This Month in History – D-Day, Henry Jay MacMillan, and World War II

In the early morning of June 6, 1944—five years after World War II began—American, Canadian, and British troops representing the Allied side landed on five beaches in Normandy, France. The “D-Day” invasion marked the beginning of Allies’ Operation Overlord, a large-scale push that in May, 1945 finally led to victory in Europe over the Nazis and their allies, the Axis powers. After the beaches were secured, at a cost of thousands of casualties, the Allied forces sent troops, vehicles, and military equipment over to France. Nearly a million men landed on those Normandy beaches over the summer of 1944. Wilmington artist-turned-soldier Henry Jay MacMillan was one of those men.

MacMillan was born in Wilmington on January 13, 1908. He was interested in art from a young age. He took painting lessons with artist Elizabeth Chant in her studio on Cottage Lane. He furthered his training at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (now Parsons School of Design) at both their New York and Paris branches, graduating in 1929. MacMillan worked as an artist and interior designer in the 1930s. Right before the U.S. entered the war, MacMillan opened his first New York City one-man art show. One month later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered World War II.

Like many other Americans, MacMillan became a soldier in World War II. He was drafted into the U.S. Army on July 31, 1942 and sent to Fort Bragg. From there, possibly because of his artistic skills, he was sent to the Corps of Engineers Replacement Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he worked on a mural project at the fort. In December 1942, MacMillan was assigned to the 62nd Engineer Topographic Company already at work in North Africa. In mid-July 1943, he and the company moved to Sicily to prepare for the American invasion of Italy. By October 1943, Southern Italy had been conquered by the Allies. And so MacMillan’s company sailed to England in November 1943 to join the Allied preparations for invading Europe via France.  At that time, the company was assigned to support the XIX Signal Corps.

MacMillan’s company landed in France on June 23, 1944. Within six hours of arriving in France, they began to create a special map: German Organization of Deliberate Defense in Depth. The map used aerial photographs and a series of MacMillan’s paintings to provide an in-depth view of the difficult French terrain.  After working on the map, MacMillan spent the rest of the war painting color terrain studies for strategic and tactical uses. He documented the way the XIX Corps fought through France, Belgium, Holland, and into Germany. His paintings are a fascinating window into one man’s war experiences.

In the 1970s, Henry Jay MacMillan donated his wartime paintings to Cape Fear Museum.

To see more images related to this month’s column, click here.


Previous Columns

May: Firestarter Premieres on College Road
The Kenan Memorial Fountain gets a facelift, April 14, 2005
Lethia Sherman Hankins
The Great Fire of 1886
January 2020:
Cape Fear Museum gets a new home, January 18, 1992
The Catherine Kennedy Home: a longstanding local institution
Taft Day, November 9, 1909
The Daily Record, October 20, 1898
September 15, 1990
Honoring “Hi Buddy” Wade on his 90th Birthday
July 15, 1977, One Short March, One Long Journey
The USS North Carolina lands a Kingfisher, June 25, 1971
May is Prom Season, May 12, 1962
Income Tax Deadline Day
Women’s History Month, March 8
A February Fundraiser, 2008
January 2019: 
Voting for Liquor by the Drink, January 12, 1979
A Day’s News, December 12, 1936
November 10, 1898
Halloween, October 31
Getting a Car Fixed: September 3, 1929
“Two Hundred Years of Light by the Light”: August 5, 1989
Tommies Parading in Wilmington: July 17, 1943
Williston is Closed: June 26, 1968
May: May 13, 1919: Traveling Home from War
April: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated: April 4, 1968
March: Sending Victory Mail Home
February:  Human Relations Month
January 2018:
Galloway’s Sick Note

Henry Jay MacMillan at work painting a French hedgerow

Normandy, France, 1944
Gift of Henry Jay MacMillan

Henry Jay MacMillan’s dog tags with a Miraculous Medal attached
Gift of Jane Iredell Wright
814 Market Street • Wilmington, NC 28401 • Phone 910-798-4370 • Fax 910-798-4382