Going underground

A&M preservation team receives funds to
continue Pointe du Hoc battlefield survey

An historical preservation team from Texas A&M University is returning to France’s Normandy coast this summer to continue surveying the World War II battlefield at Pointe du Hoc — a sheer promontory towering more than 100 feet above a narrow, pebble-strewn shore between Omaha and Utah beaches.

The project is of special interest to Texans, and Aggies in particular, because it was at Pointe du Hoc that, under intense enemy fire, Colonel James Earl Rudder, who would later become president of Texas A&M University, led the U.S. Army’s Second Ranger Battalion up the cliffs to knock out heavily fortified German gun emplacements. The feat is widely considered one of the most heroic of the June 6, 1944 D-Day Invasion.

This summer’s Pointe du Hoc investigation, the team’s third trip to the battlefield, will be underwritten by a $40,000 grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.

“It is our goal to complete a comprehensive site record to serve as reference for historians and for future preservation and educational initiatives,” explained construction science professor Richard Burt, a preservation team member and faculty fellow at Texas A&M’s Historic Resources Imaging Laboratory (HRIL).

The Pointe du Hoc project gained a sense of urgency when, during the team’s initial site reconnaissance, they discovered that many of the battlefield’s important areas and structures — many not yet identified — were quickly succumbing to erosion.

“Unless prompt action is taken to preserve the site’s key elements,” Burt said, “information regarding its importance to the success of the military actions on D-Day could be irretrievably lost.”

The A&M team of “battlefield detectives” includes architects, surveyors, archeologists, geophysicists and military historians. Last summer, with the help of 12 graduate students and the latest forensic methodology, they completed the first phase of the battlefield survey.

Their efforts uncovered a patchwork of underground tunnels that haven’t been investigated since the war. The researchers speculate that the tunnels may contain valuable information — and quite possibly gun parts, equipment, even munitions — that might reveal new details about the historic hours of June 6, 1944 when the invasion occurred.

“The Germans constructed what amounts to a small city at Pointe du Hoc, with large underground bunkers connected by tunnels,” said architecture professor Bob Warden, the HRIL faculty fellow who is leading the project. “No one knows what is inside these bunkers. We'd like to find out.”

To do so, the team must receive permission to dig at the site from the French government and from the American Battle Monuments Commission, an organization that has provided care and maintenance for Pointe du Hoc since 1979.

“We've used electromagnetic induction equipment and we know there is debris and other materials down there,” explained team member Mark Everett, professor of geology and geophysics. “We've picked up very strong signals from beneath the soil's surface. But we won't know for sure what's inside the bunkers until we actually go down there and look.”

One of the team’s largest obstacles is the lack of maps or original drawings of the bunkers and tunnels.

“We have some of the maps and drawings the Rangers made when they took control of Pointe du Hoc, but nothing very accurate,” Warden said. “It's very possible the Germans made no original drawings themselves — at least we can't find any. So the only way we can learn about the tunnels is to go down into them."

Everett said local French farmers and others have told of a possible underground railway system the Germans used to distribute supplies and ammunition around Pointe du Hoc.

“It's very possible that the markings in the grass we've seen could be the signs of an underground rail system,” Everett said. “If so, that could tell us a lot of valuable information. But to prove it, we need to go down there and see for ourselves.”

Burt says one of the most important tasks the team completed last summer was the the measuring of the command post that played an integral role in the battle.

“It's still got bullet and shrapnel holes all over it, and a big dent where the rangers used a bazooka on it. It's partially above ground and partially below it. We'd like to make a digital model of the building and project showing what it looked like on D-Day compared to what it looks like now.”

Burt said the team also hopes to solve one big mystery — the location of the huge 155 mm guns the Germans moved to prevent them from being disabled by the heavy bombardment leading up to the Allied invasion.

“We have three books that tell where the Germans moved the guns, but each book gives a slightly different location for the guns,” Burt said. “Also, the local mayor and the owner of the land where the guns were placed identified different locations for the guns. There were six of these huge guns in all and one was damaged, so the Germans moved five. But no one seems to know where, and we'd like to solve that part of the mystery.”

Warden says the team will make formal proposals to the French government and the American Battle Monuments Commission so that necessary digging at Pointe du Hoc can begin.

“We've documented four major bunkers and two gun emplacements, and we need to show where and why we need to dig there," he said.

The team hopes to have permission to begin the underground work this June.

“What we're doing is similar to metal detector work recently done at Little Big Horn,” Everett said. “I guess you could call it ‘battlefield forensic geophysics.’ There's a lot of information and artifacts under the surface, according to our data, but the only real way to learn more about it is to go dig and examine it. That's what we hope to do.”

Other A&M faculty members on the Pointe du Hoc team include Bruce Dickson, professor of anthropology and archaeology; and James Bradford, associate professor of history and the group's military historian.

— The End —

January 10, 2005

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