LEAVING HOME: June 6th 1944
I know I should prepare myself. I should run through what will happen in my mind, but I can’t. The very hint of a thought and my mind discards it like it was poison.
As I crouch there in the craft, the sea air takes me far away. The familiar scent is enough to trick my mind and entice me back to a happy, safe time. Yet the growing dread in the very pit of my soul knows what is coming. It whispers of the fate welcoming me, I know it will grow to a scream if I let it. Too late I have thought too much, I know what is coming and I am afraid.
Do others feel it? Think it?
As I stare forward I see John. The scar on the back of his neck is white. He is trembling. It is cold but I’ve not seen anyone tremble like that before. The dread whispers again, ‘You know what it is. You know for what he trembles’
I do know; now I feel it.
Another bump as the craft lurches over another wave and Sam unintentionally falls against me. I steady him, giving him a smile that was trying to communicate something. He smiled back. He smile a lot during our training, Sam was always happy, but this smile said something. He was saying something with his smile. I looked. He seemed to say “don’t be sorry”
Did I feel sorry for him? I suppose I did. We had made it through training together. The Denton boys felt like a family from the start. Sam was my closest friend. I did not feel weak next to him. Not because he was weaker in comparison, but because he was free of judgement. He’d never look down on anyone, never criticised, never belittled. John was the joker of the group, he always seemed to handle anything, now I’m not so sure.
So I am sorry. I’m sorry that such good people had to go through this. But why am I sorry for the actions of an evil man whose wicked intentions brought this about. I feel anger now rising but no sooner had it appeared the voice from within the blackness, my fear laughed
“Your anger will not save you”
Another jolt shakes me from my thoughts. The drone of the engines had steadied into a rhythm. The dawn was approaching and for a moment I had not noticed what was also coming. France.
I could see it there, feint on the horizon, foreboding. As quickly as I had acknowledge this the knot that had been there for the last 5 hours ripped open, my fear was now complete. The white cold of terror flooded my body. My breath caught and my once numb muscles cramped with tension. I became as hard as steel and yet as fragile as glass. We thought we were approaching beach, our beach, but all we were approaching was death.
Over the roar of waves I heard our captain shout. I couldn’t make out the words but they sounded encouraging mixed with warning. Seconds later water was exploding around us. Great towers of sea water began to erupt into the sky as shells began to rain on us. I began to pray that they would not hit us and part of me felt they wouldn’t. Maybe it was the familiar smell of the sea still fooling me into feelings of safety. Yet we put our heads down and pushed forward.
Sam squeezed my arm and I patted John on the back. All of us in the landing craft sort some reassuring comfort from one another before the onslaught of terror. One last experience of human compassion before we would face the wrath of others.
I dared to look up at the horizon as the boat dropped down every wave. I saw it coming closer. The voice that had threatened dread had no bounds now and was free to shriek sheer terror. Closer and closer the land came. Surely it had to be coming towards us as we were silently willing the craft back.
As the shells began to fall behind us I heard the words of my officer clearly this time, “ready to beach in 30”
This was now real, I must accept it, i must. As seconds passed the hole in my soul from where the dread had first appeared had caught the attention of my mind’s eye. It was no longer dread. It was something familiar yet forgotten. Calmness, a quiet warmth flowed over me, slowly yet instant. At that moment a peace was given to me. In that moment I no longer feared. I smiled. After a life time of trying to fit in, find a purpose, to simply to be liked, I felt a love. As strange as it was I felt a love from someone, somewhere, and that I existed to them. In that moment, no more that 20 metres from impending death and I felt alive.
Holding my gun a little tighter, standing a little straighter I looked forward as the light of the day was slowly let though as the forward hatch began to fall. Everything slowed. Between the heads of my brothers in front of me I could see the beach gradually open up.
Time seemed to slow until it seemed to freeze completely. I could hear nothing other than the rhythmic rushing of my life given blood. We all shifted our weight ready to surge forward.
I had always wondered what it would be like, what I would feel. It is strange how in spite of what I was about to run toward my body wanted to wilfully lead me there. Maybe the last grasp for control of my life, as it was futile to curl up into a ball. Or even that part of me refused to believe that my life could end in any giving moment.
I went to leap forward, but hit what felt like a wall. I could not see it but I felt it like someone had taken a hammer to my chest. A high pitched sound pierced my mind growing, growing, shrill, painful, nothing else. I looked forward and saw John hunched forward, the fact there was nothing where his head should be did not register in my mind. I turned sideways; Sam’s head was in the motion of snapping backwards while his body continued to press forward.
Why? What was happening? Where am I? In the presence of such terror I feel nothing
Then an unbearable pain exploded where the hammer had hit. That is when the world started to tilt sideways. The shrill scream penetrating my mind hitting a crescendo, then it went black.
It was when I was looking at the back of Johns head again that I began to wonder how long I had been there. The angry scar was not there. He was no longer hunched over; in fact he seemed a little broader.
Had it been 10 minutes, 10 days, years. I no longer had a grasp on time. I looked up. I was standing in a large well lit hall. Not too warm not cold. I held my hand up to reduce the glare from the light surrounding me and noticed that my hand was not my hand, slender and smooth of a 19 year old, but they were the hands like that of my father, strong, wide.
Something moved to my right, it was Sam, he was smiling, but this time he wasn’t saying anything, just the uncontrolled grin of relief. Then with a sudden burst of pure energy, I realised I was not in some cold miserable landing craft; not some blood soaked beach in Normandy. I had no idea where I was but I was sure of where I was not. I felt absolute peace, complete relief. Next to me Sam squeezed my arm, and I patted john on the back. He began to shake again, he was laughing.
As our eyes adjusted we all looked out across the great featureless hall. In ones, twos, groups of 5, 6, 7, people, men, began appearing from scattered bursts of light. The hall filled quickly and as it did it seemed to expand to meet the demand of people. They too stood for a moment not moving, followed by blinking eyes and surprised looks. Some were urgently patting their bodies looking for something and then a relief at not finding it. We chuckled as we watched one guy counting his legs several times before he threw his head back in laughter. It almost echoed the joy I felt as I realised that once where a burning pain had erupted in my chest, a warm fluid peace had now occupied. I groaned with relief, joy, a tear began to fall from my eye
My mind raced with a comprehension of the reason behind this, yet I could not feel sadness but understood the tragedy behind it. Standing there looking at thousands of men hugging each other, smiling crying, part of me now understood I had died. But that was now the old me; the new me, the part that had no hole in the pit of my soul, the part that now had a burning fire of peace and hope, realised that I had just been born.