From The Vault Of Art Shay: D-Day
(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. This week, Art reflects on the 69th anniversary of the Normandy invasion.)
Two years after D-Day which came exactly 69 years ago this morning, I wrote a Whitmanesque poem to my beautiful new bride, Florence, to tell her, er, something, about June 6, 1944 before the memory faded.
I was the navigator on a B-24 named Sweet Sue. The crew that Sue safely brought home a few missions prior used to take another Sue—a rangy Texas beauty of a nurse—on illicit showoff practice missions. They would set the Lib on automatic pilot and, at 10,000 feet, just short of oxygen level, against the rolled up yellow life raft in the crew compartment, show her why we would one day be called the Greatest Generation. Col. Jimmy Stewart, one of our four squadron commanders, knew about it but didn't tell. He realized we were all high strung and needed outlets for our burgeoning emotions. He himself would bike into town, we suspected, to get laid in a church attic, his organ (we crudely gossiped) sharing the loft with one from Hammond.
None of this was any of my wife's business. We were, after all, men and our particular corner of the war had a 71 percent rate of attrition. Some 9,000 of us Eighth Air Force kids would be lost or captured in the war. We had to fly 30 missions, but statistically were programmed to die before number 24. Of course we all expected to beat the odds, being 20-25 years old. And as Jews, the dozen or so enlisted Yids in our group knew what was happening in Germany and France.
To my surprise, the Sunday Washington Post ran my poem, a full page, and heavily censored my naughty asides. And gave me $100 to boot, and offered me a job as a feature writer. They splashed a banner headline as "H-Hour (Do You Remember, Dear?) Was a Million Minutes Ago." And I became a celebrity at the Pentagon where I was stationed. I still haven't done the math.
There is the boy-voiced orderly who stumbles in your
sleep and checks your face with something halfway
down his list.
The hut is cold and English rain has lost its kiss, is
vicious on the metal roof,
And you live between two air raid shelters.
He came in an open jeep, his young face smarting
with the weather and his own awakening.
First nudge and he’s your little brother waking you
in time for school,
Transferring your mother’s admonition half the
Nissen-hut length all the way to home.
“You’re flying, sir,” he says. “Briefing at 3.”
“Roger,” you say, “Roger.”
(One of those war words, darling, easy to say, caught
on quickly, like “Veteran” and “GI Joe.”)
You stumble from the hut to washing . Bare feet take squishy
traction on the wet grass, then waking to the little,
chatter of the others, cold with the same dull fear,
frozen by the sacramental tap-water. Maybe today.
(Your morning kiss is warm-awakening from the
happy catalogue of our marriage,
My joy assailed only by our homelessness, framed
for me in my eye’s dim compass of these dirty walls.
Nor have we a kitchen in which to build a chain of
breakfasts together in our sleeping clothes.)
* * * *
They hand you breakfast, casual as automats. You
smile. (KP’s are meagerly repaid
And by the way, how do the British win their wars
with food like this?)
Listen to the stumble-conversations, subway talk
between the stations as you studied on the train.
The raucous yell, “Big B today!” The lollards, those
with time for cereal and cream, think not.
The coast- a milk-run-maybe, at the worst, Calais,
Where all the flak is accurate but bunched.
Or will this be the Day of shining effort, D-Day, and
thrust across the water?
Rumors spiked, destroyed and thrown at the German,
sitting on positions heavy with four fat years.
(Darling, the Chinese are still fighting in the hon-
orable shadow of their crude wall,
Defense project of a thousand years ago. Great walls
are quickly obsolete, for ladders are groats in history.)
* * * *
Ask a general. (That’s what they told me, sweetheart,
when I tried to buy a car,
A surplus car, and a surplus typewriter for our busi-
ness. If we ever find a surplus office. ) Ask a general.
Once a general gave me some medals. He said
“Thank you” and shook my hand. A swell guy—(there’s
no caste among officers.)
He’d shake hands again if I saw him, but the cars
are in Atlanta and that’s far away.
(Berlin was 1200 miles away, but a state of peace exists
and Atlanta’s in Georgia and the papers are filed on
the West Coast.)
* * * *
Briefing room, annoyingly like what the movies
think- (Haven’t seen Van Johnson in an Air Force
picture in a long time.)
