This is is from my book, Twenty-One. Tom and Dee Bowles are identical twins who fought with the US 1st Infantry Division thorughout the war – including North Africa, Sicily, D-Day, and the Battle of the Bulge. When the war came to an end they had reached Czechoslovakia. You can find out more about Tom and Dee at their family website: www.ddaytwins.org. Also worth looking at is the US 1st Infantry Division Society website, www.bigredone.org.
TOM & DEE BOWLES
Born January 25, 1922
May 1944, with the Allied invasion of Northern France just a few weeks away. For the past six months, the US Eighteenth Infantry Regiment has been based in a large camp between the villages of Broadmayne and West Knighton, outside the county market town of Dorchester. It’s rolling, green countryside, at the heart of Wessex, in the south-west of England. And on this particular May evening, Privates Tom and Dee Bowles and several of their friends from Battalion Headquarters Company have been given a pass out of camp, and so have headed to one of their favourite haunts, the New Inn at West Knighton. It is a traditional English country pub, quite different from the bars back home in America, but the GIs of the 18th Infantry have always been made welcome there. They’ve even developed a taste for the beer
It’s Tom Bowles who is the photographer: all through their training in the United States and in Britain, and through the campaigns in North Africa and Sicily, he has taken pictures – often surreptitiously – and he has brought his camera with him this evening. Having bought their pints, the young men step outside once more; after all, it’s warm enough. There are some old beer barrels outside – it’s the perfect picture opportunity, and so Tom gets out his camera and they begin taking snapshots of each other. In one, the Bowles brothers stand around the barrels, clutching their pints, alongside their buddies Dotson and John R Lamm. In another, the two brothers perch on the broken brick wall at the entrance to the pub. They make a handsome pair in their dress uniforms: square-jawed, with high cheekbones and dark, serious eyes and just a hint of swagger – each has an arm casually draped over a leg; they’re adopting matching poses. It’s hard to tell them apart. There’s confidence there, too, on the faces of these twenty-two year-olds; it’s not just the row of medal ribbons across their chests, or the way they brandish the shoulder badge of the First Infantry Division – the Big Red One. If they’re worried about the forthcoming invasion – an operation they know will be happening some day soon – they certainly aren’t showing it.
Many years later, the film will be rediscovered, and in perfect condition. When it is developed, the pictures that emerge are so fresh and clear, it’s as though they’d been taken the day before. It is hard to believe the reality – that they were snapped on a warm evening in May more than fifty years earlier, just a couple of weeks before one of the most momentous moments in history.
Only a few days after their trip to the New Inn, Tom and Dee, (as in Henry D. Bowles), were handing in their ties and dress uniforms and being given their kit for the invasion: new gas masks, gas-proof clothing, and even anti-gas ointment to put on their shoes. It was unusually warm that May and as they began wearing these new gas-proof clothes they all began to sweat badly: the new kit was almost totally air-tight. New canvas assault jackets with extra pockets on the front, sides and back, were also issued. So too were plastic covers for their rifles and weapons. Each man was given a fuse, lighter and a block of TNT – just large enough to blow a hole in the ground that could be then made into a foxhole; these would have handy back in North Africa where the soil had been thin and the rocky ground hard as iron. Further instruction in first aid was given to every man, and extra sulfabromide tablets handed out. Each man would be carrying nearly eighty pounds of kit: clothing, first aid, weapons, ammunition, canteens, rations, and even candy, cigarettes and toilet paper.
Despite this increasingly frenetic activity, neither Tom nor Dee was unduly worried. During the past few months they had practiced amphibious assaults, trained in bomb-damaged houses in nearby Weymouth and listened to the generals who had visited them and given them pep-talks. Large numbers of fresh-faced GIs had arrived from the United States to bring the companies, decimated from two campaigns in Tunisia and Sicily, back up to full strength and beyond, but for the old hands like Tom and Dee, who had already been through two amphibious invasions, it was hard to get terribly excited about practicing an assault on a concrete pillbox somewhere in southern England.
Then one day, at the very end of May, Tom and Dee came back from a visit to the nearby resort of Bournemouth to discover that they were now restricted to quarters, with British troops patrolling the wire perimeter. No-one could get in or out without a special pass. â€˜I hadn’t really given the invasion that much thought until then,’ admits Dee. The following morning, they watched as the battalion’s officers were marched to the former staff officers’ quarters. The doors were then locked and guards placed outside.
When the officers reappeared and rejoined their companies, the rest of the battalion was finally given their briefing. Tom and Dee were both in the same company; Tom had been in Company G throughout North Africa and Sicily, but had joined his brother in Battalion Headquarters Company since arriving back in England the previous November. He’d been part of a mortar team up until then, but he wanted to be closer to his brother and figured that since he’d lost a lot his buddies whilst on mortars, becoming a wire-man like Dee was a safer bet. Brothers were not supposed to serve in the same regiment, let alone the same company, and especially not if they were identical twins, but somehow Tom and Dee managed to get round that one. They’d been together almost since the day they joined the army and they weren’t going to be split up now. And so it was that they heard about their upcoming role in the invasion of France together.
The Big Red One was going to land in Normandy, east of the Cotentin Peninsula, along a four-and-a-half mile stretch of coast to be known as Omaha. The beach was overlooked by 150 feet-high sandy bluffs, impassable to any vehicles accept at four points – or exit draws – where roads ran down to the sand. The first wave of assault troops was to land early in the morning of D-Day, clear the beaches of mines and other obstacles, secure these four exits and then a few hours later, the next wave would arrive and, passing through the first wave, break out beyond the beachhead. Simple. The 2nd Battalion was to spearhead the second wave, coming in behind the Sixteenth Infantry on a sector of the beach to be known as â€˜Easy Red’, smack in the middle of Omaha, and covering the â€˜E-1’ exit draw. This at least was something: in their previous two invasions, Tom and Dee had been among the first to land. Now they would be three-and-a-half hours behind.
Several days went by. They felt restless in their camp, but there were some perks. At one end of the camp there was a large store full of candy and cigarettes. â€˜They had cigarettes of kinds down there,’ says Dee, â€˜and you could take what you wanted.’ He didn’t smoke, but he took a whole load anyway. â€˜I figured I could trade with them later,’ he admits. They also had some drink to take with them. On their trip to Bournemouth they had bought a bottle of whisky and a bottle of gin. Each man was to take two water bottles, so Dee filled one of his with whisky and Tom filled one of his with gin. â€˜I don’t know whether we thought we were going to celebrate or what, but it seemed like a good idea at the time,’ says Tom.
