Kneeling in the grass, beside a lichen-covered tombstone, I saw a middle-aged woman. Her hands, worn, though not wrinkled, caressed the cold stone, and tears left salty trails down her cheeks. I walked closer. The stone had been abandoned for years, it seemed. The trees never trimmed, any flowers planted had long since died of neglect. The grass, though overgrown, was not wholly unkempt. I scanned the clearing, looking for any clues as to why this woman was here.
I was shocked to recognize, on the other side of the woman on the ground, was a freshly dug grave. Behind me, I heard hushed voices coming down the quiet, woodsy trail. I ducked behind the nearest Oak, and watched.
Henry ran across the beach, his boots sinking in the wet sand as he fought to gain ground. Bullets sprayed the sand around him. Some hit the men to his right and left. A few of those fell to the sand, screaming out in agony; still more pushed on with him, shouting encouragement to others, calling out to those that fell behind. The sound of their voices was almost completely drowned out by the combined cacophony of the boats as they pulled away from the shore, the popping of the small arms fire, and the loud booming of the artillery up on the hill.
Ducking at the sound of an incoming mortar, Henry then threw himself down to the ground and scrambled for cover. He shoved himself forward on his knees and elbows, struggling to keep his weapon out of the moist grit. He curled up behind a tangled coil of barbed wire and prayed that the next shot wouldn’t find him.
Recon teams had counted six artillery dugouts along this stretch of beach. Henry and the others near him waiting for all six to fire, then got up and ran farther up the beach, pressing onward toward the tree line.
I walked closer. Sgt. Henry O’Mara. The name was inscribed, above a set of dates. I ran a quick calculation in my head. Why…that’s not even twenty years! The second date, I noticed, matched today’s date – seventy years earlier.
A breeze glided through the leaves on the trees, bouncing her lightly greying brunette curls atop her head, and I took another step closer. Her lips were moving, but I didn’t hear any sound coming out.
“Go, go, go!” Henry shouted, waving his men to follow him into the darkness. “This is the last bunker!” He rounded the first corner and came face-to-face with a German artillery gunner
When the group reached the end, they took a moment to revel in the small victory before they went back out to re-join the fight. Henry selected three men to stay behind and maintain the new position, all from his own hometown in Tennessee, and then led the others back to the beach where many men were still fighting to hold ground.
Winding their way through the foliage to find the beach once more, Henry and his men spread out and combed the landscape for any Germans meaning to ambush them.
A rustle in the branches above and to his right called Henry’s attention to a small group of soldiers hiding in the trees. He called to the man nearest him, and gestured to the trees. A wild shot rang out, and the projectile flew wide of its target. The Germans above noticed the Americans, then, and a cacophony of indistinguishable words broke forth. Many of them seemed to have dropped their weapons in the haste to climb to safety. Several other firearms fell to the ground after the first interaction between the two sides.
Henry instructed his men to hold their fire – they would not engage unarmed soldiers. He waved the Germans down from their perches, gesturing that they were surrounded. It seemed to him that they might as well save everyone some time, and just go ahead and surrender.
After a fair amount more shouting at each other, in their own native language, not understanding a single word that the other party said, the Germans began their descent. When all five of them had stepped onto the soil, Henry and his men surrounded them, then continued on their way to the beach, proud to have captured them as prisoners.
Not more than a few moments later, one of the Germans let out a shout. Henry’s men looked around, then looked to him for direction. He shrugged and kept walking. Who ever knew what was going through a German’s mind? They were sick, twisted bastards, most of them, he had decided.
A commotion behind them caught his attention, and he turned around. A shout from one of his men spun him back around. Two already lay dead in the grass, while others struggled with the German prisoners who had broken free. A snapping branch behind him caught his attention and he whirled, swinging his rifle into firing position, from his shoulder where he had been carrying it. Henry fired off a shot without taking the time to aim. His fingers refused to cooperate as he hurried to reload. Raising the weapon to his shoulder again, he looked down the iron sights for his target.
The grass-covered earth rushed up at him, until they crashed together. The air in his lungs rushed out in a breath. The side of his head burned like a coffeepot over a fire. The prisoners! He thought. Scrambling for his rifle, he rolled to his knees and fought to push himself into a standing position. Shaking the cobwebs from the corners of his mind, he ran into the fight, wielding his rifle like a battle-ax.
Bayonets and fists were swung with desperation, but they were overwhelmed. The Germans seemed to pour from behind every tree and from under every rock. Henry turned from the fight to look for his radio-man. He saw the pack lying on the ground, smashed into bits. Not two strides from it, lay the bloodied body of a young man. He swore under his breath. Help would not be coming any time soon.
Another shout rang out behind him. He spun, intent on getting his men out of this mess he’d gotten them into. All attention was focused on an object lying on the ground. It didn’t even take a second for him to realize what it was.
Henry threw himself onto the small, green object with a shout. “Get back! Everyone take cover!”
His thoughts darted to the beautiful women whose photo graced the inside of his helmet. The beautiful brunette he was proud to call his bride, and the blond-haired beauty who was his daughter. He hadn’t met her yet. But his wife assured him that they were both anxiously awaiting his return.
The dancing sunlight in the small green clearing gained none of her attention, no matter how it glided across the uneven sod. I leaned forward and strained to hear what she was whispering to the cold stone.
The voices were closer now, coming around the bend in the path. A color guard led the way - followed by six men, carrying between them a long, flag-draped coffin.
“ I finally know, Grandpa. They told me how he died. I always tell you how proud you would be of him, Grandpa, what a man he’s become. And what a hero he is. He learned that from you, I think. Every visit, you hear me brag on him. But this time,” the woman paused, fighting a losing battle against the tears that were welling up in her eyes. “This time, I’m here to ask you for a favor. Please tell him how proud I am of him. Tell him that I love him. Tell him that I miss him already. And tell him that I love him, Grandpa.”