Seasick warriors

Seasickness.  It’s an utterly vile condition, worse, I think, than any other type of motion sickness.  When you’re seasick, your entire body is rebelling against you.  Worse, there’s no escape.  You’re trapped in the middle of an endless ocean, feeling about as bad as it’s possible for a human to feel.

Add something to that seasickness:  fear, anticipation, exhilaration, worry.  Imagine yourself loaded down with gear and weapons, packed like sardines with other men, many as sick as you are, and heaving your guts out.  The worst part is knowing that, when the boat lands, you can’t just find a quiet place to sleep off the sickness.  Instead, the boat isn’t landing at all.  You’re going to be transferred to an even smaller boat (more seasickness), which will stop far short of the beach.  Then, weighed down with gear, dehydrated from vomiting, dizzy, and frightened, you have to wade through waist high water, all the while facing a withering hail of enemy fire.

When I imagine the suffering and horror of such an experience, I recoil.  It seems too dreadful to exist in reality.  And yet, 65 years ago tomorrow, on June 6, 1944, 160,000 men — Americans and men from all parts of the British Empire — did precisely what I described.  Seasick, frightened, and cold, they stormed the beaches of Normandy, and began the true end of the worst war in human history.

What few people appreciate is that, until June 6, 1944, the Allies had no ground presence in Western Europe.  [UPDATE:  As George reminds me, the Allies had spilled a lot of blood creeping up the Italian boot.]  Although the war had been fought bitterly in the Pacific against the Japanese, the only attacks the Allies had been able to make against the Nazis had been air raids and covert operations.  With the exception of Spain and Portugal, Western Europe was completely under Nazi control.  The air raids were ferocious, but they merely softened things up.  They could not displace Nazy hegemony.  It was D-Day that truly brought the war home to the Nazis.

Another thing that few people realize is that June 6 was only the beginning.  Those who survived that fearsome landing found themselves in horrific fighting conditions, trapped by hedges, lost from each other in unfamiliar terrain, and overwhelmed by long-term Nazi entrenchment.  Yet they kept on fighting, and fighting, and fighting.

All this fighting culminated in the horror of the Battle of the Bulge, during December 1944 and January 1945.  We remember that Battle today because of that Christmas in and around Bastogne, when a small group of Americans held out desperately against the Germans’ last big offensive, waiting for help to arrive.  I was in Bastogne more than 40 years after the event, and the smell of death still hung over the place.  The air felt sorrowful.  So many died there — but they did not die in vain.  Their sacrifices marked the true end of the German military.  From that point onwards, there was no going back.  The march onto Berlin was inevitable.

In 2004, my family traveled to Washington, D.C.  It was pure coincidence that, when we arrived at the WWII Memorial, a reunion of veterans of the Battle of the Bulge was meeting there.  They were no longer stalwart, upright young men.  They were frail old men, dragging oxygen tanks, clutching walkers, and being pushed in wheel chairs.  Nevertheless, they were still warriors.  They had fought in one of the greatest battles in the history of the world, and despite the scars, inside and out, each man there knew that he had done something of tremendous significance, and he carried that greatness with him.  As for me, I embarrassed my family dreadfully be weeping so hard they practically had to carry me out of there.

And so to those men of the greatest generation, whose travails began with the terrors of D-Day and ended with the triumph of taking Berlin, I say “Thank you.  Thank you so much.”

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Comments

  1. Oldflyer says

    My older cousin who started me on a flying career was in the 8th Air Force as a B-17 crew member. The horrendous losses suffered by the 8th is well documented.

    But the losses started before they reached England. He went by ship. There were three men per bunk, so they each had the bunk for 8 hours on a rotating basis. During the rest of the time they had to find some other place to park. They hit a classic north Atlantic storm in route and not only made no headway for days, but no one could go above deck. I won’t repeat his description of conditions below deck, but a number of men died of dysentary. (Forget the actual number but it was significant).

    We often lose track of then number of lives lost other than those in actual combat. Washington Post did a Memorial Day rundown of the deaths in Iraq/Afghanistan this year. A startling number of them were due to non-hostile causes. They are just as dead and they died serving.

    On the eve of D-Day; every time I look at one of the more famous pictures of the landing craft beaching with the ramp going down and the men about to head into Hell I get a small chill. I wonder how they managed to get themselves to move.

  2. says

    Book,

    A great article !!!

    One of my dearest friends in college was one of those Brave men who came ashore. He suffered a debilitating spinal injury from shrapnel at the Battle of the Bulge.

    He was carried back from the front lines a paraplegic.. He told the story of the Red Cross offering Donuts and coffee to the injured — but charging the GIs for both. He was bitter and never forgot that. He remained in a wheelchair until his death a few years ago.

    Bill Kaylor was a dear friend, my Best Man, and his wife, Lady was my wife’s Matron of Honor in our wedding in 1952.

    I thanked Bill many times for his service to our country but he was always reluctant to talk about it.