Then on Sunday, June 4, they were told to get ready to ship out. The men were given one last hot meal, then at dusk clambered aboard trucks and were taken down in convoy to Weymouth harbour and loaded onto waiting troopships. By the time Tom made it on to the ship, it was almost bursting at the seams with men. â€˜I found myself a tiny cubby hole,’ he says, â€˜then curled up and went to sleep.’ When he awoke the following morning it was to discover that the invasion had been postponed for twenty-four hours. Tom was struck by the huge queues waiting outside the chaplain’s quarters. â€˜The line was completely up and round the ship,’ he says.
Even when the invasion fleet finally began to inch out of harbour on the night of June 5, Dee and Tom still remained calm. They’d always been pretty easy-going people, about as laid back as it is possible to be in a time of war. â€˜Being a soldier was our life at that time,’ says Dee. â€˜I know some guys that worried about getting home to their wives and all, but we didn’t have that. We really just had each other and the battalion, and we knew were weren’t going to get back to the States until the war was over.’ He pauses, then adds, â€˜So to me the invasion was just another job. Neither of us worried too much about it.’
By May 1944, Tom and Dee really were on their own. They had lost both parents, and although there was a kid sister and five much older half-sisters from their father’s first marriage, from the moment they joined the army they considered it as home. Identical twins, they were from America’s Deep South, in north-west Alabama. Life was tough, very tough, during the Depression-hit 1930s. The Bowles’s were poor, although both Dee and Tom claim they were happy enough, with always plenty to eat and enough going to amuse themselves. Today, it is astonishing how many people growing up between the wars lost one or other of their parents, and Dee and Tom were no exception, losing first a brother and then their mother when they were just twelve years old. Their father was a farmer, growing fruit and vegetables that he would then load onto a truck and sell in town, but being a smallholder in the Depression-era Deep South was hardly lucrative, and so soon after their mother died, the family moved to the cotton mill town of Russelville. The twins left school and went out to work – the extra bucks they brought home made all the difference.
By 1940, however, the cotton mill in Russellville was already in terminal decline, even though the rest of the country was lifting itself out of the Depression. â€˜We wanted to go to work,’ says Tom, â€˜but there wasn’t no work around.’ They’d applied for places in the Civil Conservation Corps – a scheme set up by Roosevelt to try to combat massive soil erosion and declining timber resources by using the large numbers of young unemployed. But they were turned down. Instead, in March 1940, two months after their eighteenth birthdays, they decided to enlist into the Army. Of the two, Tom tended to be the decision maker, so he was the first to hitch a ride to Birmingham, the state capital, in order to find out about joining up. Since they were only eighteen, their father had to give his consent. â€˜I remember his hand was pretty shaky when he signed that,’ says Tom. Four days later, on 9 March, Dee followed. â€˜We hadn’t heard from Tom,’ says Dee, â€˜so I told Dad I was going too. He said, â€œSon, make good soldiers, and we always tried to remember that.’ After being given three meal tickets in Birmingham and a promise of eventual service in Hawaii, Dee was sent to Fort Benning in Georgia, one of the country’s largest training camps. He still wasn’t sure where his brother was – or even if he had actually enlisted – until eventually he got a letter from his father with Tom’s address. It turned out they were only a quarter of a mile apart, and that both were in the 1st Infantry Division, even though Tom was in the 18th Infantry Regiment and Dee the 26th.
In 1940, the US Army was still a long way off from being the huge machine is would become just a few years later. There may have been some thirteen million Americans in uniform by June 1944, but less than ten years before, there just over 100,000, and by the time Tom and Dee joined, the US Army was still languishing as the nineteenth largest in the world – behind Paraguay and Portugal – and much of its cavalry was exactly that: men on horseback. Tom even has a photo of the cavalry’s horses massed in a large pasture at Fort Benning.
Unsurprisingly, their basic training was pretty basic. On arrival at Benning they were told to read the Articles of War, then were given a serial number and told to make sure they never forgot it. After eight weeks training – drill, route marches, occasional rifle practice, and plenty of tough discipline – they were considered to be soldiers. They were living in pup tents, but eating more than enough food and surrounded by young lads of a similar age, so as far as the Bowles twins were concerned life in the regular army seemed pretty good, and a lot more fun than back home in Russelville, Alabama.
Training continued. More marching – three mile hikes, then ten mile, then 25-mile hikes with a light pack and eventually 35 miles with a heavy pack. A mile from home, they were greeted by the drum and bugle corps who played them the last stretch back into camp. But while this was doing wonders for their stamina and levels of fitness, they had little opportunity to train with weapons. Their kit was largely out of date too: World War I-era leggings, old campaign hats, and Tommy helmets, and although most in the 1st Division had now been issued with the new M-1 rifle, they rarely saw any tanks and the field guns mostly dated from the First World War. In July 1941, they were carrying out amphibious training in North Carolina when they received telegrams that their father was critically ill. Given compassionate leave, they were put ashore and hitch-hiked back home to Alabama. â€˜Daddy died on July 31st, 1941,’ says Dee. He was just fifty-four; he had suffered his third stroke.
Soon after their younger sister joined the Air Force, and Tom and Dee rejoined their units – in time for the Big Red One’s participation in the Louisiana Manoeuvres of August 1941, the largest military exercise ever undertaken in the US, in which two â€˜armies’ were pitched against one another. They were designed to test staffs and the logistical system as much as anything, but having seen the National Guard divisions still carrying wooden rifles and lorries with logs on that were supposed to simulate tanks, both Dee and Tom began to realise just how unprepared America was for war.
They were both on leave when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. There had been talk of war for some months, but now they were in it for sure. They also knew that since the First Division was one of the few pre-war regular army units, they were likely to be among the first in action – although they didn’t have the faintest idea when or where that might be. And for the first half of 1942, they remained in the US, moving from camp to camp, practicing amphibious landings, carrying out more marches and exercises, sometimes on sand, sometimes in the snow. â€˜All we were doing was moving from one location to another and getting ready to fight,’ says Dee.
Not until August 2, 1942, did the twins finally found themselves steaming out of New York en route to Britain. Like most young men heading off to war, it was the first time they had ever left home shores. The entire First Division was crammed onto the Queen Mary, one of the great pre-war trans-Atlantic liners, but as Tom and Dee discovered, there was little that was luxurious about the great ship now. It had been designed to carry two thousand passengers, but on August 2, 1942, the Queen Mary was carrying 15,125 troops and 863 mostly British crew. â€˜It sure was crowded,’ admits Tom. They were given hammocks, four bunked on top of each other along each wall of a the cabin. Although still in different regiments and in different cabins, they managed to see plenty of each other, and despite being packed like sardines, they didn’t find it too much of a hardship. â€˜Well, to us it was rather like being on a vacation,’ says Dee. They were given plenty of hot meals, each eaten at a table and served by waiters. The threat of U-boats was ever present, and there were not nearly enough lifeboats for the number on board, but it didn’t worry the Bowles twins too much: the ship was fast, and it continually zig-zagged all the way to avoid the German submarines. As they approached the British Isles, aircraft arrived to escort them over the final part of the journey into Gourock in Scotland.
