To mark the 78th anniversary of D-Day, I decided to post the full text of Chapter 80, “Day of All Days,” of Vol. III of Journey Through a Dark Forest. My sources for researching this chapter included:
World War II Chronicle, David J.A. Stone et al.
World War II Day by Day, Antony Shaw
D-Day: Minute by Minute, Jonathan Mayo
The Juno Beach Centre
Juno Beach – The Canadians On D-Day
“No Ambush, No Defeat”
“Canadian Participation in the Operations in North-West Europe, 1944: Part 1”
Valour on Juno Beach, T.R. Fowler
D-Day: Juno Beach, Canada’s 24 Hours of Destiny, Lance Goddard
Fedya’s hand is clenched around St. Vladimir so tightly his fingers have turned white, while his other hand rests against one of his prized pictures of his little family of three. On his right, Vasya numbly recites all the most important prayers like a broken record, and on his left, Osyenka stands on his tiptoes and cranes his neck, staring out at the wide expanse of ocean in the dim light. Behind them, Leontiy reads from a pocket-sized prayerbook, softly muttering the Church Slavonic words.
“We’re closer to Dasha and Liivi than we’ve been in years,” Fedya says, his voice shaking. “I hope to God we’re invading in time to save them.”
“You’d better keep low to the ground,” Osyenka says. “You’re taller than most guys, and will probably be a moving target.”
Fedya briefly lets go of the ikon to cross himself, ignoring the odd looks from fellow soldiers. Like his father and little brothers, he’s always crossed himself left-handed. It never made any sense to insist upon the right hand for crossing oneself when it doesn’t come naturally to use that hand. God surely must have better things to do than get upset about what hand people use for praying, particularly since there’s a worldwide war on.
“I hope we’re not gunned down as soon as we start moving towards the shore,” Osyenka continues. “My parents would have several strokes and heart attacks if this is another Tarawa. At least we’re not facing off against the Japanese like those unfortunate Marines.”
“The Germans have no idea we’re coming, as far as we know. The Army, unlike the Marines, knows how to plan a surprise invasion and send out false information. Our people also know more about weather and tides.”
“I’m glad we’re not airborne. I’d panic to death if I had to parachute right into a warzone, no idea what I’d be landing in.”
As they get closer to the shore, the sound of artillery slowly gets louder and louder. Leontiy shoves his prayerbook into his rucksack, while Vasya starts reciting the prayers even louder and faster.
“We had Last Rites yesterday,” Fedya says. “If we’re going to be killed, no amount of prayers in the world can change our fate. But I’d like to think—”
A loud blast tears through the air, and the Higgins boat is knocked slightly off-course. A few minutes later, a second blast reverberates, and the boat is knocked about again. This time, Fedya feels cold water rapidly swirling underfoot. The next thing he knows, the boat has come to a standstill on the sandbar, and the ramp goes down. He has no time to react or say anything before he instinctively begins moving as fast as he can through the knee-deep water, through the sand, and towards the nearby hill. It’s not easy with so much weight strapped to his person, but he makes pace to the best of his ability. Many times, he has to step over dead bodies from the earlier first wave of the invasion. He loses sight of the other three as bullets whiz around him, the sky lit up like the Fourth of July. For the first time, he fires his rifle at real combatants, though the enemy’s too distant for hand-to-hand combat. Most of the gunfire seems to be coming from the looming cliffs. He hopes he’s aiming at the right people and not accidentally shooting his own. He can’t afford to stop or turn away every time someone nearby goes down, though he has to stifle his overwhelming urge to vomit when he sees all the blood, guts, and gore, particularly from exploded body parts. All these guys were so alive and hopeful just moments ago, and suddenly they’re no more. If he were in a different spot, or had been in their position a moment earlier or later, he might’ve been the one blown to smithereens by a mine or shot down like a sitting duck.
“We made it so far,” Vasya whispers to him as they take shelter and assemble their weapons at the foot of the hill, throngs of other soldiers around them. “Let’s hope the landing was the worst part.”
