Photo by Yucel Moran on Upsplash
An excerpt from The Family Angel …
Dear God, any place but here. Not that PFC Frank Roselli had any choice as to where he would be fighting his first battle—in this case, Omaha Beach on June 7. Dawn had yet to break on D-Day Plus One when Frankie jumped from his LCI into the chest-high waters bordering Normandy’s coastline. The nineteen-year-old was one GI among the thousands of reinforcements assigned to follow General Omar Bradley’s 29th Division. Those poor bastards had landed the day before, the unfortunate casualties of Bradley’s First Army.
Frankie held his M1 Garand overhead as he waded in the direction of sand. The sun had yet to come over the horizon, not that it mattered. Sporadic mortar and sniper fire from the enemy’s rear position managed to illuminate the gray sky, giving Frankie a clear view of water strewn with the 29th, plus too many of those who had just landed. Dear God, bodies everywhere. He brushed past his dead comrades, nudged a combat boot. Shit, the foot was still inside. His stomach flipped and churned, producing an indigestible mix of disgust and shame.
Damn the flying shit. Keep moving, or wind up like these poor, broken bastards—he’d pray for them later. Frankie’s immediate concern was the beach, getting there in one piece. God willing, he wouldn’t take any shitfire, enemy or friendly, along the way. What the hell, survival boiled down to the luck of the draw. Move the wrong way and walk into a random shot. Bang, you’re dead.
Up ahead, water rolled into sand, exposing a graveyard of mutilated GIs. Their numbers too great to comprehend; their bloated remains scattered among the remains of landing crafts and military paraphernalia, an eerie testimony to what had transpired twenty-four hours earlier. Frankie hit the sand running. The stench of burnt flesh assaulted his nostrils. He stumbled and fell, onto what? Sweet Jesus, a baby-faced soldier, history now. Vacant eyes stared in astonishment, as if relaying the horror they’d been forced to witness. Frankie rolled to his knees and out of respect, turned his head. After heaving up yesterday’s k-rations, he made a sign of the cross, as much for himself as for the fallen heroes.
Their fleeting mortality reminded Frankie of a bizarre place he learned about in the eighth grade. He pictured Sister Agnes strolling around the classroom, rosary beads swinging from her ample waist. She spoke in an Irish brogue that distinguished her from the town’s other immigrants. This day she lowered her voice to a near whisper as she described a certain church in Rome.
“It’s called the Chapel of the Bones, boys and girls. Housed within the Church of the Immaculate Conception is a crypt dedicated to centuries of deceased Capuchin monks.” She stopped at Frankie’s desk, opened a large book of photographs, and held it up. “As you can see, their bleached bones—too numerous to count—have been assembled into the walls and floors of various room displays. Even into chandeliers. Some skeletons remain intact and wear the Order’s coffee-colored habits.” Sister directed her plump finger to the pointed hoods concealing skulls and profiles. “Outstretched skeletal hands beckon the curious visitors to indulge themselves. No need to hurry here they seem to say.”
Frankie leaned forward for a better view, but one row over Charlotte Evans gasped and uttered two words, “How disgusting.”
“No, Charlotte, ’tis the reality of our physical existence,” Sister replied. “Now, if you please, allow me to continue. Here in the museum, among the Capuchin, time is no longer of the essence.” She turned the page to more bones. “Posted on a wall in the last room is a Latin inscription, written in flawless calligraphy. The monks left us this message; one I challenge all of you to remember.” Swishing in her long black habit, she went to the blackboard and using the Palmer Method—which none of the boys could master—she wrote in chalk, transcribing the words into English: What you are now, we used to be; what we are now, you will become.
Enough, Sister Agatha, PFC Roselli thought, someday yes, but not this day. He banished the prophetic verse from his brain and scrambled to his feet.
“Move it, soldier. Head for cover,” a voice called out from behind. “Don’t look at them. Don’t think about them. We’re not going to be them.”
The order came from Sergeant Lawrence Winters. He and Frankie first met in England, where Sarge was recuperating from an injury sustained in Sicily and Frankie from an emergency appendectomy that had separated him from his unit. Sarge had enlisted in the army the day after Pearl Harbor and Normandy would be his second tour of duty. The Montana cowboy wore a face ten years older than its twenty-one, but the early aging didn’t result from constant exposure to the Western sun or the bitter winds. “No amount of R & R could ever return my lost youth,” he once told Frankie, “not after Sicily.”
Frankie continued to dodge bullets while friendly machine guns and mortars punctured the sides of cliffs that created a natural backdrop for the beach. The barrage went on for hours, allowing the infantry to continue their steady infiltration. In the afternoon when the shelling had temporarily subsided and before the removal of bodies began, three chaplains conducted a service for the dead. Sharing a makeshift altar, they led prayers in the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths.
