Where have all the soldiers gone?
As we left the south end of town on the road to Carentan, a distant rumbling could be heard, one that in another time and another place would have been the far off sound of a late afternoon thunderstorm. Heads turned slowly, eyes met for a moment and then drifted away to some point on the horizon. War was raging ahead and we were going back to it. No one spoke. In the Hollywood version of battle this was the time when someone would have cracked wise, but this was not a movie.
The convoy stopped again just outside Ste.-Mere-Eglise, this time for fifteen minutes or longer. For the men in G Company the halt could not have come at a worse place. In the field on the right side of the road the grass had been stripped away and men were at work turning the raw earth into a burial ground.
It should never have happened. Soldiers headed for battle should not have had to sit and watch the indecent manner in which those who had already died were tossed and sometimes kicked into open graves. But it did happen to those of us in G Company as we waited beside the road leading south from Ste.-Mere-Eglise to Carentan.
It is unlikely that any of us had given thought to the disposal of bodies left behind on the battlefield. It certainly hadn’t crossed my mind, but if it had there was no possible way that I could have envisioned a scene quite so brutal, so repugnant, so grisly, as the one taking place before our eyes.
I don’t believe it was the thought of meeting a similar fate that was so disturbing to the men who had already seen combat. Rather it was the memory of friends already dead. Many of the bodies being handled so roughly and so disrespectfully were clad in green fatigues just as we were. Were some or all of them from the 4th Division? If so, they had been lying in fields for days, perhaps weeks – and this was possible as sometimes in returning over ground that had been the scene of fighting days earlier we had seen bodies of men left behind the first time we had passed that way.
And the new replacements that had come into the company at Cherbourg, what was this like for them?
For new men and old alike, the stench was overpowering. Only by breathing through his mouth and not his nose was a man able to bear it. Even the smell while a battle was in progress was less nauseating. The Americans from Graves Registration and the German prisoners doing the physical work wore gas masks in order to endure and carry on.
It was an assembly line operation, this job of filling a cemetery. Half a dozen crews of prisoners were busy digging graves. Off to their right was a truck, a six-by-six like those in our convoy. Bodies were stacked high in back, just thrown haphazardly onto the pile. Some were badly mutilated or missing a limb or two, even a head. Others showed no sign of a wound although one was hidden somewhere.
The truck was the starting point. Two Germans stood by the tailgate waiting for a signal from one of the Graves Registration men kneeling nearby with clipboards in hand. When one finished processing a body he would gesture to the Germans, who then would grasp the nearest dead man wherever it happened to be handiest — by an arm, a leg, a head. They would pull the body from the truck, then turn it loose and let it hit the ground. After taking hold of it again they would drag it through the dirt to the waiting American.
The Graves Registration man would remove one of the two dog tags from a chain around the dead soldier's neck. After searching through the sheets of paper on his clipboard he would place a checkmark beside the proper name, then tack the dog tag to a white wooden cross or Star of David taken from nearby stacks.
That accomplished, he would hand the grave marker to a prisoner in charge of another crew. Again the body was dragged across the ground to a place where mattress covers were piled high. The body was then stuffed inside one of them. The mattress cover was hauled over the ground to the first of the waiting graves. There it was shoved or kicked into the open hole and another crew of Germans with shovels began covering it with dirt. When they were finished the cross or star was planted on top and the job on that man was complete.
On and on it went, this grim, impersonal ending for men who a month earlier had been wondering when the invasion would take place and what it might hold in store for them.
Another truckload of bodies arrived as we watched. Parked beside the one already there was a small red pickup truck commandeered from a Norman farmer. It seemed out of place there among the drab shades of brown, green, gray and black.
There was a reason for its presence, however. When the body of one young soldier was pulled from the stack it was clad in a German uniform. Field gray it was called, but when seen from even a short distance the color was little different than that of the green fatigues we wore. The prisoners knew what to do when they came upon one of their own. One took the body by the feet, the other gripped it under the arms and together they pitched it into the back of the pickup truck. The youthful German’s long blonde hair fluttered outward until the body landed on the bare metal surface with a fearful clatter. Now it was ready for its trip to another graveyard where the crosses were black.
So equality was achieved. American or German, it mattered not. Neither was afforded even a modicum of dignity in death. All that differentiated one from the other were the fields in which they would be buried.
As we sat watching the gruesome tableau unfold, visions of sweethearts, wives, daughters and mothers waving goodbye from the platform of a railroad depot flashed through my mind. Even knowing that men were dying and that their loved one would be at risk, was it possible that any could have imagined this end result of war?
On the field of battle a man quickly learns that the pomp and ceremony, the parades and the bands playing stirring music are just a sham, a mockery of the real purpose of war. Dignity does not accompany a man into battle, nor does glory, and orderliness never offsets the madness. Why should it be different when the final act is played out?
Through it all no one had spoken. Not once as the days and weeks went by did I hear anyone refer to the episode at Ste.-Mere-Eglise. When it came to mind while resting on a hillside one sunny afternoon in late August I looked at the men around me. Only a handful had been there to witness it. The others had been left behind among the hedgerows and sunken roads near Sainteny, in the fields west of St-Lo, at Marigny, Villedieu, St. Pois, Mortain. Everidge and John Morgan, Major O’Malley, Jimmy Hewston and Curly Walsh, Captain Hardee, Lieutenant Crawford, Hancock, Cwiklinski, so many, many others.
More than a decade later while listening to the words of a song heard for the first time I would recall that warm summer day on a quiet hillside, would remember the thoughts that passed through my mind as I searched for old familiar faces and found so very few ... Where have all the soldiers gone? Gone to graveyards, every one.