We go ashore in small craft, close-packed and sitting on our duffle-bags, cramped and miserable in the drizzling rain. Complete blackout is not enforced, although only a few necessary lights are used, and these are carefully dimmed. We file up the quay, picking our way through debris and bomb craters, and are immediately pounced upon by eager and efficient people from the M.P.s and Transportation Corps, who herd us this way and that, incessantly bawling at us to make it snappy, to keep close up, and to perform other impossibilities. Helmets and carbine muzzles scraped ribs and noses, feet are trodden upon, ship-weary bodies sag beneath pack and duffle-bag, and there is much querulous profanity. Officers, M.P.s and harassed transportation people rage furiously together in the night.
Eventually we and our duffle-bags-which we have grown to hate with maniacal intensity--are hurled together into trucks. No space is wasted in these trucks. As would have carried perhaps half the number of men, or half the number of duffle-bags which are now loaded upon it. The drizzling rain continues to fall, funneling nicely under the collars of our raincoats and down our necks, while men with flashlights run up and down the line of trucks; they pause by the tailgate of each truck, shine their lights in our faces, scream at us, and disappear into the night. We stand patiently in the trucks, each man waiting for his neighbor to light a cigarette. At last the trucks move out, slowly at first until we clear the waterfront, then speeding up as we swing into the city, until we hurtle through the dark, narrow French streets like juggernauts. The madman at the wheel of my particular truck drives like a Brooklyn taxi-man frustrated in love; his foot is heavy upon the throttle and upon the brake, and he releases the clutch each time with spine-wrenching abruptness. We curse him and fear for our lives, but by the mercy of some watchful god we get to the place we are going without serious collision. There's not much to see by the wayside; it's too dark and the rain comes down in thick sheets. But we can see a few buildings demolished by shell or bomb, and the vestiges of a few German road-blocks.
Dismounting in Dark
Our truck screams to a final crash-stop, with only millimeters between the front bumper and the tailgate of the truck ahead. We dismount stiffly, secure our duffle-bags, and are herded away into the night. After some stumbling about in the rain and mud, we consign our duffle-bags-with a final kick and malediction-to a long pile of duffle-bags beside a hedgerow; each of us hoping within his soul that the duffle-bag and all it contains will be lost forever.
We are marched up that hedgerow and across a muddy road, through a gap in another hedgerow, and halt in a column of fours. Up ahead are lights and small fires, and there floats down to us the smell of coffee brewing. The word is passed back: "Break out your canteen cups." The column heaves forward, slowly, and we file by Red Cross mobile units manned by girls in blue coveralls. They give to each of us two doughnuts, one cup of coffee well-laced with cream, and one smile. They have been standing there in the rain for hours, and thousands of soldiers have passed by these mobile kitchens this night, yet these girls manage a smile, fresh and spontaneous, for each soldier, and a friendly word or two.
Packs and carbines ride less heavily upon our shoulders; we forget the rain as we move out toward the waiting trucks which are to take us to our bivouac area.
We reach our bivouac area at about 0200. My battery is assigned a small field, completely surrounded by hedgerows. We are cautioned by our guide to stay away from the hedges, because of mines; the 1st sergeant announces that reveille will go at 0600; we pair off, pitch pup-tents, and bed down in the rain.
First Day in France
Our first day in France dawns clear, with a cold wind blowing in from the sea. Breakfast is black coffee and C rations: the mess sergeant-blasť, fat, and cheerful after the manner of his kind-informs us that we will continue to eat C rations for an indefinite period, until our ranges and kitchen equipment arrive and we begin B ration. Moreover, he adds gloatingly, we will hereafter make our own coffee; he will provide hot water thrice daily, and we will do the best we can with what we find in our C rations.
Immediately after breakfast all tank and half-track drivers are assembled and go with the motor officer to draw our combat vehicles. The rest of the battery pitches a formal bivouac, with the tents in straight lines, and the 1st sergeant's chosen people dig a latrine and a sump. Two trucks arrive, and our damnable duffle-bags are with us again. We drag them from the mud where they have been dumped, lug them to our tents, and paw through the tangle of equipment, hoping that we may at last find something useful. At this time Henri, Andre, Jacques, Emilie, Heloise, and Cecilie descend upon us. Henri, 12, is the eldest, and chieftain of the band. He is small for his age, very thin, and his brown eyes very large and round for his thin grave face.
I pat the side pocket of my field jacket to insure that my small red Hugo French dictionary is still there, and hurriedly summon up what I can remember of the French I studied for one year at Marietta College (and which, incidentally, I flunked ignominiously and completely). Also, I slip into another pocket a couple of chocolate bars and some gum. I approach Henri and his crew. He regards me gravely.
