Sunday, May 27, 2018

Observing Memorial Day

I'm lying in my hammock on the eastern shore of a small lake in Minnesota, suspended between an oak and an elm, relaxing, barefoot, my camp chair next to the hammock like a nightstand holding my books and a beer and a slab of sharp cheddar cheese and a notebook and a pen. I'm watching the circus of watercraft maraud the lake -- the fishermen and the skiers and the wakeboarders and the jet-skiers and the ponderous pontoonists -- all sharing a square mile of water with something approaching civility.

I'm thinking about Memorial Day. It's Saturday today, and Monday is a day set aside to honor those who gave their lives in service of our country. I remember as a child, going to Faaberg Lutheran Church every year for a noon meal, potluck of course, and afterward we all walked out to the cemetery. Even the dishes could wait. This was Important. And my family was always, always there -- though at the time I didn't understand why. Five men in uniforms stood around, the dark wood stocks of their heavy M-1 rifles held loosely, casually, carefully like chainsaws or scalpels or any other deadly tool that has to be respected in order not to do unintended damage. Once everyone was gathered, one of the five would bark out orders that my childish ears couldn't decipher, but the four men in line apparently knew, because they snapped to attention, raised their rifles, aimed at an unseen point above the trees to the south, and fired, and worked the bolts on their rifles ejecting the hot, empty casings into the grass, and fired, and worked the bolts, and fired, and worked the bolts. In the aftermath of the deafening explosions, we all -- all of us -- stood silent for a moment, and then the uniformed men carefully followed their orders to return to their cars, to put away their weapons, and to go have some coffee. We boys scrambled in the grass, seeking out those shell casings like trophies to be collected and kept. A few of the women wiped at tears. I didn't understand why.

We talk about how America is the Land of the Free Because of the Brave. At least I saw it on a t-shirt the other day. The idea being, I suppose, that all our chaos on the lake today is somehow a tribute to those soldiers who bravely gave their lives to preserve our ability to hoot and holler and wakeboard.

I sit up a bit in my hammock and look at the lakeshore. The Normandy landings were really a product of topography in many ways. The cliffs there, and the wide beaches here, and the roadways to the south ... I imagine what it would take to plan an invasion on my small lakeshore. With a little creativity, the old boat lift and the section of abandoned dock on the shoreline below me could be beach obstacles with Teller mines attached to their seaward parts. I imagine French families in Normandy lamenting the presence of the Nazis and really, the existence of this war, because the tourist season has been for crap for years now, and everyone is wondering if the Allies are going to make their landing here. But Calais would make more sense. It has to be Calais. Why would they come to Vierville-sur-Mer, or Sainte Mére Eglise? These are quaint, quiet communities, out of the way communities, small tourist spots between the bocage and the wide Channel. Calais would make a lot more sense.

A pontoon goes by, slowly, churning through the water holding a half dozen people bored with the adrenaline of the jet-skis and uninterested by the presence of bass in the shallows. Its outline, silhouetted by the sun, reminds me of the shape of the LCT-A's that carried the tanks of the 743rd Tank Battalion across the channel on the night of June 5, 1944. An LCT is a Landing Craft (Tank), a shoebox shaped ship built by the dozens to prepare for the invasion of Fortress Europe. An LCT-A is a Landing Craft (Tank -- Armored), which means you take a shoebox shaped ship and pour concrete into its hull, especially the forward end with the gate designed to drop down on the beach. The concrete is designed to provide a little more protection against artillery and heavy machine gun fire. You load three Sherman tanks on this tiny ship. Each tank weighs more than 30 tons, depending on how it's equipped. Two companies of the 743rd (B and C) were equipped with top-secret "Duplex Drive" tanks designed to be launched before H-Hour, first light, 6,000 yards from the French coast, so they could "swim," pushed by propellers. What allowed these tanks to float -- in calm water -- was an extendable fabric curtain supported by a flimsy metal framework and inflatable supports. This framework extended up several feet above the top of the tank's turret, so in effect what happened was that ideally, the 32 ton tank was suspended at the bottom of a massive fabric bathtub that displaced enough water to allow it to float so the tank's propellers could push it in to shore. Once the treads hit bottom, the tank commander could shift drive from propellers to the treads and the tank could climb up out of the surf, drop its fabric flotation, and begin to fire on German gun emplacements on the cliffs above. The trouble was, in anything resembling a swell, water came over the top of the fabric and the tanks didn't float. The 741st, which was equipped identically to the 743rd, lost nearly every tank of B and C companies as they launched, 6,000 yards out in the channel, and one after another sank below the waves. Google it -- you can see the barnacle-encrusted silhouettes of Sherman tanks lying at the bottom of the Channel to this day. Tank crews were issued primitive scuba gear and life preservers, but given the narrow hatchway and the frigid water temperatures, very few survived.

