I was drafted into the Army in April of 1943. Just ahead of the D-Day invasion in 1944, my company was stationed in England. I was a private at the time and – like all the others – my thoughts were squarely on the looming invasion for which we had trained so hard.
One night, something extraordinary happened. We GIs were gathered in an assembly area without an agenda when a soldier mounted the stage and began singing. Perhaps he felt the tension of what was to come on the battlefield in a few days. Or, it might have been his impromptu response to seeing hundreds of his army buddies assembled that night, awaiting instructions. Whatever the motivation, he sang a well-known Oscar Hammerstein song in a powerful baritone voice. It began:
“Give me some men
Who are stout-hearted men
Who will fight for the right they adore.”
He must have been professionally trained, for his voice was wonderful…but it was the brave lyrics he sang which registered most with us.
“Start me with ten
Who are stout-hearted men
And I’ll soon give you ten thousand more.
Shoulder to shoulder and bolder and bolder
They grow as they go to the fore.
Then there’s nothing in the world can halt or mar a plan
When stout hearted men stick together man to man.”
The song ended and another soldier took the stage. This time it wasn’t an enlisted man, but a lieutenant. In a sober voice, he asked for six volunteers. Headquarters needed six courageous men to cross the English Channel the next night, land behind the German shore installations, and determine exactly where the mines along the shore were located.
Absolute silence met the lieutenant’s announcement.
My heart pounded. Should I be the first one to stand? Was I trained well enough to volunteer for this mission? Was I so dedicated to defeating the enemy that I would risk my life in such a dramatic way? These questions raced through my mind. Fear grabbed me by the throat as I brought to mind what was at stake…land the countless risks.
The officer on stage must have been an expert in dramatic timing. Before any of us made a move, he said: “All right, men. Stand down. This is what might actually happen in the days ahead and I want all of you to be prepared to give your very best to the task at hand, no matter what it might demand.”
It took a while for my heart to stop racing and for my fear to subside. My sleep that night was filled with disturbing dreams of vivid dangers. To my recollection, I’ve never experienced such fear in my life, before or since. Authentic close calls during our landing in France and in the fighting across Europe which followed never elicited such a deep-seated fear response in me.