“I knew I’d make it,” Osyenka says as he loads his rifle. “I’m the most special only son and child of old age who ever lived. God wouldn’t give me to my parents if I were meant to be taken away after only twenty years.”
“I don’t think we’re with the right group or in the right place,” Leontiy confesses. “I don’t recognize any of these other guys, and this location doesn’t seem like it matches the place on the map.”
“Join the club,” another G.I. says. “My buddies and I got lost too.”
“My surviving company seems to be all here, but this isn’t the place we were told to fight,” a lieutenant agrees. “I don’t think anyone will get in trouble for getting lost, considering almost everyone seems to be very confused and didn’t land in the right places. They’d have to court-martial everyone, and that wouldn’t help us win the war.”
The several commanding officers who’ve landed among this crazy quilt of different units, companies, divisions, and regiments eventually give orders to start up the bluffs. Fedya hates having to go back into the direct line of fire again so soon, but he’ll be off this damned beach and closer to the center of action. From this distance, his rifle can’t reach most of the enemy forces. He keeps as low to the ground as possible as he crawls up the bluff, no time to give thanks when bullets whiz off his helmet instead of striking the unguarded parts of his body. It’s maddening to be unable to see exactly who’s firing at him, and to fire back.
“I don’t want to go back to England so soon after I finally got into combat. Just patch me up and send me back out there.”
Yuriy pours saline over the wounded soldier’s shoulder, where a fairly large piece of shrapnel is lodged. “If you insist, we won’t send you to England, but you should rest up for at least a day. You can’t defend Canada very well if you’re too injured to fire a gun or throw a grenade properly.”
Another medic pulls a sheet over a badly maimed soldier. “It’s too bad we can’t save them all. These boys waited so long to get into combat, only to be killed before they could really start fighting.”
“Why aren’t you removing the bullet?” a soldier demands of the third medic. “Do you want to kill me?”
“It’s usually a bad idea to remove anything that punctures the skin unless there’s a real, known emergency, contrary to what the movies show, and what a lot of otherwise intelligent doctors think. It could make the bleeding even worse if you pull out a foreign object. That foreign object could be the only thing keeping you from immediately bleeding out and hemorrhaging.”
Yuriy ties a makeshift tourniquet over the arm of the next wounded soldier carried to him. “Don’t try to move your arm until we know for sure the bleeding stopped.” He injects morphine, and then the soldier is carried to the recovery area.
“You’re lucky you got up here without a scratch,” the next patient says. “Medics should be allowed to carry guns. If you’re wounded, you can’t do much to help us.”
Yuriy pours saline into the patient’s right knee. “I have a pretty penpal to survive for. She could never be more than my friend, but I’m looking forward to seeing her in person again. She writes such nice letters, and is prettier in every picture.”
“What, does she have another fellow?” the second medic asks. “I wouldn’t let my girl exchange letters with another guy, unless he were a lifelong friend who truly didn’t see her as anything more.”
“No, she’s a single co-ed. She’s too young for me. She’ll only be twenty this month, and I’m twenty-five. We met when she was barely eighteen. I’ve never told her I fell for her. Plus, she’s in New York, and just went to live with her father’s family two years ago. I doubt they’d be happy if she left them to live in Toronto after barely having any time to get to know her.”
“That’s not so much younger,” one of the patients says. “This life is so fragile. Why not tell her as soon as you see her again? Maybe she’s meant to be your wife, and you’ll never find a woman you like so much again. We all deserve pretty girls to come home to.”
Yuriy dives to the ground as a loud blast reverberates and shakes the tent. He curses his red hair as orders are given to evacuate and move to a somewhat safer location. These damned snipers probably can’t see his armband from this distance, but they will see that red hair, even under the helmet he’s mercifully been permitted. The wounded soldiers able to walk evacuate with the medics, though they move much slower. Yuriy wonders why he bothered to try to help them when surely at least a few will be killed anyway. If this invasion goes even more badly, there might not be any Allies left alive by the end of the day.