"Bon jour, mes enfants," I venture.
The brown eyes widen a bit. "Bon jour, Monsieur."
It works! I have spoken to this lad in his native tongue, and he has understood! I relax a bit, and am sure of myself. I ask Henri his name and where he lives. My first two tries bring only a puzzled frown and a "Je ne comprend pas." I regroup my halting words, consult Hugo, check my accent, and try again. This time I am rewarded. The boy smiles, nods, and says that he is called Henri, that these two are Andre and Jacques, his brothers, and that these are his sisters Emilie, Heloise, and Cecilie. And his house? He turns and points across hills and hedgerows. It is there. How far? Henri considers gravely. Three kilometers, perhaps.
What of the Boche?
And what of the Boche? Henri grins widely and shrugs. Les sale Boche sont parti. He indicates the direction in which the dirty Boche have parti-ed, pointing east and spitting vigorously. Somewhat belatedly, I think of the chocolate and chewing gum. I bring it out and give it all to Henri. "Ah, merci, Monsieur." He divides the chocolate and gum meticulously among his brothers and sisters. By this time two-thirds of the battery are gathered around us, and each man has seven different questions which he wants me to ask Henri. I think fast, in order to preserve my prestige as a linguist and my dignity as a sergeant, and fall back on the old army resort: Chain of Command (passing the buck, to you). "Hey, Vachon," I yell. Vachon is my telephone operator, and is a French Canadian. He sticks his head out of his tent, estimates the situation accurately, and grins. He replaces me as interpreter, and the Parley moves more rapidly.
When, that afternoon, the French delegation leaves us, Henri wears an overseas cap with red artilleryman's braid, three sizes too large for him; he and his brothers' pockets and the aprons of his sisters bulge with chocolate, chewing gum, and C ration biscuits. The personnel of C Battery glow with virtue and Christian charity. At an appointed hour Vachon and I rendezvous at a small opening in the hedgerow at the far end of our field. For several meals we have small delicious onions to break the monotony of C Ration Meat & Beans and Meat & Vegetable Hash. And that very evening, before retiring, we have a large bottle of cider and a small bottle of Calvados. This cider is the national drink of Normandy: it is to the Normans what ale is to the Scot, beer to the Englishman, and Chianti to the Italian. Actually, it is hard cider, arrested somewhere along its process of fermentation by a process known only to true Normans, and the result is a clear, slightly sour, sparkling drink which leaves a clean dry taste. Calvados is a clear white liquid, with a taste like apple-jack gone wrong, and a throat searing, stomach-parching kick; it makes excellent lighter fluid and might prove to be a boon to the medical profession as a cauterant if it did not destroy so. With a slight application of Calvados, no mud is too cold to sleep in.
As soon as the drivers return with our vehicles we all go to work. We scrape the rust preventative compound from tanks and half-tracks, check parts and accessories, clean the cosmoline from machine guns and mounts, swab out the tubes of the 105's and clean the breech-blocks, and install our radios. This occupies us for several days. Meanwhile we turn in all our American money, and receive in exchange French invasion francs, which are worth approximately two cents each, and are fine to play blackjack with: if you win you feel comfortable and rich, and if you lose you shrug and console yourself with the knowledge that the few francs you lost were not worth much anyway.
Also, we have a formation at which an Intelligence officer explains to us what we may write about in our letters home, and what we may send home by way of souvenirs. We go on hikes, 10 or 12 kilometers along the narrow winding roads which criss-cross the Normandy peninsula; occasionally we pass some reminder of the bitter fighting which raged there only a few weeks before; burned out tanks, clips of ammunition and grenades in ditches and hedgerows, cartridge belts, much battered anti-aircraft guns, and once an emplaced 88 mm Flak which had evidently challenged, unwisely, some infantry with bazookas.
Soon a training schedule is announced, and gloom settles upon us like a shroud. Did we come over here to fight, we ask ourselves, or did we come here to hike, to endure calisthenics, and to go to classes? Why, we moan, first thing you know they'll have us standing Retreat parades! (Note: they did, too.) But, at this time, there comes down an order which pleases me mightily: all Reconnaissance Sergeants, Reconnaissance Corporals, and Radio Sergeants will go on Detached Service with the Engineers, and will aid said engineers to clear minefields near Carteret.
Sgt. Slate, Cpl. Rossin, and I pack musette bags and roll bedrolls. No more calisthenics for a while.
< previous :: next >
* Much thanks to Rob Floerke, son of Vernon Floerke for contributing this series by Paul Gawthrop, discovered in his dad's Wartime scrapbooks.