Frankie prayed too, for those folks back home who were praying for the safe return of their loved ones, not knowing the time had come to pray for their souls instead. Heart-wrenching reality would come in the form of regrets from the military. He made another sign of the cross for his own family—Mom and Jake, the best stepdad a guy could want, and of course for Tony. He crossed himself again, this time for Mary Ann. She wrote the day after he left, begging forgiveness for her silly behavior on their last night together. Frankie No Fun, she called him when he turned her down. He’d wanted her but she was such a kid. So was he, then.
And what was with Tony, no word from him for months. Had his first taste of war been any worse than this? Damn, Frankie missed his brother as much as he missed Mary Ann, but in a different way. Prior to enlisting, he and Tony hadn’t traveled beyond the coal mining towns of Southern Illinois. They knew their place, and had always bummed with their own kind. Not like the soldier who stood beside him now—his new best friend, PFC Ato Racine.
The half-Cherokee from Oklahoma pronounced his name A-toe but some guy had shortened it to Toe and the new handle stuck tighter than wallpaper paste. During a barroom brawl in Alva, he came to the aid of a down-and-out drunkard getting knocked around by a guy half his age and twice his size. Toe wrestled away the bully’s knife and managed to get in a few nicks before the sheriff broke up the fight. He gave Toe a choice of early enlistment or jail time. The next morning Toe signed up at the local recruiting station and by nightfall he took his first train ride to basic training.
Next to Toe, Private Gordon Dean of Bay City, Michigan was performing his usual tic, a lifting of his right shoulder to massage the neighboring ear. Rub … two, three … release. Rub … two, three … release. Once more, now scratch the nose. Again, the nose. Dean stood five feet six, same as Toe, but he could never measure up to the Cherokee. From behind coke-bottle spectacles Dean’s darting green eyes magnified fear the rest of the platoon tried to hide. To them, he spelled d-u-d, a bona fide, casualty-prone reject that had no business on the frontline. Dean didn’t seem to mind their rejection, so long as he could hang close to Toe.
Because Toe Racine allowed Dean to walk in his footsteps, Frankie tolerated him too. What the hell, so the guy ranked lower than most earthworms. Every family was cursed with some version of Dean, every family except his. This war had dumped a bunch of mismatched guys together and out of desperation they formed a pseudo family that shared one common goal—staying alive long enough to make it back to the real thing.
Frankie tuned back into the prayer service.
“We’ll close with a reading of the Twenty-third Psalm,” one of the chaplains said. Not the priest, Frankie thought maybe the rabbi.
Rabbi got as far as, ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us,’ when a shot erupted from a fissure in the bluff. Some second lieutenant—who once bummed a cigarette from Frankie the non-smoker—dropped with a hole between his eyes. A machine gunner fired his round into the narrow opening. The sniper fell screaming from his bushy perch while several more ground shots, including one from Toe, nailed Jerry before he hit the sand. A chorus of simultaneous amens concluded the ceremony as units hurried to the base of the cliff.
“Dig those foxholes deep, twice as deep as you think they ought to be,” ordered Lieutenant Lancaster. “Later tonight we’ll work our way up the bluff. When we reach the plateau, there’s less than a quarter mile between them and us. Those Jerries are bottled up in what’s known as hedgerows, or as I prefer—hellrows. Our job is to flush out the enemy, like shit from a toilet.”
“How we gonna do that, sir?”
“Rush and attack, soldier. Rush and attack.”
“How many of these hedgerows we gotta take, sir?”
“All of them, however long it takes.”
Everybody knew the lieutenant had graduated from Yale and taught European history, not that he bragged about either. He did acknowledge some understanding of hedgerows and a fair amount of experience fighting Germans, but when it came to fighting Germans holed up in French hedgerows, he didn’t have much to offer. According to certain scuttlebutt, neither did any other American officer leading troops in this invasion.
“Sir, about these hedgerows—”
“Dammit, Dean. Shut up and keep digging.”
“I am, but I just thought—”
“Don’t think,” Sarge growled through the Camel dangling from his mouth. “It’s bad for morale.
“He’s twitching again.”
“About the hedgerows,” Lieutenant Lancaster said in his teacher voice. “Think square, rectangular or irregular land boundaries and cattle holdings. Centuries-old mounds of earth, taller than most of you and covered by vegetation. And tunnels and mazes with singular entrances.”
“What’s our chance of penetrating them, Sir?” Frankie asked.
“Nearly impossible but that never stopped hell-bent GIs before.”
