D-Day; What It Was Like 70 Years Ago, Over There And On Radio Over Here
70 years ago, we wouldn't get the news of D-Day by seeing if it was trending on Twitter. The way just about everyone got it was radio. More on that shortly.
Everyone in America and around the world knew the invasion was coming. We didn't know when. In the weeks before D-Day, the troops from the U.S., Canada, England and other Allies amassed in Europe tried their best to relax. They probably heard Glenn Miller's Army Air Force perform - the Miller band was, perhaps, twice as popular in '44 as any entertainer today, and Miller performed hundreds of shows for troops in 1944 alone. "Not only were there performances, but the band constantly recorded that year. Those recordings were going on to discs and being sent to troops all over Europe," said Nick Hilscher, who leads the Glenn Miller Orchestra today.
The service members, at least some of them, enjoyed the company of English women, among other things. "We'd slip out at night and refresh ourselves at a local pub," said Russell Lomax, 90, of Evansville. "They didn't have any cold beer to speak of. It was all in barrells back then."
Lomax was in the Army's 9th Infantry Division and had already seen action in north Africa and Italy. Though he was getting ready to invade France, even he didn't know exactly when it would take place. "I guess in case you were shot down...if you got captured, they didn't want to give the Germans too much information as to where we were going and what we were doing."
Lomax wouldn't have long to wait. Around 3:30 am June 6, all the radio networks - no TV in that day, and the networks had previously agreed to pool their D-Day coverage - went live to Supreme Allied Headquarters in London, where a U.S. military officer read the official communique. "Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France."
The networks actually had the news from German radio reports three hours earlier, but news people like NBC's Robert St. John hedged their bets repeatedly. "The German broadcast could be one which Allied leaders expected would be made with the purpose of upsetting Patriot plans inside the conquered countries," St. John said about an hour and a half before Allied headquarters confirmed the invasion. Radio news departments had also been burned three days earlier. An Associated Press teletypist accidentally sent a flash over its news wire saying the invasion had begun at 4:39pm Eastern time on Saturday, June 3. Though AP retracted the story two minutes later, the networks had already gone on the air with the news - CBS interrupted live coverage of the Belmont Stakes with the false report.
D-Day would be the origin of the 24 hour news cycle we take for granted today. Back then, radio went to bed when most everyone else did. Not on June 6. "It came at a time when the technology for broadcasting around the world was comparitively very primative. It had just been a few years since networks made an attempt to broadcast internationally, but here they were getting reports from around the world at all hours of the night," said Steve Darnall, radio historian and host of "Those Were The Days" on WDCB-FM in Chicago.
Russell Lomax was not among the first wave of soldiers on the beaches of Normandy. "I'm glad that I wasn't," he said. "(Nazis) were still firing artillery shells at us and trying to hit the LCI's that came in loaded with about 30 troops each. But we walked in, the beach was all clear, and the wounded and the dead were cleaned up by the time we got there," Lomax said.
As our forces took those beaches, over here, we kept listening for the news all day. Some of what Americans heard were recordings of the invasion by reporters who saw it. That was new because the use of recordings in news was banned on radio at that time; government regulators thought they deceived the listener. One of the most compelling reports was from George Hicks of the Blue Network, what would later become ABC, who used a film recorder to capture the action as he stood on a Navy communications ship, a ship that eventually came under Nazi attack. "There's something going down, spiraling down. We got one," Hicks shouted amid the sound of planes and guns, U.S. troops cheering in the background. Why did we listen do intently? "We didn't know we were going to win the war," Lomax said. "It was touch and go, and it could have gone the other way very easily."
Radio tried to provide some of its regular shows, but the news came first - every program on every network aired a disclaimer that the show could be interrupted at any moment for war news. The regular shows modified their normal routines for the most part, including the biggest star on the air that night. "This is Bob Hope speaking from a P-38 airfield out here near Van Nuys, California. We had looked forward to being with these men and doing our regular show, but of course, noboby feels like getting up here and being funny on a night like this," Hope's program had followed an address to the nation by President Roosevelt. "It was not a somber occasion exactly, but it was very dramatic, and I think Bob Hope realized very quickly that you weren't going to shake that up," said Darnall.
We kept listening as our men and women kept fighting, and largely thanks to D-Day the Allies won the war in Europe less than a year later. Last year, Lomax got to take another memorable trip, though it was shorter than the one he took 70 years ago; an Indy Honor Flight to the World War II Memorial in Washington. "I would not have been able to do that had it not been for that Honor Flight. Any veterans out there who might be wondering, go. If you don't, you'll miss the greatest adventure you'll have in your life," Lomax said - high praise from someone who lived through Algiers, Sicily and, 70 years ago today, Normandy.