That morning he was in an amphibious troop carrier on the coast of France. “They told us we were landing in Normandy,” Payne remembers, sitting now at a dining room table in his hillside house on a bright autumn afternoon. “Landing on the beaches. The only thing they told us was ‘You’re going in under fire.’ And that was sure right.
”We had no idea what those big shells would sound like. They had a whistle, a sort of screaming noise. And we didn’t know what they were, until they started hitting the water and hitting the ground. The sand, rather.”
He made it ashore in one piece. And he had no way of knowing that, ironic as it was, his landing at Normandy on D-Day would be one of the smoothest parts of his time in the war.
His clearest memory of D-Day is walking down a hill above the beaches, through some rough undergrowth, and seeing a group of German soldiers running in panic at the surprise invasion. “They had some American boys captured,” he says, “but when the Germans saw an infantry outfit coming, they were stampeding in a panic and started trying to surrender. A German soldier handed one of the Americans his rifle, and the boy handed it back to him.
“We all started laughing and we couldn’t stop. We thought it was the funniest thing we’d ever seen.” Payne shakes his head at the memory. “The American finally kept the rifle, so it worked out. But when you’re in a war, you don’t have time to think. You just do whatever’s in your mind. Sometimes you do the right thing, sometimes you do the wrong thing.”
In some of the heaviest fighting, after his unit had advanced into Belgium, Payne would make a spur-of-the-moment decision that changed his role for the rest of the war—and earned him a battlefield promotion. Though his company’s official training was in bridge-building, those skills quickly took a backseat to combat. “We were taking fire, and the boy on the machine gun flipped his lid and stopped shooting. We were all exposed and they were going to kill us, so I jumped over on the machine gun ... it was a Browning .50 caliber; we called it a 50...and started firing it. The sergeant wanted to know who it was, and they told him ‘It’s Payne.’ And he said, ‘You go tell Payne not to get off of that 50. He’s just saved our you-know-what.’ So I fired that machine gun for the rest of the war. And they promoted me from Private First Class to a T/5.”
Payne’s service overseas came at a cost. He’ll never be free of the shrapnel in his legs, or regain the toes he lost to frostbite, which a medic hastily removed on a roadside. But the glass case of medals in his living room has no Purple Heart in it. “We didn’t even apply,” he says. “The way we thought back then was that Purple Hearts were for dead people. It was what the Army sent home to your family when you were killed. And we didn’t want one of those.” (Earlier this year, he found out he was supposed to have received another medal for his WWII service, from the government of France, but with the paperwork factor it may be a few more months in arriving.)
The emotional after-effects haven’t gone away, though they’ve lessened some since his first years back at home. Loud noises would cut through him like a knife, and any unexpected touch from another person made him jump out of his skin — even his wife’s arm in bed, trying to rouse him from a nightmare. “In a war,” he says, “when somebody would shake you in your sleep, it meant ‘Something terrible’s happening! Get up, we’ve got to fight!’ But the nervous problems back at home, I didn’t have them nearly as bad as some did. Some of the guys just couldn’t function at all, couldn’t get around.”
The scale of the deaths and destruction during the war is impossible to envision unless you were there, Payne says. It was common, he remembers, to see tire tracks and tank tracks with body parts and pieces of flesh underneath them, ground down into the mud. “It was impossible to bury everybody,” he says. “There was just so much death.”
Even his scattered warm memories of the hellish time have a component of sadness attached. Such as the day he had lost his toes, and a soldier he barely knew came up to him out of the blue and offered him a pair of new socks. “I asked him why he’d kept them that whole time,” Payne says, “and he told me, ‘Aw, I’ve carried them long enough. Might as well put ‘em to good use.’ And then the next morning...”
His voice breaks, and he has to look out at the turning leaves for several moments before he’s comfortable talking again. “The next morning we found him killed,” Payne says. “He’d been shot. I tell you what, when you live and eat and sleep with a group of men, 24 hours a day, it really hurts to lose one of them.”
