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The Longest Wait

May 2024
19min read

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

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.

The men who followed Private Henke when it all began did not think of themselves as knights in shining armor, however. They were too bewildered. When Europe had first gone to war, the standing army of the United States could not muster two hundred thousand men; for more than two years it had slowly grown, and now it was about to mushroom into millions. Its organization was not designed to promote the welfare of the individual, and its schedules did not allocate much time to self-contemplation anyway. Life in the army was concentrated on the immediate—on what was for the next meal, on who got weekend passes when, on the name of the smallest part of the Browning automatic rifle, on how to avoid crawling through the stinking puddle in front of your nose, and above all, on who was lucky at mail call. Men seized eagerly on such trivia to anchor their logic in a crazy world. That world opened for John B. Thomas of Gallatin, Tennessee, as it would for thousands of others, one midnight in the staging area at Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, when he was given a rifle clotted with black grease and told to clean it. He had never in his life seen such a repulsive object, and it never occurred to him that the last hands to touch it must have been those of a doughboy of his father’s generation. Busy all night with old newspapers and interrupted several times to accumulate dozens of articles of equipment, including gasproof underclothing, by dawn Private Thomas was ready, as ordered, to move out with his comrades. A month later they did so, having learned the first lesson of war—that the waiting around greatly exceeds the fighting.


The British had been waiting for a long time, though they would have been taxed to explain for what, exactly. They had seen defeats and had triumphed in a few battles, but as yet they saw no end to the war. They had fought in France, in Norway, in the Mediterranean, and in Africa; in the clear, sweet summer of 1940 they had won an unimaginable victory over the Luftwaffe. They had stood without arms to await an invasion that miraculously never came. They had suffered, rallied, and endured. And yet they were still being bombed, their finest army was surging back and forth across the African desert without being able to reach a conclusion, and the whole spreading continent of Europe was still the fiefdom of Germany. Being stubborn and romantic, they expected to win the war; but in 1942 none of them could see just how to start the last battle. It was then that the answer came, in the shape of John B. Thomas, all innocence, not yet a soldier by any standard but full of enthusiasm, willing and able. To the grim British he seemed an unlikely sort of savior.

The first big contingent of American troops, 10,368 officers and men, arrived in the Queen Elizabeth at Gourock, Scotland, on June 9, 1942. The troops’ last parade before embarking had been a “short-arm” inspection, and their first on disembarking would be the same; but the indignity did not diminish their pleasure at arriving on dry land, which they accomplished through lines of Scots waving and cheering in welcome. Though convivial, it was a confrontation of total strangers. To the British the Americans seemed fresh and full of energy, bright as new paint, the bodily expression of what Sir Edward Grey had noted about their country a generation before, comparing it with “a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.” They also looked soft.

To the Americans, the British looked pitiful. They had known that Britain was at war, but there had been little reality in the fact until now. They had been aware of far-off battles; they had lost ships themselves even before war was declared. But nothing of this had hit with the shocking impact of what they now saw. Their reaction was natural: they gave away what they had.

Before his induction, George W. Marshall had been a delivery boy in Los Angeles. Now an acting corporal, he was under orders to deliver twenty-seven G.I.’s to some place he had never heard of. He figured the train ride would be brief since the country, according to the army orientation lectures, was hardly bigger than Minnesota. The ride took nine days. They were in a baggage car with no lights, no liquor, and nothing but K rations to eat; and after spending their first night immobile in a tunnel taking shelter from an air raid, they began to feel oppressed. Then they saw the kids, standing silently on a station platform watching the trains go by, looking with solemn awe at the young, healthy strangers smiling back at them. There were some cherries in Marshall’s freight car, packed much the way California grapes might be back home. The cherries were disbursed. But at other stations there were more kids and some adults. Cigarettes, soap, razor blades were handed out. When they were gone there were still more stations. One man broke out his gasproof clothing and disposed of it; then finally others began dropping out their duffel bags just as they were. When the train reached Waterloo station in London, there was a lot more room in the baggage car. Marshall decided to take a stroll. Outside the station it was pitch black and the streets were empty. He could see searchlights playing and he heard the quick whump-whump-whump of anti-aircraft guns and the faint, warbling drone of aircraft engines. There was a sudden descending whistling noise, and a man running toward Marshall yelled at him what sounded like “It it, matey!” When Marshall stood still in surprise the man charged into him and knocked him flat. In the same instant a bomb crashed into some houses a little way up the block.

