In his bunk aboard HMS Empire Javelin, Pvt. Charles "Harry" Heinlein felt gentle rocking as the vessel, packed with more than 1,200 American soldiers, awaited orders to leave Weymouth harbor for one of the greatest military adventures ever conceived. In the late afternoon on June 4, 1944, the West Baltimore native had no idea that out on the English Channel, one of the world's most capricious bodies of water, the waves were already so high, the forecast so gloomy, that Allied commanders were reconsidering their intention to launch a surprise invasion of Normandy, France, before the next sun rose.
The next day gave Heinlein time to think -- not necessarily a blessing for a 22-year-old soldier trained to a razor's edge of readiness. The prospect of leaving this friendly English harbor for points and adventures unknown made him shudder.
As the hour of departure, 4:30 p.m., approached, he threw himself on his bunk, fidgeted, played some cards. He was half a world away from home, even further in some ways. He had written 17-year-old Irene Orr, not to mention her mother and sisters, weeks ago, asking for a larger picture of her, but had heard nothing. The little snapshot of her he'd carried in his pocket for so long was beginning to crumble.
Soon enough, the time came to address the things he could control. His gear -- two grenades, a quarter-pound of TNT, gas mask, brass knuckles attached to a knife, 51-pound machine-gun tripod -- needed packing; his .45 Colt pistol needed waterproofing. He knew that 28 months of training had readied him for anything the Germans could try. But to make it across the beach, up the bluffs and onward to French villages -- would the fighting be hand-to-hand?
There was no privacy here -- not with so many crammed below deck. Not far away, pals Winnie Wieskamp and Joe Walentowski , of Wisconsin and Michigan, prepared in the same way Joe did. After the long marches, the harmless brawling in town, the lukewarm beer in pubs -- these guys were his brothers now. Harry felt he was going to make it somehow, but would they?
Hundreds of landing craft and transport ships like the Javelin, bearing thousands of GIs, an epic invasion waiting to happen.
Just give us the word, Harry thought. A bayonet can't stay this sharp forever. Let's go.
At that latitude, it was light until after 10:30 p.m.; once darkness fell, so did a great silence. Like most of his buddies, Harry was not prone to reverie, but as the ship plunged across the English Channel, he fell into the sort of contemplation that could get you killed on the battlefield. Breakfast was offered, but he didn't eat. He fingered his life vest.
When static crackled through the P.A. system, he felt relief. A voice that had always comforted Harry as though it were his own father's boomed:
"You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you." As the recorded message from Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower ended with a brief, informal prayer, the frightened private from McKean Avenue felt a little reassured.
He knew the seas were rough, but now he could feel the frigid spray, and the waves were like moving hills. His feet started getting wet; soon he was ankle-deep in water. No one knew why -- maybe some fool had left the draining valve open -- but they were miles from shore in 54-degree seas, and their boat was going under.
They were still near enough to the Javelin to return and catch hold of the cargo netting on the side. One by one, lugging their gear up again, all 31 climbed to the deck. Walentowski's gunner lost a weapon in the drink. "What a start," Harry says.
Within half an hour, a replacement craft, a slightly larger LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle-Personnel) would come by to pick them up, and they'd clamber back down again, one by one.