Authors: Meg Waite Clayton
“M3s,” a boy on another stretcher said. One of the ways soldiers passed time in the foxholes was by identifying the shells by sound.
The Count said, “Y’all can swap out this soldier.”
He smiled at Liv and me then, his eyes between his surgical mask and his helmet suggesting he didn’t mind Liv’s flash or my questions. Some of the surgeons did mind, of course. Some
glared at us as if we ought to start administering morphine or step out of the damned way.
As the shelling continued, boys in various beds called out identifiers for each whoosh. A stretcher crew moved the Count’s patient away, leaving the two sawhorses that formed his operating table to be filled by another wounded soldier’s stretcher. And the rhythm of the room continued against the background percussion of the shells: the doctors asking for scalpels and suction, teams moving the wounded, nurses soothing the waiting.
It seemed the shelling was letting up when one of the boys cried out “A Great Gustaf!” his words barely out before a metallic shriek filled the tent.
The hospital staff hit the ground, Liv and me with them, and Annette, too, Annette holding the IV needle up so it didn’t touch the ground.
A boom sounded and the ground trembled.
Almost before the sound dissipated, Annette was back on her feet, saying, “Don’t worry, Joey. Our tent is marked with a red cross.”
Liv and I stood, too, Liv pulling a fresh flashbulb from her pocket—broken.
“Do you learn all the boys’ names?” she asked Annette as she repositioned her camera to photograph the doctors removing their surgical gloves and putting on clean ones, the staff collecting instruments to be resterilized.
“The ones from home, at least,” Annette said. “Joey here is from Toms River, aren’t you, Joey?” She warned the boy that he would feel a stick, as if the IV needle could possibly cause him more pain than his leg, which no longer had a knee or calf or foot. “I think it makes them feel a little better to be taken care of by a girl from home,” she said to Liv.
Another shell screamed overhead, and we again hit the ground, Annette saying, “Hold your arm still where the needle is, Joey. Hold still and you’ll be fine.”
The roar. The explosion. The lights flickering and then failing while earth pelted the tent walls as if the world outside had shattered. I was still on the ground when Annette’s voice came from above me, calling into the darkness for someone to see about the electrical circuit.
“Good job, Joey,” she said. “Now don’t mind the dark. I’m right here.”
A flashlight shone, and another, lighting the surgeons’ hands as the surgical gloves and instruments were again changed for sterile ones. Liv was left without enough light by which to photograph well. We had that excuse to quit, and we did want to quit; we wanted to run for the relative safety of the slit trenches. But even as artillery fire flared in spots of light through the tent canvas and shrapnel from the antiaircraft guns rained down, the hospital staff continued working by flashlight, pausing only to tighten the straps of their combat helmets or to curse the German planes. And so we, too, carried on. Liv removed her flash attachment so as not to startle anyone in the darkness, and adjusted her shutter speed and aperture. I borrowed a flashlight to hold between my chin and neck while I jotted down notes.
I was watching the Count finger a patient’s intestines for bullet holes and shell fragments in the beam of a flashlight when Liv whispered something about her father.
“Work like this might have saved him,” she said with a longing in her voice that made me think of the telegram, perhaps news of her father. Was her father in this war?
“Might have saved him from what?” I asked, thinking she might want to talk about it now. War does that. The sense
of your own mortality can make you want to be known by someone, just in case.
Liv turned her camera on its tripod to face the Count, flipped the dark slide over, reinserted the film holder, and adjusted the lens. She’d heard me, but didn’t want to allow that she had.
The Count, with a nod at the intestines in his hand, said, “Like a moth through a mitten, this one,” and Liv released the shutter, capturing the doctor’s easy manner despite the wounded and the mud, the German fire, the late hour and the limited light. This was why she’d brought the Speed Graphic: its bellows structure made it bulkier and more cumbersome than the Leica and you had to change the cut-film holder for each shot, but the larger-format film captured more detail, especially in low light.
From behind us, Joey asked for ice cream.