One of his clearest memories of that kind of bond is the day in the Hurtgen Forest, an area that came to be known as the Belgian Bulge, when his group realized they’d become surrounded by German troops and were cut off from other American forces. “Our lieutenant decided that we had no choice but to surrender,” Payne says, “and he was already starting to make a white flag for us to use. But we started talking among ourselves, and most of us didn’t want to surrender. We told him how we felt. I said, ‘If we surrender, they’ll just kill us anyway. We’d as soon die fighting, instead.’ So eventually the lieutenant changed his mind, and we held out.”
No attack came, but they spent the next three weeks with only the supplies in their backpacks. “Those old chocolate bars that came in the rations, they were hard as a rock,” he recalls. “You’d try to break them into pieces, and they’d just turn into little shavings. And I remember us all sharing those chocolate shavings, day after day.” Eventually an Air Force plane reported their position, and other troops were able to clear their way back to relative safety. The lieutenant was relieved of his command, Payne says: “We didn’t see him again. I think they moved him to a desk job, somewhere.”
Not long afterward, Payne remembers, a soldier took out a pocket calendar he carried and told everybody within earshot, “Today is January the 19th!” “I asked him, ‘WHAT day?’ and he said, ‘The 19th.’ And I told him, ‘That means I’m 21 years old! I’m a grown man, now.’ I guess it meant I could have bought a beer, but there was none of that, over there.”
He came home from the war on December 31, 1945, and soon found work as a welder with Republic Steel. Nowadays Payne eats regular meals instead of Army C-rations, and on weekends he enjoys riding his ATV with a friend on some land surrounding the house where his late wife grew up. But still, the noise of an airplane overhead can spur memories: the first jet plane he ever saw, he shot down.
At the time, Payne was sitting behind a truck-mounted .50-caliber machine gun, a spot he’d grown accustomed to during the course of the fighting. “All of a sudden, the first jet we’d ever seen came out and started strafing us. And the driver of the truck ran us up on the side of the road, in a little curve. I was looking out over the truck cab when the plane came around again, with his guns on, and it was like it was raining in the dust, there, around us. I started shooting at the plane, but I didn’t hit it.
“Everybody was spread out in the dirt, and the sergeant hollered at me, ‘He’s coming back, Payne! You can do it! Get him!’ So when he came back again, I turned the gun around and got a bead on him. I didn’t aim it through the sight, I just aimed by following the rounds’ tracers. That’s how I had learned to hit so good. Nobody knew it, but I was looking strictly at that tracer.
“I hit the plane once, pretty good, and this blue steam and white smoke streamed out. But he circled around, and danged if he didn’t come back again. ‘The sergeant hollered, ‘You can do it this time!’ And I went to pouring it on. By this time the plane was so low that I could see the pilot’s eyes, and I could see him talking on his radio. Then the plane flopped over on its left, then back right, and it crashed on a hill below us, maybe a quarter-mile, half-mile away. “Everybody ran down there to look at it, because it was the first we’d seen, but I stayed in the truck. Finally one of the guys comes back up and says, ‘The sergeant told me to relieve you on the machine gun, so you can go look at what you did.’ I told him to tell the sergeant I didn’t need to see it. Because I’d been aiming directly at the cockpit, and I knew I’d done a whole lot of damage. And later the guy told me it had cut the pilot half in two.”
Payne’s voice breaks again, and he has to look out at the leaves. At some point, he says, news of his shooting successes worked their way up the chain of command and a soldier came to tell him that he’d “made the A-roll,” and had earned some rest and relaxation away from the battlefront. He got instructions to show up in a few days at an airfield, where a plane would take him to the French Riviera. “It was the first airplane I’d ever been in,” Payne recalls. “There were 24 of us, in all, and the pilot was real nice to us. Along the way he let each one of us fly the plane for a little while. We stayed on the Riviera several days, maybe a week. I remember being on the beach, walking in the waves. And everything there was really pretty. But I couldn’t enjoy it, because I was still in such a daze from all the things that had happened to me.
“When the R-and-R was over and I got back to my company, I remember all the guys gathering around and congratulating me. They were saying, ‘What was the Riviera like?’ and ‘Did you have fun?’ I told them it wasn’t fun at all, and they seemed surprised by that. ‘Why not?’ they said.
“And I told them, ‘I couldn’t quit thinking that, without me here on the machine gun, some of y’all might get killed.’ But nobody did. They were all OK. And looking back over everything, I guess that’s the part I’m most proud of.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org