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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Naval Combat Demolition Unit: The Navy SEALs of WWII

My name is Victoria Carr. I am a senior at Mary Baldwin College as a history major and I’m spending my summer as an intern at the National D-Day Memorial. As an intern with the Education Department, I have worked closely with the school groups, giving tours, and assisting with educational programs and events.

During World War I, a group of elite men was added to the U.S Navy to help with destroying enemy defensive obstacles. In World War II, these men were called frogmen and were a part of the Naval Combat Demolition Unit. Today, this group is known as the Navy SEALs.

Once the US entered WWII, the Navy saw that in order to defeat the Axis powers they would need to perform a large number of amphibious attacks. They decided that men would have to go in to reconnoiter the landing beaches then locate and destroy obstacles and defenses. The Army and Navy established the Amphibious Scout and Raider School at Fort Pierce, Florida in 1943 to train men in the specialty of amphibious raids and tactics. Most of these men used their skills though North Africa, the Pacific, and the Normandy landings. 

As time went on, there was a need for men to destroy obstacles. In 1943, the Navy created a large dedicated force for this task called the Naval Combat Demolition Unit, or NCDU, also located at Fort Pierce, Florida. The NCDU force meant recruitment beyond just the pool of experienced combat swimmers to the Seabees (the Navy’s construction battalions), the U.S Marines, and U.S Army combat engineers.  Most of these men were used to disarm explosives, but now they were going to learn to use them offensively. One innovation was to use 2.5 pound packs of tetryl placed in a rubber tube so that they could twisted around obstacles for demolition.

By June 1944, 34 NCDU teams were deployed in England as a part of Operation Overlord. The Germans had placed defenses on the French lines to make it hard for the Allied forces to attack without heavy lost. As the NCDU teams arrived in England, the scouts and raiders were out getting information on the obstacles placed along the French coast. For training, they built a replica of the Belgian Gates on the south coast of England for the teams to practice on. They learned that they could blow the gate to pieces creating more of an obstacle, but they would need to find the key corner joints so that it fell down flat. The Allied attack plans had the NCDU teams landing in the second wave of the D-Day invasion on 6 June 1944 and working at low tide to clear the obstacles so that troops could get though.

NDCU 140- Hill's Hellions
My Great Grandfather, Donald C. Carr, was part of the NCDU team during World War II and D-Day.  His NCDU was called the “Hills Hellions” or NCDU 140. He wrote a letter to his high school when he returned from Normandy. He wrote:

“I returned recently from the invasion of Normandy. The demolition crews to which I am attached were the first to land on the shores of France. Our mission was to destroy the beach obstacles so that the incoming troops and supplies could be landed with minimum of loss. Landing slightly before H-hour, we encountered heavy enemy resistance. After completing our mission we remained on the beach for 28 days then returned to the French debarkation point for transportation to England and the United States. I am sorry to say that we only returned with 53% of our men.  There are many new cemeteries on the shores of France that are filled with men who gladly gave their lives for the cause. As men have said before, you give us the equipment, we shall do the rest.”

It has been an honor to spend my summer interning at the National D-Day Memorial and having the opportunity to honor and preserve the men who stormed the beaches on June 6, 1944, like my grandfather.



Thursday, August 4, 2016

Bob Slaughter's Order of the Day: An Endangered Artifact

On June 5 or 6, 1944, hours before embarking on the greatest invasion of WWII, American soldiers, sailors and airmen received a special message from their commander, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. The printed “pep talk” informed the men that they were “about to embark upon the great crusade,” defined the coming fight as one of freedom versus tyranny, and encouraged the men that “we will accept nothing less than full victory.” Known as the Order of the Day, the D-Day message was one of the most important military documents in US history.

Bob Slaughter, D-Day Veteran
Founder of National D-Day Memorial
Few of the men that day, facing the biggest fight of their lives, thought to save their copies of the Order of the Day. But one man who did was the founder of the National D-Day Memorial:
John Robert “Bob” Slaughter of Roanoke.

