By Ray Smock
D-Day, the “longest day” of World War II, has been discussed, explained, and commemorated in books, films, magazines, newspapers, and it resided and still resides in the memories of the men who assaulted the beaches that day. Most of them are gone now, faded by the passage of time. My mentor in graduate school at the University of Maryland, the late Louis R. Harlan, was the one who told me about that day. He was there, a junior officer on a troop landing craft off Dog Red, the stretch of Omaha Beach that saw the fiercest fighting and the highest casualties that day on June 6, 1944.
Fortunately for those of us encouraging Harlan to write his story, events conspired to give him the kind of historical documentation he needed to do the job. In 1984, forty years after the invasion, Harlan won the Pulitzer Prize for biography for his study of Booker T. Washington. News of Pulitzer Prizes reaches a wide audience. Among them was a long-ago girlfriend who has saved all the letters Harlan wrote to her during the war. She sent him two shoe boxes full of his youthful letters of love and war. Another former girlfriend came forward with more letters. Harlan’s skipper Harold “Cotton “ Clark came forward with his secret diary, kept against Naval regulations, which offered another detailed perspective of the same events. At the National Archives Harlan found the official ship’s log of his craft LCI (L) 555, which covered the full history of the vessel from commissioning to decommissioning. Harlan interviewed Harold Clark and another shipmate Russell Tye. Now he had the confidence to tell the story from memory backed up with documentation.
History and memory are always entwined in complex ways. Louis Harlan had found a way to finally tell a story that had haunted him since the time of that great invasion.