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 today, 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 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. 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.

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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.”

Cross-posted at Bookworm Room

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