combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 02 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2004

Soldier's Last Letter


PVT Billy Smith, US Army

          Hi Grandpa. Today is June 6, 1944, and we have been on this ship for several days, waiting to hit the beach. Every day we get up and check the weather. That is, those that can get up. We are soldiers and not sailors, so many of us have been seasick since we left port. I have been lucky and adjusted pretty quickly to the ship's movements. Though I do get a little queasy when a big storm wave rocks the ship. We learned fast not to call it a boat.

          Well we were just told that today is the day we hit the beach and drive those Krauts back to Germany. Why, when they see all of us Yanks hit that beach they will probably turn tail and run.

          Our sergeant reminds me a lot of you. He is a veteran of the last war and always going on about how bad war is. He keeps telling us not to be so cocky. He says the Germans are mean s.o.b.'s and will fight to the last man. Our LT, who is just out of college and close to our age, says not to listen to the Sarge. He is only trying to scare us.

          Those Krauts know we are, by far, the better fighting army and if they know what is good for them they will run for home. If they don't, we will whip their butts and send them home with their tails between their legs.

          Well it's time for us to assemble and get ready to board the landing boats. I will finish this from some nice French Villa later today, or tomorrow at the latest.


PVT Billy Smith, US Army

          Well Gramps, you and our Sarge were right, war is hell! We have been pinned down on this beach for three days now. Those Germans are excellent soldiers and have us pinned with machine guns and artillery. The weather is too bad to call the fly-boys in for air strikes.

          Gramps, don't show this to Granny or Mom, but I am scared and don't want to die. I am going to tell you about the last three days and if I don't make it home, and there is ever another war, I want you to read it to my little Joey. I want him to know how horrible war really is. I hope and pray you never have to read it to him.

          The Germans opened fire on us while we were still in the landing boats. Like I said before, many of the men were sick and could hardly stand up, but when the Germans opened up on us they recovered in a hurry. The Germans fired cannons, mortars, machine guns, artillery and rifles at us. Men, that moments before could not stand, suddenly could not only stand but could also run. At least some did. Some never got the chance.

          Many men never got as far as the beach. Our LT, the one I told you about, was one of those who didn't make it to the beach. An artillery shell hit right next to our boat and killed him and two others as they left the boat. The rest of us just froze as we looked at what was left of their bodies. The water was red around the ramp from their blood. Another three or four men were hit by machine gun fire before the Sarge got us moving again.

          Sarge told us to take cover on the beach. Only there wasn't really any cover on the beach. Just a few anti-tank pillions and sand dunes. The Germans had the high ground overlooking the beach. It was like shooting ducks on a pond, and we were the ducks.

          My buddies and I tried to stay together but we couldn't. Sarge tried to help keep us together but it was impossible. There was so much confusion and so many men. We were all scared and running for any cover we could find.

          We were no longer the big brave soldiers we had been on the ship. Now we were scared little boys, wishing we were home with our mothers. I am not ashamed to say I was more scared then I ever thought was possible. I know one thing. I will never again call any one yellow or a coward. Under the right circumstances we are all cowards.

          Once the Sarge got us moving we hit the beach running, looking for a place to hide. There were mortar and artillery rounds exploding every where. Rifle and machine gun fire was so heavy it was one constant sound, broken only by the boom of the big shells. Men were falling everywhere. We just looked for cover wherever we could find it.

          I fell down behind a sand dune with a guy from another unit. Rifle fire was kicking sand up right over our heads. Shells were exploding closer and closer. A large artillery round landed close and left a big crater in the sand. We decided to move to that crater for more cover. It was just a quick dash but the Germans were firing from every where. We ran from the dune and dived into the crater just as a shell exploded. I landed in the bottom of the crater and looked up. I saw the other guy's hand hanging over the rim. I thought he must be hurt so I grabbed his hand to pull him in. Only there was no body attached to that arm. I screamed and climbed out of there as fast as I could. I ran to a nearby pillion. I hunkered behind it, shaking all over. That pillion didn't give much cover. Chunks of cement were breaking off and hitting me every time a bullet hit the pillion. I knew I couldn't stay there. I saw another crater nearby and dived into it. There were two soldiers already there. One was dead and the other badly hurt. I started to yell for a medic but stopped when I realized the dead man was a medic. Besides, it was so loud no one would have heard me. They couldn't get to us even if they did. They couldn't help anyway. The wounded soldier was unconscious and I could tell he would never wake up.

          I just sat down and started to cry. I went to put my hands up to my face but couldn't. That was when I realized I still had my rifle in my hands. I had not fired a shot but somehow, I had managed to hold onto my rifle.

          The tears were running down my face, but suddenly, I was no longer afraid. At least not the kind of afraid that keeps you from acting. My fear was replaced by anger, as I realized that American soldiers, like myself, were being killed by the hundreds on this beach.

          I had to do something. I had to fight back. I started firing toward the German lines. I don't know if I hit any one or not, though I am pretty sure I did. It didn't matter if I hit anyone, as long as I was firing in their direction. I moved from crater to crater and saw so many dead and wounded young men. I will never forget crossing that beach. I finely got to a bunch of our men who had made it as far as the dune grass.

          I jumped into a large crater and there was my Sarge. He said everything was so confused and the men had gotten so separated that he decided the best thing to do was to get to the front and let us catch up with him. He said I was the first to make it that far. He also said that he figured at least half of our outfit was either dead or wounded.

          There was another man with Sarge. He was about Sarge's age, but only a Private. I must have had a strange look on my face when I looked at his stripe, for he laughed and said "Easy come, easy go. If I had all the stripes I've lost, I would be a general now. But rank don't mean nothing out here boy. I ain't never heard of a bullet being choosy". He had a good point.

