AT HOME, here in the United States, the nation knew it was coming. There had been public references to the impending assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe for weeks. Even the Germans knew an invasion was imminent.
But when it would occur, how it would be launched, and just what route the Allies would take was one of the most closely, and most successfully guarded, military secrets in history.
In Britain, the staging point for the invasion, several hundred thousand men began a steady and carefully planned move to the south coast of England to board the ships that would take them across the channel. Tens of thousands of planes—gliders, bombers, transports and fighters, all painted in special invasion colors—readied for their missions.
The sense of anticipation was overwhelming. It would be the largest seaborne invasion in history, and it could happen at any moment.
It was also a time when Americans and our British allies, publicly and freely, without any hesitation, did something that might not be as readily understood today.
At nine in the evening on June 6, 1944, with the D-Day invasion already under way—the ships were headed for the Normandy coast and the airborne troops has already made their drops—President Franklin D. Roosevelt, speaking over the radio, led the nation in a prayer he wrote himself.
The first few lines are telling: “Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion and our civilization and to set free a suffering humanity.”
However, a bit further on (and it turned out to be a rather long prayer), he confronts the deepest fear of many of his listeners: “… Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.”
People went to pray by themselves or to attend impromptu services. There were also Invasion Day rallies. Those occurred the next day, as soon as the invasion was official.
There was one here in Fredericksburg that was advertised in The Free Lance–Star. It was a quiet, thoughtful gathering, organized by community leaders and the Civil Defense to show support for the invasionary forces. A prayer opened the rally and another prayer closed it.
In England and Scotland, where many of the American soldiers had become a part of the communities where they trained, the reaction was immediate and spontaneous. When the BBC announced that this was “Invasion Day,” businesses closed and the churches opened.
As a resident of Glossop, England, told me, “It didn’t matter where we prayed … any church or chapel would do.”
They were praying for their soldiers, sailors and airmen, who had been at war since 1939, as well as the young Americans they had come to know so well during the past two years. One friend of mine said his mother picked him up at school so they could go to church and pray for all those boys who were in harms’ way.
Back at home, 3,000 miles away on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, churches and synagogues all over the United States, in big cities and in small towns and hamlets, were opened for prayer and held special services for the troops. One synagogue in Philadelphia had a banner that said, “Services, 24 hours.”
On the ships, waiting in the darkness, as one British soldier said, “Even those blokes who had openly declared that they didn’t believe in God had started to pray.” They knew what they were about to face and wanted to find some peace and strength through a chat with the Almighty.
In 1941, the Episcopal Church had issued a serviceman’s prayer book, and one short snippet proved particularly popular. It simply said: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.”
Many prayers, of course, will never be recorded or shared. Chaplains led prayers when they had the chance, individual soldiers prayed on their own, and thousands of miles away, families and loved ones all over the country and as far away as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa prayed for their sons. These words will always be private.
Today, at the close of the second decade of the 21st century, prayer in the face of a national challenge isn’t as common anymore. It’s hard to imagine a president, in this day and age, leading the nation in prayer, let alone a prayer that he wrote himself.
But on June 6, 1944, it seemed that the entire nation, with its Army, Navy and Air Force overseas, along with its long-suffering allies, were looking to God for their safety and protection.
It was a trust well placed.
David S. Kerr, a Stafford County resident, has worked on Capitol Hill and for federal agencies. He is an instructor in the political science department at Virginia Commonwealth University.