First of five chapters
He hasn't spoken about it much over the past 60 years, not to anyone.His generation wasn't much for talk, and besides, he wouldn't have wishedthose images on anybody. And cometo think of it, few people really asked. Butthe prospect of talking now -- in public, for Pete's sake, in front of friendsand family and the few buddies who survive, and right there on the beach wherethe bullets flew, where the mines blew up, where he stood over a wounded palin the chaos but had to keep on going -- well, it rattles him almost as muchas the din of Hitler's guns.
Charles Heinlein is 82, an emotional man - and not afraid to say so.Remembering that day makes his voice catch, his eyes water. It's hard to getthings in perspective.
When something is big enough to turn you inside out, when it changes thecourse of history, and when you've carried it inside you for six decades, howdo you find five minutes' worth of words to let it all go?
That's the question Heinlein is doing battle with these days, as heprepares to return to Normandy, France, for the first time since he approachedOmaha Beach's 80-foot bluffs on June 6, 1944: D-Day.
He was a private in the 29th Infantry Division then, part of the fabled"Blue and Gray," a young man from West Baltimore who drilled at Fort George G.Meade, crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary and trained for 19 months on themoors of England for one of the decisive events in the history of Westerncivilization. When the ramp of his landing craft came down at 7:40 a.m. thatday, Heinlein was one of the first several hundred ashore, a vanguard of thefighting force that would liberate Europe from the death-grip of Adolf Hitler,battle by bloody battle, over the 11 months to come.
This week, just a few days before the 60th anniversary of D-Day, Heinleinwill stand again on that windblown stretch of sand. This time, he'll face notartillery fire but 71 of the men he fought with that morning, family memberswho know only snatches of their stories, and, perhaps, the feelings he buriedlong ago just to get across that beach.
Nearly 10,000 29ers took part in the D-Day landing. Heinlein and the otherreturning members will convene in the cemetery where their buddies are buried.On June 6, they'll hear the words of Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. andGeorge W. Bush, a new wartime president. Like friends at a funeral that wasdelayed for 60 years, the veterans will pay their respects.
"The heroes," Heinlein says, "are the fellows still there."
On a day in late May, just before his departure for France, Heinlein sitswith his wife inside the brick rowhouse in Violetville that they have ownedsince the 1950s. Their nephew, Ed Hullett, is here, too, and Charles isworrying aloud about the speech he is still polishing.
"Whatever you say will be fine," says Hullett, 66, a self-taught D-Day buffwho has helped his uncle with an early draft. "Lord knows, you've earned theright to say it."
Irene, the West Baltimore girl he married the month he got home from thewar, wonders what the weather will be like in Normandy. She'll be there, too,with Hullett's wife, Carol; the Heinleins' daughter, Darlene; and twograndchildren, all of them curious to put the man they know so well togetherwith the scene they've only read about.
Ed suggests Charles should type the final draft of his speech, make it bigenough that he won't lose his place or his thoughts. But who knows what mightcome to the mind of a man in such a place, at such a time, during five minutesthe likes of which few of us will ever know?
"I don't mind when a grown man cries," says the former Company Dmachine-gunner. "We do, you know. I did over there, pretty regular. You had tolet things go. It didn't make me a chicken.
"It's just that - well, I know I'm going to start that speech. I just can'tsay what's going to happen after that."
Sometimes, especially in America, the heroic has roots in the ordinary.Historians say it was citizen-soldiers who won World War II, regular guys whosaw acts of heroism in service to country as just another kind of heavylifting.
That all sounds a bit like Baltimore, and a bit like Charles "Harry"Heinlein, a sheet-metal worker from the time he turned 16. Baltimore is whereHeinlein's story begins and where, God willing, he says, it's going to end.
His father, Frederick, was the son of a German immigrant, an Army manhimself. He served in a cavalry unit in the Philippines, where a horse kickedhis leg.
In 1929, when Harry was 7, his father caught a fever one day, lay down onthe sofa and never really got up again. "Complications," Harry says. "I've gota picture of him somewhere. He's sitting on a big white horse. In uniform."
No one recalls just how Charles became Harry. "It's one of my aliases," hesays. "The others, you can't print." Whatever name he went by, he always hadluck. It's tough when your dad dies, a Depression hits, and your mom has to dohousework in the neighborhood to support the family. But when Harry leftschool at 14, he landed a job at the Burkom Bros. store on Monroe, where hemopped floors, stocked shelves and schlepped groceries for 90 hours a week.His pay: $7.50. "You were happy for a job," he says. "With people throwingthemselves out of windows? You bet you were."
Better still if you could apprentice in a good field, like sheet-metalwork.
On his first day, in 1937, Harry's new boss left him dangling on a ropeseven stories up in a gusting wind. Harry flung a kit of tools at the man butstayed employed. "Thirty-six fifty, just 40 hours a week," he says. "I wasrich."