Bob was a survivor of D-Day, a sergeant in the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Like his fellow soldiers, he received a copy of the Order of the Day as he awaited the order to begin the invasion of Normandy. But unlike most of the men, he realized the historic nature of the document and of the day. He circulated through his company and had his buddies sign their names to his copy; then folded it into a plastic bag and tucked it into his wallet. He carried his Order of the Day through the rest of his time in service, and afterwards described it as his “most treasured souvenir of the war.”

It was, for many years, his own personal memorial to the men of D-Day. Of the 75 soldiers who signed Bob’s Order that night, eleven would be dead within hours.

Bob went on to become perhaps the best known D-Day veteran in the nation, but he never forgot the men who never made it off those beaches. Often he would speak to school groups, club meetings, or civic organizations, and show his Order of the Day as he told his poignant story.

Slaughter's copy of the Order of the Day
Bob died in 2012. Earlier this year, his family donated his framed copy of the Order of the Day, along with the rest of his papers, to the Memorial he did so much to build.

 The tattered scrap of paper is now one of the most significant items in our collection, a tangible reminder of the costs of that crucial day in history. It was actually there on Omaha Beach, and against all odds survived. Very few original copies of Ike’s Order survive, and even fewer with the signatures of D-Day participants. That’s why the staff and volunteers who have had the chance to see and hold Bob’s Order (it’s too fragile to be on public display, so only limited access is permitted) find it a chilling experience. All have been awed; some have been moved to tears, as they realize that for so many heroes it was the last time they ever wrote their name.

The Order is, sadly, in very fragile shape. Printed on inferior wartime paper, it literally endured months of battlefield conditions. Creased, torn, faded and unfortunately repaired with tape, this highly significant artifact stands greatly in need of conservation. Yet the rarity and historical significance of Bob’s Order of the Day make it imperative to preserve this endangered artifact. It’s a testament to one of the most important battles of the 20th Century and to the men who fought it.

That is why the National D-Day Memorial has nominated Bob’s Order of the Day for the Top Ten Endangered Artifact program of the Virginia Association of Museums. And to raise awareness of the need to preserve such treasures, our supporters are invited to vote online through the month of August in the popular poll!

Anyone and everyone can cast their votes at Supporters are encouraged to vote as often as they like—there is no limit of one vote per person or one vote per day. We’ve timed it—you can vote about five times in one minute!

Those wishing to make a lasting impact can also donate to the conservation of any of the twenty nominated artifacts, including the Order.

We have participated in the Top 10 Endangered Artifacts Poll for many years, but this time we are hoping folks will support our nomination in record numbers. It’s an important part of our history and a great way to honor the men who won the war for us. So get started voting—vote early, vote often!


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Deciding Who Comes Home at the End of the War

On May 8, 1945 Nazi Germany surrendered to the United States and other Allies marking the end of the war in Europe. This surrender, known as VE Day marked the end of World War II for millions of soldiers and civilians. For the American soldiers in Europe that had fought across the continent from the beaches of Normandy this was the end of 335 days of combat and the start of occupation. In order to fairly decide which units and soldiers were sent to the Pacific theater and which would be sent home the Army developed a points system. This system, officially designated the Advance Service Rating Score, quickly became a hot topic with the troops.

Point System for Discharges at End of WWII
The Army’s reasoning behind this system was two-fold. Instead of shipping units whole from Europe the Army understood that it’s soldiers wanted to go home and soon. Draftees and National Guardsmen that had been in for the duration since 1941 often had the highest scores and were rotated home quickly. For example: Sgt. Bob Slaughter of D Company, 116th Infantry Regiment who stormed ashore on Omaha Beach had accumulated a score of 135 points by May of 1945, almost double the minimum of 85. His high score came from 52 months of active service, 33 of it overseas, 2 Bronze Stars, 2 Purple Hearts, the American Theater Ribbon and 5 Battle Stars on the European Theater Ribbon.

When Bob returned home to Roanoke, Virginia he worked for the Roanoke Times newspaper until his retirement in 1987. In the 1980s he began to organize reunions of his World War II unit. At the same time, he began a campaign for a memorial dedicated to the memories of the D-Day fallen. This culminated in the dedication of the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia on June 6, 2001.

