Do you know his name? He’s the last living American veteran of World War I, still standing Army strong at age 108. Age daily thins the ranks of World War II veterans as well, so in remembrance, we’ve repurposed a column from 2004 commemorating the anniversary of D-Day, an epic adventure that began 65 years ago Saturday.
The only thing I really know about history is that those who do not heed its lessons are doomed to be browbeaten repeatedly with an annoying aphorism by George Santayana.
However, with the future pressing relentlessly upon us daily, I find that the past, which after all was once somebody else’s future, offers a present to the present: the gift of understanding.
What is clear to us now was troubling uncertainty to our forebears on the morning of June 6, 1944. Since the beginning of warfare against the Nazi regime, most citizens had known that at some point American soldiers would storm Adolf Hitler’s Fortress Europe as part of a combined Allied assault. What was unknown was when and where.
One revelatory relic of that amazing day is a transcription recording of CBS News coverage of the breaking story, about six hours of it. This is an uncommon artifact, for in that age before tapes and cassettes, it was rare for anyone to archive a newscast, let alone one of that length. Listening to the way radio broke the news provides useful insights into the ways everyday life was affected by warfare six decades ago.
CLICK TO LISTEN: [audio:cbs_dday.mp3]
The recording fades in with an announcer named Irwin Darlington saying, “The Allied invasion has started. The news to this moment is all supplied by the enemy... there is no Allied confirmation.” He goes on to say that a CBS short wave listening post just after 1 a.m. Eastern War Time has heard Radio Berlin reporting heavy bombardments of the harbor at Le Havre. He repeats the bulletin, then cautions that this could be a feint — newsmen actually used words like that in 1944 — by either side. He announces that CBS will stay on the air overtime until the report is verified or proven false. There is a long pause, then, as was the practice in those days, Darlington turns over the airwaves to the music of Lenny Kahn’s orchestra “from the Hollywood Palladium on Sunset Boulevard in the heart of the nation’s film capital.”
There is a thrilling immediacy to this recording. As the band plays a languorous “April in Paris,” one imagines what listeners on the late shift might have been thinking or hoping in the aftermath of that breathtaking bulletin. After a minute or so, the band fades out, there is a burst of static and an unfamiliar, official-sounding voice is picked up in the middle of a sentence — “supported by strong air forces began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.” This announcer says he is reading Communiqué Number One from Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force.
With press service teletypes clacking faintly in the background, a strong modulated voice then intones, “This means invasion.” It is CBS anchorman Robert Trout, whose voice regular listeners would not ordinarily have been hearing at 3:35 a.m. He has taken the microphone out of the soundproofed studio and into the noisy newsroom, where he back-announces Colonel Ernest Dupuy as the SHAEF spokesman and introduces a CBS military analyst — yep, they had them back then, too — who confirms that this is indeed a confirmation.
Trout’s tone conveys the urgency of events as he reads terse dispatches straight from the machines. In the background a producer is heard saying, “Go to London, go to London!” and Trout hands off to CBS’s premier European journalist, Edward R. Murrow.
The legendary voice, through a flurry of static, reads General Dwight Eisenhower’s order of the day with a solemnity equaled only by Eisenhower’s own recording, heard a little later. “We will accept nothing less than full victory,” Murrow intones. “Good luck and let us all beseech the blessing of almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
With no live feeds from the skies above the English Channel or the beaches of Normandy, CBS news gatherers proved extraordinarily resourceful. They were able to relay reports recorded on discs by embedded correspondents prior to embarkation, interspersed with in-studio analyses of possible Allied tactics and messages prerecorded by Eisenhower and assorted political leaders to the people of Western Europe. Broadcasting at an hour when most of the audience was likely asleep, the small CBS crew in New York foreshadowed the way news would be covered half a century hence.
Many memorable passages in this six hour historical document illumine an irretrievable era: Churchill addressing Commons, President Roosevelt leasing the nation in prayer, anchorman John Daly describing the pensive air of rail commuters reading newspaper accounts. Perhaps my favorite segment is a brief pre-dawn newsroom appearance by author Quentin Reynolds, a veteran of the Italian invasions. Reading from a script whose ink was likely still wet, he said, “The words of the communiqué announcing the landings were brief and cold and factual. We don’t know how many men landed on enemy territory as yet. We don’t know how many places they landed. We don’t know whether their trip across the water was a hard one, constantly hampered by German aircraft. We only know that last night one man said two words. Eisenhower said, ‘Let’s go’, and the invasion was on.
“There are a thousand stories behind the short communiqué which merely told us that our men had landed. Those of us who have been on other amphibious landings can imagine how our men felt last night, when they were finally told that their long months of waiting were over. As long as these men live, the evening of June 5th will always be to them the night before D-Day. If they live to be a hundred, June 6th will forever be D-Day to them.”
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org