Dwight Eisenhower was a nervous wreck. At age fifty-four, and after already serving nearly 30 years in the U.S. Army, he should have been retired. Instead, he was chain smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, drinking eight to ten cups of coffee, and worrying. He was not sleeping well and his blood pressure was sky high. The date was June 5, 1944 and he had finally come to a decision.
The wind still slaps the waves against the rocks on the beaches of Normandy, and, except for the occasional sound of a gull there is silence across the waters. An entire generation of humankind has passed on to an eternal abyss since that eventful day, June 6, 1944. Most historians agree that the D-Day invasion was the turning point of World War II, and others argue in even stronger terms that the world itself changed, and in a different and better direction. Since then, a new generation has extolled the virtue of the “cost of freedom”, and “freedom is not free” and, pointed to the many sacrifices made by our military, especially using the D-Day invasion as an example. When Americans think about D-Day, we imagine nameless soldiers struggling to come ashore, or lying motionless on the beaches, but they were young men who did have names, as well as wives, children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, fianceés more, and, like us all, they had hopes and dreams. Tom Dallas, Frank Draper, William Gray Perdue, Ray Stevens, and the brothers Bedford and Raymond Hoback were some of the 2599 American soldiers who gave their lives that day. Dwight Eisenhower understood that his decision regarding time and place also meant certain death for many men. Early in the morning of June 6, 1944 and as the thousands of Allied ships approached the shores of France, General Eisenhower’s D-Day order was read aloud over the intercom systems:
” The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and the prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”
The significance of Eisenhower’s decision cannot be overstated. By 1944 Hitler’s Nazi regime had been waging, and winning, the war in Europe for nearly 5 years. France had already fallen and most of eastern Europe had surrendered to the Germans. England was holding on, but, just barely, and the Germans still controlled the North Atlantic. The war on the eastern front had slowed the German offensive, but in reality there was plenty of strength left in the German war initiative for Hitler to reach his goal of total domination of Europe. An invasion from the western front along with the eastern front advancements by the Russians was Eisenhower’s strategy to stop Hitler and end the war. With the spread of Nazi control in Europe, existing governments had been abolished, political parties dismissed, religious faiths were done away with, and free and independent news was a thing of the past. Any resistance was met with certain and swift consequences, usually death. If Hitler had prevailed, the democracies of Europe, and possibly the rest of the world, would have been replaced with the brutal and cold autocracies that had once ruled in the past.
Eisenhower’s worst case strategy for the invasion in Normandy, France would be to lose as many as 40,000 young men, but somehow, despite the challenges posed by weather, heavy waves, and disastrous beach landings, the number of losses was much lower, with around 10,000 total Allied deaths. This tremendous sacrifice allowed more than 100,000 Allied soldiers, tens of thousands of tanks, warplanes, and other types of necessary equipment to begin the slow march across Europe to ultimately destroy the “German war machine.” Unlike other commanders, Eisenhower accepted blame in advance if the mission were to fail writing “the decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” When weighing all the options, Dwight Eisenhower thought of his men before himself every time.
Eisenhower was clearly a unique choice for the top job. Most great military leaders ascended to that level of respect and trust because of outstanding careers that included battlefield experience. Dwight Eisenhower, however, our 34th President and the General who led the Allied forces during WWII, never stepped one foot on an active battlefield in his career. That may have been his biggest virtue as a leader, his empathy for his men, especially since they were doing something he had not, and even more significantly, they were doing something that he had longed for, and that was to be on the front lines. He had requested battlefield assignments as early as World War 1, but was rejected, usually because his services as a strategist and trainer were too valuable for the army to lose. He grew up in a religious and pacifist household in rural Kansas, where his father worked in a local creamery and his mother was active in the Jehovah”s Witness Church.
There were many skeptics, including the public, who were not sure if Eisenhower was up to the job, and who thought that the Supreme Commander should be someone who actually had combat experience. Eisenhower surrounded himself with battle-tested like – England’s General Bernard Montgomery and Chief Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, America’s General Omar Bradley, George Patton, and others. Montgomery openly expressed his disdain for Eisenhower and felt that Ike’s generalship was second-rate. Patton referred to Eisenhower as ” Britain’s straw man.” meaning he felt that Ike was too weak to face the coming storm. George Patton’s combat history was legendary. His colorful career centered on his desire for war and glory for himself. Despite the impressive resumes of others, Eisenhower was chosen as the Supreme Commander and it was because he was comprehensive, analytical, but most importantly, he was thoughtful. He was willing to listen to others, but, in the end, he made his own decisions and acted upon them, and would accept the blame if his plans resulted in a disaster. Blaming others, especially his men, was not an option.
