The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The country has been through a draining, news-packed April before

Seventy-five years ago, an earth-shattering April reshaped the world.

The April 13, 1945, front page of The Washington Post after President Franklin D. Roosevelt died at Warm Springs, Ga., on April 12. (The Washington Post)

As we near the end of a tumultuous month of news, Americans are exhausted, scared and overwhelmed with headlines that tell the bleak story: economic disaster, a rising death toll and a spreading disease with no end in sight.

But Americans have been through turmoil and devastation before. In fact, 75 years ago, the country endured the busiest month of news in the history of the United States and, probably, the world.

Over the course of 30 days, American readers were trying to keep up with the momentous events of the closing stages of World War II. On top of the daily military bulletins, the world learned of the unexpected death of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the killing of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and the suicide of Nazi tyrant Adolf Hitler. Headline writers could barely keep up.

In the end, the institutions of journalism generally met the challenges of an overwhelming torrent of news. Other institutions rose to the occasion as well. The U.S. military, the White House and American diplomacy all generally met the tests of 1945, even though there was no road map through the new territory. And they all emerged stronger and more trusted in the process.

Wearied from more than three years of war and eager for ultimate victory, Americans must have followed the news with a mix of dread, hope and suspense. What they read for only 3 cents a day would shape the rest of the century. Would the American and British armies win the “race to Berlin” and conquer the enemy capital before the Soviet Union’s Red Army? Could the Marines take Okinawa and provide a jumping-off point for invading the Japanese home islands? How many people were killed in the concentration camps now being liberated? Would the proposed United Nations get off the ground and end war itself? Who was the new guy in the White House, Harry S. Truman?

At the time, Americans got their news through a smaller number of media outlets than today. CBS and NBC radio news reached millions (while television was still a laboratory experiment). TIME magazine reached millions more, thanks in part to special small-format versions that could be shipped to servicemen around the world. For most Americans, though, news came through the local newspaper or the paper published in the nearest big city.

Like all other industries, the news business faced limits on production imposed by a national rationing program. There were shortages of everything — paper, ink, gasoline for delivery trucks, photographic film. By 1945, newsrooms had run out of male reporters and started hiring a growing number of women, including Martha Gellhorn and Marguerite Higgins, who both pioneered the role of female war correspondent, covering the liberation of Dachau and other front-line action.

At the New York Times, the editors who made up each day’s front page faced challenge after challenge. Every day during that fateful month, the paper featured a page-spanning, eight-column, three-deck black headline. Most days, the paper’s lead war correspondent, Drew Middleton, wrote a “lede-all” story from Paris, synthesizing dispatches from military commanders, stringers in the field and diplomatic sources.

In a box below the front-page fold, the paper offered a daily digest headlined “War News Summarized.” Every Sunday, the paper also ran a smaller box reminding readers that the Times “is obliged to omit large quantities of advertising from today’s issue in order to make space for the heavy flow of news.” Even so, readers could find ads inside from Henri Bendel, Bergdorf Goodman and many other retailers — some promising to resume production of consumer goods after the war ended.

History, of course, never repeats itself exactly the same way, and the conditions were quite different from today. In 1945, the news was dreadful and scary, but after three years of war, most Americans were accustomed to sacrifice — working long hours, recycling and rationing goods, tallying the dead and wounded. Roosevelt, serving an unprecedented fourth term, had trusted his scientific advisers developing a highly secretive atomic bomb — as the world would learn soon.

Roosevelt also led the country into the early stages of a new postwar order that would involve durable alliances worldwide. Rather than being seen as an enemy and being denigrated for their work by the president, the news media were generally “on the team” with the country’s top leaders in 1945. Why? Because they shared a bedrock belief that our cause was just and that our war-fighting methods were both effective and honorable.

More sacrifice was still required, as Americans faced a relentless death toll and the annoying rationing of consumer goods. Still, April 1945 promised better days ahead. The Germans were in retreat; the oil supply lines to Japan were cut; the Axis ambition to dominate the world was certainly doomed — if only Americans could stand strong a little longer.

