By Jefferson Weaver
The June 6, 1944 landings at Normandy didn’t end World War II in Europe, but the amphibious invasion known as Operation Overlord was seen as the beginning of the end as the news spread through Columbus County
The June 5, 1944 edition of The News Reporter gives a snapshot of a typical American farming community struggling with wartime rationing and shortages of everything from labor to clothing and metal. Still, businesses was gearing up for the annual tobacco markets, the produce and truck crop markets were busy, and political disputes were big news.
Business as usual, but on a wartime footing
Leder Brothers department store was advertising “durable stockings,” new print fabrics, and material-saving “slack suits” for women, along with new snapbrim hats and short sleeve sports shirts for Father’s Day gifts.
The Junior Woman’s Club was about to embark on an ambitious new project: building a playground and park at the corner of Thompson and College Streets in Whiteville. Several churches were hosting “Vacation Schools” for children, beginning at 9 a.m. sharp every week day.
Wesley Ward of Nakina, who was well known as the security guard for the Columbus Theater, was the newest Whiteville Police officer.
County Attorney Knox Proctor’s ongoing dispute with Asst. Recorder’s Court Judge R.H. Burns was again on the front page, as Burns responded to accusations of long unpaid court fees.
The Floyd-Barkley Agency was seeking cucumbers for sale and shipment, and the firm could provide hampers for the produce to interested farmers.
Tabor City Merchants announced that effective immediately, all stores would be closed on Wednesdays at 1 p.m.
Community correspondents were a big part of the newspaper at that time; the reports of weddings, births, funerals and family news, however, were interspersed with single sentence updates about local soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who were home briefly before returning to war. One area man met his new baby for the first time on a brief furlough home to Fair Bluff. Mrs. Susie Hewitt, who features prominently in Iron Hill news at the time for visiting the sick, hosted a fishing expedition for her children and grandchildren.
The county veterinarian had published his schedule of rabies vaccination sites for the last clinic of the year. Farm agents were reporting concerns that while production was up on many farms, sales and prices were down, causing many farmers to focus more on subsistence than producing for the war effort.
While much of the newspaper was filled with news that didn’t change in tenor for much of the 20th century, there was no ignoring the fighting going on elsewhere around the world.
Splashed across the top of the front page on June 5 were photos from the fighting in the Pacific. Cpl. Harvey Yates of Chadbourn posed shirtless and unshaven with a Japanese rifle taken during the fighting for a forgotten region known as Talasea in New Guinea. Yates’ brother Fred, a lieutenant in the Army, was also deployed, but censorship regulations kept the paper from saying exactly where.
A larger photograph showed another Marine, William Graham of Whiteville, with his fire team and a .30 caliber machine gun they used to defend a position during the same battle.
The Leder Brothers Department Store chain had recently received a letter postmarked from Italy, where the U.S. Fifth Army was driving toward Rome. A soldier serving in the Fifth wrote the Leders to thank them for cigarettes sent in care packages from Whiteville.
The newspaper featured other light stories about the Italian campaign, including a story of how a nearly 2,000 year old section of the Appian Way outside of Rome was holding up better than a more recently constructed highway.
Woodie Roth’s syndicated column took up much of the leftmost side of the paper each edition. Roth provided readers with a sometimes light-hearted, always patriotic view from the perspective of the Navy’s role in the Pacific. He described dogfights between American and Japanese aircraft like a sports writer would an athletic event, as well as recounting vignettes about shipboard life.
There were wire service briefs about the war that hinted of pending actions, but nothing concrete.
The June 5, 1944 edition of The News Reporter was almost routine – and much of it was reprinted the next day when, on Tuesday, June 6, Allied forces began landing in France, and the newspaper scrambled to publish an almost-unprecedented special edition.
In the corner of the front page of the June 6 newspaper, boxes proclaim that the unusual Tuesday printing is the “Invasion Extra!”
Bold type three and one half inches tall forms the lead headline that simply says “INVASION STARTS”.
At 3:32 a.m., U.S., English, Canadian, and Australian forces – with small contingents from other countries, including China — commenced what would be nearly the largest amphibious invasion in history, with 156,000 men landing on the rocky, obstacle-filled beaches of Normandy, following more than 13,000 paratroopers who landed behind enemy lines around the same time.
As dawn broke, 3,937 soldiers in gliders landed, also behind the German lines, as waves of landing craft still fought to make it to the beaches. Although many of the gliders suffered catastrophic crashes, the surviving soldiers deployed artillery and communications equipment to coordinate efforts with the amphibious forces. They also worked with troopers from the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions to harass German forces from the rear.
Many of those glider-borne troops were at least partially familiar with Columbus County, having flown over the area during training exercises based out of airfields in Maxton, Fort Bragg and Shaw in South Carolina. A number of the gliders crashed here during practice flights.
The news of the invasion broke in America, newspapers and radio stations scrambled to spread the word. Using handset type, linotype machines and letter presses, The News Reporter staff had the “Invasion Special” on the streets at 7:30 a.m. local time.
The time difference played a role in the news coming to America – France is six hours ahead of the eastern U.S. When the first paratroops began landing and the first landing craft went ashore in France at 3:32 a.m. local time, it was 9:32 p.m. here. Many in Columbus County had settled in for the night after listening to their favorite radio programs, and fuel rationing led folks other than farmers to consider 9 p.m. to be bedtime.
While the newspaper doesn’t record how or when word of the invasion got here, it’s possible an early riser heard one of the pre-dawn radio bulletins, and word began spreading.
Even major daily newspapers of the time had very little solid information to offer on the day of the invasion, outside of 100- to 200-word wire reports, called bulletins, that covered only the most basic facts. These were hastily strung together for the lead story on the invasion in the special edition. The photo of Graham and his machine gun crew was once again lead art, and some of the same stories that had been featured on the front page the day before were in the same locations, as were many of the inside pages.
The June 8 edition gives a more poignant view of the local reactions to the news.
Churches across the county “threw open their doors,” and all day long on June 6 and June 7, Columbus residents spent time in prayer and special worship services. Up and down the main business districts in all the major towns, merchants turned radios toward the sidewalks at maximum volume so passersby could keep up with the news from the front.
The Invasion Extra was on the street at 7:30 a.m., and multiple extra copies were printed and given away across the county. At every country store and post office, the newspaper reported, volunteers waited in cars (and according to tradition, in at least one mule-drawn wagon) to take extra copies to more out-of-the-way homes, stores and farms. The newspaper called it an attitude like that of “Paul Revere.”
While the atmosphere was celebratory in most quarters, there was concern as well.
“That makes me sweat,” said one unidentified reader interviewed in the paper. “I’ve got a boy right in the middle of it.”
The newspaper’s editorial page – which often devoted some of its space to news coverage – was a masterpiece in patriotism and comfort for the people of the county.
In addition to urging calm and reminding citizens that the war was a long way from over, it also called on residents to stay dedicated to the battle on the home front through purchasing war bonds, conserving vital materials, growing Victory gardens and other efforts.
It also carried a message to local soldiers who had, by that point, broken through the German beachhead and were starting their journey on the long road to Berlin and victory in Europe.
“To the Columbus County boys overseas,” the editor wrote, “may they know that the thoughts, the hopes, and the prayers of all the people back here are with them.”