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To Utah Beach and Back – How a World War II helmet revealed a Naval hero in Normandy and the memorial efforts across two countries to document this veteran’s story.

31:23 |

About The Episode

Second World War Captain's D-Day Helmet

A World War II Navy helmet brought to GBH’s Antiques Roadshow, and used for years as a decorative planter, was revealed to be that of the US Naval officer in charge at Utah Beach during the allied landing in Normandy. Appraiser Jeff Shrader carefully inspected the helmet. What did his analysis along with an archived diary and other accounts from museum experts in two countries reveal about the full heroic story of this U.S. Naval Officer? Join host Adam Monahan as he discovers and memorializes the military life of the helmet’s original owner.

Adam Monahan:

So I got an email from you back in May of 2022 of correspondence between a guest and you on the show, Lloyd, with the World War II helmet. And looking at the email chain between you and the guest, it sounds like you have a roadshow pen pal.

Marsha Bemko:

Here's the thing, Adam, I kind of fell in love with Lloyd.

Adam Monahan:

This is my boss, Marsha Bemko. Marsha first encountered Lloyd in 2021 through our Knock Our Socks Off system or KOSO for short. KOSO applicants email us pictures of their treasures, and we choose which items to appraise for TV before our production begins. Normally, a tiny portion of our TV appraisals come through KOSO, but thanks to COVID, 2021 was different.

Marsha Bemko:

Well, we had to do the whole season as KOSO that year, and so, everyone who was taped had been talked to by a producer. And as it so happens, I got Lloyd.

Adam Monahan:

Lloyd was 81 when he appeared on our show, and he had a World War II helmet that had been sitting in his house since he was a teenager. Here he is with an appraiser at our event in Hamilton, New Jersey in 2021.

Jeff Shrader:

Where did you get this helmet?

Lloyd:

I got the helmet from my grandmother. She was living in Natick, Massachusetts, and when I was about 16, 14 years old, the family went to visit her. And she had the helmet in her house, and it was actually upside down on her table in her living room with dirt in it and a flower growing out of it.

Adam Monahan:

So he got this one from his grandmother. She just had it as a flower pot that...

Marsha Bemko:

That's right, yeah. And he did not believe the stories about his uncle when they were told. He just took them with a grain of salt, because they were of such a hero.

Lloyd:

She said, "Well, that helmet belonged to your father's uncle." It was her brother. And she started telling me things about his exploits in the Navy, and one of the first things she said was that he was the first naval officer to land on Normandy. And she then started talking about him being involved in helping develop plans for the assault on Normandy. And I thought, "Oh, how much of this can you come up with?"

Adam Monahan:

Still, when his grandmother offered him the helmet, Lloyd took it home. He played with it, and so did his sisters and later his kids. They wore it for Halloween and brought it to school for show and tell. It was just a cool artifact to have around the house, but that's really all it was, a cool object from a great uncle, who might've had something to do with D-Day. But then, around 2018, Lloyd happened to mention the helmet to a neighbor. I asked him about it.

Lloyd:

We were selling the house, and we had a yard sale. Some man came in and asked if I had any military items, and I said, "Well, yeah, I have an old helmet that belonged to my great uncle." And he said, well, he'd like to see it sometime. So about, I don't know, three or four months after we had moved, I finally called him, and he said, "I've been waiting for your call." He says, "I'd like to see that helmet." So I showed it to him, and he looked at it and he says, "You don't know what you have here."

Adam Monahan:

If you go to our event, you'll see a lot of people walking around with World War II helmets. It's just a numbers thing. Everybody's got a helmet in their family at some point. That doesn't make it valuable. It has to have a history like this one. Jeff Shrader describes it as a unicorn. This is a unicorn of a helmet.

Marsha Bemko:

Yeah, no, that's a pretty amazing thing. It was on his head at the beach on that day, and then, it was in Hamilton.

Adam Monahan:

I am Adam Monahan, a producer with GBH's Antiques Roadshow. And this is Detours, today, To Utah Beach and Back. It was 1944. Germany was occupying France and the Allied forces were trying to figure out how they could get their troops on the ground to boot the Nazis out. First off, they needed a place to land. Their best options were either too heavily defended or too geographically complex. They settled on a 50 mile stretch of the Normandy coastline. They'd invade five beaches, code named Omaha, Juno, Gold, Sword, and Utah. Next, they needed good weather.

Jeff Shrader:

If you're going to do a parachute drop, you have to have moonlight. Otherwise, there are going to be an awful lot of guys with broken legs, because they didn't know when the ground was coming up.

