My Father’s Journal — D-Day – Gabriele Russo
“Be brave. Remember, you are a soldier first, a surgeon second.”
“I’ll be sure to remember that if I ever come across you on my operating table.”
My Colonel growls. I am the youngest surgeon, the only unmarried man, I must volunteer for the ambulatory medical units.
I wish I had the courage to say no… but I have exhausted what little I possess with that flippant remark.
On June 1st 1944, I embark on a ship in Tilbury. Voluntarily, yes, but ten minutes late, and without my cap. My Colonel is furious, but if I’m about to die, I might as well do so with noble insouciance.
The LST 258 is part of the American fleet, and its commander is a young cowboy who lets me break the rules and take photographs from his cabin as we await the fateful day in Southend.
On the fifth, thanks be to God, the invasion is cancelled. On the sixth, it’s back on: we get moving. We cross the channel, and arrive in sight of the beaches of Normandy. Our ship, a whale-like barge with a flat bed, slides up the sands in front of Courseulles, and we set up our little hospital.
Bursts of gunfire sound on all sides, a cloud of smoke envelops our ship, sinister shroud that chokes the hope out of me. For a while, all is silent… Until fireworks illuminate the gloom, courtesy of the Luftwaffe.
We wait for the wounded. Only ten, then nothing.
In front of me, France awaits. All my life I have dreamed of the mother country. I must set foot on land. I ignore orders and disembark; my cowboy commandant turns a blind eye. In my euphoria, I forget everything, except my camera.
Uniform akimbo, I run on the sand, visit the village, get chased off by soldiers warning me there are leftover German snipers in the church tower, and take photographs of everything.
On my way back to the beach, I find myself in the middle of a misunderstanding between the British soldiers and the people of Courseulles. I heroically become translator/mediator, even though my English is rather dreadful and the villagers have trouble understanding my French-Canadian accent.
And when my big head and I get back down to earth, my ship has sailed.
I ask around, trying to find another boat to get to mine. Severe officer faces greet my request: “Not a one. Not even a raft.”
“If you do find a raft, send it to us, we need it.”
I’m stuck on the beach. I take more pictures and give a hand to some medical personnel. They notice I know what I’m doing (my vest could have told them I was medical corps, but I seem to have lost it somewhere). When fifty wounded are brought onto a vessel without a doctor on board, I see a way out of my predicament. I volunteer to accompany them.
I find a dispensary woefully lacking in supplies, and get saddled with two assistants, American “Pharmacists”, who seem to know very little about medicine, or drugs for that matter. My heart sinks, but I must hide my discouragement. I find a reserve of overlooked chloroform (deemed too old-fashioned by my new team), and get to work.
I do my best, but it’s not enough. What’s more, this boat is under orders to stay where it is. Out on deck for a breath of fresh air, I spot a ship I suspect is better equipped with medical supplies.
It is: on deck is a doctor, nurses, reserves of blood, and what’s more, it’s leaving for Southampton within the hour.
Oh, the miracle of the American Navy. No bureaucratic dilly-dallying, no evasive pretenses. The commandant agrees with my plan: in less time than it would take me to describe, fifty moribund patients are carried from one boat to the next, and we are off to England.
My first minutes on English soil are like a dream. I am the feted surgeon-hero who has saved fifty valorous soldiers. Generals congratulate me for my initiative; the press surrounds me for interviews… Then suddenly, I find myself flanked by two military policemen.
My papers, all matters of identification are either on the LST 258 that left without me, or in my vest somewhere on the French sand. I recite my rank and file, but this just makes it worse: my English is so bad they come to the conclusion I am a Vichy spy.
I protest, in my name, in the name of Canada, of my sovereign… to no avail.
Finally, my last interrogator, a British lord who finds humor in everything, deigns to call my Colonel.
“Is it possible that Captain J got lost during the invasion?”
“Him? With him everything is possible.”
Just like that, I’ve become Someone Else’s Problem. I am released at the first light of dawn. I haven’t shaved in eight days; my clothes are tattered and stained. I feel a right fool as I make my way back to London.
First stop: the post office. To my family, who thinks I am still on that beach, dead or prisoner, I send a telegram: “Not missing, just traveling.”