Looking forward to our upcoming time in France, one might imagine that an archaeologist would be most excited to see the painted caves, the national archaeology museum, and to participate in the open-air excavation of the Upper Paleolithic Peyre Blanque site. You would be correct, but our visit to the beaches of Normandy have a special significance for me. Just over 70 years ago my father—H. A. Wheeler (1919-2010)—participated in Operation Neptune, the code name for the naval aspect of the D-Day invasion. Howie—as he was known to his friends—was a Boatswain’s Mate on the USS Nevada (BB-36).
The Nevada had a long and distinguished career. Constructed in 1916, she was one of the first modern “dreadnought” battleships of the American fleet. Moored in a row with her sister ships at Pearl Harbor, she was the only large vessel to get underway during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. Ultimately, her commanding officer scuttled her on Ford Island as the heavily damaged vessel was likely to sink and block the narrow channel. The Boatswain’s crew was generally responsible for maintenance, and as such my father worked on the repair and refloat of the Nevada. Once back in service she provided fire cover during the offensive on Attu and again during the landing of troops on Utah Beach in Normandy.
Accounts of the invasion indicate that the Nevada trained her guns on German shore defenses on the Cherbourg Peninsula, sending some projectiles 17 miles inland to diffuse counterattacks and some as close as 600 yards from the Allied front lines. After the D-Day invasion, the Nevada headed to southern France for the amphibious assault on Toulon. After service in Europe, the Nevada aided in the assault on Iwo Jima before heading to Okinawa to prepare for the invasion of Japan. After the war my father helped prepare the vessel for atomic test blasts in the Marshall Islands before seeing her decommissioned in 1946.
My father never shared much of his wartime service, though from his station on the USS Nevada likely witnessed many of the major naval events of the war. He was awarded a Purple Heart and in the 1990s I submitted the paperwork for the survivor’s medal established by Congress. Reading and looking at pictures is one avenue to understanding where my dad was and what he might have been doing and seeing. Visiting the places that figured in the cruise of the Nevada and the geography of World War II, however, provides another view into a now distant time. Places like Pearl Harbor and the Normandy beaches are charged with an energy that can’t be gleaned from a book or the internet.
In 2013, during the annual meetings of the Society for American Archaeology, I was lucky enough to visit Pearl Harbor. Riding the launch out to the USS Arizona Memorial I kept glancing over at the small white platform that marked the position of the Nevada during the attack. It’s hard to describe the waves of emotion that washed over me walking through the memorial museum or actually riding the waters where the Nevada had floated. I’m looking forward to visiting the beaches of Normandy and expect I may experience some of those feelings again. And I know, too, this is why we preserve historic places—to experience a connection with people and places of the past.