Seventy five years since the day that saw the beginning of the end of WW2 in Europe. There are many commemorations and celebrations of that fateful day.
I choose to mark the occasion by re-posting a fictional short story set during that day. Most of you will remember it, and many have liked or commented on the story previously. But to honour the day, and for the benefit of my new readers and followers, here is that story.
Clyde was only fifteen years old when the Japs bombed Pearl Harbour. He didn’t even know where Hawaii was, but he knew that he was mad at the Japs. Every man seemed to be joining up, right after. Clyde asked his Dad when he could go, but the old man told him, “Wait a while son, and it might all be over. Anyway, you’re too young now”.
Dad worked at the factory in Kenosha, making engines for Chrysler on the production line. But he wanted better for Clyde; wanted him to go to college, and make something of his life. When Dad had finished with the newspaper, Clyde would read about the war. The Limeys had lost Singapore, and the Germans were not doing so well in Russia. They listened to the radio news too, Alistair Cooke, and others. Sobering reports of bombing in London, failed raids into France, and resistance building in Europe. In the Pacific, America had a victory at Midway, and had started to claw back the islands taken by the enemy.
When Clyde turned seventeen, Dad refused to allow him to try to join up. He could never win an argument with Dad, so knew he would have to wait another year. Frank Bauer got killed soon after. Only three years older than Clyde, he lived across the street, and had been a popular boy at high school. Mum saw the army car arrive outside Mrs Bauer’s house, and feared the worst. Frank’s parents looked ill after that. Their boy was buried on some island, and they couldn’t even pronounce the name of it, let alone know where it was. Clyde didn’t cry over Frank, but he had a strange feeling for weeks, after hearing that news. He would be in soon, and Frank would be avenged.
Mum had cried when he left for training camp, standing by the bus wiping her eyes with an embroidered handkerchief. Her only child, leaving home, and who knew when she would see him again. Dad shook his hand firmly, like he was a real man, and his lips were set, pressed together. Clyde had a lump in his throat for sure, but his overriding emotion was one of excitement, and the thrill of the unknown.
Camp started out better than he ever imagined. Haircuts, uniform issue, and meeting the other guys in his company. They were from all over; Texas, Louisiana, New York City, and Boston. They called themselves ‘Irish’, ‘Italian’, ‘Swede’, or ‘Dutch’. One black haired boy from New York asked Clyde what he was. “Just American”, he replied, and they all laughed. There was a lot of marching, a lot of digging holes, and even painting huts. Some guys were tasked with painting the stones that lined the paths between the barracks. Clyde thought it was crazy. There was a war to fight, and they had dozens of men painting stones. But the food was great, and plenty of it. And despite the unfamiliar heat in that southern state, Clyde soon got used to the daily runs, the assault course, and the constant drills.
After what seemed a long time, they even got to fire their rifles. There were lectures first of course, always the lectures. The M 1 Garand rifle was heavier than he had expected it to be, but he was young and strong, so soon got used to carrying it. He was a fair shot too, considering he had never hunted. When they finally got to the passing-out parade, Clyde was as proud as could be. He and his pals had been assigned to the 29th Infantry Division, and would be heading off to Virginia, on special buses.
The 29th had a reputation, and a nickname, ‘The Blue and Gray’. Almost all the other guys there had served in the National Guard, so Clyde and his friends were very much the new guys, and felt completely overwhelmed by the set up they found there, with everyone knowing each other so well. They agreed to stick together as much as possible, despite mostly being placed in different companies.
More training followed. Simulated combat, fighting alongside armour, digging a one-man foxhole or slit trench to get cover, and how to clear houses of the enemy. They watched films and had more lectures; learning about everything from venereal disease, to how to search a prisoner. The war raged on elsewhere. The Pacific was still hell, Italy had given up, and the Russians were sweeping the Krauts away in the east. But Clyde’s unit was going nowhere, just sweating in the Virginia heat.
