I was a geology student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in the 1960s before I was drafted into the Army for duty in Vietnam. I was asked by an instructor to find the richest known mineral deposit on Earth. It was a single question final exam that we had all term to answer. Little did I know that for weeks I searched for the answer with a forensic eye for value based on riches. Was it where there was diamonds, oil, uranium, gold or fossils?
The question begged to define the word richest and it wasn’t in the ground where I would find its answer, but in my heart.
I grew up in Chicago and was blessed that my public education included periodic visits by World War II veterans. There I learned that the most expensive piece of Earth was in France in a place called Normandy. I remember clearly a pinch of that sand was worth many a man’s life or limb, and on the longest day in history it was worth the world.
My argument was worth a passing grade my instructor lamented after the term, but it was clearly not the answer for a course in forensic geology. The instructor remarked it was an abstract solution and suggested I should change my major to philosophy. I postulated that if I had a sample from Omaha Beach, and a day with an electronic microscope, I could prove the sand contained the richest mineral deposit in the remains of war where the greatest price was paid for my freedom and a free world. It would be another twenty years until my proof was discovered.
Earle McBride and Dane Picard were traveling across France conducting geologic fieldwork in 1988 when they took time out to play tourists at Omaha Beach, site of one of the most ferocious battles during the D-Day invasion more than forty years earlier. It was a miserably cold and blustery day. They tarried just long enough to scoop a sample of beach sand into a little baggie.
McBride, a professor emeritus in the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, collects sand pretty much any chance he gets. By analyzing sand from modern dunes, beaches and rivers from a wide range of sites around the world, he can link the mineral compositions of ancient sandstones to the kinds of environments that forged them.
A few years after the French trip, he put the beach sand under a microscope and discovered tiny metal shards mixed in with the ordinary bits of quartz and other materials that he expected to see. Those shards turned out to be shrapnel from the famous World War II invasion. On closer examination, he also found iron and glass beads that had resulted from the intense heat unleashed by explosions in the air and sand.
“It is of course not surprising that shrapnel was added to the Omaha Beach sand at the time of the battle, but it is surprising that it survived forty-plus years and is doubtless still there today,” wrote McBride and Picard, currently a professor emeritus at the University of Utah, in an article for Earth magazine last year.
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, more than 160,000 Allied troops poured from planes and ships onto the heavily fortified shores of Normandy, France. Omaha Beach was one of five Allied landing points along a fifty-mile (eighty-kilometer) stretch of coastline.
“The battles were bloody and brutal,” wrote McBride and Picard, “but by day’s end, the Allies had established a beachhead.” It proved to be the turning point of the war. McBride was just twelve years old in 1944. I had not yet been born.
To analyze the sand, McBride first mixed the tiny grains with a blue epoxy, making what amounted to artificial sandstone, and then sliced it into thin sections. Under an optical microscope operating in transmission mode (in which light passes through the sample), he could see opaque grains.
In the 1960s, detectives with the Texas Department of Public Safety brought Earle McBride a sample of sand collected from the pant cuff of a murder suspect. They wanted to know if the suspect had been to the Rio Grande. Within seconds, McBride could tell that the sand was from the Colorado River near Austin. Some telltale signs: It had pink potassium feldspar grains derived from granite in the Llano region, which are commonly found in the Colorado River but not in the Rio Grande; and there were no sand grains derived from volcanic rocks, something common in sands from the Rio Grande but not from the Colorado.
“Unfortunately, that wasn’t the answer the police wanted, so I got dismissed,” he said. “That was my first foray into forensic science.” McBride’s sand collection is carefully stored in hundreds of bags and bottles in row after row of metal drawers in the basement of the Jackson Geosciences Building.
Adding another light source to see reflected light, the grains of sand from Omaha Beach appeared shiny, an unusual feature for naturally occurring minerals. The shard-like angularity of the grains suggested these were not naturally formed. Ordinary ocean wave action along the shore tends to blunt sharp edges. Other tests showed the metal shards contained large amounts of iron and were magnetic. At this point, he had no doubt these were pieces of shrapnel.
McBride reported that four percent of the sand is made up of these bits of shrapnel, ranging in size from very fine to coarse (0.06 to 1 millimeter). Because the beach surface is continually being reworked by wind and waves, a sample taken on another day might have yielded a different abundance.
He also found trace amounts of spherical iron beads and glass beads. Some iron beads were broken, revealing hollow centers. Using a scanning electron microscope, he was able to study the shape, texture and size of all three explosively produced structure types in greater detail.