They docked on the morning of August 7, beneath the dull-grey barrage balloons that floated above the harbour. The division was quickly ushered off the ship past a line of women handing out cups of tea and then led straight onto waiting trains. The Bowles twins, separated once more into their respective regiments, still had no idea where they were heading, but it soon became clear the final leg of their journey was not a short ride. British officers appeared, demonstrating in each compartment how to pull down the blinds; the blackout was something new to the American troops. The train chugged on through the night, past nameless towns and villages, until at around seven the following morning they finally reached their destination. Tidworth Barracks, some ten miles north of Salisbury in southern England, was shrouded in early morning mist as the soldiers stepped down onto on English soil for the first time. On Salisbury Plain, one of the British Army’s largest training areas, the Bowles twins and the rest of the division would begin training for the largest seaborne invasion the world had ever known – not D-Day, but the Allied invasion of Northwest Africa.
Shortly before the TORCH landings in Africa, Dee had managed to transfer regiments and was now with his brother Tom in the 2nd Battalion of the Eighteenth Infantry, although he had joined Headquarters Company, while Tom remained with his mortar crew in Company G. As a result they both landed on African soil at around the same time, on a sandy beach just east of the port of Arzew in Algeria, on Novermber 8, 1942. They would find themselves up against stiffer opposition in the months and years to come, but in fighting the Vichy French – at that time still collaborating with the Axis powers – they faced their first time in action. It was on that first day, whilst taking cover in a cemetery near the town of St Cloud, seven miles inland, that Tom saw his first dead body. â€˜I saw him lying there,’ he says, â€˜and that made a big impression on me. I thought, this is for real now.’ For all the horrors they would witness before the war was over, this first corpse affected Tom the most.
Both agree that war makes a man harden up pretty quick. French resistance quickly crumbled and French North Africa – all those troops in Algeria, French Morocco and Tunisia – joined the Allies. While the British Eighth Army advanced from the east after their victory at El Alamein, the joint US and British force that had landed in Northwest Africa advanced from the west. The joint German and Italian armies were slowly being caught in the vice of Tunisia.
But North Africa was no Axis sideshow. Hitler insisted on pouring hundreds of thousands of troops into Tunisia, as well as equipment: in Tunisia, the Allies came face-to-face with the superb Focke-Wulf 190 fighter and also the monstrous Tiger Tank. So well-armed was the Tiger, there was nothing in the Allied armament at that time that could penetrate its body armour. Furthermore, Tunisia was extremely mountainous and hilly, difficult terrain in which to fight. And to make matters worse, it was now winter and there was so much rain, the battleground soon resembled something out of the Western Front of the First World War. Everyone and everything became bogged down in the mud.
It was also the first time American and British forces had fought side by side, shoulder to shoulder, under one unified command. The British were the old enemy, but now the differences of the colonial era were behind them and they were Allies as never before. The Eighteenth Infantry spent forty-seven days detached from the Big Red One, fighting alongside the British Guards Division. â€˜We wore their uniforms,’ says Dee, â€˜and ate their food, and drank tea instead of coffee. That tea they had was beautiful.’ He even preferred British rations to the â€˜C’ rations they had been eating.
The front line was fairly static during this period, but it taught the Eighteenth a lot. Tom learned how to dig in with his mortar team and how to get the best of from the lay of the land. Dee, on the other hand, was a wireman. He and a buddy had the task of setting up and maintaining the field telephone system. This meant running lines of wire from battalion headquarters to the various companies, and then making any repairs if the wire was broken by enemy fire. It could be pretty dangerous work, and during this time in the front line, both brothers gained valuable experience of what it was like to operate under enemy shellfire, what it was like to be dive-bombed by the dreaded Stukas, and strafed by the Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. And what they learnt was that there was still of a lot of ground and air all around them, and that it was the unlucky or careless who got themselves killed.
In February, Field Marshal Rommel launched his last offensive in North Africa, and although the Allied forces were initially heavily defeated and pushed back almost into Algeria, reinforcements from northern Tunisia were hurried south, including the Eighteenth Infantry. Hastily digging in alongside their British Guardsman comrades, they found themselves coming under attack from the full force of the veteran 21st Panzer Division, one of the most experienced German units in North Africa. â€˜We saw those tanks coming across the valley straight at us,’ says Dee, â€˜and all hell let loose.’ The Eighteenth held their line, however, and with a number of German tanks left in flames, the panzers were forced to retreat. â€˜It was several days before I could hear good again,’ adds Dee.
A month later, with the Allies back on the offensive, the Eighteenth Infantry had rejoined US II Corps along with the rest of the Big Red One, and under the command of General George S Patton, Tom and Dee found themselves dug in along the El Guettar massif, a long and imposingly jagged range of red mountains of Southern Tunisia. But it was here that German forces counter-attacked, and Tom’s Company G found themselves isolated on a rocky outcrop on a mountain known as the Djebel Berda. â€˜We were on a peak about a quarter of a mile ahead of everyone else,’ says Tom. From his position he could see German tanks in valley beneath him. â€˜We couldn’t go nowhere,’ he says, and they were beginning to run short of supplies. It was now afternoon on March 23, 1943. The enemy had been mortaring them ever since their counter-attack had begun earlier in the day, but German troops were now moving into positions to the right of them on the Djebel Berda. Company G’s situation was becoming more and more precarious. â€˜They were looking down on us,’ says Tom, â€˜picking us off one at a time.’
His sergeant, Nels de Jarlais, was wounded, so Tom and his friend Giacomo Patti, an Italian from Brooklyn, decided they needed to try and get him out of there. It was evening, and the light was fading. Mortars and machinegun fire continued to burst and chatter nearby. They picked their way carefully down to the aid station and collected a stretcher, then clambered back around the front of the hill. â€˜Probably the only reason we weren’t shot was because we were carrying the stretcher,’ says Tom. Having made it safely back to their positions, they were just putting the sergeant on the stretcher when word arrived from their listening post that the Germans had all but surrounded them and were about to attack.
By now it was almost dark, but suddenly flares were whooshing into the sky, lighting up their positions, and German troops were clambering up the slopes beneath them yelling at the tops of their voices. There was now no question of getting the sergeant out. Taking off the scarf he had round his neck, Tom rolled it up and put in under Sergeant de Jarlais’s head to make him more comfortable. â€˜D’you think we can hold ’em?’ the sergeant asked him.
