Omaha Beach – East (Colleville-sur-Mer), prepared by the Commander Task Force 122, April 21, 1944. “Map from GSGS 4490 Sheets 79 and 80 and air photo examination. Grid square equals 1 kilometer (1000 meters).” Original scale 1:7,920. “TOP SECRET – BIGOT Until Departure for Combat Operations — Then This Sheet Becomes RESTRICTED”. (Photo from Wikipedia)

by Hugh Gilmore

Taking me out onto the enclosed porch, my host pointed to to a cardboard banana box sitting on a sorting table and asked, “Could you appraise what’s in here?”

“It depends on what’s in there,” I said, “and what kind of appraisal you need.”

“Oh, wait,” he said,  “these also,” and he put his hands over two shoe boxes of correspondence still in envelopes.

He told me that the professor whose library I’d just examined had joined the Navy during World War II, and that he and his wife had corresponded nearly every day from 1942 till the war’s end in 1945. Together they talked about everything happening in a world gone crazy at the time. The biggest issue, militarily, was how would the Allied troops, who had massed by the millions in England, cross the English Channel and begin the invasion of northern Europe? And where?

As for the larger box, he opened the lid and pulled out a few documents. I looked at them briefly, just at the cover pages, but saw various dates through the winter and spring of 1944. Most of them were marked RESTRICTED and some of them stamped SECRET or TOP SECRET. They were plans for training exercises as the Allies prepared for the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion of the Normandy coast.

“May I look?” I asked. “Yes, of course,” he said. I pulled out a few highly detailed maps and unfolded them. They were marked BIGOT – TOP SECRET. (BIGOT, I later learned, was a military acronym for British Invasion of German Occupied Territory.)

It felt quite profane to be looking at these important classified maps and Orders of the Week. They held the detailed, then-secret, plans for what would be the largest amphibious battle against an entrenched enemy in the history of the world. I felt both unworthy and privileged to handle them. The maps showed several views of “Omaha” and “Utah” beaches, the intended landing places for the Allied invasion.

Those two beaches were strategically vital then and are viewed now as hallowed grounds. Thousands of men from every Allied unit died in this operation in order to give the liberators a foothold in northern Europe. The invasion opened the path, quite a bloody one, that allowed the Allied soldiers to drive on into Germany and finally end the war. It was quite thrilling for me to actually stand there in the professor’s house holding one of the TOP SECRET maps in my hand.

In fact, at that moment, my blood filled with a compelling need to spend time alone with them and hold them, touch them, open them, read them, learn from them … in fact I felt the stirrings of what we who love old printed papers call “book lust.” I simply had to know more. I began with, “Tell me more about this collection.”

The answer: The professor had served as an ensign in the Navy, and had participated in practice exercises that rehearsed the D-Day invasion off the coasts of England and Scotland for more than a year. When D-Day came, he served on a Navy vessel during the actual invasion. After the war he stayed friends with his commanding officer, who’d taken home these documents as souvenirs.

Years later, the commanding officer gave them for safekeeping to the professor, who kept them in his attic. There they’d remained till now. Their small chain of custody ran from the CO, then the professor and his wife … and now, at least for an instant, me.

“What are you going to do with them?” I asked.

“That’s where you come in,” he said. “You’ve been recommended to appraise this collection before we gift it.”

Sometimes people say “appraisal” when they simply want to know what their library is worth – perhaps prior to selling. Occasionally it’s for an inheritance tax, or an equitable division of assets among heirs. In this case, the maps and documents would be given to the Special Collections division of the university where the professor taught – for their military history archive. Such a gift needs to be valued by an appraiser before the donation happens.

I explained that I charge an hourly fee for appraisals. The rate varies depending on how detailed a report is needed. A walk-through, giving numbers off the top of my head, would be one kind. A detailed, researched, report worthy of IRS scrutiny would be another.

  1. He understood, he told me, but “How many hours do you think it will take you?” He just wanted enough research to set a value for the collection on the whole, without going into much detail. Then I should write just a few sentences summarizing the gift’s contents and stating its value. In this case he figured three hours would be sufficient. I knew the research needed at least five hours, the formal IRS letter at least one more. He wouldn’t budge. In my heart I knew I’d actually invest at least 20 hours on this project. That’s because I knew my curiosity was already too big to contain. I gave in.

I gave in because I knew I’d being going on a pony ride that promised to be one of the best of my life – especially if I could take the pony home with me. I asked if I could take the box of D-Day materials home with me to work on. It would save me from having to sit there at an hourly fee copying the details and condition of each of dozens of documents and maps. That made sense to him.

I drove home carefully, fully conscious of the cargo in the back – as though young baby Churchill and young baby Roosevelt were swaddled in that banana box. Just think: I would soon be alone to read original documents that affected the lives of the millions of men who fought to free the western world of Nazi tyranny. I couldn’t wait.