By now the Londoners had a routine for air raids. Some slept in the subways. Some with their own little houses had brick shelters at the end of the back yard, equipped and decorated according to taste, the more luxurious with bunks and with stoves for making tea. Some put their faith in interior shelters built like steel tables, under which they would crawl when the bombs began to fall too close. Still others merely huddled into their broom closet underneath the stairs until the worst was over. Private Joseph Veto of Manchester, New York, found himself in this predicament one winter night in a house in Argyll Street, London. His knees were touching his chin and he was trembling with fear, though he said it was the cold. He heard a far bigger noise than the rumble of the bombs; it was a tearing, anguished noise as though the sky was tumbling down. A plane was falling. It hit a house farther along the street, its dead pilot landing on the owner’s bed. His skin was crisp, like roast pork.


London offered other diversions than the bombing, which in any case was past its worst. One handsome young American lieutenant could often be seen standing on Shaftesbury Avenue, far enough removed from Rainbow Corner to avoid the heaviest competition, staring in a puzzled fashion at a shilling in his open palm. When he saw an attractive girl he would scratch his head and inquire politely of the young lady if she could tell him how many sixpences there might be in his shilling. He never failed to bear off a conquest to the movies, where she could weep a sentimental tear over Greer Garson keeping her upper lip exquisitely stiff as Walter Pidgeon, in a battered raincoat, came back from Dunkirk, or moon over Bing Crosby dreaming of a White Christmas just the way Irving Berlin intended him to. Martha Raye, the soldier’s soldier, was playing to acres of olive drab at the Palladium; Beatrice Lillie (who had just lost a son in action) was at His Majesty’s Theatre in Big Top; and Vivien Leigh was at the Haymarket in The Doctor’s Dilemma . At the Windmill, as always, there was the chorus line, the bravest and barest in the world.

In the country, pleasures were simpler if not necessarily quieter. Most places could boast what Staff Sergeant Edward J. Twohig described as “the surprisingly interesting stock met at some of the church parties.” Conversely, the British were favorably impressed with the newcomers. Few of them withstood for long the ebullience of American spirits. The roster of Twohig’s outfit carried nicknames like Silent Rapp, Skin Walbourne, Macadoo Machado, and Lightning Ruhberg, which startled the ears of the British, who confined themselves to time-hallowed familiarities no more daring than Dusty Miller or Chalky White. Herbert D. Bidgett and a buddy called Bowers from the 81st Seabee Battalion were standing around when they were greeted by a gentleman who looked “very English.” He was wearing a stylish dark suit and a bowler hat and carried a slim umbrella. He invited the husky young men to join him for a drink at his club. Stifling their worst suspicions, they went along, “It was strictly male and strictly for drinking men,” Bidgett recalled. “We were introduced all around and after a time Bowers wound up playing the piano, and that guy was one hot number. He could play boogie-woogie like you never heard, and all the Limeys really lapped it up, requesting songs they’d heard of and all. First thing you know old Bowers is just sweating and playing and all I have to do is accept drinks. He didn’t even stop to drink. I’d just tip it up and he’d swallow. After a couple of weeks of this we were invited to join the club and did.”

