Hunley researchers head to Normandy


Monday, May 28, 2001

Of The Post and Courier staff


     The men who excavated the submarine Hunley have moved on to the D-Day beaches of Normandy.
     For the next few weeks, three key members of the Hunley recovery team will be surveying the ocean floor off France as they map dozens of American ships, tanks and landing craft that were sent to the bottom in the monumental battle known as The Longest Day.
     The Navy's role in the attack has never fully been explored. Most history books and movies, such as "The Longest Day" and "Saving Private Ryan," start with the moment the men landed on the beaches or parachuted into French fields.
     "The Normandy invasion was one of America's finest moments," said Bob Neyland, the Hunley project manager and an archaeologist with the Naval Historical Center, which is part of the expedition. "Historically, it's just as important to see where the wrecks are."
     In France, Neyland will be re-united with Harry Pecorelli and Ralph Wilbanks - two of the three divers who found the Hunley off Charleston in 1995.
     Already there have been successes. Sonar images taken last year show fields of Sherman tanks, rigged with motors to float to the beaches, lying on the bottom. Some of the tanks are overturned with their turrets lying beside them.
     At Omaha Beach, 23 of the amphibious tanks were supposed to lead the way in for American troops. Only five made it.
     Searchers also expect to map a variety of lost landing craft and surface boats of all kinds that made up the 5,000-vessel fleet that attacked Hitler's Atlantic Wall on June 6, 1944. At least 90 vessels and larger pieces of equipment were lost on D-Day, including one destroyer. Other destroyers drew commendations for their charges toward the beach to take on German shore batteries when the tank fleet was sunk.
     A modern re-examination of the attack could give historians new insight into the course of the battle at places like Omaha, where the American attack was stalled for hours.
     Archaeologists hope to use computer technology to overlay German and Allied maps that marked shore guns, mines and other obstacles, where wrecks in the water are located. The map could show which mine fields were the most effective and which shore guns were the deadliest, Neyland said.
     The Naval Historical Center already has an ongoing relationship with France in terms of hunting for archaeological treasures. It started years ago after the Confederate raider Alabama was discovered off Cherbourg. The boat is considered an American and French treasure.
     Not much diving will be done off the D-Day beaches. A lot of the underwater work will be done by remote control equipment that can map and film objects in the depths below.
     Parts of the expedition will be filmed by South Carolina Educational Television, which is interviewing local D-Day participants. The Navy will also get a D-Day marker on June 5 at Normandy to signify its participation in the lead attack on Fortress Europe, Neyland said.



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