Adam Monahan:

They picked June 5th, 1944, a night with an almost full moon and, hopefully, clear sky. Now, they needed to figure out how to get all the troops and their stuff, food, water, ammunition, vehicles, from the sea and air to the land. More than 160,000 troops were going to land on these five beaches. It was the largest seaborne invasion in history.

Jeff Shrader:

Any history nerd will tell you, amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics. And the miracle at D-Day, the thing that made that whole operation work was all of the work that they did to develop the system, whereby supplies would be landed ashore. All of these factors had to line up just right in order to make this giant machine work. And so then, morning of June 6th, the weather's terrible. They had canceled the day before, postponed. They decided to do it on this night, and the weather was actually worse. It probably would've been better going the day before, but it worked.

Adam Monahan:

Lloyd's grandma had told him that his great uncle was the first naval officer to land on Normandy and that he helped to plan the D-Day invasion. But in the six decades since he brought the helmet home, Lloyd never knew if any of that was true. That changed when his helmet aficionado neighbor pointed out the special markings, including an eagle on the front. That eagle meant that the person who wore it was a naval captain. So Lloyd started researching to see what else he could learn.

Lloyd:

I had a cousin come in with her husband, and he was in the service. He got on his phone. And within two minutes, he had a picture of my great uncle standing under the flag at Utah Beach.

Adam Monahan:

The uncle's name he found was Captain James Arnold, and Lloyd wasn't the only one researching him. He soon got a message on Facebook from a volunteer at a museum in France.

Lloyd:

Apparently, what had happened was people were trying to reorganize things at the Airborne Museum, and they found a box full of stuff. And they started looking through it and said, "This isn't airborne. This is Navy stuff."

Adam Monahan:

The Airborne Museum figured out that the items had to do with Utah Beach. So they passed them along to the Utah Beach Landing Museum. A volunteer there started to research the material, found it belonged to Captain Arnold, and connected with Lloyd and some other family members to see what other information and material they could find.

Lloyd:

One of his daughters is still alive. She ended up donating a pair of binoculars that had belonged to him, and then, through the grandson, he had records that my uncle had started to write an autobiography. And we found secret documents that had been declassified that he had signed, which were keeping track of all of the Jeeps and tanks and equipment that was being brought ashore. And I got just more and more interested in what he had done and what he was involved with.

Adam Monahan:

How did you come to bring this item to Antiques Roadshow?

Lloyd:

Well, my daughter had always been interested in what it might be worth, so she suggested that I apply. And then, we found out that, because COVID had just hit, that things were being canceled, so that was the end of it.

Adam Monahan:

A year later, Lloyd's daughter saw that our show would be coming to Hamilton, New Jersey, which was driving distance from Lloyd's home in upstate New York. Now, the way our show usually works is that ticketed guests come with items from home. The items go to a specific category table. For instance, Lloyd's helmet would go to militaria, and appraisers decide which items they want to pitch to a producer to be on TV. But this was our all-KOSO season. So Lloyd and everyone else applied online, and the process was done remotely to decide which items would be appraised in front of our cameras in Hamilton, New Jersey. Lloyd's helmet went to the inbox of one of our arms and military appraisers, Jeff Shrader.

Jeff Shrader:

When I saw that photo come across my screen, I couldn't believe the good fortune. This is one of those things that, if it walks up to your table, you have to pause a little bit and compose yourself before you interact with the guest.

Adam Monahan:

Jeff had seen a lot of World War II helmets by the time Lloyd's helmet came across his screen. But no matter how good something seems, he's always skeptical.

Jeff Shrader:

World War II helmets were made in the millions. They're very plain. They're exciting, in their own little helmet nerd kind of way. There are various minute differences that tell you when, during World War II, a helmet was made, and there's enough meat there to get collectors interested. But really, the thing that gets them going are the specific markings that were painted on helmets for their use in the various invasions and operations. And that little splash of paint, oftentimes, is the difference between a hundred or $200 World War II helmet and something that is worth potentially thousands of dollars.

Adam Monahan:

So Jeff was looking at this helmet trying to figure out if the markings, like that eagle on the front, were genuine or if they were painted on later, maybe by a hobby reenactor or maybe by an opportunistic forger.

Jeff Shrader:

The standing joke in the military community is "This was found in a barn in Normandy." Apparently, the barns in Normandy are just overflowing with the most amazing things. It's Aladdin's cave, each and every one of them.

