Generals don’t usually see off the troops. It’s not like Mom and Dad saying goodbye to Johnny at camp or college.
But there Ike was. At the airfield on the eve of D-Day, chatting up some of his soldiers.
He was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe on the eve of the invasion of France to drive Hitler and his German army out of France and the other occupied countries, back to Germany and unconditional surrender. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who dealt daily with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and France’s General Charles de Gaulle, was talking with men of the 101st Airborne Division, some of them with their faces already blackened for the night mission.
The paratroopers were about to board planes that would drop them over occupied France in the dead of night, hours before the D-Day landings on the beaches. And Ike was there to see them off.
Chatting. Asking questions. Seeing if there was anyone there from Kansas, his home state.
Later, as the planes lifted off, his driver saw tears in Ike’s eyes.
I know why.
And why he surprised everyone, including his aides, when he came out of his office as the minutes ticked down to D-Day saying he wanted to go out to the airfield and see the boys off.
He hoped desperately they would come back.
He was gambling they might not.
It was the greatest decision he had to make during the war. Not his decision to go on June 6 — after canceling the planned June 5 landings due to bad weather — but the one I heard him publicly reveal for the first time. It was to a group of 165 high school and college newspaper editors and photographers gathered in the ballroom of the Drake Hotel in Chicago on Saturday morning, January 18, 1947.
He had agreed to meet with the student press club sponsored by the Chicago Daily News, which, as a staff member at the newspaper, I had proposed, organized, and directed when I started writing a column for students in the Greater Chicago area the previous year. After introducing Ike, I took my place at a table at the front of the ballroom, facing the rows of students, as Ike stood at the end of the center aisle, hands clasped behind his back, military style.
He fielded questions on a variety of subjects, including the fact he’d originally planned to go to Annapolis, but then discovered he was over the age limit. He switched to West Point. Questions ranged from other aspects of his personal life and career to world affairs.
As President Harry S. Truman had done the year before, he doubled the allotted time scheduled. But as he closed in on an hour, he said he would take three more questions. The last one:
“General Eisenhower, what was the greatest decision you had to make during the war?”
He turned and started to pace three feet in front of me. A slow, measured step that matched the measured words as he spelled out the situation for the students.
From the earliest stages of planning, it was deemed vital to have a port that would enable the Allies to bring in the massive reinforcements needed, from tanks and trucks to artillery pieces and machine guns, not to mention men. That port would be Cherbourg, which led to selection of the landing points on the coast — five beaches: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. And then the obvious:
“To ensure the success of the Allied landings in Normandy,” he said, “it was imperative that we prevent the enemy from bringing up reinforcements. All roads and rail lines leading to the areas of fighting on and around the beaches had to be cut or blocked. If reinforcements were allowed to reach the areas of fighting there, in our first, precarious attempts to get a foothold on the continent, the whole operation could be jeopardized. The landings might fail.”
A factor in the planning: the countryside beyond the beaches in some places was not the usual meadows and fields, but bogs — low, swampy areas that the Germans would flood. The few causeways that traversed the area between the beaches and the inland area were the only means of getting from the beaches to the mainland. Or vice versa.
To seize key roads and crossroads, paratroopers would be dropped inland in the early morning hours of D-Day. Enter the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.
But just days before, on May 30, a high-ranking, trusted aide came to Ike, asking him to call off the airborne landings. I learned later when I read his book, Crusade in Europe, the aide was British Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory. He had been assigned to the Allied Forces with the title of Allied Expeditionary Air Force Commander in Chief, which made him the air commander of the invasion. He apologized for being so late with his concern. But he’d been going over it, and over it, and he felt the casualties would be too great.
“Casualties to glider troops would be 90 percent before they ever reached the ground. The killed and wounded among the paratroops would be 75 percent.” Or 13,000 of the 18,000 men. Not only unconscionably high, but so high the mission would be doomed.