But my uncle Earl was in Company A of the 743rd. Company A was equipped with tanks using a kind of ductwork "snorkel" that allowed both intake and exhaust gases to freely supply the engine in up to seven or more feet of water. So the LCT-A's serving Company A of the 743rd -- just a few of the more than 5,000 ships that took part in the Normandy invasion -- were supposed to follow the first wave of Duplex Drive tanks in to shore, drop their ramps in the shallow surf, and offload their tanks. All of this was intended to be the very first wave, the initial terrifying specter to terrify the German troops -- tanks coming up out of the pre-dawn water to attack their positions without warning. They were to be there just ahead of that famous, terrifying scene that opens the movie "Saving Private Ryan."

The pontoon passes, and as it turns it looks less and less like an LCT-A. I have nothing against the people relaxing on that quiet boat. It offends me less than the noisy ski boats that do button-hook turns right in front of my dock, churning up the bottom and scaring the fish and the geese. These pontooners are people who are enjoying a lovely evening on a beautiful Minnesota lake. Relax. Have a beer. Look at the size of that house! I heard that place sold for ...

I'm thinking about Earl, still in training, taking a train from southern California where his battalion was, at that time in 1942, preparing to fight Rommel in the deserts of northern Africa. Earl was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to take gunnery classes. He was offended by the civilians on the train who complained about rationing and acted for all the world "like there isn't even a war on." Earl excelled at gunnery school, and his Commanding Officer encouraged him to go to Officer Candidate School to become a lieutenant. But Earl was nervous about the responsibility involved in such a move, and he refused, choosing instead to remain a corporal.

So when the invasion came, after the cross-country train trip with all their tanks from California to New York, after being loaded on the Aquatania to cross the Atlantic to England in November, 1943, after rigorous training up and down the English countryside, after months of training and cross training and letters home that became ever less detailed, after the day when a skeptical U.S. Army officer insisted, demanded, that they demonstrate the top-secret DD tanks on a day when the surf was up and the English Coast Guard wasn't on duty because it was a Saturday and so the tank and entire crew were lost -- in June 1944 when it came time to load the tanks aboard the LCT-A's, Earl was a crew member, a gunner. So many ships were being loaded that they couldn't do it properly, and someone came up with the bright idea of cutting the side of the hull on the LCT-A's, pulling them up alongside a larger ship called an LST (Landing Ship - Tank), and driving the tanks on board that way, then re-welding the starboard hull back into place. Trouble was, that left the starboard side of the LCT-A weaker, and the night of June 5 the prevailing westerly winds were driving the surf of the English Channel hard into the starboard side of those LCT's as they churned southward through the darkness toward Normandy with the bombers flying overhead.

I look out at the dragonflies, hundreds of them, flying air cover over my beach. I'm grateful for them, for the lack of mosquitoes thus far this season. I got stung between my toes a few minutes ago -- some kind of small bee, I didn't get a good look at it -- but it doesn't hurt much, and I'm so glad we don't have very many mosquitoes yet. The gnats are a problem, though. As long as the breeze stays brisk, they stay back in the underbrush. It's okay.

The water skiers are a little leery of the cold water. One guy keeps standing up on the platform on the back of the boat out in the bay, shouting at the driver to give him a minute  because this water is "damn cold!"

