In 1994, I accompanied my father on his second trip to France. His first was fifty years earlier as he exited a Higgins boat during the D-Day invasion. As a Tennessee boy who had previously shot only at tin cans and squirrels, he became a machine gunner. Hitting the beach at nineteen, he fought until the war’s end, witnessing horrors for which life on a farm had left him unprepared.
During my youth, he rarely mentioned those horrors. The stories he recounted had been sanitized. He told of victories and of intrigue, never mentioning the blood or the carnage. He told his stories as if he had been viewing them through the wrong end of binoculars –recognizable images, but too distant to make any real heart connection.
When we traveled to France, we went with other men who had been in the invasion force. Together, they told endless stories, their formerly bridled recollections now unleashed in the presence of one another. One man took six bullets in the first hour, while another crawled up the beach unscathed. Still another limped with pain, his feet having been frostbitten in the Hurtgen Forest.
While their stories differed, they all shared a common experience during that return trip. Each had a moment when he became still, and lost in a terrible memory, solemnly re-entered a long forgotten tragic scene. Vaguely familiar landscapes, quiet graveyards, and shared stories brought forth dark pieces of the past that had been relegated to some distant attic of their minds and hearts.
Not long into the tour, we arrived at the cliffs overlooking the crescent shaped shoreline, Omaha Beach. After D-Day, it was called “Bloody Omaha”. I thought that my father’s return there would be an emotional catharsis. Instead, he was almost giddy. “It’s great to be back!” he exclaimed, looking wide-eyed into the ocean. It was as if he saw the vast armada, the plane-filled sky, and the great guns shelling the coast. “It’s wonderful to be here again,” he said, obviously cherishing the realities he did not know fifty years earlier when the war began – that victory had been won and he had survived.
I was confused by his reaction. Why didn’t he weep? I wondered if there was a key to the grief I suspected he had, the sorrows he carried inside. My questions would be answered later in the day when we arrived at our next destination.
Our bus driver soon pulled into a parking lot. “We’re now at the site of the German graveyard,” he said. “Would any of you like to see it?” Some of the men muttered angrily under their breath. For them, the enemy had become real again. My father, however, was the first at the door when it opened.
I followed him as he walked briskly toward the graveyard. It was a stark contrast to the American cemetery, with its pristine grounds, gleaming white crosses, and holy quiet. Instead, there were black crosses, with at least two young German soldiers buried in each grave. Located near the woods with no vista, it seemed purposely hidden, some shameful secret. But it too was as quiet as a whisper.
Just inside the cemetery, my father walked intently toward one of the crosses. He knelt down beside it, wrapping one arm around it as if he were embracing an old friend. Lifting his other hand to cover his face, he began to sob. It wasn’t a gentle weeping. It was the heaving grief of a young man whose finger had pulled the trigger of a machine gun countless times and through its crosshairs, watched many young German men slump over in death. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he said through his tears, pleading to the boys buried beneath him. “I’ve prayed for your mothers. I’ve prayed for your fathers, your brothers and sisters. I took you from them. Please forgive me. Forgive me.” And lingering among the graves, he silently addressed each cross with the same confession, standing in a quiet vigil, remembering those who had died at his hand.
Prior to that day, he had already come to terms with what the war had done to him, the scars on his body and soul. But until that moment, he’d not come to terms with what he had done, the pain he had inflicted. In that cemetery, it did not matter that the Allied forces had stopped an evil man. It didn’t concern him that the “good guys” won. At that moment, all that concerned him was that he had killed some mother’s son, many mothers’ sons.
That day, a heavy burden began to lift. From the grave of a former enemy came a gentle pardon, and he embraced the forgiveness he had sought. Since then, his stories have both color and emotion. They are real now, not sanitized. In fact, he’s written them down for my boys to read when they come of age. Nightly he prays that they will be spared from such an experience. “War was hell,” he writes, “and I was there.”
This summer, I returned once more to Europe with my father, retracing the route of his army unit. Starting in England, I followed my hero across the English Channel. We landed in Normandy and worked our way across the European landscape to the spot where the war ended for him. On this trip, he dodged neither bullets nor ghosts from the past. And while we were there, we visited two cemeteries. At each, he placed flowers at the base of a stone cross, one white and one black. For him, the war has come full circle. His fallen enemies and comrades are now at peace.
And so is he.