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D-Day in Cincinnati on June 6, 1944: Story of pride and prejudice

City supports war effort, but strikers leave stain
Posted: 7:40 AM, Jun 06, 2019
Updated: 2019-06-14 17:46:26Z
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CINCINNATI – It didn’t take long for the first Cincinnati casualty and hero of D-Day to be counted among the 200,000 Allies who stormed the beaches at dawn or parachuted into France in the dark of night.

A Los Angeles newsman assigned to the Normandy invasion sent back word that Capt. Louis Hille of Clifton saved his life and others.

“We were attempting to go up a path through the palisades. Suddenly, a soldier cried to me, ‘Don’t step on that, Buddy.’ I looked where he was pointing, It was a mine,” said the newsman, Tom Trainer, according to a report in The Cincinnati Post.

“Then I looked at him. He was a Ranger. He was sitting there with one foot badly wounded. He kept sitting there – not lying down – and when his buddies came up, he would point out the mines’ positions and warn them away.”

The D-Day invasion 75 years ago today caught Tri-Staters in their sleep, so radio station WCKY decided to wake them up and break the news personally.

Station personnel called about 500 local residents at random starting at 3:30 a.m. and finished about two hours later, The Post reported in its afternoon “LIBERATION” edition on Tuesday, June 6, 1944.

A WCKY operator said the news made “some disgruntled, few excited, some happy” and left “everybody sleepy.”

Awakened at 5 a.m., Cincinnati Mayor James Garfield Stewart said simply, “Gosh.”

Within hours, when the rest of the region awoke to the radio reports (no TV yet, much less Internet), the reaction was solemn, The Post reported. People didn’t rush into the streets, screaming and celebrating like they would for V-E Day and V-J Day the following year.

Instead, many headed for church to pray, knowing that more of their sons, nephews, friends or neighbors were now in harm’s way.

A tearful woman waiting for a street car revealed that her son was a bomber pilot stationed in England and was certain to be part of the invasion.

“You hate to make a fool of yourself in public, but I guess there will be plenty of us today,” she told a Post reporter. “It’s not just my boy alone, it’s all the boys. The news is wonderful, but you just can’t help thinking about all those boys.”

Cincinnatians who had supported the war effort by following the city’s motto - “Pray. Work. Buy. Give.” - were inspired now to do even more.

Since the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the U.S. into the War in the Pacific, Cincinnatians had been doing their part by enlisting, buying War Bonds, giving blood, rationing dutifully (gas, oil, food, sugar, rubber shoes), donating scrap metal and paper to the war effort and even participating in civil defense drills.

Many workers adapted to new jobs after production shifted from peacetime to wartime. Many women and African-Americans also joined the work force for the first time, taking the places of men who went overseas.

After hearing the D-Day news, more than 300 men showed up at enlistment stations that day eager to fight for their country, The Post reported.

The American Red Cross said a record 411 people donated blood and another 437 made appointments for later.

Virtually every place of worship held services and many workplaces did, too. Episcopal Bishop Henry Wise Hobson led 800 employees in prayer at the American Machine Tool Works.

After his 700 workers arrived at Western & Southern, Charles Williams called them together and told them they could take an hour, go to any church and pray. Companies across the city halted work for a silent prayer.

A War Bond rally previously scheduled for that night set a record for the number of people - nearly 3,000 - who came to volunteer.

Most people stayed home and listened to invasion news on the radio, the Post reported. Many restaurants and bars suspended liquor sales, and some movie houses shut down. The Reds game in Pittsburgh and one other scheduled major-league game were postponed.

There was happy news on the homefront. The Post ran photos of two D-Day babies - Sandra Sue Klein and Marilyn Sue Edwards – born to soldiers’ wives. Their fathers were taking part in the invasion, the newspaper said.

But there was bad news on the homefront, too.

While the Post’s top headline blared: “ALLIES SMASH INLAND FROM INVASION POINTS,” a smaller headline lower on the front page – “Army Appeals To Strikers” – addressed a shameful episode in the city’s history and reminded all that racial prejudice still held a tight grip on the community.

On the day before the invasion, some 15,000 white workers – men and women - went on a wildcat strike at the Wright plant in Lockland, virtually shutting down production of airplane engines for the war effort.

The Post reported that the strike started when seven “Negro” workers were transferred to the center shop to man idle machines.

Their own union, the United Auto Workers, pleaded with the strikers go back to work, issuing a statement that said, in part:

“The strike … provoked by a handful of individuals is a blow at our boys invading Europe … The UAW is absolutely opposed to all forms of discrimination because of race … Negro workers have fought with white workers to establish our union … Negro Army, Navy and Marine Corps fighters are on every battlefront.”

That's right, the Army remained segregated.

But the strikers were unmoved, and the union’s 2,000 stewards were summoned to work.

