Secrets of the Dead
by Del Harvey
Thirteen/WNET New York uses cutting-edge science and modern crime scene techniques to reinvestigate history—Secrets of the Dead series has returned with new episodes!
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The PBS series Secrets of the Dead attempts to solve riddles surrounding many well-known deaths and mysteries throughout history. Enlisting scientists and researchers from around the world and a wide range of fields, the series takes a close look at previously unanswered questions using modern technology and the latest scientific methodologies. The following are short introductions to a number of the newest episodes for 2007.
Voyage of the Courtesans
Thirteen/WNET New York’s Secrets Of The Dead: Voyage Of The Courtesans Explores The True Story Of Australia’s Founding Mothers And Their Bawdy Journey To A New Land As Convicts On A Floating Brothel This May On PBS
Genealogy Uncovers Link Between Contemporary Women And Their 18th-Century Ancestors
In 1789, more than 200 female thieves, prostitutes and con-artists rounded up from London’s most notorious prisons were shipped off to an Australian penal colony aboard a leaky vessel named the Lady Juliana. For the English government, the convicts had two uses: to prevent the starving and isolated male colonists from engaging in “gross irregularities,” and to act as breeding stock for the troubled outpost. But once aboard, the wily women turned their banishment into opportunity, transforming their ship into a rowdy floating brothel.
By the time they reached Botany Bay, they were fit, healthy, and some had even amassed enough money to support themselves. Instead of an assured life of servitude, they took control, and—along with their offspring—helped guarantee a new world’s future. With dramatic reconstructions, powerful imagery and actual ship journals, Voyage of the Courtesans brings to light the true story of the Lady Juliana. Through intensive research and the use of long-hidden historical records, the film also tracks down the women’s modern-day descendants and watches as they uncover the surprising truth about their ancestors. Thirteen/WNET New York’s Secrets of the Dead: Voyage of the Courtesans encores Wednesday, May 23 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings).
Intertwining a current investigation with the actual details of the fateful voyage of the Lady Juliana, Secrets of the Dead recounts a thoroughly modern tale of three 21st-century Australian women who discover the startling story of their ancestors: each of their great-great-great-great-great-grandmothers had been a convict in Georgian England, and was sent to Australia on the same ship. Helen Phillips—a senior Anglican minister for the diocese of Tasmania—turns out to be a descendant of a prostitute named Rachel Hoddy. Delia Dray—a sheep farmer and senior government horticulturist—traces her lineage back to Ann Marsh, who was convicted of stealing a bushel of wheat. Meagen Benson—a well-to-do bank communications manager and yoga teacher—descends from destitute street urchin Mary Wade, who was sentenced for stealing a child’s petticoat in a public place.
How did Rachel Hoddy, Ann Marsh and Mary Wade find themselves on a convict ship banished to the ends of the earth? As their descendents uncover with the help of historians and researchers, their journey came about at the hands of a mad king and a desperate lord. With America ceded to the revolutionaries, Britain had lost not only a colony, but also a crucial dumping ground for English convicts. In the 1780s, England’s own jails were filled to overflowing because of “Mad” King George III’s so-called “Bloody Code,” which imposed severe penalties—including death, or the more preferable “transportation to lands beyond the seas”—for even minor offenses. British Home Secretary Lord Sydney, who issued the charter to create the colony, decided he could help alleviate overcrowding and provide much needed “breeding stock” for Australia’s fledgling Botany Bay colony by filling the Lady Juliana with Britain’s female convicts.
Voyage of the Courtesans follows the modern-day women as they return to the scenes of their ancestors’ crimes in London and discover their warts-and-all origin. Until Secrets of the Dead uncovered the full story of their relatives, the three women had no idea how intrinsically linked they were to Australia’s colorful colonial past or how many details of their ancestors’ lives had survived.
Secrets of the Dead provides a genuine recreation of the convicts’ eventful voyage through detailed records and excerpts from a diary written by ship steward John Nicol. In one entry, he described the moment he fell in love with 19-year-old Sarah Whitelam, convicted of stealing a cloak: “I first fixed my fancy on her the moment I knocked the rivet from her irons upon my anvil.” After courting Whitelam for a week, Nicol took her as his wife for the duration of the voyage, a common practice among the sailors. In another account, he explains how many of the women plied their trade: “We did not restrain the people on shore from coming on board through the day. The captains and seamen who were in port at the time paid as many visits.”