Wall-map, half a world on half a wall. The business of the meeting is brief: If you don’t hit this, hit
Bombing is blind man’s buff with radar.
Outside the many-engined hum, insistent spinners
sipping fifty gallons in a rainy dawn, just warming;
Cocktails for four drunken engines.
The major jests—no fighter cover. Cheek-face major,
he who led the last-time raid, describes the target . . .
(What sort of job can a raid-leader have now? Oh- this one died three missions on.)
“. . . forty flak guns, important rail and communica-
tions target, making it easy for the TASK FORCE.”
Invasion. Invasion. It is a little word with a large
tail. This is the day we spit in Hitler’s eye.
Will they put it off? Should have been yesterday,
you know. Weather? Equipment?
Certainly not a manpower shortage, and don’t tell us
men are readied and lubricated for battle quicker than
(Who knows? Maybe a fist war would be over in a
* * * *
“You’ll be skirting Paris—lots if pretty babes
down there, don’t hurt ‘em.”
(The impossible we do at once. Hurt? As if we were
equipped with pain to give and take.
It’s hard to hear a scream at twenty thousand feet,
but I heard you scream, Florence, getting the telegram,
Closing my life account with Living, Incorporated.
A million telegrams could say not a single word past
“one of us is dead.”)
Like planning a snowball fight in an alley. We’re
the good guys.
Brother-winks of bombardiers, union in profession,
death-dealers to the throne, by appointment only,
And they only work here like the rest of us.
Maps are marked “restricted”—did you know?
AS IF THEY DON’T KNOW WHERE WE ARE!
Brave New World, Limited.
The documents are signed and we are almost ready.
Received, three hundred thousand dollars worth of
plane and bombs, ten men.
(“Six months at the least, mister. Lots of veterans.
Lots of applications—has to go through channels and
it will cost plenty”.)
What channels lie between zero and twenty thousand
feet, and how much per foot is altitude on two engines?
* * * *
Lorry ride across the bumpy ramp to Sweet Sue. Solemnly
ten kisses on her nose.
A secret rite performed in the privacy of a cold
(Did not Hannibal fondle his elephant? And you
can’t feed a Lib sugar.)
Pushing from the callow earth with muscles wrought
by women sixty hundred miles away at Willow Run.
(Are they still working there, honey, or do men build
Did Mr. Seybal make another pass at you?
I’ll kill him when I get back. When I get back.
We’ll have each other, and the world will be for us.
Darling, have you stormed a nylon line?)
* * * *
The low dawn rises, gold upon your silver, clashing
in a fairy-story forge.
(If this be my last dawn, assuredly I’ll not die alone.
Beaches will be blood- crimson as we cross them,
Death will comb the Norman beach, tide will race
him for the spoil, war’s omnipresent surplus.)
Will the boys down there look up and call us lucky?
We who sleep in English beds and fight an eight-hour
* * * *
Your voice is metal, slowly sharpening to the micro-
phone. You call the compass heading, thwart the
Pilot answers “Roger.” settles down. Ten men become
one instrument, a hundred planes are ten.
Gunner spots the London Bridge, looks down.
“Blimey,” someone laughs.
A thousand ships sit in the dirty Thames without a
Finally the coast at Land’s End. Now we are of the
countless men who left England on brave purpose.
There they are, thick in the channel and four abreast.
Two thousand at least.
History for the looking. Like cars from a tall build-
ing, crawling down Broadway.
Kiddie-cars, each with its toy balloon and apostrophe
Busy-bee fighter planes, like hawkers at the Stadium,
selling safety to the convoy, hovering at three hundred
Up and down.
Ahead the broken-cup coastline, and look at the dots
on the beach.
War’s punctuation and Hell’s private diacriticals.
The parade moves slowly.
Le Havre sits off the left wingtip, Cherbourg upon
the other, Caen over to the west.
No flak yet, save the spineless stuff that breaks too
(Are we feeding them breakfast today, and have
they forgotten how to hit a Liberator?)
Your shadow moves across an undercast. The ceiling
changes. In navigation school you didn’t fly on cloudy
A thousand years ago in Texas.
(Remember Mary Anne in Texas? You were so
Remember the Alamo?
