How To Locate D-Day Footage in NARA’s Moving Image Holdings

D-Day and the Combat Cameraman
This week marks the 80th Anniversary of the D-Day Operation. Starting on June 6, 1944, about 175,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, supported by 5,000 naval craft and more than 11,500 aircraft. By June 30, over 850,000 men, 148,000 vehicles, and 570,000 tons of supplies had landed on the Normandy shores. In what became known as the largest amphibious invasion in military history, the operation, codenamed Overlord, was the beginning of the liberation of Northern Europe from Nazi occupation. 

D-Day was a massive undertaking involving troops primarily from the United States, Britain, and Canada, as well as soldiers from Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, France, Greece, New Zealand, Norway, Rhodesia, and Poland. Among the Allied troops involved in the invasion were soldiers, sailors, pilots, medics, members of the Red Cross, news reporters, and combat cameramen.

Combat camera operators, many of whom were U.S. Army Signal Corps members, have been employed by the U.S. Military since the 1880s to document combat and support operations visually. The photographs and footage produced were used for training purposes, to supply the public with information, and for operational and tactical analysis. Today, the pictures and footage are part of NARA’s Special Media holdings, some of the most popular records researchers use as primary source documentation.

Still image of slate taken from 111-adc-1275

Researching Military Footage
The motion picture records produced by combat camera operators are invaluable resources but can be tricky to navigate. Some of the most common research requests we receive are related to locating footage of specific battles, people, and events in our military holdings. Using NARA’s D-Day footage, let’s look at research techniques to get the most out of your research.

Know Before You Start
Before starting your research, it is very helpful to know a few facts about what you are searching for. Footage is located in different record groups depending on the branch of the military that created it, so knowing the branch of service is very helpful. In addition, knowing the dates of service, location of service, and military division or unit will help when deciding where to start your research. 

Motion Picture Records by Military Branch and Record Group
Since military branches often work collaboratively, it is possible that footage from one branch of service contains images of members of another branch. However, footage of each military branch is often found within specific record groups associated with that branch. Knowing the military branch will help focus the beginning stages of research. In addition to the record groups listed below, more frequently used record groups can be found on our webpage.

Some common record groups are:

RG 26: Records of the U.S. Coast Guard, 1785–2005

RG 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860–1985

RG 127: Records of the United States Marine Corps, 1775-1999

RG 342: Records of the U.S. Air Force Commands, Activities, and Organizations, 1900-2003

RG 428: General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1941-2004

The years of service are also helpful to know when starting to research. Some record groups do not cover the entire existence of a military branch or division. An example is the US Air Force, a branch of the military established in 1947. Typically, aerial-related footage is located in RG 342: Records of the U.S. Air Force, but if you are looking for aerial-related footage from before that date, it most likely is located in RG 18: Records of the Army Air Forces, 1902-1964 or RG 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer.   

Knowing the theater of war where specific battles occurred will also help you find the best record group for research. During WWII, each branch of the military was more heavily involved in one theater of battle than another. The Navy and Marines, for example, were largely involved in operations in the Pacific Theater. So, if you are searching for footage of the Battle of Leyte, which occurred in the Pacific Theater, the best place to start would be Record Group 127 and Record Group 428

Searching the Online Catalog and Associated Textual Records
Whether utilizing the online catalog or researching in person, the next step in locating footage usually requires consulting textual records. Often, military moving images have related textual documents, such as shot cards or production files, that help find the correct footage. These items contain information such as the camera operator’s name, the date the footage was shot, the geographical location, general imagery included, and sometimes the unit pictured. While some descriptions in the online catalog include transcribed content or scanned facsimiles of such records, others are currently only available onsite.

Information not typically contained in textual records includes the individual names of soldiers and units and the modern names of battles. Under fire, there was no time for the camera operators to obtain the names and units of the soldiers they were capturing. The names of battles and campaigns we now associate with specific military actions were often not used until after the active battle. Because of this, records created during the war will not identify battles by their common names. For example, D-Day is one of the most famous battles of World War II. However, if you use “D-Day” as a search term in NARA’s online catalog, the results will not include most of the associated footage unless the catalog entry has a comment or tag created by researchers linking it to your topic. If an item has been tagged, it should still be reviewed for accuracy and relevance before being used.  

