The weather in Lowell was mostly sunny and warm on Monday, June 5, 1944. Across the Atlantic Ocean, things were quite different. In the English Channel, high winds caused heavy seas and low clouds enveloped the coast of France. The forecast caused General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, to postpone the invasion of France that was scheduled for that day. Eisenhower’s weather forecasters predicted the next day, June 6, would have better conditions, but then a series of severe storms would batter the French coast for the next two weeks.
Eisenhower ordered his forces to execute Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious assault in history, before or since. Seven infantry divisions would land on the north coast of the Normandy Peninsula while three airborne divisions dropped from the air beyond the beaches. Two British and one Canadian Division supported by a British Airborne Division would assault the eastern-most beaches, while four American Divisions, the 1st, 4th, 29th, and 90th, supported by two airborne divisions, the 82nd and the 101st, would land on the beaches closest to the Atlantic.
The big news back in Lowell on June 5 was that Allied troops in Italy had finally captured Rome. Today, thanks to popular and well-made films like Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific, when we think of World War II, we imagine the US Army fighting in France, or US Marines invading a Japanese-held island in the Pacific. It is rare for anyone to think of the fighting in Italy. But even a cursory scan of newspaper front pages from the first half of 1944 discloses the scale of the casualties suffered by the American Army in Italy, so the fall of Rome truly was big news.
Besides the war news from Italy, there was also a report that US Army Sergeant George A. Demoulas, son of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Demoulas of 81 Totman Road in Dracut, has been awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge for his service on Guadalcanal.
In local news, the funeral for Michael Ansara was held at St. George’s Syrian Orthodox Church at the corner of Fletcher and Bowers Streets. A “retired rug merchant,” Ansara was also a civic and religious leader and “was one of the foremost leaders in the Syrian-Lebanese movements.”
Charles G. Sampas, in his recurring Sampascoopies column that day, wrote an article like this one, only he took readers back to 1861 and what it was like in Lowell during the Civil War.
If you wanted to get out of the house and do some shopping, The Bon Marche and Cherry and Webb ran a combined ad that announced their “wartime” hours:
- Mondays – 1pm to 9pm
- Tuesdays thru Fridays – 9:30am to 5:30pm
- Saturdays – 9:30am to 6pm
And to lighten things up, there were two full pages of comics featuring Popeye, Superman, Donald Duck, Mickey Finn, Blondie, and others.
The next day, June 6, 1944, the massive headline shown above dominated the front page of the newspaper with a subheading that airborne troops spearheaded Allied landings in North France.
The next day, June 7, the lead story was based on a report broadcast by a commercial radio station in Germany which announced that the Allies were landing in the Pas de Calais area. I found this story fascinating in a couple of respects. First, Pas de Calais is nearly 200 miles north of Normandy, but it is also the point on the French coast that is closest to England. Throughout history, invasions of France from England had landed there. Hitler expected the same would happen this time and positioned his forces accordingly. And Allied intelligence engaged in a massive deception effort to reinforce that belief, going so far as to create phantom armies of inflatable tanks and real radio traffic from fictitious fighting units that were supposedly bound for that part of France. Hitler was so convinced that Pas de Calais would be the main objective, that he believed the Normandy invasion was just a diversion and refused to commit armored reserves there while the Allies were still in a tenuous position on the beaches. By the time Hitler realized Normandy was the main assault and ordered his armor to attack, the Allies had enough of their own tanks ashore to withstand the counterattack.
The second thing I found fascinating about the Pas de Calais headline is the utter lack of accurate information available in the local newspaper about what was going on in France. Since the Vietnam War and continuing, we have become used to having news correspondents reporting almost instantaneously from the front lines. And while tactically sensitive information is excluded from these broadcasts, they still give us an accurate and timely account of what is going on. The newspaper coverage on June 7 and thereafter contains only the vaguest information about what is happening in the fighting, sometimes relying on German radio broadcasts for news content.
Occasionally there were stories with direct links to Lowell. On Thursday, June 8, a story reported that John J. Zamanakos, age 27, of 505 Fletcher Street, Lowell, had been one of the first paratroopers to jump into Normandy as part of an advanced, pathfinder detachment. Zamanakos had studied diesel engineering at Lowell Textile Institute and was a well-known local athlete.
