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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On Assignment for National Geographic: Normandy Invasion and D-Day

As a magazine research editor, I was occasionally fortunate enough to have a special assignment for National Geographic magazine. I had developed military stories as one of my specialties, along with marine archaeology. Sometimes, I helped pre-visualize artwork, and turned up locations for the magazine photographers to include in their coverage.  Tom Allen’s story, “Untold Stories of D-Day” sent me to Normandy, France to look for the wrecks of the sunken craft that went down during the invasion. The magazine was kind enough to give the readers a glimpse of my work in the On Assignment section.

A D-Day Mosaic; France; (Brief Article), National Geographic, June 1, 2002, Copyright 2002 National Geographic Society, SECTION: No. 6, Vol. 201; Pg. 142; ISSN: 0027-9358

Peering out of an old German bunker, now part of a museum on Normandy’s Utah Beach, senior researcher David W. Wooddell scouts out the sites where ships sank and men died. “You know people have paid a terrible price for something that was vastly worthwhile,” he recalls thinking.

David began his research for our D-Day article by reading every book he could find on the subject, surfing the Internet, “looking for the best documentary sources available.” Then he spent the equivalent of two weeks in the National Archives looking for maps and aerial reconnaissance photographs. “I was a photographer before I came to the magazine, so I shoot my own copies of historical photographs,” he says. Finally, he went to France for a week, visiting museums devoted to the invasion, seeking artifacts and other visual material.

David at St. Vaast
On assignment with underwater mapper, Bertrand Sciboz and his crew.    Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, Normandy, France

While in France, David worked with Bertrand Sciboz, a French diver who owns a company in Normandy that maps wrecks of all ages off the coast. “At NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC we have the resource of time to develop information in detail, a luxury few other magazines have,” David says.

David’s research greatly aided our photographers, as well as author Tom Allen… Tom, who has written several articles and books about World War II and the people who fought in it, set out with the goal of covering the part of the invasion that has received minimal attention over the decades, the delivery of men and materiel to Normandy’s beaches.

“I’ve had the privilege of talking to people who helped win the war,” reflects Tom, 73. “You find a survivor and you find one little piece of the mosaic of that day, of the memory we’re all supposed to have of D-Day. I put my story together from their remembrances.”

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