In Appreciation of Our Veterans...
Updated: Nov 11
...and their sacrifice, for the way of life that we enjoy. I'm writing a series of stories about Delbert N. Bumpus and his service with the 745th Tank Battalion in World War II. Initially Grampa was assistant gunner, loading 75mm shells into the cannon. But when his tank commander Charles Donoghue died on Omaha Beach, Delbert was compelled by the company's CO to succeed him.
I'm fortunate to have sat with him back in 2004 as he shared some of his experiences. Given the stories the men have told us and the work of historians, there is still much we'll never know. Some of this I've imagined, in addition to research. The following is an excerpt. For you, Grampa. RIP
Like Something in Genesis by Jason Lawrence Bumpus
Still in the midst of the bocage, they traveled a road that emerged from a wood. The column halted. They had come upon the edge of an orchard. There was the sound of tank engines, infantry in tow. A breeze rustled in. Over the radio, they discussed the quietude of their surroundings as they studied their maps. The late afternoon sun struck the leaves on the trees and glistened on the fallen apples.
A man climbed down from the second tank in the column and jogged toward one of the nearby trees. Delbert knew him. It was Billy. He picked an apple off the branch for himself. He scooped some up from the ground, cradling them in one arm. Laughing, he dropped a few as he skittered about hastily.
"Like somethin’ in Genesis,” the driver spoke of the scene.
“Yeah. But I don’t like it.” Much of what they encountered in Normandy did not match aerial reconnaissance. Bill grinned at Delbert from below and tossed some apples up to him.
“They use these to make Calvados,” he said with satisfaction.
“I could go for an apple ‘bout now,” Harry said from the gunner's position.
“Uh-huh.” Delbert handed him one down.
“What about us?” The driver called. Delbert’s attention was between the map, the radio, between the proceeding tanks, troops, and the man handing out apples. Bill was one in the Battalion that Delbert knew best. In the downtime back in Texas, they would nap in the dry brush on the hills surrounding Camp Bowie. They handed off a still camera to one another to capture the camp, the terrain and such; they sent photographs back home to their significant others.
Training in southern England, they would go into town on weekend passes with the other men. They would eat fish and chips with malt vinegar from the street vendor. They talked with locals, they traded cigarettes. In the pub, Billy would entertain friends with vocal impressions, and with numerical ratings of the bosoms and waistlines of the young British women. When he was drunk, he would grope at them. He poked the left cheek of the woman’s buttocks that one time, raising it slightly and letting it fall again, as she had her back to him.
“HEY,” she said, and swung around. Delbert quietly laughed with embarrassment, turning his head away. They were in the middle of a card game.
“I was just testing its pliability,” Billy said to her. Despite having been married, he would routinely make passes at other women. It was not Del's style, but to each his own; he knew he had come from a broken home---his father was a drunk, promiscuous, and had left them when they were young.
“I live vicariously through…myself,” Billy would say.
Uh-huh. Bullshit, Delbert smiled to himself. He folded the map in half to closer examine it. He thought again about the fish and chips. That vendor would batter and fry the fish in a pot of oil right there on a cart in the street. He would serve it in a piece of newsprint rolled into a cone—fried fish on the bottom of the cone, fried potatoes on top. They had it with malt vinegar and ate with their hands walking down the street.
Delbert wished he had some at that moment. His stomach growled. That was not that long ago, the weekend passes. But as they traversed this farmland, the horror of establishing the beachhead fresh in their memory, it felt like months had passed since they walked the streets of the town with fish and chips. He watched Bill waltz around passing out apples.
“HEY,” Delbert scolded, “Get yer ass back up there now.” He jerked his head in the direction of the tank. The column was not forty yards emerged from the wood. The infantry whispered to one another. They were checking the ammunition on their belts and in their pockets. Billy ran forward and climbed back up on to the tank. He passed what he had left down to his crew.
“Mmm. Good,” Harry said of the fruit, peering through the cannon’s sight.
The commander of the tank on-point sought a consensus about direction and the nature of the terrain. He was watching Bill too. He had wanted to back up, but he could not. He said over the radio that he was going to turn to the East. Billy sat back up in the turret of the second tank and put the gear onto his head. He took a bite from the apple that he had picked for himself and chewed slowly.
“We’re gonna pull to the left down one of these rows.”
“Roger. Thought that was 20mm from a minute ago?”
“I heard it. But it’s a couple miles off or more.”
“The apples taste different here,” Bill called back. Delbert contemplated the one in his hand as he was trying to listen to the radio.
“What can you see up over the hill; crossroads ahead?”
“I can’t see from here. Let’s have the doughs fan out along these trees. Cover there. They can lay down fire if needed while we sort it out. Not gonna take them straight ahead. I’d rather go around if we can manage.”
