I’m badgering an 88-year-old man to remember a few minutes that happened 70 years ago. The memory is, arguably, of historical importance. And he’ll likely be gone relatively soon, to put it bluntly. It’s the reality that gives every word he says gravity. So maybe my questions carry the gentle authority of seeking details for posterity, for the historical record. As if the record needed it.
So at 6:50 pm on June 4, 2014, in a hotel lounge in the small town of Bayeux, France, a twenty-minute drive from where he landed on Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944, I make an 88-year-old man uncomfortable.
The man’s name is Ernie Corvese. He’s a retired newspaper photoengraver from Providence, Rhode Island. He’s traveled to Normandy with his wife of 62 years, Dolores, for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. As one of the ever-fewer surviving veterans still able to talk about his war experience, Corvese has been interviewed several times in the last few years, telling and retelling the story of his glimpse of hell during that rainy day back in ‘44.
Interest in the Allied invasion is at a fever pitch in northern France. English and American tourists are descending in swarms. In the previous two days I’ve seen at least 30 D-Day veterans in Bayeux, the quiet Norman town close to the invasion sites that’s warmly and shrewdly going bananas with D-Day glee. (About 3,000 elderly veterans have converged on Normandy again for this likely final elaborate celebration, according to the Bayeux tourism office.)
The youngest D-Day veterans are 87, so many are in wheelchairs and have difficulty moving and hearing. Others, like Corvese, look like they could still kick your ass at handball. All are given standing ovations by tipsy tourists when they roll or walk by a bar with outside seating. The perfect 70-degree weather, unusual for Normandy, is a big help to organizers and travelers alike.
As I meet Corvese and his wife in the lounge of the Villa Lara Hotel in Bayeux, D-Day mania is in full swing. “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” from the Andrew Sisters plays on loudspeakers outside. In the room to our right, three actors from HBO’s Band of Brothers (Matt Settle, James Madio and Ross McCall) are signing autographs and at least 250 people are lined to see them. Dozens are Europeans wearing replica American World War II uniforms; Normandy is filled with war reenactors (usually without weapons, fortunately) for the anniversary. This feels mildly odd and fetishistic to me, but that’s another story.
The D-Day veteran’s account
Before meeting Corvese late this afternoon, I’ve had friendly conversations with two American and two British D-Day veterans in the streets and restaurants in Bayeux. I’ve heard them and several other veterans relay their experiences to journalists and curious tourists (mostly from the US Midwest or Texas).
Their D-Day accounts were harrowing and humbling. Hearing them in Normandy during an auspicious commemoration certainly added poignancy. But, honestly, as the men were emotionally restrained during these exchanges between congenial strangers (and medication concerns were likely preventing the ingestion of wine), the anecdotes were mostly informational and rendered appealingly for listeners hoping to hear an inspiring, printable, non-dinner-ruining story. They were similar to many anecdotes I’ve read or heard before, including those I’ve heard first-hand from D-Day veterans I’ve spoken with in the past.
Getting anything else, in 2014, isn’t easy. Blame all the books, documentaries, articles and oral history projects that have been churned out on Operation Overlord since the 1980s alone. They could carpet the 50 miles of Norman coast the Allies invaded about five times over. If you’ve been exposed to a fraction of them, you’ll start to feel well versed in the soldiers’ tales, right or wrong. When stripped of their idiosyncratic details and bits of well-practiced profanity, this is the gist:
I was a RANK in the X. We had a specific job to do. My job was X. We were young and we just wanted to get these jobs done and make it back home. That day/week was horrible. Beyond horrible. I was scared/terrified. A lot of things went wrong. We were getting shot up. Bodies were everywhere. I was/was not wounded. I saw good friends get killed. One of them [something unspeakably grisly and brutal]. We did/did not get our job done. I survived by sheer luck/God’s grace. I’ve never talked about it, but I’ve thought about it every day of my life. I was never the same. No one there was ever the same. I had nightmares for years. I can still see the faces of the guys who died. I can’t/won’t tell you how unimaginably bad it was. Pray you never experience anything like it. I am not a hero but I sure as hell knew one/a few.
