D-Day Remembered, Or How I Invaded Normandy with Notebook and Camera

D-Day Remembered, Or How I Invaded Normandy with Notebook and Camera

 

British Infantry land at Sword Beach at Ouistreham MM6791-195
British Infantry land at Sword Beach at Ouistreham

Many years ago, I was assigned to work on a D-Day story at National Geographic. Tom Allen was the author of the piece. Tom was a wonderful writer who dug into facts like a terrier going after a prize. We spent time together at the National Archives in Arbutus, MD, looking at planning maps for the naval invasion. Tom’s contacts in the intelligence community brought him many leads. His skills as an interviewer also led him to stories from survivors of that momentous day when the United States military, along with Canadian and British forces invaded Normandy, France on June 6, 1944. The focus of Tom’s article was on the naval invasion, which was the largest maritime invasion in the history of the world.

D-DAY Lost Fleet of Operation Neptune 5:14:03
Operation Neptune Map by National Geographic magazine

 

At Tom’s urging, the magazine sent me to Normandy to work with a marine researcher and diver, Bertrand Sciboz. He’d been mapping the vessels and other things that were submerged along the D-Day coast. Sciboz did a lot of work for the French navy, and worked closely with his country’s marine archaeology experts. His resources became the basis for the very informative map the magazine ran with Tom’s article. I negotiated with Bertrand for the rights to use his information, and for helping us understand the complex and difficult underwater terrain. He helped our underwater photographer to find and photograph the wrecks, including the famous tanks that had floundered in the waves and sank with crews aboard on that fateful day.

Omaha Beach East
Planning map code named “Bigot” for the Omaha Beach – East section
Aerial Invasion Mulberries MM6791-190
Mosaic of aerial photos of the invasion beaches and the portable docks

Fortunately for me, my trip to Normandy was much safer. I had a delightful journey to the Norman coast, meeting many helpful and kind people there who recall the American military for saving them from the Nazi invaders. I was working with a young French writer from Paris, Claire Guillot, who was assigned to be my interpreter. My French is definitely of the West Virginia variety of misheard and misspoken mumbles that are better left unsaid. Thankfully, Claire was there to help me speak with people, to help me find my way and interview individuals who were important for our story. Claire is today one of the top editors of Le Monde, the French daily newspaper.

Claire_Guillot_in_Normandy Roll 101
Claire Guillot, St. Vaast le Hogue, photo by David W. Wooddell

We were staying at a delightful small hotel in the small village of St. Vaast-le-Hogue. The food there was extraordinary, compared to the usual peanut butter sandwich I often had back in the states when on assignment. The last morning, we awoke to one of those scenes out of an American Express commercial. The town’s weekly market was set up on the streets behind the hotel – right where I had carelessly parked the rental car! Mon dieu and Sacre bleu, we had to talk the kind people into moving tables, tents, awnings, and other things so I could extract my car.

It is all too easy to appear the stupid American when traveling. Thankfully, Claire helped me to no end in apologies and negotiating our way past the flowers, fruits, vegetables, and other offerings. Nothing bounced off our car in anger. If anyone hurled insults or curses, I didn’t hear them. Instead, the people accepted my clumsiness with humor, but I doubt it would have gone so well without the help of my assistant.

There are so many historical images from World War II. I made many copy photos while at the National Archives from their photographic holdings. I hope the world will never forget the service and sacrifices of the Allied soldiers and sailors.

USS Emmons ohama
US Navy painting by one of the military artists who were at the invasion
Normandy Invasion
A sunken vessel remains at Utah Beach, memory of the invasion

 

Bonampak, Revisited

Bonampak Murals
Room One, Bonampak Murals, photograph copyright David W. Wooddell

In coming weeks, I will be working on a project relating to the Bonampak Murals.

Bonampak Murals
Diana Magaloni-Kerpel, Mary Miller, and Doug Stern at the Bonampak Murals,                                  photograph copyright David W. Wooddell

 

 

Through the weeds and into the woods

1 Tug log page

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently reading and transcribing log entries for the steam tugboat Baltimore. Yeah, fascinating – if you like that sort of thing. Not so much if you like your history condensed, slicked up, and pre-packaged already.

2 Tug Log 12 June 1984

When I started out trying to write history books, I had to learn that the good stuff – the information I was most interested in finding and possibly using in a book or an essay – was not already published. A lot of what I was finding published was the product of some other writer who’d already been through the information, or had at least glossed over it, and had taken a little of this and a little of that, but mostly had just researched from the writings of others. But the results were not pleasing to me because it didn’t bring anything new. For instance, when reading and researching the American Civil War, I discovered that many writers were depending on the same sources already written about third and fourth-hand. They were copying one another, rather than returning to the original documents, and rather than finding documents that had not been quoted or drawn from in the past.

