For three years New Yorkers and Americans everywhere had been waiting for this day.
It was June 6, 1944 and, finally, the order had come from General Dwight Eisenhower. Thousands of young Americans were unloaded from landing craft on the beaches of Normandy. It was the turning point in the European war. The Allies were embarked on a great invasion to free Europe and the world from Hitler's grasp.
In New York City, the news of the invasion came first from a German news service at about 1:30 a.m. When the German agency said the attack had begun, some Americans were skeptical, including two sailors who were seeking news in Times Square. They scanned the New York Times story published before word of the invasion had been confirmed. There was nothing in the paper about the invasion or the German radio report.
“It's just a phony story,” one sailor said.
But, an hour later, an extra edition of the Times came out featuring the reported invasion with an eight column wide headline and the sailors were satisfied that this was indeed the big day, the D-Day everyone had awaited.
As dawn came, the people of the whole city awoke to the great news. There were no cheers, no demonstrations. They read or heard about the prayer President Franklin D. Roosevelt had composed while the troops were landing on the French coast.
“With thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy,” Roosevelt said. “Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogance.”
The President prayed for a peace “that will let all men live in freedom.”
Church bells rang throughout the city. A man selling newspapers at 34th Street and Seventh Avenue told his customers: “Go to church and pray.” And hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers did. Outside Holy Cross Church on West 42d Street, a man approached a priest and gave him some money.
“Take this, Father. I'm a Jew but please remember my boy in your prayers.”
By 5:30 p.m., as the sun was descending, a crowd of about 50,000 gathered in Madison Square Park. A priest, a minister and a rabbi led the people in prayers. The sound of rushing traffic nearby, Times reporter Meyer Berger wrote, was like “a muted choir, the prayer zone insulated by twilight.”
Mayor Fiorello LaGuadia, beloved by that generation of New Yorkers as “The Little Flower,” presided. He read pledges by New Yorkers to Roosevelt and General Eisenhower to pray and work for total victory.
“We the people of the city of New York send forth our prayers to the Almighty God … humbly petition him to bring total victory to your arms in the great and valiant struggle for the liberation of the world from tyranny,” the prayers read.
There was music from sound trucks. The square was filled with flags. The crowd was hushed as the mayor opened the meeting by reading from Eisenhower's Orders of the Day.
“Tears flowed from women's eyes and from men's, too. Just inside the park, behind the speakers' stand, a little old lady in black dropped to her knees in prayer,” Berger wrote.
The Rev. A. Hamilton Nesbitt, Police Department chaplain, prayed to God to “uphold and cherish all those who go forth to battle and those who remain at home to labor and pray.”
Dr. Stephen S. Wise, probably the best-known Jewish clergyman of that era, prayed: “Endow our sons with unshakable faith in Thee...”
Mayor LaGuadia called for the songs of the Allies and well-known performers sang ”God Save the King” and “La Marseillaise.” A plane flew overhead, breaking the mood. And the fiery little mayor yelled: “Now, back to work!” The crowd cheered.
It was truly a solemn and powerful moment in New York history.