Ultimately, the convicts’ spirit and persistence served as their passport to success. Many of them became the true—albeit unacknowledged—founding mothers of Australia. One helped her husband start Sydney’s first theological college. Another became Australia’s first great woman entrepreneur. Mary Wade, who was 11 when she was shipped to Sydney, became Australia’s greatest matriarch. By the time she died, she had more than 300 children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
Secrets of the Dead: Voyage of the Courtesans is written and directed by Mark Lewis and produced by Sonja Armstrong. For Thirteen/WNET, the executive producer is Jared Lipworth. Voyage of the Courtesans is a Film Australia/Essential Viewing production for Thirteen/WNET New York, in association with ABC and BBC.
Premiering May 16 On PBS, Reveals How Much More Than The Luck Of The Irish Helped Six Political Prisoners In Australia Find Their Way To Freedom In America
Dramatic Re-enactments, Including A Fierce Confrontation Between The American Whaler Catalpa And The British Steamer Georgette, Bring This International Prison Break To Vivid Life
“Remember this is a voice from the tomb. For is this not a living tomb? In the tomb it is only a man’s body that is good for worms, but in this living tomb the canker worm of care enters the very soul.”—James Wilson writing to journalist John Devoy from Fremantle Prison in Western Australia, 1873.
The pen is mightier than the sword. Case in point: a desperate, furtive plea smuggled to a New York reporter from deep within the impregnable confines of Western Australia’s Fremantle Prison. It was a letter that launched not a thousand ships, but a single, humble American whaler that stood its watery ground against a heavily armed British steamer for the noble cause of freedom and independence. The whaler was the Catalpa, its captain was George Anthony and its precious human cargo consisted of six Irish political prisoners, who had languished and suffered at the Fremantle prison for a decade.
Their remarkable story is told in Thirteen/WNET New York’s Secrets of the Dead: Irish Escape, premiering Wednesday, May 16 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings) and narrated by actor Liev Schreiber (CSI, The Manchurian Candidate, Talk Radio). The documentary uses evocative, dramatic re-enactments, and readings from actual diaries and journals, to follow the adventure, from Ireland, where the revolutionaries are arrested in 1866, to Fremantle Prison, the most remote and notorious jail in the British Empire, to the United States, where their ultimate taste of liberty is bittersweet.
“The story of the so-called Fremantle Six is one of the most unlikely and heroic escape stories in the history of the high seas,” said Jared Lipworth, executive producer of Secrets of the Dead. “Their grit and determination inspired generations of Irish patriots and the resonance of their success helped turn the tide of history in favor of Irish independence. Few of us know about the story of this incredible prison break, even though Americans played a major role in it, so we’re excited to reveal this pivotal moment in history on Secrets of the Dead.”
The program introduces James Wilson, Martin Hogan, Thomas Darragh, Robert Cranston, Thomas Hassatt, and Michael Harrington—Irish-born, British soldiers who joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret revolutionary group also known as the Fenians. They had been recruited by John Devoy, who led them in a failed rebellion against Great Britain under Queen Victoria. While the six soldiers were convicted of treason and imprisoned, Devoy, a civilian, was exiled to America. He was working for the New York Herald when the letter—that catalytic cry for help penned by his old recruit James Wilson—landed on his desk.
An Ancient Burial Site In England Is Unearthed And A Confounding Mystery Is Laid To Rest When Thirteen/WNET New York’s Secrets Of The Dead Investigates Headless Romans, Premiering May 9 On PBS
Modern Forensics, Archaeological Sleuthing And Historical Records Give Voice—And Identity—To Men Who Died In A Rampage Of Rivalry And Revenge Over The Roman Throne.
“It was an amazing moment. I remember standing with our site manager and we looked at the first decapitated burial. … The skull had been taken off and put down by the feet, as I recall. Then we started finding other things, which were rather unusual, like a skeleton with these great, thick iron rings—shackles, if you will—around its ankles.”—Archaeologist Patrick Ottaway in Headless Romans.
In the English city of York near the ancient ruins of Hadrian’s Wall, archaeologists have unearthed more than 30 Roman-era skeletons. The skeletons are posed in a gruesome tableau of violent death, their heads hacked off and placed between their knees, at their feet or in other odd places, suggesting desecration and humiliation, even in death. One is found with heavy iron rings around its ankles, an aberration in the Roman world. Who were they? Pagan prisoners savagely murdered? Soldiers killed in battle or executed for crimes against Rome?
