As it does this year, 79 years ago June 6 fell on a Tuesday. Most Knoxvillians were fast asleep when the first news “flash” came through at 2:30 a.m. – the Allied invasion of Normandy had begun. Operation Overlord was officially underway, and what became widely known as D-Day would turn the tide of World War II in the European theater.
There were no television stations in those days nor smart phones to send a rattling text to wake folks out of bed. The war was the perpetual news, and it travelled by telegraph, phone and radio broadcasts. Though word didn’t travel as fast then as it does now, by the evening edition of The Knoxville News Sentinel coverage of the invasion was making the paper.
Journalists across the area raced downtown to get the “extras” out. Industrial whistles and fire department sirens sounded out. One headline read “Sirens’ Bell Wake Many to News of Invasion.” The Gay Street traffic siren was sounded at intervals from the first flash until 4 a.m. by Bert Hatcher, the fire department’s night desk operator. Fire engines across town were brought out of their bays and sounded their alarms.
It’s hard to imagine this sort of reaction now, but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the nation was prepared for retaliation at any place in the country, not just the coasts. There was general knowledge that an offensive was imminent, but where, when and how was the question. All the local radio stations (WNOX, WROL and WBIR) went to invasion coverage for the next 24 hours and committed to cutting into any scheduled programming with updates.
Some of the staff at WNOX went into the station and started randomly calling around town, waking people out of bed with the news. For once, people weren’t mad about the intrusion.
No single piece of news probably has personally affected so many families in this section aside from patriotic aspects. Invasion preparations saw thousands of young East Tennesseans moved to Britain in the past months. Almost anybody here you talked to today has a family member, more distant relative, or close friend who may now be in the big push. – KNS, June 6, 1944.
City Manager George Dempster reported that the city’s business would go on as usual that day. But he allowed that any employee who felt the need to head out to their house of worship to pray could certainly do so. And pray they did. Many churches opened their doors on what is normally an “off” day as residents did indeed take a moment to bend a thought toward the violence happening over 4,000 miles away.
The stories coming in were mostly sourced from the Associated Press and the United Press International. There were stories encouraging people to buy more war bonds and discouraging them from selling them prematurely. One letter to the editor came in defending Scripps-Howard war correspondent Ernie Pyle’s use of some expletives in a recently published story. He said a few “damns and hells” were nothing to be clutching pearls over in light of the carnage of war. Pulitzer winner Pyle was killed in April 1945 covering the invasion of Okinawa.
The Tennessee Theatre was showing The Sullivans (later called The Fighting Sullivans) based on the true story of five brothers from Iowa who all perished with the sinking of the U.S.S. Juneau in 1942. The war wasn’t even over yet, but the hero movies were already out. Those same brothers would inspire another WWII based blockbuster over 50 years later in Saving Private Ryan.
Tennessee’s own WWI hero, Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Alvin York, had some very specific instructions in the wake of the invasion. During a broadcast on WNOX, York said, “Stop blowing those whistles and sirens … this is no time for joy, this is a time for prayer … Those boys are going through mud mixed with the very blood of their bodies.” Indeed.
Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. – John Donne.
Source: Knoxville News Sentinel archives, June 6-8, 1944