Seventy years after D-Day, it may feel like the events of June 6, 1944, are well-covered territory. That’s how it has felt at times to me, at least. Between depictions of the Normandy invasion in movies and miniseries such as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, and popular histories such as those written by Stephen Ambrose, D-Day remains front and center in our collective memory of the war.
With this in mind, I approached writing the newest installment of our online exhibit, Experiencing War, with a bit of trepidation. What was the best way to tackle writing about, and curating collections pertaining to, such an oft-written-about and critically important event?
I shouldn’t have worried. Once I dove into exploring these collections, I was mesmerized. One of the hallmarks of the Veterans History Project is the way in which our collections put a personal face on a historic event that has been frequently discussed and interpreted. In the case of D-Day, while these collections shine a light on important aspects of the invasion and subsequent events of the war, they go beyond this. In reading, viewing, and listening to these collections, I was touched by the individual stories of veterans from different branches, ranks, and backgrounds. For these servicemembers, D-Day wasn’t simply an historic event, but a day during which they witnessed horrific carnage, lost friends, and persevered against tremendous odds.
Despite the success of the invasion, and the victories achieved on June 6, it was also a day of extreme loss. According to US Army estimates, over 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded during the invasion. One of these casualties was Captain Robert Barnes Ware. A native of Virginia, he was in the middle of training to be a physician when hostilities in Europe broke out. Volunteering for the Virginia National Guard, he was assigned to the Army’s 104th Medical Battalion. According to a biographical statement written by his son, on D-Day, instead of waiting for the beach to be cleared, he chose to launch with one of the first waves, knowing that there would be an immediate need for doctors. He was killed while attempting to disembark from his landing craft.
Ware’s collection is made up of original manuscripts and photographs, including official correspondence from the Army, and personal letters exchanged between Ware and his family. Through these documents, we get to know Robert Ware’s personal story, and also that of his wife and son. In a telegram dispatched to his wife, Martha, on Valentine’s Day, Ware sends her “all the love of all of my heart”; on Mother’s Day, his telegram asks her to “keep smiling.”
The collection includes a single letter written by Martha Ware to Robert. Dated June 4, 1944, it is a profound testimony to the agonizing uncertainty of life during wartime. She says:
Darling, can a person live with tears, and longing and frustrating for years and not be changed by it? Do you know the quotation that says, ‘Tho a man be dead, yet shall he live”—I think I’ve come to know what that means these two years, as I watched my “20s” slip away, and realized that we have never yet had our chance, and have no hope of it for a long time. I am only living on the faith that God will give me a chance before it’s too late—a chance at a permanent home, children, a certain amount of financial security, and above all a chance to live with the man I love so devotedly, so completely—my husband.
In reading this letter, and the others in Ware’s collection, I was struck by the obvious love shared between Robert and Martha, and the wartime sacrifices made by both. In addition to this letter, Ware’s collection also includes the telegrams sent by the Army to Martha after D-Day. Official word of his status as missing in action did not arrive until mid-July 1944, and notification that he was killed in action was sent on August 5, 1944. This official correspondence stands in harsh contrast to the personal letters in the Ware collection, and the time frame of its delivery—months after D-Day—makes the content of Martha’s letter even more heartbreaking.
For more moving accounts of US veterans who participated in D-Day, please see the newest installment of Experiencing War, titled “D-Day: 70th Anniversary.” Additional highlighted collections, featured on the 60th and 65th anniversaries of the invasion, are available here and here.