My dad landed on Normandy beach, not as part of the first wave, thank god, or I probably wouldn't be here, but later, to clean up. He went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge and to liberate a concentration camp. Like so many others, he enlisted, a tough street kid from the Bronx, the child of Eastern European immigrants. During boot camp, he was court-martialed for striking an officer who called him a dirty kike. Though he was acquitted, he got shipped out soon after without having completed his training.
I don't know much about his service, not because he was particularly reticent but because he died suddenly at 50, before I was mature enough to imagine my parents had lives worth learning about. How I regret that I never asked him about those years. Anyone who has tried to get WWII military records knows that a fire destroyed many of them. Thus, all I have are the things he carried, a French-English dictionary, a guide to Europe, and, oddly, a copy of Don Quixote, in Spanish. Several years ago, I gathered these mementos together and along with a few photographs asked Star Black, the brilliant poet, photographer, and collage artist to make something of them. A few weeks later she presented me with three collages, one of which is shown here. That's my dad in the middle, looking handsome, and so young! In the upper left is a page from his guidebook in which he wrote a list of the places he fought his way through, ending with "and a funeral in some god-forsaken place."
One of the more moving accounts of life as an infantryman during WWII can be found in Roll Me Over, by Raymond Gantter. Ganttner was a teacher who decided to turn down his third deferment. He was unfit for officer status so he joined the infantry as a private. His service was almost identical to that of my father's. Here's a passage: