The Nazis were in the fight of their lives, the News-Sentinel declared in early June.
“BATTLE RAGES IN VIEW OF ROME,” the headline at the top of Page 1 blared on June 2, 1944.
The headlines promised progress against the Axis. Could the march into Italy be the huge offensive rumored by the Allies for months?
Lodians had no idea that within days, an even larger operation would begin.
Instead, they carried on with their lives. A caravan of 104 Lodi residents, including employees of the post office, Bear Creek and EastSide wineries, Super Mold and the Lodi Volunteer Firemen, traveled to the Red Cross blood center in Oakland, the June 2 edition reported.
Hollywood’s Hoot Gibson came to town for a two-day rodeo, and the Community Arts Group opened a new exhibit at the Lodi Public Library. More Lodi men and women joined the Army and Navy. Some joined the Ben Ali Temple of the Mystic Shrine. More than 300 joined the American Legion.
On June 5, word reached Lodi that Rome had fallen to the Allies.
On June 7, the word came. Allied troops had left Great Britain and landed along the Normandy coast in France, along a 60-mile stretch.
“Under General Sir Bernard Montgomery, the Allied troops ... many of them seasick after their channel trip in bad weather ... fought ashore through waist-deep mud and slime past underwater obstacles of concrete and wood, capped with deadly mines, to make good their landing against a surprisingly light resistance. There was so sign of an immediate German counterattack,” a United Press reported said.
The News-Sentinel tempered this with a comment by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who warned people against being too optimistic. While he was pleased by early reports, the paper reported, “neither the invasion nor the war are by any means over.”
No truer words had been spoken. In reality, Operation Neptune — the codename for the landings at Normandy, but better known as D-Day — was a hard-fought operation. It allowed the Allies to establish five beachheads in France that would be vitally important to the invasion of Europe. But it also led to more than 10,000 casualties and 4,414 deaths for the Allies alone, in just days. The German troops that fought the invasion suffered up to 9,000 injuries and deaths of their own.
On that first day, the Allies were only able to claim Gold and Juno beaches. Fierce fighting from the Nazis kept them away from their goals near the towns of Carenton, St. Lo and Bayeaux — Utah, Omaha and Sword beaches.
But people were hopeful. The optimistic reporting continued.
Two days later, the UP said that Caen was near to falling, and they were just miles from the port of Cherbourg. (In reality, Caen was not captured until July 21.)
At least one Lodian was in the thick of it. On June 30, the News-Sentinel reported that Mrs. Mable Newman, mother of 1st Lt. James O. Newman, and his wife Mrs. Virginia Newman had received letters. One of the letters was addressed from a French beachhead, and the second was from just “France.”
“He revealed that while the fighting in Sicily — in which he had been among the first invasion troops to land — was ‘tough’ it was a ‘Sunday School picnic’ compared to the current battles involved in the Battle for France,” the News-Sentinel wrote.
The rugged terrain that gave German troops plenty of hiding places made it more difficult, Newman wrote in his letters.
And on June 12, Lodians may have cheered on their French counterparts as they read that the patriots there, who had worked with Allies to “lull the Germans into a feeling of false security” by keeping quiet in the months leading up to the D-Day invasion, were back to their games of sabotage.
“In one region of western France which covers an area slightly larger than South Carolina there has been more sabotage of communications and military installations in the past 72 hours than the Germans encountered throughout the previous three months, one source stated.”
The battle continues
On June 13, the News-Sentinel reported the previous day’s good news: The Allies had captured Carentan, meaning all five beachheads were Allied territory, and they were all linked together.
Even Roosevelt was breathing easier.
“In a nation-wide radio speech launching the $16,000,000,000 Fifth War Loan Drive, he gave an up to the minute review of the global war in which he frankly acknowledged that the invasion of Western Europe ‘has been costly in men and materials,’ but said losses ‘were lower than our commanders had estimated would occur,’” the New-Sentinel wrote.
The invasion did spark a furious response from Germany. On June 16, the Nazis began firing rocket bombs into England. A team of 100 Flying Fortresses and Liberators began bombing concrete tracks in the French woods where the rockets appeared to be launching from. The rocket attacks continued through June 21, thanks in part to a German anti-aircraft device that could foul the Allied planes’ propellers.
On June 26, the U.S. Army finally cracked Cherbourg.
“Patrols had penetrated into the streets this morning. They met a terrible fire by German troops strongly entrenched and fortified in outlying houses, and they were ordered to retire,” the News-Sentinel wrote. “But this afternoon the Yanks broke into the streets in force from the south and northeast despite a barrage of German cannon fire and a screen of machine gun bullets.”
