Flown from the stern of U.S. Navy vessel LCC 60--the sole guide boat at Utah Beach--and retained by its skipper Lieutenant Howard Vander BeekThe 48 Star Flag that Led the First Americans to Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. As General Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his first presidential inaugural address on January 20, 1953, he reminded a nation, ennobled by its essential service in liberating Europe from a genocidal scourge, that "History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid."
Eight and a half years earlier, Eisenhower had shown his commitment to the principle, unleashing the largest assault force in the history of warfare upon the fortified coastline of Nazi-occupied France. Over one thousand aircraft and five thousand boats transported nearly 160,000 Allied troops across the English Channel to a lethal fifty-mile stretch of Normandy beaches that day, establishing a port on the European mainland that would ferry two million more into the western theater by the end of August. The day would prove to be the first of a Nazi retreat that would end with Adolf Hitler's suicide in a Berlin bunker less than a year in the future.
Quite properly, Operation Overlord, better known to history as D-Day, is considered the greatest and most essential victory ever claimed by American armed forces, and the single event that best represents the United States as the world's leading force for good.
The offered lot is the most significant relic of the D-Day invasion in private hands, the forty-eight-star American flag that led the first waves of the amphibious assault to the beaches of Normandy.
It was flown from the stern of Landing Craft Control 60 on June 6, 1944, as it undertook the heroic solo mission to lead the storming of Utah Beach, site of the very first Allied emergence from the sea. For over six decades, the battle-scarred banner was retained as the sole war souvenir of U.S. Navy Lieutenant Howard Vander Beek, the skipper of the tiny guide boat that, by fate or by the will of a higher power, found itself the lead vessel of history's greatest war fleet.
Vander Beek, who would survive the delivery of nineteen assault waves to Utah Beach that most perilous day to become an English professor after the war, wrote beautifully of the moments just before H-Hour-the designated 0630 start time for the charge to the beach--in his memoir of his war experiences entitled Aboard the LCC 60: Normandy and Southern France, 1944.
"At some point I looked astern and saw what lay at sea behind us: the greatest armada the world had ever known, the greatest it would ever know. I must have been overwhelmed by the sight as I clung to the rail for a moment to take in the magnitude of that assembled fleet, many great, gray ships majestically poised in their positions; larger numbers of unwieldy landing vessels heaved by the heavy sea; and countless numbers of smaller amphibious craft tossed mercilessly by the waves."
Perched upon that narrow stretch of water between the Allied fleet and the Nazi stronghold at the moment the Second World War reached its crescendo, Lieutenant Vander Beek must have thought back to his childhood in Oskaloosa, Iowa, where the seas were made of corn, not salt water and danger. He had been born there in 1917 and graduated from the University of Iowa one year ahead of 1939 Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick. But not long after the United States declared war, Vander Beek enlisted as a midshipman at Notre Dame University, reporting to Ft. Pierce, Florida, upon graduation to train at the new Amphibious Naval Scouts and Raiders School, the predecessor to the modern-day Navy SEALs.
After serving with distinction in the Allied invasion of Sicily on July 16, 1943, Vander Beek was tapped to join an elite crew that would operate the high-tech vessels leading the landing crafts to the beach in a massive seaborne operation two years in planning. The fifty-six foot boats were designated the term "Landing Craft Control," and resembled a cut-down PT of the kind that John F. Kennedy made famous. Each LCC carried a crew of fourteen, three twin-mounted 50mm Browning machine guns raised upon elevated platforms and, most importantly, new scientific technology called "radar" that would be essential in finding safe passage to the beach through a maze of floating mines and other obstacles both natural and man-made.
The Navy had commissioned six Landing Craft Control to lead the rush to the two American landing zones-three for Omaha and Utah each. But the technology was not immune to complications of human error and the capricious elements of weather and chance, as Vander Beek and his crew would learn when informed that the propeller of Utah-assigned LCC 80 had been disabled by a guide buoy. The other Utah LCC had failed to make the Channel crossing entirely. With the scripted plans thrown into chaos, the landing crafts began to wander precipitously from position. Just yards away, LCT 597 was blasted out of the water by a massive mine explosion, taking her four DD tanks down with her as the shock waves nearly threw Vander Beek from his captain's chair.
In that flash of sound and spray, the brave crew members of the LCC 60 were shaken into a single-minded determination to rescue the mission.
Stephen Ambrose, author of the best-selling Band of Brothers, picks up the story in the immediate aftermath of that explosion in his critically-acclaimed 1995 volume D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II:
"That left only Vander Beek's LCC 60 as a guide for LCTs [landing craft tank] and the first wave of LCVPs [landing craft vehicle/personnel] at Utah. It was an impossible task for one boat to do the work of three, made even worse by the offshore wind and strong tidal current.