“Okay. We’ll pull right.”
“Company C still back there?”
“Remnants, yes. Coming along with us. They’re meeting back up with the rest at phase line green.”
“Alright. Put H-E on that tree line ahead if we need to.”
“Okay. Hey. Don’t go sticking your neck out. Be careful.”
“Roger. I won’t take any more chances on roads not swept.”
“We’re gonna move up and take a position now. Can you see what’s going on to the west of this road? How ‘bout...”
A thunderclap sends sparks off the second tank.
It rolls forward and to the right, turret afire,
a man toppling over its side into the grass below.
It just misses a graze against the front-column tank
and stops with a clunk, with a whine of gears,
hanging lopsided over the shoulder of the dirt road.
The tanks and infantry behind are further exposed.
"AYY-TEE GUN,” someone points.
Gears screeching, the first tank makes a hard left,
driving at full speed down an aisle through the orchard.
A machine gun opening across the way now,
from a grouping of trees and brush,
the muzzle erupting in short bursts.
Vehicles and men proceeding Delbert in the column
scatter out from the opening behind him.
A man is down, shot through the right thigh.
A horde of lead mosquitoes coming at them,
the infantry ducks for cover,
diving off the sides of the road
to the left and the right,
and behind the trees.
Delbert and the tank remain still.
Bill gets back up on his feet. He paces around in the grass near the lopsided tank. He seems confused, restless, his helmet is lost. His tanker’s jacket is smoking. The eyebrows are singed away and the hair is half-burned away. His torso blood-soaked, he has a spatter on his face against the glossy, pink burns and oil smudges. The left arm is dangling. Severed just above the elbow, it hangs by a thread of tissue.
He is looking for something with his good arm as he paces. His cigarettes. He pulls the soft pack out from a pocket. He shakes it and draws one forth in his teeth. Tossing the pack away, Billy's legs give out from under him and he falls against the tracks of the tank. White-hot flame blasts out of the openings of the primary and secondary hatches. It burns terribly, like a furnace, metallic screams emitting from its core.
"Delbert!” Someone hollering from below.
Rifles burst in the direction of the muzzle flare.
"DOWN. DOWN." The infantry is saying.
Machine gun rounds kick up dirt near his boots as he sits.
Bill searches for a lighter with his good arm. He cannot not find it. He looks hazily in Delbert’s general direction. There is stupidity on his bloodied face. Though he is in shock, he smiles lightly. He knows his error is fatal. Producing the lighter in hand finally, sitting back against the tracks of the tank, he tries several times to light the cigarette. He cannot do it, the lighter needs a new flint. He throws it away violently in a fit of frustration. Taking a labored breath, he lets it out. The head goes back, the eyes fixate on nothing. An unlit cigarette in his lips, he seems to contemplate some question or awful truth.
A blast in a nearby tree sends bits of wood
like razor blades all about,
shaking Delbert violently from a trance.
The tank jerks into motion.
The apple tree is splintering and falling,
there are bullets in all directions.
He ducks into the turret against his carelessness.
Making a hard right, they speed away down an aisle between the trees. They move to another position.
They must get a bead on the source of that anti-tank fire.
Delbert peers above the hatch rim, looking behind them.
Those men inside cannot escape. Their cries fade as such. The man sitting against the burning tank shrinks away with distance. That which had moments ago seemed to whisper in the light breeze---hungry, unseasoned, serene---it howls now and bellows to untold listeners with a breath of gasoline stench and of charred flesh, eating away furiously, ablaze, despairing to god-fearing men, it forces away horribly through some unseen vortex to another-worldly origin or destination; one in the same.
It was with such tests that they learned to avoid exposing themselves in any capacity. And to shoot first. He is still as the tank vibrates beneath. He looks at nothing. He says nothing.
“DELBERT!” Harry is screaming... ©2022 Warriors Media llc/Our Family & CF
Mechanized warfare on a mass scale was still relatively new in the war. And the Sherman tank would become widely regarded as a death trap. Its armor was no match for the 88mm round of the German Tiger Tank. Add to that: the Sherman caught fire and burned easily from a direct hit, due to its gasoline engine and the flammable propellant in all of the 75mm rounds which the crew had to carry onboard. It did have relative speed though.
Suffice it to say, it required innovation, luck, an extraordinary ability to adapt in any given situation to survive the battlefields of Europe. My Grandfather made it home. But he carried the unseen scars of the experience for the remainder of his life, and the effects of the war would be felt for generations to come.
Jason is a filmmaker, brand ambassador, writer, illustrator, and is currently pursuing a degree in the field of I.T.