On the seventieth anniversary of D-day I thought I’d share a war story.
My dad was on Normandy beach so long ago. He rarely spoke about it, but I remember him telling that the waves crested pink with blood. In his Higgins boat of the 49 soldiers he was the only one to reach shore alive.
But the story I have is one about sugar and cake. Just before the invasion, my dad was stationed in Torquay. Just 19 years of age, he and his fellow soldiers in a strange country were a confused mixture of amazed and homesick. England at that time was under harsh rationing, and the Americans had money and access to supplies that were rarely seen.
One day my dad is leaving the base when a Brit approaches him saying “sailor, sailor, have you got your ration ?”
Dad warily replied he had when the fellow offered “If you’ve got sugar, we have the rest. If you just come home with me my wife can make us a cake.”
I don’t know if they were young or old, but I recall Dad telling us how excited they were, and how she mixed things up and soon that had a cake to share.
This is one of my favorite war stories, where in the shadow of a great darkness people find comfort in a shared piece of cake.
Some day I think I’ll take a trip to Torquay and maybe have a piece of cake.
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My father had secrets, forged while a young man in a faraway place. They consumed him the rest of his life, while he always smiled and was generous and cheerful, he was distant and never forged close bonds. I never understood until I visited Normandy, that lush verdant place where the land met the sea and so many young men came never to return.
Even now the farms and paddocks show a rural flavor, and the night there is pitch black. The single lane roads were gobbled up by our Defender, as we gamely navigated to our B&B. Our hosts Tony and Pat were gracious and friendly, and we took two superb tours with Tony where he showed us the stories of the brave young men who landed there to stop the tide of evil that threatened the free world.
We saw the fortifications ordered by Rommel that are still strong and secure and cliffs that only Rangers could conquer. But it hit me hard at two cemeteries reading comments left by old men from both sides who needed to confess the horror.
My father boarded a Higgens boat, little more than a plywood tub with a swinging front door and with forty other men dared the shells, and mines and bullets as they neared the shore. He was the only one who survived. His best friend, drowned. Dad somehow swam to shore in water so full of blood that the waves crested with pink foam. There was no cover on the shore. The bombers who had bombed the night before to create fox holes had dropped the bombs three miles inland. The beach held only death and horror.
Three things stand out. In a little village church they setup a field hospital using the pews as beds. Still 68 years later, you can see the bloodstains that mark this place of worship.
In the fine US cemetery there is a section where an old sailor recalls the Marines climbing down the rope mesh to board the tiny Higgens boats as they bobbed in the rough seas. He recalls how the men cursed and wept as they descended the ladders to Hell.
And the last was in the German cemetery where a machine gunner wrote that the Germans had fired and killed and pushed them back into the sea again and again, but still they kept landing.
Yes, my father had secrets, he was only 19.