Obviously, the similar strokes in the veterans’ accounts in no way diminish their historical value, humanistic profundity or power to uplift or sicken. I think they more tie to the typical humility of the combat veteran, as well as the democratic horror of battle and the absurdity of trying to distill it into words.
If you’ve read a small library of war books, spent some quality screen time with Steven Spielberg and Ken Burns and talked to a few dozen men with Purple Hearts, you have as intimate an understanding of the reality of combat as you’re going to get without tasting it yourself. This understanding is not accurate.
But when you’re listening to someone’s account of kill-or-be-killed battle—especially one you have solicited—you must pretend to understand at least a little. Pretend you can somehow mentally descend into the basement of whatever fiery hell you think is ultimate hell and dig through the molten floor. Your brain won’t comply, of course. It will only mutter Jesus fucking Christ to itself so many times before just handing you the solid notion that human combat—be it Roman or Napoleonic, trench or rice paddy, Bastogne or Kandahar City—is not something you want to experience. Not unless you’re psychotic or epically naive.
The account Ernie Corvese is giving in this hotel lounge is taking me somewhere discernibly new. He is (and will remain) the only D-Day veteran in Normandy who says something that surprises me.
Ernie Corvese’s D-Day experience
Talking to a man Corvese’s age, even one who looks ten years younger and is hardy enough to travel from Rhode Island to northern France, has its own mild rituals. Sometimes it means subtly talking to him through his wife even though his hearing and comprehension both seem perfectly competent. Dolores quietly restates my questions to make them more similar to those he’s heard before, gives a few words to steer his response, and then, after he inevitably deviates from the familiar script, tells him what he meant to say.
I can only hope a woman will do this for me four decades from now.
I’ll give you Ernie Corvese’s story as he told it to me this afternoon—and as I understood his telling. There are a few interviews online in which his account differs to degrees, but this is what he said to me.
He enlisted in the Navy in 1943 at age 17—which required his parent’s sign-off—and was assigned to a Naval Combat Demolition Unit. Later, men in his line would be called frogmen and SEALs.
In the winter or early spring of ‘44, Corvese shipped off to England and began training to blow up the large metal obstacles (nicknamed hedgehogs) that Germany had installed at various points along the European coast to prevent an armored landing. So he knew his unit was going to clear terrain to allow armored vehicles through. And he knew it would be part of a big operation because a lot of men were training in England. He didn’t know much more than that.
Cut to D-Day. Just before sunrise at about 6:25 a.m. on June 6, 1944, Corvese was one of eight Navy demolition men on a rubber raft full of high explosives heading to shore on Omaha Beach through intense fire. Think Saving Private Ryan except darker and on a rubber raft full of high explosives.
The Germans were responding with hellish force. Allied shelling had been going on for hours and paratroopers had already littered the coast. Because the beach landings depended on Corvese’s team and others blowing those hedgehogs and clearing a few tenuous passages in the mud, the demolition men had to risk their lives before the first-wavers could struggle in.
Next is where the story, for Corvese, gets bad. Or good, because he’s telling it to me 70 years later.
He falls out of the raft. What causes his fall isn’t clear, at least in this retelling. The explosions, screams of dying and drowning men, chopping waves, chaos…something makes him fall. His helmet fills with water and he goes down headfirst. He feels a massive explosion above him. It knocks him senseless. His raft had been hit by a shell; he’d later learn that all seven of his comrades died.
Details now haze over. He remembers someone pulling him out of the water. He never learned who saved him. He remembers crawling on the beach; he says he crawled 225 yards. When Dolores mentions blood in the water, he remembers that, too. He remembers touching something hot and burning his hand. Then he remembers waking up in a hospital in England. He remembers refusing a Purple Heart. He was 19 years old.
So far, he has not deviated from the usual tactical and wrenching D-Day veteran’s story. Americans heard many such accounts 70 and 50 and 30 years ago when the veterans were plentiful and were just trying to live productive lives that had nothing to do with war. We would have heard many more had we just asked the guys down at the VFW hall during all the decades when we had the chance.
