Eisenhower’s toughest decision: D-Day

Val Lauder

Editor’s note: Val Lauder, a former reporter for the Chicago Daily News and lecturer at the school of journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of “The Back Page: The Personal Face of History” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) — That year it was a Tuesday.

June 6.

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My father turned on the radio that morning, as usual. This time, we heard: “Under the command of Gen. Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.”


“The Longest Day.”

A hinge of history.

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Up there with The Battle of Hastings and Waterloo.

The day Allied forces landed in Normandy, 70 years ago this week — June 6, 1944 — and began the push that led to the defeat of the Nazi regime in Germany.

I was 18, had graduated from Stephens Junior College that May and was not due at Northwestern University and the Medill School of Journalism until September. It being my summer break, I could keep listening after my father, an accountant who had recently accepted a job in Chicago, went off to work, as did my mother, a librarian. President Roosevelt came on the radio and offered a prayer. Then Eisenhower’s recorded reading of the order of the day (that troops in LSTs and transports heard over loudspeakers) was broadcast.

It would take several personal and professional tumblers falling into place for me to not only meet Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower 2½ years later but to also have the good fortune to preside at his press conference with the student press club I had created and the Chicago Daily News sponsored.

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January 18, 1947. Wearing two battle ribbons on his waist-length “Eisenhower jacket,” the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe stood to my left, facing 165 student editors and photographers from high school and college newspapers throughout the greater Chicago area gathered in the Drake Hotel. Dressed in their Sunday best, pencils poised, notebooks open, they were seated on straight-back chairs set out in rows of 10 on either side of a center aisle. Ike stood at the end of the center aisle, about three feet in front of me.

I introduced him.

The questions were far ranging, from his opinion on having a school for diplomats similar to West Point and Annapolis to confirming he had planned to attend Annapolis until he discovered he’d passed the age limit for entrance. Asked if he thought another war was inevitable, he said that if he did, he’d quit. Pessimists who held theories like that were like commanders who sent their troops into battle assuring them they would be slaughtered. Adding, momentarily forgetting his audience, that such an attitude was a hell of a note.

We passed the allotted 30 minutes.

When we passed 45 minutes, and he could no longer ignore his aide’s anything-but-subtle glances at his watch, Ike said he would take three more questions. I do not remember the first two. Nor will I ever forget the last one.

Myrna Ephraim of Bowen High School, having been recognized, moved to the edge of the center aisle, several rows back.

“Gen. Eisenhower, what was the greatest decision you had to make during the war?”

He did not answer immediately, as he had with the other questions.

Clasping his hands behind his back, he began to pace: slowly, deliberately, back and forth. When at last he spoke, his tone as somber and measured as his step, he publicly revealed the decision for the first time.

Early in the planning, the Allies realized a landing at Cherbourg was essential. They needed a port where they could land troops, supplies and equipment. But Utah Beach off Cherbourg was only a strip of sand. A deep lagoon stretched between the sandy beach and the mainland. Only a few causeways provided access from the beach to the mainland. The men landing on the beach would have to cross those causeways to reach the mainland, to push inland and fan out.

“To ensure the success of the Allied landings in Normandy,” he explained, “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.”

Also early in the planning, it was agreed that the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions would drop onto the mainland in the hours before the main force hit the beaches, to secure the causeways for the men who would be coming ashore.

“The success of the landings on the beaches,” Ike said, reaching the end of the first row, starting back, “might well turn on the success of the paratroopers behind the lines.”

But, May 30, just six days before the scheduled landings (at that time, June 5), a trusted aide and personal friend came to him, deeply concerned about the airborne landing. Later, I learned it was British Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who had been assigned to the Allied forces, with the title of Air Commander in Chief, which made him the air commander of the Allied invasion. He was apologetic about how late it was, so close to the jump-off time. But, he’d gone over it, and over it, and over it, and felt it simply would not succeed. The casualties would be too great.

He pleaded with Ike. “Casualties to glider troops would be 90% before they ever reached the ground,” he said. “The killed and wounded among the paratroopers would be 75%.”

That would mean an unbearably high percentage of the 18,000 men who would drop into the darkness over Nazi-occupied France would become casualties. This would mean the survivors would be too few in number to succeed in their crucial mission of seizing — and holding — the causeways.

“The man was absolutely sincere, absolutely convinced it wouldn’t work,” Ike said. “As a highly respected, capable officer, I trusted his judgment. I told him I’d think it over.”

Four days before the invasion, Ike was still undecided.

If his aide and friend was right, the mission would not only fail, but also more than 13,000 Allied soldiers would be killed or wounded — in vain. Yet if the airborne troops did not seize and hold the causeways, as planned, the enemy would control those narrow strips of land the Allies needed to reach the mainland. The Germans would be able to keep the main landing force pinned down on the beaches until reinforcements could be brought up. Against such reinforcements, the men on the beaches would face unconscionable odds.

“I couldn’t permit that, either.”

Weighing the situation, he went back over the planning. The operation had been approved many months before, and only after the most careful review. It had then been subjected to scrutiny, on several occasions, as the day for the invasion drew near.

And he could never get away from the fact that if the airborne troops did not seize and secure the causeways, the men landing on the beaches would have little or no chance.

The risk must be taken.

His step slowing, turning to face the students, he said: “I let the order stand.”

With the words, he seemed to shed the burden. The tension went out of the room like air out of a balloon.

“The airborne boys did their job.”

Relief, bordering on elation, crept into his tone.

“And, I am happy to say, the casualties were only 8%.”

With a courteous nod to the students, a parting handshake to me, he signaled the waiting aide, who fell in, a step behind, as they strode to the door.

At the time, I was struck by the drama, the intensity of his account. It was never a military case study for future lectures at West Point. It was a heartfelt concern for the men in the airborne divisions and the men in the landing craft headed for the beaches

As he put it in his book, “Crusade in Europe”: “It would be difficult to conceive of a more soul-racking problem.”

How difficult and soul-racking I chanced to see in the coming years.

Fall 1948. Kay Summersby, the Women’s Army Corps captain who had been Ike’s driver in England during the war, was in town to promote her book. During our student press conference, one of the questions prompted her to say Ike had taken everyone by surprise when, on the eve of D-Day, he came out of his office and told her to drive him out to the airfields. He wanted to see the boys off.

“We,” she said in “Eisenhower Was My Boss”, “covered three separate airfields before night fell.”

One was Newbury, where “10 weeks before, we had witnessed the spectacular demonstration by the 101st Airborne troops. This time, Ike had to look these troops straight in the eye, knowing that he, only he, was responsible if they and the men of the 82nd Airborne encountered sheer disaster.”

When he stepped out of the car he ordered “the four-star license plate to be covered, that only one staff officer accompany him on his rounds. This was no time for ceremony.”

One of the iconic photos of World War II is the one of Ike at the airfield that night, talking with the men of the 101st Airborne Division, the paratroopers’ faces blackened with night paint, camouflage webbing on their helmets, about to board the waiting planes.

“He circulated among the men,” Stephen Ambrose wrote in “D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II,” “ostensibly to boost their morale, but as Lt. Wallace Strobel of the 502nd PIR noted, ‘I honestly think it was his morale that was improved by being with us.'”

In light of his “soul-racking” decision, Ambrose’s account takes on added resonance. “Eisenhower told Capt. L. ‘Legs’ Johnson, ‘I’ve done all I can, now it is up to you.’ He told a group of enlisted men not to worry, that they had the best equipment and leaders in the world, with a vast force coming in behind them. A sergeant from Texas piped up, ‘Hell, we ain’t worried, General. It’s the Krauts that ought to be worrying now.'”

Summer 1952. The year both the Republican and Democratic national conventions were held in Chicago.

The morning after he accepted the Republican nomination for president, Ike startled aides when he emerged from his suite at the Blackstone Hotel — as he had from his headquarters in England on the eve of D-Day — but, this time, no driver. He walked up South Michigan Avenue to the Congress Hotel.

Ike went to the ballroom, where a luncheon was in progress, a reunion of the 82nd Airborne Division. When the men caught sight of him, they were on their feet, cheering, whistling. He moved to the lectern at the head table, beaming — the famous Eisenhower smile — as he acknowledged the welcome. I saw it all in my living room when the Chicago TV station I was watching broke into its newscast. The TV camera zoomed in. A tear moved down Ike’s cheek. Then another.

My mother, watching with me, said, “He’s crying. Why is he crying?”

I said, “He’s looking out at a roomful of men he once thought he could be sending to their death.”

Spring 1955. In Pennsylvania, as best I recall. During a two-year, 17-state lecture tour, talking about my years at the Chicago Daily News, including Ike’s dramatically recounted greatest decision. When I’d finished and the audience was filing out, a woman approached me.

She said she now better understood something she’d wondered about through the years, and thought I’d be interested.

She had been a Red Cross worker in England during the war, one of those at the airfield passing out doughnuts and hot coffee to the paratroopers that night when Ike drove up. She gave him a cup of coffee, too.

But, then, she noticed his hand was shaking so badly the coffee threatened to spill over — could burn him — and eased the cup out of his hand.