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The Utah Beach Museum

The Utah Beach Museum (Photo: Utah Beach Museum, Facebook)
The Utah Beach Museum (Photo: Utah Beach Museum, Facebook)

On June 6, 1944, Allied forces stormed the Atlantic Wall on five beaches in Normandy: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. From the two American landing beaches, soldiers of the VII Corps, led by General "Lightning" Joe Collins (Read our earlier article - General "Lightning" Joe Collins) on Utah Beach and supported by the paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions from behind enemy lines, were the luckier ones and faced lighter German resistance than their brothers in arms on Omaha Beach. Still, the lower number of casualties on the westernmost D-Day beach did not mean that taking the beach had not required exceptional bravery from the GIs and outstanding leadership skills from the officers.
 
Just remember the example of the 57-year old Assistant Division Commander of the 4th “Ivy” Infantry Division, Brigadier General Theodor Roosevelt Jr. who landed on the wrong spot on the beach in the first wave and eventually made the decision to “start the war from here” (Read our earlier article - Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, Jr.) as immortalized in the 1962 war movie, The Longest Day. He faced the German resistance nest WN5 here (standing for Widerstandsnest in German) commanded by the 23-year old Lieutenant Arthur Jahnke from the 709th Infantry Division. This is the very spot on which the Utah Beach Landing Museum (Musée du Débarquement Utah Beach in French) was created in 1962 constituting an excellent and iconic museum paying tribute to the deeds of American soldiers. Located in the vicinity of the small town of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, the museum is not only an extensive collection of items from the era but it also honors veterans visiting its premises. At the same time, the museum is also a place for the annual D-Day commemorations held together by the former combatants.

Lieutenant Arthur Jahnke, commander of German resistance nest WN5 (Photo: www.lapetitemusette.com)
Lieutenant Arthur Jahnke, commander of German resistance nest WN5 (Photo: www.lapetitemusette.com)

The story of the founding of the museum in 1962 is not less interesting either. The founder was Michel de Vallavieille, the then-mayor of Saint-Marie-du-Mont. The idea behind the museum was to express the town’s gratitude for its liberation. The first building of the museum was one of the command bunkers of the former German strongpoint. Mr. Vallavieille was very much involved in the D-Day events which is related to the 101st Airborne Division and thus to the Band of Brothers miniseries. He was the son of the owner of the famous farm called Brécourt Manor where soldiers of the 101st, led by Lieutenant Dick Winters, destroyed a German battery. There, he was probably mistaken for a German soldier and was shot by a trigger-happy paratrooper. He underwent surgery at Utah Beach and became the first French civilian to be evacuated to England. However, after the war he was elected mayor of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, became friends with many 101st paratroopers and founded the Utah Beach Museum. He devoted much of his life to preserving the memory of the liberation. His son, Charles de Vallavieille is currently the mayor of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.

Michel de Vallavieille, the founder of the museum in 1962 (Photo: Utah Beach Museum, Facebook)
Michel de Vallavieille, the founder of the museum in 1962 (Photo: Utah Beach Museum, Facebook)

The museum was gradually improved and expanded over the decades. The main steps were mostly connected to anniversaries of the D-Day landings. New buildings were erected, the collection was extended with new items, and a cinema was added. In the latter, you can now watch an award-winning documentary, “Victory in the Sand” about the preparations of the landings and the amphibious attack itself.

The opening of the museum in 1962 in front of the old German bunker (Photo: www.utah-beach.com)
The opening of the museum in 1962 in front of the old German bunker (Photo: www.utah-beach.com)

The later expansions of the museum had some more unexpected surprises. On D-Day, the final bombing run against WN5 just a couple of minutes before the landings was led by Major David H. Dewhurst Jr., squadron commander of the 553rd Bomb Squadron of the 386th Bomb Group. During the liberation of Europe, he completed 85 combat missions. He died in a car accident in 1948. His two sons, David and Eugene, visited the museum on June 6, 2007 when they unexpectedly recognized their father and his crew with their B-26 on an old photo. This was when they learned that their father was a decorated pilot and commander in WWII. This unbelievable discovery led them to fund more than the third of the costs of a major development of the museum which almost tripled the size of the museum. The brothers inaugurated the new building on June 6, 2011.