To solve the mystery, a team of investigators posits compelling theories and puts each one to the test in Thirteen/WNET New York’s SECRETS OF THE DEAD: Headless Romans, premiering Wednesday, May 9 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings). Narrated by actor Liev Schreiber (CSI, The Manchurian Candidate), the documentary follows the progress of the team’s researchers as they examine the evidence within the context of a key, transitional period of Roman history marked by fierce sibling rivalry over the imperial throne.
“Modern forensics, ancient relics, historical records, and re-enactments all come together and make for high drama in this documentary about one of the more baffling archaeological discoveries in recent memory,” said Jared Lipworth, executive producer of Secrets of the Dead. “It’s fascinating to watch as science and scholarship converge and a vague chapter of ancient Roman history is essentially re-written.”
Secrets of the Dead: Headless Romans opens with a high-angle shot of the grand interior of York’s medieval guildhall, where rows of decapitated skeletons from the excavated site are laid out on steel tables for examination. The program juxtaposes this startling image with scenes of magnificent Roman ruins, connecting the skeletons to the greatest civilization ever to rule the ancient world, with an empire that stretched from North Africa to present-day England and beyond. At this point, the investigators know the general period of the skeletons, but not much else.
First, human bone specialists Katie Tucker and Charlotte Roberts are called in. They quickly determine that all of the skeletons are male. A state-of-the-art microscope reveals stunning, three-dimensional images of vertebrae fragments marked by the blade of an axe, sword or similar weapon. But was this the cause of death? Or were the heads removed posthumously as part of some mysterious Roman burial rite? Archaeologist Robert Phillpot and historian and author Miranda Green discuss Roman superstitions and beliefs about death and the afterlife, offering a possible context for the latter theory. But the skeletons show signs of extreme violence. One was found buried face down with a large hole in its skull. This evidence seems at odds with the deliberate, surgical cuts that would have likely been used in a ritual decapitation or burial rite.
Pottery from the site dates to the early third century, when the Septimius Severus used violence to bring stability to an empire previously fragmented and weakened by civil war. Severus and his army led brutal campaigns against the Caledonian tribes of Scotland beyond Hadrian’s Wall, which had been built by the Romans to mark the limits of their empire and keep out those they deemed “barbarians.” By A.D. 208, Severus’s efforts assured that the prosperous, pluralistic city of Eboracum, at present-day York, became a military stronghold and a key center of the Roman world.
The enamel of a tooth, which scientist Janet Montgomery describes as “a little archive, a little snapshot…that people carry around with them wherever they go,” helps determine the origins of the skeletons. She uses the advanced technology of an electron spectrum device to cull data from many different samples and discovers that these men came from Germany, the Alps, the Mediterranean, and Africa. Her findings help dismiss one theory that the skeletons are those of local Scottish soldiers or prisoners. It is a major breakthrough for the investigative team.
But what about the skeleton with the iron shackles around its ankles? Archaeologist Patrick Ottaway doesn’t believe that the shackles, which were soldered onto the legs without chains, were designed for a prisoner. “It conjures up an awful picture,” he says, speculating that the shackles were meant to contribute to a terrible and humiliating death. “You would have an open wound as a result of putting the things on in the first place, and then the things chafe and cause further inflammation, so by the time the poor fellow finally passed on he would have been in considerable pain.”
Back at the dig in York, more human remains are being unearthed. Even the particular spot where the skeletons were found is a piece of the puzzle. These men were buried in the cemetery’s “Mount,” an exclusive section reserved for wealthy, prominent citizens, not common soldiers.
Headless Romans introduces the Emperor’s inner circle, the key players in the story behind the decapitated skeletons, including his sons, Caracalla and Geta; the family tutor, Euwodus; and Castor, the Emperor’s chamberlain and most trusted official. The bitter rivalry between Caracalla and Geta is vividly recounted. After an ailing Severus made the brothers joint emperors, Caracalla embarked on a bloodthirsty campaign to seize the throne exclusively for himself. He killed scores of people, and even made attempts on his own father’s life. Ultimately, he would kill his brother and rise to the throne as sole Emperor.
