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The First D-Day Documentary

by on September 9, 2014


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.

dday-5-cropExcerpt from War Diary of Film and Photo Section, Public Relations Division, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces. 
(To view complete document in a new window, click on excerpt.)

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.

 Orders for Major George Stevens and Commander John Ford to report for duty at European Theater of Operations in Spring of 1944. 
(To navigate slideshow, click on white arrows. Click on images to enlarge in new window.)

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.

dday-3-s

 Letter of authorization for a Maj. W. A. Ullman to report to Omaha Beach at 1030 hours on D-day to transport footage to London.

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.”

dday-1-s

Memo announcing screening of “Secret SHAEF Film” in SHAEF headquarters, London.

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.



This week’s story features a winter fashion show from French designer Pierre Cardin. Along with several coats, an “astronaut-inspired dress” is presented.

From the release sheet:

FASHIONS Pierre Cardin shows his winter fashions at Versailles. Coats are of thick, woven wool; evening dresses show a lot of sequins; and there’s even a space-age cocktail dress!

fashion-1

To view the complete reel, which includes stories about an electric sitar, elections in Vietnam, Sweden’s switch to driving on the right side of the road, and others, click here.

About the Universal Newsreel Collection at NARA:

The Universal Newsreel Collection is one of the most used motion picture collections at the National Archives and Records Administration. Universal Newsreels were shown in movie theaters twice a week, from 1929 until 1967, and covered a wide range of American life and history during that time period. Each release usually contained five to seven stories averaging two minutes in length.

In 1974, Universal deeded its edited newsreel and outtake collection to the United States through the National Archives (NARA), and did not place any copyright restrictions on its use (some stories may contain other underlying intellectual property or proprietary use rights).

While Universal disposed of many of the soundtracks, leaving the newsreels incomplete, supplementary material like scripts, shot lists, and event programs can be found in the production files, available for research at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.

Learn more about the Universal Newsreel Collection in this post and in this Prologue article. Watch other Universal Newsreels in our research room, in OPA, and on this playlist.



This post was written by Heidi Holmstrom. Heidi works in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you already know that there are some amazing films at the National Archives and Records Administration (see: Curious Alice). One of my favorites is No Fuelin’, We’re Poolin’: An Altogether Way of Getting to Work.

Aside from having one of the best titles of any government film, No Fuelin’, We’re Poolin’ is entertaining and informative. It is, at heart, a love story. We watch Ron and his vanpool rescue Linda when she experiences car trouble. Ron and Linda bond as he explains the many benefits of vanpooling and how she can get involved in the program. Will Ron and Linda end up together in the same vanpool? I think you already know the answer . . .

The Department of Energy produced No Fuelin’, We’re Poolin’ during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. On February 2, 1977, President Carter addressed the nation about energy policy and the important role of conservation in confronting the nation’s energy shortage. During the next several years, the Department of Energy produced several films about energy conservation measures such as vanpooling or energy-proofing your home.

RonandLinda

Ron tells Linda how the computer makes vanpool matches.

Behind the cheesy acting and the 1970s fashion there is a lot of good information in No Fuelin’, We’re Poolin’ about how a vanpooling program works. When someone applies for a spot in a vanpool, a computer program maps out their location and identifies others nearby interested in ride-sharing to the same destination. The program in the film is coordinated by Ron and Linda’s company, but in some places public transit authorities provide vehicles for vanpools. The end credits mention the involvement of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which still facilitates a similar service today.

President Carter’s emphasis on energy conservation also resulted in films and public service announcements from other government agencies. Though retro, these films often contain advice and information that continues to be relevant. For a great example, check out this PSA featuring Ed Asner for the Department of Housing and Urban Development:



On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, marking the official start of the Second World War. Sixteen days later, Russia invaded Poland from the east. By the end of September, Poland had succumbed to the dual attacks. The nation was divided between Russia and Germany according to boundaries established in a secret clause of a nonaggression pact the two nations had signed the previous week. Although Polish military forces were overcome, a strong Polish resistance existed throughout the duration of the war.

This week we are featuring two Universal newsreels, covering both the German and Russian invasions. The initial invasion prompted Universal to release a special edition on September 4th, 1939, while the newsreel covering the Russian invasion contains a full slate of stories. The narration tracks for these reels no longer exist, but the audio for President Roosevelt’s neutrality speech has survived. We have also scanned the script for the September 4th, 1939 Special Release.

