A 19-metre-long section of brick wall near the waterfront in Southampton, known as ‘The D-Day Wall’ still bears the graffiti left by US troops, 76 years ago. During the Second World War, more than 3.5 million men passed through the city.
Between April 2019 and February 2021, the Maritime Archaeology Trust, with the help of 75 volunteers and funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, undertook a project to digitally record the wall, to preserve it for future generations. 76 inscriptions were recorded and 69 of these men identified in US military records. Amazingly, volunteers were able to make contact with 13 of the men’s families, who were excited to hear of the discovery of a trace of their loved one and sent photographs. We were even privileged to speak by telephone to the last remaining man, Mr William Mueller, aged 96, in New York. All but three of the men who carved their name on the wall survived to return home.
Through a programme of fieldwork, research, exhibitions and outreach, the project engaged volunteers and communities in the discovery of Southampton’s crucial role during the Second World War and the stories behind the men who left their mark on the wall. The project coincided with the 75th Anniversaries of D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and VE day. A plaque has been added to the wall to inform passers-by of its historical importance.
The US army arrived in Southampton in 1943 and began preparing for the invasion of Europe. The city effectively became one big military camp, with two thirds of the British Forces and Canadians sailing from Southampton on D-Day itself. Troops continued to sail from Southampton to France throughout the remainder of the war. The graffiti was carved on the wall by American soldiers who passed through in the days following D-Day until early 1946, when men were still being sent out to join the army of occupation. The earliest inscription we can confidently date, belongs to 27-year-old Sidney Greenwald from New York. Czechoslovakian and Jewish by birth, Sidney served as a Private with the Combat Engineers of the US 3rd Army, landing in Normandy on D-Day+6 (12th June 1944).
The majority of dated inscriptions fall between October and December 1944. These were replacement soldiers and new divisions who would see first combat at the Battle of the Bulge. Records revealed that many of the individuals were army drivers. It is likely they saw names and American towns carved into the wall whilst queued here in their vehicles waiting to load-up and added their own. 9 inscriptions were traced to drivers of the 106th Infantry Division, 424th Regiment, Company M, who passed through Southampton on the 2nd December 1944. William Mueller, who we spoke to, and his life-long friend Curt Hodges, were part of this group. As was Delbert Smith, who carved not only his name, but also ‘wife Ethel’ and ‘dau(ghter) Nina’. Several groups of inscriptions have been found on the wall. It was satisfying to see that despite the American practice of segregation, 10 men of the 449th Quartermaster’s Gasoline Supply Company, amongst others, were able to leave their name here with no distinction.
The volunteers became proficient at deciphering the lettering on the bricks to reveal a name, often accompanied by a hometown, sometimes a date and occasionally a symbol or drawing, such as the outline of a landing craft or an anchor. Despite being carved with an army knife, each inscription is very unique, and sometimes it was the style of handwriting in the carving that was matched to handwriting on the draft cards, that enabled identification to an individual, from a list of many possibilities. Volunteers researched online using genealogical and newspaper archives. Other volunteers researched in local and national archives to discover the wartime role of Southampton and to provide context to the project.
The project has had a very personal impact on everyone involved with it. The volunteers became quite addicted to researching these men, getting a real sense of fulfilment from deciphering a name, to making the correct identification in the records and being able to present a life story of the soldier. One volunteer, Michael, said “When you put your fingers in the initials of the name of someone who carved that, all those years ago, and you knew where they were going, it is quite emotional, and you’re terrified you’re going to miss someone’s name”. Those who made contact with the families were very touched by the experience and by the enormous gratitude expressed by the relatives. This quote from the daughter of a soldier is just one example: “Thank you for your work -- my gratitude and appreciation are emotions words can't reach”.
The project has used some of the latest technology to help record the inscriptions and tell these stories. The wall and bricks were recorded using Photogrammetry, Reflectance Translucence Imaging and 3D modelling to produce an interactive 3D viewer which links the bricks and inscriptions to the stories of these men. Gaming software ‘Unreal Engine’ was used to create a virtual museum built around the wall, with soldiers helping to set the scene, and the ‘My Heritage’ tool has really bought some of the photos of the men to life. All of these resources and more are available on our website www.maritimearchaeologytrust.org/ddaywalls.