In the end, it is historian Anthony Birley who combines the forensic and archaeological evidence with the writings of another historian—the ancient Roman Cassius Dio—to solve the puzzle. The skeletons discovered just a few years ago in York were the victims of Caracalla’s blood-thirsty purge in the early third century, the result of a public execution carried out in the spring of A.D. 211. Birley’s research even enables two of the victims to be named: Castor, who had been Severus’ loyal chamberlain, and Euwodus, the tutor.
Caracalla stopped at nothing in his jealous quest to rule the Roman Empire, but ultimately, his reign would be short. After only five years as emperor, he was killed by one of his commanders. But now, thanks to modern forensics, Caracalla’s victims are speaking out, telling their secrets and sealing his callous legacy.
The Other, Lesser-Known Victim Of Vesuvius Offers A Unique Window Onto An Ancient World In Thirteen/WNET New York’s Secrets Of The Dead: Herculaneum Uncovered, Premiering May 2 On PBS
A Modern Archaeological Investigation Into The Eruption Of Mount Vesuvius In A.D. 79 Reveals How Pompeii’s Neighbor On The Bay Of Naples Was Engulfed By Hot Pyroclastic Flows That Killed Instantly And Preserved The Past For Posterity
“Pyroclastic flows vary in temperature. You can have cold flows and you can have supercharged, exceptionally hot flows. … If it’s cold, you’d suffocate because it’s very fluid—the ash gets in your throat and, effectively, you drowned. Or, if they’re very, very hot, you become incinerated in the blink of an eye.”—Mark Davies, volcanologist
On August 24th, A.D. 79, the people of Herculaneum, a prosperous seaside town in Italy’s Bay of Naples, watched in horror as Mount Vesuvius erupted, hurling a boiling, churning column of gas and ash 10 miles high into the sky. They saw the wind carry the deadly cloud toward the neighboring city of Pompeii, where the hapless citizens suffered a slow and torturous death in the poisonous detritus. It was only a matter of time before Vesuvius would unleash its fury on Herculaneum, killing its citizens in an even more spectacular and gruesome way.
In recent years, the fabled, largely forgotten city of Herculaneum has been re-discovered and, today, archaeologists are scrambling to study and save the fragile site. Their painstaking efforts are documented in Thirteen/WNET New York’s Secrets of the Dead: Herculaneum Uncovered, premiering Wednesday, May 2 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings). The documentary is much more than a riveting archaeological detective story. Across the ages, Herculaneum’s dead seem to whisper a warning: It could happen again at any time. Narrated by actor Liev Schreiber, the film paints a stunning picture of what life was like in the ancient town, and how people ultimately met their horrific deaths there.
“Ironically, Herculaneum’s violent end ensured that the town was suspended in time, and it remains intact 2,000 years later,” said Jared Lipworth, executive producer of Secrets of the Dead. “Unlike Pompeii—whose fate was a slow burial by ash and pumice—Herculaneum was engulfed by superheated pyroclastic flows of molten rock, mud and gas that actually caused people’s heads to explode. Those flows transformed the living, breathing city of Herculaneum into an incredible time capsule that is even better preserved than Pompeii.”
Secrets of the Dead looks at Herculaneum, past and present, from every conceivable angle—via aerial views of the town and through the eyes of scientists as they examine such critical minutiae as fig seeds from some of the last meals consumed there before the volcano erupted. Actual footage of erupting volcanoes—including the most recent eruption of Vesuvius in 1944 and pyroclastic flows from the Caribbean island of Montserrat in the 1990s—helps illustrate the power and destructiveness of these cataclysmic events.
The investigation is led by Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of The Herculaneum Conservation Project, who knows better than most people that, occasionally, walls do talk. In some parts of Herculaneum, the ancient layers of pyroclastic flows descend as deep as 80 feet, forming walls that hold surprising secrets.
The challenges Professor Wallace-Hadrill and his team face are many, including the damage wrought by 18th-century Bourbon treasure hunters, who robbed the site of beautiful mosaic frescos, as well as other precious art and artifacts. But because only a fraction of Herculaneum has been disturbed, the dense lava walls are still giving up other invaluable objects that speak volumes about life there before the disaster.
The discovery of one such object is among many exciting moments as cameras follow the team on a very different kind of treasure hunt. The head of a statue, believed to be of an Amazon warrior woman, is carefully excavated and diligently conserved by experts. The paint is still visible—a rarity in Roman-era statues. Beyond its intrinsic value, the painted head is priceless for what it can reveal about the artistic techniques of the time.
