The Longest Wait

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When the Americans left their familiar villages for these camps, there had been weeping—more, one young medic thought, than when his draft contingent had left its home town in Iowa. Long afterward Mrs. Betty Hinde described what the British felt: “Somehow or other in the morning the whole place seemed quiet and eerie as if all the life had gone out of it. It really was quite uncanny.” There was an awareness, everywhere. This was the last spin of the coin and everything depended on it. Mrs. Barbara Boyd heard soft boots stepping through the night and thought, “There were all our friends, all the people that we knew, going away to the real war, to the fighting war. We never knew if we’d see them again.” Marching to his ship, Sergeant Harold E. Williams passed an old woman whose face was a mask of tears. She was repeating over and over, “Thank you, lads, for helping us out.”

At the Stag’s Head in Chilton Foliat the dart game was desultory. The locals drank their warm beer thoughtfully, missing their friends of the 101st Airborne Division who on most nights had accounted for most of the beer and nearly all of what little whisky there was. As the light faded in the long summer evening of June 5, they heard the planes. Sergeant Ivan T. Nielsen of Superior, Wisconsin, watched the paratroopers board. Twenty-five years later he could remember their expressions: even the young ones, the noisy ones who had shaved their hair into a single central brush in the Iroquois fashion, were not talking very much.

Over Normandy, they dropped in silence in utter darkness toward something they could not imagine. Suddenly they were in another world in which everything that had been familiar was immediately, terrifying, and mortally hostile. A hedgerow, they had always believed, was a place of ease, a molding of warm dirt arid dry grass fitting the small of your back aching after harvest, giving off the slightly sour, faintly aromatic smell of sap from a broken leaf or a twig idly stripped of green. A hedgerow was a sanctuary; it was supposed to comfort you, not kill you. But these Norman hedgerows were monstrous, hiding the enemy so completely that you were close enough to feel the heat of his machine guns’ firing before you saw him. General Maxwell D. Taylor landed quite alone and made his suspicious way toward one of those hedgerows. It was silent. He moved on. He began to wonder if he would ever find a single member of the division he commanded. He carried a cricket, as did each of his men, as a recognition signal, but it was a while before he decided to use it. After a long time he heard a faint sound, as of cattle grazing. He hazarded a click. It was answered. A figure rustled toward him, fully armed and confident, but helmetless. General Taylor’s relief was so enormous that he found himself at a loss for words. Then he assumed command. “Soldier,” he demanded, “where’s your hat?”

Offshore, Lieutenant John E. Coleman, U.S.N.R., was catching a little sleep after being at sea in his tank-landing-craft for twenty-seven hours. A messenger woke him with “Mr. Coleman, the skipper says there’s something you might like to see.” Coleman joined his captain (who a few hours later would step out of his steel pilot house into a bursting shell) and watched the planes flying over. The sea was gray and misty, and chopped at the flat bottoms of the landing craft in a most uncomfortable manner. When Coleman began his run into the beach not a shot had yet been fired, though he could see warships with their great guns trained. One of the infantry officers he was about to land was uneasy. “It’s too quiet,” he muttered. The fleet opened up, slamming the air in great hot walls of sound over the boats slapping toward the sand. The Germans did not answer. Coleman was four hundred yards from the shore when they did. What he remembered after that was dying men.

There is no coherent picture of what happened on Omaha Beach during the first hours of June 6, 1944, because it was not a coherent battle. The men who were there remember incidents only, so the true picture recollected is as if lit by flashes. At low tide it was a flat, wide stretch of sand crossed by shallow channels. This was spread with ranks of explosive devices of various kinds. At about highwater mark a bank of pebbles, in places nine feet high, ran the length of the beach. Beyond this shingle there was flat, marshy ground two or three hundred yards across at its widest, much of it sown with mines. Now the shingle bank is gone, bulldozed away in the week after D-Day to make way for the thousands of tons of supplies that were to come. There are patches in the sand still heavy with metal, shell fragments mixed with rusted rivets from ships sunk in the bay, all smoothed now by the action of the sea and oxidized a bright and symbolic red. Occasionally a mine is still discovered and placed nonchalantly on display by a dispenser of vins-liqueurs near the beach. The French have built little summer villas at the foot of the bluffs beyond the mine fields, not seeming to mind the ugly blockhouse ruins that still yawn toward the beach.