It is 12:30 AM Eastern War Time. Outside of London, where the British have instituted “Double Summer Time,” it is 6:30. A German refugee working for the Associated Press is monitoring the shortwave transmissions of the Nazis. His ears perk up and he quickly sends out what he’s heard. By 12:37, it’s moved across the entire AP wire.
NBC is carrying dance music on its East Coast feed and on the West Coast, where it’s only in the 9 o’clock hour of June 5th, they’re airing a mostly forgotten weekly drama from San Francisco called Hawthorne House. The on-duty announcer in New York interrupts programming to read the AP bulletin.
For the next two hours both NBC and CBS will caution that these reports are unconfirmed and, since they originate with the Germans, they may be highly unreliable.
NBC also deviates from its still familiar three-note network identification.
The “Fourth Chime” is an internal paging system calling all essential news employees and engineering staff to their positions. It first sounded in 1937, when the Hindenburg exploded over Lakehurst; again in ’38 at the height of the Munich Crisis; and yet again in December of 1941. (After D-Day it will not sound down the network line until 1985 — when GE buys controlling interest in RCA and brings an end to an era in American broadcasting.)
At 3:32 EWT/12:32 PWT the speculation ends. Both networks relay a broadcast from the BBC. Through the high-pitched hiss and whistles and the static of Atlantic storms comes the calming voice of Dwight David Eisenhower.
Now it is real. The Seattle Times reported from the Boeing plant which was churning out B-17s as fast as they could:
The night workers of the graveyard shift were on the job—as they had been for years of nights—relentlessly turning out bombers for the destruction of Hitler’s crumbling empire. Then, at 1 a.m., loudspeakers came to life all over the plant. “Confirmation has been received,” came a solemn voice, with an undertone of excitement and jubilation, “that the invasion of France has started.” The guns, the drills and the hammers were stilled. A hush like that of a cathedral descended over the thousands of overalled men and slacks-clad women. For a moment they stood, in spontaneous recognition of the solemnity of the moment. Then, breaking the spell, men and women shook hands, slapped each other on the back, as if to say: “Let’s get on with it!” They picked up their tools.
Over the course of the next 24 hours, America would be introduced to the concept of wall-to-wall coverage. The AP transmitted over 40,000 words on June 6th alone. Newsboys hawked extra editions on every street corner in the land. Radio sponsors who bought blocks of time from the networks handed them back for more bulletins and analysis. By the end of the day, listeners across North America had heard from King George VI, prayed with President Roosevelt, and prayed and prayed some more — in churches, in synagogues, in the kitchen and on the shop floor, wherever they might be.
At 10:15 PM EWT the day was summed up best, not by a news man or politician, but by the best friend a US Service man ever had. After the familiar strains of Thanks for the Memories, a solemn Bob Hope took to the air:
Many of the true heroes of that day never came back. The US National D-Day Memorial Foundation has verified 2,499 American D-Day fatalities and 1,914 from the other Allied nations — and those are just the ones that took place on the 6th of June.
Today, words like ‘courage’ and ‘bravery’ are bandied about for people and situations that don’t deserve it. Actors pat themselves on the back for doing nude scenes like it is the equivalent of an amphibious assault. Self mutilating has-beens are called heroes for publicly cross-dressing. “Sacrifice” is what they call a tax increase.
We’ve thrown the youth of the nation to war across the globe many times since that day. Would those that gave all look at America today and do it all over again?
A tip of the radio windscreen to Feliks Banel and his I Still Love Radio blog, Bill Harris and the History of the NBC Chimes, and Archive.org where you can listen to the complete recordings of NBC and CBS from June 6, 1944.
Note: This post was originally published on June 6th, 2015.