Two empty beer cans left in a road stir emotions half a century later
Note: This Beer Guy column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1998. I have not updated some of the references. LG
Two empty beer cans in the middle of a road.
On another day, in another time, they would simply have been beer litter.
But to the man who left them, they were a monument, a symbol of American resolve.
To the man who found them, they probably were an insult, an affront against German might. Or maybe they were a reminder of home, a twist of irony in a metal can.
Two empty beer cans left in the middle of a French road in the early hours of D-Day.
In an odd way, these cans now are symbols to me as well—an uncle lost, a father-in-law I never knew, a city whose sons were slain one bloody morning, a generation of men and women who stood tall when their country called, and an enigma about how the world works.
It all started while I was reading Stephen E. Ambrose’s best seller, “D-Day, June 6, 1944, The Climactic Battle of World War II.”
This paragraph jumped out at me.
“Capt. Sam Gibbons of the 501st PIR, operating independently, led a small patrol toward St.-Come-du-Mont. He believed the village was in 501st hands, but he moved cautiously as his visibility was limited by hedgerows. Before setting out, he shared the two cans of beer he had brought with him, then left the empty cans in the middle of the road ‘as a monument to the first cans of Schlitz consumed in France.’”
Gibbons, a 24-year-old paratrooper, had stuck two cans of Schlitz in his gas mask before loading up in England. Packing the beer was no idle afterthought, for he was carrying about 40 pounds of equipment, and every ounce counted.
When he hit the ground in France, Gibbons, like many others, became separated from his men. He wound up having to give orders to strangers.
Imagine their delight, not only in having beer to quench their thirst, but also in having a captain with the wisdom to pack an American beer, not one of those bitter ales the English lads favored.
Gibbons and his men passed by the same spot later, and the cans were gone.
Ambrose speculates they were picked up by German soldiers.
If so, that moment intrigues me. I can see a grizzled Wehrmacht rifleman scowling at the insolence of those Americans. Then, perhaps, a pang of homesickness would hit. Schlitz is a small town in central Germany, a charming hamlet with its own brewery.
Finally, both soldiers might have chuckled had they realized the double twist of Gibbons’ gesture. Schlitz, at the time the pride of American breweries, was founded by a German. But the centuries-old lager recipe he brought from the fatherland had been transformed forever by three decades of American history.
August Krug immigrated to Milwaukee and in 1849 added a brewhouse to his successful restaurant. When Krug died seven years later, his bookkeeper, Joseph Schlitz, married his widow, took over the business and invited Krug’s nephews to join him. Schlitz died in a shipwreck in 1875 while he was returning to his native Mayence for a vacation. The nephews steered the business to become Milwaukee’s leading brewery by the turn of the century.
Then came Prohibition. Schlitz survived by making near-beer and a variety of other products. Next came the Depression. Grain shortages in America’s heartland forced brewers to cut back on grain in recipes.
Then war broke out. Even before the United States joined the conflict, massive grain shipments were being sent to the Allies. Americans laced their boots and tightened their belts.
“Rationing continued the forced diet of lighter beer styles,” writes history Gregg Smith. Brewers also realized their beer-drinking base had shifted. “With many of the men off fighting the war, it was Rosy the Riveter they needed to please, and a light beer style was just the thing to win her over. [When the war ended] returning American servicemen found Rosy had stocked the refrigerator with ice-cold bottles and cans of light, fizzy beer perfect for summer.”
Grain shipments continued overseas as the world licked its wounds. “By the time the war was over,” Smith concludes, “the country had for more than 30 years resorted to light, highly carbonated beverages. American beer tastes had undergone an incredible alteration.”
Two empty cans of beer—conceived by a German, brewed in America—left on a French road.
The man who left them lived on to become a U.S. congressman. Gibbons’ 35 years in Washington became a mission, he said, “to help create an environment in which people can work and live together—not just in the United States, but worldwide.
“The determination that drives me is based on those vivid experiences on D-Day and the rest of the war.”
Two empty beer cans, left by an American on a French road as a monument, the first of many that now stand to honor determined men and women. One memorial is on a wall in Peru, Neb., honoring my uncle Gene who died in combat on French soil in the months following D-Day.
Another is in the hearts of my wife, her sister and her mother, who honor the memory of Rob Windisch. He wasn’t on the beaches at Normandy, but he served in North Africa and Italy, later becoming a career Army man. He died before I knew Marggie, but frequently her eyes mist up as she tells me how much we would’ve liked each other, sharing a beer and talking about history.
Yet another monument is rising in Bedford, where I lived for six years. Bedford men made up 65 percent of the 116th Regiment’s Company A, the first to hit Omaha Beach. As Ambrose relates, they were “visitors to hell,” landing in a firestorm of death and destruction. Only a handful survived.
“Over the years,” recalls one Company A private who was wounded but survived, “I don’t think that there has been a day that has gone by that I haven’t thought of those men who didn’t make it.”
On June 6, you will find two empty cans of Schlitz beer at the top of my driveway.