The best way to search would be to use broad terms such as the names of nearby towns, cities, regions, rivers, mountains, and battle dates. If the person you are researching were deployed with the 28th Infantry Division at the Battle of the Bulge, the best way to locate related footage would be to use the dates when the battle occurred, December 16, 1944 – January 25, 1945, and the names of nearby towns, cities, regions, rivers, and mountains, such as Ardennes, Belgium, and Luxembourg. 

Reading Motion Picture Films
Once footage of interest is located, researchers can glean additional identifying information from watching the film. While shot cards and additional textual records provide you with broad information, watching the footage for additional information will be helpful to get the most out of your research. While watching the footage, specific things to look out for are slates or intertitles, uniforms and badges worn by soldiers, depicted activities, and the surroundings.

Still taken from 111-adc-1477 showing members from the US Army, US Navy and British military

Slates or intertitles can provide researchers with information on the unit depicted in the footage, the date of the footage, the location of the footage, and the camera operator’s name. The camera operator sometimes includes additional descriptive information, such as “under fire,” as shown in one example below. 

While shot cards and textual records do not always include the names of specific units in the related footage, the uniforms and badges soldiers wear can help provide context clues. As you see in these examples, the badges these soldiers wear identify them as members of the 82nd Airborne in the first clip and the 101st Airborne in the second clip. 

Clip taken from 111-adc-1275 showing members of the 82nd Airborne
Clip taken from 111-adc-1275 showing members of the 101st Airborne

In the following example, the different uniforms depicted identify these soldiers as both German and American soldiers. Members of each country’s military and each military branch have specific uniforms, which makes it easier to determine who is being captured in the footage. 

Clip taken from 111-adc-1477

If the date of the footage is not included in the shot card or slate, it may still be possible to narrow down when the footage was shot by watching what is going on. Footage of soldiers under cover or shooting would have been taken during live action of the event. The footage below from 111-adc-1275 was captured during an early wave of the invasion of Normandy. We know this because the soldiers are preparing for landing and then taking cover from active battle. 

Clip taken from 111-adc-1275

The footage here from 111-adc-1477 shows members of the First Army and French civilians holding a prayer service. This would have been captured sometime after the first day of fighting, most likely several days after the initial battle. Additional research of textual records outside the Moving Image and Sound Branch would also be possible to see if records exist discussing the ceremony taking place. 

Clip taken from 111-adc-1477 showing members of the First Army holding a prayer service

Starting to research using motion picture records can be overwhelming. However, knowing what information and keywords to use in your search makes it easier to locate footage related to your topic. Breaking down your research into smaller steps can help provide direction when getting started, and once you have located footage, knowing the context clues to look for will allow you to get the most information from the records. 

Clip taken from 111-adc-1477

Combat camera operators were among those sent into battle during D-day, risking their lives to provide a record of the events. Thanks to them, researchers can study those events for generations to come. If you want to view more footage captured by combat camera operators, you can do so in our online catalog. All motion picture records referenced in this post can be viewed by visiting the following links:  Invasion, St. Marcouf, France; Glider Take-Off; D-Day, Normandy, France, Beachhead Activities, Coleville-Sur-Mer, Cherbourg Peninsula, France; First Pow Camp, Cherbourg Peninsula, France; Invasion 94, American Cemetery Near Etuville, France; Invasion 97, American Cemetery Near Etuville, France; Invasion 98; Easy Red Beach, and Invasion, Fox-Green Beachhead, Omaha Beach, France ; Convoys And Loading Lcts, Omaha Beach, France.

Locating Related Records
Additional special media records related to D-Day can be found in our online catalog (still photos and cartographic) and in past blog posts from The Unwritten Record. Additional information on moving image holdings related to World War II is available on our website at Motion Picture WW2 Research

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