The First Wave Online - James R. Benn


Off the coast of French North Africa

8 November 1942

IT WAS DARK, AND I was at sea, hunkered down in a flat-bottomed landing craft, slamming through four-foot swells and chugging noisily toward shore, leaving the relative safety of our troop transport behind. One hard mile out, me and twenty other guys, all sweating, scared, and slipping on the wet deck every time the landing craft crested another wave, rode on air for a split second, and then fell from under us. Each time it felt like hitting concrete from two stories up and each time I prayed it wouldn’t happen again. No one was listening. The diesel fumes from the engine mixed with the smell of vomit and salt water and fear, giving off a new odor that wrapped itself around me, hooked into my nostrils, and wouldn’t let go.

The guy next to me grabbed my arm. His eyes were wide as they darted back and forth, searching for something that wasn’t there, like a really good place to hide. His face was drained of color and I could barely hear him above the sound of the engine and the smashing waves.

“Are we almost there, Lieutenant?”

“We’ll know when they start shooting at us,” I said.

He looked disappointed at my answer, but I had no idea how close we were and I wasn’t about to stick my head up to look. I didn’t know if the Vichy French were going to put up a fight when we landed or kiss us on both cheeks. Either way, I planned to keep a low profile.

The next wave wasn’t as bad as the others, and I guessed that meant we were getting nearer the shore. Our landing area was designated Beer Green, sixteen miles west of Algiers, capital of Algeria, the French colony garrisoned by the Vichy French. I thought it was funny that after being in this war almost a year, the first time we invade somebody it’s the French. Not the Nazis, not Mussolini and his Fascists, but the so-called Vichy French. After the Germans steam-rollered into Paris, they took all the good parts of France for themselves and let some tame Frenchmen work out of a little town in the south, governing a sliver of France and most of her colonies. Vichy, famous for not much more than bottled water before, now stood for a divided France. Our brass hoped that the French soldiers in Algieria would see us as their American buddies come to help them liberate France from the Germans. But there was a distinct possibility that since we were secretly landing on their turf in the middle of the night, loaded for bear and backed up by a naval armada, they might think we were liberating Algeria from them. Which was sort of the truth, since they were between us and the Germans in North Africa, and sooner or later we were going to have to mix it up with Rommel and his Afrika Korps.

“Boyle! Are the motorcycles still secure?” the voice of Major Samuel Harding barked in my ear.

“Yes sir!” I was standing next to two U.S. Army Harley-Davidson motorcycles, lashed to the deck. They were for Harding and me. Not only did we have to survive the landing, we had to get these beasts up over the beach and then take them for a joy ride, smack in the middle of the invasion. The guys in the landing craft were from the 168th Combat Team, and their job was to help us get the bikes and ourselves safely ashore, then wave goodbye as we took off into the night on a predawn secret mission. So after landing in North Africa, with the first wave of the first invasion of the war, if I survived, I’d be celebrating my twenty-fourth birthday on a motorcycle ride from hell.Not for the first time, I wondered how a nice Irish kid from Boston like me had gotten himself into this situation.

“Okay, men, listen up!” Harding bellowed over the sounds of the engine and the surf. Bellowing was Harding’s normal tone of voice. He was regular Army, in for the long haul. I was . . . well, I wasn’t.

“I know you’ve been wondering why you’re baby-sitting a couple of staff officers. We’re about to hit the beach so now I can tell you.” Harding paused and looked at the men. He stood straight, somehow immune to the rocking of the craft, displaying no sign of a normal sense of self-preservation.