Then, as now, was no time for division, demagoguery or despair.

(Dates are those of publication, usually one day behind events. Actual headlines in bold.)

April 1: ALLIES SWEEP ON across German territory. Soviet forces were closing in on Vienna. In the Pacific, “Battleships Rip Okinawa.” Federal officials order U.S. coal miners back to work.

April 2: AMERICANS INVADE OKINAWA. Under Gen. George Patton in Europe, the U.S. 3rd Army pushed eastward toward Leipzig. Paris, the city of light, turned its street lights back on.

April 3: PATTON’S TANKS 155 MILES FROM BERLIN; AMERICAN THRUST CUTS OKINAWA IN TWO

April 4: Yanks Bare Prison Horror, as troops liberated Nazi concentration camps and POW camps. At home, Americans were ordered to eat less beef to provide rations for troops and starving refugees worldwide.

April 5: U.S. 3D ARMY DRIVES TO BISECT THE REICH;

April 6: Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. Chester Nimitz given overall command of U.S. forces in the Pacific.

April 7: U.S., British, Canadian, and French forces push deeper into Germany, while the Red Army pushes west. B-29’s Escorted by Fighters Give Tokyo First Twin Blow.

April 8: U.S. FLIERS SINK JAPAN’S BIGGEST WARSHIP; PATTON SEIZES NAZI HOARD OF GOLD AND ART. Off Okinawa, U.S. forces sink six Japanese warships and knock out more than 400 enemy aircraft.

April 9: The Red Army pushes three miles into Vienna. On Okinawa, Doughboys Gain 400 Yards in Bitter Fight.

April 10: U.S. AND BRITISH ARMIES DRIVE FOR ELBE; CANADIANS CUT OFF 80,000 IN NETHERLANDS; RUSSIANS CAPTURE THE HEART OF VIENNA

April 11: U.S. bombers and fighter planes knock out almost 400 German aircraft, crippling the Luftwaffe. British tank forces launch a new offensive in Italy.

April 12: Rumors in London say Hitler is dead. COSSACKS MOVE UP; Soviet Cavalry Reported, Ready to Join Race to Reach Berlin

April 13: PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT IS DEAD; TRUMAN TO CONTINUE POLICIES; 9TH CROSSES ELBE, NEARS BERLIN. After years of downplaying the president’s health problems, the press reveals his death at age 63 from a cerebral hemorrhage. Even His Family Unaware, according to Washington columnist Arthur Krock. LAST WORDS: ‘I HAVE TERRIFIC HEADACHE’ TRUMAN IS SWORN IN THE WHITE HOUSE.

April 14: Truman begins his presidential duties, promising “no change” from FDR’s policies. Roosevelt’s body is placed aboard a train, bound from Warm Springs, Ga., to Hyde Park, N.Y. Crowds in Tears Watch Funeral Train Roll North. In Japan, U.S. Superfortresses drop incendiary bombs on the capital. B-29’s Set Great Tokyo Fires; Explosions Heard 100 Miles

April 15: An estimated half a million people attend funeral services for FDR in Washington. His body then resumes the trip northward to his home in Hyde Park, N.Y.

April 16: ROOSEVELT IS BURIED WITH SOLEMN RITES; ONE ELBE CROSSING LOST, SECOND WIDENED; RUHR SACK CUT; CANADIANS AT NORTH SEA

April 17: In his first speech to Congress as president, Truman makes a plea for global unity to ensure lasting peace. The U.S. 1st, 3rd and 9th Armies report taking 218,000 German prisoners in 72 hours.

April 18: U.S. Troops in Leipzig. DUSSELDORF IS OURS; 3d Army Is Reported in Bohemia — 149,000 Taken in one Day

April 19: Patton’s 3rd Army BISECTS REICH. In the Pacific, U.S. forces land on Mindanao in the Philippines and nearly complete the invasion of northern Okinawa. But on the nearby island of Ie, a painful tragedy for many loyal readers: Ernie Pyle Is Killed on Ie Island; Foe Fired When All Seemed Safe

April 20: SOVIET PUSH, IN FULL SWING, IS NEARING BERLIN; U.S. 1ST TAKES LEIPZIG, RUHR POCKET CLEARED; AMERICANS OPEN BIG ATTACK IN SOUTH OKINAWA. For the record: Gen. Omar Bradley predicts that the number of German casualties and captives in the Ruhr pocket will surpass the “record number of 330,000 Germans killed and captured at Stalingrad.”

