The evening was much the same as any other during the Second World War. It was spring, and the days and nights were warm. Soon, it would be blossoming time for the apple trees, and then the pup tents would look even more out-of-place.
We were behind the front group, whose duty was to process new troops arriving from the States. We would interview each man or check his Form 20, then send him to another company.
Having processed more than 75 men that day, we were tired.
They, too, were weary after riding all day and part of the night to reach our camp. There would be little talk before bedding down.
The new troops were dug in at the far end of the orchard, and others had spread out along the hedgerows and into the field next to our camp.
With a complete blackout in effect - other than visiting in the dimming light while having a last cigarette - there was nothing to do but turn in. If you didn't have guard duty or some other chore, it was best to be underground after dark.
The guard on his last round yelled, "Blackout!" The flaps on the large tents were closed, and all cigarettes were extinguished. Soldiers, like moles, scurried to disappear into their holes.
There were a few "goodnights" yelled across the hedgerows and the erratic pattern of pup tents. Night had come. Just before I dozed off, I heard the drone of distant bombers and some joker, trying for one last laugh, yelled, "Good night, Ike!"
It was quiet. A hundred men or so were going to sleep with only one thing on their minds: getting through the night. Time enough to worry about tomorrow in the morning.
Sometime in the early morning hours, I was awakened by the sound of a plane. Planes were nothing new to us. They went over day and night - but this one seemed louder. It soon became clear that he was low and over our orchard.
The noise was deafening, and the strafing of a machine gun only added to the din. I heard the engine racing wildly for the pilot's ascent. At the same time, there was the loudest of explosions as a bomb hit its target.
I gasped in terror, because I heard the plane's engine revving for another run over the orchard. Again there was strafing, and a second bomb dropped. The vibration from the bomb blast sent our pup tent down Upon my foxhole mate and me. The air was heavy with the scent of sulphur, and breathing was difficult.
The sound of the plane diminished. The 'quiet of the orchard was absolute. No one made the slightest sound, not even breathing, lest the man and his death machine return.
The silence finally was broken by someone yelling, "Medic!" Somebody began to scream, and sobs emanated from the foxhole next to ours. I poked my buddy to see if he was alive. We were both so frightened. We tried to talk, but no sounds came. Half laughing and half crying, we hugged each other in joy of being alive. Then we jumped from the hole to help in any way we could in the confusion going on in the darkness.
Some men stood stunned, unable to move. Others sat hunched under a tree, crying, while others ran here and there, asking questions that no one answered.
Our captain, showing leadership for the first time since I had known him, fired a pistol into the air and shouted, "Get with it, men! We are still soldiers, and there is a lot to do."
Someone got on the radio and put out an SOS for more medics and ambulances. A sergeant gathered a group, and we checked all foxholes for wounded or dead.
Morning light brought a certain calm and visual awareness of the extent of the damage. There had been a direct hit on the mess tent and on the chaplain's tent. Only two deep holes remained.
My buddy and I viewed the one-time site of the chaplain's tent and the apple tree that had been uprooted and now lay across the hole. We had chosen that spot for our foxhole, but had been out-ranked by the chaplain. Our gratitude silently ascended to God.
The wounded were sent to the nearest hospital tent, and the dead were lined up along the hedgerow on the south side of the orchard, a row of America's finest who never made it past an apple orchard in Belgium.
We filed silently by, looking for anyone we knew but hoping not to find them.
Someone's son, a brother, a husband. Now, just a number on a dog tag and a name on a death list.
Those who found no one they knew could not suppress a smile. Friends are important in a war, almost a necessity to survive mentally and physically.
Some stood silently with bowed head at the foot of someone. Some men stood at attention and saluted dead friends. Still others felt the need to touch, talk and hold a friend's hand while saying goodbye for the last time.
After a while, men came with body bags. Each dead soldier was fitted into a bag, labeled with his dog tags and loaded on a truck. It was almost as if the bagging of bodies put an end to the horrible night.
Not so. You can remove the visual scars of war, but the ones hidden in minds and hearts will be carried by soldiers who come home for the rest of their lives.
We would always remember the night the sky fell on a little apple orchard in Belgium.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.
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