Patriotic GraceWhat It Is and Why We Need It Now
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Peggy Noonan
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780061735820
This happened to my friend John, an average American kid from New Jersey who grew up in Montclair in the 1930s and '40s. I stress average. He kept a pigeon coop in the backyard, weeded lawns for ten cents a bucket, and went to the local public school.
When World War II began, John joined the navy, and in May 1944, at the age of twenty-two, he was an ensign on the USS Thomas Jefferson, a former luxury liner that had been converted to an assault vessel. There he was placed in charge of five of the landing craft for the invasion of Europe.
Each would carry twenty-five soldiers from the TJ, as they called it, onto the shore of France. John's landing site was to be a fifty-yard stretch of shoreline dubbed Dog Red Beach. It fell near the middle of Omaha Beach, which was pretty much the center of the assault.
The TJ sailed to England's Portsmouth Harbor, which was jam-packed with ships. On June 1, the army troops arrived, coming up the gangway one by one. "They were very quiet," John said when he told me his story in July 2008. Word came on June 4: the invasion would begin that night. They geared up, set off, but were ordered back in a storm. The next morning, June 5, the rain was still coming down, but the seas were calmer. So about 8:00 that night they cast off to cross the channel. The skies were dark, rain lashed the deck, and the TJ rolled in the sea. At midnight they dropped anchor nine miles off the coast of France. The men were summoned to a big breakfast, eggs and ham. At 2:00 a.m. the crew began lowering the landing craft, called Higgins boats. The Higgins boats were thirty-six feet long, rectangular, flat bottomed, "a kind of floating boxcar, with head-high walls." A crane would lower them over the side, and the soldiers would climb down big nets to get aboard. "They had practiced, but as Eisenhower always said, 'In wartime, plans are only good until the moment you try to execute them.'"
The Higgins boats pitched in the choppy water. The soldiers, loaded down "like mountaineers," with rifles, flamethrowers, radio equipment, artillery parts, tarps, food, and water, "seventy pounds in all," had trouble getting from the nets to the boats. "I saw a poor soul slip from the net into the water. He sank like a stone. He just disappeared in the depths of the sea. There was nothing we could do."So they improvised, deciding to board the Higgins boats on the deck of the ship, and hoist them, full, into the sea. John scrambled into a boat with his men, and the crane lifted it, but the boat got caught on the TJ's railing and almost tipped over and tumbled the men into the water. They held on for dear life. Just at that second a wave came and righted the ship, which untangled the boat, and they were lowered safe into the sea.
It took John's five little boats four hours to cover the nine miles to the beach. "They were the worst hours of our lives. It was pitch black, cold, and the rain was coming down in sheets, drenching us. The boats were being tossed in the waves, making all of us violently sick. We'd all been given the big breakfast. Hardly anyone could hold it down. Packed in like that, with the boat's high walls. A cry went up: 'For Christ's sake, do it in your helmet!'
"Around four a.m. the dawn broke and a pale light spread across the sea, and now we could see that we were in the middle of an armada—every kind of boat, destroyers, probably the greatest array of sea power ever gathered."
Now they heard the sound, the deep boom of the shells from the battleships farther out at sea, shelling the beach to clear a path. And above, barely visible through clouds, they saw the transport planes pushing through to drop paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions. "Those were brave men."
At 5:00 a.m. they were close enough to shore to recognize some landmarks—a spit of land, a slight rise of a bluff. In front of them they saw some faster, sleeker British boats trying desperately to stay afloat in the choppy water. As the Americans watched, three of the boats flipped over and sank, drowning all the men. A British navigator went by in a different kind of boat. "He was standing up, and he called out to my friend in a jaunty British accent, 'I say, fellows, which way to Pointe du Hoc?' That was one of the landmarks. It was expected to be the toughest beach of all. My friend yelled out that it was up to our right. 'Very good!' the man cried out, and then went on by with a little wave of his hand." John later doubted the man had lived another hour.
Closer to shore, a furious din—"It was like a Fourth of July celebration multiplied by a thousand." By 6:00 a.m. they were eight hundred yards from shore. All five boats of the squadron had stayed together, a triumph in those conditions. The light had brightened enough that John could see his wristwatch. "At six twenty, I waved them in with a hard chop of my arm: Go!"
They faced a series of barriers, heavy metal rods. They made a sharp left, ran parallel to the shore, looking for an opening, got one, turned again toward the beach. They hit it, in a foot or two of water. The impact jarred loose the landing ramps to release the soldiers as planned. But on John's boat, it didn't work. He scrambled to the bow, got a hammer, and pounded the stuck bolt. The ramp crashed down and the soldiers lunged forth. Some were hit with shrapnel as they struggled through to the beach. Others made it to land only to be hit as they crossed it. The stuck ramp probably saved John's life. After he'd rushed forward he turned and saw, to his horror, that the man who'd been next to him the whole trip, the coxswain to whom he'd barked orders—"Hard to port, make it smart, we'll look for an opening!"—had been hit by an incoming shell and decapitated. The shell likely would have hit John too if the bolt hadn't stuck and the door hadn't jammed and he hadn't run for the hammer.