The day was hot, made hotter by gunfire. James Chambers, 24, ran for his life. A hidden marksman’s shots chased him across a gully, cutting down weeds and kicking up dirt.
Chambers plopped down, peeped up. There. The apple tree, one of many outside the French village where the Americans found themselves surrounded that August 1944 day. Its branches moved.
Chambers jumped to his feet, aimed. His M-1 spat. The leaves in the apple tree shredded, but the limbs no longer moved. He ran again. The village was closer now.
Then the world blew up. A German mortar shell landed nearby, shrapnel striking the private in his back and left thigh. He lay in the dirt until a sergeant came by. The older man drove a jeep. “If you can walk,” the sergeant said to the private, “I’ll see if I can’t get you out of here.”
James Chambers, 93, pauses. His blue eyes well with tears. Some memories, even 69 years old, are hard to summon.
He fingers the edge of a faded, sepia-tone photo the size of a playing card. It depicts a smiling young woman, her hair a tangle of tight curls: Anne Kelly Chambers, his wife. Dead two years this month.
Chambers’ voice wavers, and for a moment he sounds his age. “She was why I was over there,” he said. “And she’s why I wanted to come home.”
Every veteran has at least one good story, and Chambers is no exception. Here is his.
A chance meeting
He recalls the moment he saw her. He was behind the wheel of his daddy’s car, a ’35 Ford, as it rolled down a dirt road in Pomona, a community not far from Fayetteville.
Three girls walked into the road, forcing him to stop. He didn’t mind; he was 16. Two smirked and yanked the keys out of the ignition.
“Where are you going?” one asked.
The driver looked at the third girl, standing to the side, looking at him with intelligent eyes. Her hair, he noticed, was a tangle of tight curls.
“Who is that?”
“Anne,” one of the girls said. “Anne Kelly.” She was 14.
Young Jimmie Chambers started attending her church. In time, he started attending dinners at her house. When he joined the Army in February 1941, she waited for his letters. He wrote her from basic training and then from California, where the Army trained him to fire a rifle. The world was unsettled, and the United States might need him to do just that. The attack on Pearl Harbor settled that question.
Chambers got a 10-day pass in August 1942. He spent one day getting back to Georgia. Anne used the second day getting the proper shoes for a bride to wear. On the third day, Aug. 21, 1942, they were married.
A week later, Chambers, assigned to the Army’s 8th Division, 121st Infantry Regiment, returned to a soldier’s life. He took with him a sharp image of his young bride. On the back she wrote, “Your Loving Wife.” He added a thought of his own: “Gee I love you honey!”
She also scribbled on it her parents’ address.
The Army shipped Chambers and thousands more to Ireland, where the soldiers readied for whatever awaited on the continent. They found out with the June 1944 invasion of Europe, D-Day.
Chambers and his buddies came ashore a month later, on July 4, at Omaha Beach. “The first thing I saw was a body,” Chambers said. “And it didn’t get any better.”
Before landing, he made sure his wife’s photo was safe. He taped it inside his helmet.
Still dreams sometimes
Chambers is part of a fading generation. Of the 16.1 million soldiers, Marines, airmen, sailors and Merchant Marines who served in World War II, an estimated 1.4 million remain, according to 2012 federal figures. About 30,000 live in Georgia. Nearly 700 die every day.
The numbers don’t surprise Chambers. He used to attend company reunions, but they fizzled out after only about four men were left.
He and Anne also returned to Europe 50 years after he came ashore at France. Traveling coastal roads, visiting old sites where his life was in constant danger, stirred unwelcome emotions. Chambers figures he has post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD.
“I think you can’t go through something like that without it affecting you,” Chambers says. “I still have dreams sometimes.”
He shot his way through hedgerows, ever alert. When he saw a ditch, Pfc. Chambers jumped in it. Passing a tree, the young soldier took a moment to hide behind it. In this way he and others worked their way up the coast.
By August, the 121st Infantry was one of several that had launched an attack on St. Malo and Dinard, seashore towns in northwest France. The 121st crossed the Rance River to take Dinard, where soldiers ran into unexpected resistance. They were cut off.
On Aug. 9, with death chasing him, Chambers ran toward the village. He remembers small mortar shells landing behind him, each getting closer until …
Wounded in action
He made it to the jeep. Things got a little fuzzy after that.
Someone gave him a shot, a sedative, and it knocked him out. A medic at a field hospital checked Chambers and determined the private’s injuries weren’t fatal; he’d fight again.
The medic took his helmet and tossed it in a pile; the Army needed that steel pot for the next soldier. With it went the photo he’d kept close for two years.
Back in Georgia, Anne Chambers, a clerk at a Fayette County cotton mill, got a telegram:
DEEPLY REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR HUSBAND PRIVATE JAMES V. CHAMBERS WAS SLIGHTLY WOUNDED IN ACTION IN FRANCE ON 9 AUGUST, it read.
Chambers spent 30 days recovering before he returned to action. He went back with a replacement helmet. The photo, he knew, was forever gone.
His wife thought so, too, until a letter came to her home. It was posted from somewhere in Europe. Inside the envelope was the picture she’d given her husband, and a note. The author said he’d got a helmet, looked inside, and saw a photo of a pretty woman. He also saw her home address.
I hope the man who had this makes it home, the soldier wrote.
The man did. Chambers left Europe more than a year after he set booted feet on a Normandy beach, pushing into Germany before the Army sent him home. On Sept. 12, 1945, he was discharged from the Army.
Chambers attended Mercer University on the GI Bill and became a Baptist minister; he’s saved more souls, baptized more people, than he can count. He also served as a chaplain and joined the U.S. Air Force. The one-time foot soldier left the air service as a lieutenant colonel.
He and Anne had two children, who had children who had children. A big photo on Chambers’ wall depicts 18 people — wife, children and their spouses, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They all trace their roots to a scared young man who lost his helmet.
These days, Chambers lives in a little subdivision in Fayetteville. He keeps it neat, as soldiers are expected to do. It is so quiet you can hear his refrigerator hum.
On Nov. 22, 2011, Anne Chambers died of Parkinson’s disease. Two years after her death, the old soldier still grieves. They were married 67 years.
So he keeps her photo close. He doesn’t plan to lose it again.
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