Ike thanked him for bringing his concern to him, said he would consider it. He had a few days to think about it, but then the time came to decide. And as Ike reached this point in his account of events, his step slowed ever so slightly, as if the weight of the decision settled over him again. As he put it in his book, “It would be difficult to conceive of a more soul-wracking problem.”
He reviewed the planning process for the invasion that had begun months before. The mission had been reviewed countless times as Allied officers and their aides went over every aspect of the massive invasion. Hundreds of planes on airfields ready to take off for their respective missions. More hundreds of troopships, landing craft, tanks, trucks, machine-guns. Some 5,000 ships, the largest armada ever assembled. A military operation with myriad moving parts.
As Ike weighed Leigh-Mallory’s request, he kept coming back to the fact that the mission had been reviewed countless times. And, as he put it, “The success of the landings on the beaches might well turn on the success of the paratroopers behind the lines.”
What Ike also made clear that Saturday morning in Chicago was that he couldn’t let the boys land on the beaches without having done everything he could to keep the Germans from bringing up reinforcements.
Still pacing, almost thinking out loud, he said it: “I couldn’t permit that, either.”
Step slowing to a stop, he turned to face the students. “I let the order stand.”
Then, a little less somber: “The airborne boys did their job. And, I am happy to say, the casualties were only 8 percent.”
With that, and an exchange of formalities, he was gone.
It was the following year, the Fall of 1948, that I learned how surprised his aides were when, on the eve of D-Day, as the tension mounted with each sweep of the second hand around the clock, Ike came out of his office and said he wanted to see the boys off.
His driver, a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) Captain in the U.S. Army mentioned this when she met with the student editors. And so Kay Summersby drove Ike out to see them off. “We covered three separate airfields before night fell,” she said. She also said he ordered the unit commanders to order each group to break ranks and forget about military formalities.
By chance some years later, I met a woman who had been a Red Cross worker in England during the war, and was one of those at the airfield passing out coffee and doughnuts to the boys when Ike drove up. She handed him a cup of coffee, then noticed his hand was shaking so badly she was afraid the hot coffee would spill over and burn him. Gently, she eased the cup out of his hand.
Stephen E. Ambrose reported the mingling and chatting with the 101st Airborne paratroopers — Ike at one point asking if anyone was from Kansas — in his book D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle Of World War II. He concluded his segment on Ike’s visit with the lift-off:
The planes started their engines. A giant cacophony of sound engulfed the airfield as each C-47 in its turn lurched into line on the taxi strip. At the head of the runway, the pilots locked the brakes and ran up the engines until they screamed. Then, at ten-second intervals, they released the brakes and started down the runway, slowly at first, gathering speed, so overloaded that they barely made it into the sky.
When the last plane roared off, Eisenhower turned to his driver, Kay Summersby. She saw tears in his eyes. He began to walk slowly toward his car. “Well,” he said quietly, “it’s on.”
Five years after Ike stood mere feet from me, answering the student editor’s question, I was watching the noon news on the TV set in my living room. Another Saturday. The Republican National Convention had wrapped the night before with Ike’s speech to the delegates accepting the Republican nomination for President of the United States. To my surprise, the studio announcer broke into the news coverage to report Ike had surprised everyone by leaving his suite at the Blackstone Hotel.
He’d gone down to the street, turned the corner, and started walking up South Michigan Avenue, with an ever growing flotilla of media. He went into the Congress Hotel and headed straight to the ballroom, where there was a luncheon in progress: A reunion of men of the 82nd Airborne Division.
When they saw him, they were on their feet. Cheering. Clapping. Whistling. Smiling as broadly as he was. No longer in military uniform, the soon to be 34th President of the United States, had dropped in on his boys once again.
He moved to the dais and stopped behind the podium, the famed Eisenhower grin as wide as I ever saw it. A TV camera zoomed in until Ike’s face filled the TV screen.
And I saw the tears start down his cheek.
Featured image: Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses paratroopers before they board their planes for Europe on D-Day. (Library of Congress)