“May the battle which has started on the beaches and fields of Normandy usher in an age of justice, of international cooperation and yet of eternal vigilance without which permanent peace can never be possible.”
Editorial, Watertown Daily Times, June 6, 1944
Nerves around the north country, and all across the free world, were on edge 75 years ago in the spring of 1944 as final plans were made for the push of the Allies to liberate mainland Europe from the forces of Nazi Germany. It was known something was coming, but not where or when.
In Watertown, people wondered, and sometimes worried, how the public would react when news came of D-Day. On April 25, 1944, Watertown Mayor Charles A. Winslow opposed a plan to ring church bells when news of the invasion came.
Mayor Winslow preferred saving such public displays for “great victories” with an eye toward “a noisy reception to news of the end of the war.”
“When D-Day arrives, there will be no need for public signals,” the mayor said. “The radios and newspapers will bring us the important news minutes after the invasion is launched.”
He added, “The effect of public signals, especially on wives and mothers whose sons may be going into battle, would be adverse and could have serious consequences. We are informed by reliable medical authority that the resulting shock might even be fatal in some cases.”
City residents did receive a shock on Saturday, June 3, 1944 when the Associated Press reported erroneously that the Allied invasion of the European continent had begun. That afternoon, at 4:39, the Belmont Stakes horse racing program was interrupted over WWNY radio, which at that time was owned and operated by the Watertown Daily Times. The erroneous news flash was broadcast via the Columbia Radio Network.
But 5 minutes later, at 4:44 p.m., the network announced the flash was in error after receiving a kill order from the AP. This “prevented operation of the plan of churches throughout the Northern New York for ringing church bells to announce the beginning of the invasion,” the Times reported.
Most of the north country was sleeping when news came of the June 6 invasion. Berlin first announced the landings in a series of flashes that began at 12:30 a.m. Eastern Time. (Normandy time is six hours ahead of Eastern U.S. time). WWNY first aired news of the landing at 2:02 a.m. Eastern time. The wires of the AP and United Press came in with news of it simultaneously to the Times at 3:33 a.m. Eastern time. The AP flash simply read: “London – Eisenhower’s headquarters announces the Allies land in France.”
As the sun rose in Watertown on that trying Tuesday and as the day wore on, residents prayed. Apparently, bells were not rung.
“Between 11:30 and 11:50 this morning, the business section was crowded with children and adults but suddenly the crowds vanished as they left for their respective churches. And in a few minutes the entire business section presented a deserted appearance,” the Times, which published extra editions, reported.
At the Hotel Woodruff, people flocked to a window display that featured a large map that show the progress of Allied forces along with the latest news bulletins.
In Gouverneur at 8 a.m., the memorial tower amplifier of the First Presbyterian church played chimes and “God Bless America.” Merchants displayed flags before their places of business.
Advertisers took time to show appreciation of the dissemination of news on the progress of the invasion. In a “Gratitude”-headlined advertisement, International Business Machines Corp. wrote: “This, the greatest achievement of information ever recorded, makes us realize what our men faced when they landed, and more fully understand the depth of our obligation as individuals and organizations in backing up our armed forces.”
According to the The World War II museum in New Orleans, by June 11, with the beachheads firmly secured, more than 326,000 Allied troops had crossed with more than 100,000 tons of military equipment.
In 1969, on the 25th anniversary of the invasion, the Watertown Daily Times reported that more than 70 Northern New Yorkers went ashore on D-Day with engineering units, medical outfits and headquarters units. Navy personnel were among those aboard bouncing landing craft. Others flew over the beaches in bombers and fighter aircraft.
At least three Jefferson County residents were casualties of D-Day, killed in the first days of fighting. They were members of the 299th Combat Engineers Battalion, which came ashore blasting obstacles.
n Cpl. Joseph Shimkonis, 19, of St. Mary Street, Watertown, killed June 6.
n Cpl. Tech Clarence E. Wetterhahan, 36, Chaumont, killed June 6.
n Cpl. Charles Leland Wood, 19, son of city manager C. Leland Wood. He was killed four days after the beachhead.
Several other Watertown- area troops participated. They would later work at such civilian tasks as truck drivers, bridge painters, school teachers and firefighters. For example, in 1969, the Times reported that Theodore C. Finn, Factory Street, served with the 41st Armored Infantry unit of the Second Armored Division. “They were firing everything,” Mr. Finn recalled in 1969. “Our orders were to get away front he beach. They kept us moving. We’d run and hit the dirt. We went inland about a mile to regroup.”
