As Private Cory Barratt stood in line to load into the plane, his mind wrestled with thoughts of the upcoming invasion he’d take part in. He knew that in a few long and grueling hours, every decision he made could mean life or death. After years of planning, the Allies would finally launch one of the largest invasion forces ever in order to attempt to establish a beachhead, and eventually a new front, in France. However, before the Allies could take the beach men like Barratt would be dropped behind enemy lines to carry out their missions, completely surrounded until support arrived the next day. The young private tried to divert his mind elsewhere in order to distract himself from the pressure of the situation. Barratt remembered himself as a fresh-faced eighteen year-old eager to enlist, thinking this World War would be his great adventure. Like so many before him, he was now having second thoughts about his younger self’s decision to join the new up-and-coming unit known as the Airborne. Although the extra money sounded all well and good back in the States, a pay cut here in England wouldn’t be too disheartening. Just then, another man in front of Barratt boarded the plane and another memory rushed through the young soldier’s head. Now he remembered his time in training under the hot Georgia sun and the hours of intense drills designed to test everything the body had to offer. After all, there was a reason that his own 101st Airborne division was considered the best. Along with those memories, came ones of moments shared with his comrades during a time when they all felt invincible and the war seemed all but non-existent. Now was not that time.
Hauling himself and his two hundred plus pounds of equipment into the plane, emotions rushed through the young soldier and his blood pumped through his body at a rate he had never experienced before. He had to duck to fit his six foot frame through the small doorway. Barratt tried to focus on putting one foot in front of the other while proceeding down the aisle to his seat. His load hit the seat hard, but the physical relief played no part in his emotions. While he sat in the constant silence, Barratt’s eyes drifted around the plane, and rested on the eight men between him and the door. Eight men. He would have to wait for eight men to jump before he could escape himself. Looking down, Barratt didn’t want to show his emotions in front of the others; surely they all felt the same feelings of anxiety and helplessness. They soon would all have to endure the constant barrage of enemy anti-aircraft fire with just a couple inches of metal underneath them. Not a single man spoke and the lack of noise only seemed to feed the mind. Barratt now diverted his attention to the mission his company had been given. It was easy for him to visualize the railroad junction that he would capture. After all, he had studied the maps and aerial photographs for hours and knew every landmark between his drop zone and target as if he grew up in the French countryside. Barratt directed his gaze out of the window and saw the grey clouds that loomed over the staging area. He had grown accustomed to the unpleasant English weather, but he still couldn’t believe that high command would risk an entire invasion force in what seemed to be an approaching storm. After what seemed to be years of waiting, the engines finally roared to life in a spectacular fashion. The metal floors that seemed so lifeless only moments before now buzzed in synchrony with the engines. Barratt’s plane started to slowly roll forward. As it chugged down the runway, he felt it quickly pick up speed and effortlessly lift off from the English countryside. The private felt a sense of astonishment at how gracefully such a large vehicle accelerated and left the ground. Perhaps he might have enjoyed if there hadn’t been hundreds of angry Krauts waiting for him on the other side. His plane joined a fleet of hundreds of other troop carriers all en route to the invasion. Their journey to Normandy had begun.
