June 6, 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allies’ famed invasion of the beaches of Normandy. In honor of this momentous occasion, the Veterans History Project (VHP) is publishing a special series of blog posts revealing hidden facets of D-Day illuminated within VHP’s collections.
This post, a guest post by Library Technician Sam Meier, is the second in a six-part series, exploring less well-known materials within VHP’s collections.
Being an archivist often feels like being a detective. Sometimes you find something groundbreaking. As I discussed in my last blog post, I uncovered a dramatic story about an incorrectly reported death while reviewing Veterans History Project collections for an upcoming D-Day Story Map. But oftentimes, we here at VHP stumble across smaller stories—particular items within a collection that, for one reason or another, failed to attract our attention at first, but turn out to contain new and valuable information.
I unearthed several such items while examining the collection of Indiana native John William Boehne, III.
Boehne, who went by the nickname “Bill,” served in the U.S Navy from 1942 to 1946. On D-Day, he and the crew of USS LST-375 (Landing Ship Tank) battled against strong currents, dodged stranded tanks and LCTs, and ducked enemy fire to bring their troops to shore on Omaha Beach.
As Boehne commented in his oral history interview,
“Even though little is said about this, I think it is rather important to know that the Navy did one hell of a job to get the men on shore—and did one hell of a job, too. If the Navy hadn’t been there, I don’t think things would have happened like they did.”
The pride Boehne took in his Naval service is evidenced by the scrapbook he assembled in a leather-bound album sometime after the war. It contains original photographs, correspondence, military papers, brochures, pamphlets, maps, and other mementoes from the time he spent stationed in England before and after D-Day.
Today, the scrapbook is extremely fragile. Over the years, its black pages have begun to flake and disintegrate. They are nearly impossible to turn without causing further damage. Having a digital copy available on VHP’s website ensures that researchers can learn from Boehne’s scrapbook without physically handling it.
But sometimes, despite the most diligent of digitization efforts, original scrapbooks still contain hidden secrets—as I discovered when I pulled the delicate volume off the shelf to (carefully!) peer inside.
This photograph of Boehne’s then-sweetheart Petrena Park Moyes, otherwise known as “Rena,” for instance, was hidden in a closed paper frame.
Moyes and Boehne likely met before D-Day, when he was stationed in Plymouth. Their correspondence recounts weekend meetings in Weymouth, long phone calls, plans made and broken according to unpredictable military schedules. (Rena served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army.)
Boehne included a few other photos of Rena in his scrapbook. Their correspondence suggests that he had specially requested this portrait, even though it wasn’t Rena’s favorite picture of herself.
“When the grin gets too much for you darling turn me to the wall,” she joked in a letter.
Rena’s photo wasn’t the only surprise tucked away in Boehne’s scrapbook. When VHP’s archivist Rachel Telford delicately unfolded the piece of paper seen in the [top-center] of this page of Boehne’s scrapbook, it turned out to be a map of Glasgow, Scotland. The map bears a line drawn in red ink, presumably indicating Boehne’s own travels.
According to other documents in his collection, Boehne took one week’s leave in October 1944 to journey from Weymouth, England up to Glasgow. His leave request notes that his address in Glasgow would be the Central Hotel. Sure enough, a bill for his stay at the Central Hotel is pasted into his scrapbook.
But there was still more to uncover. Carefully opening the pamphlet titled “What’s On and Where to Go in Glasgow,” I found two tickets to the Alhambra Theater for Tuesday, October 31, 1944—though only one was used.
I like to think that maybe Rena meant to join Bill Boehne at that day’s performance of The Dancing Years, but that she wasn’t able to make it.
As Boehne’s collection makes clear, scrapbooks pose unique challenges for digitization and preservation. Boehne’s scrapbook is one of over 150 original scrapbooks in VHP’s archive. While not all of these scrapbooks have been digitized, once they are in VHP’s care, they are treated according to the best practices laid out by the Library’s Preservation Directorate.
VHP welcomes donations of scrapbooks as long as their contents reflect a veteran’s individual experience. (Scrapbooks of news clippings only are not accepted.)
Stay tuned for a special D-Day Story Map, as well as a new Experiencing War online exhibit.