D-Day remembered: How FDR reacted on June 6, 1944

The news flash that the fighting was on produced almost a sense of relief in Washington. At last, the battle for France was fully engaged. 'Our sons ... this day have set upon a mighty endeavor,' FDR told Americans.

Reuters/National Archives
US troops wade ashore from a Coast Guard landing craft at Omaha Beach during the Normandy D-Day landings near Vierville sur Mer, France, on June 6, 1944. On June 6, 1944, allied soldiers descended on the beaches of Normandy for D-Day - an operation that turned the tide of the Second World War against the Nazis, marking the beginning of the end of the conflict.

Washington was tense as D-Day dawned. Pearl Harbor had been an electric shock that surprised US officials and impressed itself upon their memories. D-Day in contrast was something they expected. Everyone knew the Allies were building their armies in England for a cross-channel invasion. Those at the top knew the Normandy landing’s exact date. Thus the news flash that the fighting was on resulted in a release of strain, a sense almost of relief.

Such a mood swept through Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr.’s 9:15 a.m. staff meeting. Morgenthau himself had been in on the secret and told aides that at the last minute the attack had been postponed by a day. When one top staffer strolled in later, the Treasury chief asked if he’d slept that night.

The staffer admitted that he had, and that he hadn’t turned on his radio until 8:30 that morning.

“I just said that anybody who slept should leave the room,” shot back Morgenthau.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was awakened at about 3 a.m. Washington time. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall called FDR to report that the landings had begun. The White House operator first put General Marshall through to Eleanor Roosevelt, as the first lady was still up from the night before.

“Franklin had told her the invasion news before she went to bed, and she became so wrought up she could not sleep,” wrote historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in “No Ordinary Time,” her book about the Roosevelts and the home front during World War II.

After talking with Marshall, FDR called for his valet to bring him a faded cardigan sweater and sat up in bed. From this command post, he badgered White House operators to keep calling the Pentagon for updates. At 4 a.m., he ordered that all White House staff members be notified to report for duty at once.

At this point, no one in Washington knew much about the progress of the fierce fighting in France. All they had to go on was a snap message from Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s office. The message summarized what was known at 8 a.m. local time in Britain. It noted only that airborne troops had suffered only light losses; preliminary bombing had occurred; Navy minesweeping was ongoing; and that opposition so far seemed light.

“All preliminary reports are satisfactory,” said Eisenhower’s missive.

As Americans awoke, the exciting news spread everywhere. Citizens did what they could to mark the moment – honking their car horns, raising flags, holding their collective breath.

In Philadelphia, the mayor tapped the Liberty Bell with a wooden mallet for a US-wide radio hookup. It had not sounded for more than 100 years.

“The impulse to pray was overwhelming,” wrote historian Stephen Ambrose in his book “D-Day."

According to his desk calendar for the day, FDR saw Marshall, Navy Chief of Staff Adm. Earnest King, and Army Air Forces Chief Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold at 11:45 a.m. The speaker of the House and other congressional leaders came to the White House at about 11:50 a.m. Around 1:30 p.m., FDR lunched with his daughter, Anna Boettiger, who was serving as an administration aide. They sat under a magnolia tree on the White House grounds.

At 4:10 p.m., the press crowded into FDR’s office. He had little to tell them. At that point, all the president knew was that two destroyers and one landing ship had been lost.

FDR told reporters the landings were “up to schedule." He noted that the nation seemed thrilled but warned against overconfidence. As a sailor himself, he noted that crossing the English Channel in a boat “has always been considered by passengers one of the greatest trials of life."

That night Roosevelt went on national radio to address the American people about the invasion. As a committed Episcopalian, he drafted his speech in the form of a prayer.

“Our sons ... this day have set upon a mighty endeavor,” said FDR. “Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness to their faith.”

That night Washington knew only that the Allied armies had a toehold and the battle for France was fully engaged. It would be days before a full picture of D-Day events emerged. Marshall himself traveled to England to report back to the Pentagon and the White House. On June 14, he radioed a report to FDR that conditions on the beachhead seemed generally favorable, with only minor delays. An expected German counterattack had not emerged and did not seem likely in the next few days. Morale seemed high, and allied commanders were working together.

The Germans were “at the top of the toboggan slide, and the full crash of the Russian offensive [on the Eastern Front] should put the skids under them,” wrote Marshall.

It was the beginning of the end. Hard fighting was ahead. But Marshall and, by extension, FDR and all his team knew: The Allies were going to win.

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