Listen to the first NBC news reports of the D-Day invasion
D-Day, Tuesday, June 6, 1944, was unlike any other day in United States history.
As Americans went to bed Monday night, half a world away the nation’s soldiers, sailors and airmen, with troops from a dozen more countries were invading Europe.
For more than two years, Allied forces had been fighting an air war against Adolf Hitler’s armies, sending hundreds of aircraft daily from bases in England to attack the Third Reich.
Now it was time to take the fighting directly to European soil and to rid that continent of Nazism.
By the end of that Tuesday, Allied forces gained a toehold on the Normandy beaches at the cost of thousands killed and wounded. Ten Delawareans lost their lives in the first 24 hours of the invasion of France.
‘This is D-Day’
Codenamed Operation Overlord, preparations were underway since May 1943. Few in the United States were fully aware of what was about to happen in the predawn hours over Europe.
One exception was the First Family. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was asleep as Overlord began, having earlier delivered one of his fireside chats announcing the fall of Rome to the Allies. He gave his radio audience no inkling of what was about to happen.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was so concerned about the operation she had been unable to sleep. Learning the invasion had begun, she personally woke her husband with the news.
Public word of the attack came not from the War Department, but from intercepted German radio broadcasts, which reported the operation, beginning with the Allied bombardment of French coastal sites.
Speaking in English, a German radio announcer confirmed, “This is D-Day,” and then offered up a selection of music for the “Allied invasion forces.”
The Office of War Information remained silent at first, refusing to confirm the German reports, but once word flashed across the radio and telegraph wires, the country came alive with anticipation.
Newspapers printed special “invasion editions,” with what little information was available – some of it speculative.
As news spread, churches and synagogues across Delaware and throughout the nation opened their doors early, and many scheduled services throughout the day.
Tales to tell
Many Dover residents vividly recall the news of D-Day, especially Doreen McKechnie, living in England at the time.
Her village was near an American base, and GIs were frequent dinner visitors at her crowded home.
“I was 4 years old and still had to use a high chair because my Mum needed the table space,” she said.
The noise of American planes flying overhead could be deafening – and frightening for a little girl, she said. She remembers pulling on her hair, sometimes yanking it out, a nervous habit that wasn’t broken until her mother placed a bowl on her head and cropped her hair short.
Dover’s Louis Savini, 94, was one of those American troops sitting in England, waiting for Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to set the invasion in motion. He landed in Normandy after the initial wave of troops but remembers being nervous about the still-dangerous trip across the English Channel and the German soldiers he knew were waiting for him.
“I was in the Army, so what can I say?” he recalled. “I went.”
Savini later took part in the Battle of the Bulge.
Hartly’s Jerry Heath, now 85, recalls the entire country seemed behind the war effort. Heath’s hometown Burlington Free Press newspaper continually reminded readers to collect and save scrap metal, which could be turned into bullets, tanks and airplanes, and cooking fats used in ammunition.
Hearing the news about the D-Day invasion, Heath’s parents decided to celebrate: “They really went wild. They were very happy and had a big party.
“I really didn’t know what was going on,” Heath added. “I thought it was all over and that we’d won the war.”
Dover’s George McDuffie was 6 years old in Rockingham, N.C., near Camp Mackall, where the 82nd Airborne Division did much of its training.
“I remember C-47s flying over us all the time and we’d go out and watch them drop paratroopers,” he said.
McDuffie also recalls seeing the C-47s pulling manned gliders, the same type used on D-Day.
“We had a lot of soldiers bivouacked across the street from us, but sometimes they’d come over and sleep on our porch so they wouldn’t have to sleep on the ground,” he said. The soldiers sometimes brought over rationed food such as butter, as payment, McDuffie said.
In April 1945, McDuffie recalls his teacher breaking out in tears when President Roosevelt suddenly died and was succeeded by Vice President Harry S Truman.
“I remember my father saying, ‘Who the hell is Truman?’” he said. “Truman wasn’t real well-known.”