“You hang on, Joey!” Annette answered. Then, “I need a doc here! I need a doc!” with an alarm in her voice that hadn’t surfaced even in the worst of the shelling. “You hang on, Joey,” she said more calmly. “We’ll see about some ice cream after the doctor here fixes you up. What flavor do you want? You tell me. Strawberry? Chocolate? We have anything you want, Joey, you just tell me and I’ll get it for you right now.”
“Peach,” the boy said weakly.
“In a cup or a cone, Joey?” Annette said, and it seemed for a moment that she really might get this boy his peach ice cream.
The boy said, “God, I’m so cold.”
Annette started cooing in a frantic way then, saying, “Keep looking at me, Joey, keep looking at me, I’m going to get you peach ice cream and I’m going to get you back to Toms River.” Someone shone a flashlight on them so Joey could see Annette’s face, as close to him as a lover’s. “You’re going to
have such a good life back in Toms River with your girl, Joey. You’re going to have five kids and you’re going to eat whole gallons of peach ice cream together every Saturday night if you just keep looking at me. Joey, keep looking at me. Keep looking at me.”
Liv turned her tripod and took the shot, Annette’s face and the boy’s together in the single beam of the flashlight.
A doctor appeared at Joey’s stretcher, barking orders: he was not going to lose this boy who was some poor mother’s son. Liv shot photographs and I took notes as the team worked and worked.
Then they didn’t. They stopped working, and a silence settled over Joey.
The team dispersed, leaving Annette to cover his face. She blinked moist eyes as she whispered, “You have all the ice cream you want now, Joey. You have a cone for me. I’ll have peach, too.”
With my right hand, my pen between my fingers, I made a small sign of the cross over my heart. I couldn’t cry, I reminded myself. I was a war correspondent, a professional. I was to remain stoic lest any emotion I showed add pain to those whose lives I’d been sent to write about. If I couldn’t take it, I was to let my editor know and he’d send someone to replace me.
As a stretcher crew came to move the dead boy out, Liv photographed the end of his stretcher: the single, lonely combat boot.
ack in our tent, Marie was rolled up in her bedroll under her cot but still awake, just returned from the muddy trench behind the tent. Liv and I climbed under our cots, too, as if that would provide any protection at all. I buried my notes from
the operating room underneath me lest they be destroyed, and suggested Liv do the same with her film. We both tucked our clothes into our bedrolls, to keep them dry. And while in the distance German bombers droned and American ack-ack answered, Liv said, “I don’t know anything about scalpels or morphine. All I know is shutter speeds,
-stops, angles of light.”
I said, “Most of the soldiers who make it here from the front, they survive, Liv.” But I, too, was having trouble shaking off the sound of the boy asking for peach ice cream, the inadequacy of what I could do even when I did my best. And the best of my words were no more likely to be published than were the best of Liv’s photos. The filthy, stricken, raw, bloodred wounded were too stark a contrast to the fresh-faced American heroes the public imagined. They would never get past the censors, much less newspaper editors focused on sales.
“Charles feels it’s the right thing to do, to stick with photos and stories that will go down well enough with the morning coffee,” Liv said. Her husband was the editor in chief of the
New York Daily Press
; Liv, who’d gone to work for him after we joined the war, moved to the Associated Press after she became Mrs. Charles Harper. Charles’s paper was in the AP consortium so he could still use her photos, and Liv would never have been accredited as a war photographer if she hadn’t moved to AP.
Marie wondered aloud what her fiancé was doing—a boy to whom she’d gotten engaged just after Pearl Harbor. He’d gone off to enlist, and she’d been heartbroken, and he’d returned without a uniform and she could neither go through with the wedding nor call it off, and she’d fled; she supposed that’s how she’d gotten to France. 4F. It meant only that her fiancé was disqualified from military service for medical reasons, but medical excuses were drummed up easily enough
that 4F carried the stink of cowardice as surely as did Liv’s husband remaining in New York.
