Electron microscope image of a sample of Omaha Beach sand with iron bead and shrapnel fragments

Written by Todd DePastino

We’ve all learned to be skeptical of social media truths, so when Betty sent me the following screenshot of a claim that 4% of Omaha Beach’s sand was shrapnel, I was doubtful.

Screenshot of social media post about 4% of the sand on Omaha Beach is composed of shrapnel

Turns out, the post gets it exactly right.

So much ordnance was expended on June 6, 1944–so many bombs, bullets, and artillery shells fired and exploded–that fragments of the battle remain embedded in the beach sand itself.

If you subscribe to journal The Sedimentary Record, you know this already. Its September 2011 issue contains an article by geology professors Earle F. McBride and M. Dane Picard. McBride and Picard wax lyrical as they describe collecting sand at the old battle site one rainy morning:

On the morning of 8 June 1988, forty-four years after the landing, we collected a sample of sand on the high-tide point from Omaha Beach near the War Memorial. It had rained during the night and was raining still. The tide was out, as it had been during the landings. Mollusk shells (pelecypods and gastropods) glistened, and water ran through rills. Long before our visit the beach had been swept clean of obvious artifacts of the war. There was little indication other than faint relics of trenches and the solitary casemates above the beach of the harrowing destruction. Collectors of sand and sandstone around the world for more than five decades, we never miss an opportunity to gather sand from shores.

Then, the article gets technical. VERY technical. Here’s a sample of what follows:

A thin section of the sand contains a large number of angular, non-spherical, opaque grains. Like normal detrital magnetite (named for Pliny’s shepherd Magnes), they were strongly magnetic. Shard-like, they were only slightly rounded. Some were well laminated. Magnetite is an isometric mineral.

One glass bead is slightly oblate, another has a blister-like appendage. The surfaces of beads are mostly smooth with topographic imperfections <0.3 μm except for scattered divots and rare scratches and conchoidal spall pits.

Although the melting point of pure iron is 1538° C (2800° F) (Lide, 2003), iron and carbon form a eutectic system that permits melting of the mixture below 1200° C (2192° F). Cast iron, for example, melts at ?1260° C (2300° F)

With some close reading, cross referencing, and, yes, AI-generated translations, I think I’ve crafted a lay person’s explanation of what these researchers discovered from their sample of Omaha Beach sand.

Stretching five miles along the Normandy coast, Omaha was one of five landing beaches of Operation Overlord, the massive D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, aimed at liberating Nazi-occupied France. The beach is framed by rocky cliffs and has a gently sloping tidal area, making it a strategic yet perilous landing zone for the invading forces.

German defenses were robust, with soldiers from the 352nd Infantry Division entrenched in fortified positions overlooking the beach. These troops, commanded by General Dietrich Kraiss, were well-prepared and experienced, directing fire well against the invading troops.

After an intense and bloody struggle, the Allies secured a beachhead and turned the tide of war.

Decades after the war, McBride and Picard were able to demonstrate the battle’s impact on the beach’s geology.

Their close study of sand samples revealed that the sand at Omaha Beach is predominantly composed of detrital quartz, feldspar, carbonate grains, and other typical beach sediments.

However, it also contains notable amounts of shrapnel and glass, remnants of the wartime explosions and munitions.

The researchers were struck by the presence of angular, non-spherical grains of magnetite, a magnetic iron oxide mineral. These grains, which are typically formed through natural geological processes, were found to be unusually abundant and uniquely shaped at Omaha Beach. McBridge and Picard concluded that the grains weren’t natural. Rather, they were were pieces of shrapnel, still so hard they hadn’t been worn down much by the friction and abrasion of the tides.

Additionally, the scientists found small spherical beads of iron and glass among the sand grains. These beads were formed by the extreme heat generated from munitions explosions, which were hot enough to melt iron and heat quartz, producing glass beads. These human-made particles testify to the ferocity of the battle.

The iron and glass beads also displayed interesting characteristics. The iron beads varied in size and exhibited different degrees of surface luster and corrosion. The glass beads, mostly spherical, ranged between 0.5 to 0.6 millimeters in diameter and contained various imperfections and bubble inclusions, likely formed during their rapid cooling and solidification following the explosions.

The presence of these human-made particles in the sand at Omaha Beach serves as a microscopic record of the battle. While the larger artifacts and visible remnants of the war have long been removed or weathered away, these tiny grains remain as silent by-products of the war.

The 18th century poet William Blake taught us it was possible “To see a World in a Grain of Sand.” Professors McBride and Picard showed we can see a war in one, as well.