â€˜Yeah, we can hold ’em,’ Tom replied, then hurried back to his mortar. He never saw his sergeant again. Tom quickly began firing, but he had just thirty-six mortar bombs left. Enemy mortars were landing all about him, exploding with an ear-splitting din followed by the whiz and hiss of flying rock and shrapnel. The enemy was closing in on their positions. Tom saw one mortar land in a foxhole. One of the sergeants clambered out of his dugout to help a wounded man. Tom yelled at him to come back, but it was too late – moments later another shell hurtled down, just twenty yards in front of Tom, killing both the sergeant and the wounded GI instantly. Then Patti hurried over. â€˜The lieutenant says we’re going to surrender,’ he told Tom. â€˜Let’s get out of here.’
â€˜When one of the officers says that,’ says Tom, â€˜you’re on your own. You can do as you please.’ They scrambled over the rocks, slid down a small cliff and fell into a pool of water, but got themselves out and away to the comparative safety of Battalion HQ. â€˜I never hated anything so much in all my life as leaving those guys up there,’ admits Tom. â€˜And we had to leave the sergeant up there too.’ Sergeant de Jarlais did not survive.
Dee had been at Battalion Headquarters all day, but heard that Company G was in big trouble, so he and two of his colleagues set out to try and find Tom. In the dark and with the rain pouring down, they scrambled up through the rocks towards Company G’s position, then suddenly heard German voices. One of Dee’s friends said, â€˜Looks like we’re caught here. Shall we give up?’
But it was dark and all three were wearing captured German ponchos, so Dee said, â€˜No. Let’s just turn around and head back the ay they came.’ The ploy worked. Not a single German so much as spoke to them.
The following morning, Dee had a close shave of his own. Back at Battalion HQ, he and his wiring buddy, Blake C Owens, were told to get a wire to Company E, so having gathered a spool and armed with a field telephone, they began to lay their line towards the Company E command post. The firing of the previous night had, by now, quietened down, but desultory shell and mortar fire continued to explode among the battalion positions. Dee and Blake were trying to cover as much ground as they could by scrambling along a small wadi, when suddenly they found themselves being shot at from the rough direction of Company E’s positions. To begin with Dee thought they must have been mistaken for Germans. â€˜So I waved at them and they stopped,’ he says. On they went a bit further, but then the firing began again, bullets pinging and ricocheting uncomfortably close by. Dee waved again, and once more they stopped. They scurried on a bit further, but sure enough, the firing started up once more. They could see the shots were coming from some rocks just ahead of them, so they ran and dropped behind the safety of a large boulder, bullets whistling over their heads and pinging into the other side of the rock. Frantically, Dee wired up his phone and put a call into Headquarters. â€˜We’re trying to get to E Company up here,’ Dee told them, â€˜but there’s somebody shooting at us.’
â€˜E Company?’ came the reply. â€˜They’ve already left that position.’ Unbeknown to Dee and Blake, â€˜E’ had been moved to higher ground in the early hours of the morning. â€˜You better get out of there quick,’ they were told.
â€˜We can’t,’ Dee told him. We’re out in the open here.’
â€˜Just wait a minute kid,’ said the man on the other end. â€˜The artillery liaison officer’s right here. You can talk to him.’
The LO came on the phone and asked Dee whether he thought he could direct their fire onto the enemy position. Dee told him he would try. Shortly after two shells whistled over, but landed short. â€˜Raise up two hundred yards,’ Dee told him from his crouched position behind the rock.
â€˜All right,’ said the LO, then added, â€˜Now when you hear those shells coming in, you get out of there.’
â€˜And boy when we heard that whistling we took off,’ says Dee. â€˜The Germans still shot at us a couple of times, but we zig-zagged down and managed to get away.’ Both men were later awarded the Silver Star for this action. â€˜For escaping, I guess,’ says Dee.
Shortly after this, the Germans retreated for good, and with the two Allied armies having finally linked up, the whole of US II Corps, including the Big Red One, were moved north for the endgame of the Tunisian campaign. Company G, all but wiped out at during their battle on the Djebel Berda, was hastily reinforced. They had one last bitter battle for Hill 350 in the closing stages of the campaign, but when the Axis forces in North Africa finally surrendered on May 13, 1943, the men of the Big Red One were already out of the line and back in Algiers, training for their next invasion: Sicily. They had come a long way during those long months of bitter fighting, and with victory in Tunisia came the surrender of over 250,000 enemy troops, more than at Stalingrad a few months before.
They made their second seaborne invasion on July 10, 1943, when the Allies invaded Sicily. The Eighteenth did not come ashore until the evening, by which time the beaches at Gela had already been taken. Even so, a number of their landing craft ran into a submerged sandbar some way from the shore, and when Tom jumped into the sea, he promptly sank until the water was over his head. It was also now dark, but he still had the wherewithal not to panic, and to calmly walk forward. Soon his head was clear of the waves, and he was able to make his way safely to the shore.
The fighting was over in little more than a month, but although the Big Red One was almost constantly moving forward, Dee remembers Sicily as a tough campaign. â€˜It was hard fighting across every town,’ he says. â€˜Most of it we walked.’ At Troina, at the foot of Mount Etna, the giant volcano that dominates the island, they fought their last battle before being withdrawn from the front. The Big Red One would not be going on to Italy – instead they were to head back to England to begin training for their third and final seaborne invasion: Operation OVERLORD, the assault on Nazi-occupied France.
They landed at Liverpool in northern England in early November 1943, almost exactly a year after they had left for North Africa. â€˜It was great to be back,’ says Dee. They felt as though they’d come home. The twins enjoyed their times in England – the pubs, the hospitality of the people, the trips to London and other English cities. Inevitably, many American troops soon got themselves British sweethearts and Dee was no exception. Just before leaving for North Africa, the Big Red One had been sent up to Scotland for training and Dee had started going out with a Scottish girl. â€˜She was singing down the street,’ he says, â€˜and we got talking. We never got up to much – we’d just ride a tram up to the park and talk and so on.’
So for a few precious months, the brothers had a good time. They trained hard, but there were plenty of opportunities for rest and relaxation – R&R – as well. Dee even managed to get back to Glasgow and see his girlfriend. â€˜The war was forgotten for a while,’ he adds. â€˜I wasn’t too worried.’
But by early morning on June 6, 1944, it was time to start the fighting again. Tom and Dee’s troopship was now some twelve miles off the Normandy coast, just out of range of enemy shellfire. Everyone was told to get up, put on their packs, helmets and other gear, and form into their assault teams ready to clamber down the side nets and into the landing craft that would take them to the beaches.
Before first light, the men of the Eighteenth were doing their best to clamber down into their Higgins boats landing craft. The sea was far from calm, and even the troopship was rolling on the sea. The flat-bottomed Higgins boats alongside were lurching up and down dramatically. Clambering down the nets was no easy task – it was still quite dark, they were carrying a heavy pack and equipment, and Tom and Dee also had two rolls of wire and a field telephone each – and because the men had to time their jump into the Higgins boat, the nets soon became congested. Tom’s hands were constantly being trodden on by men above him. Even so, both brothers, who had been placed in the same squad, managed to successfully judge their leaps into the Higgins boat without injuring themselves. Then began a long and deeply uncomfortable wait.