* * * *
Take your flak suit off, be brave and throw it on the
Nudge the bombardier aside, his work comes later—
(Chuck Bunting is still in the hospital-broke his back on a training mission, crashing on Tom Paine's farm! These are still the times that try men's souls! And we owe him a letter. He's never gotten over the Dear John letter his wife sent to him )
—after all, we’re paving the way as the Colonel
said, paying with rubble.
Bet you a million dollars we’ll rebuild the whole
Try to see Alencon from out the nose—the goddam
You order turn on time. Distance, rate, and time.
Was it seventh grade? No pigtails to pull in flying
Change positions. Steady now. Chartres is dead
ahead. Initial point
* * * *
You call for bomb bay doors to open (somewhere
today is a navigator now a doorman?)
Then you’re on your run.
Bombardier is on his knees across his Sperry sight.
The other ships will bomb on us today. We drop smoke flares with every load-
When the lagging planes fly through our contrails, POW, they drop their bombs too.
“Flak!” a gunner says, “at three o’clock.” All eyes
Six black puff-clouds, close but high, no damage.
Then a dozen bursts (those boys are sharp)
And metal bounces through the ship, no damage
Tracking fire! Lib aflame at nine o’clock—two chutes.
We are ducks and they are hunters—from an airfield,
Ecrosnes you say, as if it helped.
Hold the course and hold the airspeed, bombing is
an art, an art.
Saint Cyr bears east—French West Point, you know,
the German billet ...
Bombs away! Tag, you’re it!
Tail gunner sees them hit.
You chart the bursts on target photos; were people
riding in those trains?
More flak. Group astern is catching Hell.
The Eiffel Tower - straining you find it north of target.
“Three-thirty-two—Three-Three-Two,” you say, allow-
ing time for turn. Now!
* * * *
The pilot turns. Your buddy Cecil, swings your thirty B. Isom of Ennis, Texas ,
Swings our tons of death to north and west. Guided by a kid from the Bronx who had trouble passing plane geometry!
Sweet Sue is going home.
Les Champs is straight and white, can’t find Les
Tuilleries. (From where my Dad went up in a hot air balloon in 1917.)
Beauvais to the right. Four degrees left.
Another turn. Some flak from near Dieppe, then out
into the blessed Channel.
* * * *
Alter course for home. You breathe again and
oxygen is sweet.
Wagner asks, “Sir, we getting back in time for chow?”
Tail says, “Z for Zebra’s falling back, two engines
Formation loosens, boats again—two hundred, four
abreast, and steaming south.
Letting down, thirty-three minutes to base. Another
windshift, alter course again.
The coast, the beautiful English coast.
We cross it lower than before, the pattern varies,
but who questions St. Peter at the gate?
Then homeward, over eight green airfields, ours the
(Sweetheart, airfields look alike, like soldiers and
problems form a distance.)
Camouflaged, but unmistaken, home.
Peel off, using east-west runway. Down.
* * * *
Ground crew, eager for the damage, counts us as
we touch to earth. Our commander, Col. Jimmy Stewart, will debrief us!
("Did you actually see where your bombs hit or are you assuming lieutenant?"
That shyly concise movie smile. He'll be a general before the year is out.)
Ambulances wait. Red-crossed horses at the barrier.
We’ve started to reverse the Hitler legend. This
putsch is on us.
“How’s the invasion, Lieutenant? This your tenth
mission?” says the crew chief, fingering a flak break.
Interrogation, hot coffee. Dull today. Photos will
supply the answers. Flak here and here and here and
here. You transfer X’s from your map to his.
Beaming Major feeds you candy bars.(Did you have
a shortage here, darling?)
Little boys come home for dinner, errand flown as
Food and sleep.
* * * *
And overheard the buoyant Heaven holds cheapest
that to it most dear. The lives of young warriors.
(I’m afraid to fly now, sweetheart, and I won’t if you
The pattern of the Free New Europe, thrust upon
(Where are the million unborn families escaping
To blackened Ruhrs and shattered Hamburgs, east
to proud Berlin we march.
Little boys with man-hearts, (We’re older now, wife,
and our hearts are fires of impatience.)
Playing death-tag with the kids across the way in
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