Bob Slaughter's Medals
In order to keep units at full strength with combat veterans returning home, recently inducted soldiers would be sent overseas to join the Army of Occupation in Europe. One of these replacements was my grandfather, Pvt. William B. Ford Jr., who spent a year in Bremerhaven, Germany with the Army of Occupation. The surrender of Japan on August 14, 1945 allowed the drawdown of forces to continue with the points limit revised to 80 and soon to 50 by the end of 1945. As the points needed to be discharged dropped, so did the number of men in uniform. By January 1, 1946 almost fifty percent of the 8.3 million men in the Army had returned to civilian life in the states. These veterans contributed to the rapid growth of post-war America and the eventual Baby Boom of the 1950s. After grueling months on the front lines these soldiers finally returned home to their sweethearts, a warm bed and Mom’s apple pie.

As the Greatest Generation quickly passes away, it is ever more important to celebrate and remember the legacies of World War II. In 2010, Congress unanimously voted in favor of a national “Spirit of ’45 Day,” typically held on V-J Day (August 14), to preserve and honor the legacy of the men and women of the World War II generation so that their example of national unity, shared sacrifice, can do attitude, and service to their community and country continues to inspire future generations of Americans.
Spirit of '45 Alive Concert 2015

On Saturday, August 13, 2016 at 7PM, the National D-Day Memorial will host its annual Spirit of ’45 Alive concert—an outdoor concert featuring The Let’s Dance Band with a tribute to the WWII generation. Tickets are sold at the door. In honor of Rosie the Riveter, wear a red bandana or scarf and receive $2 off admission. For ticket pricing and more information, visit or call 800-351-DDAY. A special thanks to Weldex and Bank of the James for sponsoring this event!



Slaughter, John R. Omaha Beach And Beyond: The Long March of Sergeant Bob Slaughter.
                St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2007.

Kennet, Lee. G.I.: The American Soldier in World War II. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

V-Mail: Communicating During World War II

Millions of men served in the US military during World War II.  Many of them needed to be trained and equipped for combat, but equally important were the many support roles which allowed for smooth operations.  Even the simplest tasks became much more complex due to the sheer scale in which they needed to be carried out, and so an army of men was needed to support the army of men.  But regardless of their role the men had one unifying factor; they were away from home.  And so these millions of men sent and received millions of letters, and the task of sending and delivering all this mail proved quite the challenge.

V-Mail Processed into Microfilm
The major problem came in transporting the mail across the Atlantic Ocean.  Mail sent via cargo ships was slow to arrive, taking up to a month.  But the alternative of sending mail via cargo planes, taking less than two weeks, was expensive.  Cargo space on these planes was at a premium, and letters were bulky both in weight and in the space that they took up.  In searching for a way to address this problem, the military postal service turned their eyes to the British “Airgraph”.

The British had encountered the same problem as the Americans when it came to sending mail to and from their troops stationed in the Middle East.  After the Italians closed off the Mediterranean Sea and Suez Canal to the Allies, mail had to be sent all the way around the Cape of Good Hope.  This meant letters could sometimes take three to six months to arrive at their destination.  Sending mail by air was far preferable, but the bulk needed to be reduced.  Their solution they termed the “Airgraph”.  Based on a process invented in the 1930s by Eastman Kodak, the “Airgraph” became the preferred method of sending mail.  Letters would be written on premade forms, these forms would be censored and scanned onto microfilm, the microfilm would be transported by plane, and on arrival the letters would be printed onto photo paper and delivered.
V-Mail Letter
The US military postal service adopted this process renaming it “Victory Mail”, or “V-Mail” for short, and it proved extremely effective.  The savings of this system were enormous; 2500 pounds of paper letters in 37 mail sacks could be condensed into only 45 pounds of film in one mail sack.  In turn, this freed up room for more materiel to supply the war effort.  The US further reduced waste by only printing the letters at 60% scale.  The use of V-mail also inadvertently deterred espionage; as only photocopies of letters were being sent, invisible ink and microdots were rendered useless.  In addition, letters could not be “lost” in transit; every letter carried a serial number and new copies could be printed if necessary.  After being introduced in mid 1942, V-Mail became the primary method of communication for US soldiers stationed abroad until the end of the war in 1945 with over a billion letters going through the system.  As such, it was a staple not just of a soldier’s life, but of Americans back home as well.