From the ditch on top of the bluff, amid continued fire raining down from the cliffs, Fedya can see Omaha Beach laid out like a horrific panorama. The beach and water are littered with dead soldiers; abandoned, destroyed tanks and weapons; Higgins boats and Navy boats, many also blown apart; and fresh waves of soldiers continually coming ashore, only to be met with the same unabated, intense German gunfire. If he makes it to a safe place and there’s enough of a break in hostilities, he’d like to draw this scene and others from memory with the set of seventy-two colored pencils he got from the Derwent company while he was stationed in England. If he has to take several years off from university to fight, he might as well keep his artistic talent nurtured when he can.
“Turn around,” Vasya whispers. “The Germans are up there, not down on the beach.”
Fedya maneuvers his way around and mutely accepts an order to load a machine gun, then goes back to lying low and waiting. When Wehrmacht soldiers approach, he grabs his rifle and aims, while many other soldiers nearby do the same. He smiles when he sees each Wehrmacht man falling to the ground. They surely have families who’ll miss them, but these are the same people who let Darya and Oliivia be taken away. No further Germans approach, and he goes back to blindly firing up at the cliffs, almost numb to the constant barrage of noise.
Fedya is too relieved to have the cognizance to erupt into cheers like most of the other soldiers when several American tanks drive by, unscathed from the barrage on the beach. Without waiting for an invitation, he, Vasya, and Osyenka volunteer to ride on one of the tanks, their rifles still at the ready. He feels like a great conquering hero as he climbs up, and infinitely more protected than he was in the ditch or on the beach. Every time he sees a Wehrmacht soldier, he immediately shoots.
“Aren’t we supposed to secure the beach and nearby bridgeheads?” Fedya asks as the tanks start moving again, the rest of the crazy quilt marching in formation alongside them.
“We’re probably not going out of this immediate vicinity,” the soldier commanding the tank says. “It’s easier to sweep through the area like this. Maybe tomorrow we can start going through houses and businesses to root out any Nazis. If only we could swiftly beat a path to Berlin. This war will probably still be on for at least a few more months.”
Osyenka grins from ear to ear as he fires a rifle grenade in the direction of every pillbox he sees, while Leontiy is put to work assembling Bangalore torpedoes and cutting through barbed wire. Fedya and Vasya continue throwing grenades and firing their rifles. Gradually, the cacophony from the cliffs starts to taper off.
“The bastards must be running out of ammo,” Vasya says. “Had to happen sometime. This beachhead will be ours soon.”
Fedya smiles at the sight of dead and wounded Germans littering the ground. “I can’t wait till every single Nazi is dead and cold. I wonder if Dasha and Liivi know such a big invasion has been launched to rescue them.”
“They’re not the only people we’re saving. I bet the French will be really happy to see us, and might help us. Once we root the Nazis out, it might be easy sailing to go from town to town.”
“We’re not taking any POWs, are we?” Osyenka asks. “These Krauts don’t deserve to live after what they’ve done. We should kill them all while we’ve got them in our sights.”
“Not on our watch,” the tank commander says. “Even if they pretend to surrender and want peace, we can’t be sure they’ll keep that promise. I don’t want to find myself and everyone else murdered by Krauts we took pity on.”
Fedya smiles even wider and continues firing at every single pillbox and German in his line of vision. “That’s for kidnapping my sister and her best friend, you worthless wastes of oxygen.”
Yuriy’s commander storms into a house pointed out by several teenagers in the French Resistance, while the medics and twelve other soldiers follow him, carting the wounded. The wounded who survived the earlier bombardment in the hospital tent have mostly crawled and been dragged here.
“We have it on good authority this is a Nazi house,” the commander shouts in German. “You’re going to leave right now and give up your beds to the Canadian wounded, or you’re all getting a bullet to the brain.”
The husband begins to babble in German-accented French, which makes the armed soldiers pull their guns on him. One of them paces up to him and rips off his left sleeve, revealing a Gothic A in black ink.
“Imagine that. A dirty Kraut was lying to us. You can’t lie your way out of a damn SS tattoo. Who the hell else gets this kind of tattoo in exactly that spot?”
