Introduction: In this blog article, Gena Philibert-Ortega searches old newspapers to learn more about D-Day during WWII, including veterans’ first-hand accounts of the landings at Normandy, France. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
Today is the 72nd anniversary of D-Day. World War II’s three-month battle in Normandy, France – commencing on D-Day, 6 June 1944 – is considered the beginning of the end of the war in Europe. Landing over 150,000 American, Canadian, and British troops onto five beaches over a 50-mile stretch of coastline required much planning.* After three months of hard fighting, the end of August 1944 would see the liberation of northern France and promises of future peace.
D-Day: 6 June 1944
On the morning of 6 June 1944, Americans all across the country woke up and read the exciting news in their local papers. Newspaper articles that day provided Americans with a detailed look at the invasion including photos, chronologies, maps, reports and first-hand accounts.
It’s really quite astonishing how much detailed information the newspapers published that day, stories you can find in an online collection such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. For example, readers in Dallas saw this front page.
That front page story featured this detailed map of the invasion.
It also featured a second map providing details confirmed by German radio broadcasts.
Interior pages of that special D-Day newspaper edition provided numerous photos, such as this page.
It also reported the inspiring message General Dwight D. Eisenhower broadcast to the people of western Europe on D-Day.
All Gave Some and Some Gave All
Families back home in the United States must have devoured all the information they could find about the war and what their sons could possibly be involved in. Unlike today’s world of instantaneous television and Internet coverage, World War II families relied on the radio and the writings of wartime journalists.
Pulitzer Prize-winning war journalist Ernie Pyle was a familiar voice for these families. In this article he brings home the human toll of D-Day to his readers.
This newspaper article addresses the aftermath of the invasion and the “human litter” left behind. Pyle serves as an eyewitness for his readers with his description of the Normandy beaches:
Here in a jumbled row for mile on mile are soldiers’ packs. Here are socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, bibles and hand grenades. Here are the latest letters from home, with the address on each one neatly razored out – one of the security precautions enforced before the boys embarked. Here are toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand.
He ends his devastating description with a dead soldier who had not been picked up yet for burial:
As I plowed out over the wet sand of the beach on that first day ashore, I walked around what seemed to be a couple of pieces of driftwood sticking out of the sand. But they weren’t driftwood.
They were a soldier’s two feet. He was completely covered by the shifting sands except for his feet. The toes of his G.I. shoes pointed toward the land he had come so far to see, and which he saw so briefly.
Pyle, like that D-Day causality, would also pay the ultimate price. He was killed nearly a year later during the Battle of Okinawa.
Eventually some of those D-Day veterans would go on to tell their own stories – in some cases decades, or even a half century, after the D-Day invasion. One veteran, Mac Palmer, told his D-Day story to newspaper reporters 20 years later in 1964. He commanded the 6th Engineer Special Brigade. Landing at Omaha Beach he remembered that:
German planes could be heard overhead. As soon as our LCI (infantry landing craft) arrived off the landing area it struck a mine. Then it was hit by a shell from the beach… Of 200 aboard, 44 per cent were wounded or killed.
Palmer’s job was to help the injured and salvage equipment. Eventually he was tasked with removing the dead from the beach.
This article included a photo of veteran Mac Palmer with a German helmet he picked up on Omaha Beach.
In 2001, 57 years after he landed at Normandy, Howard Brown told his story – coinciding with receiving a long overdue D-Day medal. This article reported that:
The tide was going out and he jumped off the boat into eight feet of water, careful to avoid German mines and wire traps. The whole time, he lugged 50 to 60 pounds of extra weight on his back. Men he knew well died around him. Some never made it to land. Bits and pieced of bodies washed ashore in a scene he said looked exactly like the opening 25 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s World War II movie “Saving Private Ryan.”
“Everything was in such turmoil,” Brown said. “I looked down and saw all these guys floating in the water. The beach was a horrible, horrible, horrible thing to see. Nobody would ever forget that. They couldn’t.”
End of the War
D-Day would signal an important turn in the war but it would still be almost a year later, on 8 May 1945, that V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day) would be celebrated – and not until another four months later that peace would come with V-J Day (Victory in Japan Day).
Today you can visit D-Day memorials such as the one in Bedford, Virginia, and pay tribute to those soldiers who fought for freedom.
Some families today are living with a veteran who experienced this important day in history. About 16 million personnel served in World War II and it’s estimated that around 690,000 are alive today.** Sadly, every day we lose more than 400 of these veterans. If you have a living family member who served or was a part of D-Day, document their story today before it’s too late. They have a story to tell that is important to hear. After your interview, search the newspapers on GenealogyBank for articles that fill in the facts of that story.
Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Did any of your ancestors serve during WWII? Please share your stories with us in the comments.
* History. D-Day. http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/d-day
** National World War II Museum. WWII Veterans Statistics http://www.nationalww2museum.org/honor/wwii-veterans-statistics.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/
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