© Kyle R Fisher
Memorabilia Excerpt

Chapter 1

June 6, 1944, English Channel
Lieutenant Chuck Perrucci hunched his body over a battered pack of Lucky Strikes in an ambitious effort to keep the cold English Channel spray from rendering his few remaining cigarettes useless. With his left arm against the wall of the pitching and rolling landing craft, he shook a bent cigarette partly out and held the pack toward Lieutenant Paul Barrick. Paul shook his head. “I quit smoking,” he said, casting a longing eye at it. He had to yell over the crash of the waves against the small boat and the wind howling over the steel walls above their heads. Instead of the cigarette, Paul retrieved a small, square package of Matlow Brothers wintergreen mints from his pocket and fumbled one into his mouth. Having no wall at his side for support, he relied on the tight proximity of the thirty-five other men in the landing craft to keep from tumbling into the six inches of vomit-tinged water swirling at his ankles. Bits of breakfast and shards of soaked paper floated and bobbed with abandon atop the foul-smelling soup in which the men of the 1st Infantry Division, 16th Regiment stood. Chuck looked at Paul with a raised eyebrow as he leaned against the landing craft’s side. He held the crooked cigarette in his tightly drawn lips, replaced the pack in his pocket, and withdrew a lighter. In one practiced motion, he snapped the lid and spun a flame on his Zippo. It caught quickly, despite the windy, humid conditions, and he took a deep draw in full view of the words “NO SMOKING” stenciled on the wall of the craft near his shoulder. “How come?” Chuck asked, stuffing his lighter in the pocket with the Lucky Strikes. “My girlfriend is allergic.” “Never heard of that.” “Monty is, too.” A sudden rise and fall of the landing craft displaced a cold spray of water from the Channel onto the side of Chuck’s face. The red-hot coals on the cigarette vanished with an unheard sizzle. Chuck rubbed a sleeve across his face and looked at the sodden stick of tobacco with disgust before pitching it into the water at his feet. “Field Marshal Montgomery?” he asked, reaching again for the beat-up pack of Lucky Strikes. “No kidding?” “Yep. My girlfriend doesn’t think it’s healthy, either.” Chuck laughed, not a mild snicker, but a head-back, earsplitting cackle. “Hell, the Germans are probably gonna kill us first.” Although Paul Barrick didn’t look the part, he was older than most of the surrounding soldiers. He joined the army in 1936, years before Hitler’s first steps into Poland. Most of the men on this landing craft weren’t long past high school. With their matching field uniforms and helmets, Paul’s average height, short brown hair, and athlete’s frame blended in without distinction. His face held a friendly smile most days, but now, thanks to serious threats from his stomach to dredge his own breakfast back up, he wore a look of concern. He focused on Chuck as the man lit another cigarette. If he could watch an unmoving landmark, like the shore, he felt he could stave off most of the seasickness he was feeling. Unfortunately, relief would not come from watching the shore. The top of the landing craft was a foot over his head, blocking the sight of anything except a canvas of olive drab steel. Instead, he looked at Chuck, hoping for a similar effect to quell the complaints from his queasy stomach. It was difficult to believe from Chuck’s placid features and baby face that he was a seasoned veteran of the African campaign. This man had killed Germans, he knew, if only because General Ames had assigned him to Paul as protection. Not that Paul asked for it or wanted it, but the general made his orders clear: follow Chuck Perrucci around or don’t go. “You’re looking a little green,” Chuck said. “Is it the boat ride or what we’re going to find when the boat ride stops?” He’d kept his cigarette burning, although the cherry was racing up one side faster than the other. No doubt some errant spray had moistened the slow side. “Seasick,” Paul replied. Chuck lifted his leg from the ankle-deep water and shook off a sodden scrap of paper sticking to his boot. “First, they put us on a big ship for two days. Then they feed us a battle breakfast and put us on this half-swamped sardine can in rough water. What do they give us to throw up in? Paper bags. Only in the army.” He chuckled grimly as another spray of water tried to put out his cigarette. Chuck was ready this time. Gripping the cigarette between thumb and forefinger, he used the rest of his hand as an effective shield and took a quick draw before it could happen again. Chuck continued. “I know I’m here to keep you from becoming a gold star in mom’s window, but I’d like to know how much you can take care of yourself out there. Have you always been a…?” Chuck struggled for the word, but Paul helped him out. “A Gertrude?” Chuck shrugged apologetically and nodded. “Yeah, I’ve always sat behind a desk. I was the only guy in the platoon who knew how to type. Instead of becoming a dogface, like I originally planned, they made me a staff sergeant.” “How’d you get assigned to the general?” “Well, I’ve always taken pictures.” Paul saw Chuck’s eyes flick to the messenger bag hanging from his neck containing two Contax II cameras wrapped in oilcloth. “A full bird colonel saw some photos I took of my unit that got in Stars and Stripes, and the next thing I know, I’m promoted to lieutenant and assigned as the general’s aide-de-camp.” A distant popping sound, like a dozen pans of popcorn, reached their ears over the wind and crash of the water. This was the unmistakable sound of large-caliber machine gun fire, punctuated by the occasional boom of artillery. Paul instinctively tried to look at the battle over the top of the landing craft but could only see smears of dark smoke drifting into the sky. The pull of fear and the unknown suddenly threatened to bring his breakfast up again. “So, you’ve never seen any combat, right?” Chuck asked. Paul shook his head and forced his thoughts from the near future, back to Chuck. “No.” “We were the last landing craft of the first wave, so it’s either going to be real good or real bad. Sounds like it's real bad. In Africa, I saw new guys get shell shocked right away. A few of them find a corner and cry like babies. Some of them talk crazy like the Virgin Mary or the Holy Ghost told them to stop killing Krauts. One private refused to fight because he saw Martians with ray guns on the German’s side. In a firefight, these guys are the first to die.” “Is that supposed to make me feel better?” “Hell no. It’s supposed to make me feel better. I need to know that you’re not going to go off your nut. The general said to protect you, and you going section eight ain’t going to make it any easier.” Despite the cold, wet boat ride, the acrid, stinking vomit water soaking his feet, and the looming beach landing where Germans would be trying to kill him, Paul smiled at Chuck. Chuck