“How often have you thought of that day?” I ask Corvese politely, giving him the most generic question possible before we get into tougher territory, if we do.
“Every day of my life,” he responds. “Though this is the first time I’ve ever talked about it. Since a few years ago, when I did an interview. I never wanted to talk about it.”
I ask what got him talking. He can’t really say. He just felt like “it was time.” He began wearing his “World War II Veteran” hat more frequently in the last few years, and people began approaching him in the supermarket more often with questions, words of thanks and requests for hugs. (Most of the people who approach him are young women, his wife notes.)
At some point while these handshakes and hugs were growing more frequent, he saw an advertisement from the World War II Foundation asking for D-Day veterans to share their stories. He showed it to Dolores. He told her, “You know, I think it’s time.”
Answering that ad led to a domino tumble of events that brought him to Normandy. He never thought he’d set foot in France again—“once was enough”—but as the anniversary neared, his thinking changed. Helpful individuals and organizations appeared to make it happen.
“All fouled up”
Our conversation finally circles back to the beach. Corvese mills, lightly studying the room and my unremarkable stranger’s face. He refuses to sit; he likely thinks it’ll lengthen our talk. So we speak standing. He’s tired. He looks like he’s a vigorous 70-year-old man, but he’s not, and there’s been a lot of traveling today.
He had spent much of the afternoon in the sun at the American Cemetery above Omaha Beach, 12 miles from this comfortable hotel in the historic center of medieval Bayeux (the town was spared from bombing after the English learned the Germans wouldn’t defend it, unlike the nearby Caen which has nary a building older than Joe Biden).
Corvese came to Normandy chiefly to visit the cemetery, he emphasizes. “I wanted to find the grave of a good friend.” Standing on the soil he helped liberate from the Nazis 70 years ago? Not much of a motivation. It’s about the cemetery.
He suddenly answers a question I didn’t ask.
“That landing was all fouled up,” he says. His congenial demeanor hardens. Dolores watches him closely, apparently not sure what he’s about to say. There’s a silence. I ask him what he means by “fouled up.” He just repeats it. I awkwardly try to fish more out of him.
“You mean…it could have been planned better…”
“Yes,” he says, with a hint of restrained anger. Dolores pulls at his wrist; he’s going off script. “Watch what you say,” she says while turning her face from me. It was loud enough to give me the “back off” hint without hijacking the conversation, but that threat teetered.
“You mean some people lost their lives because of…poor planning? Or…”
“Yes,” he repeats more emphatically. He’s looking at me as if he’s saying something difficult.
“Come on, you think D-Day was poorly planned?” Dolores says, hoping to steer him away from trouble. I start stammering when his stare hits the fourth second.
“Ernie, in no way do I want to…but, I mean, it sounds you like you have some anger or resentment regarding—”
“Yes,” he repeats. He emphasizes the word with his face. Then he looks off with a gesture of fatigue. He’s tired. He isn’t sure if I’m worth it. I press him a bit more.
“The Germans had us zeroed in,” he says. He says this in such a way that tells me I should understand everything he’s not saying from those few words. I try to determine if I lack the military context to translate his full meaning, or if I’m being generally dense or if it’s a mild non sequitur stemming from age or travel fatigue.
“You mean, they were ready for you,” I offer. He shakes his head. I’m not getting whatever he’s trying to tell me.
“It was all fouled up,” he repeats. He gazes round the room. He’s done going down this road with me. He fidgets like he wants to sit down, but again refuses. Frustration or weariness prods him to get one last thing of this nature out before he does sit, to give me one more chance. He makes a number with his fingers.
“On the training beach in England, there were three obstacles. Three. They said, ‘this is exactly like the beach you’ll land on.’ Do you know how many obstacles were on that beach at Omaha? Do you know how many obstacles there were?”
I shake “no.” His eyes are angry. Involuntarily I start fumbling for philosophical answers you might give a pissed-off 19-year-old who’s been bitter for seven decades over something you can barely attempt to comprehend.
