One of the most interesting things I’ve done recently is to interview ex-soldiers who participated in the Invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. The guys were in their late eighties and nineties, so the interviews weren’t particularly easy. The trouble is that people not only remember participating in events, they have a need to put their involvement into a mode which is different than the one they were in when actually experiencing the event. For example, when I interviewed prisoners, the guys who had murdered people wanted to explain how the blame for the murder event should be at least shared with the victim.
“I was just trying to rob the dude when he lunged for my gun!”
For soldiers the scenario is different. In wars you are fighting against strangers and you are trying to kill those strangers not because you are mad at them, but because they are the ‘enemy.’ But what happens as time passes and the people you were trying to kill, or have killed, are no longer the ‘enemy?’
I was interviewing a man in his eighties who had landed at Omaha Beach in June of 1944. He spoke to me of the terror he had faced, and the horror he felt at passing the bodies of men who had been his friends just hours before the landing. But, in looking back, he no longer felt the anger toward the Germans he faced that day, and yet he couldn’t justify what he had done as ‘just a job.’ No, he was better than that. And so he told me of his wading through the water onto the beach, of seeing the bodies of his friends floating by, and of feeling despair that he had been a part of it all.
My wife was listening to the telephone interview and scribbled a note to me to ask him how he had slept the night of the attack, when the Americans and British had landed.
“I didn’t sleep – not a full sleep – for weeks,” he said. “Sometimes, in thinking back on it, nearly 70 years ago, I still stay up half the night.”
And then I could hear the sounds of his crying.
When writing Invasion, I realized I owed him something, for the interview, and for his part in American history.