The ceremonies honoring the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the heroic landing on the Normandy beaches that began the final Allied onslaught against the Nazi armies in World War II, recalled a story my friend, William S. Woodside, told me after he was long retired as CEO of American Can Company and board president of the Whitney Museum.
“When I was in the Army . . . ,” he began, at one of our twice-yearly, long, and usually genial lunches.
This one started less genially. “Oh, yeah,” I replied with a hint of sarcasm, still chafing at some office annoyance only just left behind. “You were—what? An intelligence officer? A translator?”
“Myron!” he said sharply. “You know I was trained as an engineer”—which he was, in college, before going on for an advanced economics degree.
I allowed that I did.
“Well,” he said, “just before D-Day, a bunch of us with any engineering skills were ‘volunteered’ to be dropped behind enemy lines to blow up bridges,” part of Operation Overlord’s elaborate plan to destroy the transportation infrastructure—bridges, railways, roads, fuel-storage tanks, and the like—and so prevent the Germans from reinforcing the troops facing the Allied invasion. Just after midnight, as June 5 turned into that fateful June 6, 1944, Bill, with no parachute training whatsoever, found himself falling to earth over France. He landed hard, the start of back trouble that plagued him for the rest of his life. Worse, a gust of wind had caught his ‘chute as he plummeted down, depositing him he knew not where, but certainly far from his assigned target. He crouched in a ditch in the middle of the Norman fields, wondering what to do. And there, promptly, the Nazis captured him.
Leading him at gunpoint to the rude, two-room farm cottage they had occupied, his five or six captors searched him. Armed, carrying explosives, dressed in civilian clothes: what could he be but a spy and saboteur? Accordingly, they would shoot him at dawn.
They put him in the cottage’s bedroom, under a guard, and advised him to get a little sleep before his sunrise ordeal—easier said than done, under the circumstances. Meanwhile, the four or five not on guard duty lolled at the kitchen table for some drinking and revelry before the new day.
His mind electric with plans, fears, and regrets, Bill noticed his guard beginning to nod with drowsiness. At last, his chin dropped onto his chest, and his breathing grew deep and slow. Gingerly, Bill crept towards him, slipped his bayonet out of his belt, and with one swift motion clapped his hand over the guard’s mouth and stabbed him in the heart. He carefully unwrapped the guard’s fingers from his machine gun and tiptoed to the door. Suddenly, he burst into the other room, to the astonishment of the half-drunk Nazis, and he mowed them down—every one. And then, he said, “somehow” he made his way back to the American lines.
“I never told this to anyone,” he mused. “I don’t know why I’ve told it to you.” Of course, I’d thoughtlessly annoyed him enough to do so.
At his funeral in 2000, memorializing a long and honor-filled life, one of his children said, “We knew he’d been in the war, but he would never talk about what he did.” Well, this is what he did, one of the desperate acts of courage that kept the Free World free.
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