Sunday, June 6, 2010

'In a Company of Heroes'

As I mentioned, my brother was down this past week for a visit.

He's always putting me on to movies I've missed, usually bringing 2 or 3 from his massive collection down with him for us to watch. Often buying me one he thinks I particularly would like or need to have.

This time, he didn't bring any movies with him. Unless you count the entire six seasons of Get Smart on DVD which he bought down here and now brings back on every visit. He only watches it down here. It's kind of cool, reliving a piece of your childhood that way.

But the first night he was here, he asked if I had ever watched "Band of Brothers" on HBO. No, I hadn't but I had often seen it in the Guide. I really should watch it, he said, it was excellent. The following morning what was on TV but the entire Band of Brothers series, starting with the very first episode.

He convinced me that I could run my few errands the following day, that today this is what we would do. Unfortunately, the phone kept ringing. Then a friend came to the door. I kept returning to the show but after a few hours, I commented that although I was still following the story I had missed enough to still not really know who all the characters were.

Shortly thereafter, I apparently having missed something my brother considered significant, something that I had to see so I could understand and appreciate something that would come later, he proclaimed that he was hungry. We should turn off the TV and go out for lunch. No, really. That's what we should do.

I was a little perturbed. After all, he was the one who had wanted me to watch this, convinced me to give up the day for it and then here I was being essentially told that I couldn't watch the rest of it.

But we went out for lunch. And later, while I ran some errands he stopped in at the Future Shop. Nothing new there, it's one of his favourite places to browse, so I didn't think much of it. When we returned home, he handed me the DVD set of Band of Brothers. "Gee, thanks, but you didn't have to do that." "I know but now you will be able to watch the whole thing."

We started with where we had left off and made it through Part VI before he left, leaving me with four parts left to watch. But as I listened to talk about D-Day, Normandy and the assault on the beaches that would be going on at the same time as Easy Company went about their mission, I turned to my brother and commented on the Canadians at Juno Beach.

And I must admit that it was nice to finally (for once) have knowledge of something that he was a little more fuzzy on - he wasn't entirely sure of the Canadian soldiers involvement in D-Day.

I was.
It was about 2:30 p.m. when Westhaver, Westie to his buddies, landed on Juno Beach for an allied invasion that was the beginning of the end for the German forces pummelling Europe.

He’d joined the army in May 1942, flew to England in August of that year and trained for six or seven months to become a wireless operator with the Army Signal Corps. He and his fellow servicemen spent months more practising for battle on the beaches of Wales, "almost like a rehearsal for a show."

But no amount of training prepared the young men, many just 21 or 22, for what they encountered on that strip of Normandy sand.


Sailing over the English Channel to get there, Westhaver huddled with British commandoes, who sharpened their knives for battle.

"But there wasn’t much talk," he says. "I think they were all like me because we had never been in action before so we didn’t really know what to expect."

The then-21-year-old spent his first few moments of action wading through bodies.

"The water was up around my shoulders . . . and here the water was full of dead Canadians floating by with their heads down and you could see Canada on their shoulder. . . . So I had to push these guys out of the way to get into the beach," he recalls.

"There were dead bodies everywhere, laying on the beach and everything. So I’m running up the beach — and I’ve thought about this many times — all of a sudden I see an airplane coming.

"Now I used to build airplanes when I was a kid, I was always interested in airplanes. This airplane had two engines, two motors and all of a sudden sparks started coming out of the wings and I’m looking at it . . . coming at me. And all of a sudden it dawned on me, ‘He’s firing at us.’

"This was a German, this was a German airplane so . . . there was a hole there and I ran and jumped in the hole. I landed on top of a dead Canadian."

He shakes his head, but like he did that day, he keeps going.

"As soon as the aircraft went over you could hear the guns going . . . but it was a very confusing day because there were bullets flying everywhere. . . . You’d hear them over your head and the Canadian Navy, they were firing over our heads into the German lines . . . and you could hear these great big shells going over your head — whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa — and I used to think, ‘Oh my God, let’s hope that they keep going.’ "

This dangerous chaos is what D-Day veterans of many stripes have described over the years.

But fewer of them are around these days to talk about the horror and heroism.

Nova Scotia vets Earl Gouchie and Irving Cromwell, now gone, lived the horror then and — off and on — for the remainder of their days.

On the eve of the 60th anniversary of D-Day six years ago, Gouchie, a former sniper, could still smell the blood of his fallen comrades, hear the rat-a-tat-tat of machine-gun fire and feel the artillery shells groan.

Cromwell, his hand still trembling from the "shell shock" of a long gone war, recalled a fear frozen in time — as if he still stood on that beach, on that day, as the bombs and soldiers fell.
It's hard to comprehend, to get your head around, what it must have been like for those young men, for those boys. In fact, I think it's a lot easier not to even try.

And yet, be that as it may, we owe them at least that much, don't you think?

I'm going back to watch some more of Band of Brothers. It's the least I could do.


Anonymous said...

I think you've lost your marbles.

I've seen a few episodes of Band of Brothers, and was not impressed; a romanticized soap-opera about WWII. The real war was fought on the East Front. Americans have always expanded their own importance in the European theater of war.

If you want to see what D-Day was really like, watch the half-hour sequence of the Normandy landings in "Saving Private Ryan."

Kris, in New England said...

Americans have always expanded their own importance in the European theater of war.

