Remembering D-Day 70 years later: Berkshire stories from 'the great hour'
Photo Gallery | D-Day commemorations from around the world
RELATED STORY | The AP was there: 'Battle for life or death' at D-Day
RELATED COLUMN | Derek Gentile | D-Day: 70 years ago today
"Invaders Pouring Ashore" was the massive Berkshire Evening Eagle headline above a photograph of American troops heading straight at the camera, water splashing around their legs, and their guns at the ready.
The secret was out. It was Tuesday, June 6, 1944, and the largest seaborne invasion in history was on, thousands of miles away along the Normandy beaches of Nazi-occupied France.
In the Berkshires, people poured into their local churches to pray that their sons, sweethearts or husbands would remain safe.
The Rev. Ralph H. Hayden, president of the Pittsfield Council of Churches, offered a prayer that morning, intoning: "The great hour of crisis for civilization has arrived. ... There can be but one thought and action in such a moment as this and that is a deep sense of crisis, a humble prayer to God that victory may be achieved and the pain and sorrow of war be ended."
Industrial war production workers gathered at the Berkshire Woolen Co. for a service led by both a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister. Around 550 workers attended.
Many residents also took a practical approach, flooding Pittsfield's Red Cross station with phone calls and in person to find out about donating blood.
The overcrowded station was filled with somber citizens who were unable to give blood that day because of the volume of donations.
"I don't have an appointment, but I'd like to donate blood now," one resident said.
While those on the homefront worried and wondered what their loved ones were going through, the men on the beaches of Normandy remained focused on fighting the enemy.
"All right boys. This is it!" shouted Edward Bulkeley's commanding officer. It was 1:45 a.m. and Bulkeley, of Mount Washington, and the other fliers had just been awoken and were wolfing down breakfast.
Afterward, Bulkeley climbed into his Martin B-26 Marauder, a twin-engine medium bomber, and along with the other 63 planes in his group, headed toward France and the westernmost landing zone -- codenamed Utah Beach -- of the five of the Allied invasion.
Bulkeley was on his 59th mission, nine more than the regulations allowed, but he believed they wanted experienced pilots and that's why he was there.
General Omar Bradley himself chose Bulkeley's bomb group to drop the final bombs on Utah Beach before troops landed because of its record for accuracy.
It was rainy and overcast as they headed across the English Channel toward the French coast. But as dawn broke, Bulkeley was able to see the massive invasion force heading toward Normandy and was overwhelmed as it stretched from horizon to horizon in perfect formation.
He couldn't imagine the enemy stopping such a formidable invasion force.
Months of planning went into Operation Neptune, as the Normandy landings were codenamed, and on June 6, the attack, coordinated by Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower as part of the larger Operation Overlord, began.
The plan called for the Americans to land on the three westernmost sites -- Utah and Omaha Beaches and Pointe du Hoc -- with the British striking Gold and Sword beaches and the Canadians attacking at Juno Beach.
"This operation is not being planned with any alternatives. This operation is planned as a victory, and that's the way it's going to be. We're going down there, and we're throwing everything we have into it, and we're going to make it a success," Eisenhower told his officers before the operation began.
More than 150,000 American, British, Canadian and French troops, 5,000 ships and 11,000 planes, were used in the attack that stretched for 60 miles along the French coastline.
As Bulkeley and his comrades flew low over Utah Beach, at 2,500 feet, they released their payload of bombs. Bulkeley's plane rocked with the impact of the explosions.
Down below, Peter Codogni of Readsboro, Vt., jumped from the landing craft that had stopped well short of Utah Beach and immediately realized he couldn't touch the bottom. Weighed down with 80 pounds of equipment, he tried to keep his head above the 60-degree water.
"I have to get the hell onto that beach," he thought.
As he paddled for shore, he heard the sound of bullets and explosions coming from the direction he was heading.
The private first class with the 4th Infantry Division made it, but the struggle to get onto dry land was merely a taste of what was to come. It was a slow process as he and his fellow soldiers attempted to breach the Nazi defenses under blistering artillery and small arms fire.
"Those ‘88s' could drop a shell in your back pocket," Codogni would later recall. "They were damn accurate."
By the end of the day, thanks in great part to Allied bombardment from air and sea, they had overrun the Nazi positions and pushed four miles inland.
To the east of Utah, Seabee Kinsley Goodrich, of Dalton, piloted a Rhino barge at Omaha Beach, and saw his first dead body, one of many he would see that day.
Omaha was more heavily defended than Utah, and 200 yards of open beach made it tough for those lucky enough to make it to shore.
He later recalled that the soldiers on the beach were "catching hell. The cliffs were heavily fortified and that's where the heavy stuff was coming from. Plus, the soldiers were loaded down with stuff, and a lot of them just jumped out of their boats and drowned without even getting shot."
Between these two landing sites -- Utah and Omaha -- lay the American's third objective: the Nazi gun emplacements atop the formidable cliffs of Pointe du Hoc.
James Lorett, a former Pittsfield resident who was part of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, was trying to make it to the cliffs from the beach that was being strafed by machine gun fire and peppered with German grenades.
The water was stained red and Lorett couldn't get his feet on solid ground because of all the bodies.
"Tickets, tickets, get your tickets to the biggest show on Earth," one of his fellow soldiers shouted as they quickly made their way toward their objective.
Lorett and his fellow Rangers, a crack all-volunteer unit, scaled the 100-foot cliffs and fired their machine guns with one hand as they reached the top.
While the German six-gun battery of 155mm cannons had already been moved by the enemy, they were destroyed later that day.
Lorett was one of only 90 Rangers of the 224 involved in the mission who were able to keep fighting after reaching the summit.
By the end of the day, the Allies had suffered close to 10,000 casualties and about 4,000 dead. But they had begun the long march to Allied victory in Europe.
Meanwhile, back in the Berkshires, families waited impatiently for news of their loved ones and the Allied push deeper into France.
In the next weeks, some, like Angelina Rocca, would learn that their family was safe and had fought heroically in battle.
Francis Rocca, known as "The Rock" by his fellow soldiers, was hailed as the second Allied soldier to set foot in France during the invasion, parachuting into Normandy with his outfit before the main invasion force. They were a specialized unit trained in scouting, demolition and first aid.
"I'm happy and very proud. He's a good boy," Angelina Rocca told reporters while holding a photo album featuring her son.
Other families in the area would receive the dreaded news that came in official telegrams.
Among those were Frank Russo, a 22-year-old sailor who served on a Navy destroyer and Donald Bryant, a 29-year-old private first class attached to the medical corps.
The soldiers who did return would later deny they were heroes, reserving that name for the soldiers who hadn't made it back.
Bulkeley, who died in 2013, flew 19 more missions over Europe (a total of 77 missions) and later served as an instructor stateside. He awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with 13 oak leaf clusters, among other medals.
Peter Codogni fought in several campaigns, including Huertgen Forest, and was wounded June 10, 1944, at Sainte-Mere-Eglise. He was awarded the Purple Heart and several campaign medals. He died in 2006.
Kinsley Goodrich, who died last year, fought in the Pacific theater after the war in Europe was over. He was awarded the World War II Victory Medal; European African Middle Eastern Theater medal, one star; Asiatic-Pacific Theater Medal; American Theater Medal; and Philippine Liberation Theater Medal.
James Lorett would fight in the Battle of the Bulge and at Ardennes, among others. He received a Purple Heart and would die in 2009.
The night of June 6, 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt asked his fellow countrymen to join him in prayer, intoning: "Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness to their faith. ... Men's souls will be shaken with the violence of war."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.