By Will Dabbs, MD
The man looked like the archetypal southern grandfather—skinny and old in immaculately pressed bib overalls and a button-down shirt fastened at the neck and wrists. He was never without a ball cap. I drove past his house every day as I went to work. Whenever he was outside, he would wave. I seldom gave him a second thought. You wouldn’t have, either.
One day, he came to my clinic complaining of arm pain. I asked him to roll up his sleeve and was surprised to find that his forearm was a veritable mass of scars. I inquired concerning the original injury, and he sheepishly explained that his arm was dirty with fragments from a German potato masher grenade. It had never been quite right since.
A Most Remarkable Man
At 0630 hours on 6 June 1944, this old man crouched in a British Landing Craft Assault churning toward Omaha Beach as a member of the 2nd Ranger Battalion. He carried a Browning Automatic Rifle and landed in the first wave.
He and I spoke often of the war. I explained that every time he came to see me as a patient, he owed me a fresh war story. The man was old and a widower. I’m fairly certain he enjoyed the attention. Lord knows I enjoyed dispensing it. He once told me what D-Day smelled like. If you’re curious—a weirdly unique mixture of burnt cordite, petroleum, and blood.
He obviously survived the invasion as well as the hell of the bocage country that followed. He lost two toes in the Bulge and met General Patton twice. He said the man had a presence. He picked up the frags in the Hurtgen Forest. He despised that place.
My buddy was once hidden in a ditch on a reconnaissance patrol feeling out German strength for Patton’s Third Army. The big German tanks were roaring past almost close enough to touch.
He said a motorcycle with a sidecar rumbled up and stopped right in front of him. The driver remained on the bike, while the Kraut officer in the sidecar stood up and peered in the opposite direction with what he described as an exceptionally nice pair of binoculars. My friend rose up out of the grass, leveled his BAR, and emptied its 20-round magazine, killing both of the German soldiers. He then “scampered” (his word) out onto the road and retrieved the binoculars.
His patrol leader was livid. He said the ass-chewing he received was simply life-changing. Then he got a conspiratorial look on his face, leaned forward, and said with a wry grin, “But I still got those binoculars back at the house…”
With the war finally over, he took a troop ship back across the Atlantic. Enroute they hit a storm. He revealed that was the most terrified he had been during the entire war. After all he had seen and done he was afraid the ship was going to capsize and that he would drown in the icy cold waters of the dark Atlantic.
Once he finally got home, his mother threw him a party. Friends and family came from all around to celebrate the fact that he had made it home safely and intact. They all stayed up visiting until late, and then all the guests gradually went home.
His mom then took him to his bedroom. She had maintained it exactly as it had been three years before when he had left Yocona, Mississippi, to become a Ranger. She hadn’t changed a thing. She tucked him in bed and then went to her own room, changed into her night clothes, and climbed into bed herself.
In his words, “I sat there in the dark staring at the ceiling, and I just couldn’t do it. So I got up and tipped outside to the woodshed and fetched myself a shovel. Then I dug a hole in the backyard and crawled into it. I found that after a year under fire I could no longer sleep above ground.”
He continued, “My mom heard the noise and came out to investigate in her nightgown. When she found me curled up in that hole and realized for the first time what I had been through and how it had changed me, she fell to her knees and wept.”
How does one respond to that? I just sat there, took his hand, and tried desperately not to embarrass myself.
I took my friend for granted. I assumed he would always be there—right down the road, waving at me as I went to work. But that was obviously not the case. We are all living under a death sentence. My buddy developed a vicious aspiration pneumonia and then, just like that, he was gone. With the crystalline clarity of hindsight I now appreciate that this quiet little invisible man was actually something quite remarkable indeed.