Coates heard the call moments before being momentarily deafened by the thunderous crack of a rifle being fired by a private who fell into the sand behind him and knocked him to his knees. As he was struggling to his feet, a mortar exploded ahead of him, spewing sand and shrapnel in all directions. He heard a clink as something hit the top of his helmet. He did not have to look behind him to know that the private was dead, as he could see out of the corner of his eye that his M1 lay on its side in the sand, a smear of blood on its stock.
“Medic!” the voice screamed again. “Mehhh-dic!”
Coates wiped the sweat from his upper lip and lunged forward, raising his arm to shield his face from another spray of sand thrown by a bursting mortar shell.
He took several long strides, stepping over a corporal laid face-down on the bloody strand, his motionless shoulders draped with a garland of .30-cal ammunition and a deck of playing cards, still in their box, laying nearby. Coates pushed his helmet back and lunged forward.
Coates saw the first sergeant writhing in the sand, clutching an empty, shredded left sleeve with his right hand as blood pulsed between his fingers. “It’s okay, Top,” he said as he dropped to his knees and gently put his left hand over the sergeant’s. He reached into his medical kit with his right hand and—without looking—retrieved a tourniquet and forceps.
“Mother fucker!” the sergeant spat, his lips curled in anger and his eyes wide with fear as he watched the blood dribble between his fingers and down his forearm.
Coates worked to staunch the bleeding, tying the tourniquet tight around what remained of the first sergeant’s upper left arm, as the old non-com grimaced and bit down on one of the chin straps dangling from his helmet. Once the tourniquet was applied and the bleeding had stopped, he turned and reached back into his bag.
“How you doin’, Top?” he asked as he fumbled for a morphine syrette.
The gray-headed sergeant wriggled in the sand and grunted, “I’m alrigh—”
As Coates turned back to him holding the syrette’s plastic cap between his teeth, a bullet passed through the first sergeant’s throat, just below his Adam’s apple, puncturing his windpipe. The old sergeant wheezed. Clutching at his throat with his one remaining hand, his lips moved but no words came out. Just then, as Coates reached for the sergeant’s neck, another burst of machine gun fire crackled down the beach with a fwip, fwip sound. The medic heard a thud and felt a spray of crimson in his face. Top was dead, his temple shattered by a German round.
Coates put the cap back on the syrette and tucked it into his pocket. He looked at the tourniquet still tied around the sergeant’s stub, then shook his head and clambered over two more broken bodies to continue advancing up the beach.
That night, after the first elements of the American landing force penetrated the German beach defenses and pushed beyond the beachhead, Coates collapsed in exhaustion outside of the battalion aid station. All around him, the roar of trucks and half-tracks was punctuated by the sounds of nearby fighting: the pattering sound of a distant machine gun, the crackle of rifle fire and the faint punch of mortars being spat from tubes followed by an explosive thunk as they found their mark. He heard the moans of men in the hospital tents behind him and the unmistakable sound of a bone saw.
His head pounded and, despite his utter exhaustion, he could not sleep.
Screams. Shouting. The crackle of an MG-42 sweeping the beach.
Mortars exploding. The distinctive pa-ching of an M1 clip as it is ejected from the breach.
He could see what looked like lightning behind the trees in the distance, but without the thunder.
Coates reached for his chest pocket, groped for a cigarette, then realized he had none. He had smoked most of them before boarding the landing craft and given the rest away to injured men. He felt something, then paused for several long moments.
He pulled the syrette from his pocket, pulled the cap off with his teeth, broke the metal seal and removed the wire pin. He rolled up his sleeve, felt for a vein, then slipped the needle under his skin at a shallow angle, squeezing the collapsible metal tube until—
A euphoric rush of lightness swept over him as he watched the light show along the horizon to the east.
The rush reminded him of the afternoons spent swinging from an old tire hanging from the oak tree, and of the weightlessness felt as its arc swept him down to earth into his sister’s arms.