The first wave of troops was due to hit the beaches at 6.30am, but the battle for Normandy began some forty minutes earlier. As Tom and Dee circled round and round in their landing craft, pummelled and flung against the sides as the boat crashed up and down on the rising swell, the huge naval armada opened fire, followed soon after by wave after wave of Allied bombers. The noise was incredible: the report of the guns, the sound of shells whistling overhead, and the eventual explosions along the coast.
The first wave, meanwhile, was already heading towards the beaches. The Sixteenth Infantry was due to clear Easy Red beach, so that the 2nd Battalion of the Eighteenth could sweep through when it landed in the second wave and secure the E-1 exit draw – but things were not going well. The enemy bunkers and gun emplacements had not been knocked out as planned and many of the Sixteenth’s Higgins boats were landing in completely the wrong place. Those that did reach Easy Red came under heavy fire, with appalling losses of men. It was a similar story elsewhere along Omaha, and soon the whole operation was behind schedule. In the hold of their Higgins boat, Tom and Dee could not see what was going on, but the men manning the craft were watching through field glasses and radio messages were coming through continually, and it quickly became clear the landings were not going to plan. To make matters worse, over half the men on the boat were being violently seasick, the acid stench of vomit filling the close space of the boat. Neither Dee or Tom were sick themselves, but Tom admits he felt â€˜kind of nauseated.’
Just after 9am, having been in their landing craft for over three hours, the 2nd Battalion of the Eighteenth were ordered to land immediately to help the struggling Sixteenth. But at the time, they were still circling some twelve miles out and it would take them the best part of two hours to reach the shore. At least they now on their way, however. â€˜By that time, all I wanted to do was get on land and get on with it,’ says Dee. The deafening sound of battle accompanied them all the way to the beach. â€˜You could actually see those shells flying over,’ says Tom. â€˜Them things looked like a fifteen gallon barrel hurtling through the sky.’
Before they landed they were warned they should get off the beach as quickly as they could, and not to stop for anyone. Fifty yards from Easy Red, the ramp on their Higgins boat was lowered and Tom and Dee jumped out into the sea. Easy Red was already a scene of carnage. â€˜You could see bullets hitting the sand, and the sand flying up all over the place,’ says Tom, â€˜and mortar shells bursting all around. And in the water were bodies floating everywhere and lying all over the beach.’ There was also plenty of barbed wire, countless German obstacles, and radios and other equipment littered all over place. The water was only knee-deep now, but Dee remembers seeing bullets hitting the water all around him as he hurriedly waded to the shore. Explosions continued bursting, but Dee could only think of one thing: to get off that beach as quickly as possible.
While Dee was running as fast as he could, past the dead and dying, Tom had reached the beach and had thrown himself down behind the shell of an old wooden boat. â€˜It was a natural thing to do, I guess,’ he says, â€˜but it wasn’t no shelter at all.’ He lay there a moment then realised that if he stayed there he was going to get himself killed, and so he jumped up and took off across the beach, hoping to God that he wouldn’t get hit.
Both of them made it to the shelter of the beach wall without so much as a scratch, and shortly after a US Navy destroyer, USS Frankford, came close to the shore – within a thousand yards – and managed to knock out several machine gun nests and a pillbox overlooking Easy Red. â€˜That pill box stopped firing just as we were running across the beach,’ says Dee. â€˜I tell you, that destroyer saved a lot of lives.’
Soon after eleven in the morning, the battalion managed to move off away from the shelter of the cliff, and capture the E-1 exit from the beach. As Dee was moving up along the draw, he saw an American soldier lying to one side. â€˜He’s laying there with one leg blown off,’ says Dee, â€˜and telling everyone to be careful because there was a minefield up ahead.’ Although Tom and Dee had become separated during the landing, Tom saw the same man. â€˜He was shouting, â€œFollow the others! Stick to the cleared path! recalls Tom. â€˜Those medics must have given him plenty of morphine. I don’t know whether he made it or not’
As they moved off the beach, shells continued to scream overhead, from out at sea but also from German positions in land. The Eighteenth were now ordered to capture the tiny town of Colleville-sur-Mer, half a mile inland, an objective originally given to the now decimated Sixteenth Infantry, but although their part of the beach was now clear, there was no let up in the fighting. Both Dee and Tom were now busy laying telephone lines and were doing so under constant fire. No sooner would a line be laid than shellfire would rip it apart again. Off Dee and Tom would go, with their buddies, feeling along the wire until they found the break in the line. Every time they heard a shell scream over, they would fling themselves flat on the ground and hope for the best, then get up again, dust themselves down and get on with the repair work. After one particularly close explosion, Tom realised he’d lost his helmet. He looked around everywhere, but couldn’t find it. Soon after, he found another and so put it on and continued repairing the lines. â€˜Where the hell d’you get that helmet?’ asked his wiring buddy, John Lamm.
â€˜I just found it lying about,’ Tom told him. He took it off and looked at it, and saw the eagle painted onto it, and the name â€˜Taylor’ on the back. It was Colonel Taylor’s, of the Sixteenth Infantry. Tom shrugged, picked up some mud and covered up the eagle and the name. â€˜I wasn’t going to give it up,’ says Tom.
For his work that afternoon, Tom was awarded the Bronze Star. â€˜Private Bowles, despite heavy enemy fire, proceeded across vulnerable terrain and repaired the wire. His heroic action contributed materially to the success of the invasion,’ noted his citation.
By the end of D-Day, the Americans had made a tenuous foothold. Tom and Dee were with the rest of the battalion just outside Colleville-sur-Mer; the battalion had almost achieved the day’s objective. But while the battle for the beaches was now over, the battle for the hedgerows was about to begin, as Dee was about to discover to his cost.
The following morning, on June 7, Dee and his buddy, Private Kirkman, had been laying some wires and were heading back down a track towards one of the battalion’s companies, when a hidden German machinegunner opened fire from twenty yards. Kirkman was shot through the left hand while Dee was hit twice in the arm, the back and his side. The force knocked them both backwards, off the road and into a ditch that ran alongside. Incredibly, both were still fully conscious; lying there, Dee felt numb and was unsure where he’d been hit or how badly. Together they managed to crawl about fifty yards until they reached some shrubs out of sight of the enemy gunman. They then both got to their feet and walked back up the road and managed to get some help.
Tom had been lying in a ditch trying to get some sleep when he was told the news. Hurrying up to the aid post, he found Dee still conscious but lying down on the ground.
â€˜Are you going to be all right?’ he asked.