Troops were slowly making progress, the UP reported.
“CHERBOURG FALLS TO AMERICANS,” the top headline announced the next day, June 27. By the third day, all that was left was mopping up. According to the United Press report, “crack British infantry” had smashed through German lines in a six-mile advance, cutting off communications with Caen.
At least 20,000 prisoners were taken in the Cherbourg area.
The Allies could then turn their attentions to Caen, the German stronghold.
In the worst fighting since the June 6 beach landings, Allied troops fought off waves of Axis tanks in mid-July.
“American troops, driving with bayonets Wednesday to within a mile of St. Lo, began shelling the city as an outflanking column swung around to the east and headquarters announced that more than 160 enemy tanks — a full division — had been destroyed in four days of furious fighting,” a UP story reported in the News-Sentinel on July 13.
The Battle for Caen continued to rage until Aug. 6, with each day’s incremental progress reported on the paper’s front page. By July 20, British soldiers had broken past Caen and were on the road toward Paris.
That news — along with stories on Allied troops’ bloody progress in Italy and in the Pacific, especially the capture of Saipan on July 10 — was welcome to Lodi readers.
Life on the home front
Back home in Lodi, no one was fighting tanks or enemy troops, but the war was a daily part of life nonetheless.
The most obvious signs were in the News-Sentinel, which shared letters and reports about Lodi men and women on the front — including those who paid the ultimate price.
On June 9, the paper reported that Corp. Fredric Weatherington, who had gone missing in the fall of Bataan in 1942, had been listed as dead by the War Department.
Staff Sgt. Leonard Schwemmer was killed in action in Italy on May 28.
“His companions rated him as one of the finest of all soldiers,” the News-Sentinel wrote on July 15.
On July 18, the paper reported that Seaman Raymond Jerald Anderson had been killed in action in the South Pacific five days earlier.
The men were just a few among the dozens of Lodians killed during the war.
There was no closure for other families, at least not yet.
Lt. William Spooner, attached to a field artillery unit, went missing in Italy on June 9. The News-Sentinel got the news on July 10. Among the family members anxiously awaiting word were his wife Catherine and their 8-month-old son. He would eventually be declared dead.
Lt. Joseph Kent Thompson was captured after his plane went down over Germany, the paper reported on June 17. He would survive the war.
Rarely, a family got good news instead.
On July 3, the News-Sentinel shared that Lt. Donald Kolb was reported missing in action over German a little less than two weeks earlier.
For 12 days, Lodi mourned. Then, Kolb’s parents got the news: he was safe, though the War Department refused to share any details about where and how he had been found.
As families grieved or breathed a sigh of relief, life went on for most in Lodi.
More than 200 retailers and employees joined the “Third Army” in June — an organization dedicated to raising funds through the Fifth War Loan Drive. The event kicked off on June 12 at the intersection of Pine and School streets, led by Capt. William Evans of the Stockton Ordinance Depot. The Lodi Union High School band played the National Anthem and “martial airs.”
The Lodi Public Library — then located on Pine Street in the building that now houses Carnegie Forum — even themed its summer reading challenge around Victory Gardens. Shelves were assigned vegetables including turnips, beets and potatoes, and children had a “garden plot” of 10 plants that they filled by reading books from the shelves.
“The motto is ‘All for Victory: Our gardens help feed the world; our reading helps us know the world.’”
Lodi grocers advertised “quick energy” foods such as pre-made ravioli and pork roast so that Lodians could spend less time cooking and more time and energy on bond drives and victory gardens.
Canneries desperate for workers turned to young women to fill the ranks.
“Women workers are needed at the Foster & Wood Canning Company in Lodi and at the Thornton Cannery, states Ray Gerard, manager of the U.S. Employment Office,” the News-Sentinel wrote June 13. “While experienced help is preferable, the services of good inexperienced workers will be welcomed.”
Gerard visited Lodi Union High School the same day to invite female students to apply.
Daily life was rattled by one major war disaster.
Port Chicago, a town just northeast of Martinez, was the site of a Navy munitions depot during World War II. On July 17, seamen were loading anti-submarine depth charges, 1,000-pound bombs and incendiary bombs into ships at the port when a series of events led to a massive explosion, then an even larger secondary explosion.
All 320 men on duty at the pier were killed instantly, and nearly 400 others were injured.
According to the News-Sentinel’s headline on July 18, the blast was felt all the way in Lodi.
“The town of Port Chicago, with a population of approximately 1,000, was reported to be about totally wrecked,” the UP reported.