The 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy during World War II was Friday, June 6. On that day in 1944, the Allied invasion of Europe began, when more than 150,000 men landed on a 60-mile stretch of France's coast. The success of the operation, code named "Overlord" and led by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, would determine the outcome of the entire war.
Everyone knew an invasion of Europe was inevitable. Adolf Hitler knew it. The American people knew it. The date and location, however, were known only to those seven commanders planning the attack. Everyone waited in anticipation for D-Day. In Fulton County, religious leaders were gathering to prepare for the expected invasion. Churches needed to be open and special services organized so that citizens could support the troops through prayer and find comfort in spirituality.
On April 26, the Morning-Herald announced there would be a citywide day of prayer on D-Day, whenever it arrived. The president of the Johnstown Council of Churches, the Rev. Frederick M. Belden of St. John's Episcopal Church, issued the call to prayer on invasion day. All the church bells in the city of Johnstown would ring when it was time. Belden explained that the imminent invasion would "be the most stupendous military action in all of human history," reminding the public that "two-thirds of the Allied forces would be American boys." That included boys from Fulton County.
The local papers published some of the stories of those local men. Private Joseph Tofinchio, a 28-year-old resident of Gloversville, was killed in action in Normandy on June 6. He was believed to be the first Gloversville man killed in action in the invasion of Europe. Tofinchio was in the U.S. Army Infantry and had been promoted to sergeant before requesting to move back down in the ranks. Two of the other Tofinchio boys, Rufus and Julius, were also serving in the Infantry and Navy, respectively. Joseph had worked in the mailroom at the Leader-Republican before joining the military, and was well-liked by his co-workers and had many friends.
Private Lyall H. Hutchinson of Johnstown received the Silver Star for "gallantry in action outside of the call of duty." He served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and was part of the third wave sent into Normandy.
Sgt. Russell Wilmarth, a U.S. paratrooper, also managed a "first" for Gloversville: He was believed to be the first Gloversville boy to appear in photographs of the invasion and even made it onto the newsreels. The photo, published in the Leader-Republican, shows a group of young men holding up a Nazi flag they had seized. His wife, surely bursting with pride (and relief) at the sight of her husband, saw it first and recognized him. From Rochester, she excitedly called her father-in-law in Gloversville, who then informed the paper that it was his son in the photo. Wilmarth would later lose most of his leg after being wounded on June 13; the paper reported Wilmarth "declared it was one of the toughest things he ever did to 'write my wife that I have lost a leg.'" He returned home for treatment.
Operation Overlord was originally scheduled for June 5, but a storm that arose over the English Channel on the 4th could be detrimental to plan. Remember, the outcome of the war depended on the success of the invasion. After agonizing over a decision, Eisenhower finally chose to postpone the invasion for a day, hoping for better weather conditions. In the pre-dawn hours of June 6, Operation Overlord began with the dropping of three airborne divisions - two American and one British - behind the beaches. D-Day had finally arrived.
Back in Fulton County, many hours after the paratroopers had made landing in France, the news of the invasion was spreading. The front page of the Leader-Republican was emblazoned with thick bold letters declaring: "ALLIES ON CONTINENT." A map of Europe and a photo of Gen. Eisenhower accompanied the headline. The plans made by the area churches back in the springtime were put into action. Both Christian and Jewish houses of worship were opened all day, and many offered special services. As promised, church bells throughout Gloversville and Johnstown began tolling at 9 a.m.; those who had not yet heard the news called the police, wondering why the bells were ringing. Both Estee Junior High and Gloversville Senior High Schools stopped classes for a moment of silence and prayer, followed by the singing of "God Bless America" at the junior high and the singing of the "Star-Spangled Banner" by the choir at the high school.
The Chamber of Commerce and local businesses worked together to display American flags, and before noon, Main Street was emblazoned with red, white, and blue. Citizens were immersed in the goings-on in Europe. Despite the excitement and tension brought along with the news of the invasion, there had been "no untoward incidents" in Gloversville so far, the Leader-Republican reported: "Flurries of excitement over news of the invasion caused numerous incidents, some amusing, including the boiling over of a coffee urn in one eating establishment, when employees forgot to check the urn which was being filled."
Another local commented on the timing of the invasion, claiming astrological significance and telling a reporter "that the horoscope shows the invasion thrust was timed according to 'Hoyle,' for the horoscope indicates that any great undertaking should be started before the completion of the full moon, which was last night."
Operation Overlord was a success, but there was still nearly a year of fighting that would come. More men were being sent off, needed now more than ever to secure victory and liberation of the European countries. The "Germany first" strategy that the U.S. committed to meant that a majority of the resources and troops were being sent to Europe (the U.S. was simultaneously fighting against Japan in the Pacific with fewer resources). A group of 46 men from all over Fulton County left for the Army and Navy on June 6. Still, the invasion excited the Allied countries. The furor and pressure was clearly felt in our county as locals gathered together in one common hope: that D-Day would be the beginning of the end.
Samantha Hall-Saladino is the Fulton County historian.