Seventy-five years ago today, Virginians awoke to a typical early summer day. The weather was in the upper 70s with a possibility of afternoon thunderstorms. Ads in that day’s edition of The Richmond Times-Dispatch included a sale on ladies’ dresses—$16.95 for a lovely frock suitable for everyday wear—at Thalhimer’s. And Nolde’s Bread, in conjunction with the Home Services Department of the Virginia Electric and Power Co., ran a quarter-page ad encouraging housewives to use every last bit of leftover bread. The ad provided recipes for toasted loaf-shells and croutons as suggestions.
The Times-Dispatch’s Editorial Page wondered how the American Army would meet the enormous challenge of feeding the city of Rome, which had fallen to the Allied Fifth Army just the day before. Supply lines into the Eternal City had been cut weeks earlier and 2 million Romans were in need of food, fresh water and medical supplies.
In Washington, another partisan spat erupted when House Republicans demanded “the full story” of the attack on Pearl Harbor. A two-fisted fight broke out after a Democratic representative from North Carolina bluntly stated that some were more interested in removing Roosevelt from Washington than Hitler from Berlin.
At an Associated Press office in London, 22-year-old teletypist trainee Joan Ellis was told to come back to work two days after she mistakenly released to the entire Western Hemisphere an erroneous AP news flash from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters announcing the Allies had begun landing in France. In what was surely divine intervention, the Germans dismissed the report as propaganda. Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels scoffed at the news and Field Marshall Erwin Rommel took leave to celebrate his wife’s June 6 birthday.
But all the news tidbits of that day faded into insignificance as Americans learned of the Allied invasion of northern France on June 6, 1944. Shortly after midnight, in the greatest one-day amphibious invasion in human history, 160,000 troops began landing on a 50-mile stretch of Normandy’s coastline. The landings had been divided into five beachheads that were given the code names of Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. By the end of the day, more than 9,000 American, British, Canadian and free French soldiers would be dead.
Across the United States, church bells pealed in support of the great battle that was underway. The mayor of Philadelphia allowed the Liberty Bell to be tapped seven times to spell out the word “liberty.” Virginia families and loved ones of military members greeted the news with a mixture of dread and anxiety—and a bit of relief that the long-anticipated event had finally begun.
For many Americans, the day was spent deep in prayer while others sat glued beside their radios for the latest news. Soon reports of heavy casualties began to be broadcast. The small Virginia town of Bedford stood resolute and grim. Of the 28 men from Bedford involved in the invasion, 22 were killed. It was the greatest one-day sacrifice any American town had given to the war effort. Today in Bedford, thousands are gathered to pay tribute to those men and all the others who died that day on faraway beaches in France.
Another Virginian, 1st Lt. Jimmie Monteith Jr., died that morning near Colleville-sur-Mer in an act of “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty.” Despite being on foot and completely exposed to unending enemy fire, Monteith led two tanks and a column of troops through a minefield and into firing positions. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions—one of only four awarded that day.
Despite the bloodshed, by nightfall Allied power prevailed. Over the following days and weeks, millions more troops arrived. Because of the valiant efforts of so many, by Aug. 24, Paris was liberated and on Aug. 30, the last German unit fled across the River Seine. Although it would be nearly a year before Germany’s surrender, Allied victory was assured.
What we owe to those who gave so much on that day in June 1944 can never be repaid. While most of us will never comprehend what they endured, all of us should always remember their deeds and cherish the great gifts of liberty and freedom that they fought so hard to ensure.