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June 6, 2006

D-Day - Again

Roy Meachum

Bless the mark! On another June 6, I was in the English Channel. The pre-dawn lights that signaled the start of another long, long summer's day tinted the White Cliffs of Dover chalky gray. Aboard the troopship thousands of my comrades slept.

The first sight of Europe, England anyway, came exactly two years after the dividing, uniting waters the French call La Manche were swirling with sinking ships, downed aircraft and bodies: drowned, shot and blown to pieces. Bits and pieces, what scientists, wordsmiths and others called detritus. Arabic "Sift" categorizes the world's assorted useless plethora, the leavings of what were once useful. On the "wrong" side of the channel none was visible.

Puerto Rican friends had awakened me that morning. They worked as the permanent cooks and helpers, sailing back and forth: they fed the veterans headed home. Returning across the Atlantic they shuttled kids and men already disenchanted with the uncertain reality that was the post-war United States. It wasn't hard to differentiate.

The older soldiers kept to themselves, talking quietly; but we really couldn't hear, from our respecting distance. They wore parts of uniform I had never seen and ribbons for medals I had only spotted in pictures. Some resented the hassle they found Stateside, as it was called.

A few, we learned, made the turnaround for a woman's sake: they always called them "girls." Those fascinated with a Fraulein knew better than to expect an easy time. They didn't get one, not at first. "Fraternization" was still in effect.

Americans were forbidden to "fraternize" with females from the former enemy. It never made sense, except among allied policy wonks. The doctrine did not apply to Italians, who, after all, had hurled deadly force against allied armies; only to Germans, as if they carried some deadly virus that would infect soldiers with the disease of Nazism.

In the event, fraternization was still on the books, when we landed at Bremerhaven. From the port city we traveled by train. Pausing in Kassel provided my first glimpse of the recent horror. Leaning out the open-wide door of a baggage car, I could not see a single building that seemed more than one-story tall.

The first night in Germany passed in Marburg. We slept in houses commandeered from families and still sparsely stocked with leftover furniture. The Army moved bunks in. As was expected, we received orders no German visitors were allowed in. That was not easy for some, but because of their roommates.

The home to Germany's first university controlled by Protestants introduced the effects on humans of the collapse of Hitler's Thousand Year Reich. Seemingly, every unattached female for miles around flocked to the old medieval town. At 17, totally inexperienced and quasi-educated, I could still sense their desperation. That experience smashed any feeling that the fraternization policy was serious.

Apparently Marburg was selected for the replacement center because of the lack of war damage. There was much more during the long bus ride from the Frankfurt-North train station to the old castle in Hoechst, where I spent the next two and a half years, before reporting to Berlin during the Airlift.

Frankfurt had been "spared," we learned, because of its central location in the American zone and its corporate offices intended to house the occupation headquarters. All that "spared" meant in this case was the Army Air Forces never received orders to lay down a blanket of bombs and incendiaries, as had happened in Kassel and other industrial centers.

Traveling west from the city's center, the bus passed block after block destroyed, selectively, by artillery; the General Motors' subsidiary, Opel, had been obliterated. On that warm June morning the air was rife with a sickly sweet smell I was later told came from bodies still not recovered from the neighborhood devastation.

The buildings designated for the occupation's offices lay east, close to the center and the main train station (Hauptbahnhoff) that took more months to repair. The glass ceiling had been smashed maybe by the same mission that blasted Opelwerke into smithereens.

But nothing I saw matched Berlin's. Even three years after that June 6 morning on the Channel, many streets lay covered with rubble except for a single lane uncovered by bulldozer. Apartments were sliced at a corner. From some buildings jutted kitchens and bathrooms whose fixings jutted out into the sky. The Russian conquerors had used a multi-tube missile launcher, called Stalin's organ; they were intent on paying back what the Nazis had done to their cities.

When I first arrived, the de-Nazification hunt was still on; in a camp near Darmstadt, not far from Frankfurt, likely suspects were held. To my astonishment, I spotted robed monks walking back and forth inside the barbed wire; reading from small books I took to be the prayers of their daily office.

At the same time, as we later learned, in even closer Oberussel, whose pool built for the pre-war Olympics furnished watery release for dull duty, the late regime's higher-ups were living in relative luxury. Their knowledge of the Soviet Union and its ways weighed heavier on the scales of American justice than their recent past. The Cold War got underway long before it was declared in the world's media.

What I'm trying to say: Germany was a helluva introduction to the reality of my schoolboy dreams of Europe. That England barely visible at the top of Dover's cliffs in the early pre-dawn light may have been in many ways worse than the situation I sailed into.

But that's another column.

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