Third and final part of a series.
by Hugh Gilmore
Though I’d originally driven out to the suburbs to see about buying a large, 3,000-book library, I drove home that day with only one small box of books and a banana box of documents. The books had provided an exciting afternoon of flashlight-in-hand treasure- hunting throughout the house and its many bookcases. I found little to buy, however; they’d mostly been “book-books,” as we say in the trade. In fact, I was a little disappointed at search’s end.
I’d been permitted to take the documents home with me to appraise them before they were donated to a local university’s archives. Though I would be paid to do that, I had no idea how deeply the task would affect me in other ways.
I put the box on my dining room table, where there’s a lot of late afternoon light, and turned my curiosity loose. It was filled with browned old envelopes and manila folders whose tab labels had fallen off. Also many loose, stapled documents and about a dozen folded maps. I began browsing their cover pages. The first one read, “PLAN OF THE WEEK” April 9 to October 17, 1943, and it was printed for the U.S. Naval Advance Amphibious Training Base, Appledore. Not exactly Best-Seller list stuff.
Next, I opened an envelope that contained about 60 pages of “Training Memoranda” from the United States Assault Training Center ETOUSA.” The pages, written in militarily precise language listed the details of which unit would do what, where, and when from 29 November 1943 to March, 1944. I also found 15 maps illustrating “field exercises for day or night invasions against a heavily fortified enemy-defended beach.” Of course! They rehearsed the D-Day invasion. These were the plans. They were stamped, “TOP SECRET.”
There’s something exciting, but forbidden, about holding a pamphlet marked TOP SECRET in upper-case letters. I reflexively looked out our large modern windows into the backyard. I saw no one in the trees spying on me as I stood silhouetted by the sinking sun. I lowered the venetian blinds anyway.
After dinner I looked at the box some more. The estate had contracted me for three hours work on this appraisal. I was beyond that already, but I felt compelled to go off the clock and continue. I found a thick packet named, “TOP SECRET/ “FABIUS-1” /COPY NO. 24 OF 25 COPIES/HQ Prov. Engr. SP Brig Gp. Field Order #2.” Ten maps and charts were laid in. It was dated 17 April, 1944.
Exercise FABIUS-1 was the first of six phases for Operation Neptune. In this exercise the 1st and 29th Infantry divisions would practice amphibious landing at Slapton Sands in England. Seven weeks before D-Day! Later, the 1st and 29th would be among the first to land at Omaha Beach. They took horribly heavy losses. I now held the plans where they practiced for their coming deaths.
I was in over my head. How could I value these documents when I knew so little about the bigger story they told?
Thank goodness for the Internet in general and Wikipedia in particular as starting points. Follow the stochastic highway of blue links and you’ll learn far more than you ever hoped or intended to know. I used the library too, of course. There is a large, growing literature devoted to World War II and, specifically, D-Day. I found most useful Steven Ambrose’s “D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II” (1994 – timed to mark the 50th anniversary of the invasion).
The Ambrose book is large (655 pages), lively, and opinionated. Its preliminary chapters describe the incredibly complex details involved in choosing a landing place, determining the force needed, training millions of men, marshaling and briefing them, loading the chosen ships and planes and getting them across the English Channel to the beaches of France.
I fell into a routine of bedtime reading “D-Day,” coming across a section like the one about “Operation Neptune,” and then getting out of bed and going downstairs to visit the box. It sat on the dining table in the dark, seemingly glowing, waiting for me. I’d turn on the light and delve further into the unwritten story. Depressingly bloody. Upliftingly brave. Magnificent in its scale, daring and ingenuity. For two years D-Day had been planned and practiced. My encounters with these pieces of the campaign were a fascinating way to learn history.
The maps particularly drew my eye. Every sand dune, every clump of bushes, every depression that could hide a man being shot at from the cliffs above were marked. As were the machine gun nests and fortifications of the enemy German soldiers. And that “BIGOT” stamped on many of the maps: how mysterious a word until I learned it was an acronym for “British Invasion of German Occupied Territory.”
Reading the published book and the unpublished documents side-by-side was a thrilling experience – especially the reading done late at night when I was the only one awake in our house. Those documents in an old cardboard box honored my home with their presence. I could have done that “job” for a long time.
That was not to be, however. There were deadlines more important than my pleasures. The family that owned the box had returned from where they lived out of town. The house that held them was being sold. Soon the box would join a university’s growing collection of World War II materials. I committed myself on paper to stating what the collection was worth in financial terms. I wrote an inventory list of the materials and a brief background essay on the collection’s importance. Then it was time to deliver the goods.
I drove back to the quiet suburban house, shook hands all around, received my check for three hours work and drove home. I was certainly reluctant to give up that box of goods, but I consoled myself by thinking: That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Being a caretaker, making sure precious things get passed through time to other caring hands?
Hugh Gilmore’s book “Scenes From A Bookshop” tells more stories from behind the scenes in the world of old and rare book selling. Available in paperback and e-book formats, most easily through Amazon.com.