It wasn’t what I was expecting.
For two years, all you heard or saw was how glorious it was. The newsreels showed gruff men smiling, holding the spoils of war. Tanks hurled across the desert, firing their big guns. The fleets of ships and planes – all of it – got me to enlist the day I turned 18.
Ma cried that day. I wouldn’t be surprised if she still is. Pa… well, Pa jut shook my hand and said, “Good luck.” Turned his back to it all.
I left them, just turned 18, still a boy, head filled with the glories of war.
It was December 2, 1944 when I arrived at Camp Mourmelon, outside the village of Mour-melon-le-Grand, France. I was assigned to C Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne. These men I had to be part of, were frightening. They strutted around the camp, fully outfitted with live ammunition, hand grenades, and unauthorized firearms. They smelled bad, were unshaven and never smiled. These were not the heroes from the newsreels. These were murderers.
Two days after my arrival, the temperature dropped to below freezing. Being in camp behind the lines, it wasn’t too bad. We had heat, showers and hot food, but that morning, all of my extra clothes were missing. When I brought the theft up to my sergeant, he scoffed and said I wouldn’t last long enough to need any of it. He really didn’t care. None of them did. We new recruits meant nothing to them.
We weren’t with them for Normandy, Carentan, Hell’s Highway or the Island. We were green, untested and not their brothers. We were the shunned, the ones they knew would die first.
And so, they made no effort to get to know us. We… I, was alone.
On December 19, we marched for Bastogne. As part of the 101st, we were set up on the line – part of a giant ring defense. The devastation in that area was like nothing I had ever seen. As we were marching in, the men we were relieving were marching out. They were defeated, starved, wounded and frost-bitten. They were the walking dead and we were about to take their place.
I will never forget that first shelling. It was at night and I was freezing in a foxhole, praying that my feet were ok because they didn’t hurt anymore. The noise was unbearable. Explosions were everywhere and the screams of wounded and dying men is a sound that will haunt me from this world into the next. So many explosions it was like the sun had risen.
We were supposed to fight back. Get up and fire our rifles. Not many of us could.
All I could think of, was that somewhere back home, my mother was still crying.
Eventually, the shelling stopped. I had no idea how much time had passed, but the real sun was halfway to noon. I was in one piece. Many of the others were not.
I was ordered out of my hole to help with the wounded. It was gruesome. The medics were frantic, helping those they could while we bore stretchers to carry away the men who would get shipped back to Bastogne proper where a hospital was set up. Hopefully, some of those men would get sent home.
One of the last men I helped that day – I never knew his name – said to me as I loaded him onto the truck, “Hey kid, don’t worry. They got us surrounded, the poor bastards.”
With those words, I finally understood what it meant to be a part of the 101st Airborne. True, I was green and probably would end up on a stretcher myself, if not shipped home in a box, but those words gave me hope. Being a part of the brotherhood with these men wasn’t about looking and acting tough, it was an attitude of toughness borne from living through experiences that should have killed you.
It wasn’t what I was expecting.