Less than 12 hours after the D-Day invasion started on Omaha Beach in 1944, residents in Decatur were awakened shortly after 3:30 a.m. June 6 by screaming sirens. By noon, the doors of just about every church in the city were open.
“If you were lucky to have a radio, and my daddy had a battery-operated radio, you were glued to it for any kind news you could get,” recalled 90-year-old Paul Devine, who lived on 10th Avenue West.
Decatur churches — like in most cities across the nation — opened their doors so people could come as they wanted and pray for the troops and their families, said Morgan County Archivist John Allison.
“Churches were the gathering places for important events that happened at the national or local level,” he added, while putting the final touches on a display in the archives to commemorate the 75th anniversary one of the largest amphibious military assaults in history.
Part of the exhibit about the invasion will be its impact on Decatur and stories about some of the soldiers who participated in the historic event.
The Decatur Daily reported that the invasion “produced a Sunday-like quite throughout the streets and residential sections” of the city.
“People in Morgan County prayed everywhere, and the adults tried to keep life as normal as possible for the children,” remembered Scott Stone, 86, who was camping in a backyard with a friend when he heard of the invasion.
The late J.M. Delmore, a night patrolman with the Decatur Police Department, was the first to alert Decatur residents about the invasion. According to news reports, he was walking outside his vehicle when he heard about the invasion over his car radio.
Barrett Shelton Jr., retired publisher of The Daily, said he was a teenager and answered the telephone call from a police officer who was trying to see if the newspaper had heard anything about the invasion through AP press reports.
“We got up and rushed to the newspaper office,” he said.
Shelton, 87, said they were able to confirm through the AP office in Birmingham that the invasion had started. The newspaper staff alerted Marvin Rankin, who was chief of civilian defense for Decatur, and “by 3:30 a.m., the whistles and sirens were going in an effort to wake up the sleeping populace and get them in on the invasion news,” The Daily wrote in its June 6, 1944, edition.
The Daily was able to publish a paper on the date of the invasion because Normandy, France, is seven hours ahead of Decatur and the newspaper was an afternoon paper at the time. It was still June 5, 1944, in Decatur when the troops started the invasion.
The paper’s front-page headline read: “Decatur Goes on Her Knees.”
The newspaper reported: “Church doors were opened and sleepy-eyed citizens knelt reverently before dimly lighted altars, lifting their hearts in silent prayer for their brothers and husbands and sweethearts.”
Some of the same happenings in Decatur were going on in other parts of the county. Jack Morris, 90, was a teenager living in the Union Hill area when the invasion happened. His father had a radio, and they gathered around it for news.
“You could hear a pin drop,” he said.
Morris said he remembers notices coming to the area that “about three” from the Union Hill community had been killed during the invasion or “sometime after the invasion. It was sad.”
In Hartselle, 85-year-old Nancy Stoner said church bells “rang like crazy” on the day of the invasion, and a prayer service was held at First Methodist Church.
“I didn’t know at the time what the invasion meant, but my mother kept telling me not to worry,” she said.
Stoner’s father — the late Gen. Lewis Carl Pattillo — was involved with planning the invasion and was in the first group of engineers with troops storming the beach.
“We went to church and prayed with everybody in the community, and mother just said to me that daddy would be home,” she said.
Stone, who served some of his 27 years in the Army Reserve with Pattillo, said Pattillo didn’t talk about the invasion unless encouraged to do so.
“He didn’t think he was going to make it off the beach,” he said.
Stone said he was in a tent with a friend when his friend’s mother came to the back door and told them the invasion had started.
“We played on, but later in the day when people were going to church, I knew something big had happened,” he said.
Allison said he became interested in what happened in the Decatur and the surrounding area while preparing a display to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
He said Decatur came almost to a standstill as businesses and plants — except for those essential to the war such as Ingalls Shipyard and Goodyear Mills — closed on June 6. Those that remained open held prayer services, Allison said.
The chief of civil defense sounded sirens throughout Decatur for a second time at about 9 a.m. on June 6, 1944.
“Never before had religion seemed so uppermost in the mind of every citizen, as once again offices turned out, manufacturing plants closed and the churches were again filled with prayer service,” The Daily reported.
“Over 400 men, women and children of all ages, some in overalls, others in shirt sleeves, children in rompers, gathered at Central Baptist Church. ... Estimates from the other churches indicated hundreds had turned to God in prayer.”