For a better browsing experience, please upgrade your browser.

FiveThirtyEight

Life

In 2000, Carol Tuckwiller was handed the monumental task of identifying every Allied soldier who died on June 6, 1944, during the World War II invasion of German-held Normandy. The former librarian spent six years tracking down nearly 4,400 names.

She combed through military records, contacted government agencies worldwide and separated myth from fact — piling up boxes of evidence on shelves of a former liquor store in Bedford, Virginia. She finally gave up the chase not because every last dead soldier was accounted for, but because her leads ran dry.

Seventy years after D-Day, no one really knows how many of the more than 150,000 Normandy invaders died that day. And no one will ever know for sure. Too many of the invaders went missing, and too many other priorities on the chaotic French beaches that day crowded out the task of recording casualties.

We know more now than ever before, though, in large part because of Tuckwiller. She “conducted heroic research,” said William A. McIntosh, who as director of education for the National D-Day Memorial Foundation oversaw her work.1

The result of Tuckwiller’s effort is visible to visitors at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, where plaques bear the name of the soldiers who died on D-Day. Her work is also beginning to correct the historical record, as museums and historians acknowledge that at least 4,413 Allied soldiers died, far more than many previously believed.2

Revisions to death totals during wars aren’t unusual. The U.S. Civil War, World War I and the Korean War all have had their death-toll estimates revised — even decades later.

It’s harder still to get a count for a single day in a single battle or campaign. Soldiers who are gravely wounded one day but die of their wounds early the next morning don’t normally count toward the day’s total. Nor do soldiers whose bodies are never found. Tombstones at U.S. battlefield cemeteries mark a date of death when one is available, but not every Allied soldier who died on any given day during World War II did so while participating in that day’s big battle. And many surviving American families during World War II requested bodies of dead soldiers be repatriated to the U.S., where they are scattered in cemeteries around the country.

Add to those challenges all the unique circumstances of the landings on Normandy’s beaches on June 6, 1944, and you have a recipe for plenty of uncertainty.

“I started from zero,” Tuckwiller, 67, said. She added names and knowledge along the way. For instance, she realized she’d have to study deaths recorded on June 7, 1945, because soldiers missing in action were declared dead after a year and a day.

As she worked, she learned why the records were so murky. Some clerks who would have kept the data died in the invasion. Some veterans told her that, in the chaos of the day, they started in one unit and ended up fighting with another.

“The scale of D-Day, combined with the destructive power of the weapons in the field, add to the usual fog of war to make accounting difficult,” Michael Ray, a research editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica, wrote in an email. “A body struck by an artillery shell could be, essentially, erased, and that’s just one of the possible fates that faced those who went ashore or jumped into Normandy. Seventy years after the landings, the unidentified remains of soldiers killed in the fighting are still being turned up by farmers and amateur archaeologists.”3

“What do you do about any potential casualties on June 5?” such as aircraft taking off from England that crashed, Timothy Nosal, spokesman for the American Battle Monuments Commission, asked. “What about casualties early on June 7? Like any other statistic, you have to consider what you’re going to factor in. It’s a difficult equation to jumble.”

Recording casualties was “secondary to actual operations,” Nosal said. On quieter days during the war, each unit would file a morning report. Last November, Nosal researched morning reports around D-Day and found that few of the units involved filed one on June 6 or June 7. “In most cases, they were not filed until the 8th, and most of those were handwritten and typed later in June,” he said.4

The high number of history buffs, veterans and their families who are touring Normandy or visiting World War II sites around this week’s anniversary will find that museums and tour operators often struggle with how to present the uncertain information.

“We have found that tallying deaths/casualties on D-Day is a complicated topic, and there is still disagreement amongst scholars,” Kacey M. Hill, a spokeswoman for the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, said in an email. Others try not to cite numbers.

“I personally try to spend as little time as possible talking stats as it gets so complicated,” Normandy tour guide Paul Woodadge said in an email. “I focus on personal stories.”

The U.S. military’s historical arm isn’t seeking to update its count. “Any attempt would probably be equally inaccurate and would be based on the same statistics used in earlier counts,” R. Scott Moore, chief of field programs and historical resources at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, said in an email.5

Moore believes that many of the same limitations faced on D-Day would apply to combat today. “The differences today, given computer-based systems and central accounting processes, is exponentially better; no comparison,” he said. “But I expect that if you conducted an operation today on the scale of D-Day with the kind of casualties that would ensue, we would still have difficulty accounting for every casualty. When an individual disappears at the waterline, or alone in the forest at night after parachuting from an airplane, and no one sees it, how do you account for that soldier?”

Tuckwiller tried to do just that.

As the National D-Day Memorial Foundation officials were readying their memorial for its 2001 unveiling, Tuckwiller was looking for a new gig. She had worked 31 years in the Virginia room of the Roanoke Public Libraries before retiring in January 2000. She wrote to the foundation on a lark: “I said, you’re so new, you may not know what positions you need, but if there is anything I can do to help you, here’s my résumé,” she recalled in a telephone interview this week.

A few months later, she was hired to run a new program for the foundation: the Necrology Project. Its goal was to collect the names of every Normandy invader who died on June 6, 1944 — basically, to do what historians and military officials hadn’t been able to do before.

“I thought it was exciting because I was too dumb to know it was going to be so difficult,” Tuckwiller recalled. “But I like a challenge. I always love searching for information.”

Tuckwiller started looking for sources, using her library skills and what she’d learned from her father, David E. Tuckwiller, an Army Air Corps veteran. He’d hardly talked about the war until the 1980s, when she signed him up for a group of veterans of his old unit, which prompted him to show her the spiral notebook he kept of every mission. “It was the first time he had ever really opened up,” she said. He died last July.