Many American units found themselves in British barracks, even, ironically, in the old red-brick quarters in Winchester normally occupied by the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, which sometimes called itself (in memory of its foundation on Governors Island, New York, to deal with the rebel colonists) the 60th (Royal American) Rifles. Others, in villages and towns not garrisoned, trailed about with a sergeant and a policeman, being allotted in ones and twos to private homes. When Pfc. John J. Kenney of Wilmington, Minnesota, got to his billet the rain was dripping from his cap and his duffel bag was sodden black. The policeman knocked politely on the door and a gaunt woman opened it. She looked at Kenney and said “Oh, dear!” Not one to miss a nuance, John Kenney resolved that his behavior would be impeccable as long as he stayed in that house. It was. Before long Kenney joined the thousands of soldiers who, as members of the family, sat in front of the fire to listen to the B.B.C.’s nine o’clock news and explain why there was no ham in a hamburger, or to pop corn sent from home while their adopted mothers bustled about with tea and cookies.

There was not much food. An Englishman got two chops a week for his meat ration, two eggs if he was lucky, and a piece of cheese half the size of a pack of Lucky Strikes. Onions were as rare as pineapples. But many an American woke up on a Sunday morning with a plate of bacon and eggs by his bedside and toast made out of what was called “beetle bread.” The bread was made from whole grain to save shipping space, and contained pieces of chaff from the wheat, which the G.I.’s darkly imagined, having been raised on the pure white blandness of store-bought loaves, were the wings of insects. The more imaginative soon homed in on the fish-and-chips shops whenever they were open and tarried off greasy packages of newspaper smelling strongly of vinegar. Others made occasional attempts to live off the country: George Marshall and some friends were recruited by the village kids to shoot rabbits, the children offering to act as beaters. “We took a chance,” Marshall recalled. “They did scare up two of them and we blasted away with our M-1’s at them, but no luck. I wish you could see the looks on those kids’ faces when we missed.”


The children were not the only ones to be dubious of the martial expertise of their allies. Winston Churchill had watched the first field exercises of the new divisions in North Carolina and asked the opinion of one of his aides, a general. “To put these troops against continental troops would be murder,” the general said. Churchill, nevertheless, sensed the power of this raw material and guessed how quickly they would learn. Later, his judgment justified, he wrote: “Certainly two years later the troops we saw in Carolina bore themselves like veterans.” But it took time to make a soldier. As Time Goes By , a slow, dreamy melody written eleven years before, was resurrected and seemed oddly appropriate. As Private Albert A. Turner put it, “The uncertain days stretched into uncertain weeks.” Elsewhere, the plans to end the uncertainty had already been made.

The plans were given the code name Overlord. They were based on an American concept, and everything that happened in England was directed toward their execution. Overlord was the reason why the southwest of the island seemed to be sinking under the weight of foreign troops and foreign supplies; it was held up, people said, only by the barrage balloons. Though no one mentioned the name, Overlord caused hundreds of English families to leave their homes without knowing they would never see them again—by the time they were allowed to return, the walls had been pounded to rubble by American shells. Men like Colonel Robert T. Finn of La Jolla, California, moved in, building at Slapton Sands, three miles from the little port whence the Mayflower sailed, replicas of Omaha and Utah beaches so exact that later in Normandy a soldier could say to Finn: “Colonel, do you remember the damaged rowboat on the beach at the assault center? Well, I fell over the same damn boat last week during the real landing.”

By May, Overlord had ground almost to its consummation. Opposite the French beaches the units were drawn up from east to west along the south coast of England in their order of battle, British on the left, Americans on the right. The assault troops had been funnelled into special camps called “sausages,” a macabre term in connection with an operation some said would be like a meat grinder. Churchill himself was doubtful, remembering Passchendaele and the Somme and Gallipoli. “It still seemed to me, after a quarter of a century,” he revealed later, “that fortifications of concrete and steel armed with modern fire-power, and fully manned by trained, resolute men, could only be overcome by surprise in time or place, by turning their flank, or by some new and mechanical device like the tank.” The British had in fact offered some of their new devices (armored bridge layers, flame throwers, and flails for the mine fields—collectively known as “the Funnies”) to the Americans; but the latter to their cost used only amphibious tanks, which in the event mostly foundered in deep water.

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.

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.

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