McBride and Picard published their full results in the September 2011 edition of The Sedimentary Record, a quarterly journal of The Society for Sedimentary Geology (SEPM).
“Today, the only visible indications of the horrific battles fought at Omaha Beach are some concrete casements above the beach and nearby cemeteries that quietly mark the thousands of lives lost,” wrote McBride and Picard.
Gone are the wrecks of planes, ships and tanks, the shell casings, the scraps of rotted boot leather, and all the other detritus of war long since spirited away by generations of beachcombers. And so it fell to a pair of geologists to pluck one last relic from the sand, hidden under the feet of thousands of tourists every year.
Unlike the global layer of radioactive fallout from the 1950s atomic bomb tests that geologists and others now use to calibrate their tools for dating geologic materials, the microscopic fingerprint of the D-Day invasion probably won’t endure long.
McBride says the iron-rich shrapnel shards could probably withstand the scouring action of waves alone for hundreds of thousands of years. But studying the shrapnel grains under high magnification, he observed particles of iron oxide, or rust, created by a chemical reaction between saltwater and iron. Waves churn the iron fragments, which rubs off some of the rust and exposes fresh material, which is more amenable to rusting, which in turn gets rubbed off, and so on.
“The net result is these things will get smaller and smaller and then finally get carried away by storms or hurricanes and be taken out of the beach,” says McBride, “so their time is numbered.”
“The combination of chemical corrosion and abrasion will likely destroy the grains in a century or so,” wrote McBride and Picard, “leaving only the memorials and people’s memories to recall the extent of devastation suffered by those directly engaged in World War II.”
My military experience took me to Normandy twice in the 1970s. The first time was when I was selected as a jumpmaster to re-enact the 30th anniversary of the D-Day parachute assault in Eindhoven. Following the jump, a couple of us earned a three-day pass and headed off to visit the American Cemetery in Normandy and visited Omaha Beach. We walked the 7,000 yards of pristine sand alone; it took us a couple hours and we hardly said a word. The experience was so overwhelming we all forgot to take some sand, but we left with a memory that we would never forget.
We walked on the most expensive beach in history. The price paid there could not be measured in the more than nine thousand white stones in the cemetery or the families that they left behind, or never had; or the way that they could have changed the world, but didn’t get a second chance; and the cost for that longest day could not be measured in the years it took to plan for that moment when the first boat in the first wave hit the beach that started to turn the ocean red.
My second time in Normandy was a year later after I finished French Commando training in Kiel. Another three days free, following training patterned after the tactics developed by the French Resistance in World War II, I was determined to see the beach again to give my body time to heal from the three week school in urban warfare that included a brutal course in escape and evasion. My other classmates went to Paris and I travelled alone across France.
This time I didn’t walk the beach; I just sat for a long time in one spot and watched the waves meet the sand. I wanted to focus into a single pointedness my memory of the moment so I would never forget. Soon I made contact of sound with the sense organ of the ear; then by contact of smell with the sense organ of the nose; by contact of taste with the sense organ of the tongue; by contact of touch with the sense organ of the body; and by contact of mental objects with the sense organ of the mind.
It became clear that each grain of sand on that empty beach was not inert, but filled with life. A life-energy had been burned into it with a countless baptism of heroic spirit. If I could see into a grain of sand the 360 degrees of cutting surface with an electronic microscope, then I would also see in a grain of Omaha Beach sand forensic evidence that there had been a great battle fought here. Looking at it with my mind’s eye, I could see countless faces between every degree in every grain and in every face there was a peaceful smile.
I returned to my unit and left France for my station in Italy without a grain of sand from the beach, but with a new sense of what was important in life. I was a richer man for the experience. My travels had taken me twice to a place that contained the richest minerals in the world in a single grain of sand on a beach that was miles long and feet deep. I felt like I gained the wisdom of the richest king in the Bible; the greatest gift in life is freedom and that is what each grain of sand from Omaha Beach means to me.
It is a great comfort to know that even if in a hundred years, or thousands, all the grains of sand on Normandy’s Omaha Beach that witnessed the longest day disappear and are replaced, purified by Nature, we will still remember in stone in the cemetery the sacrifice to make Omaha Beach sand the richest mineral on Earth. One day, far away, when Nature turns even that stone to sand and disappears from beach to ocean, our children’s children will still remember.