“Charles was in Warsaw when the Germans invaded,” Liv said. “He and his photographer stayed even after the lines were cut and they couldn’t get stories or photos out.” She pulled her bedroll more tightly to her throat and shifted her head, awkward in her new steel helmet. “Even when the Polish government fled to Natȩczów, Charles stayed to cover the invasion.”
A clock tower in the next town marked three a.m., an echoing bong, bong, bong followed by silence, the absence of drone and ack-ack, which might last or might not.
“I brought a ball gown,” Liv whispered into the blackness, that late hour when it’s always easier to share the things we hold close.
“A gown?” Marie said just as I said, “Here? To France?”—our voices as soft as Liv’s: a secret revealed, a secret received.
Liv had stuffed the silk sheath in with her gear at the last moment, and evening gloves, too—gloves of soft kid leather that went up over her elbows, dyed the red of the dress.
“The gown folds up to be just a tiny little thing,” she said, and I imagined her gloved right hand in her editor in chief husband’s left, the two of them twirling around a ballroom, drinking champagne and laughing as nobody had laughed since the war began while, just blocks away, a child slept in a crib in the room next to theirs.
I said, “Three children, two sons and a daughter—that’s what I want someday.”
“I want five,” Marie said.
“A Renny and a Charles Jr.,” Liv said, “after the war.”
Liv said, “‘If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough’—that’s what Robert Capa says.” Her voice wistful, lacking the force she’d been full of when she’d ar
rived that morning. “But I’ve been an ocean away. I’m still miles away from the front while Capa and Frank Scherschel and Ralph Morse are already on their way to Paris, making their way with the troops toward the city, to the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Élysées and liberation, Allied troops marching in to throngs of crowds filling the streets, celebrating what will be the moment of the century. A moment that will make a photojournalist’s career.”
“Make your career,” Marie repeated under her breath, a reprimand. We were all supposed to be doing whatever we were meant to do to win the war. We were to follow orders. We were to set aside our discomfort. We were to do everything for the war effort, and nothing for ourselves.
“Well, for my part,” I said, smoothing over Marie’s censure and tucking away my own, “I figured I’d be an old maid by the time the boys returned home, so I thought I’d best come here to find a beau!” As if I’d skipped the whole routine of accreditation and vaccination, passport and visa and PX card, and gone directly to be measured for my Saks Fifth Avenue uniform—which had been the idea of my publisher’s wife, as had been my move from the typist pool to the books page, from journalist to foreign correspondent. Lord & Taylor had made Catherine Coyne’s uniform to order for the
; Savile Row had made Helen Kirkpatrick’s; and when Patricia Lochridge went to the Pacific for
Woman’s Home Companion
, Saks made hers, and Mrs. Stahlman insisted the
’s women readers would accept no less for their own “Intrepid Girl Reporter,” whom she insisted they have. That was the truth of how I got to Europe: my mother washed Mrs. Stahlman’s dishes and mopped her floors, and Mr. Stahlman owned the
, and Mrs. Stahlman—who wanted a lady war correspondent like the big-city papers—could imagine
me in a role I’d never imagined for myself. I’d lived my whole life on the wrong side of Nashville and that was my future, and this was my one shot to change that.
None of our reasons for going to war made sense, and yet they all did.
The drone of planes sounded again, faint but present, and Liv and Marie and I started singing together, lying underneath our cots and waiting for morning to come around. We sang softly, barely over whispers, just because it felt good to sing. “The White Cliffs of Dover.” “Always.” “As Time Goes By.” I closed my eyes to block out the shadow of canvas cot above me, the drone and the ack-ack, the sharp corner of my notepad pressing against my back. And I imagined I was a girl again, singing alongside Mama’s high, sweet soprano voice, just the two of us in harmony as we washed Mrs. Stahlman’s Wedgwood china in the big sink in the big kitchen at the Belle Meade mansion, where I used to imagine I might someday live.
