Missing D-Day: ‘Performers without an audience’

Around 3 a.m. on June 6, 1944, restless and unable to sleep, Lt. Vernon A. Walters turned on the radio in his room at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome. He heard German radio announce that the Allied invasion had begun, in Normandy, and pondered whether to tell his boss right away. Walters opted to sit on the news for a few more hours before entering Gen. Mark Clark’s room at about 6 a.m. and informing him about the landings.

“The sons of bitches!” Clark fumed. “They wouldn’t let us have the headlines for the fall of Rome for even one day.”

Gen. Mark Clark in Rome on June 5 (Copyright: © IWM)

The anecdote, shared in a transcript of Walters’ farewell speech upon his retirement from the CIA in 1976, summed up the feelings not only of the publicity-craving Clark but also many of the correspondents covering the Fifth Army. Their achievement had been upstaged by D-Day before the dust had time to settle over the Eternal City.

Baltimore Sun correspondent Price Day filed a brief item the morning of June 6 that ran the following day under the headline, “Invasion Still Just A Rumor In Rome, Price Day Reports.” The whimsical piece strings together bits of hearsay passed among soldiers, civilians and correspondents who have heard — but not yet been informed officially — that Eisenhower has finally launched his attack. It concludes:

Most of us here in Stampa Estera, Rome’s foreign press building, hope it is true, but it is strange to sit this morning in Rome and feel that the focus of the world’s interest may at this moment be sweeping away to boiling shoals off the coast of northern France.

Eric Sevareid

Among Day’s colleagues in Rome was Eric Sevareid of CBS. He wrote in his autobiography that the correspondents were typing away on June 6 when someone from the BBC rushed into the press building and shouted: “Eisenhower has announced the invasion of France! It’s official!”

Every typewriter stopped. We looked at one another. One or two shrugged their shoulders and went back to work; most of us sat back, pulled out cigarettes, and dropped our half-written stories about Rome to the floor. The “play” had suddenly been taken away from the Italian campaign, and after weeks of worldwide attention we had in a trice become performers without an audience.

To a certain extent all of us confused our own progress with that of the war itself, and we were now in the position of a troupe of actors who, at the climax of their play, realize that the spectators have all fled out of the door to watch a more spectacular performance across the street.

The distance of decades allowed Sevareid to be perhaps a bit more forthcoming with his feelings than most correspondents would actually put into their copy at the time.

Seymour Korman of the Chicago Tribune, for instance, took a more charitable tack with the lead of his story from Rome for June 7 editions:

Allied soldiers and Italian civilians knelt today before lighted candles in St. Peter’s cathedral and prayed for the success of the new invasion of Europe.

All thru Rome yesterday’s jubilation over the allies’ arrival was succeeded today by the excitement at the beginning of the next great phase of the battle of the continent. Meager reports of the thrust across the channel vied for space and headlines on the front pages of Italian newspapers with stories of the allies’ arrival and the doings in this city. The feeling was that the invasion of France had been keyed to the fall of Rome.

The latter notion was wishful thinking, of course, as the timing of Operation Overlord was based on the lunar cycle and tide charts, not the progress of Clark’s army.

Quentin Reynolds

At least the correspondents nursing their bruised egos in Rome had actual fighting to cover. Quentin Reynolds, the Collier’s correspondent who had spent the last several years in Europe, was back in the U.S. when the news broke.

He had been asked to speak at the Democratic National Convention in July and had felt it was his duty to the war effort to accept, though he lived in fear of missing “what was going to be the greatest story of the war — the cross-channel invasion.” Friends in the government and the military assured him that a late-summer operation seemed more plausible, so he set sail the wrong way across the Atlantic.

“When the news came on June 6 that the invasion had been launched, I felt sick,” Reynolds lamented in his autobiography. Several of his military friends “were all on the Normandy beaches while I sat in New York.”

For a correspondent accustomed to being at the center of the action, New York was the farthest thing from it in June 1944.

COVERING D-DAY
Check out these behind-the-scenes stories you might have missed:
D-Day: Keeping the Mulberry secret
Ernie Pyle's struggle to tell the invasion story
Martha Gellhorn goes rogue to get her D-Day story
Radio breaks the invasion news to the world
Parachuting behind enemy lines ... with a typewriter
Correspondents missing D-Day feel left out
Joan Ellis and the AP's accidental invasion flash
D-Day with Ike: Red Mueller at Eisenhower's HQ
D-Day correspondents balance fear, ambition
Hemingway invades London ahead of D-Day
Bringing the sound of battle into your living room
Hitting Utah Beach with Ken Crawford

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