Friday, July 1, 2016

Our D-Day Fallen: Captain Walter O. Schilling

My name is Will Harris and I am an intern at the National D-Day Memorial. My main focus as an intern this summer is my research project which focuses on Roanoke, Virginia’s National Guard company. D Company of the 116th Regiment, 29th Division was in the same battalion as the famous “Bedford Boys” of Company A. Company D landed just behind A Company on Omaha Beach and suffered a similarly large number of dead and wounded. One of the dead was their Company Commander Captain Walter O. Schilling.

Captain Walter O.
Walt Schilling is representative of the concept of a citizen soldier. As a member of the National Guard, he was willing to put his civilian career on hold to defend his nation. Unlike most Army officers in World War Two, Capt. Schilling did not attend the United States Military Academy or any other military college, but instead rose through the ranks. Well respected by his men for his leadership during the 29th’s preparation for the Normandy assault, Capt. Schilling made it his mission to lead from the front.

Capt. Schilling’s leadership style and service as a citizen soldier is similar to that of the character of Capt. Miller in Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan. Captain Miller left his job as a high school English teacher to join the Army and eventually serve as the Company Commander of C Company, 2nd Ranger Battalion. Miller, like Schilling, understood the importance of leading his men through his own example, even if the orders they received seemed suspect or unusual.

Snapshot from the movie, "Saving Private Ryan"
While the character of Captain Miller is fictional, he and Walt Schilling represent the hundreds of Captains and Lieutenants who went ashore on D-Day with the mission of leading their men onto the beaches. This proved to be an enormous task with communications almost non-existent and German defenses preventing any type of coherent advance. The surviving officers rallied what men they could, and lead them in the destruction of German emplacements and the eventual exit from Omaha Beach.

The 4,413 names on the D-Day Memorial’s necrology wall are of officers and enlisted men who gave their lives so that France could be liberated and the Nazi regime overthrown. Each name has a story of sacrifice attached to it that cannot be forgotten.



Slaughter, John R. Omaha Beach And Beyond: The Long March of Sergeant Bob Slaughter.
                St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2007.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Defending “Fortress Europe”: The Atlantic Wall

My name is Tyler; I am a history major at the University of Virginia and am interning with the National D-Day Memorial over the summer. My primary internship responsibilities include the expansion and maintenance of our archives, giving tours, and assisting with our many education programs. Having been exposed to so much D-Day history in the past few months, I developed an interest in the obstacles these soldiers faced and decided to complete more research on the Atlantic Wall.
Steel 'hedgehogs' at the Pas de Calais, April 1944

On March 23, 1942 Adolf Hitler issued Fuhrer Directive No. 40 calling for the creation of the Atlantic Wall.  A nearly 2000-mile long line of coastal defenses, the Atlantic Wall stretched from the northern reaches of Norway, along the coast of continental Europe, and down to the Franco-Spanish border.  Its purpose, to defend against an Allied invasion of Europe no matter where it may come.

The monumental task of designing and building this defensive network was given to Organization Todt, the engineering group which had been responsible for both the Autobahn and the Siegfried Line which protected Germany’s western border.  Over half a million French workers were drafted through the Vichy regime’s compulsory labor program to build the defenses.  Many were paid for their labor, although not much, but slave labor was used as well.  Even with these savings in labor costs the project was enormously expensive, requiring both money and resources.  In France alone the cost was over 3.5 billion Deutschmarks, and the wall defenses as a whole required 600 million cubic feet of concrete and 1.3 million tons of steel.

