June 6, 1944, 6:50 am: The skies above France's Normandy coast are thick with scudding clouds. The sea is rough. Twenty-three-year-old Fred Hall Jr. climbs from the deck of his ship and descends a rope ladder to the landing craft below.
The 16th Infantry of the U.S. Army is about to launch the beginning of the end of the war on Nazi terror. Dubbed Operation Overlord, the D-Day assault has been meticulously planned. But this morning, in an open boat on a choppy sea, the reality of war is simple and stark: a bunch of young soldiers, guns clutched to their chests, plunge through the surf and onto the beach, running straight into enemy fire. Of the 28 men in Fred Hall's boat, 14 survive.
Five beaches were stormed on D-Day, by British, Canadian and American troops. But none were more notorious than Utah and "Bloody Omaha," where the red-stained sea made it nearly impossible to tell the living from the dead. "How any of them lived through those first hours is one of the wonders of the war," wrote Don Whitehead, a journalist with Hall's division. "You just had to be lucky, and there were a number whose luck played out."
"Once ashore it was a matter of survival," Hall recalled in a memoir. "There wasn't much time to think except to do what had to be done." And there was the noise, the steady, awful noise of war: a barrage of fire from naval guns, small arms, artillery and mortars; roaring aircraft; the sounds of humans facing the ultimate terror--shouting, screaming, the cries of the wounded. Says Hall: "No wonder some people couldn't handle it."
August 2002: More than half a century later, Larry Mayer and Brian Calder are at work off the coast of Normandy, searching the waters for remnants of one of history's most decisive moments. "When the men were storming the beaches, they didn't have time to take notes," says Calder, a research assistant professor at UNH's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping (C-COM). "Basically, this survey allows us to find out what's there and try to piece together more evidence of what happened that day."
Using a multibeam sonar mounted onboard the 37-foot M/V Genesis, plus two laptop computers, the UNH researchers worked alongside colleagues from the Naval Historical Center, the Naval Surface Warfare Center and sonar manufacturer RESON Inc. to produce stunning images of the wreckage that remains on the ocean floor: sunken battleships, landing craft, tanks, Jeeps--all the paraphernalia of war. "The wrecks are considered official historic sites, war graves," says Mayer, director of C-COM and professor of earth sciences.
More than 5,000 ships, boats and other craft took part in the D-Day invasion--the largest amphibious operation of modern history, according to James Stephen Schmidt, an archaeologist with the Naval Historical Center. The number of vessels lost is impossible to pinpoint, though estimates hover around several hundred. Some of the wreckage was salvaged immediately after the war because it posed a threat to navigation. Recreational divers have also removed artifacts through the years. But much still remains to be catalogued for the historical record.
Mayer and Calder were a logical choice for the Normandy job. UNH is a world leader in processing and visualizing multibeam sonar data. "This system is very expensive and very tricky to operate," says Calder, "so it's not something you can do without quite a bit of training." And the value of the multibeam had been demonstrated only months earlier during UNH's mapping of sunken World War I vessels in Scapa Flow, north of Scotland (see sidebar on page 16).
"The quality of the Scapa Flow images was part of what convinced me this would be worth doing," says Schmidt, who has been surveying the coast of Normandy for several years, using side-scan sonars, magnetometers and remotely operated vehicles.
Typical multibeam sonars take 100 to 130 depth measurements at once. Available for only a couple of years, the multibeam sonar used for the D-Day project takes 240 simultaneous depth measurements up to 40 times per second, generating a much clearer image.
During their two weeks in Normandy, the survey team glimpsed several large ships on the ocean bottom, including the Meredith, the Partridge and the Susan B. Anthony, a personnel carrier that hit a mine the morning after D-Day. Minutes later, the ship went down. All 2,200 men on board were rescued--and went to war.
"The multibeam information provides a much clearer idea of the environment around the wrecks," says Schmidt. "In some cases, we were able to identify what had been only blurry in the side-scan images, like the trucks that were scattered next to a downed landing craft. That's what surprised me the most--the number of equipment vessels that were lost. Resupplying your forces during an invasion is so critical."
As stunning as the technology is, what made the project memorable was the context. "We sat there for 10 days," says Mayer, "looking back on the beaches, thinking about those poor young kids."
November 1, 2002: Fred Hall sits in a darkened room inside UNH's ocean engineering building. Projected on a giant screen in brilliant yellows, blues and reds is an image of a Sherman tank, 60 feet below the surface of the ocean. With a click of a computer mouse, Larry Mayer adjusts the angle so Hall can make out the tank's gun, still aimed toward shore.
"The level of detail you're able to get is fantastic," says Hall. Mayer displays several more images. The talk is mostly technical and mundane--how sonar works, the names and locations of towns, the merits of French food. Then Calder projects an image of a sunken landing craft on the screen. Hall recalls how he ran down the ramp of his landing craft into the sea. Jim Dowd, a recent Harvard graduate, was running right next to him. And then, suddenly, he was gone. "Dowd was shot down as we reached the beach," Hall says.
More than half a century after landing at Normandy, Hall is matter-of-fact about his experience. "We did what we had to do, and that's pretty much the way it was," he says. But when he recalls his final glimpse of the beach, the day after the invasion, Hall's voice shifts. He speaks in measured tones, as if pacing himself. "The morning after D-Day, about daylight, I stood on the bluff, and from that vantage point I could see the beach--the bodies, the wreckage." Hall pauses. "That was enough for me. I never went back after that."
In 1981, Hall did, finally, return to Normandy. He stood on the very spot where he'd managed to climb off the beach on that awful day in 1944. "I'm not a weeper," he says quietly, "but it was an emotional visit." From the edge of the bluff, he gazed out across the expanse of sand, empty and still. Behind him, 9,700 white crosses stretched away to the horizon, each one marking the grave of an American soldier, each one a testament to the incalculable price of victory. ~
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