Historian Stephen Ambrose, recently accused of lifting material from other authors in at least six of his books, is now under attack by former members of the British Royal Navy. And Bob Sales, a D-Day veteran from Madison Heights, is one of their primary weapons.
Sales says Ambrose's 1995 book, "D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II," gives an inaccurate account of his D-Day landing. Sales was the sole survivor among 30 men on the command boat for B Company, 116th Infantry, 29th Division.
"The British Navy is upset because it makes them look like a coward," the 76-year-old Sales said. "They want to get it straight. I'm the only survivor. It's got to be what I say goes."
According to Sales, American Capt. Attore Zappacosta was in the front of the landing craft heading one of two columns of men. After the British coxswain told the captain he couldn't go any farther, the coxswain dropped the ramp and Zappacosta was the first man off - and the first to be killed.
But Ambrose's account is more dramatic and less flattering to the Brits.
"On the command boat for B Company, the CO, Capt. Ettore (sic) Zappacosta, heard the British coxswain cry out, ‘We can't go in there. We can't see the landmarks. We must pull off,' " Ambrose wrote.
"Zappacosta pulled his colt .45 and ordered, ‘By god, you'll take this boat straight in.' "
That's just not true, Sales said. Zappacosta didn't pull a gun on anyone.
Zappacosta, always quiet, was particularly quiet that morning. Sales, who was his radio operator, recalls that all Zappacosta said right before landing was to ask Sales what the beach looked like. Sales told his captain that the beach appeared to be littered with bodies.
Ambrose's spokesman and son, Hugh Ambrose, said in a telephone interview Thursday that his father relied on a well-known historian, S.L.A. Marshall, for that account. Hugh Ambrose said it "makes sense" to accept Sales' version but his father "stands behind his interpretations of those events and his work.
"My father read through thousands and thousands of manuscripts and books and interviewed thousands of veterans.
"… Men did have to point weapons at men in their own company from time to time."
But that didn't happen with British coxswains in the D-Day invasion, says Lt. Col. George "Jimmy" Green, sub-lieutenant and first officer of the 551 Assault Flotilla, Combined Operations, Royal Navy.
"I was officer in charge of the first wave," Green said in a telephone interview from Devon, England. "My coxswains are absolutely livid with Ambrose."
Green, who came to Bedford in May 2000 for the unveiling of the arch at the National D-Day Memorial, said his coxswains were "brave chaps" and got their landing craft as close to shore as possible, without being threatened at gunpoint.
There is another major flaw in Ambrose's version of the story.
"The coxswain is encased in a steel turret," Green said. "You can't get at him for a start."
Green said only naval experts would know that, or men who were there. Sales knew.
"It's ridiculous to think a captain would pull a gun on his coxswain," he said.
And because there were manmade obstacles in the water, with mines attached, the landing craft could only get so close to the beach, Sales said.
"We went in as far as we could go," Sales said. "We were eat up with machine gun bullets. We were caught in a crossfire."
Sales said he wishes Ambrose or someone from his organization had interviewed him, rather than relying on other sources.
The misinformation may have come from a 1960 article in The Atlantic Monthly written by S.L.A. Marshall. A 1961 article in Stag magazine, which Sales has a copy of, repeats the erroneous story.
The language in Ambrose's book is almost identical to that in those two articles.
"Plagiarism is only one part of the problem," said Green's son-in-law, Kevan Elsby of Warwickshire. "How do you know it's right or wrong?"
Elsby said the error only came to their attention three or four years ago. After being frustrated with the correspondence with Ambrose, they recently decided to go public.
Elsby said he has sent the corrected version of events to several newspapers in hopes of setting the record straight.
"The veterans feel quite furious about it … when it just didn't happen like that," Elsby said.
Sales is puzzled that the mistake is attributed to Marshall, whom he met within days of the D-Day invasion. Sales was called away from "fighting like a tiger up in the hedgerows" to meet Col. Marshall and tell him exactly what happened to his landing craft.
Sales met Ambrose in Washington, D.C., a couple of years ago and pointed out the error.
"He laughed and said, ‘those things happen,' " Sales said.
Both Green and Sales said they have the highest regard for what each other's country did during the war. They just want the history to be accurate.
Green said he has other beefs with Ambrose. For one, Ambrose wrote that everyone on the boat Green was on was "vaporized" before they hit the beach. Obviously, Green was not vaporized. He delivered his landing craft to the beach, where Capt. Taylor Fellers of Bedford and all his men, disembarked. Sadly, they were all killed, but Green's landing craft returned safely to the transport ship.
For another, Green said, Ambrose was Steven Spielberg's consultant on "Saving Private Ryan," which left the British out of the invasion altogether.
"Ambrose forgot to tell Spielberg there were Brits there," Green said.
Green, now 80, has written Ambrose, who replied that if there is a second edition of the D-Day book, he would correct the errors.
"There was no apology," Green said. "I gather he sends this to everybody."