A Letter from Normandy

 

France, July 22, 1944

Darling:

…Yesterday I had to visit all the units again, to get statements for my report. The regiment is in contact with the enemy, so such trips always have their skin-prickling moments….

 

Today, I awoke with the knowledge that it is D-Day. I was taught the significance of this day by my mother, who was born in 1933, the youngest of eight children. She would recall the morning of July 13, 1944. Her mother told her of a dream she had in which my mother’s brother, Basil, stood at the foot of her bed in his dress uniform. She knew he was dead. Word would come soon after that he had died in Normandy, France. I thought today of how it was that my uncle said goodbye to his mother, or rather, how any soldier says goodbye.

In this world of advanced technology, we can communicate with one another instantaneously. A ding of a bell on our phone. An email alert on our iPad.  We can text, Skype, or FaceTime.  My uncle the soldier, and the millions of soldiers who fought throughout the world in places like France, England, or the Phillipines, did not have such luxury. When they craved a connection with their loved ones, they wrote letters.

 

…I got back at midnight, having driven the jeep myself all day (my driver being on guard) slipping and slewing through mud axle deep whenever I got off the surfaced roads, which was frequently. I hate to admit it, but after a day like that, I feel my years. Yeah, man! War is a young man’s game!…

 

They spoke of what was on their hearts – fear.  How else would they express it? They could never speak of it to their fellow soldiers. They were all in the same boat, and it would be considered weak to complain to someone who had to face the same danger, the same destruction.  I’m quite certain, however, that folks at home only got part of the story.  Very few, at the time or even years later, could express the horror that they saw on the beaches of Normandy.

 

Somebody says “Old Bill got it today.” “No!” you say. “Son-of-a-bitch!” And you go on about your business, with a little more emptiness inside, a little more tiredness, a little more hatred of everything concerning war.

 

And at home, wives and mothers and fathers, they sat. They were unsure how to respond.

 

There is a certain cemetery where some of my closest friends in the division lie. I saw it grow — shattered bodies lying there waiting for graves to be dug. Now it is filled. The graves are neat and trim, each with its cross. Occasionally I visit it when passing by. Always there are flowers on the graves: Sometimes a potted geranium has been newly brought in; sometimes there is a handful of daisies. The French people, especially the children, seem to have charged themselves with this little attention.

Through his pen, onto paper, the soldier gave a part of him to his family.  The other part of him put on blood-stained boots and wearily prepared himself for another long day of battle. He had to wonder, where did that part of him come from? And where would it go when this war is over?

 

I’ll try to write at least a note every day or so. Take care of yourself. I’m fine.

Love,

John

 

How do you end a letter from war? In his heart, the awareness that those words may be his last ones his wife hears from him must have been ever present.  

“I’m fine.”

A brief reassurance, just two words, as he tried to put her heart and mind at rest. Reassurance was why those brave men were there – to reassure the world that evil could be defeated. In those words and in his actions, he fulfilled his duty as a husband and a soldier.

*This letter, and others, can be seen at www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/dday/sfeature/sf_letters.html.  

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