â€˜Well, I think so,’ Dee told him. Medics were giving him morphine and checking his condition.
â€˜Can you lift yourself onto the stretcher?’ one of the medics asked Dee.
â€˜Yeah, sure,’ he told them, but when he tried to lift himself up, found he couldn’t really move at all. Having been placed onto the stretcher, Dee turned to Tom and asked him to take off his belt and canteens. â€˜I won’t need that Scotch after all,’ Dee told him. Tom was relieved that his brother could still joke. Perhaps Dee wasn’t too badly hit. Perhaps he’d be OK soon enough. Even so, both realised Dee would be heading straight back to England.
â€˜Well, so long,’ said Tom. Then Dee was put onto a jeep and taken away.
For all his cheeriness in front his brother, however, Dee had been seriously wounded. Soon after, he passed out and when he woke up again, he was already on a ship heading back across the Channel. There were stretchers of wounded men all around him and he was struggling with a desperate thirst. â€˜But they wouldn’t give me no water,’ he says. â€˜They didn’t know how badly shot I was.’ Eventually, after much pleading, they gave him a wet rag to put in his mouth. â€˜The next thing I know, I’m in the Naval hospital in Southampton.’
In England, Dee underwent a number of operations. â€˜Only one of those bullets was real,’ he says. â€˜And that went clean through my arm. The rest were all wooden. It’s probably what saved me.’ Even so, for some time he remained in a critical condition. There were complications; more operations followed, then infection set in. He manage to come through that, but his arm was still not working properly, so he had yet another operation and they found a further wooden bullet still stuck there. Dee began to realise just how narrowly he had cheated death.
Back in France, Tom was worrying about him. â€˜Of course, I thought about him all the time,’ he says. â€˜If I’d have ever met a German at that time, I would have shot him – I wouldn’t have taken no prisoners.’ Not until Dee had been gone a month did he hear any word, and then it was from his sister, back in the States. Both brothers had been writing to each other, but the trans-Atlantic mail service proved quicker and more reliable than that across the English Channel. At least the news seemed to be good: his brother was alive, he was doing well – mending slowly but surely.
There was little let-up for Tom the rest of the 2nd Battalion, however. Over the weeks that followed D-Day, the Allies pushed forward but only slowly; German resistance, despite Allied air superiority, was slow. By June 12, the Eighteenth Infantry were just over twenty miles inland, holding a salient around the town of Caumont. â€˜It was mainly little skirmishes,’ remembers Tom. â€˜The Germans would try and push us back and we would fight them off.’ Two, three, or more times a day, he would be sent up to the front to repair lines. It was around this time that his great friend Giacomo Patti was killed. â€˜An artillery shell hit him,’ says Tom. Not too many of those who had landed in North Africa were still around. There were more and more new faces in the 2nd Battalion – more men, and more equipment too, as the Allied war machine gradually built up strength for the next push.
They were in this holding position at Caumont for the best part of a month, but by the middle of July, the Cherbourg peninsula had been captured by Patton’s First Army, and the Americans were finally ready to launch their breakout from the Normandy bridgehead. The Eighteenth Infantry were in reserve, ready to go through the 9th Division once the initial breakthrough had been made. On the morning of July 25, Tom watched open-mouthed as wave after wave of Allied bombers carpet-bombed the German positions around the town of St. Lo. He’d never seen so many aircraft in all his life. Red flares had been set off by the troops on the ground as markers for the bombers, but soon this was clouded by the dust and smoke caused by thousands of exploding bombs. â€˜You never saw much dust,’ says Tom. â€˜It was so bad you couldn’t see nothing.’ The bombers couldn’t see much either, and didn’t realise that a breeze was blowing the dust back over their own lines. Each new wave of bombers released their bombs over the drifting cloud of dust until, tragically, they began bombing their own troops. They killed over 150 American soldiers, and St. Lo lay in ruins. â€˜That town was nothing but rubble,’ recalls Tom. â€˜Even our tanks couldn’t get through, it was so messed up.’
By the third week of August, the battle for Normandy was over, however. On August 25, Paris was liberated, but the men of the Eighteenth Infantry were not there to witness it. Instead, after a few days’ rest, they began an epic journey across northern France, covering three hundred miles in just over a week. The Eighteenth ran into the Germans again around the Belgian crossroads town of Mons, but after a series of small battles, the enemy retreated. In early September, the battalion moved forward again, this time east towards Germany itself.
For the first time, Tom was able to fully experience the joy of the liberator. They drove through Charleroi past streets lined with cheering crowds. â€˜Those people just about pulled us off the Jeeps,’ says Tom. â€˜They’d get in with us, and the girls were handing us flowers, grabbing us and kissing us. It was really something.’ These were moments to savour. Tom could not know it then, but ahead lay the toughest, most brutal, fighting he would take part in during the entire war.
Tom reckons that that battle for Aachen, King Charlemagne’s capital in the Middle Ages and the first major city inside Germany, was the worst he ever fought. â€˜That topped D-Day for me,’ he says. By the beginning of October, the Big Red One had moved into Germany and was holding a line roughly south and east of the city; the attack was to be launched on October 2, with the 2nd Battalion of the Eighteenth Infantry given the job capturing the town of Verlautenheide to the east of the city. Having done this, they were then to prepare defensive positions against possible counter-attacks from the German garrison in Aachen itself.
Tom was given a glimpse of what was to come when he first approached the edge of the town on an eerily misty October morning. A knocked-out car lay to the side of the road and sitting on the roof was a body – with no legs, no arms, and no head. â€˜The torso was all that was left,’ says Tom. â€˜I thought: this is going to be rough’ The town was taken later that day, but Verlautenheide stood perched on the eastern end of a long ridge, and the fight for this ridge and the neighbouring Crucifix Hill was bitter and hard-fought with the Germans repeatedly counter-attacking. Headquarters Company was based in a three-storey building in the town, and Tom says that for four days and four nights he barely slept as they came under almost continual bombardment and had to repair damaged wires throughout the fighting. One night, Tom and his buddy had to mend a line down to H Company. Slowly, they inched their forward, feeling their way through the darkness, the line as their guide. They stopped by a large tree that had been felled by the bombing nearby a building where H Company had set up their machineguns. They traced the wire, made the repair, and then called back to Company HQ to test it. But the line was still dead. So they crawled forward again. By now, they were doing everything they could to avoid being out in the open – at night, they were all too aware that one of the H Company machinegunners might mistake them for being Germans and open fire. They mended another break, but again, the line was still dead. Eventually, they crawled all the way to the wall of the building and, sitting crouched under a window, could see that the wire led right inside. They called up Company HQ again. â€˜The wire’s good,’ Tom told them, â€˜so we’ll go inside and try and find out what’s going on.’ Suddenly, machinegun fire opened up from the windows above them.