As she began her search for D-Day’s dead, Tuckwiller said she realized she had underestimated the task. “It became quite clear why it hadn’t been done. It was just crazy.”

She sent letters to the embassies of U.S. allies. She contacted the American Battle Monuments Commission, military historical societies and the Joint Mortuary Affairs Center in Fort Lee, Virginia. She made nine trips to the Military Personnel Records at the National Archive in St. Louis, and many more to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland.

Tuckwiller fought through discouraging moments. Some told her what she wanted to do just couldn’t be done. But she also found that almost everyone wanted to help.

She derived the greatest pleasure from speaking to veterans and their families, though those conversations didn’t always yield the sort of hard evidence she needed. One woman she spoke to was sure her relative had died on D-Day. She and Tuckwiller spoke for several months, until it became clear he’d been wounded on June 6th and taken back to England, where he died the next day.

Tuckwiller started recording all her data — including maybes, soldiers for whom she needed more information — in a spreadsheet, then a database. She also kept paper records for every soldier, which along with the World War II reference library she maintained started to overflow from the foundation’s headquarters. The foundation rented a vacated liquor store a block from the office, with sturdy shelves strong enough for booze bottles, or photocopied army records.

Her progress was slow but steady. By the time President George W. Bush spoke at the unveiling of the memorial on the 57th anniversary of D-Day in 2001, Tuckwiller’s efforts yielded enough names to fill about 20 plaques, each with about 20 names.

The foundation faced financial troubles during Tuckwiller’s tenure, but she said she never felt financial pressure, nor was she rushed to finish the work. She tried to keep trip costs down, staying in budget hotels and getting food from relatives. She said she made about $35,000 a year. Asked if it was a labor of love, she said, “Oh, absolutely, exclamation point.”

Tuckwiller loved the chase, but she didn’t lose sight of its meaning to survivors. When she saw family members rub papers against the plaques bearing their loved ones’ names, to keep the rubbings, “that was very touching to me,” she said.

Six years into her search, “It had gotten to the point where I just didn’t know where else to look,” she said. She no longer enjoyed the commute to work as much as she once did. “So I thought, well, I’ll just leave it at this point, with the understanding it will never be closed.”

When she left, the total count for Allied deaths on D-Day was 4,390.

While the result of Tuckwiller’s work was a count of Allied dead higher than many historians had tallied before, it was also lower than what many people expect to hear, according to tour operators. The carnage of the invasion scenes in the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” the scope of the mission and a confusion of casualty counts with death counts all played a role in those expectations.

D-Day planners, too, were surprised by the low death count — they’d feared as many as half the invaders, or 75,000 soldiers, would be killed or wounded on the day of the invasion.

“That’s a testament to Allied planning,” Nosal, the American Battle Monuments Commission spokesman, said.

Tuckwiller continued to contribute after leaving the foundation, including checking on names a staffer found in military cemeteries with D-Day as their death date. Tuckwiller found that all but two of the deaths were unrelated to the Normandy invasion. With this and other continued research, the count has slowly climbed to 4,413.

Today she is retired. She volunteers once a week at the Veteran Affairs medical center in Salem, Virginia, where she recently helped a Korean War veteran who’d discarded his discharge papers recover some of his records.

On Tuckwiller’s last visit to the National Archive in St. Louis before she left the foundation, an archivist there showed her a room filled with boxes, each box filled with files that hadn’t yet been cataloged. “I was drooling to get a hold of that information,” she said. “Maybe if somebody comes back in 15 years, it will be cataloged.” She’ll be 82 in 15 years, but it was clear that she hoped that “somebody” would be her.

Footnotes

  1. McIntosh later became president of the foundation, then retired from work there. ^
  2. The number rose slightly after Tuckwiller left the foundation, as other names were confirmed. Previously, many cited a death toll of 2,500 Allied soldiers, including a Houston Chronicle article in 2000, and, marking the 60th anniversary a decade ago, CNN and the U.K.’s The Independent.

    The D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, U.K., acknowledges Tuckwiller’s “painstaking research” on its website. The Boston Globe and Daily Telegraph cited it in recent 70th-anniversary coverage. ^

  3. Ray added, “Obtaining an accurate count of German losses is especially difficult, as many of the records were destroyed in Allied bombing raids.” ^
  4. Edward Robinson, a Normandy tour guide, said these reports can’t be taken at face value, either. “People read after-action reports and think it’s gospel truth,” he said. “They don’t realize it’s by an officer who hasn’t slept in 36 hours. You’re never going to know. It’s all bollocks.” For that reason, he doesn’t swear by a specific number on his tours: “I normally say about 3,000, but I’m never very specific. Some history books will say as few as 400; others, as many as 5,800.”

    Many history books include disclaimers. “The exact number of casualties suffered in the invasion of Normandy will never be known,” Encyclopaedia Britannica says. The historian Stephen A. Ambrose wrote in his book “D-Day,” in a footnote, “No exact figures are possible, either for the number of men landed or for casualties, for D-Day alone.” In their book by the same name, Randy Holderfield and Michael Varhola wrote, “Even in modern war, the nature of battle prevents a reasonably accurate count for a given period of time.” In “The Longest Day,” Cornelius Ryan wrote, “by the very nature of the assault it was impossible for anyone to arrive at an exact figure.” ^

  5. Moore added, “In truth, given the realities of the battlefield (and those of us who have been in battle can attest to its chaos), the nature of casualties and their evacuation, and the relatively primitive accounting systems of World War II, estimates are the best that can be offered. Suffice it to say that thousands were killed and wounded in a pivotal battle of World War II.” ^

Filed under , , , , , , , ,

Comments Add Comment

Powered by WordPress.com VIP