by Jay Bazzinotti
My neighbor was 89 years old and drunk when he told me this story.
He died not long after.
I asked him once why he stayed in his house alone when he could have been waving to throngs of people from an open Cadillac, a hero.
He said to me, “I’ve killed a lot of men. I did my duty. Now I just want to be left alone.”
Here is his story:
“When D-Day finally came we didn’t believe it was the real deal.
The weather was cold and too shitty for an attack and because it was the Army we knew it was time for show.
We all hurried up and waited.
They loaded us onto the ships and we waited and waited and waited.
We figured that they would go through the motions and were sure we would be sleeping in our own bunks on shore that night but the ships finally set sail.
We knew it was for real when they invited us down for a real steak and potato dinner.
They were treating the condemned to a final meal. The food was actually pretty good and there was plenty of it but the sea was stormy so whatever went down came right back up as soon as we went up on deck.
It was cold and rainy, we couldn’t even smoke and we were sick and miserable and thinking about what was to come.
In the middle of the night we could hear the landing craft coming up to the ship.
Every gust of wind blew a cloud of diesel smoke from these little boats over the rail so on top of everything else we were choking and gasping.
We threw cargo nets over the side and the little boats would slam into the side of the troop carriers below the nets and try to match the movement of the ship.
The ocean swells were strong, and it was rainy and dark.
Everything seemed to be working against us.
We didn’t want to alert the Germans so we couldn’t use any lights. We were loaded down with all this gear and it was terrifying. Men were crying and praying and swearing. Full grown men.
The sergeants, like me, were expected to ram those men over the side, then follow them into the boat.
There was a lot of cursing and yelling and pushing but the men did it.
Carrying more than a hundred pounds of equipment they climbed over the nets and tried to time the rise and fall of the two ships as they jumped into the tiny craft.
If someone hung onto the net too long he would be hung up a fair height from the landing craft and with the next swell, he would be slammed between the craft and the ship.
Men lost arms and legs and there were large smudges of blood along the side of the troop carrier.
Some men would grab the edge of the boat as they climbed in and waves would slam us into the side of the ship.
It would crush their fingers into a bony hamburger. Men were screaming and cursing but it didn’t matter if you had no hand or leg, you had to go anyway.
There was no turning back. Men fell into the water. No one even tried to rescue them. Then, when it was full of men and equipment, the landing craft would pull away and head for the beaches.
As morning came and it got light, those of us still on the troop ship stood by the rail and waited for the tap on the shoulder, “You’re up!”
By this time the Germans had figured out what was going on. When it was finally daylight we could see the beaches and the German pillboxes.
During the night our big battleships had shelled the shore but their co-ordinates were wrong and they didn’t make a dent in the German defenses.
Instead, they blew the little French villages further inland to hell while the Frenchies slept in their beds.
The Germans were letting us have it with everything they had.
We knew it was Rommel on the other side and we knew he was a real soldier. Just as we had practiced invading the beaches he had his men practice killing us all there.
We knew we were all going to die. Every single one of us.
The Germans were letting loose with all kinds of artillery and machine guns. They had this one machine gun, it was so fast that when they fired it, all you could hear was the sound of ripping paper.
That’s what it sounded like. Then immediately you’d see a pink mist where your friend had been standing.
If the machine gunner kept his finger on the trigger, it would just cut your friend in half. He didn’t even know he was dead; he kept talking until he fell over.
We watched our guys getting creamed on the shore while waiting for our turn.
More than one man stood there weeping and no one called him out for it. We all felt it.
We were going to die.
But we were lucky, it turns out, because we had Herman Goering on our side. He wasn’t able to get more than a handful of planes into the sky to fight us and we were saved.
If the Luftwaffe had gotten involved we would have all died for sure.
We learned later that the German navy had been ordered into a suicide assault on the invasion force using submarines and E-boats, with troop ships as their first target but the British navy bombed them into submission.
Only a couple of U-boats made it and they weren’t effective.
A couple of E-boats made it within the cordon as well and they sunk some landing craft. We couldn’t see the action from our position down low in the landing craft but we could hear it sure enough.
