In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Earle McBride of the University of Texas at Austin explains the discovery of microscopic artifacts on one of history’s most famous beaches.
Earle McBride is Professor Emeritus and the J. Nalle Gregory Chair Emeritus in Sedimentary Geology in the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin. His research is focused on the physical and chemical processes that alter sand over time. He holds a Ph.D. in geology from Johns Hopkins University.
Dr. Earle McBride – D-Day Beach Sand
On June 6, 1944, Allied troops bombarded German fortifications along the shores of Normandy, France during the D-Day Invasion that was the turning point of World War II in Europe.
Dane Picard—professor of geology at the University of Utah—and I study sandstones. And when we travel, we routinely collect samples of modern sand to help us understand the composition of ancient rocks. In 1988, Picard and I collected a sample of sand from Omaha Beach, the site of the fiercest fighting during the Normandy invasion. By then, the beach had long ago been picked clean of any visible reminders of the war and it looked like a typical tourist beach.
Back in the lab, we examined the sand with various microscopes and discovered, much to our surprise, that among the natural grains of quartz and other sand grains were 4% jagged bits of iron shrapnel and iron and glass beads – all products of the explosions of various ordnance in the sand and in the air during the battle. The heat of the explosion was sufficient to melt some of the iron shrapnel and also some of the quartz grains in the beach sand.
In spite of the abrasive action of waves and the corrosive effects of salt water on iron, shrapnel and iron and glass beads have survived 44 years after the battle and almost certainly they survive today. However, corrosion and abrasion will eventually destroy these artifacts of the D-Day Invasion, perhaps in less than a century, leaving only the memorials and monuments to recall the thousands of lives lost and the extent of devastation suffered by those directly engaged in World War II along this coast.