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Photo of overlook from Ponte du Hoc off the Normandy Coast of France with barbed wire in the foreground and cliffs in the background. April 2022.
Pointe du Hoc is a prominent point located on the Normandy Coast of France between the two U.S. landing beaches of Omaha and Utah. It overlooks the English Channel, with visible trace bomb craters along the shore. Photo Credit, Erika Hope Spencer.

June 6th, 1944: 80th Anniversary of D-Day Normandy Landings

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This blog features an interview of Erika Hope Spencer, Reference Specialist, French Collections, Latin American, Caribbean & European Division, Library of Congress and Megan Harris, Reference Librarian, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

It was 80 years ago today that American troops launched one of the most daring seaborne invasions in history: the Invasion of Normandy. In honor of D-Day, we have an interview with Erika Hope Spencer, Reference Specialist, French Collections, Latin American, Caribbean & European Division and Megan Harris, Reference Librarian, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center.

Also known as Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy sent more than 150,000 American troops to liberate the French from four years of German Occupation. The weather conditions were far from ideal, with strong winds and cloud cover making for choppy waters in the English Channel and low visibility along the Northern coast of France. However, France was in desperate need of Allied help, and after months of planning, General Dwight D. Eisenhower made the call to proceed with the operation and American troops stormed the Normandy beaches. The Invasion of Normandy was particularly challenging, taking an enormous amount of coordination. There were Air operations, Naval operations, and Ground troops, all with their own requirements, and the inclusion of British and Canadian forces with the Americans added to the complexity of the mission.

Can you tell us about your connection to D-Day?

Erika: My grandmother came of age during the German Occupation of Paris. She often described how after the Allied landing they followed the progress of the troops on a map they put up on the wall. They had small flags that they would put up marking the advance of the troops. She listened devoutly to Radio Londres, as the local papers were not truthful in their war reporting.  She also described the euphoria in the streets of Paris after the Liberation in August of that same summer of 1944, watching tank after tank roll through the streets, Parisians crying and kissing the soldiers. She remembered dyeing old sheets to make French flags to wave at the parade the next day at the Place de la Concorde where they watched their hero, Charles de Gaulle. She met and fell in love with my grandfather soon after that. He opted to stay in Paris after serving in the American Field Service and they met working at l’ Agence Reuters where he was a journalist, and she was a typist. My mother and aunt were born in Paris, but the family moved to DC after several years. But my grandmother kept France close to her heart, and I have traveled there throughout my life to visit with my cousins outside of Orléans. When my oldest son turned 18, I took him to see the Normandy beaches to pay homage to the brave individuals who changed the course of my grandmother’s life. We wanted to see not only the museums, but the towns and the beaches where Allied forces pushed the Germans out of France and liberated the country after four long years of Nazi Occupation. It was one of the most moving and humbling trips of my life.

Photo collage of signage indicating Utah Beach off the Normandy Coast of France where the Allied D-Day landing of WWII took place on June 6, 1944 and a woman on Utah Beach off the Coast of Normandy, France. April 2022.
One the left, signage for Utah Beach, one of the five landing beaches of the Allied Forces on D-Day off the Coast of Normandy, France. Photo Credit, Erika Hope Spencer. On the right, Erika Hope Spencer paying respects at Utah Beach off the Normandy Coast of France where the Allied D-Day landings of WWII took place on June 6, 1944. Photo Credit, Alexander Nelsen Spencer.

Megan: Unlike Erika, I don’t have a family connection to D-Day. My grandfather fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II, rather than in Europe. But after working at the Veterans History Project (VHP) for more than 15 years, certain veterans’ stories have started to feel as familiar as family. In 2017, my dad and I took a week-long trip to France, including the Normandy beaches. I wanted to see for myself where the events of June 6, 1944, had taken place, and I wanted to pay tribute to a specific veteran, Robert Ware, whose collection I had gotten to know while working at VHP. Visiting the Normandy American Cemetery, Omaha Beach, and other historic sites was as moving as I envisioned it would be. I found and stood in front of Robert Ware’s grave, taking a moment of silence to acknowledge his life and his sacrifice. Two years later, in 2019, I coordinated a six-part blog series, an online exhibit, and a Story Map to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Through that work, other names and stories, such as Edward Duncan Cameron, have made an indelible mark on my mind. As I wrote in a blog post after returning from Normandy, getting to know the stories of veterans such as Ware and Cameron have profoundly personalized my understanding of D-Day—and I hope that these collections can do the same for others too.

