We all know what’s contained within the pages of a book can transport us to faraway lands or take us on frightening adventures – but, occasionally, there’s more found there than even the author intended.
While visiting the Eastern Shore of Maryland several years ago, Scott Nieman spotted a book sale in progress in a church parking lot and decided to check it out.
“One of my hobbies is finding old first edition books, or autographed books; things like that,” explained Nieman, who works for Aircraft Prototype Systems Division at NAS Patuxent River. “And that day, I found three old books I was interested in.”
After Nieman got home, he opened one of the books – “The Bradford History ‘Of Plimouth Plantation’” published in 1898 – and an old, folded map fell out.
“It was an old Beachmasters map and I didn’t think much of it until years later when I started wondering where the map came from and began looking into the history of it.”
Who were the Beachmasters?
In World War II, during amphibious operations, beachmasters were personnel responsible for coordinating the mass movement and planned flow of troops, equipment and supplies through the surf zone, onto the hostile shore, and across the assault beach.
Nieman says his map, dated Jan. 10, 1944, shows the beachhead where Allied troops landed 12 days later on Jan. 22 – in what was known as Operation Shingle – near Anzio and Nettuno, Italy. It indicates evacuation routes for troops once they came ashore, shows the beach was mined, notes the location of a previously wrecked aircraft, and is illustrated with red trails depicting the path the men needed to follow to reach the roadway. Also printed in the corner are the words “Secret Shingle.”
“The beachmasters were the first personnel on the beach,” Nieman added. “They were the guys who directed the artillery, tanks, and men on where to go once they ran the beach. There were probably only a few of these maps printed for the purpose.”
Nieman has been in touch with many organizations over the past four months in an attempt to learn as much as he can about the map. He has corresponded with the Library of Congress; National Archives; War College; Navy History Museum; Army General Staff College; Anzio Beach Head WWII Veterans Organization; Allied Landing Museum in Anzio, Italy; and the British National Archives, among others.
“I’ve been trying to find out who was in the Beach Master Unit at Nettuno in 1944, with no success other than an old document that says the beachmaster was a Navy man,” Nieman noted. “Each time I contact someone, they give me a tip on who else I might contact.”
Possible owner of the book and map
Along the way, a suggestion was made that Nieman look up books written by maritime and American historian Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison, who often included such detail.
“Morison was a friend of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and he had asked to become a commissioned officer with the understanding he’d be an official Navy historian and could visit operations to record living history, tactics and operations, “ Nieman noted. “He began as lieutenant commander.”
Nieman quickly learned that one of Morison’s books, published in 1952, was a revised edition of the old book where the beachmaster map was found – and he believes that is no coincidence.
Bradford, the author of the book Nieman found, was the second governor of Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, and the book had been written in old English. Morison, from Massachusetts, taught at Harvard for a while and had revised the book into modern English. Also, in the front of Nieman’s book is pasted a label reading “From the library of Hennrietta Pitman, interested in geneaology”. After further research, Nieman learned the Pitmans were descended from Plymouth Colony settlers and one of them lived in Boston, only a few miles from Harvard, where Morison was teaching.
“I think one of the descendants may have been friends with Morison and the book was given to him to use as a working copy [for his intended revision of it],” Nieman said.
Morison had also written a book called “Sicily-Salerno-Anzio,” which was part of a 15-volume set, and Nieman believes Morison may have had the original Bradford History with him, doing research while in theater.
“We can place Morison in Anzio/Nettuno in 1944 and he could’ve acquired the map from one of the members of the shore beach party as a [historical] record of the operation there,” Nieman added. “He could’ve put the map in the book and forgotten all about it.”
But how would the book and map end up in a rummage sale on the Eastern Shore of Maryland?
“After the war, Morison returned to Baltimore and taught at Johns Hopkins for a while before going back to Massachusetts; so he did live in Maryland,” Nieman said. “But exactly how it ended up in the book sale on the Eastern Shore, I have no idea.”
The search continues
Nieman continues to investigate the map for more definitive answers. In the meantime, he has also taken it to various appraisers who have priced its value from $500 to tens of thousands more – not a bad return on a $1.50 purchase.
“It’s hard because there aren’t many of them out there and some of these people had never seen one before,” he noted. “One WWII aficionado at a recent appraisal fair said about $30,000 because it’s in such good shape.”
Meanwhile, Nieman had the map matted and framed with museum-quality materials and is taking good care of it; and he plans to continue perusing book sales for more finds.
“You’d be surprised what you can find, like autographed copies by famous authors,” he said. “I once found a 1927 handout from the Smithsonian for their Brontosaurus exhibit, before they renamed the dinosaur Brachiosaurus. I also found a 1902 Christmas menu for the 7th Calvary, the ones who went after Pancho Villa after he killed several people in New Mexico. It’s amazing sometimes what comes out of old books.”