â€˜Get yourselves back!’ Company HQ told them as Tom and his buddy frantically pressed themselves against the wall. â€˜H Company’s not in that building any more – the Germans are!’ As stealthily and quietly as they could, they crawled back to the comparative safety of the tree, then feeling their way along the wire, scampered back to safety.
Another time, Tom was crossing the cemetery next to the building where Company HQ was based, when two shells screamed over, one exploding only fifteen feet from where he was. The blast knocked his helmet forward and cut his nose. Otherwise he was fine, but as he got up again he heard someone shouting. â€˜They’d just been bringing up some replacements,’ says Tom, â€˜and one of them was hit.’ Tom hurried over and helped the man to the Aid Station. â€˜I had his blood all over me as well as my own blood from my nose, so as I laid him down, these medics rushed over and asked me how badly I was hurt,’ says Tom. â€˜It’s not me,’ he told them, â€˜it’s this guy here.’ He has no idea whether the man he helped survived. Replacements were now coming in all the time, and, as he points out, â€˜you were half-gone by loss of sleep’; there was little or no energy left to worry too much about others. It was whilst still at Verlautenheide that he helped another wounded GI. The man had been hit in his half-track and Tom was asked to help get him out. The man was heavy and it was not easy lifting him up, but Tom did his best and managed to get him to the cover of a building and lay him down. No sooner had he done so that the man gasped one last time and died. Tom looked down at him and saw he was wearing a crucifix round his neck. â€˜I looked up,’ recalls Tom, and said, â€œWell, he’s yours, like I was talking to the Lord.’
By the time Company HQ moved again, only the basement of the building they’d been in remained. The storeys above them had vanished into a pile of rubble. Tom received a second Bronze Star – an oak leaf cluster – for his bravery under fire at Verlautenheide.
The fighting around Aachen lasted for the best part of a month, but later, after the city had finally fallen, Tom and a friend took a jeep into the city where they came across a former German barracks and stopped to have a look around. The place was a mess – papers, clothing and furniture strewn everywhere. But Tom noticed a box on the top of a locker and reaching up, took it down. Inside was a Nazi swastika. He has it still to this day.
After Aachen, the First Division were sent south into the HÃ¼rtgen Forest, and there, with winter closing in, they suffered a brutal month. The forest was dense, full of mountains and hidden ravines, ideal country to defend, but nightmarish terrain through which to try and attack. During November, eight US divisions had tried to break through the HÃ¼rtgen Forest. â€˜All,’ noted the First Division history, â€˜had emerged mauled, reduced, and in low spirits.’ Casualties amongst the Eighteenth had been as high as at any time during the war – a thousand dead and wounded. But what Tom particularly remembers is the near constant rain and the terrible, ghostly darkness. â€˜I never saw such a dark place,’ he says. â€˜If you went twenty yards from your foxhole, you’d get lost.’ The forest, he noticed, played tricks. One night, he was on guard duty and it was raining heavily. Near a road, he thought he could hear troops marching past down the road. But he couldn’t see a thing, so he stepped towards the road, held his arm to see if would touch somebody’s raincoat as they marched past. He felt nothing. â€˜It sounded as real as could be – tramp, tramp, tramp.’ But it was just the sound of the rain on the pine trees.
At the end of November, the depleted Eighteenth were pulled out of the line and sent to a town in Belgium for a week’s R&R. It was their first proper rest since D-Day. They’d only been there a few days when someone came up to Tom and said, â€˜Guess who I’ve just seen back at the depot?’ Tom didn’t have to guess – he knew who it was already.
After nearly six months in England, Dee was back. He could have been given a posting back home, but he was not having any of that. He wanted to be with his brother; and in any case, the Eighteenth was home. Tom had mixed feeling about seeing Dee, however. On the one hand, he was thrilled to see him again – and looking so well – but on the other, he worried about him being back at the front. The experience of Aachen and the HÃ¼rtgen Forest had shown that there would be no easy victory. At least, though, they had this period of rest ahead of them, and with the shortening days and weather becoming even colder, it looked as though the front might stabilise for the winter.
And then a strange thing happened. They were talking in Tom’s room in the house where he was billeted and Dee had just handed over a bottle of Scotch that he’d brought back from England for his brother, when someone shouted, â€˜Fire!’
â€˜And the building was on fire,’ says Dee – just an accident, it later turned out. â€˜So we grabbed our rifles and every dog-gone thing else and got out of there.’ From the road outside, they watched the fire spread, then suddenly the window in Tom’s room blew out. â€˜There goes that Scotch,’ Dee told Tom ruefully.
It was on December 16 that the Germans launched their last big offensive of the war, and it took the western Allies by complete surprise. Under the cover of low cloud and misty, overcast, conditions – the â€˜season of night, fog and snow’ – the Germans had managed to gather, undetected, thirty-six divisions for a massed drive through Belgium to Antwerp, a thrust designed to split the Allied forces in two and sever their supply lines.
The Eighteenth Infantry were still on R&R when, the following day, the news of the German attack reached them. Their leave was over: by three that afternoon, they were packed into trucks and were beginning to hurry to the front. The 2nd Battalion found itself holding a position south of the town of BÃ¼tgenbach, on what was soon to become the northernmost limit of the Ardennes salient – or â€˜bulge’. By Christmas Eve, the German attack had run out of steam, crippled by lack of fuel, but what followed was two months of appalling, attritional, warfare. In the Ardennes, the war soon began to resemble the worst horrors of the Western Front over twenty years before.
On Christmas Day, the big freeze started, and then came the snow, covering everything in a deep, white shroud. The temperatures dropped below freezing and stayed there, and the Americans, with too much cotton clothing and not enough wool, began to suffer badly as they crouched in their foxholes and listened to the shells screaming overhead.
There’s another photograph of Tom and Dee, taken around this time. There’s still an air of swagger about them, but they look more serious, older even, although this may have something to do with the Errol Flynn moustaches they’re both sporting. Standing ankle-deep in snow, they’re wearing thick scarves around their necks and white camouflage covers over their tin hats. â€˜The worst part of the Bulge was the snow and my clothes being froze,’ says Dee. â€˜Course, we had thick pants over our other clothes, but we didn’t have snow shoes or anything. We just had our regular boots and a field jacket and anything else we could find.’ Their clothes became so frozen they would grate together like paper. They also suffered from German V-1 rockets, or â€˜buzz-bombs’. They could hear them coming, like a persistent drone, then all of a sudden the engine would cut and they would hurtle into the dense fir forest where the battalion was crouching. â€˜You didn’t know where they was going to land,’ says Tom, â€˜so you’d lie there waiting for the bang.’ Huge craters would be formed, obliterating everything in their wake, and propelling shards of stone and lethal tree splinters in a wide ark.
