“At 0645 on the morning of 6 June, off Omaha Beach, a young lieutenant of the 16th Regiment, 1st Division, John M. Spalding of Owensboro, Kentucky, was swimming for his life….By dint of luck and leadership, the lieutenant reached the top of the hill between 0900 and 1000…
“This tiny segment of the D-day story is one of many that newsmen and combat historians, like myself, got from others. Although we shared some of the discomforts and a few of the dangers (indeed, some were wounded or killed), our D-day stories are composites of the experiences of others. Field Marshal Wavell named an anthology of his favorite poems Other Men’s Flowers. We who collected interviews might call them Other Men’s Memories.”
Forrest C. Pogue, D-Day 1944, Theodore A. Wilson, editor (University of Kansas Press, 1994).
Forrest Pogue served as a combat historian in World War II. The posthumous publication of his story in 2001, Pogue’s War: Diaries of a Combat Historian, is a valuable addition to that war’s historiography.
Two diary entries, presented in their entirety below, relate to the Spalding D-Day narrative. Pogue records (on page 338):
Friday, 9 February (D+248)
Very bad day. Topete and I went to Aywaille to see 1st Division people. The 16th Regiment had moved up near Aachen to go into the line. Then [we] went to 1st Division (rear)…I talked to Lieutenant John Spaulding of E Company whose platoon, from the 16th Regiment, was the first to get on the hill over Omaha Beach on D day. Spaulding is from Owensboro. Good interview. Back at 5:30.
Saturday, 10 February (D+249)
Wrote up interview.
Very good day.
The Spalding interview itself is printed in full in Pogue’s War. In a foreword, Stephen Ambrose calls the Spalding piece “the single best interview I’ve ever read.” Pogue himself noted (page 64):
The best account I got of the advance from the water’s edge was that of Second Lieutenant John Spaulding, a lawyer from Owensboro, Kentucky, who led one of the first groups to the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.
The praise would be improved by a correct spelling of Spalding’s name (an error which Ambrose also perpetuated in his bestselling account of D-Day). Calling Spalding a lawyer is a new blooper, perhaps due to a mistake in transcribing Pogue’s handwriting. Actually, Spalding had been a sportswriter for his hometown paper. Spalding’s own experience as a writer no doubt sharpened his powers of observation and contributed to the quality of the narrative.
These gaffes, however, do not detract from the book’s value as a high-spirited memoir of a young, thoughtful, Army historian and his colleagues in the rear areas of war (as the double meaning of “Pogue’s War” suggests).
Forrest Pogue (left) and Lt. William Fox use a map to discuss historical coverage in Normandy.
Before D-Day, in England at the end of April 1944, Pogue and Lieutenant William J. Fox were assigned to V Corps. The two began their first real interviews, with troops they stumbled across behind the frontline, on 12 June. Pogue mainly concentrated on the 29th Division, Fox on the 1st. Without a bibliography, it’s unclear which man, if either, was the author of 16-E on D-Day or Movements of Spalding Group
As Pogue’s memoir makes clear, there was no systematic plan for interviews in the ETO. Interviews were haphazard and opportunistic especially when compared to those organized and conducted by S.L.A. Marshall during his time in Pacific (or his later group interviews with the Airborne in England). “Interviews after combat,” Marshall wrote in Island Victory, “are mainly detailed recordings of the complete unit experience during a sustained battle action.” This didn’t happen in the ETO. Compared to Marshall’s rigorous interrogations, Pogue’s methods sound like those of a cub reporter:
Starting first with the unit commander or someone in authority at battalion or company level, I would show my credentials and then ask for a broad outline of the unit’s experience on a particular day or during a specific period….Of a particular action, I was supposed to get such things as the weather during the fight, the nature of the terrain, the amount of artillery or tank support supplied, the major difficulties the unit encountered, how it overcame them, the condition of the men before and after the engagement, the performance of weapons, what should be changed if the battle were to be fought over, which men did well, and other questions which developed in the course of the discussion. If specific mention was made of the fine work of some individual I would ask to see him or, if he was not available, some other soldier who could describe the action. Often the individual being interviewed, desiring to check his story, would call on various members of his unit until he would have as many as twenty men gathered around. Before leaving a unit, I would ask for casualty figures preferably from the first sergeants.
On 4 July, while the First Army fought for Saint-Lô, Pogue was assigned to drafting notes for Omaha Beachhead (he would continue this task with Col. Charles Taylor through the fall). Also on 4 July, Pogue was assigned a jeep and a driver, Pfc. José Manuel Topete. “Pete” (as he was known) had been born in Mexico, and attended the University of California to study Spanish literature. He received his master’s degree, and was working on his doctorate, when the war began. Pogue and Topete worked together until the war’s end. Among their assignments were interviews with the 5th Armored Division (following the fight at Wallendorf), with infantry units mauled in the Hürtgen forest, and with units on the northern flank of the Bulge.
As part of the World War II Historical Branch story, Pogue’s War is invaluable. We can only be grateful to Franklin D. Anderson, the Pogue family, and the University of Kentucky for its publication, and hope that more of its kind will follow.