The commander pulls his trigger, and Yuriy flinches at the sight of the blood and brain fluid splattering out of the maimed head. The three children run screaming, while another soldier shoots the wife.
“Good riddance. If only every Kraut were this easy to dispose of, we could get to Berlin in a month.” The commander kicks the dead man. “I want people posted as snipers and lookouts from every window and door while someone moves these bodies outside. Then we can start moving the wounded inside.”
Yuriy is slightly jealous of the soldiers who get to have guns, while he’s stuck as a medic. Even if he’s training to be a veterinarian and actively volunteered himself as a medic when he enlisted, it’s not as fun and exciting as killing Germans, leading charges, and shouting orders. The soldiers he’s treating are the real heroes, the ones who’ll have the exciting war stories to bring home. He’ll have to make do with telling his family about pouring saline in wounds, injecting morphine, dispensing pain relief pills, tying tourniquets, setting bones, plastering casts, and amputating extremities. But for Inga, he’ll tell the infinitely more exciting story of how he survived the onslaught of carnage at Juno Beach.
After all the wounded are toted inside, Yuriy is assigned to a patient with a gaping, bloody wound in the lower right leg, with bits of shrapnel riddled throughout. He looks off to the side as he pours saline over it.
“Did you already have morphine?”
“Yes, but I’d like some more.”
“I’d love to give you extra pain relief, but we have to be careful about how much we give each man. We have so many wounded, we can’t afford to give extra doses to every single guy.”
The next patient has four fingers on his left hand blown off, the stumps oozing sickening, constant blood. Yuriy is queasy as he ties a miniature tourniquet on each stump. Even after each stump is tied off, he still feels queasy looking at the mutilated hand.
“Am I a pansy for not continuing to fight? I still have one good hand.”
“It depends on the injury and your personality. Some soldiers continue to lead charges and fight after they’re shot several times, but this isn’t a minor flesh wound. Depending upon your prognosis, you might have to go home, or back to England. The Army might be so desperate for guys in uniform they’d still have you, provided you can get along with only one complete hand.”
Once all the wounded have been brought inside and treated, and no further patients seem immediately forthcoming, Yuriy walks around to each one, on all three floors, to check on their progress. Several have since had the ominous white sheet pulled over their faces. Yuriy makes the sign of the cross over each dead man.
“Should I go back out there to help the latest wounded? I don’t want to feel useless just sitting here twiddling my thumbs while more guys are getting wounded.”
“If you’d like. Just remember, lay low to the ground and don’t get too close to the front lines. You’re a combat medic, not an active duty soldier. Let the other guys be heroes fighting the Nazis, while you focus on being their hero by helping them.”
The moment Yuriy crawls outside, the thunderous roar of gunfire becomes even louder. The Germans are finally running out of ammo, so the Allies will soon have control of Normandy. Fifty feet away from the house, he comes across several fresh corpses and one wounded soldier by a Bangalore torpedo. The vicinity is strewn with other dying and dead soldiers, too many of them to do much to help. Yuriy feels the bile rising in his stomach at the sight of bloody, dismembered hands, fingers, arms, feet, and legs. He hopes he never, ever has to see a decapitated head or half a body. He was uncomfortable enough when he saw the movie Freaks at thirteen, though he’d far prefer to be confronted with dwarves, conjoined twins, living torsos, and other sideshow performers than these maimed remains and wounded soldiers. Sideshow performers are otherwise healthy and able-bodied.
“Will the war be over soon?” a soldier asks as Yuriy rips open his shirt to put pressure on a gunshot wound in the stomach.
“After today, I really doubt it.” Yuriy injects morphine, his hand violently trembling. “All we can do is hope the rest of this battle is as swift as possible, and that we won’t be fighting next year at this time.”
Lyuba lights five candles in church, then has a seat in one of the relative few chairs available. She misses having a church which used to be Catholic and thus came with plenty of pews.