Photo of the statue “The Spirit of the American Youth Rising from the Waves” at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Image is of idealized young man reaching toward the sky from stylized waves at his feet. April 2022.
“The Spirit of the American Youth Rising from the Waves” bronze statue at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial on April 12, 2022 in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. The engraving below the statue reads “To these we owe the high resolve that the cause for which they died shall live.” Photo Credit, Erika Hope Spencer.

Megan, you mentioned the Veterans History Project, can you share some more about the resources and histories there?

Megan: While soldiers and sailors formed the bulk of the Invasion, D-Day relied on many individuals to successfully navigate such an enormous charge. Engineers, pilots, doctors, and nurses were all vital, especially in the days after the initial landing to continue the effort to push the German Army back. There is no better way to appreciate the sacrifices that these individuals made than hearing and reading their stories. The Veterans History Project (VHP) of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center (AFC) collects, preserves, and makes accessible the firsthand narratives of U.S. military veterans who served from World War I through more recent conflicts and peacekeeping missions. Since 2000, VHP has preserved thousands of individual veterans’ collections, which offer users an unparalleled archive of primary source material, so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand what they saw, did and felt during their service.

VHP’s holdings include the harrowing stories of over 1500 veterans of the D-Day Invasion. Users can browse our related digital holdings here, or peruse several curated presentations relating to the different roles played by American service members on D-Day.

In addition, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, in 2019 we created “D-Day Journeys: Personal Geographies of D-Day,” a Story Map which chronicles the individual journeys of four D-Day veterans. The Story Map combines text, images, and multimedia content—including digitized letters, snapshots, maps, and oral history interviews—for an immersive user experience. Observe the journeys of four men who personally witnessed the invasion of Normandy—and glimpse their lives before, on, and after June 6, 1944.

Photo collage of a visitor among the gravesites at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial which honors American troops who died in Europe during World War II and a young man visiting the Utah Beach Landing Museum with an original B-26 airplane in the background. April 2022.
On the left, Alexander Spencer paying his respects at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, which honors American troops who died in Europe during World War II and Alex at the Utah Beach Landing Museum, housed in an old German bunker directly on the landing beach looking at an original B-26 airplane, one of only six in the world and the only one in France. Photo Credit, Erika Hope Spencer.

Erika, can you share any other recommendations?

Erika: Because of my family history, I’ve been wanting to create a research guide on France in World War II, the French Resistance, and the Allied role in the Liberation of France. I knew the Library had extensive collections on these topics, and I had set the 80th anniversary of D-Day as important marker. Those interested in learning more can find suggestions of books, films, and underground newspapers as well as information about commemorative World War II sites in Normandy. In addition to more scholarly resources, I also wanted to include historical fiction, graphic novels, and films that depict this period in France’s history. Since I have long admired the work of librarians like Megan at the Veterans History Project, I wanted to include resources about the Americans who served during WWII, especially on D-Day, and help others to visit some of the sites in France where they can experience this piece of history.

For those looking to commemorate the 80th anniversary, there are a host of events in the region of Normandy, France. One of the most powerful sites to visit is the Normandy American Memorial and Cemetery located in Colleville-sur-Mer. President Emmanuel Macron will attend the official state commemoration that day at Omaha Beach, in the town of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer (Calvados) where 2,500 American soldiers died. While not a public event, there will be a large gathering on Omaha Beach with a concert and fireworks which is open to the public after the commemoration.

From 1-16 June 2024, there will be commemoration ceremonies as well as festivities, parades, picnics, reenactments, and fireworks, along the same stretch of coastline, including across all five landing areas for the Allied troops in 1944—Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, Gold Beach, Juno Beach, and Sword Beach.

Even if it is not possible to be in Normandy for this momentous occasion, planning a future trip is made much easier by the wealth of information available online about museums and other monuments. For more information on the Normandy American Cemetery, the Normandy beaches, and other battle sites, see the Library of Congress research guide on WWII Memorials & Museums in France.

Of course, there is no need to travel anywhere because these digitized collections are open to the global community and give everyone the opportunity to appreciate the experiences of the brave individuals who fought and served, and we offer our continued gratitude for what they preserved.

Thank you, Erika and Megan, for sharing!

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Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your connections to the enduring legacy of those who so bravely fought on this day. The resources you provide are an important part of keeping their sacrifice in our collective memory today and for all time. May we never forget.

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