At age 12 I discovered Audie Murphy’s autobiography, To Hell and Back. As America’s most decorated soldier in World War II, it only seems fitting on this Memorial Day weekend to turn to the opening pages:
On a hill just inland from the invasion beaches of Sicily, a soldier sits on a rock. His helmet is off; and the hot sunshine glints through his coppery hair. With the sleeve of his shirt he wipes the sweat from his face; then with chin in palm he leans forward in thought.
The company is taking a break. We sprawl upon the slope, loosen the straps of our gear, and gaze at the blue sky. It is my first day of combat; and so far the action of the unit has been undramatic and disappointingly slow.
Just trust the army to get things fouled up. If the landing schedule had not gone snafu, we would have come ashore with the assault waves. That was what I wanted. I had primed myself for the big moment. Then the timing got snarled in the predawn confusion; and we came in late, chugging ashore like a bunch of clucks in a ferryboat.
Across the ages, young boys and men have looked to glory in war. Audie Murphy, like me, was a boy without a father (his deserted him, mine died). His story resonated. As a boy my love of planes and history had kindled within me a desire for glory, too. As you can imagine, in the first three paragraphs, I was riveted. But my perception of war would quickly change:
The assault troops had already taken the beach. The battle had moved inland. So for several hours we have tramped over fields and hills without direct contact with the enemy.
It is true that the landing was not exactly an excursion. There was some big stuff smashing about; and from various points came the rattle of small arms. But we soon got used to that.
Used to it!
A shell crashes on a nearby hill; the earth quivers; and the black smoke boils. A man, imitating Jack Benny’s Rochester, shouts, ‘Hey, boss. A cahgo of crap just landed on Pigtail Ridge.’ A ripple of laughter follows the announcement.
‘Hey, boss. Change that name to No-Tail Ridge. The tail go with the cahgo.’
The second shell is different. Something terrible and immediate about its whistle makes my scalp start prickling. I grab my helmet and flip over on my stomach. The explosion is thunderous. Steel fragments whine, and the ground seems to jump up and hit me in the face.
Silence again. I raise my head. The sour fumes of powder have caused an epidemic of coughing.
‘Hey, boss. The cahgo—‘
The voice snaps. We all see it. The redheaded soldier has tumbled from the rock. Blood trickles from his mouth and nose.
Beltsky, a veteran of the fighting in North Africa, is the first to reach him. One glance from his professional eye is sufficient.
Turning to a man, he says, ‘Get his ammo. He won’t be needing it. You will.’
‘Who me? I got plenty of ammo.’
‘Get the ammo. Don’t argue.’
‘Who is he?’ asks Brandon.
‘He was a guy named Griffin,’ Kerrigan answers. ‘I got likkered up with him once in Africa. Told me he was married and had a couple of kids.’
‘That’s rough.’ Brandon’s eyes are suddenly deep and thoughtful.
‘He could have stayed out, I guess. But he volunteered. Had to get into the big show.’
And so it was that I was brutally snapped out of my naïve desire for war, glory, and the “big show.” I’m a father now. I’ve never served in combat or even the military. To Hell and Back is a good reminder that war is a serious endeavor and one from which real people with families and loved ones often do not return. I can only hope that if ever I am put to the test, that I will serve as bravely as many of the Americans who laid down their lives. And my humble and unending thanks goes out to those who answered the call.
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