The news broke over the airwaves around 9:30 p.m. in Seattle. It was June 5, 1944. A Monday night.
There were few TVs back then. The cathode ray tubes that otherwise would have produced the grainy, rudimentary pictures on the tiny TV screens of the time had been assigned to the war effort for radar and other electronic military devices. From morning, with such shows as “The Breakfast Club,” to soap operas in the midday, to variety shows in the evening, Americans spent an average of five hours a day listening to radio.
One such show was “The Pepsodent Hour,” featuring comedian Bob Hope. Only that night Hope threw out the script because of the momentous events taking place 5,000 miles away — and nine hours ahead — on the beaches of Normandy, France.
Instead of jokes, Hope began, “What’s happened during these last few hours not one of us will ever forget.”
Seventy-five years ago, it was D-Day.
As Hope spoke and much of Seattle sat glued to their radios, more than 150,000 Allied troops were storming a 50-mile stretch of beaches in Normandy in the largest amphibious landing in history, transported and supported by at least 16,000 vessels of various sorts, according to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation. That day, more than 4,000 Allied soldiers would die, with an additional 6,000 wounded, although the exact numbers may never be known.
After months of planning and preparation, American, British and Canadian troops had pierced the wall of Hitler’s “Fortress Europa.” By then, the tide of war had already turned in favor of the Allied powers, but D-Day would mark the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. The war in Europe would be over in less than a year.
Among those who landed on Omaha Beach was a Mercer Island 22-year-old, Pvt. 1st Class Huston “Hu” S. Riley, Company F, 16th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. A grainy, out-of-focus photo of Riley shot by Robert Capa, the famed combat photographer, would become the iconic image of the invasion. It would be known as the “soldier in the surf.”
In Seattle, most families knew someone like Riley since many had kin or friends in the service. In World War II, more than 12 percent of the U.S. population served in the armed forces, compared to less than 0.5 percent now.
The Seattle Times, then an afternoon paper, began printing early editions on June 6 to satisfy the hunger for news on the invasion. “In some instances, persons on the way to work on city buses had the drivers stop at newsstands,” one Times story noted.
The headline on the Times’ War Extra reflected what had happened overnight: “Allies 9 miles inland; fight for French town.”
People streamed into churches and temples across the Puget Sound to pray for the servicemen and the war effort.
Joan King, 85, of Issaquah, grew up in West Seattle. She was 10 years old on D-Day, going to Lafayette Elementary.
She remembers seeing the homes with two different kinds of stars displayed on their windows. A blue star meant someone from that home was serving in the armed forces. A gold star meant they had died in battle.
Some homes had numerous stars displayed on windows, stars of both colors.
King recalls seeing a badly injured soldier returning home. “It was very sad,” she said.
But newspaper coverage didn’t reflect an overt show of emotion. For Americans overseas and on the home front, the war was already 2½ years old.
“Shipyard workers go grimly to tasks, talk little of war,” said another Times headline.
One welder was quoted, “Boy, I’m glad it’s under way. Now we’re moving. It’s going to be a tough fight, but we’ll make out OK.” A story about Seattle Mayor William F. Devin was simply headlined, “Devin urges city to pray, work harder.”
A full-page ad in The Times for Frederick & Nelson, the now-gone Seattle downtown department store, showed infantrymen charging with fixed bayonets, drawn in a G.I. Joe brutal, comic-book style.
“NOW FOR THE KNOCKOUT,” headlined the ad. “Freedom’s hour has struck … The invasion is on. Buy bonds now!”
Millard Petersky, 91, of Seattle, a 1946 Garfield High graduate, doesn’t recall anything memorable about D-Day itself. Like most Americans on the home front, life had evolved into a routine despite rationing and shortages of gasoline, food and clothing.
“I can’t remember feeling frightened about anything. We just went on with life, it seems,” he recently recalled.
At school, there would be classroom drills in case Seattle was bombed. “We’d get under our desk,” he says.
He recalls the fake camouflage consisting of buildings just 4 feet tall and made of wood to give the illusion of the neighborhood covering Boeing’s Plant No. 2, where thousands of B-17 bombers were produced.