Rommel surveying defenses along the French coast
Initially these defenses were concentrated around naval and U-boat bases. But starting in late 1943, the fortifications were expanded to cover virtually the entire coast.  In early 1944, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel was given the task of improving the defenses against an increasingly likely Allied invasion.  Because of his experience fighting the Allies in North Africa, Rommel believed that Allied air power posed the greatest threat.  Owing to this, he ordered the building of reinforced concrete bunkers and pillboxes capable of surviving an aerial bombardment.  Further inland, in the open fields of farmland, large sharpened logs were driven into the ground.  Known as “Rommel’s asparagus”, these were meant to destroy Allied gliders should they try to land.

Rommel also believed, quite rightly, that if the Allies were able to secure a beachhead then the war would be lost for Germany.  As such, the beaches were where he focused most of his attention.  Numerous beach obstacles were put in place to guard against Allied landing craft. Steel “hedgehogs” and tetrahedrons were placed in the water to tear out the hull of the invasion craft, and log ramps were erected to capsize them. Mines were used extensively, both in the water and behind the beaches as well; in Northern France alone, over 6 million of these mines were laid.  Rommel never believed that these obstacles would stop an invasion, but he hoped they would slow it down enough to allow reinforcements arrive and repulse the Allied forces.

Clearly, the task of invading France was no easy one, and the Allies knew they would need luck on their side in order to pull it off.  The reserve panzer divisions which could have repulsed the invasion could only be released upon the direct order of the Fuhrer himself. And as luck would have it, Adolf Hitler had taken a sleeping pill the night before the invasion and his staff refused to wake him.  Because of this one blunder, the entire defense network was rendered virtually useless and the Allied invasion succeeded.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Flag Day and the 241st Birthday of the U.S. Army

On June 14, the United States observes two special events in American history: Flag Day and the 241st birthday of the United States Army.

Poster commemorating the 140th
Flag Day on June 14, 1917
Flag Day commemorates the adoption of the American Flag on June 14, 1777 by a Second Continental Congress resolution. Although the Fourth of July has been traditionally celebrated as the country’s birthday, the first movement towards a day to celebrate the flag originated around 1995. A schoolteacher in Wisconsin, BJ Cigrand, arranged for the students in his school district to observe June 14 as a day of celebration for the flag’s birthday. Soon after, other schools implemented similar ideas on June 14, including a program of celebrations in order to “Americanize” recent immigrants to the United States.

On June 14, 1914, Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior, delivered a “Flag Day” speech, reiterating the words the flag reportedly had spoken to him that morning: "I am what you make me; nothing more. I swing before your eyes as a bright gleam of color, a symbol of yourself”. On May 30, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation officially establishing June 14 as “Flag Day”. But it wasn’t until August 3, 1949, that President Truman signed an Act of Congress designating the holiday as “National Flag Day”.

June 14, 2016 is the Army's 241st Birthday
Also celebrated on June 14 is the birthday of the United States Army. On June 14, 1775, the Continental Congress authorized the enlistment of riflemen to serve the United Colonies for up to one year; the authorization of these riflemen is often recognized as the adoption of the “American Continental Army”. These “expert riflemen” were the first units directly raised by the Continentals. With the establishment of the Infantry, the Continental Congress also allowed for the establishment of four other basic branches of the Army: Adjutant General’s Corps (June 16, 1775), Corps of Engineers (June 16, 1775), Finance Corps (June 16, 1775), and the Quartermaster Corps (June 16, 1775). Over the next few centuries, the Army added additional basic branch components as well as Special Branches. Since its creation in 1775, the United States Army has been involved in all major conflicts in United States history, including the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, American Civil War, First World War, Second World War, Vietnam, Gulf War, and Iraqi War.

The National D-Day Memorial will honor Flag Day this Saturday with a special ceremony presented by the Bedford Elks Lodge 2844. The ceremony will begin at 10 a.m. and will include a history of the nation’s flag and a visual representation of those flags through the decades.
Regular admission fees apply. Adult admission is $10; veterans are $8; students are $6; children under 6 are always free. Active duty and reserve military service members are admitted free as part of the Blue Star Museum program (Memorial Day through Labor Day.) See full event details for this Saturday on our event page at: