June 6 dawns, and D-Day once more returns to Normandy. The tide is low at Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, as it was then. The sand hardens underfoot, as it did then. I touch a rusted metal stump thrusting from the sand, a remnant of the rows of barriers that lined this shore on June 6, 1944. Clouds crowd the sky this morning. It will be a gray day, as it was then.
To this shore every June come clusters of silent men who walk with their kin and their memories. One of them is Joseph Vaghi, a warm, vigorous Navy veteran who was a beachmaster on D-Day—"a kind of traffic cop," he says—at a bloody stretch of Omaha Beach code-named Easy Red sector.
I met Vaghi on the wind-scoured bluffs overlooking those gray sands, now so empty and calm. Nearby was the American cemetery with its 9,387 graves, 23 of them carrying the names of men from Joe's outfit, the Sixth Naval Beach Battalion. Its men disabled mines, marked sea-lanes for landing craft, cared for the beachhead wounded under fire, and bore them through a reddening sea to evacuation craft. The day I met him, Vaghi was helping to dedicate a belated memorial to his fallen comrades. So humble was their outfit, he laughed, that the United States armed forces—even the Navy—forgot about them for nearly 60 years.
It was to meet men like Joe Vaghi, and to hear their stories, that I came to Normandy last summer. I was searching for the untold saga of D-Day, those fascinating bits of history and heroism that have gone largely unreported in the decades since that terrible morning on the beach. Many of these stories were lost because the sea closed over them, sealing lips forever. Others were obscured by the shroud of secrecy that was draped over many aspects of the invasion, including the Allies' Operation Neptune—the top secret naval and amphibious actions, under British command, that launched and supported the invasion.
As he and I talked, the U.S. Navy was again off the beaches of Normandy, this time to scan the seafloor. Using sonar, magnetometers, and the global positioning system, Navy archaeologists were filling in the gaps of history by locating the vessels lost while delivering the U.S., British, and Canadian troops who stormed the beaches and fought their way inland. Of the 5,300 ships, boats, and amphibious craft that took part in the invasion, at least 200 were lost on D-Day or during the perilous days that followed.
To piece together the full story, historians are now sifting through evidence ranging from recently declassified documents to underwater photos of the wrecks. What has emerged are secrets that men and women once guarded with their lives, adding detail and color to the story of D-Day. One of the darkest subplots of all, I found, came from the English side of the Channel.