Just five years after graduating from Wake Forest College, Charles M. Allen, Jr., found himself in Europe as an Aerial Reconnaissance Photographer with the U.S. Army Air Forces.
Allen had a special assignment.
It was his job to snap pre-invasion surveillance images of the German troops and defenses along the French coastline as the Allies prepared for the Normandy invasion in June 1944.
Interestingly, it’s due to Allen’s planning and intelligence that these images are available to us today. When Allen died in 2005, he left a list of specific instructions that included a wish to offer his collection of wartime photographs and personal letters to the North Carolina Museum of History.
Allen’s family kept the collection for twelve more years. When his wife died in 2017, they made the donation to the State Archives of North Carolina.
The collection includes hundreds of images that give rare insight into U.S. operations in Europe from 1944 through the end of the war. Earlier this year, many were made available online.
Many of the photographs are marked with notes and dates from contact sheets created during the printing process. The one below is a snapshot of the Thames River in London and was actually taken on D-Day.
The collection of photographs also includes stories within the larger narrative. A handful show the daily life of U.S. servicemen stationed at bases or camps in England, France, and Belgium.
In the image below, an Army chaplain is using the hood of a jeep as an altar while he leads a worship service in a hayfield in France.
Members of the Reconnaissance Group also captured images of the celebrities–and non-celebrities–who performed with the USO.
Luminaries including Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and Ingrid Bergman were among those photographed entertaining the troops.
There is tragedy in the collection, as well. Allen’s Wake Forest College roommate, Thad Banks, was among the WFC students and alumni killed in the war.
The Winston-Salem Journal has published excerpts of Allen’s letters home, and found some heartbreaking lines about Banks after a note Allen sent him was marked “Return to Sender.”
“I just can’t figure out why it would be undeliverable unless he has messed around and either gotten himself killed or captured. I’m just hoping against hope it isn’t that. I love that boy like a brother… I’ve just always thought of seeing him after the war and it has never entered my mind otherwise.”
The researchers at the State Archives consider one of the most significant parts of the collection to be a series of aerial photographs of Paris, France, believed to have been taken by Allen after the Allies liberated the city.
Although Allen had graduated from WFC in 1939, he returned as a biology instructor and was living in town when WWII began. Letters in the collection give a glimpse of wartime life in Wake Forest, and museum staff have made plans to research the contents in hopes of gaining more information about this period for townsfolk and college alike.
After the war, Allen came home to North Carolina, earned a PhD at Duke University, and worked at Wake Forest College as a biology professor. He moved with the college to Winston-Salem in 1956 and became one of the university’s most legendary figures–teaching for more than forty years, assisting in the design and construction of Wilson Hall and the Scales Fine Arts Center, and directing a university concert series that attracted international talent.
But seventy-five years ago today, Charles M. Allen, Jr., was an aerial reconnaissance photographer working alongside other servicemen in the 10th Photographic Group, processing and examining the pictures they were taking in preparation for the amphibious landings that would become the largest seaborne invasion in history and turn the tide of war.