smiled back. Veteran or shave tail, in the end these guys were still just worried about their own asses. “I think you’re going to be okay, Barrick. Do you have a weapon?” Paul nodded. “Forty-five.” “Any good with it?” “I got an expert in pistol dismounted on my Marksman Qualification Badge,” Paul said proudly. “It’s a little different when the target is shooting back at you. You can make sure your weapon is ready, but why don’t you leave the shooting to me?” “Roger that. The only shooting I plan to do is with my cameras.” Paul placed a protective hand on the bag hanging from his shoulder. Obviously satisfied that Paul wasn’t going to get him killed, Chuck became silent. Paul looked around. Of the thirty-five other guys packed into the small landing craft, he could recognize four faces, and knew only one of them by name. Few talked and nobody smiled, in contrast to the last two days aboard the U.S.S. Charles Carroll, the attack transport that delivered them from Portland Harbour. Now most of the men stared ahead with a look of desperate resolve etched on their faces. Weighed down under hundreds of pounds of gear, they were an almost humorous sight as they gripped their carbines with condoms rolled over the business end to keep the water out. As the sounds of a heated battle grew louder, the few conversations taking place on the small landing craft slowly faded out. To a man, they listened to the machine gun fire gradually overtake and drown out the thrumming of the engine, the wind, and the slap of the angry Channel. They stood somber for an unknown stretch of time making an equally unknown number of silent prayers and promises. Soon the stink of gunpowder and burning gasoline became strong enough to overpower the smell of the salty puke water below them. Paul knew they were close when, from his armored shelter behind them, the gunner began laying down a deafening blanket of suppression fire from the mounted .30 caliber machine gun. They felt a sudden bump from the hull striking land. On cue, the wide, front ramp dropped into the water. Over the heads of his comrades, Paul could see a wide expanse of beach through a pall of smoke. The action of the gray, rolling water beat white foam into the sand’s edge. Raised half out of the water and scattered as far as he could see were a jumble of large, steel crosses, like an oversized set of jacks left on the beach by a careless toddler. Paul knew from the invasion briefings these were anti-tank obstacles called Czech hedgehogs.  Men from other landing crafts dotted the beach, using the hedgehogs for shelter. The ends of large logs poked from the water interspaced among the metal hedgehogs, some with explosive mines wired to the ends. Inanimate, man-shaped objects bobbed in the surf, collecting on the foamy shore like olive drab driftwood. A lot of driftwood. Beyond the water was a 100-yard stretch of shingle beach littered with countless bodies and a dozen burning tanks on the pebbled sand. Thick, black smoke rolled off them, racing to join the hazy pallor of the sky. At the opposite end of the beach was a short, rocky ledge covered with belts of barbed wire. Beyond that was another 100-yard stretch leading to a raised, curving bluff. Out of concrete pillboxes built high above the bluff, the Germans poured down machine gun fire in sheets from dozens of entrenched positions across the four-mile crescent. Flanking fire coursed in from either end of the crescent, cutting down men as they sprinted to the relative safety of the barbed wire ledge. Here men gathered before making the next 100-yard dash of death to the shelter under the bluff. This was Omaha Beach. The Germans were doing their best to keep the Allies from establishing a beachhead. So far, they’d been too successful. As soon as the ramp hit ground, machine gun fire peppered the water around the landing craft and rang off the armored sides. Men began pouring out ahead of Paul and Chuck into the waist deep surf, some taking hits from the German barrage and dropping abruptly into the water from the weight of their gear. They didn’t come back up. Paul held the bag containing his cameras over his head and followed Chuck into the frigid water. A mortar round exploded twenty feet from him in a spray of water and sound that left his ears ringing. Paul could see other craft dotting the water around them that weren’t so lucky. Some were smoking shells settling into the water, and others were still burning, blackened remnants of his compatriots visible amid the debris. Chuck cut left, away from the rest of the group heading to the right and pushed hard toward a cluster of the partly submerged hedgehogs. As they slogged in slow motion through the waist-deep surf, stepping on the poor, unlucky souls mowed down at the front of the landing craft, tiny splashes of water erupted to their left. Chuck lurched in the opposite direction to avoid the machine gun fire and followed the remaining men to the right. The oncoming fire strafed across the departing landing craft behind them, ricocheting off the interior, and cutting into the water on the other side. The strafing followed close behind as they slogged to the nearby shore. Three men in front of Chuck dropped soundlessly into the surf. Another exploded in a pink cloud that spattered the side of Paul’s face. The water at their knees, Paul dodged floating bodies, some still coloring the water red, and followed Chuck through the beach froth to break into a hard run. Slowed by soaked uniforms and heavy gear, they plodded over the sand in slow motion toward a burning amphibious duplex-drive tank that had managed to stay afloat during its trip ashore. Following them to safety was a sharp thwack thwack thwack sound of machine gun rounds burying themselves into the sand, getting closer all the time. As they reached the rear of the burning tank to join the half dozen men sheltered there, the thwacks became deafening explosions against the tank’s steel armor. In unison, Chuck ripped the condom from the end of his M1 rifle as Paul reached into his bag to retrieve a camera. His hands shook from adrenaline and fear as he dug one of the Contax II cameras from its protective oilcloth. He hung it by the strap around his neck, flipped open the rear, and loaded a roll of 35mm film. Snapping the lid shut and advancing the film with a practiced hand, he tried to think like a photographer and forget he was part of the battle. Paul turned and began shooting toward England, capturing their landing craft motoring away to go get more soldiers. No other landing crafts were delivering men to the beach, but more would soon arrive. Paul turned and began snapping pictures down the line of the beach. His camera captured the men sheltering behind whatever they could, waiting to find a small slice of time when the German rounds weren’t tearing the sand up in front of them. He continued shooting as he finished the roll on the men zigzagging toward the rocky ledge as best they could, equally