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
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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.

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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

 

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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

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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.

 

Steam Locomotives of the Nineteenth Century

 

This week, I published a visual history of steam locomotives of the nineteenth century:

Steam Locomotives Cover front and back

Steam Locomotives: Nineteenth Century Engineering, illustrated with more than 150 images of steam engines drawn by the top engineering illustrators of the 19th century.

Already, Amazon is calling it the #1 New Release in Railroading Pictorials. 

As one of my friends pointed out, in addition to being of interest to railroad and locomotive enthusiasts, it would make a great coloring book for those children and adults who love trains.

Why did I decide to write and fill this book with images of locomotives? I love trains, especially the locomotives. My family has a deep connection to railroads, since both of my grandfathers worked nearly all their lives for the B&O. My father hired on to the B&O before he went off to the Army during WWII, working as a fireman on large steam locomotives that hauled coal trains through West Virginia. My mother’s side of the family lived in Grafton, WV, one of the first major railroad towns west of the Allegheny mountains. It was an important nexus of rail transportation with a vital history during the American Civil War. When my family moved to Ohio, we lived in a town with rail lines through it with a bridge that had stood when Lincoln’s funeral train passed under it in 1865. Just up the road was Willard, one of the great rail nexus in the state. Many a time, we drove up there to pick up my grandparents who’d ridden the train from Baltimore to visit us. I can almost taste the smell of being next to a locomotive waiting to move onward as it dropped off passengers, and took on new riders going westward.

I also love illustration. I was a picture editor in my younger years, and later a professional photographer for magazines. In the later 1980s, I was an art researcher for seven years, on staff at National Geographic magazine, working with top artists. I fed them concepts, research reference, and served as the intermediary with experts in all kinds of fields, from showing the inside of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl after it melted down, to a cutaway of the USS Macon airship, to what it looked like on the deck of CSS Alabama during its fatal battle during the American Civil War. After that, I served as a researcher for the top editors of the magazine, working on advance concepts, sussing out possibilities for the magazine thorough coverage.

I hope my readers enjoy my new locomotive book as much as I enjoyed working on it. It was a labor of love, and as I say in my book, it acknowledges the importance of the illustrators who created most of the images that appear in the book. – David W. Wooddell, Baltimore, Maryland

Compression

I’ve been working on a history of the steam tugs Baltimore for several years now. It’s been rough sledding in many ways. I’m still working at it, but presently I’ve taken the book manuscript apart, and I’m trying to compress the book into an article to submit to a historical journal. Whether that will work remains to be seen. Compression is a good way to discover one’s problems in a work, however. I’ve come to recognize the book manuscript should be reorganized. If that improves the end result, then it is worthwhile.

Steam Tug Baltimore

I’m sorry to say that I feel pressed to get the article, and book published because the steam tug Baltimore is in such sorry shape that her days are numbered. She will never sail or steam again; she lacks Coast Guard certification, and isn’t likely to receive that again. The Baltimore could perhaps be lifted out of the water and moved to land, if she had the right kind of experts to do that for her, but even that seems to be beyond the Baltimore Museum of Industry to organize and carry out. The museum has good volunteers, but it takes money for materials, and to hire experts to get things done. The volunteers can’t do it all out of their own pockets.

I’d like to at least publish my history of the Baltimore, and her predecessor before she finally sinks into the mud at her dock.

 

Archival Fun

Steam Tug Baltimore
The wheel of the Steam Tugboat Baltimore, a National Historic Landmark

Progress continues here at the word farm as I write the profiles to be included in a the “Steam Tug Baltimore” book (not the exact title). Historic research can be a lot of fun, as well as a lot of intense work in archives and libraries, not to mention hours and hours in front of one’s computer.

Recently I had the pleasure of finding some very good material at the Maryland Historical Society library about two of the gentlemen engineers of Baltimore, James Murray and Henry R. Hazlehurst. They were partners in the firm Murray & Hazlehurst that built the steam tug “Baltimore” for the city of Baltimore in 1857. 

You never know what you might find while poking around in history. Henry R. Hazlehurst was a descendent of an important American family from Philadelphia and New Jersey. His ancestors backed and signed currency that supported the Continental Army during the American revolution. And they also paid for some of the first vessels for the Continental Navy, small as it was back then. How cool is that?

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Currency signed by Hazlehurst to support the Continental Army
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Robert Hazlehurst by Peale

Doing this type of archival research is slow, however, and may account for the slowness of my writing. I’ve put myself under pressure to finish the profiles, and all of the other editorial parts of the book in time for History4All Publishing to publish it this summer. It’s been a project I’ve been working on for the past five years. I want to exhibit and sell copies of the book at the Baltimore Book Festival in Sept 23, 2017. I’ll also be selling copies of my history of the 31st Virginia, “Hoffman’s Army.”

Life is what you make it. Make it a good one!