“Maybe they didn’t tell you exactly how it was going to be because they didn’t…want you to think it would be impossible. Or, Jesus, maybe they didn’t even know…”
A wave of shame and smallness hits me. I envision Ike, resurrected in his brown uniform, looking at me and saying, “who the fuck are you?” I envision about thirty guys, a vanguard for thirty thousand, staring at me and wondering, “who the fuck are you?”
Corvese exhales. He’s done. He sits. He’s dealing with seared memories that God couldn’t make right and some schlub is trying to parrot good-natured talk from the safety of 70 years and the coalescence of television and a fight-less life. Better to talk about baseball. It never hurt anyone.
Saving Private Ryan
We talk about the Yankees. Corvese is far more up to date on current trade dramas than I am. Dolores is a Red Sox fan; this harmless conflict has provided amusement and distraction for six decades of marriage. Talk of their four children commences. Their “baby” is in her fifties. They’ve been blessed with six grandchildren. They don’t travel much. Conversation inevitably turns to France, to Normandy. What a beautiful place we’re sitting in.
“It’s all changed now,” he says offhandedly. “Those hedges above the beach were much shorter in 1944.”
A comely French woman touches Corvese’s shoulder and asks if he’d like to meet the Band of Brothers actors. He asks if he can wait until the event thins out. Our talk swings to the HBO show. Then to war movies. We all know where this is going.
“I’m sure you have seen, like we all have seen, the movie about D-Day called Saving Private Ryan,” I say, using the strange roundabout speke I unconsciously adopt when I’m trying to be solicitously polite. “Is the famous beginning of that movie, in any way, even somewhat accurate to the experience of the—”
He was waiting for this trite question and he obviously hates it. I don’t expect his answer. Neither does Dolores, who shoots him a glance with renewed concern. He’s evidently ad-libbing a new response to the Private Ryan question or otherwise wandering off trail, and she’s watching to see where he’ll go. I stammer him forward.
“I mean, I know it’s just a movie, and no movie could ever really come to close to being…even somewhat accurate—”
“No. Not at all.”
“Not even somewhat accurate?” Dolores asks.
He winces. He knows, we all know, that D-Day veterans—all veterans, everywhere—must say mostly positive things about Saving Private Ryan. Look, the movie tried. It came closer than Shrek, for God’s sake, which also gets about as close as a projected image on an oversized bed sheet can get to transmitting the essence of war. When a D-Day veteran criticizes Saving Private Ryan, he usually picks on some point of historical accuracy. The patches, or something like that. You don’t shit on the first twenty minutes. That’s like saying the horse head scene in The Godfather felt contrived. There are bigger armor chinks to piss through.
But I understand the celluloid impotence Corvese’s getting at, so I start in.
“I mean, the movie showed some pretty bad hits, at least as far as a movie can show, with some guys getting…” I twirl my fingers around my stomach.
“They didn’t show it,” Corvese maintains. “They did not show what that beach was like.”
“It was a movie,” Dolores objects. “For a movie—”
He winces again, this time clearly at being reined in. He raises his fingers into the “little bit” gesture.
“A little bit. They showed a little bit,” he concedes. He draws his fingers closer together. “A very little bit.”
“May I ask…”
His stare tells me not to ask.
“What was left out…what they could have added that would have made it…even a little accurate?”
He lowers his hand slowly.
“I would rather not discuss that.”
“I understand completely. I didn’t mea—”
“It was the 88s.”
“The 88s wreaked havoc on us. Havoc. They had us zeroed in.”
He’s talking about the 88-millimeter shells the Germans fired directly onto the demolition teams. There’s a long silence.
“I’m sorry that happened.”
I’m not sure why I say this.
I’m not sure why I don’t say “Jesus” or “thank you” or “God bless you” or “thank God you didn’t get killed.” Maybe it’s because I instinctively feel like I need to tell a 19-year-old that the bad thing that happened to him, this devastatingly brutal thing, should not have happened. He didn’t deserve it.
In the lofty historical context, in seeing the mind’s image of the khaki wading forward to bloody Omaha Beach, Corvese was right where fate needed him. Right where it ordained him to be. He was saving the world. Along with 150,000 other men whose faces would be carved across the heavens if it were in our power.