Adam Monahan:

Of course, this helmet wasn't found in a barn in Normandy. It was found in a living room in Natick, Massachusetts. But even when a helmet stays in the family, the stories that get passed down with it aren't always accurate.

Jeff Shrader:

Sometimes these things get associated simply by proximity. You were Uncle Joe's kid and Uncle Joe did this, and this helmet happened to be in his garage, therefore, it's Uncle Joe's helmet. Well, maybe, maybe not. But this had a ring of authenticity to it.

Adam Monahan:

When Jeff saw the helmet in person, he quickly verified that everything Lloyd had heard about it was true. Those helmet nerd markings made that abundantly clear. Here he is during the appraisal.

Jeff Shrader:

And we have an early production World War II M1 helmet, and the reason why we can tell that that is early is the seam for the brim, that goes around the edge of the helmet, is in the front, at the very end, that's moved to the back, and then, the loops, that suspend the chinstrap, are fixed in place. And then, of course, we've got the Captain's eagle insignia that's right there on it.

Adam Monahan:

Jeff flips the helmet over to show that Captain Arnold's name is written on the inside and then, spins it around and points to the block printed letters USN for United States Navy.

Jeff Shrader:

The specific designated markings told everybody around you what the person who was wearing that helmet was there to do. On this particular helmet, there is a specific designator here in the front, NOIC, Naval Officer In Charge. So he's Naval Officer In Charge at Utah. There aren't very many of those helmets. He would not have been the only one. His deputy and the other people on his staff there with him would've had similar helmets or similar markings, but he's the only guy there with the Captain's eagle on his helmet.

Lloyd:

Really?

Jeff Shrader:

So there is but one of these.

Adam Monahan:

And in case that wasn't enough to prove this helmet's importance, Lloyd brought one more piece of evidence.

Jeff Shrader:

You have a copy of an original photograph of your uncle, very, very clearly wearing that helmet, and this has to have been on June 6th.

Lloyd:

Oh, really?

Jeff Shrader:

He's still wearing his invasion life belt.

Lloyd:

Oh.

Adam Monahan:

All of this material adds up to a stellar example of provenance, a record of ownership that proves the item we're seeing is what it claims to be.

Jeff Shrader:

What most folks think of as provenance is actually oral tradition. So "oral tradition" is an industry term, that is a nice way to say "probably bullshit." This is provenance. This, you could go stand before a judge and have a hundred percent confidence.

Adam Monahan:

So the helmet was definitely a hundred percent real and a hundred percent amazing. And what made it amazing was the guy who wore it, Captain James Arnold, a navy officer who played a crucial role during the Normandy invasions in World War II.

Jeff Shrader:

He was in charge of making, not only essentially being a traffic cop, and getting the landing craft in, the landing craft out, getting people to the right place, getting supplies to the right place, and doing all of this while under fire. It's pretty spectacular. And he had a pivotal role to play there on D-Day, and the world, frankly, benefited.

Adam Monahan:

So that's what Lloyd and Jeff knew about Captain Arnold's role on D-Day, when Lloyd came to our event in 2021. But Lloyd wasn't the only one talking to the Utah Beach Landing Museum. They had also contacted a museum in Natick, Massachusetts, to learn more about Captain Arnold's life and share Captain Arnold's own accounts of the war.

Niki Lefebvre:

"I know the helplessness of lying in a foxhole while air bombs drop and the fear of seeing men blown to bits by bursting shells. But also, I have seen, in the last few weeks, more pleasant things to remember, an army which has no equal in the world."

Adam Monahan:

That's coming up after the break. All right. Can you introduce yourself and your title?

Niki Lefebvre:

I'm Niki Lefebvre, and I'm the Executive Director of the Natick Historical Society.

Adam Monahan:

Niki and I spoke at the Natick Society Museum, where she filled me in on when they first became aware of the extraordinary life of Captain James Arnold.

Niki Lefebvre:

So we learned about Captain Arnold through Gil Moreau, who was a history teacher connected with the Utah Beach Landing Museum. And really, he reached out to us, hoping that we would have more material to share with him, so that he could tell Arnold's story. And we thought, "Wait a minute. We don't have material on this person." And so, we began our own research to see what else we could find about his life and his story.

Adam Monahan:

And what are some of the more interesting things that you could share with him from your research?