But the guardian angel that had been watching over the twins since the day they joined the US Army continued her good work, although Tom and Dee both had their close shaves. Dee was even wounded again on their way back to the front. Having just passed through BÃ¼tgenbach, their column was attacked by Allied aircraft. One bomb landed no more than twenty feet from Dee, blowing him up into the air and onto the bank of the road and showering him in mud.
Tom found him a short while later, standing the doorway of a building in BÃ¼tgenbach, covered in mud and blood. â€˜But just by the way he was standing, I could tell it was Dee,’ says Tom, who then took him down to the Aid Station. After being cleaned up and bandaged, Dee rejoined Company Headquarters. â€˜I didn’t go to hospital or anything,’ he says. â€˜I’d already been separated from my brother once, so I just stayed with the outfit. I was fine soon enough.’
Tom had another eerie experience during the Bulge. He was with a new wireman buddy, a replacement named Private William White, and they were laying wires when shells started whistling overhead and exploding nearby. Taking cover by a fence, they waited for the barrage to lift, then heard voices up ahead.
â€˜I’m going to take a look at what’s going on,’ Tom told White. â€˜You wait here and I’ll holler for you.’ Moving cautiously forward, he soon found a couple of badly wounded Germans. One had already passed out but on seeing Tom, the other asked him to shoot him to put him out of his misery.
â€˜No,’ Tom told him, â€˜I’m not going to shoot you.’ He then called back to White, but there was no answer, and so he shouted again. But White still did not appear. â€˜That son of a gun,’ thought Tom, â€˜he’s deserted on me.’ He felt like shooting his buddy when he next caught up with him. Heading back to the command post, Tom reported that White had gone missing.
That night, it snowed again, and the following morning they moved positions, passing within a few yards from where Tom had been the previous day. He saw two mounds where the Germans had been – evidently they had both died and been buried under the snow. â€˜I just looked at them and didn’t say nothing,’ admits Tom. Soon after, White was found, dead. â€˜When I left him there,’ says Tom, â€˜there must have been some Germans still in the area and they grabbed him after I’d gone forward.’ Later, as White had tried to escape, he had been shot. â€˜It could easily have been me,’ says Tom.
The Bulge was the last major action the twins fought, although there was still much fighting right to the very end. Tom remembers seeing a twelve year-old German soldier during the last weeks of the war. He’s got a photo of him. â€˜Most of the time you never knew who you was fighting against,’ he says, but claims he never felt any great animosity towards the Germans. Nor did Dee. â€˜At the end, they just wanted to get away from the Russians,’ he says. â€˜We wasn’t their enemy. The Russians was their enemy.’
When VE Day finally arrived, the twins were in Czechoslovakia. The Americans told everyone in the town to turn their lights on so that the German troops still up in the hills would know that the fighting was over. â€˜I guess they got that signal,’ says Tom, â€˜because the next day they were coming home in droves.’
They got to celebrate the war’s end a short while later. Earlier, they’d passed through Bonn and had found a cellar full of wine and even whisky. Backing up a Army lorry, they had helped load the drink onto the back. â€˜Boys,’ the officer in charge had told them, â€˜when the war’s over, you’ll get all this.’ Neither Dee nor Tom believed a word of it. But once the fighting was over, they pulled back to a bivouac area and low and behold, there was the lorry still full of the drink. â€˜So they as good as their word,’ says Dee. They all had a skinfull that day. â€˜We was glad it was over,’ says Tom. â€˜Of course we were.’
A month later, they were heading home. The war in the Pacific might not have quite been over, but after three invasions and fighting through Africa, Sicily, France, Belgium, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, the Bowles twins had more than done their bit. The Army was happy to let them go and get on with the rest of their lives.
In May 2005, Tom and Dee came back to Europe for the first time since the war. I’d first met them eighteen months before, at Dee’s place in north-west Alabama, and even then I was struck by their laid-back, easy-going approach to life. They seemed pleased that someone was interested in their wartime experiences, but when I asked them whether they had ever been back to Normandy they said no, they’d not thought about it too much. And do you think you might some time? I asked. They looked at each other and shrugged. â€˜I don’t know about that,’ said Dee. â€˜Tom’s son Tim has been talking about it for a while, but I’m not so sure’
Tom lives in Lake Charles Louisiana, but since his wife passed away he’s been spending more time with his brother and sister-in-law. They’re as close as they ever were and it’s still almost impossible to tell them apart, even now that they’re both in their eighties. When you came back, I wondered, after the war, did they ever talk about their experiences as soldiers? No, came the answer, hardly ever. â€˜We just forgot about it,’ said Dee. â€˜We talked more about before the war, growing up and stuff.’ Instead, like millions of others, they simply came back and got on with their lives. They learnt a trade and became electricians. Dee married and had two daughters, Tom married and had five boys. Most of the boys became electricians too, all except Tim, the youngest. He works in IT.
Then in 1989, there was a notice in the local paper in Lake Charles. A new D-Day Museum was being planned in New Orleans and veterans were being asked for their memories. Tom called them and a reporter came out to talk to him, wanting to know about his war record and how he came to get two bronze stars. It was the first time Tom had thought about it in years; he hadn’t even got his medals. He’d never bothered; nor had Dee.
They began to realise there weren’t so very many of them left and began thinking it might be a good idea to get some of their memories down for their children and grandchildren. They ordered their medals, joined the Big Red One Association and got in touch with a few of their former comrades in arms. In 2000, the D-Day Museum in New Orleans finally opened, and the twins went down their with their families and joined a parade with other veterans.
Some time after I’d visited them, Tim finally persuaded them to make the pilgrimage, and so in May 2005, a couple of weeks before the sixtieth anniversary celebrations began in France, the men of the family – Tom and Dee, and Tom’s five sons – flew over to England. It was the first time the twins had ever been in an aeroplane and their first time out of the United States since returning after the end of the war.
Since I live not so very far from their old camp near Broadmayne, I had been to the New Inn in West Knighton and had sent Tom and Dee a photograph of the pub, and so now, on this visit, they naturally wanted to see the place again for themselves. They called in at my house, then together we all drove down towards Dorchester. It was a warm and sunny May day, just as it had been when the twins had taken their picture at the pub, a couple of weeks before D-Day. The roads narrowed as we drew closer, the hedgerows rising and bursting with green. Then there we were, pulling into the courtyard, opposite the front of the pub. It’s remarkably unchanged on the outside, still instantly recognisable from the black and white picture taken all those years before. The twins got themselves a beer then posed outside for a new set of photographs. Watching it was a profoundly moving experience. It seemed incredible to me that sixty years before, two young men had stood there – unknowing – on the eve of one of the most significant moments in world history and yet now, with the world such a different place, here they were again. It was very humbling.