‘You ever been in a war, Grampa?’ Part II

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 9, 2003

Where were we? Oh yes, we were in a nameless port of debarkation in New Jersey in the rain and boarding a beat up troop ship named, &uot;Her Majesty’s Ship Tamaroa.&uot;

Obviously it had made many trips to many ports and seemed to be asking, &uot;Can I make it across that damned ocean one more time?&uot; It was cleaner inside than outside, but 2,000 American soldiers would make sure that wasn’t the case when it landed. I will not describe the living conditions on board or results of the overwhelming seasickness that prevailed when the ship tried hundreds of times to empty its contents into the North Atlantic while we emptied ours. All the roller coasters in the world combined can’t compare with 14 days in a storm tossed zigzagging convoy. There were no complaints about the onboard English meals because nobody ate one. Thank God we were not going to invade France at the end of that trip. We needed a week of recuperation when we arrived and it was still stormy then. At first we did not regard it as &uot;Merry Old England.&uot;

We adjusted and the English adjusted. You’ve heard it before, what they said about us, something like we were overfed, oversexed, and over here. But they knew our mission and adopted us like family members. Most of the girls were in the Women’s Land Army and not exactly appealing in what they called a uniform – knickers, boots and an Aussie hat. We learned later that there were two kinds of knickers. Besides, there weren’t enough ladies to go around, so the pubs became our mistresses for the five months we were there. We never stopped training for the landing in France, on the English beaches, up in the cold wet moors, down on the cliffs of South Devon by the vicious English Channel. It was not much fun but we were being molded into a machine of sorts that would attempt to liberate France in the spring. Spring came too soon.

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You could say that June was the month that war the war began for us. No one who survived that first day in France will ever forget the scene and will always wonder how they made it off that stretch of sand and flying steel alive. Thousands died, hundreds never even made it to shore and floated silently in the angry surf. The wounded nearly covered the beach. Dante’s hell could be no worse and June 6 was but the first tragic day in a war that lasted eleven more months. There was still plenty of time to die.

It is a blur after that, grandson. We wouldn’t have been able to pronounce the name of the places we were in if we knew where we were. Engineers get to thinking they are the only soldiers in Europe, they work alone behind the infantry, sometimes just ahead. Our only contact with the rest of the world was the thin thread of a radio. Someone needed a bridge, land cleared of mines for a quickly built landing strip, or a field hospital, a road through swamps, repair railroad tracks, blowup a pillbox, string barbed wire to hold a few prisoners, all the while keeping equipment running. We constantly lost &uot;men&uot; starting with the beaches and all the way across France and Germany. Artillery got most of them and wounds were terrible, many ending in death. I got my share of nicks and cuts and bruises but a stitch here and a bandage there kept most of us going. Our sole job was to keep the British and American armies moving east, no matter what got in the way.

One of the really tough parts of being in a foreign country is that it is not home. After months away you begin to wonder if home is still there, and those people you grew up knowing. What is going on back there, why don’t they write more often and tell me about those things that were so much a part of my life? What did they have for supper, what are my brothers and sister doing? So what that our mail arrives weeks late if at all, as long as I can read it. No, I don’t have time to write and tell you where I am or what I am doing. The censor’s scissors would cut it out anyway. Just hope you don’t get one of those telegrams, and know we are doing our job as best we can. Know that we miss our family and friends, even the streets and the school, and the movie theatre and everything else we want to come home to. Sure we are scared, but we are not alone.

It was a grand experience, grandson, one I hope you never have. But sometimes war is a necessary evil.

Robert Pocklington is a resident of Suffolk and a regular columnist for the News-Herald.