Major David H. Dewhurst Jr. (Photo: www.lonestarflight.org)
Major David H. Dewhurst Jr. (Photo: www.lonestarflight.org)
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As part of the expansion supported by the Dewhurst brothers, a B-26 Marauder medium bomber was brought to the museum, which is still on a long-term loan from the Air and Space Museum of Le Bourget. A glass-roofed hangar was built around the plane. In general, the B-26 was nicknamed the “Widowmaker” or “Flying Coffin”, due to the high accident rate at landings and takeoffs. Still, through the re-training of the pilots and with aerodynamics modifications on later models, it became one of the most successful bombers flown by the US Army Air Force. 5,288 were produced between 1941-1945. There are only six of this aircraft left in the world, five of them can be found in the USA. This very B-26 was repainted to follow the colors of Major Dewhurst’s plane, the “Dinah Might”.

The B-26 Marauder in the hangar-like exhibition area (Photo: Author’s own)
The B-26 Marauder in the hangar-like exhibition area (Photo: Author’s own)

Let us briefly introduce to you some of the other interesting items on display at the museum. One of the other larger vehicles is an LVT-2 (Landing Vehicle, Tracked) Water Buffalo. This model saw service in the American, British and Canadian armies in WWII. 2,960 were built during the war. They were used for landings, crossing rivers, providing fire support or to transport cargo from ships to the shores in the Pacific and in Europe. This one, “Ethel”, provided logistical support following the landing on Utah Beach, and shuttled troops from the supply ships to the beach.

The LVT-2 Water Buffalo on display at the museum (Photo: Author’s own)
The LVT-2 Water Buffalo on display at the museum (Photo: Author’s own)

Close to the entrance, you can find a unique device, a Goliath remote-controlled German demolition device (Read our earlier article - The Goliath).  It was designed to destroy tanks, disrupt dense infantry formations, clear mine fields and demolish buildings without risking the lives of the soldiers. On Utah Beach, the flat sandy beach made it an ideal place to use them. They were supposed to be controlled from a central control bunker. Luckily for the Americans, the heavy naval and aerial bombardment had severed the control cables and made it impossible to launch most of them from their concealed positions.

A Goliath remote-controlled explosive device (Photo: Author’s own)
A Goliath remote-controlled explosive device (Photo: Author’s own)

In another room, you can explore one of the most iconic vehicles of the Normandy landings, namely a “Higgins Boat” (LCVP - Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel). It is said to be the only known original LCVP to have been used on D-Day. This boat was one of the landing craft carried by the USS Bayfield attack transport and had put ashore soldiers and equipment on Utah and Omaha Beaches.

A “Higgins Boat” on display at the museum (Photo: Author’s own)
A “Higgins Boat” on display at the museum (Photo: Author’s own)

In the largest room of the museum, you will find a diorama showing the main elements of a German defensive position. You will find a trench, Czech hedgehog beach obstacles, a Tobruk concrete bunker with a tank turret mounted on it, and a German anti-tank gun. In addition to the German equipment, one can find a DUKW, “Duck” amphibious truck (Read our earlier article - The American “duck”) which played an important role in getting the supplies and the troops to the beaches. Over 21.000 pieces were built during WWII. From this room, you can also enjoy an excellent panorama overlooking the beach.

The diorama overlooking Utah Beach (Photo: Author’s own)
The diorama overlooking Utah Beach (Photo: Author’s own)

Although smaller in size, a historic part of the collection is one of the original canes of Teddy Roosevelt. In 2019, it was donated to the museum by Elisabeth Ann Rieman, grandniece of Colonel James S. Rodwell, Chief of Staff of the 4th Infantry Division during D-Day and a good friend of Teddy.

The cane of Teddy Roosevelt at his grave in the Normandy American Cemetery before being taken to the museum (Photo: Utah Beach Museum, Facebook)
The cane of Teddy Roosevelt at his grave in the Normandy American Cemetery before being taken to the museum (Photo: Utah Beach Museum, Facebook)

In today’s newsletter, we have introduced you the history and the exhibitions of the museum. In one of our upcoming articles we will look at its surroundings, the monuments and other items around this special place. Note that all of our tours going through Normandy will stop at Utah Beach and the museum. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore this extraordinary site with us in person and remember those who fought for freedom here.

An American D-Day veteran surrounded by French soldiers in front of the B-26 bomber (Photo: Author’s own)
An American D-Day veteran surrounded by French soldiers in front of the B-26 bomber (Photo: Author’s own)
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