Germany invades Poland, Universal News Vol. 11, Rel. 803 September 4th, 1939:

Russia invades Poland, Universal News Vol. 11, Rel. 807 September 18, 1939:

Release sheet for September 4th Special Release:

SPECIAL RELEASE ALLIES DECLARE WAR ON NAZIS  Dramatic scenes of a new conflict that may envelop the world in flames!  Hitler’s war machine rolls into Poland-encouraged to strike by the new pact with Stalin’s “Red” Russia.  With Danzig seized, Polish infantry and cavalry rally to the defense of their homeland.  Italy remains in the background, while Nazis pour into the Siegfried Lines to stem a possible Allied thrust.     ENGLAND. Tense eleventh-hour scenes in London, as Prime Minister Chamberlain declares a state of war exists!  Troops mobilize and air raid defenses are manned to prevent bombing attacks.  Thousands of helpless  children are evacuated to the countryside!     The French war machine swings into high gear as France follows the lead of Britain in declaring war!  Bus loads of troops leave the city enroute to the “Front.”  Eight million men under arms, ready to strike!  The Maginot Line ready to repulse any attack!    Dazed New Yorkers throng Times Square as news of the fateful conflict reaches the U.S. “Extras” proclaim the news in blaring headlines, and Americans wonder what the future holds in store!    WASHINGTON, D.C.  President Roosevelt, his peace efforts failed, appeals for national unity in the crisis and pledges his fight for neutrality!     NEPORT NEWS, VA.  The S.S. America, largest liner ever built in the U.S. , is christened by Mrs. Roosevelt.  Shortly after, the world is shocked when the British ship “Athenia” with 300 Americans aboard, is torpedoed and sank!

Script for the September 4th Special Release covering Germany’s invasion of Poland:

Click the arrows below to see all three pages of the script. Click on the image to open a new window to read the text.

About the Universal Newsreel Collection at NARA:

The Universal Newsreel Collection is one of the most used motion picture collections at the National Archives and Records Administration. Universal Newsreels were shown in movie theaters twice a week, from 1929 until 1967, and covered a wide range of American life and history during that time period. Each release usually contained five to seven stories averaging two minutes in length.

In 1974, Universal deeded its edited newsreel and outtake collection to the United States through the National Archives (NARA), and did not place any copyright restrictions on its use (some stories may contain other underlying intellectual property or proprietary use rights).

While Universal disposed of many of the soundtracks, leaving the newsreels incomplete, supplementary material like scripts, shot lists, and event programs can be found in the production files, available for research at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.

Learn more about the Universal Newsreel Collection in this post and in this Prologue article. Watch other Universal Newsreels in our research room, in OPA, and on this playlist.



What would you do if you were a popular general in the United States Army, a tireless advocate for military aviation, and instead of getting a promotion to Chief of the Air Service, you were demoted and sent halfway across the country? If it was 1925 and your name was Billy Mitchell, you might just have a giant barbecue, complete with a roster of attendees that reads like a who’s who in the history of military aviation. The bash featured in this week’s film was likely Mitchell’s last big celebration, because by the end of the year, he was embroiled in a court-martial that permanently ended his military career.

Brigadier General Billy Mitchell may have faced demotion and exile, but that didn’t prevent him from throwing a fabulous party.

Long before Billy Mitchell was known as the father of the United States Air Force, he enlisted in the Army to fight in the Spanish-American War. When Mitchell was appointed assistant to the head of the Signal Corps Aviation Section in 1916, he had already served for nearly two decades. Advancing military aviation became Mitchell’s life’s work. During World War I, he planned the air campaign for the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and led nearly 1500 planes (the largest number of planes used in warfare to that point) in the battle.

Mitchell returned from the war believing that future wars would be fought with air power. He became the primary advocate for military aviation, criticizing the War Department and the Navy for not developing a national air force. Mitchell also made sure that military aviation stayed in the papers, speaking publicly about new innovations in flight and pushing military pilots to break flight records. Mitchell rankled his military and civilian superiors, but he gained the support of the press and the general public.

