“John Ford’s” D-Day Film – UPDATE!

Nine years ago this September, I authored a post on the National Archives and Records Administration’s “Unwritten Record” blog about a mysterious film I found in NARA’s research rooms. I uncovered the fact that this artifact was likely the first “documentary treatment” of the Operation Overlord assault on the beaches of Normandy, D-Day, June 6th, 1944. The film is influential because the shot selections largely duplicate the footage provided to the newsreels around the same time. Those selections have largely imprinted the imagery of D-Day in our collective imagination.

The story going around at the time I found the film was that Hollywood “A list” director John Ford, wartime head of the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (“OSS”), recalled his wartime experiences, recounting that his unit compiled an overall report on the invasion that was shown to FDR, Churchill, and Stalin. Ford recalled his experiences on D-Day interview from “American Legion” magazine from June 1964 on the twentieth anniversary of D-Day. Having trained and equipped hundreds of photographers, Ford watched the first few days of the assault from the decks of the U.S. Navy Destroyer, the USS Plunkett. In my post I made a strong circumstantial case that the film I found at the National Archives matches this description. A letter in the OSS personnel folder for Captain 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.”

I was unable to verify these claims or make the link to my “found” film at the time of this earlier article. Thanks to some additional research I’ve undertaken at NARA, I’ve now made that link. Below, find an image from an OSS project log found in its London Field office files.

I was able to re-confirm this information in an “officer biography” found in the Official Military Personnel File for Frederick A. Spencer, Ford’s Chief Deputy at Field Photo.

These documents confirm that the production was intended for presentation to chiefs of state FDR, Churchill, and Stalin, adding that a print was delivered to FDR on D-Day plus 8, or June 14, 1944 and that the film was commissioned by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (“SHAEF”) Public Relations Division (matching the film found at NARA). They contribute additional detail, too: that the original production was no more than “approx 4,000 ft”, or about 44 minutes (the finished production at NARA comes in at 33 minutes) and that the production elements (cut work print, sound negative, and composite duplicate negative were turned over to SHAEF. Finally, the project log gives the last names of OSS Field Photo personnel responsible for what had to be an epic 72 hour edit session that assembled this edit within days of the Operation Overlord assault.

Some details remain a mystery: those film elements remain to be found, the copy found at NARA appears to come from four work prints of uncertain provenance, also no production file from Field Photo has been found to date. The Field Photo assignment log also notes a copy was intended to be made available to Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, but the Spencer biographical note lists only FDR, Churchill and Stalin. Hopefully, records of the presentation of these film reels to the “Big Three” will be found in the future.

Without further adieu, this is the “mystery film”…

Field Artillery at work!

This film shows the members of the segregated 696 Field Artillery Battalion in action in Luxembourg; a patrol in deep in the Hurtgen Forest in Germany; and the efforts of combat engineers to neutralize an enemy bunker in Germany. All were shot within a day or two in November 1944. I’m constantly in awe of these young men and all they accomplished.

The film below was captured off of a “KEM” flatbed film viewer in the Research Rooms at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (“NARA”) using a consumer level mirror-less camera. Many of the hundreds of thousand of film and video titles in the holdings of NARA remain un-described in the National Archives on-line Catalog. For this particular roll, a “shot card” description is publicly available, but only researchers in the physical research room can reproduce it. A professional media researcher adds value!

Aftermath of the Battle of Aachen

This reel is taken from a work print, a film element intended for editing purposes, and shows evidence of its age and a hard life. The film is one of hundreds of thousands at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) that remain unavailable digitally. For this particular roll, all that exists in the National Archives Catalog is a scan of an Army Signal Corps shot card. I shot this film from a flatbed film viewer in the public research room using a mirror-less digital camera.

The footage, dating from October 1944, shows the destruction wrought on the city of Aachen after many days of air and artillery bombardment followed by house-to-house street fighting. Civilian refugees struggle with their handful of possessions in suitcases through devastated streets. Sadly, such scenes of urban devastation seem very relevant today.

Only a professional researcher can provide timely access to such unseen archival footage and stills, adding impact to your production or publication.

“Gods of War”

One of the “fringe benefits” being a professional researcher is the possibility of stumbling over fascinating images or footage while looking for something quite different. While looking for photos of a different war correspondent, I came across this image of ur-combat photojournalist Robert Capa and novelist and journalist Ernest Hemingway, following an armored advance in France in the summer of 1944. This image, shot by an Army Signal Corps photographer, is described in the National Archives Catalog, but no digital image was included with this record.

This is far from a rare pattern. The still photo collections at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) consists of millions of images shot by military or other government photographers, as well as a healthy complement of donated images. Right now, less than 10% of the special media content available at NARA are available on-line at all. Given the Agency’s budget constraints, it may be many years before more of this content is made available in a digital format. That means that professional archival media researchers are an important resource for clients looking to leverage rarely seen images and footage from these world class collections. Under Federal law, “Federal Works, or the work product of government employees or “work-for-hire” contractors, is not eligible for copyright protection. Professional researchers can help your production or publication shine, with PUBLIC DOMAIN special media material that won’t break your budget!

“Rubble Women”

German women clean up the rubble from devastated streets at the end of World War II in Europe

Today’s film from the National Archives and Records Administration (“NARA”) was shot shortly after the end of World War II hostilities by the U.S. Army Air Corps, the ancestor of today’s U.S. Air Force. Beautifully shot on 16mm Kodachrome film, the camera roams the streets of a devastated German city: block after block of devastated houses, offices and factories, punctuated by signs in Russian. Especially prominent are the “Trümmerfrauen” (literally, “rubble women”), German women enlisted to clean up the rubble by hand for a tiny hourly wage and an extra ration coupon stipend. These women later became a living symbol of post-war Germany’s determination to rebuild. 

This footage is described in the National Archives Catalog, but no digital item accompanies the description. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NARA Research Rooms have been closed for almost seven months, with no way to request this footage from them. Researchers and clients are waiting for the National Archives to announce a plan to safely reopen the ordering system and the research rooms, in the meantime production deadlines are being missed and budgets are stretching. A handful of professional researchers have collected copies of screener videos such as this that were formerly made available by NARA on-site. On-line access is wonderful, but it is no substitute for hands-on, on-site research.

Don’t depend on a production assistant or intern to locate the exact footage or stills needed to add impact and polish to your production. “Searching” is not the same as “researching”. Professional researchers add value!