BURNING THE BODIES OF DEAD AMERICANS BELOW POINTE DU HOC
by Quentin Aanenson
"During our first two or three weeks after landing in Normandy, a terribly disturbing and distressful situation was taking place below the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. Bodies of decomposing American soldiers who had been killed during the invasion continued to wash up on shore. We could look down from the bluffs overlooking the English Channel and see them. For the pilots who faced death on every mission, this was particularly upsetting. Some of us had trouble getting this gruesome picture out of our minds, especially when we were lying in our cots at night trying to go to sleep. We could visualize those bodies just a few hundred yards away rolling in the surf.
The graves registration people had moved on by that time -- up closer to the front -- so there was no one we could call on to retrieve the bodies. One evening our Engineering Officer -- a solid, no-nonsense guy -- decided something had to be done. He asked several guys to help him, including some of the pilots. We carried 5-gallon jerricans filled with aviation gasoline -- and several long poles with hooks attached to the ends -- down the hill to the beach -- then we carried everything to the area where the bodies were piling up. The mood was somber; there seemed to be a sense of unreality about what we were going to do.
It was a terrible, gruesome ordeal. Most of the bodies were badly decomposed and bloated, but some looked surprisingly normal. We hooked the bodies with the long poles, and pulled them together and piled them up as much as possible. We added as much driftwood to the pile as we could find. In a couple of instances we were able to get their dog tags for identification purposes, but for most of them, there was no way we could make any identification. Then we soaked the whole pile heavily with aviation gasoline.
The engineering officer had us back away, then he paused by the bodies for a minute as if in prayer, finally he ignited the pile. It burned furiously for a short time, then more slowly as the gasoline burned off. The driftwood kept the fire going for some time.
As I watched the fire consume the rotting bodies of these young American boys, I couldn't help but think about their families -- and how it would drive them insane if they knew what really had happened to their sons. Better that they should picture their boys being instantly killed by a rifle bullet -- and then being given a proper military funeral -- with a bugler playing "Taps" over the grave. But deaths in battle seldom involve dignity. They are horrible, brutal, degrading, and the fact that they died for a good cause cannot sanitize the reality of the circumstances of their deaths.
We slowly drifted away from this horrible scene, but I am sure all of us who were there still carry vivid images of it in our minds.
A few days later I again followed the mine-cleared path to the edge of the bluff and looked down to the water’s edge, only to see that our traumatizing experience had been for naught. More bodies were rolling in the surf, as the English Channel continued to give up its dead of D-Day."