Even five hundred yards off shore our troop ship was being hit by German small arms fire.
The bullets would clink and clank off the side. They couldn’t hurt the ship but they could kill a man.
There were explosions from big artillery pieces all around in the water and sometimes a ship would take a hit. There were burning ships and black smoke everywhere. From what I could see and hear it seemed hopeless and that we were losing.
When it was my turn to go, the entire trip went like a blur. I can only remember the feel of the cargo net in my hand.
I don’t remember tumbling into the landing craft. I remember the cold seawater on my ankles when I charged the beach and I remember cursing the soft sand slowing me down as I ran for cover.
I kept my eyes on some bushes where I planned to hide and ran for it. There was no order, no co-ordination, just a mad dash for survival.
You didn’t think about it, you just did it. There were dead men everywhere, arms and legs all over the beach, screaming men, artillery firing above, explosions all around.
The beach was littered with boxes and guns and abandoned supplies and the landing craft just kept coming and coming and disgorging frightened and bewildered men into the meat grinder.
When I reached the bush I was surprised to recognize my best friend from boot camp already there, grinning at me and slapping my shoulder as if I had won some big prize.
Some commander started yelling at us and pointing up a hill.
We covered each other and ran up the hill but half way up a German machine gun opened up on us.
We fell to the ground and laid flat. Looking up I could see the German trying to range us. He was walking the machine gun towards us and there was no place to hide. It was grazing fire and if we raised our heads even an inch we would have been cut down.
There was only one thing to do!
I called to my buddy. I called his name loud and hard. He turned and looked up at me and the machine gun rounds hit his raised head and shoulder over and over.
He collapsed to the ground, his face still turned towards me, his eyes open, blood pouring from his nose and mouth into the sand.
There was no doubt he was dead.
I slithered behind his body and used it as shield.
The German hit him over and over but I didn’t get a scratch. I laid there against his warm body, smelling his warm blood and crying at my perfidy, unable to move, unable to fight.
I’ve never forgotten it.
It was only a few minutes later when a squad of soldiers took out the machine gun nest and I stood up in elation and relief.
At that moment all I felt was pure happiness that it was him who died and not me. I never turned back to look at his shattered body, hit over and over again by machine gun bullets.
Someone passed me a cigarette and I walked away to find my unit.
I fought all across Europe until May of 1945 and as a reward for defeating the Germans the American Army put me on a troop ship and sent me to fight the Japs.
I didn’t get back to Louisiana until 1946 and by then all the victory hoopla we saw in the newsreels had passed.
When I walked off the troop ship in Louisiana the war was ancient history and I was just another US soldier on the street.
People had seen enough of us by then.
And even though I was home it felt like I was walking on Mars.
I still can’t speak of all I have seen and done.
Sometimes I expect to wake up and find myself shivering under a blanket and lying on the snow in the Ardennes, that my life was just a dream and it’s still 1944 and I am still in Hell.
Years later the smell of sea water and diesel fuel will put me right back on that troop ship heading for Europe, or the smell of burned coffee will bring me right back to the Hurtzgen Forest where a metal tin of burned coffee is scorching my frozen hands as I am scanning the tree line for white phosphorous rounds bursting.
But nothing will ever wash away the sin of that day in France when I killed my best friend.
It still haunts me in my dreams.
I realize that it was either him or me.
I know there was no other choice and that it was totally instinct.
But that knowledge will never wash away my sin or worse, the memory of that thrill of happiness I felt at that moment when he got shot, and not me.
Since then, anytime I have felt a pang of happiness, such as when my son was born, or when I got my college diploma or my wife said, “I do” I am instantly transported to that hill on that rainy day and I am staring into the lifeless eyes of my best friend, the man I killed so that I might live.
He will be with me until I die.”
Jay Bazzinotti is a 55-year-old man with 4 patents, 3 books and 2 degrees.
Bazzinotti has a lifetime of experience doing all kinds of things and using all the mistakes he has made in life to try and help people avoid the same mistakes.