A D-DAY VETERAN’S GRANDSON ATTEMPTS TO FIND THE ANSWER TO THAT MOST IMPENETRABLE QUESTION: WHAT WAS IT LIKE?
The Reverend Maurice Kidder used to wake at five to write sermons in his dark study where the beagle slept; that early hour seemed to give him the clarity to compose his lectures, which he delivered in an unaffected but commanding baritone voice each Sunday at his All Saints’ Church in western Massachusetts. By the time I knew him my grandfather had been giving sermons for more than thirty years. He was a tall, powerfully genial man with blue eyes, a colonial-looking head of wavy white hair, and a long, squared jaw. I knew a few things about him: that he drove faster than my parents did, in a white Rambler with blue vinyl seats; that he liked Heath bars and believed in God; that he ate leftover ham fat with a spoon in the kitchen at holidays; that he sang very beautifully in church or while washing his hands. He had played football in high school, where they called him Tiny to be funny, and his boyhood New Hampshire town had a name out of the Iliad , Laconia.
I did not know very much about his war.
A few years after my grandfather’s death from a brain tumor in 1975, my grandmother Isabel Kidder began to leave me clues about his time in the Army. Even before he died, I’d worn his 29th Infantry Division’s yin-yang patch sewn on my denim jacket (alongside Boy Scout Jamboree patches). Now she brought out other knicknacks from the war, including a picture of him as an Army chaplain smiling with long-ago buddies in Europe. Then the truly heavy-freighted objects came down from the attic: the Eisenhower jacket during one high school Christmas and, finally, the black footlocker.
The footlocker emptied the war out safely onto the livingroom rug, broke it down into small resonant show-and-tell objects that anyone could hope to understand. Here were his discharge papers, metal soap dish, Bible, letters, old USO programs and issues of Yank , a retrieved Nazi helmet ornament, logs of his Army sermons, a four-day guide to Paris (“The Place de l’Opéra is without contest one of the beautifullest and most animated places in the world”), and the booklet “Going Back to Civilian Life” (telling former soldiers when they could still wear their uniforms). Like most GIs who came home, he had stuck his mementos into the attic and got on with it. The family used a pair of German toenail clippers he’d poached from a dead panzer soldier along with a Luger that went to his older brother, Stan. But he rarely mentioned the war afterward that my mother remembered, except obliquely: using the German term for police or sneaking open new jars of peanut butter to write “Kilroy was here” and close the lid.
The jacket always made me feel a little inadequate, even after it was taken up some in the sleeves. I wore it in high school wandering the comparatively safe brownstone blocks of West Side Manhattan. My coat had seen action. That, of course, would be true of some Ike jackets bought at Army-Navy stores, but it was humbling just the same to learn my coat’s—my grandfather’s—missing history.
Kidder was in the service even before Pearl Harbor, having joined the Army Reserve for a little extra money his freshman year of college. In August 1940, when he was twenty-eight, he resigned his position after two years as a Methodist preacher for two small parishes in California’s rural San Joaquin Valley and went back East, hoping for a family posting in the Reserves. The Depression was still deep, and the Kidders traveled back to New Hampshire as they had come, Isabel taking the two small children—my mother, Phyllis, and Uncle Joel—cross-country by train, with her husband hitchhiking his way behind. As he had while thumbing his way West, Kidder noted each obliging driver, distance, and make of car in a little diary. He made it from California to Cleveland trading off driving with a young salesman in a gray ’38 Plymouth. Then two Fords (a ’3O and ’38), a businessman who disagreed with him about Hitler, a truck driver, a “broad-minded” fellow in a Mercury sedan, a ’39 Buick, a DeSoto coupe driven by a lame ex-stunt flier, and a dairy semi took him to Laconia, where his family was waiting. In March 1941 he applied to be a Reserve chaplain in Maryland and worked a series of manual jobs in the meantime. Then came news of Pearl Harbor.
According to the crowded eighteen-page Army memoir he left behind, Kidder next moved his family to Maryland, then was called away with the 175th Regiment of the 29th (the “Dandy Fifth”) to North Carolina for training. After that it was to Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, to guard bridges and rail yards against Axis bombardment; then to Newport News, Virginia, to protect a tobacco warehouse full of docked, crated Buicks, stranded by the crisis. Following a second turn of Carolina maneuvers, Kidder shipped out for England as senior chaplain (a captain’s rank) with the 29th (he would go ashore in France with a field artillery unit). They were part of the great rehearsal for the Normandy invasion staged at Slapton Sands, where, he noted, practice shelling went on above the heads of Hebridean sheep. Most of his fellow soldiers were certain they were training to storm Holland.
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.
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!’”
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.
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.
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.
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.