3 Tug log 10 Nov 1996

Aha, I thought – that is the road I want to take. The one that has all the bumps and wends its way going across the field and into the deep weeds. The road without a track already made by the wheels of the previous follower. Through the weeds and into the woods, where you have to peel back the bark and look underneath for the juicy grubs of facts.

This winter, my book partner on the steam tugboat Baltimore project suggested I look into the log books of the tug. It was an excellent suggestion that horrified me because I hadn’t already done so, and thought I was done with primary document research on that project. Well, now I’ve gone through them, and learned a lot. I’ve incorporated some of it into the manuscript, and hopefully, Bob Pratt and I can now finish the layout of the book. He’s the graphic designer and layout artist for this book. I merely write the text.

4 Cover tug log IMG_1492 copy

It’s time for this book to sail. Soon, I hope. – DW

 

 

Primary Research is Slow

Tug Baltimore March 2019 IMG_1349 copy
Steam tugboat Baltimore, photo copyright David W. Wooddell

I’ve written before about working in archives, and doing primary research. These days, I’ve been back at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, digging through their original documents. It’s fascinating stuff, but so time consuming. Slow is the enemy of the freelance writer. I’ve been on this project for five years, and I’m still working on it. Will it make a million dollars? I don’t even think it will make a million pennies. Yet, I persist – because I’m thorough. I don’t want to walk away from five years of hard work.

During the time I’ve been on this project, one of my other projects fell through as my main source became disgusted with my slowness and withdrew from the exclusive agreement we had for me to mine his documents and write about his big project. Of course, that was a story of a sunken ship and the important legal case over ownership of millions of dollars worth of silver.

My current project concerns a boat that has not yet sunk – but may well sink at her dock because of lack of maintenance. I desperately hope my book project is published before that happens.

 

Berylium’s Slow Death

A few decades ago, while on a research assignment for National Geographic books, I met Herb Anderson, one of the builders of the atom bomb. He was living in a ranch house just outside of Los Alamos. Despite all the success that he and his fellow scientists had in nuclear physics, recievi9ng awards, and congratulations of his peers and high government officials, one thing he didn’t have was good health.

Anderson’s breathing was difficult and labored from berylliosis, which he’d gotten during his work as a scientist. He was on oxygen 24 hours a day, walking around his house on what seemed an endless tether connected to his oxygen tanks. If he went out, which was rare, he had to take a portable tank with him.

Dr. Anderson told me that he’d chopped beryllium by hand on the day the news of the discovery of fission had been hand delivered by Niels Bohr to the laboratory of Enrico Fermi in New York’s Columbia University. Working as Fermi’s laboratory assistant, they reproduced the fission experiment that day — the first fission to be created in the US. From there, the eventually went to Chicago and created the first nuclear pile. That, by the way, was the subject of Dr. Anderson’s Phd dissertation, the official report on building the first nuclear pile.

Beryllium is a terrible poison to all humans. Compared to asbestos it is much stronger, and more of a killer. Which is why it must surely be a sin to expose more workers to such poisons today. It’s one thing for a scientist in his lab to experiment with such materials in the hectic days of science of the 1940s to defeat the Nazis.

It’s something else to ruthlessly expose workers to beryllium today in order to save money for the corporations and their stock holders. That is what the Trump administration is trying to do, abettors of the crime of exposing workers to deadly illness.

So why is the Trump administration bent on doing exactly that? What is it, Mr. Trump? Do you think the world has forgotten what it is to poison workers for greed? Will that make America great again?

Flounder

 

55575691_2551350338269823_9118965148575334400_oIn the 80’s, I spent some time in Florida where my parents lived. St. Petersburg was a town built at sea-level. When the tide was high with a full moon and the wind coming from the wrong direction, the streets would flood; and if there was a storm during those conditions, the manhole covers would fly into the air from the pressure in the storm sewers. The water had no place to drain. That didn’t make me want to live there. However, there was some pretty good fishing there, and occasionally I caught a pretty one. I caught this flounder from the dock behind my brother’s house, on the bayou that faced the mangrove islands.

Mysteries and Suspense

 

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Mysteries and Suspense. The novel I’m crafting has all kinds of fun stuff in it. Secret messages. Escapes on dirigibles; a gunfight in a snowstorm. I’ve been honing my knowledge of mystery and spy fiction in preparation for writing this book The works of Eric Ambler, though not read a lot these days, ought to be read more often. Helen McInness, the same. “Above Suspicion,” and “Assignment Brittany” were two of my favorites. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the fascists get their asses kicked, one way or another in her wartime novels. As is right and should be.