Magnolia’s Bruce Moran was 7, and doesn’t have specific D-Day memories, but remembers when his father was injured while making shell casings at a defense plant in Chester, Pa. Because of rationing, like many others, his family grew vegetables in what were known as Victory Gardens and occasionally got a chicken from his uncle.
During the war, meat, sugar and other foods, including butter were rationed, so most families made do with margarine. Packages included a yellow dye so the lard-like substitute would look more like the real thing even if it didn’t taste the same.
“They had margarine in a plastic bag and they had this orange capsule in it,” Moran’s wife, Pat, recalled. “You had to squeeze and squeeze and squeeze it until you got a good color in the margarine.
“My parents actually got a little more because my grandmother lived with us,” she said.
Milford’s Jan Caldwell was 8 years old in 1944 and living in Lock Haven, Pa. She remembers learning details about D-Day from short newsreels before feature pictures in movie theaters.
She and her friends would gather milkweed pods for life preservers and would take part in scrap metal drives, collecting empty cans and stomping them to flatten them out.
Air raid wardens would patrol the streets to ensure everyone’s home was completely dark in case enemy planes ever flew overhead, she said. Of course, none ever did.
“When [D-Day] came, we were just glad we’d gotten over there and would get Hitler and the Germans,” Caldwell said.
Prayers and reflection
In Wilmington, the next day’s Morning News reported everything had come to a standstill at 4 p.m. as Mayor Albert W. James urged a moment of silence. Factory whistles, church bells, and sirens announced the moment of quiet, with traffic coming to a halt and defense plants briefly idled.
The Delaware Liquor Commission ordered all businesses serving alcohol closed for the day. Most stores did not open until noon. Sales were reported light, as many workers stayed home to catch up on the news.
In Dover, Gov. Walter W. Bacon closed state offices for two hours beginning at 2 p.m. and Kent County government shut down at the same hour.
According to the Dover Index newspaper, Mayor J. Wallace Woodford made a short speech, amplified by loudspeakers set in front of a Loockerman Street drug store, asking Dover residents to pray for the troops. Woodford urged listeners to take part in the latest war bonds drive, starting the following Monday.
The Laurel State Register reported members of the Christ Methodist Church got together that night in the church sanctuary for prayer and meditation. Congregants held a roll call of church members serving overseas, with special prayers for the servicemen and their families.
The Smyrna Times reported church bells in the town and nearby Clayton were rung, and 24 poppies were placed outside the First Presbyterian Church in honor of members in the armed forces.
A community prayer meeting was attended by hundreds in Milford, with hymns and prayers by five of the town’s religious leaders. Churches there remained open during the day.
Georgetown’s Sussex Countian reported that radio listeners, attempting to find their normal early morning programs, heard the bulletins from overseas and realized “that affairs of great import were happening.”
Radios stayed on all day, tuned to the latest news, including a special broadcast by Eleanor Roosevelt, intended “especially for the mothers” of the fighting troops.
The paper reported the invasion news at first was greeted “with great elation,” but tempered with the knowledge that liberating Europe would bring great sadness to many families.
Countian Publisher Robert G. Houston wrote the Nazis were “now on the defensive on every front. It is hardly possible that [Germany] has the strength in men and material to withstand combined attacks on every side.
“Time will soon reveal her power of resistance and upon this will depend the length of this war and how long it will continue.”
In Salisbury, about 1,500 people gathered in the main street for prayers, with stores there closing during the 15-minute services. American flags were seen flying from every storefront.
As night fell across a United States whose sons had begun what would be an 11-month march to Berlin, Roosevelt again went on the air, this time asking Americans to pray with him for success in what he knew would be a long and difficult struggle.
In a speech lasting a little more than six and a half minutes, Roosevelt asked God to lead the troops, “Straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.”
The struggle, Roosevelt said, would be long and hard, the road would be difficult, and American forces would meet with setbacks. Men’s souls, he added, “will be shaken with the violences of war.”
For those remaining at home, Roosevelt asked for a rededication of faith: “Let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear the sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.”
The result will be a peace “invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.”