As the mother ship came within nine miles of the Normandy beaches,the landing craft boats began dispatching infantrymen to their beach targets. Leaders gave the nervous infantrymen pep talks over the ship’s public address systems, “Fight to get your troops ashore, fight to save your ships, and if you got any strength left, fight to save yourselves.” The Allied plan included the specifics for unloading the tanks and cranes at exact locations, and with a precise timetable. The heavy aerial and ship bombardment would neutralize the German defense. The reality was very different from the plan. The tides were so choppy and high that many of the landing crafts missed their targets. Many of the tanks intended for Omaha Beach sank in the English Channel attempting the crossing. Visibility was difficult; there was a heavy mist of fog that extended out for miles. Many of the men on the incoming rubber boats were nauseous and vomiting. Additionally, another German division reinforced the German defense on Omaha Beach, and that intelligence came too late. The engineers had orders to destroy up sixteen areas along the coastline eliminating mines and other obstacles, allowing paths for men to come ashore. They traveled in small rubber boats loaded with explosives; the Nazi’s saw them and blew them up. Engineers had to stop their work, and by 9am only five and a half paths were open. Soldiers had waded in behind them, and took shelter behind the obstacles that were to blow up. Hundreds of men drifted in water shoulder-to-shoulder, and frozen in fear. If the tide was low it was easier to see all the obstacles, especially mines leading to the beach. Low tide also offered the best time for the engineers to blow the obstacles up. Hundreds of landing crafts stayed offshore afraid of running into something. On the beach, the battle was going so poorly that evacuation of the wounded was toward the enemy. The changing of the tides meant death to many of the stranded soldiers.
Sitting up high on the cliffs of Omaha Beach, the Germans rained down on the allies with a constant blast from their machine guns and mortar shells. At two miles from shore and less than an hour into the invasion, bodies were visibly bobbing up and down in the water. As the tide came in, the dead along with those still alive began washing ashore. Some of the landing craft received direct hits from enemy fire and exploded into flames, sinking fully loaded with men on the bottom of the sea. There were those still alive, floating, struggling to stay afloat, waving their arms and calling for help – all ignored by speeding incoming landing crafts.
Some of the boats were able to pull close to the beach, but most were 200 yards or more away from the beach. The men on board were so loaded down with extraneous equipment some of them weighed as much as three hundred pounds. As the ramps opened, they began to make their way to shore. Many found themselves in water over their heads. Two-thirds of one entire company perished before ever reaching the beach. Under heavy fire, frightened troops jumped off their rubber boats and into the water and over the sides. The men, however, had been under strict orders to stay with the vessel until landing. More obstacles in the water created problems for the other vessels and slowed the invasion down.
As the survivors, many of them wounded, made it to shore, the horror became clear. In less than two hours the debris of the invasion – reels of wire, supplies, heavy equipment, canteens, helmets, life preservers, wrecked landing crafts, and of course, the bodies of their comrades began to mount on the beach. The high tide had cut off reinforcements from the landing boats. Medics were not able to get to the wounded quickly. Finally, several destroyers, ignoring orders, and the dangers of the unseen obstacles nearly running aground, came in towards shore firing at the German positions on the cliffs. Soon other destroyers also joined in, and the battle began to change. The infantrymen’s emotions changed as well: “I thought I was a goner, but then, I saw the Navy in close with one of their destroyers. Damn, I was proud.”
The facts, however, do not express the feelings of those who were there. Imagine all the chaos already described with exploding landing craft, soldiers being overloaded with equipment and sinking to the bottom, and watching your buddies killed in front of you. Add to that the complications from losing your eyeglasses, or worse, losing your weapon in the water, or being so scared you pretended you were dead and floated ashore with the deceased.
Two days before the invasion Eisenhower met with some of the young men that he was soon to order into combat. He was trying to encourage them, and in some way put them in a frame of mind that they could do this, knowing that many would not be going home. He was shaking their hands and looking them in the eye and personalizing their individual moments with him by saying things like “hey son, where are you from?” He was thinking about his troops and what a burden it was to have to order men to their death. They knew that death was a reality, too, but they were young, and most young men think that bad things happened to others, not them. In the weeks leading up to the invasion Eisenhower had personally met with many of the troops who would be part of the invasion. He wanted them to see him, to see the man who would make this decision about their lives. He gave many short impromptu talks to the troops who circled him. He was trying to give them a sense of purpose by telling them that this was going to free people living under the oppression of Hitler’s Nazi Regime. It is quite likely that he saw himself as one of the young men.
“Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely. … I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!”
Sources used: Cornelius Ryan, The Longest Day, Stephen Ambrose, D-Day, June 6, 1944, Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower, and various magazines and newspaper articles including the Washington Post and the New York Times.