Pvt. Finn was 21 on D-Day. Later in 1944, he received the Bronze Star for saving the lives of nine wounded comrades after their half-track vehicle had been wrecked in an enemy mine field in Germany while under heavy fire. He later served in the Korean War. Back home, he became a machine operator with New York Central Railroad and Penn Central Railroad and with Conrail until his retirement in 1983. He died of a heart attack at the age of 74 in 1995.
The Times, through social media, sought local survivors of D-Day. Also, Veterans Service Agencies directors in Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties were contacted to discover if they knew of any local D-Day survivors. The directors of Jefferson and Lewis County’s Veterans Service Agencies forwarded the request to local VFWs and legions. As of Friday, the requests have been fruitless. The National World War II museum says there is no official resource for how many D-Day veterans remain. The number of remaining WW II veterans is estimated at just under 500,000.
On May 17, the city of Oswego honored Angelo Favata, 96, as that city’s Veteran of the Year. The Army veteran participated in the D-Day invasion on Omaha Beach, the Battle of the Bulge and action along the Rhine River as his unit made its way to Berlin.
Mr. Favata preferred not to talk to the Times about his D-Day experiences. He told a daughter that they are too painful to recall. “He never really spoke much about the war to us kids, just bits and pieces, here and there,” said Sarah Weigelt.
However, Mr. Favata did recall his experiences in 2013 as part of a “Wartime Memories” project that featured 31 World War II veterans from Oswego, Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties. They were added to the state’s permanent archives through Sen. Patty Ritchie’s “Veterans Voices” program.
The interviews collected through program were sent to the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center. Located in Saratoga Springs, the museum seeks to relate the history of New York’s central role in every one of America’s major military conflicts, from the Revolution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the 16-minute “Veterans Voices” video, Mr. Favata recalled that he wasn’t in the initial invasion, hitting the beach four days after June 6.
“We didn’t have it as bad as the other guys who went in the first time,” Mr. Favata, an ammunition corporal, said for the video. “We were the LSTs — they dropped the end of that down in the water, we had to walk through water a couple of feet.” (At this point in the video, Mr. Favata pauses to collect himself). “The water was all blood. A lot of dead bodies in the water yet. There were ships as far as you could see ... We were with General Patton at the time ... We caught up with them on the front lines and we went up to set up our gun. We had a crane-operated truck to set the gun up.”
With the number of World War II survivors dwindling, what they experienced in duty for their country is often left up to their defendants to pass along. Julianne Oliver, a Spanish teacher at Lyme Central High School, misses the calls she made to her grandfather, Andor Bocskor, each D-Day. Her grandfather escaped Axis powers in Hungary and fought for the U.S.
“My grandfather was so proud to be an American,” Ms. Oliver said. “Specifically, concerning D-Day, I would call him every year as an adult to thank him for his service. I knew how much the day had affected him.”
Mr. Bocskor, of Waddington, died at the age of 93 in 2013. He was born in Watertown on Nov. 18, 1919. He, his parents and his siblings moved back to Hungary when he was 3, but an older brother stayed behind. But Mr. Bocskor returned to the U.S., catching the last boat to America before World War II broke out. Some of his brothers and a sister had to stay behind. Two brothers were conscripted into the Axis powers. He was in the Army’s 188th Quartermaster Railhead Company as a private first class and was part of 50 soldiers in the unit chosen for the 6th Amphibious Special Engineers. Landing on the third wave on D-Day, he fought at Normandy, continuing through France and Belgium and as far as the Rhine River.
“I don’t really like to talk about that,” Mr. Bocskor told the Times in 2011.
“My grandfather would never tell me details about D-Day,” said Ms. Oliver. “Only one time did he say that as his wave of soldiers came onto the beach that day, he had to pass so many bodies. He had tears in his eyes.”
Ms. Oliver said her grandfather saw first-hand how much more opportunity there was in the U.S. compared to other countries; something worth fighting for.
“He made sure we realized how wonderful this country was,” said Ms. Oliver. “He also wanted us to be aware of the rest of world and to try and understand other cultures to better cultivate peace. I studied languages and international relations in college partly because of this.”
Ms. Oliver and her husband, Edward, have passed along qualities inspired by Mr. Bocskor to their daughters, Elle, 20, Kate, 18 and Ryse, 15.
“We have taken our daughters on trips to many other countries to raise awareness of the world and their place in it,” Ms. Oliver said. “They remember the man they called Nagypapa well and they do realize the impact he had on our family.”
Times’ archive librarian Kelly Burdick contributed to this report.