“Fedka and the rest of our boys have to be fine,” Ivan says numbly, taking the chair next to her. “Fedya was our miracle baby, my first blood child, our firstborn son. God wouldn’t give him to us only to take him away so soon. Mira needs a husband, and Felya needs a father. He has to come home. God wouldn’t have given Vasya to my aunt as her second chance at motherhood only to take him away either, and Osyenka’s one of the most special only sons who ever was created. Lyonya needs to come home to Dora and Olik, and Yura has a lovely family who can’t wait to have him back. All five of them will be fine.”
“You don’t know that! Our beautiful little boy could be lying dead on the beach right now, and Vasya, Osyenka, Lyonya, and Yura along with him! Yura isn’t allowed to have a gun, and can’t defend himself!”
“I should be over there too, being useful,” Nikolay rants as he lights his own candles. “Are you sure my stupid draft deferment can’t be lifted now that the invasion’s finally begun? They’ll need lots of replacements to take the place of all the guys getting killed. Everyone will look at me suspiciously since I wasn’t there.”
“You’re a farmer, not a soldier,” Tatyana reminds him. “We’re helping to feed the military and the people working in war industry jobs. We wouldn’t be expecting our second baby if you’d enlisted.”
“There are plenty of other farmers who can help with providing food. We can have children any time, but the war won’t be on forever.”
“Yes, but we wouldn’t have this particular child. We’d have a different child, just as I wouldn’t be here if Boris hadn’t manipulated and forced my mother into what he did.”
“You’re lucky you’re at home,” Novomira says. “I hate having my husband away at war, never knowing what’s going to happen to him. Maybe this makes me ungrateful and unpatriotic, but I don’t agree with all these people who are so happy and excited to send their husbands and sons off. If he wants to enlist, fine, but I won’t pretend it’s a wonderful, beautiful sacrifice I’m making. If he’s killed, I won’t consider him a martyr and hero. He’ll just be another soldier who was killed, a soldier who happens to be my husband.”
“You know how it is during wars,” Lyuba says. “The jingoistic majority drowns out the people against war, or who don’t paint war as a wonderful, glorious adventure and noble, manly sacrifice. Thank God my Vanya wasn’t taken for the last war when he turned eighteen, since he was still in gymnasium.”
Edik wrinkles his nose. “I can’t believe how unpatriotic and ungrateful you people are. If the war’s still on when Marik and I graduate, we’re enlisting immediately. I can’t live down the shame of my older brother refusing to serve and getting a grotesque deferment to go to university. University can wait, but the war can’t.”
“Keep your voice down,” Kat warns him. “There are other people here who don’t want to hear our personal business, and it’s rude to talk too loudly in church. Andryusha’s doing his part by helping at USO events.”
“How, by serving drinks and cookies, clearing tables, and playing records? The real men, the guys going off to war, must be so disgusted when they find out he’s a pansy who won’t serve. The WACs, SPARS, WASPs, WAVES, and lady Marines are more manly than Andrey.”
“Pozhaluysta, watch what you say about Andryusha. He’s always been such a good big brother to you and Marik, and would never dream of speaking so meanly of you, particularly not behind your backs.”
“At least some men in our family are doing the right thing,” Nikolay says. “Those five guys over there are heroes, alive or dead, and the sooner they help to end the war, the sooner Dasha and Liivi can come home. Someone has to fight, unless you like the idea of never seeing Dasha and Liivi again.”
Lyuba crosses herself. “It’s been almost five years since I saw our zaychik, and since Katrin saw her Liivi. If God is just, we won’t have to wait even one more year to see them again.”
Darya grips Oliivia’s right hand and Halina’s left hand as the Kumiegas’ secret radio broadcasts the news from the Polish government-in-exile in London. Over the last year with the Kumiegas, she’s picked up a rather serviceable command of Polish. It also doesn’t hurt that Polish is rather similar to Russian.
“The Allies are finally here,” Halina breathes. “They’re on their way to save us. We won’t be Nazi prisoners forever.”
“How long will it take them to get to Berlin?” Maja asks. “I hope they have quick, successful battles in every single town along the way, so the war can be over by autumn. Maybe we can be home for Christmas.”