If we really wanted to go to a battle, we simply showed up on the doorstep. The briefing officer would tell us where action would be that day. If we wanted to attend, we picked up a jeep and went. We might stay for two or three days, we might live in a foxhole or in a nearby farmhouse or go back to the base to file our stories.
letcher eased the jeep past a cluster of two dozen journalists’ tents, the mess tent, and the wireless trucks improbably mingling with spotted cows in a field along the drive of the Château de Vouilly, the US First Army press camp in Normandy—for the time being, anyway. The air was fresh with the smell of dawn mist and cows and new-mown hay. No cordite. No death. The countryside was alive with such a delightful racket of chirps and trills and hoots, the quacks and honks of ducks and geese, that Fletcher might have left the world of the war
behind entirely. And the stone home in the early light (not sunrise so much as a vague transition from starless black to gray haze) reminded him so much of his own family’s country house back in England that he just sat there for a moment, thinking of the evacuee schoolgirls billeted in Trefoil Hall, and of his parents, and of Elizabeth Houck-Smythe. It was only half five; the morning briefing wouldn’t start for hours. Half five on Tuesday, July 11. Edward’s birthday. His brother would have been twenty-nine.
Fletcher climbed from the jeep and crossed the little moat, following signs to a door to the left of the arched front entry. It opened into a long, cool hall: limestone floor, white walls, and blue doors running along the front of the château’s north wing. A dining room done in white with blue trim—now set up for the censors—was empty, as was a living room cleared of furniture and reloaded with rows of hard wooden chairs and small writing tables, with maps and charts hung on its walls. But at a table in the kitchen, a regal, white-haired woman chatted easily in French with an American corporal and several farmhands.
Bonjour! Je m’appelle Alexandrine Hamel
,” she said, greeting Fletcher with an enthusiasm that suggested this was exactly what her home was intended for, to provide for foreign journalists and the occasional military photographer. She offered him a glass of milk still warm from the cow, and introduced one of the men at the table as her son. The man nodded but did not rise.
Et mon épouse
,” the son said, nodding to a younger woman, who was pregnant, at the sink.
Vous avez été à Saint-Lô
” Madame Hamel asked Fletcher.
,” he answered, not offering more because of
the son, because this chap Hamel was safe in his château rather than in a German POW camp and that left Fletcher suspicious. Suspicion, he’d learned, served one well at war.
Vous aimeriez prendre un bain
,” Madame Hamel offered. “
La guerre prend un tres mauvais tour
Yes, Fletcher thought, a bath would be just the thing to wash away this bloody war, which was indeed going badly at Caen. He’d set off in his jeep with his gear, a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, five ten-in-one ration parcels (food enough for a month), and orders to trust his instincts, to return to the press camps or to England when he needed to return. He’d lasted a mere eleven days photographing the fighting at Caen, though—an objective meant to be taken on D-Day but still in German hands—before fear and exhaustion drove him here.
He glanced at the Hamel son’s warm, open face. Fletcher supposed that if he were at Trefoil Hall and the Germans marched into Chichester, he’d do whatever he needed to do to stay alive, too.
He ought not to accept Madame Hamel’s offer of a bath, he knew that. He ought not to impose. But he imagined his own mother in this position, and he heard voices in the hallway now, too—the censors arriving. So he accepted, asking only if he could get his film off first.
He asked the younger Madame Hamel when the baby was due, and when she said October, an image of Elizabeth pushing a pram through Hyde Park on a warm October day came unbidden, unwanted.
,” he said, silently hoping for them that their child would be a daughter who would never be sent to war.
The American corporal offered to show him the way to the darkroom, but Fletcher assured him he’d manage himself. He headed not to the darkroom, then, but rather directly to the
censors’ room, where he found his contact. As he waited for the man to get settled, Fletcher looked out through the wavy windowpanes crosshatched with safety tape to three herons floating in the moat below the window, raindrops plinking on the murky water. The walled pasture beyond the moat, where at Trefoil there was a proper garden, hosted spotted cows like the one Fletcher had shot the day before, there being no bovine ambulance to help the poor wounded beast. Beyond the cows, a charming outbuilding set into the stone pasture wall sprouted radio antennas—Fletcher’s excuse for this interlude from dead cows and dead soldiers and the possibility of dying himself. A booster rigged up here extended the 75-mile transmitter to 190, allowing transmission to London.