“Here we have a fantastic insight into the big mystery of what a colored statue head was like,” exclaims Professor Wallace-Hadrill, as he inspects the extraordinary find. “You can see how wonderfully delicate the paintwork is. And you can see how it concentrates around the area of the eye. It brings it to life, because for the Ancients, the life resides in the eye—you can see the soul through the eye.”
Unlike Pompeii and virtually every other Roman-era site, Herculaneum boasts a trove of preserved organic material. Delicate household objects examined in the program—from wooden chests and cupboards to textiles and foodstuffs—connect us to daily life in the Roman world, and remind us that the victims of Vesuvius were mundanely and poignantly real.
This point is driven home in one of the most extraordinary moments of the film, when we discover the gruesome truth about Herculaneum’s central mystery: What really happened to its inhabitants when their city was swallowed up by Vesuvius?
The shocking answer is found in a series of concrete arcades situated at what was once Herculaneum’s original shoreline along the Mediterranean. Dozens of skeletons lie huddled together under the sturdy arches where people gathered most likely in the vain hope of escaping by boat. In one example, a mother bends protectively over her child, as if trying to offer comfort. Beneath her are the tiny bones of a fetus, indicating that she was seven months pregnant. The skeletons show signs of thermal shock from temperatures that were close to one thousand degrees Fahrenheit. Muscles contracted, contorting the bodies, and skin vaporized. Brains boiled and skulls exploded.
Tomb of Christ
Thirteen/WNET New York’s Secrets Of The Dead: Tomb Of Christ Investigates Jerusalem’s Church Of The Holy Sepulchre To Determine Whether Or Not It Is The Actual Site Of Christ’s Burial
Encores Nationally On PBS Wednesday, April 18, 2007 (Check Local Listings)
A mystery as old as the Christian faith is closer to being solved, with proof that Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre might be the actual location of Christ’s burial. Using a careful balance of traditional and modern archaeological techniques, an Oxford University team of investigators is unearthing some astonishing new evidence.
For centuries, pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre believed that a certain spot within the ancient, crumbling structure was the actual burial place of Jesus Christ. That claim has been disputed by scholars, leading many to consider the site merely a symbolic representation of a defining tenet of the Christian creed. In Tomb of Christ, encoring Wednesday, April 18 at 8 p.m. (ET), Thirteen/WNET New York’s Secrets of the Dead series explores the debate using a decade of painstaking research, infra-red thermography and a rigorous archaeological technique known as photogrammetry.
Reconstructing Christ’s final days, this program traces the history and various incarnations of the tomb through the efforts of Martin Biddle, an Oxford professor, and his wife, Birthe, who have been studying the site for 10 years. Will the very rock shelf on which Christ’s body was laid 2,000 years ago be revealed by modern science or will the mystery remain for posterity?
Shroud of Christ?
Thirteen/WNET New York’s Secrets Of The Dead: Shroud Of Christ? Investigates The Mysterious Shroud Of Turin, Uncovering New Forensic Evidence Suggesting That This Treasured Relic Does Date To The Time Of Jesus Christ
Encores Nationally On PBS Wednesday, April 11, 2007 (Check Local Listings)
Deep within the walls of Italy’s Turin Cathedral is one of the Catholic Church’s most precious and controversial artifacts—a 14-foot-long piece of high-quality linen cloth bearing the faint but unmistakable image of a naked, crucified man. To its dedicated believers, the image is that of Jesus Christ himself. They believe the image became embedded in the cloth when it was wrapped around his body after his execution nearly 2,000 years ago. To those who put their trust in the science of carbon dating, the image is artificial and the Shroud itself a well-crafted medieval forgery.
The debate over the Shroud’s origins has raged furiously since its first documented appearance in Lirey, France in the 1350s. The debate temporarily came to have come to a close in 1988, when three of the world’s most prominent carbon dating laboratories agreed that the cloth was only 600 or 700 years old, and therefore could not possibly have wrapped Christ’s body. But 14 years later, a renowned textile expert brought in to restore the Shroud, discovered remarkable new evidence that renewed the controversy. Could the linen be traced back two millennia after all?
