Bud Paolino's being coaxed into talking about his landing in France, 50 years ago tomorrow, when he hears the sound of big guns exploding on a television news program. The whole country's remembering D-Day now. Everybody's playing surrogate soldiers, conveniently protected by time and distance. But, half a century after the fact, the ones like Bud Paolino hear pTC the noise on the television set, and it brings back Normandy.
He was 19, married and expecting a child when they sent him over: Eleven weeks on a troop ship that landed in Liverpool, England, in June of '43, then a year of training with the 101st Airborne in a town called Redding, to be sent across the English Channel on the first day of the invasion in a thing everybody called a floating coffin.
It was an airplane without a motor, a death trap, just a canvas and plywood thing they'd hook to the back of an airplane and then cut loose as they passed Omaha Beach, letting them float down in the darkness into German-occupied France hours before any Allied invasion of the beaches had begun.
"We didn't know when D-Day would be," Paolino was remembering the other night, sitting in his restaurant-bar, Enrico's, on Haven Street in East Baltimore. "Then, three days before the invasion, they put us in a marshaling area. We got live ammunition. And they gave us cigarettes. Everybody got two cartons of Lucky Strikes. It felt like they were sending us to the electric chair."
Also, they got instructions: Where they would land, where they would regroup, where they were to meet a man from the French Resistance who would be smoking a cigarette in front of a barn on a farm road, who would respond to a secret password. In the chaos that would follow, the instructions seemed a kind of presumptuous madness.
"Thirteen guys and a pilot," Paolino remembered now. "You couldn't hear anything, from the roar of the plane that was pulling us, and then when we were cut loose, it was just this whispering sensation. And everybody throwing up like crazy the whole way across."
He shakes his head at the memory. Even now, at the end of his seventh decade, Paolino has a baby face under his silver hair, and as his eyes glance toward old film clips on the evening news, he still seems awed by those yesterdays.
"The Germans," he remembered, "had put these big steel rods all around the countryside, to keep us from landing. I guess we got lucky. We landed pretty good. I can still hear the pilot saying, 'Sunday landing.' It was pitch dark when we got out. And we dug in in some woods, and waited for daybreak. I tell you, our hearts were pounding."
By daybreak, the big guns had begun blasting from the Allied ships in the channel. Two of them, the Texas and the Nebraska, were overshooting the German fortresses above the beach. Paolino and his buddies found themselves getting shelled by their own people.
From there, they invaded a small farm town occupied by the Germans, withdrew under ferocious fire, went in a second time, withdrew again, came back a third time to take the town.
And, somehow during those early hours, they managed one more thing: to hook up with the man from the French Resistance, standing in front of his barn, where Paolino's men could stash their heavy, awkward field packs and establish a temporary base.
He spent 45 days in France, before they flew him back to England. There were other battles. He fought in Holland and was shot badly. The blow knocked him down, but he didn't realize he'd been hit until somebody informed him he'd been shot in the hand and chest.
He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, too, got shot in the back and lay in the snow for several hours before someone found him. Spent three months in a Paris hospital, then was sent back into battle in Germany. He remembers seeing men who cried, men who ran, but also, those who fought beyond human endurance.
"Nobody," he says, glancing up at some war footage on his television set, "knows how they're going to react in combat. Nobody." A little smile crosses his face. He remembers coming out of combat, and lining up to be debriefed by a psychologist, who asked Paolino, "Were you scared up there?"
"Show me an SOB that wasn't," Paolino said.
"Next," the psychologist said.
Three times wounded, he was standing in formation when his unit was inspected by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
"It was just before we went into Bastogne. I had a Purple Heart on my chest, and maybe Ike noticed it. I don't know. But he looked me up and down, and he moved three or four soldiers down the line, and then he came back to me.
"He said, 'You feel OK, soldier?' I said, 'Yes, sir.' He nodded and moved on. It was the thrill of my life."
The end of the war was almost anticlimactic. He was in Germany then, where his guys had taken over a German hotel they were told had been Hitler's favorite. They'd heard the end was coming. In June of '45, a month after V-E Day, he was told he could go home. But the backup of troops was so long, it took four months to make it back.
Waiting was his wife, Annabelle, and the child he'd never seen, who was 2 years old and named Diane.
It was half a century ago. Now, leaning back in his chair at Enrico's, Paolino hears a man ask, "Were there times when you thought you wouldn't make it back alive?"
"I never, ever dreamed I'd be back," he replies softly.
Fifty years later, he remembers that fact as vividly as anything.