From Volunteer Park he could look across the Puget Sound to the Navy base at Bremerton. “I can see it in my head. All those big balloons shaped like zeppelins, all gray, where the Navy ships were being built,” he said.
Those were barrage balloons, floating aloft and anchored by cables, so that enemy planes had to fly over them, making their bombing more difficult.
Other than a few shells lobbed by submarines along the Oregon and California coasts and explosive-laden “fire balloons” floated over from Japan, the U.S. mainland faced no bombing during the war.
Petersky remembers the inevitable “Victory Garden” in his family’s yard, a patch of dirt between the Capitol Hill home where they lived and a garage. Americans were urged to plant produce to augment rationed food and help the war effort.
“Tomatoes, Swiss chard, radishes. My mother was very good at putting things together. She started a Sunday with pot roast and then used it in many different ways. I loved the hash, chopped up meat, onions — put catsup on that,” he recalled.
“It was a time more of shortages than sacrifices,” wrote Frank Wetzel, 93, of Seattle in his book “Victory Gardens and Barrage Balloons,” Wetzel is a longtime journalist who graduated from Bremerton High in 1944 and served in the infantry.
“Teenagers were probably more affected by gasoline rationing than other restricted items,” he writes. Motorists got gas stickers for their cars — A, B or C. The lowest-ranked sticker was an “A,” worth three to five gallons a week.
“Stealing gasoline by siphoning was so prevalent” among high schoolers, he wrote, that one woman would remember “that her dates always tasted like gasoline.”
King remembers the drives for collecting badly needed metal for the war effort.
“We had a place in the playground. We brought cans, even peeled foil wrapper from sticks of gum. They said they made ammunition from it. I don’t know what it was used for,” she says.
In those days, every Sunday The Seattle Times had a full page devoted to local to servicemen.
The June 11, 1944, issue was the first Sunday after D-Day.
Across the top were photos of moms with their newborns.
“By fast V-Mail, The Times is sending to dads overseas these photographs of their wives with babies the fathers have never seen,” said the caption.
According to the Postal Museum, V-Mail microfilmed specially designed letter sheets.
The microfilm was sent overseas and then “blown up” before being delivered to servicemen. The method allowed 2,575 pounds of regular mail to be reduced to 45, so that more war material could be shipped.
That Sunday page had a story about a mother who had lost two sons, Gene and John Snyder, to the war within four months.
The story said Mrs. Bert Snyder (wives then were routinely identified by their husband’s names) spoke “without a trace of bitterness.”
The mom said, “I miss the boys terribly, but the only thing any of us on the home front can do is follow the example of our boys, who took it like men.”
The Snyder brothers, ages 25 and 23, had been Queen Anne High School graduates. One was shot down while piloting a B-17 bomber in the South Pacific; the other was killed on the tiny Central Pacific atoll of Tarawa against heavily fortified Japanese.
A weekly feature in the paper also was a “Dear Joe” letter, accompanied with a cartoon, designed for families to clip and send to servicemen.
“D-Day caught most of us in bed and left us right there until we got wind of it through our regular news sources. The Times began to roll at 5 o’clock in the morning, and for the next 24 hours folks couldn’t buy the paper fast enough,” began the letter.
By 1945, the “Dear Joe” letters were nearing the end.
The one on Sunday, Aug. 19, 1945, was written after the announcement of Japan’s surrender was made on Aug. 15.
The letter led with the end of gasoline rationing. The war for the home front was over, too.
“Learning again to say ‘Fill ’er up’ is like learning a phrase in a foreign language,” wrote Robert Mahaffay, the Times reporter who’d authored all those letters. “Drivers used to get out to make darned sure they were getting the four, five or six gallons to which each coupon entitled them. Now they get out and stand there with a dreamy look in their eyes, listening to the unrestricted flow of the liquid into their tanks.”
Correction: The meal that Millard Petersky reminisced about was a pot roast, not a pork roast, an important distinction in the Jewish household.