At the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, these artifacts from the beaches of Normandy are called “Silent Witnesses.”
IF A PICTURE is worth a thousand words, then some objects, when seen in person, must be worth a million.
Historic artifacts convey stories in ways that capture the imagination and bring home the reality of a moment in time. To read about an important event can be informative. To hear a description of it can be illuminating. But to view a tangible object that was there, something that survived battle to become a cherished reminder—that can be inspiring.
At the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, we often call such items “Silent Witnesses.” Among our broad array of World War II artifacts, some pieces hold special significance because they were at hand on June 6, 1944, on the beaches of Normandy during Operation Overlord. Carried by a soldier, held by a sailor, cradled by a comrade bringing comfort to a dying buddy—these relics from one of history’s most crucial days speak to anyone who sees them.
As time passes, fewer and fewer survivors remain to share their stories directly. Too soon, only the Silent Witnesses will be left to remind us of the tragedy and triumph that was D-Day. On these pages is a selection of these special items from the Memorial’s collection. Each one tells a tale, and together, they form a larger narrative: one of costly victory. The Silent Witnesses attest to the valor, fidelity, and sacrifice of a generation that, by winning some French beaches in a terrifying 24 hours, saved the world. ✯
—John D. Long is the National D-Day Memorial’s director of education
DEAD WEIGHT: It is not known who wore this particular assault vest on D-Day, but there’s a good chance he didn’t like it. Designed so amphibious troops could organize, carry, and quickly access needed gear, these garments were generally considered cumbersome by soldiers and viewed as an impediment in battle rather than an advantage. Many refused to wear assault vests; those who did often quickly discarded them ashore. As a result, few survive today.
IN ONE STROKE: Virginian James Foster died on Omaha Beach while serving in an antiaircraft artillery unit. His personal effects were later returned to his widow, Margaret. In addition to his wallet—which contained this water-damaged photo of the couple—she received his watch. It presumably recorded the exact time of Foster’s death.
FOR THE RECORD: Just prior to D-Day, Allied personnel received a printed pep talk (above) from General Dwight D. Eisenhower—a type of missive usually termed an “Order of the Day.” It informed them that they were “about to embark upon the Great Crusade,” and were to accept “nothing less than full victory.” John Robert “Bob” Slaughter (below) took his copy around to his army buddies and asked them to sign their names on the front or back. He then tucked it into a plastic bag and stowed it away. Only later would he discover that 22 of the 75 men who autographed the Order never came home: 11 died on Omaha Beach that same day. Unable to shake his memories of them, Slaughter founded the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, in 2001 as a tribute to those who fell on June 6, 1944.
MIDWEST IS BEST: This well-preserved bomber jacket (above) belonged to decorated pilot Marshall Johnson. Johnson, below, hailed from Milwaukee, which inevitably became his nickname (note the city’s most famous product emblazoned on the leather). The name of his B-24, El Flako, stretches across the garment’s back. Johnson recorded each mission on a small emblem on his jacket; he’d go on to fly others, but the last sortie he found space for was D-Day.
FLYING HIGH: This company flag (technically a guidon) crossed Utah Beach with Company B of the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion. The unit’s mission was to destroy German obstacles and clear mines, a goal complicated by the fact that nearly everyone landed in the wrong place that day. As other elements of their battalion landed on Omaha Beach, the 299th was the only engineering unit to have troops on both Omaha’s and Utah’s shores.
GLIMPSE OF THE PAST: Frank Draper—one of 20 men from tiny Bedford, Virginia, who died on D-Day—carried these binoculars (above) as his landing craft approached Omaha Beach. A German shell struck the craft, and Draper (below) was mortally wounded before he even reached shore. He was taken back to the troopship SS Empire Javelin, where a British sailor tried to render first aid, removing the binoculars from the dying man’s neck in an effort to provide comfort. Draper passed away within minutes; the man who tended to him, Bert Fuller, kept the binoculars for 61 years as a reminder of D-Day before returning them in 2005 to Draper’s family in Bedford.
IN HIS SHOES: These combat boots were worn by Sergeant Thomas J. Ruggiero, 2nd Ranger Battalion, as he trained to climb the bluffs at Pointe du Hoc prior to D-Day. However, on June 6, Ruggiero’s landing craft was capsized by a German shell. Ruggiero survived and, two days into the campaign, forged on to scale the cliffs as planned.
CROSS TO BEAR: Dr. Robert Ware (pictured below) was supposed to serve as a battalion surgeon on D-Day, setting up a field hospital as soon as possible post-landing to treat the wounded. Unfortunately, Ware, 29, never got the chance to save lives; he lost his own when he was hit and killed by enemy fire immediately after exiting his landing craft. Weeks later, the medic armband Ware wore that day (above) was returned to his grieving family.
HOLES IN THE NARRATIVE: Found by an American soldier in a bunker on D-Day, this M-35 German helmet was kept as a souvenir for years before joining the National D-Day Memorial’s collection. The fate of its owner— presumably named “Wenz,” judging from a faded signature carved inside its brim—is unknown, but the bullet holes in its metal may provide some clues.
All photos courtesy of John D. Long/National D-Day Memorial
This article was published in the June 2021 issue of World War II.