D-Day photo triggers memories, coincidences

Posted 6/13/24

Jane McGair opened her browser on the 80th anniversary of D-Day and there was her father, Branson Donaldson, on the front page of the Providence Journal.

“I was very …

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D-Day photo triggers memories, coincidences


Jane McGair opened her browser on the 80th anniversary of D-Day and there was her father, Branson Donaldson, on the front page of the Providence Journal.

“I was very surprised,” she said. She immediately contacted her sister and other members of the family to learn the Providence paper was not the only one to run the same photograph along with D-Day stories. The picture taken by Capt. Herman Wall, of the 165th Signal Corps Company who volunteered to take war pictures, captures the first wave of Allied soldiers as they hit Omaha Beach. In the background more troops splash ashore and landing craft dot the horizon. No fatalities are pictured although on that first day more 2,400 troops died on Omaha Beach.

The picture has appeared in numerous publications, and as Jane notes, it is often featured during D-Day anniversaries. On that day Branson took a hit, but not seriously enough to be taken out of action.

Reflecting on her father, Jane said he was “very quiet” about the war and his experience that day. “It was very emotional for him,” she added.

It’s no wonder. At the time Branson, first lieutenant 97th Quartermaster Railhead Company was looking out for his men. In addition to carrying a rifle he had a bag of medical supplies including  morphine. As soldiers dropped, Branson moved between the dead bodies, using them shields to reach those still living or dying.

An account of that first day on Omaha Beach in the book Voices of D-Day identified Branson as one of the victims, which Jane remarks is impossible because she’s here today. Jane was born in 1947 after the war and quite obviously after Branson returned home. The misinformation put Jane on a mission to have her father properly identified in the national archives. She turned to Elisha Palmer, curator of the Army Quartermaster Museum at Fort Gregg Adams in Virginia. From the numbering of the ships photographed and their locations, Palmer was able to confirm the location and rough time- between 11:30 and 12:30 -  from where the picture was taken and from markings on the collar and helmet was able to identify the man pictured  was a first lieutenant.

According to a report provided  Jane, the 97th Quartermaster Railhead Company reached the beach on an LCT that was ”instantly met with heavy artillery and machine gunfire, severing the anchor and cutting away part of the aft bulkhead and causing five causalities. Under this fire, the ship’s ramp was raised, and the craft pulled into the channel, evacuating the casualties and returned to the beach at about 11:35 hours, where it discharged the troops on board in neck-deep water, from 50 to 75 yards offshore.”  Palmer confirmed one of those men was Branson.

The family had no doubt Branson was in the photo. Soon after the landing, the June 19 edition of Newsweek ran the photograph and his mother Ann knew immediately who is was.  Often when shown the picture people would say to Branson, “so, you must be the first on the beach,” to which he would reply dryly, “well, then who took the picture?”

“I sort of grew up with that picture,” says Jane.

Branson was stationed in France for a year and a half after the landing. He was awarded a Purple Heart and the Croix de Guerre by the French government. He was discharged as a captain. When he returned home Branson was hired  as a sales representative for Champion Spark Plugs. For a time the family lived in Maine and then moved to Wantagh, NY on Long Island where Jane spent her childhood.

Coincidences seem to be a part of Jane’s life. She earned her electrocardiogram certification at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass, and ended up with a job in Boston. Her cousins lived in Rhode Island so there were relatives nearby who suggested she should meet Joseph McGair. But it wasn’t the cousins who brought them together. Joe was a student at Suffolk Law School. One night both happened to be at a club, Alexander’s. Joe spotted Jane and told a friend he was going to ask her to dance. He did and soon both made the connection Jane’s cousin Eileen had been promoting. “You must be Jane,” she remembers Joe saying.

Joe and Jane were married a week before his graduation. “It gave us time for a honeymoon,” she explained.

The date of the wedding 54 years ago on June 6. Jane said it wasn’t selected because it was D-Day. It was a Saturday and just happened that way.

Last year the McGairs traveled to Normandy and when the tour guide learned of Jane’s father, the photograph and her research, she was chosen to place a wreath of flowers at the American Normandy Cemetery bearing  9,388 white crosses. “It was quiet,” Jane said of the solemn ceremony.

This June 6 they went to Boston. There are more coincidences.

In the process of her research, Jane was in touch with Tim Gray, founder and president of the Word War II Foundation who has interviewed more than 1,000 WWII veterans  and produced 38 documentaries. Gray returned from Normandy last week before the 80th anniversary to be at his daughter’s graduation from South Kingstown High School.

Jane sent her son Chip a text to be sure to say hello to Gray. Chip is the principal of South Kingstown High.

D-Day, photo, memories


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