozen, snowy Hürtgen Forest blew off his right leg below the knee. Being the man he was, Dad used his belt as a tourniquet, cut off the dragging chunks of his own shredded calf with his trench knife, and managed to crawl out of the minefield toward friendly lines before passing out. Luckiest of all for him (and me), he woke up in a field hospital near the Belgian border where they’d got the gangrene just in time.

A lot of words have been written about our guys in that war. And I had a special reason to read more of those words than most. But, for me, the best ones came from Ernie Pyle, the famous war correspondent who was killed by a Japanese sniper on Iwo Jima.

Ernie walked the dusty and muddy but always miserable miles with American troops in every theater of that war. He didn’t just sympathize with the American GI, he empathized.

When I try to picture how it must have been for my Dad and the other regular guys who saved the world that particular time, I first think of a dispatch that Ernie filed from Tunisia, The God-Damned Infantry:

“…I am sitting among clumps of sword-grass on a steep and rocky hillside that we have just taken. We are looking out over a vast rolling country to the rear.

A narrow path comes like a ribbon over a hill miles away, down a long slope, across a creek, up a slope and over another hill.

All along the length of this ribbon there is now a thin line of men. For four days and nights they have fought hard, eaten little, washed none, and slept hardly at all. Their nights have been violent with attack, fright, butchery, and their days sleepless and miserable with the crash of artillery.

The Hürtgen Forest

The men are walking. They are fifty feet apart, for dispersal. Their walk is slow, for they are dead weary, as you can tell even when looking at them from behind. Every line and sag of their bodies speaks their inhuman exhaustion.

On their shoulders and backs they carry heavy steel tripods, machine-gun barrels, leaden boxes of ammunition. Their feet seem to sink into the ground from the overload they are bearing.

They don’t slouch. It is the terrible deliberation of each step that spells out their appalling tiredness. Their faces are black and unshaven. They are young men, but the grime and whiskers and exhaustion make them look middle-aged.

In their eyes as they pass is not hatred, not excitement, not despair, not the tonic of their victory – there is just the simple expression of being here as though they had been here doing this forever, and nothing else.

The line moves on, but it never ends. All afternoon men keep coming round the hill and vanishing eventually over the horizon. It is one long tired line of antlike men.

There is an agony in your heart and you almost feel ashamed to look at them. They are just guys from Broadway and Main Street, but you wouldn’t remember them. They are too far away now. They are too tired. Their world can never be known to you.”

Damn, Dad. I’m so proud of you!

  1. April 23, 2011 at 11:24 am

    I have been reading your Blog, and find it very interesting. My Father waSs a prisoner of war in Germany during WWII, and he survived. I was born in Norway, and our country was occupied in those days, by the Germans!!

    • April 23, 2011 at 1:51 pm

      Thank you! And thank Heavens your father made it safely home. Are you still in Norway?

  1. December 22, 2011 at 7:41 am

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