burdened by wet uniforms and heavy gear. A few made it. Many weren’t so lucky. Paul tore his gaze from the hellish scene, and quickly swapped film rolls. German bullets still pealed off the burning tank providing them shelter, but only sporadically as the gunners aimed at more worthwhile targets. “Your gun,” Chuck said, pointing at Paul’s pistol. Paul sighed and let the camera dangle from the strap. He removed his Colt and stripped the waterproof covering from it. With shaking hands, he ejected the full magazine, reinserted it, and pulled back the slide to load it. He secured it firmly back in the holster and lifted his camera. “That’s better. You ready, Barrick?” Chuck asked, yelling above the overwhelming sound of machine gun fire. Hell no, he wasn't. There were still a few good shots that he could take from this location. In fact, he could stay here all day taking good shots. Sensing his hesitation, Chuck pointed back toward the waterline, which had, in that short amount of time, moved closer to them. Paul realized at once what he meant. If they stayed here long, the approaching water would either drown them or decide when they moved. Better to make their own decision about when to run for the ledge. Paul nodded, and raised his camera to take a few shots as they ran. Chuck hesitated only a moment before sprinting from the tank’s cover toward a group of the large, metal hedgehogs further up the beach. Paul stayed tightly behind him, like a cornerback following the offense’s wide receiver, with life or death on the line, not just a game-night win. Paul heard the boom of a mortar round exploding somewhere behind, pelting him with sand, but his momentum wouldn’t let him turn to look. More of the thwacking sounds opened small craters in the sand around his rapidly moving feet. He shadowed Chuck to the hedgehogs and arrived as the bullets found purchase on the steel. Instead of the wide cover offered by the tank, the hedgehogs were barely large enough to silhouette a man. Paul decided he preferred the gentle thwacking sound of the sand over the earsplitting staccato ringing of the bullets blasting against the steel mere inches from his vital organs. Paul glanced back at the burning tank to see a small, smoking crater in front of it, which wasn’t there during their sprint to the hedgehogs. The bloodied remains of several soldiers ringed its edges, red and olive drab-colored body parts and equipment scattered across the foreground. He raised the camera and began taking pictures as Chuck pointed his carbine and fired in the opposite direction, toward the German defenses. Paul squeezed off a couple shots of the smoking crater, then a few of Chuck as he emptied his magazine and engaged a fresh one. The machine gun fire abated. Paul wondered if Chuck’s shots had miraculously found the gunner who’d been targeting their position, but he didn’t get long to ponder it. Chuck turned to Paul. “Move!” he yelled, and then ran in a low crouch toward the barbed wire ledge. Again, Paul blindly struck out behind him, hoping Chuck’s combat experience in Africa had given him some magical insight to where the enemy bullets would land. The spray of tiny sand explosions and thwacks chasing their footsteps confirmed otherwise. Through divine intervention or sheer luck, the German bullets landed around them and hissed overhead, but none found flesh. Chuck leaped toward the ledge, and Paul followed, the sharp edges of the stones digging into his skin through his uniform. Paul held his camera up from the ground, guarding it against damage. Other soldiers sheltered along this ridge at random intervals down the beach as far as Paul could see. He rolled onto his back and began snapping pictures of the men moving up the beach toward them, finishing the roll. Before he could reload, Chuck was moving again. With machine gun fire cutting through the air above him, Chuck began belly crawling along the line of barbed wire. Paul reluctantly stowed his camera back in his bag and followed. Soon he saw where Chuck was heading; a man-made gap in the barbed wire made by the combat engineers' explosives. Looking down the length of the ledge, he could see at least three other gaps opened to the landscape beyond. Every soldier lucky enough to make it this far was working his way toward these holes in the German defenses. As they reached the breach, the nearby machine gun fire subsided. The rolling gullies and hills around them provided additional cover that blocked their position from the sight of the German guns. Without stopping, Chuck rose to a crouch and disappeared through the twisted shards of wire. Paul followed, the nagging thought that his camera needed film causing more distress than the German soldiers out there trying to kill him. The high bluffs were a hundred yards away. With the American forces beyond the cover of the ledge, they were again targets in the German crosshairs. Bodies of fellow soldiers dotted the beach through the opening, but in nowhere near the numbers as at the water’s edge. Bullets tore up the sand at their feet as Chuck ran toward the bluffs, and Paul struggled to keep with him. The sound of the guns was louder here, and Paul could clearly see the concrete bunkers with long, rectangular slots housing the deadly German firepower. He could feel the gaze of the German gunners staring down at them, laughing as they uttered the German equivalent of “fish in a barrel.” However, at that instant, instead of deadly machine gun fire coming from the open slots on the bunker, orange plumes of flame squirted out in rectangular shapes followed by screams of inhuman suffering. The sound of small arms fire and grenade explosions erupted from that direction. The machine gun no longer chased them across the beach, and Paul felt like he needed to buy some unknown GIs as much warm beer as they could drink. They reached the break in the bluffs to see that it led to a grassy ravine that split the bluffs ahead and turned into a path inland. Black smoke poured from two small machine gun pits on either side of the ravine, tinged with the stench of gunpowder and roasting meat. As Chuck and Paul passed them, Paul could see German soldiers lying dead inside, their unmoving bodies blackened and twisted into unnatural positions. Beyond the ravine, the land transformed into grassy meadows and rolling hills sprinkled with quaint French cottages. Footpaths led through the tall grass with various leafy trees breaking up the landscape. It was an idyllic scene of beauty, if not for the persistent sound of machine gun fire and grenade explosions behind them and the smell of charred flesh still fresh in their nostrils. They could see other American troops working their way through the grass, avoiding the paths altogether. Chuck struck out toward them. “Through here,” he said, “the paths are mined.” As they worked their way carefully through the waist-high grass, Paul reloaded his camera and began snapping photos. Ahead of them was a