    But I still thanked him!!! I appreciate those who have sacrificed for our Republic — and Bill did sacrifice.

    In Jesus Christ eternally,

    ExP(Jack)

  3. Deana says

    Thank you, Bookworm, for writing this piece.

    The other day, my mom and I were walking in the neighborhood and saw an elderly couple who lives in our neighborhood. We started talking to them and found out they had recently been in D.C. to see the WWII Memorial.

    It turned out that the gentleman standing in front of us was 90. He didn’t even look 80. And he had landed and fought on Omaha Beach. I think our mouths just dropped open. When do you ever get the good fortune to meet someone like that?

    My mom asked him if he ever talked about and he said he didn’t. Even after all of these years, if he talks about it, he has horrible nightmares afterwards. We didn’t ask him anything else – we just told him thanks.

    My grandpa was a captain of a B-17 in the 8th Air Force. He was so beautiful, such a good man. I’d give anything to have him back for just 15 minutes, just to tell him thanks and how much I love him for all he did for me.

    Deana

  4. George Bruce says

    I don’t wish to nitpick about an article about which I almost completely and wholeheartedly agree, but this statement is incorrect:

    “What few people appreciate is that, until June 6, 1944, the Allies had no ground presence in Europe. Although the war had been fought bitterly in the Pacific against the Japanese, the only attacks the Allies had been able to make against the Nazis had been air raids and covert operations. With the exception of Spain and Portugal, Western Europe was completely under Nazi control.”

    You forget about Italy. I only mention it because many good men died to take Sicily and Southern Italy. In fact, after months of hard fighting, Rome fell on the same day as “D-Day.” Many men were serving honorably in Italy at that time, including my father.

  5. says

    I would like to second those above who have said “Great Article!” It really is!

    My parents were in high school during WWII. My mother’s senior class had close to 20 (out of about 120) students who were returning vets (some had actually lied about their age so they could sign up). That is amazing to me.

    I also had a cousin (of my parents’ generation, but a few years older) who served in the Pacific. He suffered terrible shell-shock and became home-bound with agoraphobia. He was really a very intellegent, knowledgeable, and articulate man.

    As I studied about East Asia in college, I had many interesting conversations with him when visiting him and my Great Aunt; I felt that he was as knowledgeable about the Far East as were most of my professors. But he never talked about his experiences during the war. He lived in his mother’s home until the day he died. My cousin, his mother, and his son all paid a lot for his service to the rest of us.

  6. Al says

    Thanks for the post, BW.
    A member of our parish flew 50 missions in the 8th Air Force’s B17s. He rotated stateside after that. His plane was shot down on the next mission. He thinks about it every day.
    Al

  7. Charles Martel says

    My dad, a paratrooper, fought in the North African, Sicilian and Italian campaigns. He was wounded three times, but all of them were flesh wounds. He was finally felled by malaria in 1944 and came within minutes of death when his temperature reached 108 degrees. He remembers through his delerium a young doctor saying in desperation, “Let’s put him in ice.” They did, and the treatment, almost unheard of at the time, lowered his temp enough to get him stabilized.

    The malaria mustered him out of the service. He has suffered periodic bouts of fever and shakes from it for years (he turned 94 on June 2), but he never talks about the war.

    He joined the Army days after Pearl Harbor and wrote home to my mother during basic training to say that he was studying to be a cook. She did not find out until until he came home in his uniform that he’d volunteered to become a paratrooper so that he could earn $20 extra per month in hazard pay.

    They were an unbelievable generation, the ones of fought WWII. Thank God there are pockets of America, such as the South and the Midwest, that still produce young men like them.

  8. Oldflyer says

    You struck a chord, Charles. I mentioned my cousin earlier in the thread. He left the farm at 17 and went to Jacksonville, Fl to join the Navy. When he got there he had pneumonia and they sent him home. Later he joined the Army Air Corps. I was a little fellow, but I remember my Aunt saying he was going to be a mechanic. (She was very relieved because her husband had been a doughboy in WWI , and had legitimate fears about war). Much to her surprise he was a tail gunner on B-17s during the period when they suffered their heaviest losses. (He survived, went to pilot training and retired as a B-52 commander.)

    The point is that the attitude among the young men and boys was so vastly different in those days. It wasn’t from ignorance, because as I remarked above many of them knew of the horrors of modern war from their dads. It was a sense of duty.

    One other thought. I love to see the old guys (older than 73 that is) in their ball caps. Whenever I do, I make an attempt to strike up a conversation. I feel it is the least I can do to give them a chance to tell their story, if they want to. Met one the other day in a USS Franklin cap. (If that doesn’t ring a bell you should look it up). He was so pleased that I recognized the name, knew the story and had a few moments to listen to his experience. While he talked his wife stood by beaming with pride. Try this sometime, you will enjoy it.

  9. Deana says

    It always sort of amazes me the number of people with relatives who were on B-17s.

    I love all of these stories – I could read this kind of thing for hours.

    Thanks, everyone!

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