Barratt could see the English Channel tossing and turning below him. Out of the window he saw the lights of friendly destroyers prowling the seas, ready to rescue any planes that went for a swim. The plane pulled its nose up and they gained altitude slowly but surely. Land soon broke into view beneath and although nothing was said, it was understood they were now over France. With the sight came fear, a fear that gripped every single man in the plane and reminded him that he was one step closer to his possible doom. It showed on the faces of the men despite their efforts to hide it. As soon as they were a couple miles inland, the sky lit up like a candle with anti-aircraft fire. Flashes of bright yellow and orange engulfed the planes. Barratt’s plane made a sharp turn, narrowly missing a streak of flak intended for them. Just when he felt God had been watching over him, a light flashed over his left shoulder through the window behind him. He turned and saw a fellow plane burst into flames and plummet into the blanket of darkness below. A red light flashed from within the plane seconds later, signaling the men to prepare to jump. At his jumpmaster’s orders, Barratt hauled himself up to a standing position and hooked up to the static line that ran the length of the plane. Although the red light should have been a welcome sign to prepare to jump and leave the aircraft, Barratt was suspicious. It seemed that the light flashed too prematurely for them to be over the correct drop zone. As he hesitated, another series of explosions erupted even closer and he no longer cared where he jumped, as long as it was soon. The enemy fire increased again, causing the plane to rattle out of control throwing men to the left and right. Barratt somehow managed to stay rooted to his position, even more eager to get out of the plane that was now a deathtrap. Just then the private noticed the most outrageous, indescribable feeling flowing through his body. There was no time to characterize it either, as the green light flashed and the first man leapt out of the door. He felt himself creep closer and closer to the door while he witnessed one man after another disappear into the sky. In the back of his mind he knew that at any moment the plane could go down in a heap of fiery metal. As he stepped into the doorway, the black abyss of the night loomed below him and the earth seemed miles away. While his head told him this, his feet did the decision making and stepped forward into the night.
He felt the shock of his parachute open, which was a bit rougher than it should have been. Barratt had his rifle and much of his ammunition stowed in an equipment bag tied to his ankle. The force of his chute opening was so rough that the rope snapped, and the bag plummeted to the dirt below. A quick look around the sky revealed the sight of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of fellow parachutes. Barratt’s feeling of helplessness returned like an unwanted cold and lingered while he drifted down. That quickly diminished when a streak of light zipped past his face and he realized that he was coming under enemy fire while still one hundred feet in the air. The Earth got closer; foot by foot, inch by inch. The impact when he hit the ground was nothing like the effortless landings in training. His knees instantly buckled under his own weight and he was flat on his back in France before he knew it. He spotted two of the men from his plane standing thirty feet over in the same field working to get their harnesses off. Just as he stood to do the same, a machine gun burst out in a clatter of noise cutting both men down where they stood. Barratt instantly flattened himself to the ground and frantically dug through his boot for the knife he always kept there. Locating it quickly, he worked on the straps that bound him to his heavy harness. The contraption that had just saved him from plummeting through the sky may now be his cause of death. Fortunately, he was soon able to free himself and collect his head. The machine gun opened up again, kicking up dirt all around him. He scrambled through the hedgerow while bullets whizzed by, barely escaping those meant for him. He was now completely alone behind enemy lines with nothing but his pistol and knife. The area looked unfamiliar; none of the landmarks he studied before the jump were there. All he saw were fields and an occasional farmhouse, but no recognizable buildings. Barratt could no longer carry out his mission. How could he with no knowledge of his exact location? With all hope slowly leaving him, he resolved to find somebody, anybody that wore the same uniform as he did, in order to rid himself of a desperate feeling of loneliness. He walked for what felt like miles through the Normandy countryside under the cover of night. The moon peeked out from behind the clouds, and offered some light. Friendly planes roared overhead as they supplied the cause with even more men. He moved swiftly and quietly, dodging multiple German patrols and escaping any contact with enemy forces.
Just when his search seemed pointless, Barratt heard footsteps coming from the opposite side of the hedgerow. He had no idea whether they were friend or foe, so he used the passcode every Allied soldier knew. “Flash,” he said in a loud whisper.
Seconds passed. Just when Barratt was about to blindly shoot through the hedgerow, the correct response was heard: “Thunder.”
Another soldier, one that he had never seen before, emerged from the other side of the shrubs. Fearing the worst, Barratt he kept his pistol close by his side while asking, “Who the hell are you and where the hell is everybody else?”
Calmly responding, the soldier answered, “Relax kid, I’m as confused as you are. I was just dropped in the middle of nowhere, walked around and met you... wait where’s your rifle?”
Responding in a low tone for safety Barratt murmured, “Lost it on the drop. Do you have any idea which way we should go?” His acquaintance slowly turned his head and the man’s pale face reflected the moon’s glow. He looked no older than Barratt himself.
