The Longest Wait

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At first, that morning, it seemed impossible. There were blobs in the water like sacks glistening wet, dead men drowned or shot, bobbing gently in the making tide. There was the flat, shrieking zip of 88 mm. shells coming in too fast to dodge, and a tearing, cracking detonation when they hit and opened armor and flesh like paper. There was a lot of smoke, gray and acrid, but the color men noticed was red. “There was blood all over the sand, on the rocks,” Leo Heroux said. He was an assault engineer at the tail end of the first wave. The waves lapping up the beach were being kicked into spray by machine guns playing on them but still men were lying in inches of water pretending, though they knew it did not, that it gave them protection. All along the beach the landing craft hesitated, plunged forward and dropped their ramps, and instantaneously the openings were tangles of dead men.

Private Philip Guarassi of Brooklyn, New York, had made the trip with infantry of the 1st Division. His ordnance company went in minutes after H-Hour. “There was no gaiety among us,” he recalled. “The craft slid a little on the sand and the ramp was quickly let down. We immediately removed ourselves and waded waist deep in water to the shore. Soldiers were falling all around us. All types of equipment was being blown up before we could use it. It began to look more and more like a gigantic junkyard.” Guarassi found the officer in charge of his combat team crouching behind a rock and asked him what his plans might be. “Beats the hell out of me,” said the officer. Guarassi “immediately notified him that I was getting my dead ass out of there.”

Most of the initial assault waves had got as far as the shingle. Lieutenant James Drew lay next to his sergeant, waiting for a chance to get his beach party into operation. A few yards to their right some Rangers were firing grapnels onto the top of the cliffs of the Pointe de la Percée, trying to secure scaling ladders. The Germans kept cutting the ropes and lobbing grenades down. After several failures Drew’s sergeant called over to the Rangers, not without a touch of impatience, “Why the hell don’t you get up the cliff?” A sergeant of the Rangers turned around. “Why the hell don’t you?” he asked reasonably. Slowly men with the cool courage of Guarassi began to inch forward and take a few comrades with them. Others were rallied by their officers. Colonel George A. Taylor, in command of the 16th Infantry, stood up and suggested, as Private Jean R. Bernard of Lawrence, Massachusetts, heard it behind the shingle bank, “Hell, we’re dying here on this beach. Let’s move inland and die.” At that moment the battle was as good as won.

By the official estimate, the day’s fighting cost 1,465 American lives for sure. Another 1,928 men were missing. The bodies of some of those who died that day still lie not far from the beach, most of them under white crosses marked “Known But To God.” The American military cemetery at St.-Laurent-sur-Mer in Calvados lies atop the bluffs within view of the beach and nowadays is a picnic spot much favored by the French. It is green and beautiful and immaculate, and about it broods the terrible, useless decorum of death. But it is not the only or the most touching memorial.

All over England mature men and women remember how when they were children the big relaxed strangers tossed oranges at them, or gave them ice cream for the first time, or came to tea and called everything by the wrong name. Old people remember their vicarious fears for boys they had grown fond of, catching at premonitions, real or imagined, when a name is mentioned. “He was killed,” a man says. “Yes,” his wife adds, “we thought he might be. He looked like it.” Mothers of teen-age families remember without rancor how as lissome girls they clung closer in dark parks or on the banks of placid streams and whispered, knowing already the answer, “Will you really take me to the States?” What was there and what is left are after all parts of a dream. But the dream has not yet faded. It is peopled with perilous, rangy young men who brought with them from the New World the innocent belief that all things were possible, and proved it before noon one spring morning across the Channel. The great gift of those Americans, as the British see it, was not their blood or their bravery, but their innocence.