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

 

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Wooddell Through time-1971

Where we end up as writers does not always have any correlation to where we began. It is all too easy to imagine, when one is young, the career path. All too easy to believe that one’s work will inevitably be celebrated, awards will flow, and wealth will result from that million dollar sale.

Wooddell Through time-1978

But I would hazard a guess that most don’t imagine the years of sitting solitary, in front of a keyboard and computer screen, doing the writing itself. Or of sitting with a pad of paper, or a notebook and pen, or pencil, and cramping one’s hand while writing word after word, endlessly, then revising them, and then, at last, sitting down to put it all into a computer’s word processor. That part of the dream is boring, and will be glossed over by the unimaginative.

Wooddell Through time-1-2

 

But what if that dream of great success and riches doesn’t happen right away? Does that mean one’s writing has no validity? When I was at university, I knew a young man who was my own age. He was determined to write novels in such a way that his genius would be recognized by the time he was 21 years old. Because his hero had done so. And when that didn’t happen? He was shattered. He declared he would never write again. I lost touch with him soon afterward, and don’t know what happened to him. Maybe he learned that stuff runs downhill and became a plumber. He probably made more in his career than most wanna-be writers ever will. He might own a vacation home, and a boat, and maybe even can afford to send his kids to college. I don’t know.

Another friend from the same period was a serious pianist. He’d been groomed from age 3 to be a concert pianist. His mother poured money and hopes into private lessons, piano camps, tutors, and a first rate piano in their home. He was astonishingly good when he performed. He went off to college, studying piano, and he became much better. But his goal was to be world famous by the time he was 21, because his hero did that. And his mom said to do that. And when he didn’t succeed in reaching that level of fame?

Wooddell Through time-2004

I lost track of him for many years, but through the wonders of the internet some few years ago, was able to briefly connect. He’d gone on to get a master’s degree in conducting, and then a doctoral degree. He as teaching college symphony band, conducting, and playing piano, and was still pretty good. They always asked him to play at parties. He knew all the songs. He married, had children, bought a comfortable home, and made a very good life for himself. Was that not worth the doing, simply because he didn’t live up to the dream he’d had when he was young?

I seem to meet a lot of young writers these days, and I try to be reserved in giving advice. I’m not Gandalf: I don’t have magic dust up my sleeve. If I did, I’d be famous and rich, instead of relatively obscure and on the poorer side of middle class. The only solid advice I can give is to keep writing. Write more. Then write it again. And then again. Write more than one story. Write many stories. And then more stories.

Wooddell Through time-2014-2

How do you learn and know what you don’t know? Ask a lot of questions. Write down the answers, and find your stories in the answers from others. Ask: What do you do? How do you do it? Why do you do it? What do you think about when you garden? How did you meet your spouse? Why did you want children? In the answers from those people you meet, to whom you ask question about their lives, you will find answers for your writing. No one is born with answers within them. But good writers are born with lots of questions. Writing is answering the questions you ask. Ask good questions.

You might want to read this essay from a speech given by a writer, Andrew Solomon, in which he discuses Advice for Young Writers by Rilke. It is more brilliant than anything I could say.

I mostly did other things in my career than write. I worked with photographers, and artists, and eventually became a photographer. I learned to be a careful researcher, and writer of reports read mostly by senior editors. To get there, perhaps the most important part was learning about the world. In my youth, I worked construction, in a steel mill, in stores, in factories, in restaurants, in libraries, and occasionally for my grandfather, learning to take care of a historic 19th century farm on a mountain. All of that was grist for my word mill, for my word farm; learning to ask questions, and find answers.

  • David W. Wooddell