But in his angry, tired, teenager’s eyes, deep in his 88-year-old face, there is none of that. There’s a young human who had been led to bob and choke in a stew of his friends’ intestines while death clawed at him. It charred his soul. And he was led to do this on my behalf, metaphorically or literally, depending on which side of the brain draws the diagram.
I’m grateful, as an American and a free man in 2014, but mostly sorry. Sorry from one human being to another. This young male looking at me should have been allowed to go through his entire life—or at least reach his full frontal-lobe manhood of 25—without having something that sickening and horrific and damaging inflicted on him. No creature is intrinsically entitled to insulation from such horror during its brief time on the planet, but it probably should be.
But that wasn’t what being alive on earth dished out to a lot of young males in 1944. Or in 1974. Or now. I’ve never been an overt pacifist, and I know the logistics and necessities and stakes of World War II as well as most Americans and better than many, but whatever happened to Corvese should not have happened. There’s no changing it.
How he feels about it, how you or I feel about it, whatever heartfelt or perfunctory expressions of sentiment and honor or attempted recompense we try to extend to him—these are all mutable details. What happened remains.
I’m sorry for that.
No poker chip
Corvese never had a chance to plant one explosive on the long-ago morning everyone wants to talk about again. His raft was blown out of the water before he and seven other young men could do one iota of what they were trained to do, according to the account he’s giving me.
This likely fit in with the mournful expectation of the people who put him there.
No one wants to say that, but it’s the ruthless accountancy of war. An accountancy almost every person alive can only approach hypothetically for about three seconds before finding something more pleasant to think about.
Somebody has to go first. And somebody has to go second.
Maybe Corvese knew this before he readied himself to get in that loaded raft. He must know it now. Even though he’s 1,100 feet from where I’m writing this sentence in Bayeux, I’m not going to ask him. Whatever his thoughts are on the value once assigned to his life, that’s between him and the long-dead deciders, him and God, maybe him and the man in the American Cemetery. I don’t feel that asking for the historical record gives me the clemency to make him verbalize it. If I did ask, and his response was cavalier or philosophical, angry or resigned, accepting or bereft, each would seem like the only answer a man could give. And no answer would change anything. What happened remains.
At about 6:25 a.m. on June 6, 1944, before he fell into the sea and accidentally escaped the fatal shell hit that erased seven people, 19-year-old Ernie Corvese saw enough of the beach ahead to judge that what he had practiced for in England, the steps he had obsessively rehearsed in his head, the expectations he was given or had conjured—these did not jibe with what was speeding toward him.
He was not okay with that.
Seventy years later, he’s still not okay with it.
In 2014, in Normandy, he’s telling me so.
If you’re asking a person to accept being on the wrong side of that ruthless accountancy—asking him to swallow that pill—he’d better feel that you’re being as cards-up as you possibly can be with him. If he doesn’t, he might not let it go, even if you tell him that you had the immensity of mankind in the ledger and it required rounding errors. He might not consider the wrong cancelled because you carved rhetoric on a thousand monuments and had guys like Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose write a thousand books.
He might tell you to stick all those flowery words about saving humanity up your ass, because nobody is put on this earth to be a poker chip. No matter how grave or interesting their times may be.
He might tell you all this, but neither you nor he will be able do anything about it. Even if the world gives him a billion dollars or pledges to maintain eternal global peace.
What happened remains.
What is Corvese saying that surprises me? He’s telling me, or I’m hearing, that some of the men who landed on the Normandy beaches on the morning of June 6, 1944 and several days after—maybe some of the men who fought the Germans in France through the summer of 1944, even though we only remember June 6—might not have shaken Eisenhower’s hand had he approached them. At least in certain moments.
They might have punched him in the mouth.
Punched him over and over.
Ike reportedly had uncontrollable hand tremors after approving the attack orders for certain invasion troops, fearing casualties would be excessive. Maybe he was imagining what they’d go through. That’s all he could do. Eisenhower never tasted one second of combat in his life.
But I think he was a good man.
I want to think he would have let those young men beat him nearly to death.