In the predawn darkness, John Polyniak made his way down the concrete steps leading to the sand, walking gingerly on the brace he has worn on his right leg for 55 years. He felt jittery, and a few tears welled in his eyes.
Until this moment, he had never returned to the beach on which he landed June 6, 1944. He had never returned to Normandy, or to Europe. He clutched his satchel close to his slight frame and looked around, trying to get his bearings.
On the bluffs towering 120 feet above the beach, under a black-and-blue sky, the faint shapes of the German pillboxes from which guns had slaughtered so many men could be made out. The tide was out, just as it had been that morning at dawn, and a cold mist blew in from the English Channel.
In his pocket, folded on a small piece of paper, the 80-year-old Baltimore man had a list with nine names he had written, nine men who had not made it.
Now, standing on the wet beach, a group of young National Guard soldiers--most from the 29th Infantry Division, the unit he fought with more than a half-century ago--formed a semicircle around him.
They wanted to know how he survived when so many others died. He was wondering that himself. "I didn't want to come back," he said softly. "I lost a lot of buddies."
For four days this month, Polyniak, accompanied by other D-Day veterans, historians and 60 National Guard troops from Maryland, Virginia and elsewhere, walked the beaches of Normandy, moved through the hedgerows and visited the graves of fallen comrades. For some of the veterans, including Polyniak, it was their first trip back. For many of them, more significantly, it will probably be their last.
As the century ends, the window for historians and soldiers to get a first-hand understanding of the Normandy campaign is closing. For all the hoopla surrounding D-Day anniversaries and the movie "Saving Private Ryan," a great deal of what happened during the century's pivotal moment remains clouded.
"We have a general understanding, but as to what happened exactly at Omaha Beach, we really don't know," said Joseph Balkoski, a Baltimore historian who wrote "Beyond the Beachhead," an account of the battle. "You have to talk to the veterans while they're still alive, and their numbers are dwindling so fast."
World War II veterans are dying at a rate of more than 1,000 a day. "It's the equivalent to a library burning down every day," said National Guard Maj. Gen. Gene Krase.
Before World War II, the 29th, as it is now, was a National Guard unit made up primarily of citizen soldiers from Maryland and Virginia. The men in the division then--farmers from the Shenandoah Valley, watermen from the Eastern Shore--had little training and far less expectation of being called to war than those today. Yet they landed on Omaha on D-Day, and they paid a tremendous price in blood. Of 14,000 men in the division, 8,000 were dead or wounded by the time St. Lo was liberated 43 days later.
"Normandy completely bled the division white," said Balkoski. "It's a real stunning lesson for the young soldiers in the division now. I can't help but to contrast it to the war in Kosovo, where they fought without losing a single American."
For the soldiers from the 29th, walking the fields of Normandy with the veterans was sobering. "They've got to measure up to the footsteps these people left here," said the trip's leader, Brig. Gen. Steven Blum, who commands the 29th, based at Fort Belvoir.
"I can foresee in the near future a crisis that could put young men and women from the 29th in harm's way," said Blum. "As short as we are on forces today, it doesn't take much before they'd have to call on us. That's why I chose Normandy, to show them how brutal it was."
Polyniak--quietly eloquent, unassuming and soft-spoken--never had trouble holding the young soldiers' attention.
He was the fifth of nine children in a Ukrainian immigrant coal miner's family in Shamokin, Pa. He moved to Baltimore to escape the coal mines and to work in a shipyard when he was drafted in 1942 and sent to join the 29th at Fort Meade. He was severely wounded in the hip by German fire in Normandy but made it home to Maryland, married and became a state real estate assessor in Anne Arundel County.
Pain from his injury prevented him from going to the 50th anniversary of D-Day five years ago. Now his wife, Cleo, is fighting cancer, and he almost canceled again.
"I didn't think this would happen, and it's really good that it has," said Curt Vickery, Polyniak's neighbor and a Baltimore high school history teacher who persuaded him to return to Normandy, then accompanied him on the trip. "This is living history."
"Don't stop. Nobody stops," Sgt. John Polyniak yelled 55 years ago as the ramp dropped and a squad of soldiers from Company C, 116th Infantry Regiment, jumped into the surf.
Now, Polyniak was walking the beach in his old age, trying to figure out the exact spot where Company C moved off the beach and up the bluff. It was more than a historical curiosity. In Balkoski's view, it was one of the turning points in a landing that until then was going disastrously wrong.
"The D-Day operation was so grandiose that it's hard to pick one point as critical, but Company C was one of the few units that hit the beach and did what it was supposed to do, one of the early and few to fight intact and to break the German defensive crust," Balkoski said.
The men in the 116th proudly called themselves the Stonewall Brigade--the unit had been commanded by Stonewall Jackson during the Civil War--and many were country boys from Virginia. In the rough water, Polyniak could see nothing. Like almost every man on the boat, he was throwing up.
"The actual landing, I didn't care if I lived. I just wanted to get the job done," Polyniak said.
The ramp went down and they jumped into waist-high water. Running across the wide tidal flat--it seemed endless--Polyniak could see sand spraying as machine gun fire nipped around his feet. "There was no place to hide," he said. "I don't see how they could have missed us."