“All right, then,” the censor said, and Fletcher handed him two rolls of film to be developed and transmitted.
“Uncensored,” Fletcher said. The rest, he said, could be sent by courier.
“To British intelligence back in England—undeveloped and uncensored,” the censor confirmed.
Fletcher lowered his voice and asked about the Hamel son.
“He fought in the French army and spent some time imprisoned by the Germans,” the man answered as he marked the two rolls for processing. “But he was no good to them because of the leg.”
“The leg?” Fletcher said, registering why the son hadn’t stood to greet him.
“The Germans released him in the
, I believe. French workers volunteering to work in Germany in exchange for the release of prisoners. But of course the Germans only released prisoners they couldn’t get work out of anyway. Monsieur Hamel’s good luck, the fact that he will never walk well again. His ticket home.”
y the time Fletcher bathed and stopped by the mail room to send off his letters (to his parents, to the evacuee schoolgirls, to Elizabeth), the mess tent in the pasture was filled with correspondents eating a full hot breakfast. Fletcher grabbed a cup of tea (bitter, oversteeped American stuff) and a plate of eggs and bacon and toast, and he joined Matt Halton and Charles Lynch at one end of the table. The two Canadians had brought a basket of carrier pigeons along on the D-Day invasion, meaning to use the birds to send their reports back across the Channel—birds that, when released, headed instead directly toward Germany.
“Too bad about those Nazi birds,” Fletcher said by way of greeting.
“Traitors! Damn traitors!” Lynch replied, shaking his fist in the air as he had when the birds had flown the wrong way.
“Roebuck, you unsympathetic bum,” Halton said. Then to the others, “Careful of this one. He looks like one of us, but he’s a British spy.”
Fletcher nodded in greeting to the others, saying, “AFPU, actually.” The British Army Film and Photographic Unit. Fletcher had spent the first years of the war photographing bigwigs in England for the British military newspapers, a cushy position his father had arranged, that allowed the respect of a uniform without the danger—what Fletcher had wanted after Poland. It wasn’t until Edward died at Dieppe in August of 1942 that Fletcher had felt his own cowardice, and it was almost two years more before he joined the AFPU’s new No. 5 section, which was being formed to support the Normandy invasion. Fletcher hadn’t volunteered; he’d only agreed to the transfer. He was charged now with getting photographs
revealing the positions from which the Germans best fought, to identify the vulnerabilities of their pillboxes and tanks and planes—photographs that could communicate in a moment’s glance as much information as pages of military reports requiring hours to read, and with an accuracy that eyewitness reports could never match.
“I’m just a military photographer,” he said.
Halton said, “And the difference between a spy and a military photographer is what?”
Fletcher said, “Maybe we should have asked those Nazi birds of yours?”
Fletcher listened to the resultant laughter, thinking if he had any guts at all, he’d at least use a movie camera; you couldn’t wear a helmet while operating a movie camera because it banged the eyepiece. He’d gone to Poland without a helmet, certainly. But back then he couldn’t quite believe war would actually break out, and he was too young to believe he was mortal even if it did.
The journalists, as they ate, gossiped about Ernest Hemingway’s wife, Martha Gellhorn, a
reporter who had hidden in the loo of a hospital ship just after D-Day to become one of a very few correspondents—female or male—to go ashore for the assault on Omaha Beach. When she returned to London, she was stripped of her military accreditation, her travel papers, and her ration entitlements, and confined to a nurses’ training camp. “She hopped the fence and hitched a ride to an airfield,” someone said. “Left a note for Hemingway that she was off to Italy. Some RAF pilot flew her to Naples.”
Gossip. It was the favorite pastime at the press camps.