"Lts. Howard Vander Beek and his navigator Sims Gauthier of the LCC 60 took charge. They conferred and decided to make up for the time lost by leading the LCTs to within three kilometers before launching the tanks (which were supposed to be launched at five kilometers) giving them a shorter and quicker run to the shore. Using his bullhorn, Vander Beek circled around the LCTs as he shouted out orders to follow him."
Shortly before the massive fleet had set course under cover of darkness for occupied France on the evening of June 5th, Vander Beek had been gazing seaward from the shores of England in deep contemplation when he felt the clap of a hand on his shoulder. He turned to find General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., the fifty-six year old son of the former President and war hero, who had overcome protracted benevolent opposition from superiors concerned about his frail health to earn the right to land in the first wave at Utah.
"My boy," Roosevelt said to Vander Beek, "my life will be in your hands."
But even on the precipice of history, Roosevelt couldn't have possibly have imagined how prophetic those words would be.
In the chaos of the churning waves and the effective battlefield commission to solo guide boat, in the sweeping coastal currents and the fog of war both literal and figurative, the LCC 60 missed its mark as it led the first wave of the assault to the beach, landing 500 yards from the "x" on the map. But this error would prove to be an extraordinary stroke of good luck. The new landing point found a soft spot in the Nazi defenses, whereas the fortification at the intended entry point had survived the pre-invasion shelling intact.
As General Roosevelt limped from the wave break to a rise where he could survey the landscape, he recognized the unintended deviation from the plan, and the remarkable good fortune he and his fellow American invaders had been afforded. He would then deliver the most famous quotation of the D-Day landings, words immortalized by Henry Fonda as he played Roosevelt, Jr. in the 1962 Academy Award-nominated film The Longest Day.
"We'll start the war from right here!"
Lieutenant Vander Beek and his LCC 60 crew were relieved of their primary control duties at 1400 after seven and a half hours in Rommel's Death Zone and nineteen charges to the beach. But with the relief of having survived the historic assault, Vander Beek's thoughts turned to those who remained in the belly of the beast.
"Some were navy men, less fortunate than we, whose hardships had begun in the beach waters on D-Day and would go on for weeks until full military control of Normandy could be established. Others were the soldiers who had hit the beach and overcome the enemy there, had crossed the ridge and slogged through the marshlands, and then had started out on the first miles of the hundreds along which they would battle until the war in Europe ended. Still others were men from all branches of the service whose names had already appeared on casualty lists: the captured, taken to Nazi prison camps; the injured, suffering in field medical stations, sick bays, and British hospitals; and the perished awaiting eternal resting places beneath single white crosses set in symmetry on a verdant expanse along the Normandy coast."
Two months later, the LCC 60 would once again lead an invasion force to the shores of France at the forefront of Operation Dragoon, consecrating with American blood such seaside resort towns as San Tropez and Cannes. And, once again, the offered flag flew from the stern. Some months later, the crew of LCC 60 would spend its last weeks together in a Merchant Marine transport bound for New York City, the flag neatly folded in Vander Beek's foot locker.
For the 2009 anniversary of the historic invasion, Vander Beek was interviewed by a local newspaper for an article entitled, "Cedar Falls man led way on D-Day 65 years ago." The ninety-two year old veteran was photographed in front of the offered flag, and spoke of it with the reporter.
"On Old Glory, the toll of 6 1/2 decades of wear is impossible to distinguish from the battle scars. But one symmetrical hole on the blue field of the 48-star flag stands out. 'That's a hole where a bullet went through,' Vander Beek, a retired UNI English professor, said."
Beyond the smooth perforation from enemy fire, the 30" x 57" banner shows the wounds and tattered ends inflicted by high coastal winds and the unrelenting march of time. Two brass grommets are set in a canvas edge for the purpose of securing the flag to the mast, where an ancient "No. 11" is stamped, matching the format of other Naval flags of the era.
But this flag is different from the others, special in a way that detracts nothing from the countless tales of bravery and sacrifice that happened beneath those like it. The most recent major auction offering of a Normandy invasion flag came upon the seventieth anniversary for the tattered banner that flew from LST-493, which arrived at Gold Beach on June 7, 1944. It commanded a price realized of $385,000, a clear expression of the reverence that the American public continues to hold for the historic event.
Battle flags have long occupied the upper strata of military collectibles, with Heritage Auctions garnering results of $956,000 and $896,000 for those belonging to JEB Stuart and George Armstrong Custer respectively, each nearly a decade ago.
A flag is, after all, a symbol by its very nature, and thus more capable than nearly any other artifact in embodying the significance of the moment it inhabits. And this flag, the one that flew at the vanguard of history's greatest invasion, is quite simply one of the most important battle flags that exists, in hands either public or private. In its heroic service in leading the liberators of Europe to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, this is a flag that validates the truth of all that we wish an American flag to represent: freedom, valor, and our promise to the world that tyranny cannot stand against the irresistible force of American will.
To read a 2009-dated article with photo from the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier about Vander Beek and this flag, please click here.
Read the Spring 2016-dated article from The Intelligent Collector magazine here.
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