by Giles Milton
Who was Howard Vander Beek? And what happened to him on the night before D-Day? Well, it turns out that his quick thinking saved the lives of no fewer than 21,000 men.
Welcome to Season 3 of Unknown History: D-Day Stories. Today we’re talking about a young American captain who was destined to play a vital role in the beach landings on June 6, 1944.
D-Day was the biggest seaborne invasion in the history of warfare: five massive fleets, one for each of the five invasion beaches: Force U for Utah Beach, Force O for Omaha, Force J for Juno, Force G for Gold, and Force S for Sword.
Each of these armadas had to be led by someone capable. It was a unique responsibility; one mistake and the entire fleet could be led into one of the many minefields that had been laid all along the French coast.
At the front of Force U—destined for Utah Beach—was Howard Vander Beek, a strong-jawed, white-toothed 27-year-old from Oskaloosa, Iowa.
His wave of blond hair and sharply knotted tie lent an Ivy League preppiness to his nautical dress—at least it did when he was on dry land. But he had now been at sea for many hours and his hair was sluiced with salt and his necktie sodden and listing.