It is hard to imagine that one of the more tranquil places on the Upper Cape, Washburn Island, was once time teeming with military personnel preparing for the largest seaborne invasion in history.
In the early 1940s, the island, now owned by the state, was a short-lived training facility for amphibious war tactics for World War II, specifically for beach invasions.
The training area was the main part of the Engineer Amphibious Command headquartered at Camp Edwards, now part of Joint Base Cape Cod.
On Ovington Point, on Seacoast Shores, were 1,500 tents for military personnel; on Washburn Island, another 1,500 tents. On the bay side of the island, five 12-foot-wide piers stretched out almost 900 feet into the bay, where boats would have been docked. And on the Sound side of the island, thousands of troops would have been practicing landing invasions on the long stretch of beach with the 36-foot the Landing Craft Vehicle Personel (LCVP), which were used in the Normandy invasion. The ships, with plywood sides to save on metal, became a ubiquitous site in Vineyard Sound and Waquoit Bay during the training exercises.
The island became known to locals at the time as the “Cradle of Invasion” and the men that trained on the island referred to each other as the “Cape Cod Commandos.”
Construction began on the island in the summer of 1942 when the Washburn family leased the island for about $3,000. The facility was short-lived, as the winter of 1943 persuaded the military to move the operation to Florida. Winters were too dangerous and the military command wanted their amphibians trained in waters more similar to the Pacific Ocean.
But many of those that trained on Washburn and the area would have been the men that defeated the Nazis along the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago yesterday, June 6.
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In commemorations this week, much of the Western world celebrated and remembered the D-Day invasion. And for those that survived the Normandy invasion and the rest of the war, some would return to Washburn Island for rest and recovery, as the military used the island for convalescing patients. Soldiers could fish, swim, exercise and boat much like many visitors do today, and perhaps take their minds off of the war.
A group of veterans, state maritime archaeologists, students and scientists visited Waquoit Bay and Washburn Island yesterday to take in the history and its significance to the war. As Brigadier General Don G. Schingler, chief of the Amphibious section of the US First Army said after the invasion, the “Establishment of the Engineer Amphibious Command at Camp Edwards was the first step into Normandy.”
A maritime archaeology class from Bridgewater State University, as well as veterans with the Diver Archaeological Reconnaissance Cooperative, were taken on a bit of a history lesson, led by staff at the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. James P. Rassman, stewardship coordinator at the reserve, led the group by skiff and by foot.
The archaeology students took in the sites where soldiers trained, recording remnants of the time like metal fragments, concrete slabs and other leftovers. Some infrastructure such as paved roads still snake around the island. Even sewer piping remains on the island from that era.
“It was an important educational moment that was seized,” said Professor Calvin Mires of Bridgewater State. Mr. Mires is a part-time professor who teaches marine archaeology. While the class was studying a shipwreck in Sage Lot Pond for the week, the professor said they could not miss the opportunity of taking in the history of Washburn Island on such a significant day.
Much of marine archaeology, Mr. Mires said, is about the people and their stories throughout history. An archaeological site, like a shipwreck, can connect the stories of the past to today. Walking the “exact spot” where men trained for the Normandy invasion gave his students a direct connection to that time.
The significance of the day and site was not lost on Dan Hoolihan, the director of the veteran-led divers cooperative. Mr. Hoolihan, who served in the Navy, could not help but notice that the students involved were older than most of the men that trained on the island. He also said that the island itself was a strange and significant waypoint for veterans of World War II. While many of them trained on Washburn’s Island, some may have come back for rest and recovery after the war, and some may have built homes on the mainland near the island.
Mr. Hoolihan’s group performs maritime archaeological studies for the state to record and coordinates diving exercises for veterans. He said that the execercises not only help the state record some of the thousands of marine archaelogical sites, but it also gives veterans returning from war a strong sense of purpose, and allows them to work together with like-minded people. Mr. Hoolihan hopes to take a class to Washburn so that they can dive and record some of the leftovers from the 1940s.
In Falmouth and Mashpee, Washburn Island was not the only area used by the military. Popponesset Beach was used for training missions similar to the ones on the Sound side of the island. To the west, Falmouth Marine Railway repaired the several vessels that came into their docks for the training missions.