Niki Lefebvre:

Right. So James Arnold was born in Vermont, and he did his undergraduate work at WPI in Worcester. And then, he went on to the Naval Academy. But he comes to Natick sort of later in life, in the 1930s and forties. He has a family, he has two kids here, and he lives on Park Avenue, which those of us who live in Natick today know. And he works in Boston for the Leland Gifford company. And he's a salesman and he's an engineer, really drawing on those skill sets that I think he honed at WPI and then, probably as a naval officer as well.

And what's really remarkable about Arnold is that, in 1933, he runs for elected office, and he becomes a representative in the State House of Massachusetts. So he's a well-known and leading figure in the Natik community of the 1930s, and he remains an officer in reserve throughout his life. He is part of the sort of Naval Academy Officers Club in Boston. He remains connected to it during this time in the thirties and forties, but he comes back in the forties. And wow, is he ever given a job for all jobs?

Adam Monahan:

So Captain Arnold had stayed an officer from World War I until he was called back to active duty in 1940. He spent a few years close to home overseeing Navy shipbuilding in Quincy, Massachusetts, and then, he was sent to Europe to prepare for the D-Day invasion. The Natick Museum shared their learnings with the Utah Beach Museum. And Utah Beach shared some incredible documents of their own.

Niki Lefebvre:

We do research on genealogies and house histories and that sort of thing, so we had to kind of exchange our local materials that are very Natick specific. And he had the diary.

Adam Monahan:

Captain Arnold had kept a diary during his time in World War II. Seeing those entries brought this historical figure to life.

Niki Lefebvre:

He was this incredible commander, and he was also human. And diaries have this really compelling way of showing you the many sides of a person.

Adam Monahan:

Niki read me an excerpt.

Niki Lefebvre:

"I have lived in wet clothes for days and gone without a bath for weeks. I know the helplessness of lying in a foxhole while air bombs drop and the fear of seeing men blown to bits by bursting shells. I know the experience of eating K-rations out of a paper and can remember some of the days when I didn't eat at all and didn't seem hungry. I have felt the urge to kill and keep killing and the horror of badly wounded men, some hopelessly hurt, making little whimpering noises, like a whipped little boy. And I know the feeling of loneliness for family and home, which is one of the most hopeless of all the sicknesses. But also, I have seen, in the last few weeks, more pleasant things to remember, good men standing by good officers, an army, which has no equal in the world."

Adam Monahan:

Wow.

Niki Lefebvre:

Yeah.

Adam Monahan:

It's crazy. To go through that type of experience and see the horrible things in nature and then, try to reflect on the good too, it's really... What was that like when these types of materials, they come to you from France?

Niki Lefebvre:

Goosebumps. It's very moving, because I think it's easy to celebrate Arnold and all of his achievements and also easy to forget that he was a human. And when he writes about his loneliness and homesickness, that really gets me every time, because it's an ailment that doesn't have a cure until you can come home. And I think it also shines a light on the complexity of feelings of people who are nonetheless incredibly brave, that they're not superhuman, but they are able to meet the moment. And that's extraordinary.

Adam Monahan:

Why is Captain Arnold's story so important to the Natick Museum?

Niki Lefebvre:

History tends to sometimes feel like it's way back there or way out there, it's in a book, but if you can tap into one human, who had an extraordinary experience, who documented that experience, who artifacts that touched that experience survived, that that really creates a kind of intimacy with that historical moment, that, I think, is just critical to our own sense of identity, our connection to each other, to the past, to the future. It's just a huge part of what makes local history so important.

Adam Monahan:

When Lloyd brought Captain Arnold's helmet to our event, he already knew a lot there was to know about his uncle's achievements. What he didn't know was how valuable his helmet was.

Jeff Shrader:

If I was cataloging this for an auction, I would put an estimate on the item between 30 and 40,000.

Lloyd:

Wow, I can't believe that. Pretty expensive flower pot.

Jeff Shrader:

I have every confidence that, at a good sale, that number would be eclipsed.

Lloyd:

Can't imagine.

Jeff Shrader:

It's a real unicorn in the World War II collecting realm. It's something that represents a fantastically important human endeavor, one that had an impact on the lives of millions of people. There are people in Europe alive today that would not have been, had your uncle not have been so good at his job.

Lloyd:

Yeah, I'm quite proud of him. And the helmet itself didn't do an awful lot. It was the man wearing it, and I'm very proud to be related to him, part of the family. Yeah.

Adam Monahan:

This is one of the most valuable objects that you've ever appraised since you've been on our show. You valued it at 30 to $40,000 retail at the time. Do you think that estimate would be the same today?

