D-Day June 6, 1944
The big guns of the battleships anchored just off shore had been softening up the German positions since before dawn, but the pounding of the artillery had looked and felt distant, like a summer storm on the horizon. The bullet was like the first rain drop. The storm was about to break.
Micajah Cole tightened his grip on the rifle he carried. He just hoped he got a chance to use it. He was a tall, lean man with oddly colorless eyes that could have been cut from quartz. You saw eyes like that in old Civil War photographs of Southern Confederates, and Cole’s helmet did indeed have a Rebel flag the size of a poker card painted on it.
“We’re sure as hell in for it,” said Jackson, a big man at the front of the landing craft. He leaned over and tried to spit, but nothing came out.
Other men were seasick, from fear or the
Then a shell from a German 88 mm gun screamed in and exploded no more than twenty feet away, nearly swamping the LCVP, but the sturdy craft bulled toward the beach. All around them, in the morning light, were hundreds of other boats like their own, running toward shore. The air smelled of seaweed and cordite.
“I’m glad I done wrote my parents last night,” said a quiet, scared voice next to Cole. The voice belonged to Jimmy Turner. He was no more than nineteen, though with his baby face he looked younger, just a scrawny boy made scrawnier by the fact that he was loaded down with so much gear that he could barely stand: boots, flak jacket, rucksack with C-rations, wool blanket and shovel, steel helmet, a plastic-wrapped M1 Garand with 100 rounds of ammunition. He gripped the side of the LCVP to keep his balance.
“Christ almighty, Jimmy,” said Jackson, glaring at him. “Are you telling us your mama can read? I thought all you people from the hills was just barefoot ignoramuses.”
Jackson might have said more, but he noticed Cole looking at him, and he shut up, then directed his attention elsewhere.
“Why does he always got to be like that, Caje?” Jimmy wondered. Gentle as a mountain deer, Jimmy was always expecting people to be decent, even an asshole like Jackson. Jimmy was what the mountain people back home called
“Never mind him. We’re going to have a whole lot more to worry about than Jackson in about five minutes. Listen up, now. Stay by me and keep your head down,” Cole said quietly to Jimmy. “When the ramp comes down, get off as quick as you can, like a rabbit out of a hole. The water is going to be deep, so keep your feet under you and your head up. Then get on the beach. Look for something to get behind that will stop a bullet. You get there and wait for me, you hear?”
The kid nodded, and that was the last thing anybody had to say because the bullets were coming thicker now, beating against the sides of the landing craft like deadly hail and whining overhead. The engine kicked down a notch, and then another. The boxy craft stopped its forward motion, then bobbed up and down wildly in the surf.
Men stumbled and fell into one another, even though they were packed together. The sound of machine gun fire was very close now. Bullets and tracer rounds hissed and popped into the water all around them.
Someone yelled, “Go! Go!” and then the ramp splashed down.
A handful of men never even made it off the LCVP alive. A burst of machine gun fire hit the front ranks of men, several rounds killing Jackson instantly and knocking him back into Cole. He crouched low and grabbed hold of Jackson’s pack, propelling his body forward. Bullets thudded into Jackson’s body. At the edge of the ramp Cole shoved the body away and leaped to one side to avoid the tangle of men in front of him.
Cole landed feet-first, with Jimmy right behind him. The cold sea was a shock—and it was deep. Nearly over his head. A wave swept over them and for a moment Cole couldn’t hear or see a thing but the gurgle of the surf and the green sea all around him, punctuated by the white trails of bullets arcing down from the surface.
By some miracle he stayed on his feet, which is what saved him, because if he had tried to swim, the weight of his gear would have dragged him down and drowned him. His head came up in the trough between two waves and he gulped down some air before going under again.
He managed to get his legs moving forward. Jimmy was struggling beside him, too short to have gotten any air, drowning, and Cole grabbed hold of Jimmy’s pack with one hand. The boy was too heavy. So Cole dropped his rifle and grabbed Jimmy with both hands, hauling him up, up, so that the boy got a lungful of air before they both went under again.
Cole fought down panic as his nostrils and mouth filled with salty water. He was from the mountains and everything about the sea scared him. Even after all their training for the landing, jumping in and out of boats and wading across beaches, it seemed to him that the ocean had just one purpose, and that was to drown him. He had almost drowned once in a wintry mountain stream, and the memory of it made his heart pound to the point of panic.
But as with most bad situations, he knew that if you kept your head, you at least had a chance. Cole held his breath and kept working them forward, struggling to keep his feet under him in the surf and current. Then the waves subsided and there was sky above him. He took another lungful of air.
Step by step, they moved out of the deeper water. Cole tried hard to ignore the bullets slashing the water around them. Some of the LCVPs had come in closer and were spilling their cargo of men closer to the beach. More men joined them, slogging through the breaking surf until it was only waist high, and then around their knees, and finally they were on the beach itself.
Where all hell had broken loose.
Between the water’s edge and the German positions lay 400 yards of open sand, punctuated by anti-tank obstacles that resembled oversized jacks from a child’s game, tangles of barbed wire, and bodies. He noticed that some of the bodies were alive, squirming across the sand as best they could, keeping their heads down. Others resembled ground meat, staining the sand around them red.
“All right, let’s go!” An officer started waving everyone forward. “On your feet! Get—” A shell cut him in half, leaving his legs moving in place for a moment like a giant crab, until they toppled over.
Cole, Jimmy, and another solder ran toward one of the anti-tank obstacles. There was a body slumped next to it. The dead soldier had a trenching tool in his hands, and Cole grabbed it and dug up a little more sand. It wasn’t much shelter, but on that open stretch of beach, it felt like the Alamo. Just a few feet away was another mound of sand, behind which sheltered a lieutenant and two more soldiers.
Keeping low, Cole chanced a look toward the German lines. He had never been in combat, but it wasn’t the first time someone with a rifle had been trying to kill him. You didn’t grow up in the mountains without carrying on a feud or two, not if you were a Cole.
But this battlefield was a world away from dodging some mean bootlegger with a deer rifle. He could just see the German position. Directly across from them was a German pillbox with a machine gun, pouring fire down the beach. He could more or less see the tops of three German helmets—the squad operating the machine gun.
He itched to have a rifle in his hands. If there was one thing Cole could do, it was shoot. He was the best marksman in his company—maybe in the entire 29th Division—but the United States Army did not have a separate sniper unit. So his talents hadn’t been put to much use.
Unfortunately, Cole’s M1 was now somewhere at the bottom of the English Channel. Not that a rifle with open sights would have done him much good at that range.
“What do you see?” asked the soldier who had taken cover with them. Curious, the soldier raised his head to get a look and a lucky round from the Germans took off the top of his skull.
Some of the blood splattered on Jimmy’s face. The kid wasn’t looking good. He was e ...