On the Beach at Normandy…Again

Jim McMaster at Normandy with his grandson, Jim McMaster II
Jim McMaster at Normandy with his grandson, Jim McMaster II

by Scott Ott (assembled from remembered stories)

When Staff Sargent Jim McMaster hit the beach at Normandy for the second time, he was near 90 years old. He never thought he’d see that beach again.

In early June 1944, he thought that beach might be the last place he ever saw. He was just 20 years old then. In the coming weeks, he would watch many men die. He caught some grenade shrapnel in the belly, the brunt of which killed another man, and earned a Purple Heart. He lost a chunk of his knee to a Nazi machine-gunner while leaping from a burning tank in which two men died. But he survived through the war’s end.

The only reason he could find that he remained alive was the faithful prayer of his Christian mother, who miraculously received all four of her soldier boys back from battle — from Europe and Korea — alive.

The Normandy invasion started for Jim McMaster in a field of English wildflowers where he had gone on bicycle with one of Mrs. Short’s four daughters. McMaster was housed in the Short family home in England during the run-up to the invasion. The girls had become like sisters to him. The roar of a jeep interrupted the sylvan setting, and Jim’s buddies yelled it was time to go. He jumped in, and headed to the house to grab his gear and his gun, always ready.

When time came to leave the ship, and board the landing craft, Jim and his fellow soldiers put their hands on the rail and vaulted over. But a guy next to him must have been left-handed, because he threw his legs in the wrong direction, kicking McMaster’s wrist, sending him sprawling on the deck. His brand new wristwatch got kicked into the English Channel.

It was D-plus-4, June 10th, when McMaster hit the beach at Normandy, but the Nazis had not surrendered, the churning chilled English Channel was not a placid pond, and the mines and obstacles still capsized Allied boats — sent men to the bottom, anchored by 75 pounds of gear.

As the pilot of the landing craft brought the motor to idle, McMaster looked out of the boat. They were too far out. The water, too deep.

“What are you doing?” he yelled.

“This is where you get off,” the pilot said.

“To Hell we do,” McMaster said. “Take us in further.”

The pilot refused, until McMaster put his hand on his sidearm and said, “Take us in.”

When the ramp went down, the cold water was still near shoulder deep. McMaster plunged in and immediately felt a new weight on his back, an arm around his chest. He was about to throw an elbow and tell the freeloader to get his own ride to the beach, when he saw that she was a nurse. He carried her in until she could walk for herself.

After the invasion, they kept in touch by letter, until her letters stopped coming. The Nazis had bombed her Red Cross mobile hospital.

For years after the war, Jim McMaster had a recurring dream. He saw his Army buddies who had died in battle. They were young — just boys, really. But he was an old man. He recognized them. But they didn’t know him.

Back in the states, McMaster went on to start, lead and coach little league baseball and football leagues and teams, and even a scout troop. Thousands of boys learned from his leadership. As it happens, he also wound up with custody of his four grandsons, bringing them up as his own. One became an airline pilot, after flying helicopters and A-10 jets for the Army and Air National Guard. His name was Jim Ott, but he held his Pop in such high esteem, that as an adult, he and his wife and children all changed their last name to McMaster.

Young Jim brought his Pop back to Normandy. They walked among the endless rows of cross-shaped headstones, and out onto the beach. The pictures of that day show an emotion on the tough old man’s face one rarely, if ever, saw back in the states.

Oddly enough, the second time he hit the beach at Normandy, McMaster was also armed. He had managed, unintentionally, to get through airline security in the U.S. and France with a pocket knife.

There on the beach at Normandy, Staff Sargent Jim McMaster, buried his knife in the sand. It wasn’t a great loss, he would say. After all, he had already left his youth on that beach.

He took a pebble and put it in his pocket. It was a memorial of a place for which he needed no memorial — a place for which he was a memorial.

62 Years and Two Hard Words

Sixty-Two Years and Two Hard Words, by Scott Ott
Photo: Scott Ott

by Scott Ott

She places the stems in the green plastic vase, and lightly pushes the blooms around until six colors work together. She approaches the stone, careful to avoid treading on the area directly before it. She pushes the spiked end of the vase into the rain-softened soil next to the stone. Her fingers flit across the petals, making slight adjustments, until she brings unity from diversity again. It pleases her to do so. She groans faintly as she stands straight. She steps back to take in the picture. A stone. Brightly dying flowers. Green grass.

Around her, perfect rows of identical stones radiate out, so it seems, from this one. As if they all come together at this point.

“It’s a shame the children can’t be here. Busy lives. They have grown children of their own, lives of their own.”

“I wonder what it would have been like to raise those children with you? To sit next to you at graduation, holding your hand? To see your face when your son said they had named the baby after you? To grow old with you? To trade places, leaving you to stand talking to a stone in a field of stones?”

“It’s a national holiday, you know. We’re remembering the sacrifice of all of them.”

“But I didn’t know the others. I knew you.”

“And I can’t remember the sacrifice. It’s not in the past yet. Because you’re gone, the sacrifice lives on. For me, it’s not a national holiday. It’s your day. It’s my day.”

“Sixty two years I’ve come on this day to say these hard words. It takes me all year to recover the strength to say them again.”

“Thank you.”

“And just in case I don’t make it back next year…”

“Thank you.”

[Originally posted 2006. Written years before.]