Chaplain Kidder’s Song


The barge’s motors died, clogged with shale. Kidder was moved again and finally went ashore in an assault boat when the worst of the invasion was over. “For us it was a pleasant trip, the sun shining…no worries except…the boat had to maneuver carefully among the sunken craft and vehicles, some with dead men slumped in their anti-aircraft ring mounts.” Up the hill, at St.-Laurent (where the bodies from his initial service would be permanently reburied), he met Brig. Gen. Norman Cota, who was weeping from exhaustion. The general peered at the sky and wearily told the chaplain that he had “a son flying up there somewhere.” To make up for what he saw as his late arrival, Kidder volunteered to clear German and American bodies from the prized road between St.-Laurent and Vierville—the dead of the fight that followed “the first breakout from the beach.” In his memoir Kidder has kind words even for this ghastly duty, praising the rugged physiques of the dead panzer troops he hauled from the road into the truck bed. And he kept so much of the horror to himself that he only notes the truck model, like an entry in his hitchhiking diary. “I came into the St.-Laurent cemetery with a long wheelbase GMC ‘Sixty-Six’ piled as high as the sideboards with corpses, so high that they almost fell out over the tailgate, going up the last steep hill.”

What had it felt like? He never said. The letters home were often abstract, while the journal crammed too much in to explain. After my unsatisfying pilgrimage to Normandy, Teddy and I went downcontinent to Italy with our packs. The 29th, on the other hand, had pressed on eastward almost eight hundred miles through Holland and Belgium and across the Rhine to the Elbe River. Kidder records being shot at by Free French boys having reckless target practice and of a near miss leaping from a jeep in a French village when he felt the shudder of an approaching shell and of another time in a trench when a shell exploded on the other side of the hedgerow. By March 1945 he could write his wife from Germany that while “there have been direct hits in the roof” of the Gothic cathedral at Cologne, the supporting arches were undamaged. From a distance the twin spires looked like two fir trees on a lawn.

I heard him sing on his scratched home recording, and it raised the hair on my neck: it was the sound he woke up with fifty years ago.

None of his decaying Army papers had got me much closer to my grandfather’s war experience or to him, which I supposed had been more the point of all this. Then last year my mother (having inherited the remaining attic stash from Isabel) sent me a tape recording less than two minutes long made by Reverend Kidder in his Massachusetts study in June 1969.

The Kidders had been about to fly to France for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Normandy invasion when they each taped a short message for their children, on the off chance something happened to their plane. The year 1969 was a hard time for patriotic celebrations, and Reverend Kidder’s message must have sounded almost as strange then as when I finally heard it more than two decades later. There is his clear, Yankee voice introducing a song he’d written about D-day a couple of days after landing, and which he kept in his head until the end of the campaign. He tells again about his arrival and the mass burial service for the dead on Omaha Beach, then describes an experience that does not appear in his matter-of-fact journal: “Two days later, I awoke in the morning with a song—a bugle note tune—ringing in my mind. It seemed to me I knew exactly what the notes were saying, and, after two days I was able to write it down.”

The words he laid over the bugle song are stiffly heroic.

I shall hear trumpets blowing evermore, As on the day when history waded ashore, Pealing its overtone above the cannons’ roar, I shall hear trumpets blowing.

When I first heard him sing, his voice making round sonorous vowels, r’s slightly rolled, through the hiss of his home recording, it raised the hair on my neck. And when he finished the last stanza—taps-like, “Set then your trum-pets blowing”—it did me in.

Numberless men in ageless battles lost, You have not reckoned time or death or cost; If ever faith, by fear, to compromise is tossed, Set then your trumpets blowing.

It is the sound he woke up with fifty years ago, and while the King Jamesian words were partly a deflection, I thought I could hear beneath them what the sorrowful notes were saying. The heartbreaking little song gave up something of France in June 1944 that the old papers, letters, and teen-age pilgrimages never had. This was as close as we could come.