          As darkness fell we sat down and gave our guns a rest. The rifle fire fell off but not the artillery. Now it was not a constant sound, you could hear every shot. You could also hear the screams and cries of men. Wounded men were begging for help, or to die. Some men started moving from cover to cover either to help the wounded or to get farther up the beach. Suddenly tracers exploded lighting up the night sky and silhouetting the men for the German riflemen. They started firing at once and men were falling everywhere. By the time the tracers died out all of the men who were able had found cover. That happened again and again all night, but each time there were fewer men caught in the light.

          As we were sitting there, the Sarge looked at me and said, "You're lucky son, very lucky." I wasn't sure what he meant, but figured he was talking about me being with him. He soon explained himself. He was thinking out loud as much as he was talking to me, and the Private was nodding his head in agreement with the Sarge. He went on, "You just joined this Company before we shipped out, so you haven't had time to make any strong ties. You could move forward without worrying about your best friend that you had promised to stay with. You didn't have to be afraid to look at every body for fear it might be him. You hit the beach with a lot less baggage than a lot of these men."

          I thought back to the soldier in the first crater and what it would have been like had that been my best friend's arm and not a stranger's. It caused a cold chill to go down my back. As bad as it had been it would have been so much worse if he had been a close friend.

          We stayed where we were for hours. Catching a few winks between firefights and trying to stay warm. If I ever get out of here I don't care if I never see another beach. It is the coldest place in the world. Especially in wet combat gear. We all left the ship with dry socks in our packs. Now, if we still had our packs, everything in them would be soaking wet. Besides, I would be afraid to take my boots off now, for as soon as I did the Germans might attack and I would be caught barefoot. I think I must have about five pounds of sand in each boot, along with a couple of gallons of water.

          About an hour before first light the Sarge said it was time for us to move. I looked at him and said that we would get caught in the tracers and killed. He said we would have to chance it because the Germans knew where we were and with the light they would hit our spot with everything they had. What he said made sense and the three of us moved out. We were in luck, for we were able to move to another spot and dig ourselves in before the next tracers went off. When they did, I started to fire, but the Sarge stopped me. He said they were trying to mark everyone's location before sun up. So I sat back down and didn't fire. We listened to the surrounding fire. Most of which was coming from the German side. I knew that meant the word had gotten around and most of our guys were trying to keep their locations secret.

          It was really hard not to go to the screams of the wounded, but there was truthfully nothing we could do for most of them. As terrible as it sounds, we had to worry about ourselves and staying alive. We didn't have any place to take the wounded. All we had was a narrow strip of beach with ocean on one side and the Germans on the other. If we could break through the German lines, we could then get help to our wounded.

          With first light the fighting started all over again, but everyone on our side had aged, and gained a lot of experience, in just a few short hours. It had been a hard lesson, but you learned it if you wanted to stay among the living.


PVT Billy Smith, US Army

          Well Gramps, I am back. Today is the 11th of June and we are off the beach.

          Being trapped on that beach was terrible, Gramps. Watching and listening to men die, and seeing them blown apart all around you.

          We were so sure that once we broke free from that beach and moved inland things would be better. Once again we were wrong.

          We had seen enough death. We knew we had killed a lot of Germans, but they had just been a faceless enemy across yards of sand. Now we were forced into some hand to hand combat. We had been trained for this, but we were still not prepared to look into another mans face as we killed him. They were just young men, like us, following orders and trying to stay alive. Looking down your rifle barrel and shooting at an enemy is easy, but having that enemy jump out from behind a rock or tree with his bayonet aimed at your heart is hard. They are on you before you can get to your side arm or swing your rifle around. You fight with them and try to hold them off long enough to draw your Kabar. If there is an advantage it's that a knife is easier to handle up close then a bayonet on the end of a rifle. In training we would stick our knife or bayonet into dummies, stuffed with straw or sawdust, but in real life it was nothing like that. With a person you can feel a knife cutting through skin and muscle. You can feel it almost jar a knife out of your hand when the knife hits a bone. You can tell if the blade breaks a bone or deflects off one. The blood gets on the handle and makes the knife slick and hard to hold. You can feel the knife taking the persons life away. You are so close you can look into their blue eyes and see first, the fear and then the knowledge that they are going to die. I wonder if they sense the same thing when they look into our eyes?

          I have cleaned a lot of game on our hunting trips, Gramps, but nothing could prepare me for seeing a man ripped open by a bayonet. I can't begin to describe how terrible a sight that is. If, and when, I get home, I swear I will never again kill any living thing.

          I remember reading stories and seeing pictures in schoolbooks about how beautiful France is. That may have been true in the past but now it is only a place of death. There is so much fear. The buildings have almost all been damaged or destroyed by bombs and bodies are everywhere.

          The thing I will remember longest is the terrible smell of death. It just hangs in the air waiting to smother you. All the wind and rain in the world can never make it go away.

          Well Gramps, the Sarge just came by and said we need to get some rest for we are going to take the town tomorrow. The Germans are real dug in and it will be house to house fighting. I will finish this once we get settled into town.

          I am getting to be a real pro at this. I know it will be hard, and lots of men will die, on both sides, but I also know we will defeat the Germans. We have to for the sake of freedom and I have to believe God is on the side of freedom.

United States Army
War Department
Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. Smith,

          We regret to inform you that your grandson, Private William Smith, ....

by Delores Jones-Dennis
... who is a grandmother of three and whose father was an infantryman in the D-Day invasion during World War Two; and her stories have also been published in Sierra Seasons and Reminisce magazines.