Somewhat more than 40 years ago my father’s boss told his D-Day story. It was a good story and I’ll try to recapitulate here, but I’ve never before tried to remember it or write it down. My father is now dead and his boss died long before him, I think perhaps my mother and brother may have heard this story and can help correct it. It’s possible some of this story has been mixed up in my memory with other stories of D-Day. In particular, this seems like something I have read or seen in fiction or documentary.
My dad’s future boss, John, was an artilleryman. His glider, loaded with some artillery piece, was deployed with paratroopers the night before the amphibious assault. They were intended to land behind enemy lines. But something went wrong and his glider was separated from the paratroopers and crashed alone deep behind the Normandy coast. I think John was the only survivor, or maybe he was separated from his squadmates in some other way, but regardless he was alone but uninjured, lost somewhere in northwestern France. He only knew that the coast was somewhere to the west, so he started walking west.
Some hours later, moving stealthily through the dark French countryside, John heard two German voices. He happened upon or surprised two German soldiers who were unable to reach their weapons. The way John told the story, they were in some delicate situation: perhaps going to the bathroom. John ordered one of the soldiers to disarm and tie up the other one’s hands, and he marched them westward at gunpoint along the road.
During the long hike they were able to make a little conversation. I think John spoke some German, and maybe one or both of the soldiers knew some English. The Germans were very hungry and had been raiding farmhouses. John had some rations and they were grateful to share.
At some point they encountered an American group moving inland. John surrendered his prisoners to them and was later able to rejoin the remnants of his battalion.
He maintained some contact with these two German guys after the war. They had spent the rest of the war in a POW camp, and were glad for that. They were treated better — ate better, slept better, stayed cleaner, were beaten less — in an American POW camp than they had been in the Wehrmacht.
When I think about America, what makes us a great nation, I think of those German guys, and how we treated them. A great nation treats its enemy prisoners better than its enemy treats its own soldiers.
I heard this story at least 40 years ago, so my memory of hearing this memory is now older than the original memory. I have written previously about the event horizon of memory — at that time I was considering the few surviving veterans of the First World War. There are not a lot of D-Day veterans left; soon this day too will pass over the line between “a thing we lived through” and “a thing we read about.”