"American Ack-Ack", by Ernie Pyle (Part 3)
That's the way it was all night. We never saw a thing. We only heard
the thrump, thrump of the motors in the sky and saw the flash of guns
and the streaking of red tracers far away. We never saw the plane we were
shooting at, unless it went down in flames, and "flamers" were rare.
I found out one thing being with the ack-ack at night. A man is much
less nervous when he's out in the open with a gun in front of him than
when he's doubled up under blankets in a tent, coiled and intent for every
little change of sound, doubtful and imagining and terrified.
We shot off and on, with rest periods of only a few minutes, for a couple
of hours. The Germans were busy boys that night. Then suddenly a flare
popped in the sky, out to sea, in front of us. Gradually the night brightened
until the whole universe was alight and we could easily see each other
in the gun pit and everything around us in the field. Everybody was tense
and staring. We all dreaded flares. Planes were throbbing and droning
all around in the sky above the light. Surely the Germans would go for
the ships that were standing off the beach, or they might even pick out
the gun batteries and come for us in the brightness. The red tracers of
the machine guns began arching toward the flares but couldn't reach them.
Then our own "Stand by!" order came, and the gun whined and swung and
felt its way into the sky until it was dead on the high flare. Yes, we
were shooting at the flare. And our showering bursts of flak hit it, too.
Flares are seldom completely shot out, but they can be broken into small
pieces and the light is dimmed, and the pieces come floating down more
rapidly and the whole thing is over sooner. Flares in the sky were always
frightening. They seemed to strip us naked and make us want to cower and
hide and peek out from behind an elbow. We felt a great, welcome privacy
when the last piece flickered to the ground and we could go back to shooting
at the darkness from out of the dark.
The six hours of nighttime went swiftly for our ack-ack batteries, which
was a blessing. Time raced during the firing and in the long lulls between
the waves of enemy planes we dozed and cat-napped and the hours passed
away. Once, during a lull long after midnight, half a dozen of the boys
in our gun pit started singing softly. Their voices were excellent. Very
low and sweetly they sang in perfect harmony such songs as "I've Been
Workin' on the Railroad" and "Tipperary". There wasn't anything forced
or dramatic about it. It was just some young fellows singing because they
liked to sing -- and the fact that they were in a gun pit in France shooting
at people, trying to kill them, was just a circumstance.
The night grew bitterly chill. Between firing every man draped an army
blanket around his shoulders, and sometimes up over his head. In the darkness
they were just silhouettes, looking strange and foreign like Arabs. After
two o'clock there was a long lull. Gradually the boys wrapped up in their
blankets and lay down on the floor of the pit and fell asleep. Pretty
soon I heard them snoring. I talked to the gun commander for a few minutes,
in low tones. Then my eyes got heavy, too. I wrapped a blanket around
me and sat down on the floor of the pit, leaning against the wall. The
night had become as silent as a grave. Not a shot, not a movement anywhere.
My head slacked over to one side. But I couldn't relax enough to sleep
in that position. And it was so cold. I was so sleepy I hurt, and I berated
myself because I couldn't go to sleep like the others.
But I was asleep all the time, for suddenly a voice shouted, "Stand by"
-- and it was as shocking as a bucket of cold water in my face. I looked
quickly at my watch and realized that an hour had passed. All the silent
forms came franticaily to life. Blankets flew, men bumped into each other.
"Commence firing" rang out above the confusion, and immediately the great
gun was blasting away, and smoke again filled the gun pit. Sleep and rouse
up. Catnap and fire. The night wore on. Sometimes a passing truck sounded
like a faraway plane. Frightened French dogs barked in distant barnyards.
Things are always confusing and mysterious in war. Just before dawn an
airplane drew nearer and nearer, lower and lower, yet we got no order
to shoot and we wondered why. But machine guns and Bofors guns for miles
around went after it. The plane came booming on in, in a long dive. He
seemed to be heading right at us. We felt like ducking low in the pit.
He actually crossed the end of our field less than a hundred yards from
us, and only two or three hundred feet up. Our hearts were pounding. We
didn't know who he was or what he was doing. Our own planes were not supposed
to be in the air. Yet, if he was a German, why didn't he bomb or strafe
us? We never did find out.
The first hint of dawn finally came. Most of us were asleep again when
one of the boys called out, "Look! What's that?" We stared into the faint
light, and there just above us went a great, silent, grotesque shape,
floating slowly through the air. It was a ghostly sight. Then we recognized
it, and we all felt a sense of relief. It was one of our barrage balloons
which had broken loose and was drifting to earth. Something snagged it
in the next field, and it hung there poised above the apple trees until
somebody went and got it long after daylight.
As fuller light came we started lighting cigarettes in the open. Over
the phone, the battery commander asked how many shells were fired, and
told us that our tentative score for the night was seven planes shot down.
The crew was proud and pleased. Dawn brought an imagined warmth and we
threw off our blankets. Our eyes felt gravelly and our heads groggy. The
blast of the gun had kicked up so much dirt that our faces were as grimy
as though we had driven all night in a dust storm. The green Norman countryside
was wet and glistening with dew.
Then we heard our own planes drumming in the distance. Suddenly they
popped out of a cloud bank and were over us. Security for another day
had come, and we willingly surrendered the burden of protecting the beaches.
The last "Rest!" was given and the gun was put away. There would be no
more shooting until darkness came again.