He once stood tall, with deep Italian skin and his head covered in thick, dark brown hair.
Now he sits across from me, his small, pale blue eyes hidden behind large-frame glasses. His hands are folded calmly together, fingers interlaced, in his lap. There are strands of gray in his hair, but he is still tan as if he had been out at sea for months, weathered by the swift winds and harsh waters.
This is Robert Cameron, my grandfather.
It was early October, and he would soon turn 85. For a class assignment I had decided to interview my grandfather, who spent 22 years in the Navy, about his experiences on D-Day.
He had been living with my family for almost five years, but that part of his past had always been left alone. If he did mention it, the subject was only lightly acknowledged and then forgotten. On this day, I could not imagine the stories he would tell.
“We thought first we were going to get bombed, but then we didn’t,” he began. “We thought maybe something had leaked out and \[the Germans\] knew something about us. But anyway, then we left. Oh, I can’t recall what time it was, but we left Southampton Harbor sometime in the evening, and it was a huge fleet of ships. It was unbelievable.
“If I’m not mistaken, they claimed there were 5,000 craft that crossed the English Channel that morning. And we were on the first wave in the morning to get to Normandy, and we were all LCTs carrying one Sherman tank and 16 infantry troops. We made the invasion, we lost quite a few men and quite a few craft. … \[T\]he vessel I was on, we got hit with an armor-piercing shell. It didn’t explode, but it went through the starboard side of the tank and then right out the other side.
“We put the ramp down — we had to put the grating along with the tank so that the tank wouldn’t get bogged down in the sand — but we lost quite a few troops when they went off that way. But it was something you don’t really like to think about much because there was a lot of death.
“So anyway, we slept in tents that night and the beach had already been taken. Omaha \[Beach\] was the only one that had the cliffs, so we had those, but there was still a lot of death. I can’t recall how many, but it must have been over 2,000 men or better. …”
His voice faltered and he paused before relating how those closest to him had fared.
“We all had to run down the ramp that let troops off the craft, and then run through the sand and up to the seawall — a pretty-good-shaped cliff — and we were under fire, but we all made it. And we only lost one man.”
He moved on to the next day.
“They took all the guys that were sailors … to pick up the dog tags and write down the names and all that of the deceased. So then they used us to carry the men back inland and this is where we helped put them on vehicles and then we had to take them off and …”
He cleared his throat.
“So, uh, they used us as a burial detail for a while and all we did was … pick them up to where the military men were digging the graves. And after they dig the graves we take them up and put them on Army blankets — there were no stretchers or anything like that. Then what we’d do is take them up to the grave and then the four guys on each part of the blanket would just ‘One, two, three’ let them go and they’d drop to the grave and we’d bury them. That was the way. No boxes, no nothing like that. So that was … it kind of hurt you because some of the men you were picking up had limbs missing or something like that. It was rough. …”
At this point I had stopped writing and was only listening. I couldn’t imagine these experiences. Such things happened in movies, not in real life. But this was his life, the life of a hero. He continued:
“They would bring the prisoners to the beach. They’d put them on the craft we were on and we’d have one of those Jacob’s ladders that you would hang over the side of the ship. And then they would crawl up there. … We had one guy on board our ship, he was from Upstate New York and he had a brother that was killed in Germany. … He hated the Germans real bad. And when they \[prisoners\] were crawling up the ladder … he started whacking them over the back of the calves and legs … and I had to stop him from doing that. Because, you know, I was in charge of seeing that the prisoners weren’t treated bad.
“After that they sent me back to England to a place called Saltash. And then after we spent a month there they sent us back to Southampton, put us on a troop ship. We came back into New York and went home for 30 days’ leave and then … I went back to Brooklyn Navy Yard and they put me on a destroyer. … We got under way after about two days and went down through the Panama Canal and out into the Pacific. … We found out then that the war over in Europe was over. And then we stayed in the Pacific until the war ended. So that was it.”
This Memorial Day, I will think about my grandfather, who passed away in March. And I’ll think about other veterans and their stories, some untold and, unfortunately, forgotten. While I have so many questions I wish I’d asked my grandfather, I am lucky to have been able to ask him any at all.
Danielle Elizabeth Cameron is a junior majoring in communications and English at the University of Pittsburgh. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.