He had use of a brother-in-law's old Ford, and it took him all overBaltimore. He saw pictures at the palaces on Lexington (mostly Westerns),shows at the Hippodrome (the organ rose from the orchestra pit). Heroller-skated at Carlin's. Every winter, at Waxter's Ice Pond in Westport,they let you skate on the ice before they chopped it up for sale.
When a girl he was "palling around with," Lillian Orr, brought a youngersister to a 1940 roller-skating outing, he felt a pang that still hasn't letgo. Little Irene, four years Harry's junior, was hard to get from the start.When he pulled up to the family's Brice Street rowhouse for their first dateand leaned on the horn, he met Irene's mother - from a distance of six inches.
"You'll come in the house and pick my daughter up properly," said EdithOrr.
"She'd have made a good drill sergeant," Harry says.
Shaping copper for church domes and other roofs, he got his first wind ofwar in 1939. He took a job at American Hammer and Piston Co. on Pratt Street,and by the time the roof was finished, the company was fitted out to makeanti-aircraft guns. No one talked much about the war at the time. "Somecompanies in town were helping to supply the British," he says. "That wasabout it."
Irene recalls the day that changed. At a picture show in December 1941, shenearly flipped when the projectionist stopped the film and announced thebombing of Pearl Harbor. The next day, lines at the recruiting office wrappedaround the block. "You didn't ask if it was necessary," she says. "We were ina fight, and all the boys wanted to go."
"We'll never see a time like that again," Harry says, "where everyoneunites for the good of the country - and wants to."
Just like America, Baltimore was coming together. A war effort was takingshape.
Becoming a soldier
In war, you can prepare all you want, but things tend to happen beforeyou're ready.
For Harry, enlisting was that way: One day in February 1942, he left hishouse a sheet-metal man and went to bed that night in a barracks.
Most of his pals from McKean Avenue -- Richard Webb, Billy Bingle, that gang-- were in, picked by the Selective Service board or through enlistment. Harryhad half a mind to join, then decided not to, then changed his mind again.Instead of having lunch, he hiked to the recruiter's office on BaltimoreStreet.
Two hours later, they brought him in a panel truck to his mother's house,got her signature, and took him with some other boys to a cafeteria. An hourand a half later, he was checking in at Fort Meade. "Guess they didn't want uschanging our minds," he says.
He didn't even have time to tell Irene.
He was assigned as a fill-in to the fabled 116th Infantry Regiment, amostly National Guard outfit that had been based in Virginia, in variousguises, since the time of Stonewall Jackson. Many had joined in the 1930s, andmost were farm boys. "Never heard so many 'y'alls' in my life," Harry says."Back then, we called 'em hillbillies." It got easier when replacements fromNew York, Pennsylvania and California arrived and helped city boy Heinleinfeel more at home.
He missed Irene and asked for a leave just about every weekend, to themounting annoyance of Sgt. Willard Norfleet, Lt. Verne Morse, a tall,red-headed fellow from Pennsylvania farm country, and the company commander, atough Roanoker with wire-rimmed glasses, Capt. Walter O. Schilling.
"Don't think I'll be seeing you this weekend, hon," Harry wrote Irene inMarch 1942. "The lieutenant doesn't think we're drilling up to capacity. ... Iwant to get in good with the sergeant so he'll keep giving me passes, [but]today on the rifle range, I hit everything but the target."
The 29th Division -- the 116th was one of its three regiments - still lackedsupplies. The U.S. military then was only the 17th largest in the world. InHarry's first few weeks, they drilled with broomsticks for rifles. Helmetswere World War I-era, pan-style affairs. The rifles that finally arrived werebolt-action Springfields, made just after the turn of the century. The machineguns were behemoths from the prior war, water-cooled monsters whose tripodsalone tipped the scales at 50 pounds.
"Yes, I was wondering what I'd gotten myself into," Harry says.
He was becoming a soldier.
They learned to march in lines and salute smartly. In bayonet training,they used dummies and learned where to sink the blade and how to twist it,hard, to sever arteries and cartilage. Men crawled under 18-inch-high layersof barbed wire while machine-gunners sprayed live fire above them. They weretaught to hate the Germans - such bastards that they bombed ambulances andshot wounded men. "You didn't want to go into combat liking 'em," he says.
On "Carolina Maneuvers" in North Carolina, the men were split into "red"and "blue" armies for war games not unlike modern paintball. Judges assessedformations and rifle hits. Planes dropped sacks of flour, not bombs, on trucksmarked "TANK." Those that turned white were "kills."
Harry hit it off with Winfred Wieskamp, a swarthy kid from small-townWisconsin; together, the pair sometimes haunted "Boomtown," the strip of barsand souvenir shops that sprang up next to the base. Harry had never taken adrink before the Army and was coy with Irene on the subject. In a letter homehe said that yes, he'd had a bit too much one time, but a sergeant had twistedhis arm. "I would've had to fight him, hon," he wrote, "and you know I couldnever do that."
The "sarge," he remembers, was Winnie.