After a short pause he replied, “Yeah, I think we have to…” Just then a shot rang out and pierced the helmet of the young soldier. The lifeless body slumped to the ground and Barratt quickly dove through the hedgerow the soldier had just come from. He ran about thirty feet until he came upon a shallow ditch. Once he took cover, the reality of the situation really sunk in. That bullet was only about a foot from his own head, and that the corpse could have easily been him. He hadn’t even got the soldier’s name and now the guy was lying dead on a field in France. The thoughts sent a cold shiver through his body, but there was nowhere to run. Suddenly the quiet was interrupted by sounds of footsteps and low whispering. As the sounds got closer, it became apparent that the whispers were not in English. This was it for him. His first encounter with the enemy would be over before it began. The sounds of dirt being slowly crunched underneath boots became louder and louder. He readied his pistol and was about to spring out at the voices that were now only feet from him, when suddenly more guns opened up and Barratt witnessed the bodies of the Germans fall to the ground.
A squad of soldiers with American uniforms revealed themselves. One man stood out from the rest and it was obvious he was in charge. Holding a smoking Thompson, the man approached him and looked down saying; “You’re with us. There’s a rally point about five miles from here, some little town. I’m Lieutenant Collier.” As the man finished his sentence he had already began to move on. Lost for words, Barratt accepted the news and took up a spot in the squad. There were only seven of them in total and none of the men were from his company. The private could already tell the lieutenant was no-nonsense career military. Barratt remembered seeing his tough and weathered face around the marshalling area back in southern England. The officer’s tall and well-built physique made him stand out, and he clearly had more combat experience then most American troops in Normandy. No matter how unwelcoming the man appeared to be, he was much better than a barrage of German bullets.
In the next thirty minutes, the small squad closed down a fair amount of the five mile distance. No words were exchanged for fear of the enemy overhearing them. The moon still hung in the sky, but the clouds blocked all except an occasional glimpse of extra light. The planes that had once streaked proudly across the sky, had now ceased there runs. While on the path to the rally point, the lead man stopped and motioned for the squad to take a knee. Everyone listened for even the slightest rustle, but nothing arose. Barratt’s heart was in his throat. The silence gave him that same desolate feeling as after the incident with the nameless soldier. When all seemed clear, a barrage of bullets descended on them and everyone dove through the hedgerows that ran parallel to the road. The branches were torn apart by the weight of the soldiers crashing through them. Once on the other side, the firing quickly ceased.
“Is anyone hit?” a corporal blurted out.
Another responded, “Lieutenant Collier is still on the road.”
“C’mon, we can cut through these fields and make it to the town. Collier is dead. We can’t help him,” the corporal shouted back. Barratt could hear the lieutenant’s moans from the road; he was still alive. Collier had just saved his life. How he could he leave him to bleed out on a dirt road in France? The squad started to shift over towards the corporal, but the private’s feet wouldn’t budge. An insane idea ran through his mind, one he could not believe he would carry out. Barratt took three deep breaths and rushed back through the hedgerow towards the body. Grabbing Collier by his shoulder straps, he dragged him back towards the hedgerow. The Germans opened up again and Barratt felt a sharp pain in his left thigh as plunged back through the bushes. Once on the other side, he grabbed his leg while an excruciating pain shot through his body. He raised his hand to his face, and saw that it was covered in a deep crimson red. The wound was bleeding fast. The others were nowhere in sight. Adrenaline started pumping through the young soldier’s veins as he mustered enough strength to stand. He pulled the officer up and supported him as they began their grueling journey. Despite pain and suffering, Barratt carried Collier the remaining three miles to the rally point and collapsed on the outskirts of town. Lookouts identified them in the dark early hours of the morning, and immediately rushed to their aid, moving the private and lieutenant to a makeshift aid station in a church. Barratt was laid out on a wooden table and could see four or five heads busy at work. They towered over him, working with a sense of urgency. He looked around as his vision became darker and darker. Finally, everything went black.
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