Two days and a quarter mile later Frankie counted himself among twelve men advancing on their first hedgerow. While artillery from both sides lit up a sky gone dark with the setting sun, rifle and machine gun coverage from the rear failed to budge the enemy from within. Three lead soldiers dashed in a zigzag pattern through the open area, trying to get close enough to launch an assault. Frankie nearly shit when the first two scattered into the wind, blown away by their own grenades. The third lay moaning in the open field. “My legs … dear god, help me, my legs. Somebody ….”
“Cover, me, Frankie” Toe Racine took off on his belly. “I’m going after him.”
“Dammit, PFC, stay where you are!” shouted Sarge over the steady barrage of artillery.
Toe kept moving.
“Bastard Krauts!” Dean yelled while Frankie continued firing. Other than Toe, Frankie considered himself the platoon’s best marksman but shooting into an overgrown brush fortress was no way to show off.
While machine gunfire sprayed within inches of his helmet, Toe crawled toward the injured soldier. He grabbed Kern under one arm and retraced his route, ignoring an endless volley of bullets erupting from the hedgerow. Not once did he look back. When he reached the safety of his trench, he cracked a half-smile. “Damn rough out there, Sarge, but I got him.”
“Let go, soldier.” Sarge said. Frankie knew why but couldn’t bring himself to speak up.
“He’ll be okay, don’t you think?” When Sarge didn’t answer, Toe glanced around, and realized he’d been pulling a dead man.
“Don’t ever do a stupid-ass thing like that again, Racine,” Sarge said, loud enough for every soldier within earshot. “You’ll get plenty of chances to play the hero when it counts.”
The aborted first charge served its purpose by drawing enemy fire and locating their positions. The rear retaliated with an all-out offense of mortar and machine gun fire. Meanwhile, Frankie, Toe, and five others repeated their advance—first running, then creeping, moving closer and closer until they gained enough ground to toss grenades into the hedgerow sides and open them up. With help from a constant barrage of artillery and hand grenades, they finally charged the barricade.
Frankie went in screaming senseless obscenities, as much to fuel his courage as to distract the Jerries. When he looked into the face of a young German, the soldier’s fear mirrored his own. Like gunfighters out of a B Western, both men froze, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Frankie couldn’t pull the trigger, not like this. In his moment of doubt a shot fired from behind. Ato Racine had relieved him of his first kill. Frankie would not have the luxury of hesitation the next time, or the next. Soon after he killed two Jerries, the skirmish ended. He slumped down and ran his hand over beads of sweat prickling his face. Squinting through cloudy eyes, he checked out his hand. Blood! At least it wasn’t his. He rubbed his hand into the dirt, clawed his nails even deeper.
“First time’s always the roughest,” said the Lieutenant. “After that, you learn not to think about it.”
Frankie couldn’t even muster a nod. Already he felt nothing but fatigue and overwhelming relief. He was still alive. Seven of his comrades were dead. His squad had captured its first hedgerow. They took no prisoners.
Two days and four hedgerows later after settling into a recently commandeered maze, the GIs understood why their attacks had been so frustrating and the natural defense of the hedgerows so valuable. Every man listened when Lieutenant Lancaster reiterated his earlier objective. They were going to push back the German front by taking the damn hellrows one by one. However long it took.
For the next seven weeks the GIs captured two hedgerows a day, each time advancing further into the German occupation. Besides the hedgerows, they fought for control of any structure dotting the fertile countryside—stone farmhouses, stone barns, and stone walls—whatever provided protection. Their aggression improved with experience and the arrival of Sherman tanks. These American vehicles lacked the power of German Tigers or Panthers, but were more plentiful, and their smaller size proved advantageous for maneuvering in compact areas separating the hedgerows. By the end of the eighth week Frankie considered himself a seasoned infantryman, one who knew his fate rested on the whim of enemy fire. He was one of twelve riflemen from his original platoon of thirty-six. The rest were either dead or hospitalized with serious injuries.
On one overcast day the battle-weary survivors trudged behind a Sherman as it advanced on the next hedgerow. A radioman rode low on the tank’s back and transmitted target areas he spotted from the enemy’s return fire. The Sherman repeatedly took aim and fired, creating gaping holes in what once had seemed impenetrable. After the band of men got closer, Frankie pulled the first pin and hurled his grenade into the stronghold. More grenades followed, creating a chaotic scene of dismemberment and agonizing screams amid artillery fire from overhead. The Sherman started ramming the barrier at ground level, and GIs rushed over the crumbling mound to finish off those Jerries who refused to lay down their weapons. When the skirmish ended, two of Frankie’s comrades were dead along with five Jerries. Four others raised their arms and surrendered.
Every fear and uncertainty plaguing Frankie accelerated as dusk eased into dark. A full moon or clear night could become a soldier’s best friend or his worst enemy, especially with the Krauts playing their unnerving games. One night after a quick but sincere Our Father Frankie burrowed into his coffin-like foxhole, five feet deep and six feet long, and next to the men he knew—Sarge, Toe, and even Dean. God bless the little shit.
