In the early morning hours of Tuesday, June 6, 1944, Austin was literally under a dark cloud. A late night thunderstorm had cooled the first 90-degree day of the year, and doused the city with some welcome rain. On the University of Texas campus, many students were still awake. It was the dreaded last week of class for the spring quarter, always full of tests and term papers. And as final exams loomed on the horizon, everyone was looking forward to a break over the weekend, when Tommy Dorsey and his famous orchestra would be the headline act for the All-University Dance at Gregory Gym Friday evening.
To stay alert through long hours of study, most students relied on a steady diet of coffee and big band dance music on the radio. But on this night, the lightning interrupted reception, and the radios sputtered and crackled with storm static.
At 2:30 a.m., about the time when most stations and their sleepy announcers prepared to sign off, a gentleman from New York abruptly interrupted the programming: “We take you now to London.”
Soon after, the steady voice of Colonel Ernest DuPree, from the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), calmly read official communiqué number one. “Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.”
Finally, after months of waiting, speculation, and false alarms, D-Day had arrived.
Since December 1941, when the United States entered the second world war, the University of Texas campus had been transformed to support the war effort. The academic calendar was compressed to permit additional terms – some as short as three weeks – to allow students to complete more courses sooner and graduate in 3 ½ years. Research, especially in natural sciences and engineering, was mostly war-related and classified. A Naval ROTC unit was created, but was absorbed into the V-12 program in 1943, which was designed to recruit and prepare officers for the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. It was headquartered at the Littlefield Home, which for a time boasted two anti-aircraft guns on the front lawn and a firing range in the attic. All UT students were required to attend physical education classes and survival training. Theater students and the University’s Curtain Club entertained soldiers at area military bases and hospitals, and the Texas Union even set up a regulated dating service, matching UT co-ed volunteers with locally-stationed GIs. An air raid siren was installed in the UT Tower, and at times, everyone had to seal their windows at night and tape over headlights when Austin was under a blackout.
Social life continued on the campus, but took on a wartime theme. The weekly All-University Dances, either at the Texas Union ballroom or Gregory Gym, were very popular, though the dances were always accompanied by collection drives. Collections for aluminum, rubber, and books and magazines to send to soldiers oversees were the most successful. As the war continued, gas rationing required some of the popular dance bands to shorten their tours (Tommy Dorsey arrived in Austin by train), and required UT students to rely on local talent or supply their own.
One solution was the “Longhorn Room,” which debuted in the Union ballroom on Saturday, November 14, 1942 to a sold out crowd. Decked out with wagon wheels, cedar posts, bales of hay, and red-checkered tablecloths, the ballroom was transformed into a student-run, western-styled nightclub. Couples (no stags allowed!) were charged fifty cents, and could reserve tables in advance. Music was supplied by the Union’s record player. Student groups volunteered to set-up and decorate, wait on tables, tend bar, and clean up afterward.
The highlight of the evening was the half-hour variety show, which was often unpredictable. A sorority might perform a short musical, complete with costumes and dancing, or individual students would entertain the crowd with stand-up comedy. Occasionally the Longhorn football team brought down the house with their version of the Can-Can.
With the announcement that a European invasion was underway, the campus began to stir. Lights were turned on, roommates pushed out of bed, and the news yelled down hallways in campus dorms. Everyone was glued to their radios – television wouldn’t arrive in Austin until 1952 – which offered a constant stream of updates and initial first-hand accounts. Announcers often interrupted bulletins with new bulletins. General Eisenhower himself addressed the citizens of occupied Western Europe, “Although the initial assault may not have been made in your own country, the hour of liberation is approaching.”
At 4:30 a.m., the All-Saints’ Episcopal Church, just north of campus, began to ring its church bells, and awakened all of the residents in the Scottish Rite Dormitory across the street. Other churches did the same, both in Austin and across the country. (In Houston, most retail stores would remain closed for the day as 445 churches opened for 24-hour prayer vigils.) About the same time, west campus fraternity and sorority houses, along with some private residences, received telephone calls from an anonymous, almost-hysterical woman, who shouted, “The invasion is here! The invasion is here!”
Ironically, among the last to receive word was the Naval V-12 unit housed in Andrews Residence Hall. Because they were under a strict schedule with lights (and radios) out at 10 p.m., the members of the naval unit had managed to sleep through most of the night. It wasn’t until “limber-lunged Gordon,” a newsboy for the Austin Statesman, passed by the residence hall. He was selling a tabloid-sized newspaper extra at 5:30 in the morning. “Extra! Extra! Invasion on!” yelled Gordon as he walked the puddled streets. In a few minutes, the lights of Andrews were aglow.
Above: In 1944, with a grand view of the South Mall and Texas Capitol beyond, University students enrolled in the Navy’s V-12 program march in formation on to the Main Mall. Click on the image for a larger view.