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.
If you’re a longtime reader of Folklife Today, you may remember my blog post about VHP’s online exhibit commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day, in which I wondered what to say about one of the most historic—and heavily memorialized—days in history.
Five years later, I faced the same problem: how to curate a set of collections that would allow a user to learn something new about such a well-known event? This conundrum was further compounded by the fact that the VHP archive contains over 2,500 collections pertaining to veterans who took part in Operation Overlord, the military campaign that began with D-Day and lasted through August, 1944.
Poring over oral histories, letters, diaries, and photographs donated to VHP by D-Day veterans and their families, I was struck by the fact that for many of these veterans, D-Day was NOT the day. For many veterans, June 6, 1944 was not the most important, or the most challenging, or the most memorable day of their time in the military. It was one grueling and gut-wrenching day among many such days that they faced during the war. It was one stop on a much larger journey.
This narrative thread—the idea of understanding D-Day in the context of a veteran’s larger military experience—propelled VHP’s inaugural Story Map. If you’re not familiar with it, a Story Map is an online platform that combines maps and multimedia in a dynamic format. Last year, the Library of Congress published six Story Maps, which illuminate some of the treasures in a variety of Library divisions and collections. A note on access: Story Maps are best viewed using Chrome, Firefox or Safari internet browsers.
In designing VHP’s Story Map, my colleague Samantha (Sam) Meier and I realized that the platform would allow us to trace a veteran’s service journey from start to finish, drawing out details and mapping specific locations embedded in primary sources held by VHP. We follow the experiences of four veterans—Preston Earl Bagent, Robert Harlan Horr, Edward Duncan Cameron, and John William Boehne III—before, during, and after D-Day.
Sam and I will discuss the process of building our Story Map in a future blog post, but suffice it to say that assembling the Story Map was a journey in itself, during which we made unexpected connections between collections and discovered previously unknown stories.
Perhaps most importantly, creating this Story Map demonstrated the utter richness of VHP’s D-Day holdings. Thanks to Sam’s exhaustive exploration of these four collections, the Story Map employs source material ranging from a veteran’s childhood photos to a pilot’s logbook, pen-and-ink sketches, an epic poem written in a foxhole a few weeks after D-Day, ticket stubs, and tourist maps. Her deep dive into the photographs, letters, diaries, and memoirs contained within these four veterans’ collections yielded an intimate and close-up view of each of these men’s lives and experiences, and what D-Day meant for them.
Where the Story Map provides depth, the new Experiencing War online exhibit provides breadth, shining a light on eight more D-Day related stories within the VHP archive. Acting as a companion to the Story Map, the online exhibit incorporates stories of doctors, nurses, sailors, and infantrymen, further expanding the narrative of the Normandy invasion.
As in the case of the Story Map, the collections included in the online exhibit speak to the ordeals that these veterans faced even after the beachheads were secured. Walter Ehlers was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in combat in the Normandy hedgerows on June 9 and 10. Combat medic Charles Norman Shay made it through the Battle of the Bulge, only to be captured by the Germans in late March 1945 and held as a POW. Herbert DeGenere, a sailor who served aboard a ship stationed off the coast of Normandy, faced constant deprivation and air raids in the weeks following the invasion.
Both the Story Map and the Experiencing War online exhibit remind us that the legacy of D-Day includes the individual struggles of those who took part, before and after June 6, 1944. For even more stories of D-Day, please see our previous online exhibits commemorating the 60th and 65th anniversaries of D-Day. Or, browse our online database to find additional digitized collections of D-Day veterans.