0645, 6 June 1944. D-Day
Omaha Beach, Normandy, France
You are one among one hundred and sixty thousand, about to join the biggest battle of the 20th century.
The sun has been up for well over an hour, but you haven’t seen it, partly because it’s blocked by a shroud of thick clouds straining to hold back rain. The bigger reason is this: you have neither the energy nor the space to raise your head, let alone the will – to look up is to break the spell keeping you safe.
The spell is an illusion, and you know it. Yet you cling to it as hard as you can, gripping it harder even than your well-wrapped M1 rifle, twisting it around your arms and neck and legs as you shift uncomfortably in the LCVP. You’re hurtling toward Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. Dark smoke already covers your target. The whole world seems black, except for the red flames from the burning boats nearby.
You’ve dreaded and prayed for this day to arrive for weeks. At turns you’ve been stoic, ambivalent, confident, fearful. Now that it’s finally here, every one of those emotions and twenty more are exploding inside you, threatening to pierce the thin shell of your psyche like the bullets ricocheting off the hull of the boat.
For all the landings you’ve practiced, for all the battles you’ve fought, there simply is no model for this, no pattern, no preconception to force the shattered kaleidoscope of chaotic reality unfolding around you into an ordered outline.
You cannot hear distinct sounds. The engines, the shells, the gunfire – they’ve blurred into a roaring mix, half-thunder, half-symphony, orchestrated by distant, angry gods. Cries of pain, screams of agony are mercifully overwhelmed by the tremendous din around you.
The boat stops suddenly. The ramp splashes down. People shout, “Go!”
You blink your eyes and try to move, only to realize you’re already moving, propelled forward by a mysterious momentum, not by courage or duty or even will. Two steps onto the ramp and you realize you’re already half-swimming. You’ve been let off in deeper water than you thought, further away from the beach, but not the danger. The only direction is forward – not in the sense, necessarily, of a straight line in front of you, but through time, toward something both more violent and more epic than you’ve ever experienced.
Your brain is clogged with a thousand competing thoughts, most of them useless, a few of them counterproductive, one or two paralyzing.
But one stands out above all others:
Who will save me when I am hit?
The answer is already ashore, plunging and wading and pushing against the wind and wild waves amid mortar shells and gunfire. The man who will save you, and dozens of others this momentous day, is Ray Lambert, an army medic from Alabama. By the time the ramp on your Higgins Boat goes down, he’ll already have been doing this for nearly a half-hour.
Staff Sergeant Arnold Raymond “Ray” Lambert is 23, an old man by the standards of this battle. He’s in charge of a medical team, and this is his third seaborne invasion; he has seen action in Africa and Sicily before coming here. There were jokes shared the day before among the small coterie of other 16th Infantry men who’d waded through water under fire before, but there are no jokes now. As difficult as the battles in Africa and Sicily were – and they were among the worst of the war – they were nothing compared to this. Normandy is a whole different hell. By the end of the day, some two thousand men will be wounded or killed on Omaha Beach; many will die in the wildly misnamed “Easy Red,” a small rectangle of sand targeted by the 16th Infantry. The fighting on Omaha will be the most horrific of the invasion, so bad that the general in charge will think seriously of retreating – a development that could bring disaster to the other beaches and the entire operation, perhaps even the war.
It’s Ray’s job to stave off that defeat by helping as many men as possible. In some ways, he was a born soldier, hunting from an early age in a time and place where it was a means of survival rather than a hobby. As a teenager, he carried a pistol in his belt to deal with unruly farmers trying to keep him from doing his job as a county veterinarian. He spent summer months chopping down trees for a lumber business. He has a well-tested middleweight’s hook, honed in army boxing rings as well as Alabama farm country.
But this fighter was trained by the army to be a medic. Selected almost by accident, he has learned the art as well as the science of battlefield medicine.
The most important thing: make sure the infantrymen know you’re there.
That means Ray can’t hide when the bullets fly. He can’t dig a foxhole. He can’t retreat. He can’t think of himself, but rather the men he must save.
By this point in the war, he’s won Silver and Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. He may be the only medic in the army with a sharpshooter’s badge.
And most significantly of all, he has scars.
But at the moment, Ray Lambert is not thinking of any of that. Twenty minutes and a dozen saved lives ago, he hit the beach aiming to establish a first aid station where the wounded could be triaged and receive first aid. But it was evident even before he left the landing craft that no aid station could be set up on Easy Red for quite a while.
Now Ray is looking, scanning the water for men who have been hit and can’t make it to shore on their own. Men who move in a certain way that tells him they’re not already dead.
One is clinging to an obstruction.
Foolish – the German weapons are zeroed in on each. Stay there and die.
Ray leaps toward him. Weighed down by sodden clothes and his med bags, the medic struggles hard against the waves. He reaches the man, yells but can’t be heard.
We’re going to the beach!
He tugs, but the man doesn’t move. Belatedly, Ray realizes the man is caught on barbed wire below.
He dives down, tries to pull him loose, then unhook him. The salt water stings his eyes. He resurfaces for air, keeping his head low to avoid the bullets flying overhead.
Ray pulls again. When that doesn’t work, he dives below once more. He sees a strap and unhooks it, resurfaces, then by some miracle yanks the GI free.
The soldier’s head slides back and sinks beneath the waves. His rucksack is so heavy that it counteracts the lifebelt he’s wearing.
Ray gets him upright. The GI is young, barely nineteen – but he’ll age ten times that today.
Together they start toward the beach, and the only safe place Ray has found: a slab of rock, perhaps the remains of a concrete bunker, that stands like a thumb on the beach ahead of the obstructions.
They move toward shore. The noise is so loud that eardrums shatter. People go down in front of them, but Ray knows that they can’t stop or they will be swept back by the waves, or worse, under them, back to the worst of the mines and boobytraps, wire and steel lay ready to slice or blow them open.
Finally, they make it to the row of bodies and body parts floating in the bubbled surface at water’s edge. Ray pushes the man along, hoping he doesn’t see.
Finally, they reach the rock. Ray takes a minute, then begins checking the man’s wounds.
This one, he thinks, will live. If he stays behind the rock.
Ray Lambert will be seriously wounded a few minutes later. But those wounds will not stop him. Nothing will, until he’s saved several more lives. Then his back will be broken so severely he will lose consciousness. And in an ironic turn utterly characteristic of war, it will be an American landing craft, not a German bomb, that does him in.
Energy spent, he’ll curl up behind the shattered wall of concrete where he had taken so many men before. There, he will wait for whatever comes next, be it salvation or death, or both.
You can read the first chapter and order the book from your local bookstore or on-line retailers at this link to William-Morrow.com