Roanoke College

D-Day book connects class material, family history

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  • D-Day book connects class material, family history

  • 11/08/12
  • When the students in Tom Carter's Roanoke College class on D-Day occasionally complain that the World War II newsreel he's showing has poor special effects and is in black-and-white, Carter has to inform them that they are watching actual documentary footage, not an old war movie.

    "Those are real planes, real bullets, and real people being shot down," he reminds them.

    The interest in D-Day that led Carter to create his Intensive Learning term class is just as genuine; it originates from the service of Carter's own father at Normandy, and has led not only to the class, but also Carter's first book, "Beachhead Normandy: An LCT's Odyssey," published by Potomac Books.

    It was his father's service in the Navy during World War II that also led Carter into the Navy after high school. He wanted to be a writer and saw a hitch abroad as a way to gain life experience and writing material. After serving three years aboard the USS Semmes, including time in the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean, Carter began applying for newspaper jobs, inspired by the example of one of his favorite authors, James Thurber, who had begun as a newspaperman.

    All of the jobs Carter sought required college degrees, so he went back to school - first to community college, then to Georgia Southern College (now Georgia Southern University), where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees. After working as a newspaper reporter and editor, he realized that "journalism is one job at which you can make more money teaching it than doing it," so he enrolled at the University of Tennessee and got his doctorate. His doctoral dissertation, appropriately enough, was on Thurber's newspaper work. He taught at Georgia Southern, and in 1994, after answering a Roanoke College ad seeking an English professor who could also teach journalism, he came to Roanoke College. In addition to his journalism classes, he also specializes in medieval literature.

    Curious about his father's wartime experiences - his curiosity fueled further by a trip to Normandy he took with his two brothers for D-Day's 50th anniversary in 1994 - Carter began to research a book about the neglected story of the role played by the Navy's landing craft tanks (LCTs) in the invasion.

    "If getting a Ph.D. taught me anything, it was how to do research," he reasoned. It was his research for the book that led him to create the May term class at Roanoke, "Symbolic Narrative: The National D-Day Memorial." Carter has taught the class every three years since his arrival at Roanoke beginning in 2003  and is scheduled to teach it again in May 2013. After reading about the invasion and watching such movies as "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Longest Day," his students take a trip to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford. Each student is assigned to assess a different part of the memorial and judge how well it represents the actual history of the Normandy invasion.

    As for the book itself, what Carter thought would take only a couple of years to research and write is just now being published. The history of the LCTs at Normandy proved to be a much more complex one than he first thought. While his father's recollections, and those of the other D-Day veterans Carter interviewed for the book, were still vivid after more than half a century, the full story could not be told until he supplemented the close-up experience of the men on the front lines with the larger strategic and historical picture.

    It was only after an intensive, and often frustrating, search through Naval archives that Carter was able to fill in these gaps. He was left with a banker's box crammed with notes and documents that he distilled into the 209 pages of "Beachhead Normandy." The book should prove not only a long-needed addition to World War II historical literature for the general reader, but also a valuable resource for his students, whose primary knowledge of the war, according to Carter, comes from "movies and even video games."

    While the members of Carter's generation had fathers who served in World War II, his current students had grandfathers who served in Vietnam. Through his class and his book, however, Carter is helping to restore the immediacy and underscore the importance of D-Day, and to honor those who, like his father, took part in it.