When residents of Franklin County woke up on June 6, 1944, 160,000 Allied forces that made up Operation Overload had already been fighting one of the largest amphibious invasion ever undertaken. Now 75 years later, D-Day is remembered as the defining moment when the Allied forces began their push toward Germany and eventually victory.
The headline of that morning’s Ottawa Herald simply read, Invasion. It was a moment Americans had been waiting for, a chance to strike a blow against the Axis Powers in Europe. The Herald’s front page that day told the story of the secret planning that had led to the invasion. There were seven pages of coverage that day, stories of the fighting from the Associated Press and some that told the local stories of reaction and response on the homefront.
The fighting on the beaches of Normandy began at approximately 6:30 a.m. on June 6 while Franklin County residents were in bed. It was a massive undertaking with 7,000 ships including 1,213 warships and 4,127 landing craft. More than 20,000 airborne troops landed behind enemy lines prior to the invasion and 132,000 landed on the beaches. From the sky, there were 12,000 Allied aircraft that provided support. Casualties were high: 4,414 Allied troops were confirmed dead with reports of more than 9,000 wounded.
Joel Nordeen was 18-years-old when the invasion began. He had recently graduated from Paola High School. That meant the fighting in Europe had been going on since before he entered high school. He remembered hearing about Pearl Harbor and listening to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address to the nation. He said by the spring of 1944, there was anticipation of something big happening.
Nordeen worked at a cinema in Paola at the time and his parents owned the historic Jackson Hotel. He can still recall the details of that time.
“All of us were happy to hear the invasion was going on,” he said. “The newspaper and radio had let us know a few days before that they were going to try and land on the Normandy coast. And then we saw pictures a day later of what was taking place. I was just leaving work and going to the Jackson Hotel when I learned about the invasion. The war had been going on in Europe for six years. It had been such a violent war to that point and we knew that this was a big moment.”
Nordeen enlisted in the Marine Aircorps in October of 1944. From a cabinent in his room at Rock Creek Skilled Nursing facility, he pulled out a tube that protected a picture of his last day in the service. It was shot at El Toro Air Base in California. Nordeen said by the time he entered the service the momentum had turned in favor of the Allies and traced that directly to D-Day. Nordeen never had to the leave the states during his service time.
After leaving the service, Nordeen returned home. His parents had moved to Ottawa and purchased the Davis Paint store. He would make his home here owning a camera store for many years.
The June 6 edition of the Herald included many local stories about the invasion. One headline said ‘Ottawa Takes News Calmly.’
The Mayor at the time was E.V. Gibson. Just after the attack was announced he gave his thoughts and the sentiments of the city.
“This is one day,” he said. “We should all pitch in and work hard. It’s no time for celebrating. We will have a real holiday when victory comes.”
H.E. Shaw, commander of the Warren Black American Legion post was confident in the attack and it’s leaders.
“We are experiencing the start of a tremendous task of liberation,” he said. “And we have the fullest confidence in our Allied commanders.”
The article said many in the community did not have their radio’s on and were informed of the invasion as late as 10 a.m. that day.
Miss Grace Meeker, listed as an Ottawa Pioneer, talked about how excited she was to hear the news.
“I was so excited when I heard the news that I got nearly to the grocery store before I remembered I had left the milk bottles at home. We know there will be much heartbreak and bloodshed but we are happy to know that this is the beginning of the end of the war with Germany.”
The Federated church was open for a time of prayer that afternoon from 3 to 5 p.m. The Ministerial Association had planned for the attack, making sure that at least one minister of the city would be present during those hours for counsel.
Rev. I. Arthur Smith was president of the Ministerial Alliance and said that day was one for prayer and devotion for all people.
W.B. DeVilbiss, with Peoples National Bank, spoke about bonds and the responsibility of those at home.
“With D-Day here, we should realize our great responsibility to our fighting men and oversubscribe our bond quota on B-Day.
B-Day was the name given for a bond drive associated with the attack. On the night of the invasion, a group from Franklin County met to plan the first in a series of meetings to prepare for B-Day on June 12.
The meeting was attended by residents of Ottawa, Richmond along with Pottawatomie and Ohio Townships.
Carl Cayot was a cashier at the First National Bank. He was a veteran of WWI and served in France. He told the Herald about the area the Allied forces were attacking.
He told of the rolling hills and slope that extended up from the coast. He also told of the summer weather that the troops would encounter.
On the day of the invasion, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, was quoted often. One quote spoke of the magnitude of the effort.
“Four years ago our nation and empire stood alone against an overwhelming enemy, with our backs to the wall. Now once more a supreme test has to be faced. This time the challenge is not to fight to survive but to fight to win the final victory for the good cause.
At this historic moment surely not one of us is too busy, too young, or too old to play a part in a nation-wide, perchance a world-wide vigil of prayer as the great crusade sets forth.”
As for Nordeen, he believes there will never be another day like it.
“Wars are fought different now,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say it will never be that way again.”
— The Herald wants to thank Ashley Brannan from the Franklin County Historical Society for her help in finding the newspapers and pictures for this story.