Really? Did you think I wouldn’t do a special post with June 6th right around the corner? C’mon…
I’m a fairly brave individual…or so I’ve heard. I’m brave, they say, because there ain’t a whole lot in this world of which I’m well and truly afraid. There ain’t a whole lot that gets much reaction from me beyond some tension and a shrug of my shoulders. But…
But, there’s always a but…
But, I’ve never had anyone want to kill me. Oh, I’ve had people want to kick my ass — had a lot of them try, too. I’ve had bears contemplate just how I’d taste garnished with some berries and a nice drink of fresh spring water. I’ve even had a wolf pack stalk me for a couple of miles…
But I’ve never had anyone really try to do me in, however. Never had anyone whose own life depended on ending mine.
I’ve never waded ashore with the freight-train sound of shells ripping overhead. I’ve never heard the snap of a bullet just feet away. I’ve never felt the ground shake from explosions, never had my eardrums blown out from the concussions. I’ve never had my life lie in the hands of compatriots on either side of me.
I’ve never seen the blood flow from a fresh chest wound. I’ve never heard the screams and moans of the wounded and dying.
When you get right down it, I’ve never felt the reality of true, undeniable, unstoppable fear.
I can’t tell you — just as I can’t tell myself — if I would have been a hero or a coward on D-Day, because I just don’t know. I don’t know, and I never will.
Look, I’ve mentioned before that Naval History is one of my great passions. I’ve mentioned also that that topic, along with video games, is how I got started writing professionally. I may be an expert in Naval History, but I’m an expert who has never lived it.
I don’t know, and I can’t know…not truly.
Oh, I’ve done oral history interviews with Marines who waded ashore at some of the most godforsaken places in the world, just as I’ve done interviews with sailors who lived through some of the worst battles in history. I’ve talked to, and learned from, men who swam away from an exploding ship, only to spend days more in the water…only to watch their buddies, their fellow survivors, get pulled under one by one by the circling sharks.
I’ve listened to all that, just as I’ve written about all that. I’m considered an expert on all that…
…and I don’t know.
I don’t know, and I can’t know. I don’t know it because I never lived it. It is all, when you get right down it, just words and images to me. Just emotion and memory learned second- and third-hand.
“I didn’t do a damned thing. I just worked in the mailroom. Now my buddy John, he was the real hero…” so said a former sailor, a man in his late 80’s. A man who fought in, and survived, the most surprising and impressive victory in the long history of the US Navy. A man who worked in the mailroom on the Sammy B Roberts…a man whose worst day involves more courage and accomplishment than the entire sum of my life…
It’s always someone else, to those Marines and sailors I’ve talked to. It’s always that buddy, the one who brings a wordless tear to their eyes. It’s always those who are lost, but are never forgotten.
That man died not long after I spent a couple of hours with him. He died without me ever expressing my gratitude…or my awe.
Just as those who truly remember June 6th, 1944 are dying. Just as those who heard the ripping of bullets, and the freight-train rumble of shells. Those who felt the fear, and still waded ashore. Those who lost friends and brothers, and still waded ashore. Those who know.
We’ve all heard Eisenhower’s plan, just as we’ve all heard the codenames: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. We’ve heard those things, but they are just mnemonics…talismans that no longer do a good job of invoking the reality that truly matters:
4,414 Allied soldiers died on June 6th, 1944. Most were from the US, UK, and Canada, but losses came also from Poland, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.
Almost 9,000 soldiers in German uniform died that day, as well.
I’ve never heard the drums of war, and I don’t know. I don’t know, but I know enough to pay my heartfelt respects to those who do…to those who were there.