Air Raid Sirens Through the Night

THE battle of Dunkirk. More than 335,000 British soldiers, exhausted and shellshocked, were brought home across the English Channel in fishing boats, sailing boats, rowing boats, anything that could move on water and save lives. Later that month buses from London appeared in our town. They unloaded lost and bewildered children sent to escape the bombing. They wore luggage labels tied on their buttonholes giving their names and schools. We stood in the doorways watching them as they were taken by the authorities to homes with spare beds. Next day they appeared in our school. Some were crying. The chime of the town clock was stopped and the church bells were silenced. Roadside signs giving directions to towns and villages were pulled down. The stained glass in the old church was removed. Dark green tape was stuck in crisscross pattern across all windows, and red brick walls were built three feet out in front of our school. We practiced marching in silent single file from our classroom to Mrs. Bowen's coal cellar next door, and men dug trenches at the ends of the streets.

At night we covered the windows with layers of blankets and thick tape. The air raid siren on the town hall sounded more frequently. We sat on wooden benches in the underground shelters. In the darkness we'd listen to the hum of the German bombers high overhead or we'd hear the men talk quietly around the entrance. They'd watch the sky grow red to the east over Cardiff and talk of Verdun, the Somme, and Salonika.

Then the Yanks arrived. They were tall, good-looking, and cornfed. They chewed gum; they drove in jeeps, and they winked at us. They came from exotic-sounding places like Omaha and Tuscaloosa; they dated the girls and they jitterbugged on the roof of the Esplanade Hotel in Porthcawl. And for the kids they were a soft touch. We waited on the corner of the hill by the Darren farm where the Army-truck convoys had to slow to negotiate the narrow streets of our town. We'd yell in chorus, ``Got any gum, chum?'' and out of the backs of the trucks came handfuls of candies - ``sweets,'' we called them - with names like ``Wrigley's'' and ``Hershey's.'' They were great prizes in the years of sugar rationing.

Rumors spread about the Yanks: They liked to bathe every day and they rejected the local milk, flying in pasteurized milk for their troops instead. One of them came to stay with the Johnny Jones family across from my grandmother's. His name was Bud. He was courteous and shy. He stood when anyone walked into the room and Mrs. Jones said he was wonderful at helping around the house. He was patient with all the teasing about his accent and he tolerated the anti-American bantering: ``Do you know what's wrong with you Americans? You're overpaid, over-sexed, and over here.'' He'd smile and shrug his shoulders.

Suddenly they were gone. It must have been the first days of June 1944. Wave upon wave of bombers were flying south, and our town was quiet and still as if waiting. Vera Lynn sang on the radio about bluebirds flying over the white cliffs of Dover, and some of the girls in our town said they were pregnant.

On the morning of June 6, 1944, we heard where the Yanks had gone. Together with the Allied forces, they had left Portsmouth in hundreds of boats making for the beaches of Normandy on the other side of the English Channel. We followed the reports that summer marking their progress on the world map that hung over our dinner table. We watched as the colored pins moved across France to reach Paris. We watched the convulsive struggle through the Ardennes and the crossing of the Rhine. We saw where the Russians met the Allies.

When the news reached our town of peace in Europe, it was the middle of the night. The bells of the church pealed without stopping. The town hall clock struck 100. People lit candles and put them in glass jars on window ledges, and bonfires blazed from the tops of the hills.

There was a victory parade with the King, Queen, two princesses, and General Montgomery. We waved little paper Union Jacks and sang the national anthem.

The people in the town didn't see the Yanks again. But Bud came back. He came to thank the Joneses and say goodbye before he left for home. His face had widened and his skin was redder than we remembered. We tried to joke with him and ask him where he'd been. But he didn't answer and his way of looking at us we didn't understand.

But I did find the Yanks again. I found them in the cemetery at St. Laurent, Normandy, under thousands of little white slabs lined up with military precision and facing over the Cotentin Peninsula toward the open Atlantic. And I've found them in cemeteries all over America. Little flags are planted next to them on Memorial Day when their ever-dwindling comrades come to play taps and fire a gun salute. And perhaps they, like me, ask with Ernie Pyle: What can we say to these who died so that we may live? Except: Thanks, pal.

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