heated battle, and clearly Chuck was determined to give him some prizewinning pictures because he was heading right for it. As the battle grew louder, Paul heard a single shot from behind them. In his peripheral vision, he saw Chuck drop to the ground. Paul immediately squatted down over him. He could see a blood-rimmed hole in Chuck’s uniform near the man’s lower rib cage. Pulling the uniform away, he could see a round, black hole with blood leaking out at a rapid rate. Paul heard a man close by yelling in German, coming from behind them. He slowly stood with his arms up and turned to see a German soldier pointing a small, black machine gun at him. He was a young man, maybe eighteen years old, but the look on his mud-streaked face was of pure hate. He wore the brown and black pea pattern camouflaged battledress uniform of the Waffen-SS and was rattling off a string of Teutonic words that didn’t sound comforting at all. Paul recognized the weapon pointed at him from his training. It was the small but lethal MP40, nicknamed the Schmeisser by the military’s small arms trainers. Paul felt certain the long, skinny 32-round magazine still held enough 9mm bullets to end his photography career. With his hands held high, Paul gingerly pointed to the camera hanging from his neck. “I’m a photographer,” he said slowly and deliberately. The German stopped talking. He stared at Paul a few seconds as a wicked grin formed on his face. Paul didn’t need to speak German to understand the intent. The man slowly raised the machine gun to his shoulder and took aim in a line that ended at Paul’s chest. Before he could react, the German pulled the trigger. An empty click issued from the gun. The wicked grin turned to a look of surprise and concern as the German quickly reacted to fix the issue. Paul stood frozen. His muscles wouldn’t respond to his commands. He watched helplessly as the German soldier worked the gun’s slide until finally ejecting the uncooperative cartridge. Seeing the aberrant shell arc through the air broke Paul’s paralysis, and instinct took over. In one swift, practiced motion, he drew his sidearm, and pointed it at the German. A look of wide-eyed terror replaced the forgotten elation on his muddy face as the German raced to get a shell in his chamber. Paul shook his head and yelled one of the few German words he knew. “Nein! Nein!” Loading complete, the SS soldier didn’t hesitate before bringing the muzzle of the machine gun up to fire. Having no other choice, Paul pulled the trigger. When he blinked, he found his slide locked open and the magazine empty. He hadn’t heard his gun fire. Sometime during those seven rounds, although he didn’t exactly know when, the German dropped to the ground. As the white smoke cleared, Paul looked at the writhing enemy combatant in front of him, the first man he’d ever shot. He wasn’t certain how he felt about it, but he knew he was glad to be the one still standing. Before he could pull his gaze from the wounded German, a machine gun somewhere inland began firing, spraying bullets into the grass around him. Paul dropped to the ground. Next to him lay Chuck, dead or alive he didn’t know. Paul realized the gun was still in his hand, so he closed the slide, and thoughtlessly holstered his weapon without reloading it. He put his camera back in the bag and moved to Chuck’s side. Rolling the man over, he could see life still flickering in his eyes, though his face was pinched in evident pain. “Hang on, Perrucci. I’ll get you back to the medics.” He hoped he wasn’t lying. He retrieved the small first aid kit from his belt and fumbled it open it with shaking hands. Bullets buzzed overhead as he quickly applied the contents of a sulfa packet to the entry hole. Next, he opened the field dressing package and pressed the bandage over the wound. He grabbed Chuck’s jacket by the collar and began crawling away from the machine gun fire. After moving forward an arm’s length, he dragged Chuck an equivalent amount and crawled again. Crawl, drag, crawl, drag. It was the best he could do for now. As he passed the German, he stopped. The man’s eyes blinked. He was still alive. Now that he was close, Paul could see a small, half-moon scar on his right cheek that stood out against his pale features through the dirt on his face. As the German sensed Paul, his lips moved like he wanted to speak, but instead of sound, a small trickle of blood came out. A similarly colored red stain in the middle of his jacket near his heart grew larger from a thumb-sized hole as Paul watched. He scanned the German for other wounds but found none. Paul had fired seven times and hit the man once. So much for being an expert marksman. He couldn’t even remember firing. Chuck was right. It was different when the target shot back. He knew he had to get Chuck back to a medic as soon as possible, but the photographer in him wouldn’t let him continue without at least one picture. “Just one,” he promised himself aloud. He retrieved the camera from his bag and held it for the German to see. “I’m a photographer,” he said again, although unsure why. The dying man’s eyes shifted slightly to focus on the camera, but there was no other response. Paul pointed it toward the man and focused on his face. As he watched from the viewfinder, the German’s breathing became loud and labored. Paul snapped the picture as the man’s last dying gasp escaped his thin lips. Lowering the camera, he looked at the man’s face, frozen in pain and staring unseeing at the sky. Paul pushed closed the dead man’s eyelids, and quickly put his camera back into his bag. He prepared to start the crawl and drag process again when a shiny object in the grass caught his eye. He reached out and picked up an unfired 9mm shell. It was the bullet ejected from the German’s MP 40. It didn’t look right. Focusing closely, he could see the problem. The outer rim of the brass casing where it gripped the lead bullet caught on an edge as it was trying to load. On that side, the lip of the casing was pulled away far enough to expose the bottom edge of the jacketed lead bullet. He saw tiny scratch marks on the casing that the wrinkled brass obscured slightly. Blinking, Paul strained to look closer at the shell. The marks were faint. He knew right away they were not the cause of the misfire. Holding it in the light just right, he could read the words “AND VICTOR” hand-scratched lengthwise in tiny capital letters. The disfigured part of the casing began before the “A” in “AND.” He couldn’t tell if more letters came before it or not. Paul stared at the damaged shell. Had it been in the magazine one position earlier, Chuck wouldn’t be leaking blood. One bullet later, and they’d both be dead. What the hell did “AND VICTOR” mean? And more importantly, how did these English words get on this shell? He shook his head in confusion and stuffed the disfigured bullet into his pocket. Paul grabbed Chuck’s collar and began once again making his way back toward the beach.
