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70 years ago, D-Day transfixed the homefront

CHICAGO — Four days before D-Day, the British consul addressed a fashionable gathering of the English Speaking Union at Orchestra Hall, saying he'd just returned from England where he'd met a number of GIs from Chicago. Of course, members of his audience didn't know that the long-awaited invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe was at hand, but some GIs, sensing something was up, had asked Consul Wilfred Gallienne to deliver greetings to loved ones.

According to the Tribune's society columnist, Gallienne recalled having watched a badly damaged warplane just make it back to a British airfield. Its exhausted pilot staggered over to the consul and gave him a message and a Chicago address.

Pausing for effect, Gallienne said: "Is Mary P. here? Mary P., that is why you have just received a bunch of yellow roses from your husband, with a message of love."

Seventy years ago this week, all the Mary P.'s in America were anxiously awaiting news of "the invasion," the campaign that all fervently hoped would seal the fate of Adolf Hitler's murderous regime. Sweethearts, parents, friends and neighbors of GIs were on edge in June 1944. By that point in World War II, the average Chicago block had seven residents in the armed forces, witnessed by the sea of military service banners hanging in the windows of bungalows and two-flats.

For months, the Allies had been bombing and strafing the French coast, softening up German defenses positioned to throw an invading force back into the sea. By May, expectations were high that infantry and tanks based in Britain would soon jump the English Channel. But they didn't, for week after week.

"If there is to be an invasion it is not likely to be much longer delayed because our military leaders will desire several months of good fighting before the autumn rains set in," the Tribune observed June 2.

Then on June 6, 1944, just after midnight, thousands of British and American transports carrying parachute troops and gliders loaded with artillery headed for a strip of Normandy, about 150 miles west of Paris. Back in Chicago, worried relatives sat down for dinner on June 5 not yet aware that the Allies were on the move.

The paratroopers dropped behind the Nazis' lines at both ends of the invasion beaches. Their mission was to disrupt German forces, grab key transportation points and prevent the enemy from bringing up reinforcements.

For Col. Ralph Bagby, of Evanston, it was a successful mission, as he told a reporter a few days later: "Directly over the drop areas holes in the clouds gave us an opportunity to land safely and the moon illuminated the target area at exactly 3 a.m. Casualties among our boys were so light it was almost unbelievable."

Others weren't so lucky. Paratrooper Stanley Stockins, a Golden Gloves boxer from Chicago, was killed on D-Day, and Lt. Norbert Schwartz went missing. Months later, a telegram arrived at 4954 S. Kedvale Ave. informing Schwartz's parents that he died during the June 6 airborne assault.

News of the invasion began to trickle in to Chicagoans who stayed up late to listen to radio reports. The Tribune reported in its June 6 edition, "Berlin first announced the landings in a series of flashes that began about 6:30 a.m. (11:30 last night, Chicago time)." Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's headquarters confirmed that the invasion had started at 2:32 a.m. Chicagoans awoke Tuesday, June 6, to the screaming Tribune headline, "ALLIES INVADE FRANCE," and pages and pages of news coverage that included very few details of the invasion.

Not that Tribune reporters weren't on the scene, but censorship slowed their reports. War correspondent John H. Thompson witnessed the armada getting ready to sail across the English Channel. "Thousands of soldiers of the American Army are pouring down the quaysides onto landing craft or waiting their turn as we sit here watching the beginning of the greatest invasion ever attempted," he wrote in a dispatch delayed for publication until after D-Day.

Tribune correspondent Robert Cromie was even closer to the action, reporting from one of the invasion landing craft: "There is plenty of evidence of the short, fierce struggle that enabled the Allied troops to gain a beachhead, tho we see many grounded boats filled with shell and machine gun holes, others partly submerged where they were hit by shore fire or anchored mines."

W.M. Davis, of East 58th Street, was on one of those vessels that didn't make it. "I was aboard an LCI (landing craft, infantry) which got several hits from an 88 cannon," the Chicagoan afterward told Cromie. "We went overside with our life jackets on, then the ship blew up."

On Utah — one of the two beaches assigned to American forces — the fighting was over quickly, and GIs began moving inland along routes secured by paratroopers. British and Canadian forces successfully landed on Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. On Omaha Beach, however, the outcome was long in doubt.

Steep embankments gave German artillery a perch from which to pour down countless rounds on GIs trying to cross a wide expanse of sand. Rangers had to climb the 100-foot sheer face of Pointe du Hoc, a rocky promontory overlooking the beachheads.

Heavy seas capsized craft carrying the tanks that should have spearheaded the attack. Ranger Sgt. Ray Alm found himself underwater, standing on the channel floor, as he recounted to a Tribune reporter decades later in his Oak Lawn home.

Having gone overboard when a German shell hit his landing craft, he was dragged under by the weight of the bazooka and explosives he carried. Ridding himself of the load, he made it to shore and across the 200 yards of sand where so many fell. His company started the day with 65 men; by nightfall, only eight were alive. Yet he persevered. How?

"You know you've got a job to do. Ours was to cross the beach and get to the base of the cliff," Alm said. "You keep your focus on that task."

For a seeming eternity, surviving GIs huddled at the cliff, paralyzed by fear and enemy fire before Gen. Norman Cota finally rallied them: "Don't die on the beaches, die up on the bluff, if you have to die. But get off the beaches or you are sure going to die." He challenged an officer of the elite Rangers: "We're counting on you Rangers to lead the way!"

They did, and by 8 a.m. local time, Cota's men were moving inland. The worst was over, and tens of thousands of Allied troops were going ashore.

Chicagoans flocked to churches and synagogues to pray and begin hourslong vigils. At Temple Sholom on Lake Shore Drive, war bulletins were read to the congregation. Students listened to radio broadcasts in schools. Mayor Edward Kelly called for an evening prayer service at State and Madison streets, "perhaps State Street's first civic prayer meeting," according to the Rev. John Evans in the Tribune. "Hundreds of persons defied rain and chill" to ask for "divine help and protection for the fighting men," Evans wrote.

Seventy years later, the Normandy beaches are a bucolic sight. An air of tranquillity envelops the U.S. military cemetery where those who fell on D-Day rest under row upon row of crosses and stars of David. Their sacrifice and accomplishment are eloquently recalled by a simple inscription on the wall of the nearby visitors center:

"The battle belonged that morning to the thin, wet line of khaki that dragged itself ashore on the channel coast of France." — Gen. Omar N. Bradley

rgrossman@tribune.com
 

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