The subject of this issue's feature "Paper Work" details conservators' recent efforts to restore a set of US Army field orders for the Allied Invasion of Normandy on D-day in World War II.
“It was a sight that is hard to describe,” Stanhope Mason recalled. “As far as I could see, both to the east and to the west there were ships.” Years later, as the retired major general looked back on one of the most crucial turning points of World War II, he confessed, “I had expected not to live through the day.”
Then the chief of staff for the US Army First Infantry Division, Mason was among the Allied troops who stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The sheer scale of the operation required advance planning down to the most minute of details—and Mason had a 140-page set of field orders to do just that.
“We didn’t know what would happen to us as we crossed the Channel, whether we would be subject to submarine action or whether we would get shelled on the opposite shore to the point where some of us would get hurt,” Mason later wrote in a recollection of D-Day. “We knew for sure that there was going to be a hard fight and we had to be prepared for most contingencies.”
After Mason’s death in 1990, his son, Charles Mason, donated the field orders to the First Division Museum at Cantigny, a military history museum in suburban Chicago. Once top secret, the orders would now serve as a resource to researchers. But there was a problem: if granted access, researchers would have to leaf through the thin pages of the fragile, 72-year-old volume and gingerly unfold and refold its interleaved maps, risking damage to the rare document.
To preserve the volume, Cantigny turned to Graphic Conservation, whose conservators encapsulated each page in a clear, archival polyester film. Its maps were separated into their own collection, then preserved and flattened. The work has not only minimized the risk of additional damage; it has increased access for researchers for generations to come.
“It’s very powerful,” said Maki. “You want researchers to be able to view this safely and now that can be done. That, to me, is one of the most important pieces of military history that our nation has been through. To hold something like that in your hand, there is a lot of gravity there.”
—By LeeAnn Shelton