Jeff Shrader:

Absolutely. If it wasn't strictly against the rules to buy things, which everybody, it is, we can't do that, as appraisers, we are strictly forbidden. But if Lloyd had turned to me and said, "Would you give me 30,000 for this right now?" I would've done it in cash right there.

Adam Monahan:

Now that Lloyd knew how important and valuable his uncle's helmet was, he had to figure out what to do with it.

Lloyd:

And I had determined that I was going to have the helmet on display, and I had determined that it should be over at the Utah Beach Landing Museum.

Adam Monahan:

The helmet would go right back to the beach where Captain Arnold had landed. Lloyd made plans to deliver it to the Utah Beach Landing Museum on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. The first day of their tour, they visited the Airborne Museum, where Captain Arnold's materials had first turned up, and drove along the area of Utah Beach, where Captain Arnold and the troops were supposed to have landed.

Lloyd:

That was Saturday. Saturday night, I went to bed, I had a sore throat.

Adam Monahan:

Oh no.

Lloyd:

And in the morning, my daughter says, "You know, dad, if you're not feeling well, we should probably tell the folks on the tour." So they gave us a COVID test, and I tested positive, which meant that I couldn't get out of the place for five days.

Adam Monahan:

Lloyd missed the 75th anniversary celebration. When he was finally cleared, he set up another date to visit the beach and hand off the helmet. There was one spot in particular he wanted to see.

Lloyd:

Well, he had written an article for one of the Navy publications back in 1947, and he mentions that he got ashore with his Jeep driver. And they were on the beach and were being shot at. So he found a shell crater, and he jumped into it. And while he was in this shell crater, he said that somebody else jumped in with him and said, "I'm Teddy Roosevelt." And he says, "And I know you, you're Arnold from the Navy." So Teddy Roosevelt Jr. had jumped in with him, and because the group had been pushed further down the beach than they had expected, Teddy Roosevelt jumps up and says, "We're going to start the war from here." And it was all determined from the foxhole that they were sitting in.

Adam Monahan:

Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt Jr. was the eldest son of President Teddy Roosevelt, and he led the first wave of the invasion on Utah Beach. Roosevelt died of a heart attack a month after the invasion, at 56 years old, and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Lloyd carried the helmet to that spot on the beach and then, delivered it to the mayor, whose father had founded the Utah Beach Landing Museum.

Lloyd:

So he gave me a medallion that his father had designed, and it was given to honorary people, that was indicating that I was a special citizen of Utah Beach. And yeah, that was very touching.

Adam Monahan:

Do you know how long you'll keep it there?

Lloyd:

Unless, at some point, the family takes it back, it's going to be there forever.

Adam Monahan:

I think it's really generous of to put it on loan there, because that's a spectacular item that deserves to be seen, and so that people can learn about your great uncle's contributions to the effort. Marsha already knew what Lloyd had done with the helmet. In fact, she was the person who brought this story to me. She stayed in touch with Lloyd this whole time.

Marsha Bemko:

After we talked, he started writing to me, sending me pictures, and then, it got personal. We started to talk about personal things. He became, like you said, he's like my pen pal.

Adam Monahan:

The correspondence that you had forwarded to me back in May of 2022 was all about the voyage of what happened after this. Why don't you tell us what you remember from that correspondence?

Marsha Bemko:

Well, I know he loaned it to a museum over there, and if you're going to ask me the name of the museum, it's enough months ago that I don't... Is it the D-Day Museum or something?

Adam Monahan:

It's the Utah Beach Landing Museum in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont was in touch with him, and he wound up putting it on loan to the museum.

Marsha Bemko:

So here's my selfish curious question. In the description on the helmet in the museum, does it talk about it appearing on Antiques Roadshow?

Adam Monahan:

I'm just going to say, I'm not researching that, but people in France, if you get this, please just add Antiques Roadshow to the little plaque.

Marsha Bemko:

Yeah. We have an edit suggestion for your plaque.

Adam Monahan:

(Singing) Detours is a production of GBH in Boston and distributed by PRX. This episode was written and produced by Galen Bebe. Sound designed and mixed by Jack Pombriant. Our assistant producer is Sarah Horatius, and our senior producer is Ian Coss. Jocelyn Gonzalez is the director of PRX Productions. Devin Maverick Robbins is the managing producer of podcasts for GBH. Marsha Bemko is the executive producer of Detours. I'm your host and co-executive producer, Adam Monahan. Our theme music is Once in a Century Storm by Will Dailey from the album, National Throat. Thank you all for listening. Have a good one.