By the next day, The Post reported the strike at the top of the front page. Army and UAW officials arrived in person to appeal to the strikers’ patriotism and sense of duty, if not their sense of justice and righteousness. But that didn’t work, either.

In a front-page editorial, The Post said: “To Cincinnati’s shame, let it be said this is the only major war strike in America today … Will you Wright strikers keep this un-American prejudice alive at the expense of American soldiers and sailors?”

From afar, a War Department official called the strike “nothing less than treason” and threatened to cancel the contract with the Wright plant. Company officials issued an ultimatum – anybody who didn’t come back to work by midnight Friday would be fired.

That seemed to do the trick. By Friday, the strike was over and the workers were back on the job – including the seven black workers who were targets of the strike. Strike instigators were fired, and no problems were reported, the Post said.

Each day during the war, The Post and newspapers across the country contained several pages of notices and photos of local men and women serving in the armed forces – some being promoted, shipped overseas or sending greetings to loved ones; others coming home.

The newspapers also included reports on locals who were killed, wounded, captured or missing in action.

Even before the mass casualty reports from the Normandy invasion could start coming in, the D-Day edition of the Post reported on four soldiers wounded and one MIA in the recent drive on Rome.

Pvt. Roy Rhien, 27, an infantryman from Camp Washington, was missing after being at the front on Anzio Beach for 31 days, according to War Department. That battle led to the capture of Rome two days before D-Day.

Sgt. Robert Gullett, 20, of Covington, a tailgunner, was seriously wounded over Italy after completing 20 missions. His two brothers were also in the service.

Growing up in Clifton, Carol Cella, 8 years old on D-Day and 83 now, said her parents tried to keep the war news from their three children.

“They were protective, so you had to pick up on it. We knew about it,” she said. “The adults were afraid. They didn’t want to talk about it.”

Cella said she remembers food rationing and her parents talking about “stretching” their stamps. Sugar, meat, butter, cheese, fats and even canned and dried foods were rationed. People received ration books that contained stamps or coupons.

But Cella said it wasn’t a hardship for her family.

“If somebody was having a birthday, they’d have to save up for flour and sugar, but we always had enough to eat,” she said.

Cincinnatians devoted themselves to the war effort, and many jobs, businesses and lifestyles changed.

Allan M. Winkler, a history professor at Miami University, cited some of the changes in an overview for the Cincinnati Historical Society in 1991.

Many Cincinnatians took their savings out of banks and shoe boxes and invested in War Bonds. Hamilton County alone raised more than $1.5 billion through War Bond sales.

Besides doing without, many people planted Victory Gardens. Hamilton County alone had between 60,000 and 75,000.

Companies big and small retooled and converted to war production. The region brought in $5 billion worth of government contracts, many on the backs of machine tool workers.

When workers weren’t on strike, the 25-acre Wright engine plant produced 60,000 engines by the end of the war.

A company that made women’s dresses, Fashion Frocks, switched to making parachutes instead, Winkler reported. Mosler Safe stayed in the metal-working business but started making armor plate and tank turrets. Kroger kept its retail grocery business but won a contract to produce a kind of braised pork for the Soviet Army. Rookwood Pottery stopped making ceramics and started making wooden water pipe.

Meanwhile, Union Terminal emerged as a transportation center and even a shipping center to rival the Ohio River as railroads set records for moving freight and people.

Union Terminal handled an average of 110,000 freight cars per month – almost double the pre-war number. Large groups of troops, government personnel and even POWs rode in special trains, while other soldiers joined civilians on commercial trains.

But the Queen City’s value to the war effort also made it a target.

Cincinnati found itself on a list of 33 strategic target cities. Air-raid wardens were recruited and trained to keep cars off streets during air-raid drills and enforce city-wide blackouts, according to Robert Earnest Miller’s book, “Cincinnati: The World War II Years.”

In all, more than 62,000 men and women volunteered to be wardens, fire spotters, auxiliary police and firefighters and emergency rescue workers, Miller wrote.

Drastic measures were considered to keep citizens safe. City officials studied converting the unused subway tunnels into bomb shelters but found they weren’t dug deep enough. The zoo superintendent decided that dangerous animals that could go free in an emergency and become a menace would be destroyed.

But as American victories on the battlefront mounted, that reduced anxiety about enemy attacks on Cincinnati and other cities, and volunteers were directed to morale-building activities.

Nearly 100,000 local residents fought in the war, according to Winkler. Of those, 70,000 men and 4,000 women served with the Army, 11,000 men and 500 women with the Navy and 9,000 men with the Marines. Others served in the National Guard.

More than 2,300 died.

The war helped women and African-Americans in their struggles for equal rights, Winkler said. The labor shortage opened new opportunities. African-Americans made the greatest gains in industry. The number of working African-Americans rose from 4.4 million to 5.3 million between 1940 and 1944.