But all the men in his squad reached a seawall that stretched across the beach, providing cover but blocking their path. Polyniak was carrying a bangalore torpedo on his back. He stuck it atop the seawall and blew it, clearing an opening in the barbed wire through which the soldiers advanced.
Company C made its way off the beach and up a ravine leading to the town of Vierville-sur-Mer, atop the bluff overlooking the beach. They were supposed to link up with A and B companies. "There was no sign of them," said Polyniak. "We wondered what happened. We didn't find out until two or three days later."
What happened was more or less depicted in "Private Ryan." The men had been slaughtered, ripped apart by machine gun and mortar fire.
"It was mostly fellows who I knew, and suddenly they were gone," Polyniak told the young soldiers listening to his story. "We were the fortunate ones. Something was protecting us."
"This one's still alive," Polyniak could hear someone saying 55 years ago, someone who was holding his wrist. It was his first indication he might live.
Now, along with the other visitors, he was standing close to where he'd been wounded, near a white farmhouse with a red-tiled roof, amid hedgerows with ripe blackberries, bordering fields with brown and white cattle.
It was a bucolic scene, to anyone except those who fought there. Bloody as Omaha had been, the breakout fighting through the Norman countryside was deadlier, where rows of tall, thick hedgerows formed perfect defensive positions for the Germans.
Company C was taking heavy losses. Polyniak had been promoted to squad leader after his predecessor had been wounded by a land mine, and his friend Charles Pavoris became assistant squad leader. "Fellows were being hit so fast," Polyniak said.
The division was on the attack the morning of June 17, advancing on St. Lo, a critical road hub held by the Germans. The hedgerows were getting taller, it seemed to Polyniak. His squad had entered a field, firing into suspected German positions, when Polyniak felt a pin prick in his hip and dropped. A German sniper had felled him with a rifle shot. Pavoris came running up and Polyniak tried to wave him off: "Stay back and hold the squad back," he called.
But it was too late. "As soon as he ran up he was hit right in the neck," Polyniak told the group. "That was the end of him right then and there." Polyniak was left behind as the squad moved on with the attack. He lay near Pavoris's body, alone beneath the hedgerows, in a dream-like state from the morphine he had injected into his leg, his life playing out before his eyes. He was bleeding and didn't know if he would make it. Then, three or four hours later, he heard the medic's voice.
Polyniak was evacuated to a hospital in England. His wound had come close to paralyzing him, and he almost died from an infection. He was shipped back to the United States and underwent three operations. His family walked past his hospital bed in Fort Dix, N.J., unable to recognize him. He was an invalid, hardly able to walk.
The first time he visited Shamokin, a woman saw the 29th patch on his shoulder and came running up, seeking information on her son. Polyniak had seen the man wounded in Normandy but didn't know if he was still alive. He didn't know what to say. The mother was hysterical.
Polyniak withdrew. He did not visit the family of Pavoris or those of other soldiers with whom he'd served. "I didn't want to have to face too many tears."
He was bitter that his injury left him unable to do the things he could do before the war, convinced he would never find a woman who would accept a man with a bad leg.
But everything changed after he met Cleo. "She didn't give up on me," he said, still surprised. Polyniak went to school in Baltimore on the GI Bill, studying accounting. He learned to walk with a brace.
They raised three children, who gave them five grandchildren. Last year, they planned to celebrate their 50th anniversary but could not because of Cleo's health. He thought he should cancel the trip to Normandy, too.
"You're not going to cancel anything," she told him. "You're going."
They kept thanking him. The awestruck young soldiers. An elderly Frenchman in Vierville. Tourists who saw his blue-and-gray veteran's cap. "I never dreamt it would be like this," Polyniak said.
In St. Lo, where the city fathers threw a champagne reception for the veterans, Polyniak was stunned when they awarded him a bronze medal for helping to liberate the city. He looked at it wonderingly. "I don't think I deserve this, because I didn't get there."
Inside the church at St. Mere Eglise, he lit a candle and said a silent prayer for Cleo, and gave thanks for making it home.
"I've got some names here," Polyniak said.
He was in the visitors center at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, where more than 9,000 Americans are buried in plots overlooking Omaha Beach, and he had pulled out the list he had been carrying in his pocket.
A woman punched the names into a computer, and three of them popped up with their exact location in the cemetery. One was Pvt. Charles Pavoris. "I'll be darned," Polyniak said. Until that moment he hadn't really expected to find him.
Accompanied by Chief Warrant Officer Liza Sinclair, a 29th soldier from Upper Marlboro, he walked slowly toward the plots, past endless symmetrical rows of white headstones on beautifully manicured grass.
Sinclair was asking Polyniak what it had been like. "Were you scared?" she asked.
"I guess I figured if I got hit, I got hit," said Polyniak.
"I think I would have been scared," said Sinclair.
"Everybody was," he replied. "But you figured you had a job to do."
He visited Pavoris's grave last. He stood by himself in front of it, his head bowed. They had been shot together, moments apart, yet he had gone home to live and love and raise a family, but his friend still lay in the ground in Normandy, over a half-century later.
"Sorrow," he said, walking away. "You get quiet. What could have happened? Why were you spared? You shed tears."