© Kyle R. Fisher
Memorabilia Excerpt

Chapter 1

June 6, 1944, English Channel Lieutenant Chuck Perrucci hunched his body over a battered pack of Lucky Strikes in an ambitious effort to keep the cold English Channel spray from rendering his few remaining cigarettes useless. With his left arm against the wall of the pitching and rolling landing craft, he shook a bent cigarette partly out and held the pack toward Lieutenant Paul Barrick. Paul shook his head. “I quit smoking,” he said, casting a longing eye at it. He had to yell over the crash of the waves against the small boat and the wind howling over the steel walls above their heads. Instead of the cigarette, Paul retrieved a small, square package of Matlow Brothers wintergreen mints from his pocket and fumbled one into his mouth. Having no wall at his side for support, he relied on the tight proximity of the thirty-five other men in the landing craft to keep from tumbling into the six inches of vomit-tinged water swirling at his ankles. Bits of breakfast and shards of soaked paper floated and bobbed with abandon atop the foul-smelling soup in which the men of the 1st Infantry Division, 16th Regiment stood. Chuck looked at Paul with a raised eyebrow as he leaned against the landing craft’s side. He held the crooked cigarette in his tightly drawn lips, replaced the pack in his pocket, and withdrew a lighter. In one practiced motion, he snapped the lid and spun a flame on his Zippo. It caught quickly, despite the windy, humid conditions, and he took a deep draw in full view of the words “NO SMOKING” stenciled on the wall of the craft near his shoulder. “How come?” Chuck asked, stuffing his lighter in the pocket with the Lucky Strikes. “My girlfriend is allergic.” “Never heard of that.” “Monty is, too.” A sudden rise and fall of the landing craft displaced a cold spray of water from the Channel onto the side of Chuck’s face. The red-hot coals on the cigarette vanished with an unheard sizzle. Chuck rubbed a sleeve across his face and looked at the sodden stick of tobacco with disgust before pitching it into the water at his feet. “Field Marshal Montgomery?” he asked, reaching again for the beat-up pack of Lucky Strikes. “No kidding?” “Yep. My girlfriend doesn’t think it’s healthy, either.” Chuck laughed, not a mild snicker, but a head- back, earsplitting cackle. “Hell, the Germans are probably gonna kill us first.” Although Paul Barrick didn’t look the part, he was older than most of the surrounding soldiers. He joined the army in 1936, years before Hitler’s first steps into Poland. Most of the men on this landing craft weren’t long past high school. With their matching field uniforms and helmets, Paul’s average height, short brown hair, and athlete’s frame blended in without distinction. His face held a friendly smile most days, but now, thanks to serious threats from his stomach to dredge his own breakfast back up, he wore a look of concern. He focused on Chuck as the man lit another cigarette. If he could watch an unmoving landmark, like the shore, he felt he could stave off most of the seasickness he was feeling. Unfortunately, relief would not come from watching the shore. The top of the landing craft was a foot over his head, blocking the sight of anything except a canvas of olive drab steel. Instead, he looked at Chuck, hoping for a similar effect to quell the complaints from his queasy stomach. It was difficult to believe from Chuck’s placid features and baby face that he was a seasoned veteran of the African campaign. This man had killed Germans, he knew, if only because General Ames had assigned him to Paul as protection. Not that Paul asked for it or wanted it, but the general made his orders clear: follow Chuck Perrucci around or don’t go. “You’re looking a little green,” Chuck said. “Is it the boat ride or what we’re going to find when the boat ride stops?” He’d kept his cigarette burning, although the cherry was racing up one side faster than the other. No doubt some errant spray had moistened the slow side. “Seasick,” Paul replied. Chuck lifted his leg from the ankle-deep water and shook off a sodden scrap of paper sticking to his boot. “First, they put us on a big ship for two days. Then they feed us a battle breakfast and put us on this half-swamped sardine can in rough water. What do they give us to throw up in? Paper bags. Only in the army.” He chuckled grimly as another spray of water tried to put out his cigarette. Chuck was ready this time. Gripping the cigarette between thumb and forefinger, he used the rest of his hand as an effective shield and took a quick draw before it could happen again. Chuck continued. “I know I’m here to keep you from becoming a gold star in mom’s window, but I’d like to know how much you can take care of yourself out there. Have you always been a…?” Chuck struggled for the word, but Paul helped him out. “A Gertrude?” Chuck shrugged apologetically and nodded. “Yeah, I’ve always sat behind a desk. I was the only guy in the platoon who knew how to type. Instead of becoming a dogface, like I originally planned, they made me a staff sergeant.” “How’d you get assigned to the general?” “Well, I’ve always taken pictures.” Paul saw Chuck’s eyes flick to the messenger bag hanging from his neck containing two Contax II cameras wrapped in oilcloth. “A full bird colonel saw some photos I took of my unit that got in Stars and Stripes, and the next thing I know, I’m promoted to lieutenant and assigned as the general’s aide-de- camp.” A distant popping sound, like a dozen pans of popcorn, reached their ears over the wind and crash of the water. This was the unmistakable sound of large-caliber machine gun fire, punctuated by the occasional boom of artillery. Paul instinctively tried to look at the battle over the top of the landing craft but could only see smears of dark smoke drifting into the sky. The pull of fear and the unknown suddenly threatened to bring his breakfast up again. “So, you’ve never seen any combat, right?” Chuck asked. Paul shook his head and forced his thoughts from the near future, back to Chuck. “No.” “We were the last landing craft of the first wave, so it’s either going to be real good or real bad. Sounds like it's real bad. In Africa, I saw new guys get shell shocked right away. A few of them find a corner and cry like babies. Some of them talk crazy like the Virgin Mary or the Holy Ghost told them to stop killing Krauts. One private refused to fight because he saw Martians with ray guns on the German’s side. In a firefight, these guys are the first to die.” “Is that supposed to make me feel better?” “Hell no. It’s supposed to make me feel better. I need to know that you’re not going to go off your nut. The general said to protect you, and you going section eight ain’t going to make it any easier.” Despite the cold, wet boat ride, the acrid, stinking vomit water soaking his feet, and the looming beach landing where Germans would be trying to kill him, Paul smiled at Chuck. Chuck