This post was written by Steve Greene. Steve is the Special Media Holdings Coordinator for the Presidential Libraries System. Previously, he was the audiovisual archivist for the Nixon Presidential Materials.
Despite being cataloged, described, and housed at the National Archives for decades, the films created by the U.S. Military during World War II still hold unexpected surprises.
In a recent search for combat moving image footage to complement the Eisenhower Library’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings, I identified four reels of a documentary on the landings prepared by the “SHAEF [Supreme Headquarter Allied Expeditionary Forces] Public Relations Division.”
These reels were assigned separate, nonsequential identifying numbers in the Army Signal Corps Film catalog, suggesting that the Army did not recognize them to be parts of single production. Rather than offering the perspective of a single combat photographer, the reels shifted perspective from the sea, to the air, to the beaches, suggesting careful editing to provide an overview. The 33 minutes of film were described on a shot card as “a compilation of some of the action that took place from D Day to Day Plus 3, 6-9 June 1944.” The production, with no ambient sound, music or effects, includes a single monotone narrator and gives the impression of a military briefing set to film.
This film is probably the first film documentary of the events of the first four days of the D-day assault, created within days of the invasion.
The story started several weeks earlier, when I was approached by a professional researcher, Bonnie Rowan, who had heard that legendary Hollywood director John Ford told a story about filming D-day. His “Field Photographic Unit” of the Office of Strategic Services (the wartime precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency), he said, had prepared a film report for the civilian and military leadership in the wake of the invasion.
Rowan had found a description for a similar film in the holdings of the Imperial War Museum in London but had been unable to obtain a screening reel.(We have since identified a substantially identical film to ours in the IWM’s on-line catalog.) Since she had had no luck finding such reels in the holdings at the National Archives at College Park, she wanted to know whether such a film existed in the Roosevelt or Eisenhower Presidential Libraries. She also wanted to know if there was any record of such a film being screened for President Roosevelt. While I found no such film at the libraries, and no record of a screening, my interest was piqued.
When I came across the four reels prepared by SHAEF Public Relations, the lack of sound other than narration suggested the film was a rushed effort, completed perhaps days after the assault. My suspicions were aroused.
While we have not been able to identify a production file for the film, a fascinating inside account of the preparations for filming D-day exists in Record Group 331 in the files of the Public Relations Division, in a folder titled “334—Joint Anglo-American Film Planning Commission.” The folder describes an extraordinary commitment of resources to obtaining combat camera footage of the invasion of Europe. Both Ford’s “Field Photographic Branch” and Maj. George Stevens’ (another legendary Hollywood Director) “Special Coverage Unit” were assigned to London in the early spring of 1944 and tasked with documenting the upcoming assault. SHAEF’s Public Relations Division was assigned the responsibility for coordinating all combat photography of the assault.
Click through to read orders for Major George Stevens and Commander John Ford to report for duty at European Theater of Operations in Spring of 1944:
Remarkably, given this focus on documenting the invasion, little footage of the first wave of the assault on the American beaches, Omaha and Utah, survives. Combat camera photographers usually carried 35mm motion picture film cameras. Bulky and heavy, the cameras and film limited the weaponry, food, and supplies these men could carry and made them stand out as targets on the beaches. Many fixed cameras mounted to landing craft were destroyed by fierce enemy fire, and an entire duffel bag filled with film shot in the first day of landings was reported lost overboard by an officer transporting the film for processing.
So what is the significance of this film? Who created it? Who was the audience? Period documents offer some clues.
A letter in the OSS personnel folder for Capt. John Ford recommends him for the Distinguished Service Medal on the strength of his activities documenting the D-day invasion, specifically mentioning: “The returning film was assembled under his directions, and an overall D-Day report, complete with sound, was competed on D plus 5, and was shown to Mr. Winston Churchill. Copies were also flown to President Roosevelt and Mr. Stalin.”
An additional document circulated in SHAEF headquarters in London on June 12 (D-day plus 7), cited “an uncensored film of the assault on the French Coast” to be shown, lasting “approximately 38 minutes.” Yet another document found in the OSS files asks why a credit line to the OSS was omitted from the “Secret SHAEF film.”
Unless another secret D-day documentary of around the same length was circulating around the same time, a strong circumstantial case can be made that this film and these newly identified reels may be one and the same. We know from contemporary accounts that both Ford and Stevens remained ”on the far shore” through most of June. A claim that both or either of the famed directors were involved in any “hands-on” fashion in the production of these reels is probably specious. Certainly both men were responsible for recruiting, training, equipping and providing broad direction to the entire effort, from the cameramen on the landing craft and beaches, to the technicians and editors assembling the reels just days after the invasion.
How was this important production forgotten? How did even the military lose track? Again, we can only guess. As the tide of battle turned rapidly, the focus drifted from D-day in a matter of weeks: filmmakers and cameramen moved on to new assignments. With the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, the disestablishment of SHAEF in June, and the rapid demobilization begun after V-J Day, staff involved with this production left the service. Production materials from London were folded into the main Army Signal Corps footage library. Apparently, none of the Army catalogers describing the film weeks or months later knew that these four separate reels were ever part of a single production.
Sadly, the story of this film, lost in plain sight, underscores the critical importance of production files in understanding complex film productions. The scattered documents I found help us reconstruct at least some of the lost context offered by those production files, but in the end archivists and film historians are left with more questions than answers.
Visit NARA’s online exhibit to learn about D-Day and see more historical records of the invasion. To learn more about the Eisenhower Presidential Library’s social media campaign for the D-day anniversary, connect with @ikelibrary and follow #DDAY70 on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can also find out more on their website at www.eisenhower.archives.gov.