On maneuvers, friends became family. When the boys were moved to Camp A.P.Hill near Fredericksburg, Va., for fitness training, they had to march thewhole way, 100 miles along Route 301. One of Harry's buddies, Elmer "Pops"Teets, was a 36-year-old draftee. "Those were desperate times," Harry sayswith a laugh.
Harry, then 20, humped a lot of Pops' gear. "You'd get in trouble if theycaught you," he says, "but you wanted to keep everyone together."
All the while, a pining Private Heinlein stewed about Irene, the15-year-old beauty he feared would take a shine to someone else during hisabsence. He hung out at her place when he could get a pass. Her only brother,James, a weightlifter, acted as "my officer on Brice Street," he says. "He'dinterrupt us all of a sudden, point at me and say, `Is HE still here?'"
Heinlein recalls that one New Year's Eve, an old buddy made a pass atIrene, right in front of him, and the private went ballistic, decking hisformer friend on the spot. "Tried to kiss her!" he says, still indignant."Why, you have to protect your territory."
Irene still has the letters he sent home, neat but brittle, in a cellophanebag. In every one, he sought assurances that she loved him back. He alsowarned her time and again that his platoon might ship out soon.
After A.P. Hill, they trained at Camp Blanding, Fla. He became the No. 1shooter on a machine-gun squad, which meant he lugged the tripod, set it up,mounted the "receiver" and discharged the weapon.
Within the 29th Infantry Division, he belonged to the Commonwealth-based116th, Company D, the 1st Platoon, and the 1st Squad. His serial number?
"13069334," he says without a moment's hesitation.
When you're a soldier at 19, you remain one, come hell or high water. Orboth.
To Britain's aid
The 116th was training at Camp Blanding, in the muggy wastelands ofinterior Florida, in the summer of 1942. Word came down in early fall that the29th Infantry Division would be needed in England. Privates Heinlein andWieskamp and their mates found themselves on trains bound for Camp Kilmer,N.J., the point of embarkation for Europe.
Whatever the division's mission, though, at a time when no member had heardof a place called Omaha Beach, they lived through their own version of helland high water.
The Allies had decided to employ two British ocean liners operated byCunard to transport American troops. The Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth couldeach accommodate up to 15,000 men, and naval experts had calculated that theiraverage speed of 32 knots on the open sea, and their capacity to zigzagsharply, would thwart attacks by German submarines.
In September 1942, Heinlein and some 6,500 29ers were among 13,000 mencrammed aboard the Queen Mary. The week-long voyage was a lesson in war'scapacity to invert the familiar.
On a craft that epitomized grace and style in peacetime, bunk beds stackedsix or seven deep, row after row, packed every conceivable space. Heinlein'sbed, not far from Winnie's, was on the floor of a swimming pool.
For several days and nights, a North Atlantic storm roiled the waters. Thefloating skyscraper rocked side to side, flinging food, cards, dice andsoldiers to the floor. Bunks slid back and forth across the pool, smackinginto its sides. None of the men were sailors, so most were repeatedly sick --"We learned to use our helmets for all kind of things," remembers Harry. Theylived in fear of German torpedo hits.
On the sixth day of the crossing, as the ship chugged toward the Scottishcoast, a half-dozen Royal Navy destroyers and cruisers came out to escort theship to port.
Harry was below deck, engrossed with Winnie and others in a game offive-card draw, when a huge crash jolted the vessel. Cards and dice, mess kitsand mattresses flew everywhere. The Queen Mary shuddered stem to stern. "Itfelt like it would shake apart."
Few were in their assigned areas, fewer still in life vests. Everyone flewinto a panic, returning to their stations. "We had a five-inch gun mounted onthe rear deck," says Harry, "and someone grabbed it and started shooting intothe water. Guess they thought they'd hit a U-boat. We all thought we werehit."
He rushed up top in time to see half of a cruiser, the HMS Curacao, slicedoff neat as a sheet of copper, roaring past on the starboard side and sinkinginto the sea. "I couldn't see any men," he says. "On the open sea, you battendown. Most were below decks."
He raced to the port side, where the other half of the ship was foundering.The Curacao's skipper had turned too sharply, and the Queen Mary had cut it inhalf.
More than 300 men were lost.
No one had to tell Harry and his mates that "loose lips sink ships." TheCuracao disaster was hushed up until after the war.
Greenock Harbor wasn't deep enough to accommodate the Queen Mary, so itweighed anchor a few miles offshore. Commercial ferries hauled the men in.When Harry and Company D made it to the wharf, a Scottish military band wasthere to greet them.
Bagpipe music keened on the cold sea air, sad and strange, a mournfulHighlands greeting that penetrated the soul.
"It was nice they wanted us," Harry says, "but I'd never heard sounds likethat. And I had only heard of men in skirts. My word, here I was, just a youngfellow from West Baltimore.
"What a sight! I was in a whole different world."
Private Heinlein didn't know the half of it.
Editor's note: Baltimore-based historian Joseph Balkoski, author of Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Division in Normandy (1989) and Omaha Beach (2004), offered research and historical background in support of these articles.