Some clung desperately to life nets draped over the sides of ships and delicately – or clumsily – descended into landing craft that would take them toward an unknown fate on five beaches in Normandy, France.
Some loaded up to 70 pounds of equipment onto their backs, including a parachute, so they could land behind enemy lines a few hours before the main invasion.
Some piloted planes through heavy anti-aircraft fire.
Some manned giant guns on ships, or minesweepers, just off shore.
It was, of course, the much-anticipated Operation Overlord, now universally recognized as D-Day, the massive Allied invasion of Europe during World War II, on June 6, 1944, 75 years ago.
The Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, called it the “Great Crusade.”
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, speaks with Lieutenant Wallace C. Strobel, a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division on the evening of June 5, 1944. Courtesy: The National WWII Museum
In subsequent years the largest amphibious military assault in history, and the brave men and women who helped carry it out, has been well-chronicled in books, films, documentaries and at least one outstanding cable TV mini-series.
What has not been so thoroughly recounted, however, is the heroism and dedication to duty of journalists who covered the Allied invasion, and the war in general.
Sure, stories have been written about reporters such as Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney and Eric Sevareid, all of whom covered D-Day in one way or another, and all of whom eventually went to work for CBS News. In all, more than one thousand journalists covered the war’s European Theater of Operations.
But 75 years ago, Col. Barney Oldfield, an aide to Eisenhower and, later, in 1968, the founder of what is now the Radio Television Digital News Foundation, arranged for six reporters to accompany US airborne troops on their pre-invasion mission over inland areas of France. In fact, one of the journalists Oldfield recruited, Reuters’ Bob Reuben, filed the first post-invasion news story with a Normandy, France, dateline.
“If you didn’t have the wonderful press coverage that we were able to maintain at that time it would have been a far different kind of war,” Oldfield told an interviewer shortly before his death at age 93 in 2003.
The story is articulated quite well in a video produced by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for Nebraska Educational Telecommunications (NET):
Video provided by Bernard R. McCoy, Professor, College of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
|RTDNF founder Col. Barney Oldfield, circa 1944. Photo: NET|
In 1946, two years after D-Day and a little more than a year after the Allied victory in World War II, what we now know as the Radio Television Digital News Association was founded by John F. Hogan, then news director of WCHS in Portland, Maine. During the war Hogan was a public relations specialist with the US Maritime Commission, and some of the other 64 charter members of the association either fought in the war or covered it as journalists.
|Jack Shelley, World War II war correspondent. Photo: Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication|
One of them was WHO Radio news director Jack Shelley of Des Moines (no relation to yours truly). According to his 2010 obituary, published after his death at age 98, Shelley was among the first local journalists to receive credentials to cover the war up close. He first went to Belgium in late 1944, where he covered the Battle of the Bulge.
After Germany surrendered the following spring, Shelley went to the South Pacific, where the war with Japan was still raging. In August 1945 he found himself in the lucky position of being on the island of Tinian as the B-29 bomber nicknamed The Enola Gay returned after dropping an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Shelley was the first journalist to interview the pilot, Col. Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., who happened also to have been from Iowa.
|RTDNA founder John F. Hogan. Courtesy: Hogan Family|
As for Hogan, three years after starting RTDNA, he went to work for the US Information Agency, where he had a long career that included stretches at Voice of America and, interestingly, as the press officer for The United States’ final ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin; in 1975 Hogan was one of the last people helicoptered from the US embassy compound as Saigon was being overrun by the North Vietnamese. He died in 1988 at age 70.
But it was the Second World War that helped prompt Hogan, Shelley – who became RTDNA’s third elected president in 1950 – and others to launch our association. One of our first newsletters announced a membership drive, listing first among the reasons radio news directors should join:
"Some organization is needed to help radio consolidate the position it won through its fine reporting of the Second World War, by becoming what might be described as a 'steering committee' for radio news broadcasting."
What D-Day and World War II did for broadcast journalism was to impose on radio news a critical obligation to transform itself from disembodied voices reading newspaper and wire service copy into human beings people would come to know as the indispensable eyewitnesses to, and chroniclers of, events so monumental that nothing less than the freedom of the world was at stake.
Seventy-five years after D-Day and 73 years since the founding of RTDNA, our association and foundation are working hard every single day to uphold the values our founders envisioned, values honed on the beaches of Normandy and the other battlefields of World War II.
We do that by striving to promote and protect responsible journalism. We do that by defending the First Amendment rights of journalists across the country. We do that by recognizing the best in broadcast, cable, satellite and digital journalism with our Edward R. Murrow Awards. We do that by providing training to encourage ethical standards, newsroom leadership and industry innovation.
As you honor the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who fought on what author Cornelius Ryan called The Longest Day, consider joining our community of courageous news leaders and friends of the First Amendment or supporting our work – and local journalism across the country – with a gift that makes a difference in democracy.