Encoring nationally Wednesday, April 11 at 8 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), Thirteen/WNET New York’s Secrets of the Dead: Shroud of Christ? reveals new forensic evidence supporting the claim that the Shroud of Turin is, indeed, 2,000 years old and therefore could have wrapped the crucified body of Jesus Christ.
The Shroud’s history is, itself, a dramatic narrative. From Lirey, France, the cloth found its way to a chapel in the Alpine village of Chambery, where it was folded and housed in a box made of silver. The box melted partially in a 1532 chapel fire, and molten silver burned through the Shroud’s folds, resulting in 24 holes. To reinforce the sacred piece, French nuns sewed triangular patches over the worst holes and attached the entire Shroud to a backing cloth. It remained in this condition for hundreds of years.
Secrets of the Dead: Shroud of Christ? details the circumstances surrounding the Shroud’s 1988 carbon dating test, which at the time was considered a sure-fire way to date the fabric and determine its authenticity once and for all. The team of assembled scientists argued over which corner of the Shroud should be tested, but within six months, declared that the carbon dating proved the Shroud was only between 600 and 700 years old. The cloth was deemed a fake, and the news made headlines across the globe.
But the carbon dating process drew its share of critics.
“A very bad decision was made about where the sample should be taken from,” says featured historian Ian Wilson. “It was taken from one corner, a corner that we know historically was one of the corners used for holding up the Shroud to show people…at [public] expositions. Therefore [this part of the Shroud] would have received more contamination than any other part of the Shroud.”
In 2002, textile historian Mechthild Flury-Lemberg was invited to Turin to undertake an unprecedented restoration of the Shroud; she would be working more closely with the cloth than any fabric expert before her. Upon removing the Shroud’s repair patches and detaching its backing, Flury-Lemberg was shocked by the distinctive sewing style she saw. She had seen such a weave only once before, in cloths recovered from the ruins of the Jewish citadel Masada, a town destroyed by the Romans in 74 A.D.
In light of this evidence that the Shroud of Turin might be more than 1,200 years older than the 1988 carbon dating suggested, Secrets of the Dead: Shroud of Christ? traces the recorded history of the relic and offers forensic analysis of its image and markings. The wounds, viewers learn, appear to be consistent with those a crucifixion victim would have suffered. Forensic pathologist Fred Zugibe gives graphic details about the injuries the man whose image appears on the Shroud sustained, citing everything from cartilage separation in the face to complications from scourging (brutal lashings) and pleural effusion (the build-up of fluid in certain parts of the body), which he believes would have sent the victim into shock. “I would write on the death certificate…that he would have died of hypovolemic and traumatic shock,” Zugibe says.
But while scientists may now have a clear understanding of how the man of the Shroud died, it remains unclear exactly how his image transferred to the cloth. In unprecedented hands-on experiments, scientists from various fields of research attempt to prove their theories of image formation and provide fresh perspectives in the quest for scientific proof of the relic’s origins. Included are bacteriologist Steven Mattingly, who makes a Shroud-like image on a linen cloth by slathering his face with bacteria cultured from his own skin, and August Accetta, director of the Shroud Center of Southern California, who pumps a radioactive material called technesium into his blood in an effort to show that the Shroud’s image could have resulted from a burst of radiation coming from within the body. Accetta believes the image offers proof of Christ’s resurrection.
Thirteen/WNET New York’s Secrets Of The Dead: D-Day Takes An In-Depth Look At The Planning, Ingenuity And Courage That Fueled The Allies’ Victory On The Bloody Beaches Of Normandy
The Allied invasion of Nazi-controlled France looms larger in our collective conscience than perhaps any other single battle. The logistics of D-Day, as we now know it, are truly staggering. In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, 7,000 ships carrying nearly 160,000 soldiers and fighting men from three countries, backed by 17,000 paratroopers and an aerial umbrella of 3,000 planes, stormed the beaches of Normandy, marking the largest amphibious combat operation ever staged.
In a special encore presentation, Wednesday, February 28 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), Thirteen/WNET New York’s Secrets of the Dead: D-Day chronicles the back-story of the “Longest Day,” using the invasion itself as a narrative spine and recounting, in remarkable detail, the long-term planning and ingenious execution that led to the Allied victory.