On Saturday, June 10, came the first report of a casualty from Lowell. PFC John K. Walsh had been slightly wounded in Normandy. He was 26 years old, had lived at 1421 Gorham Street and worked at US Bunting Co before entering service in 1942.
A more upbeat Lowell-connected story appeared on Tuesday, June 13 – Lowell Parachuting Chaplain at Battle for Carentan – This United Press story profiled Rev. Raymond Hall who had been the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church (on Gorham Street, next to Superior Courthouse) from 1938 until he enlisted in the Army on December 4, 1941, just three days before Pearl Harbor. Rev. Hall went to jump school, qualified as a paratrooper, and was the first chaplain assigned to an airborne unit. He parachuted into Normandy on the evening of June 5 and had spent most of his time since then assisting the doctors and medics in caring for the wounded.
Another story with a local angle came on Tuesday, June 20, 1944, when SSG Edward F. Harrington of a US Army Air Force public affairs unit who was a Lowell Sun reporter in peace time encountered LT Francis J. Giblin at an airfield in England. Lieutenant Giblin, of 22 Litchfield Terrace, was a co-pilot on a C-47 transport plane that dropped airborne troops into Normandy on the evening of June 5 and returned on June 7 to do a supply drop.
Here’s some of what Giblin had to say about the two flights:
The air ahead was filled with planes silhouetted against the moon-lit sky, and bursts of gun fire and bomb explosions reflected in the distance – along the coast of France. . . . As we neared the French coast, the course changed somewhat, but we ran into other anti-aircraft fire. Tracer bullets spit up all around us, but not one plane had this stage had been knocked out . . . As we got deeper into enemy territory, I could see flak bursting around us like hundreds of Roman candles. . . What seemed like an eternity, but was only a few minutes, was the remainder of the trip to our drop zone. There was a commotion in the cabin as the green light flashed on and the paratroopers bounded out the door . . . Our plane then turned with the formation and headed back. Ack-ack fire became more intensive. Then, “Zip”, a bullet tour through the wing of our ship, then another and another. Twelve times our plane was hit.
Finally amidst a steady stream of reports of Lowell area soldiers being killed or wounded in Italy came the first official casualty reports from France on Friday, June 30, 1944:
- PFC John J. McEnany of North Chelmsford, a member of “an amphibious tank unit” went missing in action on June 6 in France. A graduate of Chelmsford High class of 1930, McEnany owned a food story, was married to Mary E Gallagher of Lowell, and had a son, John T. McEnany, whom he had never seen.
- PFC Donald E. Axon of Lowell, age 21, was killed in action on June 10 in France. He was a graduate of Bartlett Junior High and Lowell High School.
- SGT Paul J. Nadeau of Lowell, age 23 and the son of Mrs. Sylvia Nadeau of 26 Fisher Street, died in action over France. He was a waist gunner on a B-17 bomber.
- PFC Joseph Lachance, 35, of 485 Moody St, died in France on June 12. He was a shoe worker before the war and was serving in infantry.
- Motor Machinist Mate Edward Desmarais 40 Wilbur St, Lowell, was killed in action at Normandy while serving in the US Navy.
- Albert Constantineau, 20, was a Navy boatswain’s mate who was wounded during invasion of France. He lived at 5 Ardell St and had previously participated in invasions of North Africa and Sicily.
- PFC Cyprian C. Romaniecki was seriously wounded in France on June 14. He was 22 years old and had lived with his parents at 49 Andover St. He was a graduate of St. Stanislaus School and Lowell High. He had been in the service 2 years and had participated in the North African and Italian campaigns.
While the news and reports from France continued to dominate the headlines, there were constant reminders that the country was engaged in a WORLD war. On July 6, the newspaper reported that Army PFC Alphonse J. Leclair, age 21, son of Mr. and Mrs. John Leclair of 844 Lakeview Ave, had been wounded in Italy. On July 10, news arrived that Marine Lieutenant Howard J. Lamson, a graduate of the Varnum Junior High, Lowell High School, and Dartmouth College, and the son of the treasurer of the Lowell Five Cent Savings Bank, had been killed in action “somewhere in the Pacific.”
The war continued for another 14 months and the casualty counts mounted. It seemed as though the closer the end of the war came, the higher the number of deaths of local service members that were reported. The photos and stories of the decedents are powerful reminders of the tragedy and the cost of war.