After Mitchell made repeated public declarations that a coordinated air attack could sink a naval ship, the secretaries of the War Department and Navy reluctantly agreed to test the claim in the summer of 1921. Even with strict limitations imposed by the Navy, Mitchell’s air crew sank three captured German vessels, including the battleship Ostfriesland. Mitchell got what he wanted when budgets for military aviation were increased, but showing up the military establishment and exposing the weakness of the naval fleet certainly did not make Mitchell any new allies in his chain of command.

In the few relatively calm years before Mitchell’s demotion and court-martial, he was sent on assignments that seemed designed to keep him out of the public eye. Most notable was a 1924 inspection tour of Asia and Hawaii. In an extensive report that was later published as Winged Defense, Mitchell accurately predicted the circumstances of the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan, even coming within half an hour of the actual time of attack.

The beginning of the end for Billy Mitchell’s military career came when he was called to testify before the Lampert Committee in 1924. After the end of World War I, Congress had convened more than a dozen commissions, committees, and boards to investigate military aviation. The Lampert Committee provided an official venue for Mitchell to broadcast his opinion of the United States military’s lack of support for aviation. Mitchell ripped the Army and Navy to shreds, calling out the leadership and other witnesses.

Billy Mitchell was obviously a problem for senior military officials. When Mitchell’s term as Assistant Chief of the Air Service expired in March of 1925, he was not reappointed to the position. Mitchell was sent to a lower-profile job in San Antonio, Texas and lost his temporary promotion to Brigadier General. The assignment might have been routine, except that Mitchell was at the forefront of military aviation and had requested to keep his position as Assistant Chief of the Air Service. The reassignment was widely viewed as an exile intended to punish and silence the outspoken Mitchell.

mitchell-6

“Showing the General getting ready to testify before the Aircraft Committee.”

Before he made the big move, though, Mitchell’s supporters threw a booze-filled farewell barbecue in his honor. John Bockhurst, a newsreel cameraman who had filmed Army flyers on the first round-the-world flight, recorded the event for posterity.[1] If anyone ever wondered whether Mitchell reconsidered his public criticism of military officials, watching this film should clarify his position, particularly when an intertitle references his testimony before Congress. A shot of Mitchell sharpening a large knife is preceded by: “Showing the General getting ready to testify before the Aircraft Committee.”

While Mitchell had alienated his superiors, the film illustrates his widespread support in the rank and file. One distinguished guest who appears in the film is General James Fechet. Fechet took over Mitchell’s position as Assistant Chief of the Air Service and rose to Chief in 1927. Also appearing is Lt. Lester Maitland, one of the pilots who flew the first successful trans-Pacific flight in 1927. Hap Arnold, a staunch defender of Mitchell’s who would command the Army Air Forces during World War II, also features prominently throughout the film.

mitchell-5

“Scene showing close cooperation between the Air Service and the well known navy.”

The film also shows the pioneering navy pilot Commander Holden C. Richardson, who is referenced in a tongue-in-cheek intertitle that reads: “Scene showing close cooperation between the Air Service and the well known navy.” In the following scene, Billy Mitchell serves an enormous piece of meat to Richardson. Mitchell may have had a fight to pick with the Navy establishment, but he had close friends in pilots everywhere.

Also taking a prominent role in the Prohibition-era festivities were copious amounts of whiskey and beer. In fact, the alcohol gets its first mention at 3:47 when it is named “The life of the party.” Most of the second half of the film is devoted to depicting the progressively more drunken activities of the attendees.

mitchell-8“The life of the party.”

Billy Mitchell likely left for San Antonio with the support of his “associates and admirers” buoying his spirits. His high spirits were not to last long, however. In September of 1925, Mitchell released his most disparaging statement yet, blaming senior officials for the deaths of pilots attempting ill-advised flights, and accusing military leaders of incompetence. By October, President Calvin Coolidge had ordered the court-martial of Billy Mitchell under the 96th Article of War.

In December of 1925, Billy Mitchell was convicted of conduct that brought discredit to the military service and suspended without pay. Mitchell resigned in February 1926 but continued to promote military aviation until he died in 1936. In 1942, President Roosevelt posthumously elevated Billy Mitchell to the rank of Major General and recommended him for a Congressional Gold Medal.

 

[1] John “Bocky” Bockhurst is featured in a Universal newsreel about cameramen preparing for D-Day. You can view it here. Bockhurst sat out the invasion, however, because he contracted malaria.

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