“We’ve been so lucky so far.” Darya runs a hand through her hair, which has been allowed to grow back since she’s an indoor laborer. “Our luck has to continue to hold long enough for the Americans to get here. I hope the Nazis don’t murder everyone first.”
“I won’t let anyone murder you,” Oliivia declares. “You have to live long enough to go home with me. Maybe they’ll have a cure for tuberculosis in the near future, and you can go to the best American hospital for drugs or surgery.”
“I am cured. When was the last time I showed any symptoms?”
“You’re not cured. All your skin tests show up positive. I’m glad it’s latent instead of active, but don’t kid yourself about being completely better. God knows if it’ll come back eventually, worse than last year.”
“Pani and Pan Kumiega, can we stay at your farm till the war’s over?” Maja asks. “I don’t want the Nazis to get mad about losing the war and take us somewhere else.”
Pani Kumiega crosses herself. “Only God can decide that. We can only hope the occupiers won’t decide to murder everyone as punishment and revenge. If we stay as relatively lucky and safe as we have so far, the war will end well, and we can resume our lives like nothing happened.”
Darya nods. “I’m not telling my parents I had tuberculosis or was in a death camp. They’ll never see the ugly number on my arm if I only wear long sleeves, and if my tuberculosis stops being latent, I can pretend I’m only getting it then.”
“It’s a very long way from Normandy to Poland,” Matviyko says. “So many innocent servicemen will have to die before they get anywhere close to us, and possibly the Soviets will get here before the Americans and British. It’ll be a miracle if anyone’s left alive by the end.”
The day after the invasion, Yuriy picks his way among the reeking, disfigured corpses and dying strewn over Juno Beach. It’ll take forever to catalogue and bury all these soldiers who were so alive and hopeful just yesterday morning. The relative few who haven’t succumbed to their wounds yet are probably too far gone to be helped. He smiles each time he sees a German body mixed in among the brave Canadian dead. The entire beach is pervaded by an eerie, unnatural silence, as though yesterday never happened. He still hears gunfire, but it’s slightly farther away. The Allies now have a toehold in occupied Europe.
“Am I in trouble for not trying to join back up with my company?” one of the wounded asks as Yuriy unwraps a leg tourniquet made from the soldier’s torn trousers fabric. “I was too confused and scared, so I played dead and stopped the bleeding myself.”
“A lot of guys got lost yesterday and ended up with the wrong companies, or in the wrong places. They’d have to court-martial almost everyone. A lot of companies lost so many men, they’ll have to bring in replacements immediately.”
The soldier winces as Yuriy pours saline over the wound. “Is there a way to tell if it’s infected?”
“I assume you had a tetanus shot after you enlisted. The worst is probably avoided. But I’ll give you an ointment just in case, and to help with healing regardless. I’m not looking forward to going back into the line of fire.”
“Are you a doctor from before, or just an Army medic?”
“I’m actually studying to be a veterinarian. I have a bachelor’s degree in biology, and took one year of vet school before I enlisted. My parents wanted me to have at least one year instead of enlisting straight out of university.”
The soldier faintly smiles. “I don’t really care your normal patients are dogs and cats instead of humans. All that matters is you’re helping me.”
“Oh, I had a very nice human patient two years ago.” Yuriy looks up and gazes across the ocean, still swamped with empty Higgins boats and destroyed tanks. “I might not be getting all the glory like you, but I’m fighting to stay alive for her.”
“You need luck more than me. It’s too bad medics can’t carry guns.”
After Yuriy finishes with this soldier and finds several others to treat, he picks his way over to the sandbar and wades in, averting his eyes from a Higgins boat piled with maimed corpses. On one side, an entire ocean separates him from Inga, while on the other side, the Germans are waiting to kill everyone. There’s no easy way to get home from here. Even if he makes it home alive, there’s still the battle to decide whether to let Inga know his real feelings, or keep it secret and watch her marry someone else.
But first things first. First the war has to be won, and that means defeating an enemy refusing to go down easily and peacefully.