smiled back. Veteran or shave tail, in the end these guys were still just worried about their own asses. “I think you’re going to be okay, Barrick. Do you have a weapon?” Paul nodded. “Forty-five.” “Any good with it?” “I got an expert in pistol dismounted on my Marksman Qualification Badge,” Paul said proudly. “It’s a little different when the target is shooting back at you. You can make sure your weapon is ready, but why don’t you leave the shooting to me?” “Roger that. The only shooting I plan to do is with my cameras.” Paul placed a protective hand on the bag hanging from his shoulder. Obviously satisfied that Paul wasn’t going to get him killed, Chuck became silent. Paul looked around. Of the thirty-five other guys packed into the small landing craft, he could recognize four faces, and knew only one of them by name. Few talked and nobody smiled, in contrast to the last two days aboard the U.S.S. Charles Carroll, the attack transport that delivered them from Portland Harbour. Now most of the men stared ahead with a look of desperate resolve etched on their faces. Weighed down under hundreds of pounds of gear, they were an almost humorous sight as they gripped their carbines with condoms rolled over the business end to keep the water out. As the sounds of a heated battle grew louder, the few conversations taking place on the small landing craft slowly faded out. To a man, they listened to the machine gun fire gradually overtake and drown out the thrumming of the engine, the wind, and the slap of the angry Channel. They stood somber for an unknown stretch of time making an equally unknown number of silent prayers and promises. Soon the stink of gunpowder and burning gasoline became strong enough to overpower the smell of the salty puke water below them. Paul knew they were close when, from his armored shelter behind them, the gunner began laying down a deafening blanket of suppression fire from the mounted .30 caliber machine gun. They felt a sudden bump from the hull striking land. On cue, the wide, front ramp dropped into the water. Over the heads of his comrades, Paul could see a wide expanse of beach through a pall of smoke. The action of the gray, rolling water beat white foam into the sand’s edge. Raised half out of the water and scattered as far as he could see were a jumble of large, steel crosses, like an oversized set of jacks left on the beach by a careless toddler. Paul knew from the invasion briefings these were anti-tank obstacles called Czech hedgehogs.  Men from other landing crafts dotted the beach, using the hedgehogs for shelter. The ends of large logs poked from the water interspaced among the metal hedgehogs, some with explosive mines wired to the ends. Inanimate, man-shaped objects bobbed in the surf, collecting on the foamy shore like olive drab driftwood. A lot of driftwood. Beyond the water was a 100-yard stretch of shingle beach littered with countless bodies and a dozen burning tanks on the pebbled sand. Thick, black smoke rolled off them, racing to join the hazy pallor of the sky. At the opposite end of the beach was a short, rocky ledge covered with belts of barbed wire. Beyond that was another 100-yard stretch leading to a raised, curving bluff. Out of concrete pillboxes built high above the bluff, the Germans poured down machine gun fire in sheets from dozens of entrenched positions across the four-mile crescent. Flanking fire coursed in from either end of the crescent, cutting down men as they sprinted to the relative safety of the barbed wire ledge. Here men gathered before making the next 100-yard dash of death to the shelter under the bluff. This was Omaha Beach. The Germans were doing their best to keep the Allies from establishing a beachhead. So far, they’d been too successful. As soon as the ramp hit ground, machine gun fire peppered the water around the landing craft and rang off the armored sides. Men began pouring out ahead of Paul and Chuck into the waist deep surf, some taking hits from the German barrage and dropping abruptly into the water from the weight of their gear. They didn’t come back up. Paul held the bag containing his cameras over his head and followed Chuck into the frigid water. A mortar round exploded twenty feet from him in a spray of water and sound that left his ears ringing. Paul could see other craft dotting the water around them that weren’t so lucky. Some were smoking shells settling into the water, and others were still burning, blackened remnants of his compatriots visible amid the debris. Chuck cut left, away from the rest of the group heading to the right and pushed hard toward a cluster of the partly submerged hedgehogs. As they slogged in slow motion through the waist- deep surf, stepping on the poor, unlucky souls mowed down at the front of the landing craft, tiny splashes of water erupted to their left. Chuck lurched in the opposite direction to avoid the machine gun fire and followed the remaining men to the right. The oncoming fire strafed across the departing landing craft behind them, ricocheting off the interior, and cutting into the water on the other side. The strafing followed close behind as they slogged to the nearby shore. Three men in front of Chuck dropped soundlessly into the surf. Another exploded in a pink cloud that spattered the side of Paul’s face. The water at their knees, Paul dodged floating bodies, some still coloring the water red, and followed Chuck through the beach froth to break into a hard run. Slowed by soaked uniforms and heavy gear, they plodded over the sand in slow motion toward a burning amphibious duplex- drive tank that had managed to stay afloat during its trip ashore. Following them to safety was a sharp thwack thwack thwack sound of machine gun rounds burying themselves into the sand, getting closer all the time. As they reached the rear of the burning tank to join the half dozen men sheltered there, the thwacks became deafening explosions against the tank’s steel armor. In unison, Chuck ripped the condom from the end of his M1 rifle as Paul reached into his bag to retrieve a camera. His hands shook from adrenaline and fear as he dug one of the Contax II cameras from its protective oilcloth. He hung it by the strap around his neck, flipped open the rear, and loaded a roll of 35mm film. Snapping the lid shut and advancing the film with a practiced hand, he tried to think like a photographer and forget he was part of the battle. Paul turned and began shooting toward England, capturing their landing craft motoring away to go get more soldiers. No other landing crafts were delivering men to the beach, but more would soon arrive. Paul turned and began snapping pictures down the line of the beach. His camera captured the men sheltering behind whatever they could, waiting to find a small slice of time when the German rounds weren’t tearing the sand up in front of them. He continued shooting as he finished the roll on the men zigzagging toward the rocky ledge as best they could, equally