The two-hour program features the forgotten engineers and maverick designers who turned out an array of specialized weapons and transport vessels in their quest to overcome Hitler’s defenses. Among these innovations were gliders, landing craft, minesweepers, and even amphibious tanks, one of which Bob Grundy, a British military vehicles expert, rebuilds and retests in the film. Secrets of the Dead: D-Day captures the Allies’ triumphs, as well as their failures on D-Day, underscoring the immense challenges they faced in their attempt to break through the “Atlantic Wall,” a supposedly impregnable, German-built barrier that stretched from Calais to Normandy and was designed specifically to derail coastal invasions. The film’s dramatic reconstructions, along with powerful 16-mm archival footage, bring to life the terrifying atmosphere of the famed invasion, while the personal stories of veterans—both Allied and Axis—add one more dimension of intensity.
Among those appearing in this program, which premiered on Secrets of the Dead in 2004 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day, is Logan Scott-Bowden, who, in May of 1943, was a British Major General selected to be part of an elite group of commandos called the COPPs (Combined Operation Pilotage Parties). Their mission was to collect invaluable scientific and tactical data that would allow the Allied command to decide where, when and how D-Day would take place. Scott-Bowden recounts his harrowing New Year’s Eve swim to the Normandy beaches six months before D-Day to collect sand samples for testing of the beach’s bearing capacity.
United States Coast Guard member Marvin Perret was just 18 when he served as a coxswain during the D-Day invasion. Responsible for carrying troops ashore to Utah Beach from the command ship The Bayfield, Perret returns to the water in D-Day—this time the swamps of Louisiana—to demonstrate a craft very similar to the one he rode that fateful day.
Tom Wheeldon speaks about his role in D-Day for the first time in Secrets of the Dead: D-Day. Wheeldon served as commander of a floating tank, known as a Duplex Drive or DD. He shares his memories of June 6, 1944, from the sea sickness he and his fellow soldiers endured on the rough waters of the English Channel to the dread they felt as they tried to squeeze their DD through two wooden stakes tipped with mines. Wheeldon’s fellow British DD tanker Sam Handelaar recalls early test runs of the amphibious craft and the odd silence he noted rolling along the French countryside after clearing the beaches, wondering where all the Germans were lurking.
U.S. infantry member Harley Reynolds boarded a ship bound for Great Britain in August 1942. Less than a year later, he was among those who landed on Omaha Beach. For Secrets of the Dead: D-Day, he returns to the site of the bloody battle and relives his ordeal. In one particularly poignant scene, he throws himself to the ground to simulate how he took cover on a beach that offered very little in the way of protection.
As a young British officer assigned to the 79th Armored Division, Ian Hammerton helped design and later operate “Hobart’s Funnies,” a series of tank-like contraptions and vehicles under the command of British General Percy Hobart and boasting the ability to tackle virtually any German obstacle they encountered. On D-Day, Hammerton and his unit forged a path ahead of the invading ground troops, using tanks rigged with rotating chains to clear the beaches of mines and barbed wire that laid in wait for them.
British Staff Sargeant Geoff Barkway and 150 of his fellow soldiers spent the months leading up to D-Day learning to fly and crash-land wooden gliders in preparation for their mission: overtaking two bridges in back of the beaches held by German infantry. Flying with him was Peter Boyle, a glider navigator with whom Barkway is still friendly today.
British Naval Officer Jimmy Green, a landing craft commander, found himself trying to boost morale at dawn on D-Day among the fearful, ruddy-faced young men from the countryside. He knew he was leading some of them to their deaths; he was not prepared to lose all of them.
In the dead of night, 82nd Airborne member Berge Avadanian and his “stick” (the 18 men he parachuted with) flew through dense fog before touching down in France in the hours leading up to the D-Day invasion. They knew no one would be waiting for them, that it would be their responsibility alone to prevent the Germans from making their way to the beaches. Many of his crew died in the operation; Avadanian continues to visit their graves. His fellow paratrooper Don Burgett, of the 101st Airborne, landed far from his intended drop zone and, in his confusion, nearly shot a friend from his own division.
German Private Franz Gockel helped build and man the coastal defenses that German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel hoped would block a seaborne invasion. For D-Day, Gockel returns to his post—Resistance Post 62—and comes face to face with two men who stood on the receiving end of his machine gun fire six decades ago, British coxswain Jimmy Green and American infantryman Harley Reynolds.
Del Harvey is the founder and publisher of Film Monthly, as well as a film teacher and filmmaker in Chicago.
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