By now Dean’s shoulder tic had evolved into a rhythmic shrug of cocking head and bunny-twitching nose. Somehow the spastic d-u-d had managed to stay alive, bringing up the rear while Toe and Frankie took care of the forefront. In fact, Dean had gained a minute degree of acceptance. When not in immediate danger, he operated a successful barter service by negotiating K rations. Usually his cigarettes, which he never could inhale, for everyone else’s canned egg yolks, a product so foul it was rumored to have been the brainchild of upper echelon—to keep the troops lean and mean. Anyone brave enough to ingest the eggs developed acute halitosis. Naturally, Dean’s case proved by far the worse.
“Psst, Frankie,” he whispered. ”What’re you doing?”
“Drying out my stinking feet, you oughta do the same.”
“Like I told you before,” Sarge said. “Healthy feet are a foot soldier’s best defense.”
“Yeah, but what if we get hit.”
“Then we die with our pissing boots off,” Toe said. “It ain’t like we’re living in the Old West.”
At least we’re living, Frankie thought. He yanked off his boots, massaged his feet, and changed his socks. With the boots back on, he now wanted some shut-eye. Dammit, he deserved some shut-eye. His catnaps were usually as sporadic as the distinctive shelling erupting from both sides. This time a loud, wailing missile sailed overhead from the other side.
“A fucking Moaning Minnie,” Toe said.
No one challenged him. They all knew friendly fire from enemy fire. So did the Jerries. Minnie landed two hedgerows away. Frankie curled up and waited. Cries of the injured and dying violated the night.
“Damn the Krauts.”
During the third week of July Lieutenant Lancaster gathered his men in the remains of an old farmhouse. A hunk of cheese sitting on the plank table reminded Frankie of his mom’s kitchen. He could almost taste her home-baked bread. “Listen up,” he heard the Lieutenant say. “I just received word from command headquarters. We’re pulling back.”
“What?” said a guy who rarely complained. “After busting our rear ends to take this ground?”
“General Bradley’s orders. He needs a wide buffer zone between our lines and the Kraut’s. We’re getting help to open the remaining hellrows so Patton’s men can access the paved roads.”
“What kind of help, sir?” Dean asked.
“Expect all all-out air attack from P-47s and B-17s, with Piper cubs targeting radio points. This could be the start of something big.”
“As in THE END.”
A loud cheer went up and Frankie offered a silent prayer of thanks.
As soon as Frankie stirred on July 25, he grabbed his pocket calendar and circled the date. He was thinking about Mary Ann when the P-47s piloted by young daredevils appeared in the sky. He smacked a kiss from his fingertips when those planes began dropping five hundred-pound bombs over the German occupied countryside. With each precision dive their target zone moved closer to the American lines.
“Whoa! Don’t they know which side we’re on?”
“To hell with this.”
“Ain’t cha glad we pulled back, Toe?”
“Everybody down!” Sarge yelled, an order he didn’t have to repeat.
Frankie pushed further into the deepest foxhole he’d ever dug. The unrelenting bombardment played havoc with his eardrums. He mouthed his next words. “Dear God, please keep this helmet on my head.”
During a brief interlude the band of GIs surfaced again.
“God, what I wouldn’t give for a one-way ticket back to Oklahoma.”
“When it’s over, I’m going home.”
“He’s going to his Mary Ann.”
“Ain’t this beautiful, Toe?” Dean twitched. His eyes grew round as pancakes “We got front row seats in the final game of the World Series.”
“More like the Fourth of July.”
“A Busby Berkley musical.”
“Remarkable aerial choreography.”
Toe grinned with pride. “Just look at that sky. It’s like swarms of bees buzzing and swooping in formation.”
Somewhere behind American lines a friendly bomb exploded into the ground. “What the shit!” Sarge yelled. “They’re bombing short! They’re bombing short! Everybody down!”
First came the deafening noise, worse than any before. Then the good earth shot into the sky and rained down like a summer shower. Shrapnel crisscrossed in all directions, cutting and slicing whatever blocked its path.
“Toe, you okay? Toe? Answer me.”
“Dammit Dean, get your ass down! Toe’s okay.”
Frankie lied but what the hell, Dean would never know.
Every second counted, so little time before another B-47 dropped its load. Frankie shouted his next prayer, an act of contrition.
“Oh my God, I am heartily sorry….”
He couldn’t hear the rest but he did see the Capuchin monk, its hand of polished bones reaching out and inviting him to join the holy order of dead. The words, what were the words? Frankie shouldn’t have banished them from his memory. He tried to resurrect the prophetic inscription but his brain wouldn’t let him.
Or maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t his time to go.
End of Excerpt from The Family Angel.