burdened by wet uniforms and heavy gear. A few made it. Many weren’t so lucky. Paul tore his gaze from the hellish scene, and quickly swapped film rolls. German bullets still pealed off the burning tank providing them shelter, but only sporadically as the gunners aimed at more worthwhile targets. “Your gun,” Chuck said, pointing at Paul’s pistol. Paul sighed and let the camera dangle from the strap. He removed his Colt and stripped the waterproof covering from it. With shaking hands, he ejected the full magazine, reinserted it, and pulled back the slide to load it. He secured it firmly back in the holster and lifted his camera. “That’s better. You ready, Barrick?” Chuck asked, yelling above the overwhelming sound of machine gun fire. Hell no, he wasn't. There were still a few good shots that he could take from this location. In fact, he could stay here all day taking good shots. Sensing his hesitation, Chuck pointed back toward the waterline, which had, in that short amount of time, moved closer to them. Paul realized at once what he meant. If they stayed here long, the approaching water would either drown them or decide when they moved. Better to make their own decision about when to run for the ledge. Paul nodded, and raised his camera to take a few shots as they ran. Chuck hesitated only a moment before sprinting from the tank’s cover toward a group of the large, metal hedgehogs further up the beach. Paul stayed tightly behind him, like a cornerback following the offense’s wide receiver, with life or death on the line, not just a game-night win. Paul heard the boom of a mortar round exploding somewhere behind, pelting him with sand, but his momentum wouldn’t let him turn to look. More of the thwacking sounds opened small craters in the sand around his rapidly moving feet. He shadowed Chuck to the hedgehogs and arrived as the bullets found purchase on the steel. Instead of the wide cover offered by the tank, the hedgehogs were barely large enough to silhouette a man. Paul decided he preferred the gentle thwacking sound of the sand over the earsplitting staccato ringing of the bullets blasting against the steel mere inches from his vital organs. Paul glanced back at the burning tank to see a small, smoking crater in front of it, which wasn’t there during their sprint to the hedgehogs. The bloodied remains of several soldiers ringed its edges, red and olive drab-colored body parts and equipment scattered across the foreground. He raised the camera and began taking pictures as Chuck pointed his carbine and fired in the opposite direction, toward the German defenses. Paul squeezed off a couple shots of the smoking crater, then a few of Chuck as he emptied his magazine and engaged a fresh one. The machine gun fire abated. Paul wondered if Chuck’s shots had miraculously found the gunner who’d been targeting their position, but he didn’t get long to ponder it. Chuck turned to Paul. “Move!” he yelled, and then ran in a low crouch toward the barbed wire ledge. Again, Paul blindly struck out behind him, hoping Chuck’s combat experience in Africa had given him some magical insight to where the enemy bullets would land. The spray of tiny sand explosions and thwacks chasing their footsteps confirmed otherwise. Through divine intervention or sheer luck, the German bullets landed around them and hissed overhead, but none found flesh. Chuck leaped toward the ledge, and Paul followed, the sharp edges of the stones digging into his skin through his uniform. Paul held his camera up from the ground, guarding it against damage. Other soldiers sheltered along this ridge at random intervals down the beach as far as Paul could see. He rolled onto his back and began snapping pictures of the men moving up the beach toward them, finishing the roll. Before he could reload, Chuck was moving again. With machine gun fire cutting through the air above him, Chuck began belly crawling along the line of barbed wire. Paul reluctantly stowed his camera back in his bag and followed. Soon he saw where Chuck was heading; a man-made gap in the barbed wire made by the combat engineers' explosives. Looking down the length of the ledge, he could see at least three other gaps opened to the landscape beyond. Every soldier lucky enough to make it this far was working his way toward these holes in the German defenses. As they reached the breach, the nearby machine gun fire subsided. The rolling gullies and hills around them provided additional cover that blocked their position from the sight of the German guns. Without stopping, Chuck rose to a crouch and disappeared through the twisted shards of wire. Paul followed, the nagging thought that his camera needed film causing more distress than the German soldiers out there trying to kill him. The high bluffs were a hundred yards away. With the American forces beyond the cover of the ledge, they were again targets in the German crosshairs. Bodies of fellow soldiers dotted the beach through the opening, but in nowhere near the numbers as at the water’s edge. Bullets tore up the sand at their feet as Chuck ran toward the bluffs, and Paul struggled to keep with him. The sound of the guns was louder here, and Paul could clearly see the concrete bunkers with long, rectangular slots housing the deadly German firepower. He could feel the gaze of the German gunners staring down at them, laughing as they uttered the German equivalent of “fish in a barrel.” However, at that instant, instead of deadly machine gun fire coming from the open slots on the bunker, orange plumes of flame squirted out in rectangular shapes followed by screams of inhuman suffering. The sound of small arms fire and grenade explosions erupted from that direction. The machine gun no longer chased them across the beach, and Paul felt like he needed to buy some unknown GIs as much warm beer as they could drink. They reached the break in the bluffs to see that it led to a grassy ravine that split the bluffs ahead and turned into a path inland. Black smoke poured from two small machine gun pits on either side of the ravine, tinged with the stench of gunpowder and roasting meat. As Chuck and Paul passed them, Paul could see German soldiers lying dead inside, their unmoving bodies blackened and twisted into unnatural positions. Beyond the ravine, the land transformed into grassy meadows and rolling hills sprinkled with quaint French cottages. Footpaths led through the tall grass with various leafy trees breaking up the landscape. It was an idyllic scene of beauty, if not for the persistent sound of machine gun fire and grenade explosions behind them and the smell of charred flesh still fresh in their nostrils. They could see other American troops working their way through the grass, avoiding the paths altogether. Chuck struck out toward them. “Through here,” he said, “the paths are mined.” As they worked their way carefully through the waist-high grass, Paul reloaded his camera and began snapping photos. Ahead of them was