Memorial Day Memories of the Brave

American GIs storm the beaches at Normandy.

He kept running across the beach, and I stayed right behind him. He knew where he was going. He took me right along with him.

HE DIDN’T TALK about it much. He never talked about it at all until his eyes were dim, his face wrinkled by time, and his friends came to see him at night.

He said the day never crossed his mind.

D-Day, it was.

France, Normandy it was.

A rushing tide red with blood.

He was simply an eighteen-year old born in South Texas.

He knew he was about to die.

And he would be buried a long way from South Texas.

Every step brought him closer to eternity, and there were so many steps left to take.

I believe he lived with the moment every day.

He marched away from home full of life and laughter.

He didn’t laugh much anymore.

He hadn’t laughed, he said, for seventy years.

“Tell me about it,” I said.

“Not much to tell.”

“It was war.”

He shook his head.

“Wasn’t war,” he said. “It was a killing.”

“What had they told you about June 6?” I asked.

“Said we were going ashore.”

He paused.

“Said there would be some Germans on the beach.”

He closed his eyes.

“Said they might fight back.”

He shuddered.

“When did you know you were in trouble?” I asked.

“When the first bunch of boys came out of the boats.

He paused. “Most of them reached the shore,” he said.

He looked away.

“They were dead when they washed up on the beach.”

He shuddered.

Again

He shuddered.

“Were you afraid?” I asked.

“Didn’t have time,” he said.

He closed his eyes again.

Somewhere in the dark recesses of his mind, he could see all.

“First thing I knew,” he said,” we were in the water.”

His answer came in broken pieces.

“Lots of bullets.

“Fell like a heavy rain.

“I figured one would hit me.

“It didn’t.

“Don’t know why.

“Guess God didn’t need me.”

He sighed deeply.

“Got hit once,” he said.

“Got hit in the shoulder.

“Didn’t hurt much.

“I was too busy trying to stay alive to feel it hurt.”

“How long was the battle?” I asked.

“Don’t know.”

“Why not?”

“Ain’t ended yet,” he said.

“What was it like when you reached the beaches of Normandy?” I asked.

He thought it over, then said, “You ever been in a bad storm?”

I nodded.

“Lots of thunder?”

I nodded again.

“Sky full of lightning?”

“I’ve seen it that way from time to time,” I said.

“I still hear the thunder,” he said.

He still sees the lightning.

It tears the ground at his feet.

It sears his soul.

The rain grows heavier all the time.

The rain looks a lot like bullets.

One of the shots tore his shoulder loose from his arm.

“Did you go down when you were hit?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“Them that went down died,” he said. “I stayed on my feet.”

“What did you do?”

“I kept firing until my rifled burned out,” he said. “Then I grabbed another soldier’s rifle and kept on shooting.”

“The soldier hurt?”

“Not anymore,” he said.

“Could you see the face of the enemy you were shooting at?” I asked.

“Didn’t look.”

He shrugged.

“I just kept following Sergeant Fallows,” he said. “He kept running across the beach, and I stayed right behind him. He knew where he was going. He took me right along with him.”

“A brave man,” I said.

“The best,” he said.

He paused, took a heavy breath, and I caught a glimpse of a faint grin. “Sergeant came to see me this week,” he said.

“What’d he tell you?”

“He said everything was gonna be all right.”

The old soldier lay back in his chair and closed his eyes.

My interview was over.

I walked out and smiled at his daughter, a good friend of mine.

“He talked about Sergeant Fallows,” I said.

She smiled.

“Said they had a visit this week.”

The smile turned sad.

She nodded.

“Did you have a chance to talk with the sergeant?” I asked.

“Couldn’t do it,” she said.

“Why not?”

“Sergeant Fallows, from what I’ve learned, died before he ever reached the beach,” she said.

I looked back in the darkened room.

The old soldier said something under his breath and then smiled.

I wondered what the sergeant had told him, and if the sergeant had come to lead him home.

Maybe not tonight.

But someday.

I had no doubt about it.

The old soldier was one of the brave.

But only one of them.

On Memorial Day, we remember them all.

An excerpt from my memoir of sorts, The Man Who Talked to Strangers, scheduled for release this summer.

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  • It is good to have the stories. So we always remember.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      We talk to veterans, Alicia, and I have talked to a lot of them over the year. We hear their stories but have only scratched the surface of the experiences they’ve had. Some of their memories are buried deep and forever.

      • My dad was still in training when the war ended, but my FIL was in the fighting in Europe – and I’ve never heard any stories. It must have been hard for him – his family emigrated from Germany.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          So many boys came home and never said a word about what they did or what they saw. However, I found that in their later years, when they were eighty or so, they would a tell a few stories. If they knew you really cared, they told a few more.

          • It’s so frustrating, me not being very mobile. His son and grandchildren should do the asking, not me, and I can’t prod them into it, no matter how hard I’ve tried.

            I don’t know if it’s a family landmine – or just that he wouldn’t speak earlier and they have ALL assumed he didn’t want to talk about it.

            I’m good, but I can’t make other people do things except with massive laying on of guilt.

  • Jackie Taylor Zortman

    This is simply awesome to read, especially today.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks, Jackie. He was a brave but sad old soldier. I figure he probably re-fought the battle of Normandy every night of his life.

      • Jackie Taylor Zortman

        My stepfather was at Normandy, but he parachuted in as the 101st Airborne. I have his purple heart from his wound at the Battle of Bastogne. He wouldn’t talk about the war, either. When he did, he cried.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          He had so much to cry about. He lost his friends.

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