No, we haven't. We were in the thick of it with everyone else, everywhere.

Anonymous said...

Your Honour, I rest my case...

MMC said...

Resting your case might be a tad bit premature ... let's just say that I wouldn't be seeking a directed verdict if I was you.

Now where did I put those marbles?!
I hate it when that happens.

Kris, in New England said...

Anonymous - prove your statements. Show me where Americans expanded our own importance.

Because as far as I can see from reading history - America was active in all fronts of WWII. It may not have been with men, it may have been with the mechanization needed in the European theater.

Anonymous said...

Kris: Michelle put you up to this, didn't she? She'll get her come-uppance at the next meeting of the breakfast club.

I will stand by my original statement that the great majority of the fighting in the European Theater during WWII was on the Eastern Front between the Germans and the Russians; any military historian worth his/her salt will tell you the same.

Jimmy James

Kris, in New England said...

JJ - Michelle did not put me up to anything; I think she may have warned you instead.

I grew up with a WWII Historian for a father so I'm well aware of what was what in WWII. You were the one who threw out what I viewed as an insulting comment to American involvement. We were involved on every front - some more than others and for varied reasons.

I'm not debating WWII history with you. I am however defending my country from an unfair and incorrect comment.

Kris, in New England said...

And JJ - you still didn't prove the insulting comment about American involvement. Which, your honor, I rest my case.

doorkeeper said...

M, good for you, that you watched BoB, we have the set as well. If you haven't already seen it, watch for the boys going up to Hitler's Eagle's Nest in Germany--I was there (and have pics ) when Cliff was deployed. It's a restaurant and tourist stop now--but it gave me chills to sit at the fireplace, and see the carved spots where the soldiers left their marks....
Maybe we can sneak out a few days early, and watch it in Boston together?!

MMC said...

Hey doorkeeper
I miss seeing you around here. Stick around for awhile, why don't ya? Boston in the Fall ... it shall be our new mantra.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kris: Whether you believe me or not, I'm certainly not trying to "insult" anyone (or any country for that matter) with my comments.

I'm sorry if you found my factually correct observation on the role of the US in the European theater of war during WWII to be insulting. I would never denigrate the sacrifices of those who served.

I was born and raised in the good old USA, and my dad served in France in 1944-45. My grandfather served in WWI, being one of a relatively few who earned the French Croix de Guerre as well as the American Field Service Medal.

To the best of my knowledge, the US supplied Russia with thousands of trucks (made mostly by Chrysler); no mechanized vehicles, just motorized. And no US troops served on the Eastern Front alongside the Russians at Stalingrad, Karkov, Smolensk, Kursk, or any other large-scale military operations on the Eastern Front.

In any event, I simply will not get into a mean-spirited p***ing contest with you. I wish you well, and hope you are enjoying the beginning of Summer.

Jimmy James

Kris, in New England said...

J.J. - you said Americans have always expanded their own importance in the European theater of war.

What is factual about that? Sorry but I just don't get it. I didn't ask you to prove to me where America served or in what capacity - I already know that.

Just asking you to show me where America has overstated its role in the European theater.

MMC said...

I know I should let JJ speak for himself (and I'm sure he will) but as I understand it he was referencing the fact that most of the fighting was done on the Eastern front and involved Germany and Russia. That the US wasn't involved there (except apparently to supply thousands of trucks).

And although I'm not sure why he threw in the comment he did in regard to my original post, I think he somehow translated your comment that "America was active in all fronts of WWII. It may not have been with men, it may have been with the mechanization needed in the European theater" as just another example of Americans expanding their own importance in the European theatre of war.

Which (and you can feel free to slap me for this, Kris) although I think in general that Americans do tend to often expand their own importance in world events (which is not the same thing as saying America wasn't involved or didn't even play an important role, just that it gets exagerrated - and I am not talking specifically about WWII here, just in general), like I said above, I really don't see how my refernce to watching Band of Brothers (which includes some of the original vetrans involved and just shows what one Company in the 101st Airborne did do) led to JJ's original comment.

But, whatever. There you have it.

Kris, in New England said...

Michelle - consider yourself slapped.

I won't say more because, well, I just won't. No point.

Anonymous said...

US forces were NOT in the thick of it on the Eastern Front; nor were they in the thick of it in Burma (read William Slim's "Defeat Into Victory"). The war began in September 1939, but the US had no offensive combat role until 1942. Stalin was repeatedly urging the US to join the fight in northern Europe in '42 and '43, but the Allied landing at Normandy didn't ocur until June, 1944. As for my earlier observation that "Americans have always expanded their own importance in the European theater of war," it is an informed opinion based upon what I saw and heard as a youth growing up in the US. The truth of the matter is that the US forces delivered the Coup de Grace to the German occupation of northern Europe. By June 1944, German forces in north-western Europe had been significantly degraded, in large part due to the force requirements on the Eastern Front to defend against the massive Russian offensive.

Anonymous said...

When Averell Harriman congratulated Stalin on taking Berlin, Stalin brushed-off the compliment by responding, "Tzar Alexander I got all the way to Paris," referring to the Russian counter-offensive against Napoleon's Grande Armee in 1814-15.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention that the conversation between Harriman and Stalin ocurred at the Potsdam Conference in July, 1945.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention that the conversation between Harriman and Stalin ocurred at the Potsdam Conference in July, 1945.