Chaplain Kidder’s Song

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One night in 1943 Captain Kidder attended a USO show in Okehampton featuring Bob Hope and Carole Landis. As the Army crowd was returning to camp, a battalion arrived to see the show after a fifteen-mile night march from Plymouth. The men had been told the wrong starting time and got a view of Hope just as the comedian was leaving the huge shed where he’d deadpanned to great success for the troops. “He looked at these men,” my grandfather wrote, “and went right back and put on another show.…”

In addition to the shelling and climbing drills, the men practiced landing unwieldy amphibious vehicles called DUKWs—converted General Motors trucks that eventually would carry many of them into the German guns on Omaha Beach. The ducks, as they were inevitably called, held 105-mm howitzers, which the men practiced firing toward shore when their boat had reached the wave’s crest. Kidder’s chaplain’s logs show sermon attendance growing dramatically as the invasion neared, from 90 soldiers in January 1944 for the “sex morality lecture” to 398 in June, just before they moved out.

We saw the hillside graves and painted crosses and made our way down to the beach. Not one outboard showed on the horizon.
 

The summer I was eighteen I visited Normandy to see what was left there. I went with my friend Teddy Reiner in June. That Ike jacket had obsessed me. “It wouldn’t have fitted any of them” is what William Manchester says heavily at the end of Portrait of a President about staffers’ finding John Kennedy’s World War II jacket in a White House closet. I felt just as pious about my coat, that it was unearned and would never quite fit me.

That June we visited Deauville and Trouville in our backpacks, saw topless women along the beach, ate profiteroles on the boardwalk, but didn’t look in at the great seaside casino. In Baveux we stayed near the train station, and as we crossed a stream walking to town, I tried to imagine sleeping under the handsome stone bridges, as my grandfather had done between the June landing and July 18, when the division took St.-Lê.

We ignored the famous tapestry in favor of the bloody beaches, which, of course, were bloody no more. A neat green bus with sepia-tinted windows took us out along quiet green-bordered highways. It sounds like a cheap effect to be shocked by the peace of an old battle scene, but then it happens to you. We saw the clipped hillside graves and painted crosses, made our way down the slope the Germans had guarded to the beach where the thousands of Allied craft rolled in. Nothing was on the horizon, not one outboard. Flat red stones crunched under our sneakers.

I landed three times on June 6th 1944, on Omaha Beach, and each time, because the beach was crowded, was obliged to retreat with our troops to the sea again. The next day when I landed I was asked by the division chaplain, with the Jewish chaplain, to read the first service over 800 men lying in a scooped-up trench in the sand at Omaha Beach.…This was probably the first funeral service in the invasion.”

The largest amphibious landing in human history had itself been turned back by a terrific sea storm. In a famous gamble Eisenhower rescheduled Monday’s attack for Tuesday morning, when the weather might just be clear enough. Chaplain Kidder started out in one of the twelve ducks, then, since he carried no weapon, was moved to a Rhino transport barge bringing big guns and Army vehicles ashore. By the time Kidder’s barge approached, the beaches were all smoke and the French hillside was lit by artillery flashes. Five thousand ships were involved in the landing, converging on the fifty-mile-long stretch of shore from Caen to the Cotentin Peninsula. Reverend Kidder spent the first day trying to get ashore, talking with a fellow noncombatant from the Chicago Tribune when they could hear each other above the din. They felt shells go overhead and saw other boats swamped by waves or sunk outright. A soldier in one of the barge’s forward antiaircraft turrets was hurt by a shell burst, and Kidder went to attend him. “When I heard the wounded boy’s name, I was sure he was Catholic,” the Methodist minister wrote. After reading him the official absolution contained in one of his chaplain’s pamphlets, Kidder “could see that he was saying something; bending close, I heard him protest, ‘But I’m not Catholic!’”