Things happen when you least expect in the Army. One day after chow, the sergeant came into the huts, and rousted everyone to get their kit packed. Clyde turned to his friend, the black-haired New Yorker, Angelo. The smiling Italian winked, and said, “It’s happening, Kenosha”.
Clyde had never been on a ship at sea, and he didn’t take well to it. They had crammed into the surprisingly small grey ship, being forced right down inside, where sailors had rigged metal-framed bunks in long rows. Just enough space to squeeze into, and barely able to turn around, the whole place stank of fuel oil, and hot bodies. That voyage was Clyde’s idea of hell. Constantly sea-sick, and feeling like he wanted to die. The short breaks allowed up on deck were little relief, with the ship crashing around in the waves, and cold seawater spraying over the sides. When they arrived in England, many of the guys kissed the ground, and swore they never wanted to see a ship again.
England was great though. The people were mostly very friendly, and the camp was comfortable. Down in the nearby town, small boys would run up to the soldiers, asking “Got any gum, chum?” The local girls could be very friendly too, according to Angelo. If you had some nylons or lipstick, they got really friendly, Angelo told him. But Clyde hadn’t thought to get any nylons or lipstick. He had never had a girlfriend, and when the English girls giggled at his tall frame and sandy hair, he could only blush.
It wasn’t too long before they were on a ship again. The company commander told them that they were part of ‘something big’. Bigger than they could ever imagine. The docks were crowded with troops and equipment. Clyde had never seen so much stuff, or so many men, all in one place. Once on board, they waited. Clyde didn’t mind it so much when the ship was tied up, but he dreaded the thought of it moving. The weather was unusually bad for summer, windy and wet. The rumour going around was that it would all be postponed, and they would be going back to camp. Clyde was asleep when he felt the ship moving. He woke up, and looked around. Angelo was playing cards with some guys from the 1st Infantry Division, and was lucky not to get caught cheating. This was a much larger ship than the one they had crossed the Atlantic in, and Clyde was very happy when he didn’t start to feel like throwing up.
Klaxons sounded, and sergeants were shouting. Everyone tumbled out of hammock and bunks, grabbing their rifles and kit, forming lines ready to wait their turn to get up to the deck. Out in the air, Clyde felt his mouth drop wide open. He had never seen so many ships. It seemed like you could walk from one to the other, without getting your feet wet. Angelo turned to him, grinning. “This is it!” He yelled. The sky was filled with planes heading inland, and when the big guns on the battleships opened fire, Clyde felt his ears would burst. The Lieutenant was shouting above the noise, getting them in lines to climb down to the waiting landing craft. He pointed out into the distance. “There it is men. Omaha Beach”.
In the landing craft, Clyde stuck with Angleo. The thing was bobbing around like a cork in the waves, but Clyde was full of a mix of excitement and fear, and too amazed by what was happening to feel seasick. The strange sound above their heads was unusual, and it took Clyde some time to realise it was incoming fire. The Germans were shooting at them. This was the real deal. After circling for a while, it was their turn. The craft accelerated as it got close, and the ramp dropped down sooner than expected. Clyde followed the sergeant into the waves, the shock of the cold water above his waist making him catch his breath. Keeping his rifle held high above the water, he moved steadily forward, until he could feel solid sand under his feet. Looking round, he could see Angelo close behind, but some of the others were floating face down in the water, or struggling to gain their feet in their waterlogged clothes. The sergeant looked half-crazy, and was waving his free arm, shouting ‘Keep moving!”
Angelo felt something hit him hard, and it knocked the wind out of him as he fell. It was what was left of Kenosha, who had stepped on a mine. He screamed “Medic!” But the sergeant grabbed his equipment straps and hauled him to his feet. “Get moving, greaseball”, he snarled.
It was warm in Wisconsin that June. Clyde’s Mum was walking home from the shops, hoping there would be a letter from her son today.