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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.

-Victoria

                

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 www.vatop10artifacts.org. 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!


-John

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 www.dday.org or call 800-351-DDAY. A special thanks to Weldex and Bank of the James for sponsoring this event!


-Will


Sources:

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,

                1987.