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Remembering D-Day

U.S. Navy / Getty

At 10:30 p.m. 30 years ago the loudspeaker bawls “All hands man your battle stations” and a bugle blows “general quarters,” and I jump out of my berth on the heavy cruiser USS Quincy, Capt. Senn commanding, give an embarrassed glance at the frightened young man in war correspondent’s uniform looking out at me from the mirror and say, “You fool, you damn fool, with a wife and family, what in hell are you doing here!” and go on up to the open bridge to observe D-Day. June 5-6, 1944. We are going to invade Normandy.

A couple of hours before this the chaplain prayed for us. Out in the breeze or down, in the engine room men bared their heads. I looked back toward England and wondered: something marvelous was going on. All the world’s ships were coming our way. Big ships, little ships, convoys with barrage balloons tugging them ahead. British ships, Dutch ships. Free French ships. Their names mingled like a chant. The British names came down through history: The Black Prince, for instance, buddying up with the old battlewagons Texas and Arkansas. One transport was the Susan B. Anthony (sunk within hours).

“Ask and it shall be given; seek and ye shall find,” said the chaplain. We hoped it was so, and it was no time for doubts. “Our help is in the Lord. ...”

Now it is midnight. The sky is overcast. Somewhere up there the moon is one night from being full. Once it glows out and casts us in full relief in a silvery patch. Our ship is flanked by shadowy destroyers. There are only dim red battle lights. Suddenly over in France there is a spurt’ of tracer bullets and a falling meteor that I suppose is really an airplane. I keep thinking of home, where they are finishing supper at seven and getting ready for homework. We are probably all thinking the same thing. We talk in whispers.

Here is a wonderful thing! We are on a dark sea moving at half speed toward history and here are little pinpricks of cheery light, bobbing discreetly on the surface —a mine-swept safety lane marked so that even a landsman could follow it. They give a wonderful emotional release—somebody has been here, somebody has planned this. A sense of the immensity of this thing slowly grows.

There is no harbor ahead so we are taking our harbors with us—so-called mulberries and gooseberries, to be cre- ated by sinking old warships and mer- chant ships as jetties against rough weather. They are chugging out under their own power like the Black Prince and the Susan B. Anthony. We were briefed on this but we don’t believe it. We will attack about where William the Conqueror sailed for England in 1066.

It is 3 a.m.; it is 4 a.m. We are six miles off shore, off what will be called Utah Beach. By now the enemy must know what’s up. Bombers’ roar overhead. Flares drop inland. I am so wrought up I do knee bends. A thou- sand youngsters are on board almost as inexperienced as I. It is pathetic to hear them ask my opinion. Everything’s fine, I say. Now we wait three miles off shore. All nine guns point at the beach. 5:30 a.m. There are yellow streaks in the cloud cover. Now! The guns go off and the Quincy bounces. Dawn finds us on Germany’s doormat like the morning milk bottle.

I don’t know much about battles. After an hour of this there is a certain sameness. First I am frightened and then bored and ashamed of both emotions. We are supposed to soften up shore batteries for the landing parties. At six am we still bang away methodically, like a thunderbolt worked by clockwork. At 6:30 the landing craft hit the beaches. The immensity of sky and land dwarfs everything so that from here you have to hear the noise and strain at the binoculars to know a battle is going on. Maybe this is true of all battles. If you are in the middle you can’t figure the score. A destroyer is hit, a mine explodes with a geyser higher than the National Press Building, a plane lays a smoke screen. Our destroyers practically walk on the beach. A little French village with a spire nestles in the cliffs.

And now runty little barges go ashore like a line of beetles. They are brave men aboard. Except for the luck of the draw I would be on one. I pick out a squarish little craft with a lace of foam in front. It is like picking out a particu- lar ant. What would I be doing now if I were aboard, instead of Ken Crawford of Newsweek? Would I have the guts? God knows. The one I have picked reaches the beach, loses its foam, waddles up —I can’t see her but I bet the seasick GIs are glad to exchange horrors.

Nine a.m., 10 a.m., noon. The cook has made a mistake. He thought yesterday was D-Day and served ice cream and cake; now it’s just beans.

It is afternoon. I could sleep a week. I put on headphones in the communications room. A German broadcast denies any troops are ashore. They seem befuddled. We have attacked Dieppe and Dunkirk, they say. A BBC broadcast says we are winning. Cheers. Nobody here has any idea. Mostly it is a communications jargon, the sound of a battle: the parent voice crying out loudly and commandingly. Suddenly a quiet voice identifies itself. “I am pinned down,” says the quiet voice. “I am be- tween machine gun pillbox crossfire.”

The drama is in that line of landing craft, so close to us I can almost see faces. I can see the burly skipper of the nearest and notice his arms are akimbo. He looks contemptuously at the USS Quincy. I bet he comes from the North River. I bet he is a tugboat captain. He sweeps the battle with an uncomplimentary eye. If he spoke he would have a Jersey accent and would take no back talk from nobody, see? —not from no warship, not from no Germans. We let go an eight-inch salvo over his right ear that must at least establish a feeling of mutual respect.

About 11 that night, double summertime, begins a great droning. An unending line of bombers comes out of England each towing a paratroop glider. They are in single line formation, so many that they arch the sky from horizon to horizon. After the first batch comes a second, and as it passes flying high the first begins to return, without the gliders, which have crash-landed. Paratroopers in silk webs are in treetops, steeples—behind the lines. It is a cavalry charge and I have seen it. I am unable to speak. I look up, my eyes are wet. It is like a religious experience. This is my country doing this. I am doing this. That swine—Hitler. I am so proud.