a heated battle, and clearly Chuck was determined to give him some prizewinning pictures because he was heading right for it. As the battle grew louder, Paul heard a single shot from behind them. In his peripheral vision, he saw Chuck drop to the ground. Paul immediately squatted down over him. He could see a blood-rimmed hole in Chuck’s uniform near the man’s lower rib cage. Pulling the uniform away, he could see a round, black hole with blood leaking out at a rapid rate. Paul heard a man close by yelling in German, coming from behind them. He slowly stood with his arms up and turned to see a German soldier pointing a small, black machine gun at him. He was a young man, maybe eighteen years old, but the look on his mud-streaked face was of pure hate. He wore the brown and black pea pattern camouflaged battledress uniform of the Waffen-SS and was rattling off a string of Teutonic words that didn’t sound comforting at all. Paul recognized the weapon pointed at him from his training. It was the small but lethal MP40, nicknamed the Schmeisser by the military’s small arms trainers. Paul felt certain the long, skinny 32-round magazine still held enough 9mm bullets to end his photography career. With his hands held high, Paul gingerly pointed to the camera hanging from his neck. “I’m a photographer,” he said slowly and deliberately. The German stopped talking. He stared at Paul a few seconds as a wicked grin formed on his face. Paul didn’t need to speak German to understand the intent. The man slowly raised the machine gun to his shoulder and took aim in a line that ended at Paul’s chest. Before he could react, the German pulled the trigger. An empty click issued from the gun. The wicked grin turned to a look of surprise and concern as the German quickly reacted to fix the issue. Paul stood frozen. His muscles wouldn’t respond to his commands. He watched helplessly as the German soldier worked the gun’s slide until finally ejecting the uncooperative cartridge. Seeing the aberrant shell arc through the air broke Paul’s paralysis, and instinct took over. In one swift, practiced motion, he drew his sidearm, and pointed it at the German. A look of wide-eyed terror replaced the forgotten elation on his muddy face as the German raced to get a shell in his chamber. Paul shook his head and yelled one of the few German words he knew. “Nein! Nein!” Loading complete, the SS soldier didn’t hesitate before bringing the muzzle of the machine gun up to fire. Having no other choice, Paul pulled the trigger. When he blinked, he found his slide locked open and the magazine empty. He hadn’t heard his gun fire. Sometime during those seven rounds, although he didn’t exactly know when, the German dropped to the ground. As the white smoke cleared, Paul looked at the writhing enemy combatant in front of him, the first man he’d ever shot. He wasn’t certain how he felt about it, but he knew he was glad to be the one still standing. Before he could pull his gaze from the wounded German, a machine gun somewhere inland began firing, spraying bullets into the grass around him. Paul dropped to the ground. Next to him lay Chuck, dead or alive he didn’t know. Paul realized the gun was still in his hand, so he closed the slide, and thoughtlessly holstered his weapon without reloading it. He put his camera back in the bag and moved to Chuck’s side. Rolling the man over, he could see life still flickering in his eyes, though his face was pinched in evident pain. “Hang on, Perrucci. I’ll get you back to the medics.” He hoped he wasn’t lying. He retrieved the small first aid kit from his belt and fumbled it open it with shaking hands. Bullets buzzed overhead as he quickly applied the contents of a sulfa packet to the entry hole. Next, he opened the field dressing package and pressed the bandage over the wound. He grabbed Chuck’s jacket by the collar and began crawling away from the machine gun fire. After moving forward an arm’s length, he dragged Chuck an equivalent amount and crawled again. Crawl, drag, crawl, drag. It was the best he could do for now. As he passed the German, he stopped. The man’s eyes blinked. He was still alive. Now that he was close, Paul could see a small, half-moon scar on his right cheek that stood out against his pale features through the dirt on his face. As the German sensed Paul, his lips moved like he wanted to speak, but instead of sound, a small trickle of blood came out. A similarly colored red stain in the middle of his jacket near his heart grew larger from a thumb-sized hole as Paul watched. He scanned the German for other wounds but found none. Paul had fired seven times and hit the man once. So much for being an expert marksman. He couldn’t even remember firing. Chuck was right. It was different when the target shot back. He knew he had to get Chuck back to a medic as soon as possible, but the photographer in him wouldn’t let him continue without at least one picture. “Just one,” he promised himself aloud. He retrieved the camera from his bag and held it for the German to see. “I’m a photographer,” he said again, although unsure why. The dying man’s eyes shifted slightly to focus on the camera, but there was no other response. Paul pointed it toward the man and focused on his face. As he watched from the viewfinder, the German’s breathing became loud and labored. Paul snapped the picture as the man’s last dying gasp escaped his thin lips. Lowering the camera, he looked at the man’s face, frozen in pain and staring unseeing at the sky. Paul pushed closed the dead man’s eyelids, and quickly put his camera back into his bag. He prepared to start the crawl and drag process again when a shiny object in the grass caught his eye. He reached out and picked up an unfired 9mm shell. It was the bullet ejected from the German’s MP 40. It didn’t look right. Focusing closely, he could see the problem. The outer rim of the brass casing where it gripped the lead bullet caught on an edge as it was trying to load. On that side, the lip of the casing was pulled away far enough to expose the bottom edge of the jacketed lead bullet. He saw tiny scratch marks on the casing that the wrinkled brass obscured slightly. Blinking, Paul strained to look closer at the shell. The marks were faint. He knew right away they were not the cause of the misfire. Holding it in the light just right, he could read the words “AND VICTOR” hand-scratched lengthwise in tiny capital letters. The disfigured part of the casing began before the “A” in “AND.” He couldn’t tell if more letters came before it or not. Paul stared at the damaged shell. Had it been in the magazine one position earlier, Chuck wouldn’t be leaking blood. One bullet later, and they’d both be dead. What the hell did “AND VICTOR” mean? And more importantly, how did these English words get on this shell? He shook his head in confusion and stuffed the disfigured bullet into his pocket. Paul grabbed Chuck’s collar and began once again making his way back toward the beach.