- Historic Sites
The Longest Wait
The G.I.’s were far more numerous than any army that ever occupied Britain; none left so little visible trace, none so touching a legacy
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
A cold coming awaited Melburn Henke in all respects but one. A leaden Irish sky, damp air that mortified the flesh, a mournful horizon of rusting cranes and dilapidated warehouses, channels of gray water and drab groups of longshoremen—these made up Henke’s landscape. He was wearing a steel helmet with a shallow crown and a flat brim cocked somewhat rakishly over one eye; on his back a regulation pack sat trim and heavy, a bayonet as long as a sword strapped to it, and from his right shoulder hung an M-1 rifle no longer new. His expression was confident and, considering the climate, happy. Those old enough to recall it might have thought him every inch a doughboy en route for the Argonne or Belleau Wood. Certainly there was something of repetition about Pfc. Henke’s appearance that wintry morning, for he was the first American soldier officially to set foot on the soil of Great Britain in World War II, and the term “G.I.” was not yet in common use for his species.
It was January 26, 1942, and the United States was entering the eighth week of war with Germany and Japan. When he actually stepped ashore, as flash guns popped and a band played, Henke achieved immortality of a sort: the spot was later marked with a plaque. Henke himself described the experience as “one I won’t easily forget” and marched smartly out of the limelight. No one could have seen in Private First Class Henke that dank morning the first physical indication that the United States of America was about to assume the leadership of the Western world.
Two million Americans, most of them very young, followed Henke into the European Theatre of Operations. They razed cities with high explosives and fire; they levelled hills and built temporary towns with their great machines; they killed the innocent in their assault; and with their allies they broke the armed power of Nazi Germany. But in Britain, the greatest change they effected was not in executing policies hatched by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, but simply by being there. The ordinary commerce of day-today living rubbed away illusions and antipathies, introduced new attitudes and modified old ones; and familiarity bred not contempt but a deep and lasting understanding. Britain already bore many marks of former armies, beginning with the forts the Romans garrisoned; none had been so numerous or so massively equipped as the divisions that now poured in. None left so little visible trace, none so touching a legacy.
Today the memorials of D-Day have to be sought out. When found they are no more than bronze tablets listing statistics, stone columns, or fountains filled with rocks from Arkansas or Maine. A few English pastures that are too meager to be farmed are still crossed with runways that once shook under the wheels of Flying Fortresses and Mustangs, concrete that once men kissed, tumbling deliriously from their planes, out of joy at having survived one more mission. There were afternoons when those airstrips, so small in this jet age, ran pink as ground crews hosed out from shattered turrets what was left of gunners caught by machine guns or the jagged shards of flak. Now, gray and anonymous, softened in summer by buttercups or the proud lavender of rosebay willow herb, they speak of nothing.
On the edges of beech woods or in clearings among the pines there are still oblongs of brick and concrete where the quoiiset huts, black and echoing, were home or hospital, workshop, bar, church, or prison for a community of men. They carry no echoes now. The pubs are still there, as they were after Cromwell’s troopers had clattered by, a few with insignia torn from a uniformed shoulder and pinned to a beam, or with scribbled alien signatures failing on the ceiling. The names are still the same—the Queen’s Head, the St. George & Dragon, the Star and Garter, the Royal Steamer, the Eagle and Child—but the signs above their bars that warned of careless talk or exhorted everybody to dig for victory have been replaced by arch verses refusing credit, or announcements of bingo nights at what was once the village hall. Beside a haw-thorn hedge here and there deep ruts still record the tracks of tanks or howitzers moving into their parks; but they might have been made by long-forgotten harvest carts. Of the tarpaulined dumps of shells and bombs that lined mile after mile of English lanes; of the acres of cannon, wheel to wheel, their muzzles pointing dumbly to the sky and aligned as if with millimeter gauges; of the pyramids of rations looming in open fields, the drums of gas and oil, the coffins prudently stacked by the hundreds in hangars; of all the impedimenta of a civilized and mechanized army there remains hardly a trace.
And yet, what was left behind was more enduring. For in the memory of a generation of Britons and Americans there are responses that spring to instant life at the mention of a name—Rainbow Corner, Spam, Glen Miller, Omaha—and being reborn they bring the legacy back to consciousness. It is, in a sense, a folk legacy, unwritten and mostly nnarticulatcd, in which the collective memory has glossed over what was brutal. But it is all there, an invisible memorial to what was then called without any sense of bathos The Great Crusade.