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The Stacks: A D-Day Vet Shows Normandy to His Son


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The Stacks: A D-Day Vet Shows Normandy to His Son

In 1954, war hero James Earl Rudder revisited the Normandy beaches with his 14-year-old son. W. C. Heinz tagged along and wrote this strange and moving account of their pilgrimage.

W.C. Heinz covered World War II in Europe for The New York Sun, and when he returned in 1945 he had his pick of what to do next. Maybe cover politics in Washington. But Heinz wasn't interested in that. He wanted to write about sports, which he did, first for the Sun and then, starting in the early '50s, for various magazines. Heinz's magazine work was a precursor to what would be called The New Journalism a few years later, using the elements of fiction—scene, character, and dialogue—to tell a non-fiction story. Gay Talese and David Halberstam were hugely influenced by Heinz. And in the world of fiction—where Heinz's novel The Professional is ranked as one of the finest boxing novels ever written—he had an ardent admirer in Elmore Leonard.

Heinz is most remembered for his sports stories about the likes of Bummy Davis, Pete Reiser, and Vince Lombardi. But his war reporting—collected in the fine anthology When We Were One: Stories of WWII—is some of his best work.

In 1954, ten years after D-Day, Heinz returned to France with James Earl Rudder, a highly-decorated American hero, and Rudder's fourteen-year old son, Bud. The following story, “D-Day Relived,” was originally published in Collier's and is reprinted here—including a postscript from the author—with permission. We are humbled and honored to present it to you on the 71st anniversary of one of the critical moments of the 20th century.

—Alex Belth

It was about ten o'clock in the morning when we reached the crossroad just west of Formigny. The mist was still blowing inland off the Channel, coming across the green field to the right and, where there were trees, coming between the trees.

Ten years had passed since the Americans had been here, but he remembered the crossroad very well—the cavalry on the one corner and the battle monuments on the three others—and he turned the small gray Peugeot to the right and drove down the narrow winding blacktop, hemmed in between the thick bulk of the hedgerows, until it widened out, where the new road curves through the center of Vierville-sur-

“The Vierville church,” he said now, measuring the words and standing there and looking up at it. “A lot of Americans who landed on the beach will remember the Vierville church.”

Next to the church is the walled graveyard, built up above the surface of the road. The church itself is gutted still, the roof gone and only a few fragments of stained glass still sticking in the windows, but from the front a new steeple points up into the sky.

“The Vierville church,” he said again. “Bud, that was one of the old landmarks we studied a lot in England before the invasion. We studied it over and over.”

The boy said nothing. He is fourteen years old now, named after his father, and has brown, slightly wavy hair and blue eyes. He was wearing crepe-soled shoes and blue jeans, a blue plaid shirt and a red corduroy jacket, and all of his memories of the war are involved with the small white house with the big mulberry tree in the back yard on South Bridge Street in Brady, Texas.

There was a hut in the tree, and the small boy would play there and, in the mornings, he would stand in the front yard and watch the trucks filled with German prisoners heading out to the farms. In the late afternoons he would see them come back, and he remembers the machine guns on the trucks and the Germans neither laughing nor shouting but just standing in the trucks as they went by. Now the boy looked up at the steeple.

“You haven't any idea how that old church used to worry us,” his father said.

“Why?” the boy said.

“Because of the observation it gave the Germans,” his father said. “The Channel is only about a half mile down the road here, and the Germans used all these church steeples for observation. That's why we had to shoot the steeple down.”