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

 

Last man to leave the ship

Some years ago, when I worked for National Geographic magazine, I was assigned to do pre-research for a fun story being written by Priit Vesilind. The Steamship Republic had been found in extremely deep water by the treasure hunting company, Odyssey Marine Engineering. The ship went down in a mighty storm after the steam engine stalled. Despite the storm, most of the passengers and crew survived the shipwreck, as did the gold that she was carrying for the banks in New Orleans. One of the heroes who helped passengers survive that day was a young, Union army officer named Louis Caziarc.

I have a love of quirky people. I guess in that regard, I’m like all writers and photographers. We tend to be attracted to the ones with interesting stories. But a problem with that approach to story telling is that such people are not representative of the population at large, so one must be careful about drawing generalized conclusions from the tales of such men or women. That was a corollary of something I’d discovered when I was an art researcher for the magazine: when choosing reference photos of animals, artists tend to pick the photos that show anomalies. That is probably because the animal looks distinctive, or different, and artists, like writers, tend to appreciate the unique. Problem is, those anomalies make poor reference for the population in general. I discovered that on a story about lions in the Ngoro Ngoro crater. I had passed to the artist some photos of lions in zoos, to use as reference, but hadn’t considered that lions in zoos are an inbred population, and they do show unique, or non-representative physical traits.

As I researched the passengers on the Republic when she sank, I came across Caziarc, a young Union Army officer from Boston who was returning to the south from a long, well-deserved leave after the Civil War had ended. He was a lieutenant, and aide-de-camp of General Canby, who was in charge of the Restoration of Louisiana, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

The editorial researchers at National Geographic were responsible for writing a short article for the magazine’s website, to bring to light something extra that didn’t make it into the feature article. I chose Lt. Caziarc because he had some real depth as a person, and as a military officer in the post war years. It helped that he was credited as a genuine hero after he saved lives as the Republic sank. In that regard, he was singled out for praise. Telling his individual story was a way to shed extra light on the story of the shipwreck itself. Was he representative of Union officers who helped the restoration of government and commerce in the South despite the ravages of war? You tell me.

Here’s the original Did You Know (scroll down the page)

 

– David W. Wooddell