April 21: RUSSIANS FIGHTING 3 MILES INSIDE BERLIN; ARE CLOSE TO A JUNCTION WITH AMERICANS; ALLIED DRIVE IN SOUTH GAINS; BOLOGNA WON

April 22: U.S. forces can hear Soviet military radios, and they suspend shelling eastward to avoid hitting our allies. In Italy, Allied tanks race through the Po Valley.

April 23: In Germany, Soviet troops take more of Berlin, while U.S. forces cross the Danube and close in on the capital from the west. In San Francisco, delegates arrive for the first meeting of the new United Nations.

April 24: RUSSIANS BORE INTO BERLIN, SWING NORTH; REACH THE ELBE CLOSE TO AMERICAN LINES U.S. 3D BREAKS LOOSE IN THRUST FOR ALPS. Below that, a column with this sub-hed about the 3rd Army’s rapid drive into the Nazi stronghold in Bavaria: PATTON RUNS WILD. Meanwhile, on the home front: Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler resigns as head of Columbia University. Plus, a trend story: a rapid rise in dining out is causing further disruption to the U.S. food supply.

April 25: TWO SOVIET ARMIES JOIN INSIDE BERLIN; U.S. 3D SLASHES FOE’S LINES TO REDOUBT; 5TH CROSSES PO, WINS LA SPEZIA IN ITALY

April 26: TRUMAN OPENS WORLD SECURITY PARLEY; RUSSIANS ENCIRCLE BERLIN, CROSS ELBE; 3D NEAR AUSTRIA; BERCHTESGADEN BOMBED. The U.S. House is expected to vote to order that 18-year-old draftees be kept out of combat for at least six months after entering the armed forces.

April 27: Correspondent James Reston reports a snag at the U.N. conference: The Soviet representative Molotoff objects to naming an American to head the world body. PATTON SWEEPS ON … Americans Capture Verona … GOERING ‘RESIGNS’

April 28: U.S. AND RED ARMIES JOIN, SPLIT GERMANY; 3D ARMY IN AUSTRIA; RUSSIANS IN POTSDAM; PARLEY BARS LUBLIN; SOVIET GETS 3 VOTES. In Okinawa, mop-up operations continued.

April 29: The end is reported near, but rumors of German surrender are rejected. Officials announce that the U.S. 15th Army will be tasked with occupying Germany — “and see to it that there is no pampering of the vanquished.”

April 30: U.S. 7TH IN MUNICH, BRITISH PUSH ON BALTIC; RUSSIANS TIGHTEN RING ON BERLIN’S HEART; MILAN AND VENICE WON; MUSSOLINI KILLED

May 1: RUSSIANS FLY VICTORY FLAG ON REICHSTAG; U.S. 7TH WINS MUNICH, DRIVES FOR BRENNER; FOE BROKEN IN ITALY; TITO MEN IN TRIESTE. Near the bottom of the page, an AP story: Dachau Captured by Americans Who Kill Guards, Liberate 32,000

May 2: Finally: HITLER DEAD IN CHANCELLERY, NAZIS SAY; DOENITZ, SUCCESSOR, ORDERS WAR TO GO ON; BERLIN ALMOST WON; U.S. ARMIES ADVANCE.

So ends the career of one of history’s greatest villains.

Within a week, the tottering remnants of Nazi Germany would officially surrender to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, touching off ecstatic celebrations and allowing the Allies to direct their resources to the ultimate victory over Japan.

After beloved columnist Ernie Pyle was killed by Japanese machine gun fire April 18, found among his belongings was a draft of a column he was writing, intended for release on the day of Germany’s surrender. The piece opened with this line, “And so it is over …”

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