The Army Map Service, an NGA predecessor, provided maps for the Normandy invasion and throughout World War II.

From the archives: D-Day remembered

This article originally appeared for the 50th anniversary of D-Day in the May 1994 edition of Defense Mapping Agency News: Link East, a Pathfinder magazine predecessor.

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day

This year marks the 50th anniversary of what has historically been known as “the longest day.”

It was in the darkness of the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, the British 6th, U.S. 82nd and U.S. 101st airborne divisions dropped beyond the beaches to destroy enemy forces and to cover the deployment of the seaborne assault troops. Simultaneously the allied Naval forces swept the English Channel of mines and preceded the assault vessels to the landing areas. At 6:30 a.m., under the cover of naval gunfire and air bombardment, six U.S., British and Canadian divisions landed in the greatest amphibious assault recorded in history. After nearly two months confinement to the beachhead area, the Allies finally broke into the open and moved toward a victory that would occur 11 months later when the enemy capitulated. This was the invasion of Normandy.

The Army Map Service, a DMA predecessor, met the challenge of providing maps for the Normandy invasion, as well as all of World War II. During that time, the AMS operated 24 hours a day, six days a week and maintained a skeleton crew on the seventh. It successfully met every mapping request worldwide. During the four-year period, 1941–1945, the AMS prepared more than 40,000 different maps of all types. Many of these were maps of areas never mapped before, prepared and brought up to date by aerial photography obtained by Allied forces aircraft, flying bombing missions. Normandy invasion required about 3,000 different maps with a total of 70 million sheets. The total production of maps by the AMS during WWII was approximately 500 million sheets. If stacked one on top of another, they would reach about 31 miles high, 134 times the height of the Empire State Building.

In 1910, space was provided in a warehouse at the Army War College, now Fort McNair, in Washington. It became AMS. Its mission was to accommodate a map reproduction unit of the Corps of Engineers. Following Pearl Harbor and the advent of war, unprecedented demands for maps and charts existed. In 1942, the AMS moved to new facilities in Brookmont, Md., along the Potomac River just beyond the District of Colombia boundary. Specially designed buildings were constructed with “modern machinery.” About 3,000 people were hired and trained to work for the war effort.

Since the days of AMS, much has changed in map production, but using monuments as charted navigational aids remains the same. Honoring soldiers who made supreme sacrifices for their country, some large monuments are “navigationally significant.” These are indicated and recognized internationally by a position circle with the word monument next to it. The abbreviated form “Mon” sometimes appears.

The grandest of all charted monuments is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. It was constructed in 1947 as a tribute to the Allied forces who stormed the beaches of Normandy. Situated on a hill dominating the coastline, it overlooks the English Channel near Colleville-sur-Mer, better known as Omaha Beach.

The memorial consists of a semicircular colonnade with an area at each side, containing large maps and narratives of the military operations. At the center is a 22-foot bronze statue, “Spirit of American Youth.” Behind the memorial structure is the Garden of the Missing. Its semicircular wall contains the names of 1,557 soldiers missing in the region, whose remains have not been recovered or identified. Beyond a reflecting pool is the burial grounds with a circular chapel, and at the far end, granite statues representing the United States and France. The cemetery site covers 172 acres and contains the graves of 9,386 soldiers, most of whom died during the landing and ensuing operations.

This year, D-Day will be marked by a series of commemorative events, including one at Omaha Beach, where President Bill Clinton, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and other heads of state are expected to attend. Numerous demonstrations such as a U.S. Ranger assault ceremony and cliff climbing demonstration at Pointe du Hoc, and an airborne demonstration and ceremony by 400 members of the 101st Air Assault Division (formally Airborne Division) and the 82nd Airborne Division outside Ste-Mere-Eglise are planned. This is where paratrooper John Steele landed on the church spire in the village square and dangled there for hours pretending to be dead, while the battle was going on beneath him.

Another charted position circle of interest is France’s Brest Naval Monument. Brest was a major base of operations for American naval vessels during World War II. The present structure is a replica of the original and was completed in 1957. The monument is a rectangular rose-granite shaft, raising 145 feet above the lower terrace. Sculpture of nautical interest decorate all four sides of the monument.

While DMA portrays many monuments on their charts, the monuments are also an integral part of the agency’s Sailing Directions. A Navigation Division publication that describes, in part, the views of foreign coastlines, and entrances to ports, including landmarks such as monuments as part of the description. These charted monuments have become an everlasting position circle of interest not just commemorating the historical efforts of many, but also guiding a ship safely along the coastline.

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