More coffee, more tea. More off-color jokes. “It could be worse,” someone said. “We could be in the Pacific, having our photos intentionally miscaptioned to leave the impression that
General MacArthur is at the front when he’s nowhere near it, or our articles censored out of existence if his military genius is brought into doubt.” And more posturing about which correspondent would do what by when, most importantly who would be the first to report from Paris. Fletcher listened quietly, remembering when he’d been one of this club, when he’d walked away from Oxford with only his camera, in search of adventure.
“So you’re Fletcher Roebuck,” an American said, a cameraman by his armband, so Fletcher gave him some respect.
“‘This crazy Brit who will stand up against anything for the photo’—that’s the way Charles Harper describes you,” the chap said. “He likes to tell how prescient you were in Poland, although of course that story makes Charles Harper himself prescient, too.”
Laughter again, this time at Charles’s expense. The American cameraman laughed the loudest.
But Charles Harper had saved Fletcher’s life on that street in Warsaw—or, if you believed Charles’s account of the story, then it was Fletcher who’d done the saving, and Charles whose life had been at risk. It had been exciting, Poland had been, but you couldn’t see how close to being killed you were until you arrived home and knew you had survived. And if you had any sense you found a nice girl and settled down to a normal life, like Charles had.
The cameraman said, “I guess the prospect of fatherhood is making Charles Harper soft, keeping him Stateside.”
Stars and Stripes
journalist replied, “But I heard Olivia Harper is here, in France.”
“You think Charles Harper’s wife is his only chance for fatherhood?” the cameraman replied.
Fletcher frowned as the others again laughed. Even in
Poland, Charles had girls, yes. A cameraman he and Charles had met in Warsaw—Julien Bryan—loved to joke with Charles’s Polish girls that Charles could only put them in stories while Julien could put them in the movies. That was before Charles married, though, and it was one thing to risk getting a girl pregnant when you were free to make it right, and quite another when you had a wife.
“To Charles Harper, a hell of a reporter,” Fletcher said.
“To hell with Harper,” the cameraman said. “To Paris!” And they raised their cups to that.
n the château’s living room, new maps and charts were swapped in for ones from the prior day, and journalists settling into the hard wooden chairs made plans to jeep together to the front or to meet back at the château that evening for a bit of hard cider from the tap in the kitchen or a neat whiskey, or two, or three. A. J. Liebling from
The New Yorker
was taking up a collection in hopes of acquiring a barrel of old Calvados from a neighboring farmer. The American cameraman from breakfast invited Fletcher to join in a poker game at the end of the day, but Fletcher claimed prior plans with Charles Harper; Fletcher couldn’t say why he wanted to yank the shirty little American’s chain, except that the chap slept in a dry bedroll in a tent and wore laundered uniforms, and came back to friendly poker games in the warmth of the correspondents’ room fireplace every night.
A hush fell as Monk Dickson took the front of the room and smiled his shy smile. “Shall we talk about where you can find the war today, if you’re so inclined?” he asked. He set to on the details: a million men, a half million tons of supplies, and two hundred thousand vehicles had landed on the beachhead,
which was now seventy miles wide. The next objective was the city of Saint-Lô and the commanding ground encircling it.
“Isn’t Paris in the other direction?” one of the correspondents called out.
Another answered, “I’ll have a glass of champagne waiting for you when you get there,” and everyone laughed.
A coordinated attack by three divisions through the hills protecting Saint-Lô originally scheduled for July 9 was going forward that morning, along a ten-mile front, Dickson explained. The Thirty-fifth Division was to take the right bank of the Vire, the elbow made by the river northwest of the city. The Second Division would make an assault against Hill 192. The Twenty-ninth would push toward the ridges along the Saint-Lô–Bayeux highway and Saint-Lô itself, to cut off the German reserves from the south and east.
Saint-Lô, Fletcher decided. If he had any guts, he’d still be with the soldiers at Caen rather than eating hot eggs in a press camp and casting suspicion on a Frenchman who had by some miracle survived a German camp. But Fletcher couldn’t bear to return to Caen.