Somewhere in the dark in the English Channel, 1944. This description comes from the After Action reports and firsthand testimony during the investigation into what happened to LCT-A(2229):

"We sailed out of Portland at 0230 Monday morning June 5, 1944. We had two 30 ton tanks and one 37 ton tank. We had 15 tank men on board, and demolition and engineers. We sailed all night and all day -- then about 1900 the sides began to break in. We had about one foot of water on the deck. The waves were coming over the side and going in around the engine room hatch. The engine room had about one foot of water on the starboard side. We had a starboard list all the time. The Skipper got some men to go down to get it out. One Fireman, Barry, R.W., refused; he said there was nothing he could do down there; the Skipper had to threaten him with a gun before he would go. The Skipper and myself were in the water all night trying to fix the sides; that might have been partly what caused him to die. We both were frozen when we went into the water (0555, 6 June). About 0430 the port engine went bad. We kept going; we lost the convoy but we could still see the convoy. Then all our engines went out; so we sent an SOS to a couple of ships -- one I know to be a destroyer; no ship would come. Finally the Skipper gave the order to abandon ship at 0555, 6 June. We all got in but two men before it started turning over. Two men slid off it as it went down; it took them with it; they didn't drown; one man got strangled and scared; he started hollering for help; the man who was with him kept hold of him and kept him out of the water but he froze later on ... There were all the tank men and the crew on the raft but two soldiers -- they were on a rubber boat. We floated around out there; no one seemed to see us. Then finally they started dying; I don't know who died first but they were in about two hours before anyone died."

As a child I knew that Earl had died in the Normandy invasion. I heard from my father that he died of exposure in the water, that he never made it to shore, but the details were unclear. After my father's death in 2000, I spent many hours transcribing Earl's letters home during his training and up until the eve of the invasion. That collection included a couple sympathetic letters from his commanding officer and another army official, both of whom affirmed that Earl had died in the water, not on the beach. He was buried in England, and later his body was exhumed and shipped home. I grew up with his gravestone right next to those of my grandparents, there in the northwest corner of the cemetery. As documents from the Normandy invasions have been declassified and with the advent of digitization of documents online, I've been able to learn far more than my dad ever knew about his brother's death. That's okay -- I think details like those above would have broken Dad's heart.

Though many of "our" boys had gone to war in the Pacific and in Europe, Earl was one of the few in our tiny little Minnesota community who didn't come home. In a deeply grief-stricken way, my family became a focal point of that Memorial Day gathering each year. The Memorial Day potluck and ceremony, the somber walks through the Faaberg cemetery, the men and women silently pondering flat rectangular gravestones that listed not only names and dates but units and ranks -- all of that was a way to honor and remember those who gave so much. Many came home and carried deep burdens the rest of their lives for what they had seen and experienced. Others, like Earl, lost their lives as a result of their military service.

Contrary to what movies and novels tell us, the loss of a single life, contemplated in isolation, is almost never glorious. Part of me wants to be bitter about the decision to cut the sides of already flimsy ships to load them faster. I want to be angry at the seasick Navy man who refused to go below and work on the engines until his commander, himself a Navy Reserve ensign, held him at gunpoint. I find myself hoping beyond hope as I read through these After Action reports that maybe somehow I'll find a way this time through as I discover the details and define the missteps -- maybe this time I can bring Earl, who died more than two decades before my birth, home alive.

I don't begrudge the boaters and the picnickers. I am planning to grill bratwurst this evening and maybe go back to my hammock for a bit. It's good, though, to take the time to reread these heart-wrenching reports of a small landing craft, damaged in the loading process for the sake of expedience, buffeted by stormy seas, caught up in the maelstrom of five thousand ships crossing the English Channel to invade Hitler's continent, and unable to attract any attention until it was too late. It's good to remember Earl, just turned twenty-five two weeks before LCT-A (2229) went down in the Channel, and thousands of others like him. It's good to be reminded that the smallest of actions can matter enormously.

Freedom is a costly thing.

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