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D-Day: Eisenhower and the paratroopers who were the key to success

On the eve of the D-Day invasion, General Dwight Eisenhower spent the remaining hours of the day with paratroopers who were about to jump from behind German lines into occupied France. A moment captured by an Army photographer became the most enduring image of America's largest military operation.

“It's one of those photos that just makes you stop,” said James Ginther, archivist at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas. “Clearly something is going on. There's a conversation going on. But we don't know what it is, and it invites us in.”

What makes this photo so iconic (a cutout of this famous photo has even been turned into a selfie station at the library) is that it perfectly captures everything that was at stake on D-Day – the burden of command and lives in the balance.

General Dwight Eisenhower meets paratroopers of Company E of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment at the 101st Airborne Division's camp at Greenham Common, England, 5 June 1944.

US Army/Library of Congress

And the more you know about the picture, the more perfect it becomes.

When asked why it was so important for Eisenhower to meet with the troops the day before Allied forces landed in Normandy, Ginther replied, “Because wars aren't won by armies. They're won by individual soldiers, and he knew the value of that.”

Wallace Strobel — the helmeted soldier in that photo — died in 1999, but he recalled his brief meeting with Eisenhower in a 1994 interview with CBS News. “I was very young; it was my 22nd birthday,” he said. “We were really ready to go. We were all set, we had everything loaded. And somebody came running down the street and said, ‘Eisenhower’s here!’ Well, everybody said, ‘So what?’ We had more important things to do!”

No one suddenly went on alert or fell into line. But then, Strobel recalled, “you could hear the excitement as he got closer. So then we turned and looked out, and then he came and at that point he stopped in front of me.”

When asked why Eisenhower, commanding two million Allied troops in Operation Overlord, chose to talk to the paratroopers, Ginther said, “Because they're the key to the whole operation.”

The Germans had flooded the areas behind the beaches, and the paratroopers were to jump ahead of the main landing force and capture routes leading inland.


CBS News

Strobel's mission was to eliminate the German guns that could turn those bridges into shooting galleries. He said, “He stressed the fact, 'Now, if you can't get those guns out by H-hour the whole invasion will fail.'”

What Strobel didn't know was that a letter labeled “BIGOT” had arrived on Eisenhower's desk. BIGOT meant British invasion of German-occupied territory. “It was even above the top secret classification,” Ginther said.

Air Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, the officer in charge of the airborne assault, wrote, “I am extremely displeased with American air operations as presently planned,” and warned that half of the 13,000 paratroopers could be killed.

In a 1964 interview with CBS's Walter Cronkite, Eisenhower recalled what Lee-Mallory told him: “He was so convinced that we were making a big mistake, that a day or two before the attack, he came to see me at my camp, and he was very serious in his recommendations that we shouldn't do it.”

From the records: CBS Reports (1964): “D-Day Plus 20 Years – Eisenhower Returns to Normandy” (video)

CBS Reports (1964): “D-Day Plus 20 Years – Eisenhower Returns to Normandy”


It was a decision only Eisenhower could have made. His hand-delivered reply to Lee-Mallory the next day was: “A strong air attack … is essential to the whole operation and must be continued.”

In Eisenhower's words, it was a “soul-wrenching” decision—but he gave no hint of it, as he met with the paratroopers an hour before they boarded their aircraft.

So, what did the general say to Lieutenant Strobel? “He asked, ‘Where are you from, Lieutenant?’ And I said, ‘Michigan.’ He said, ‘Oh, Michigan, I used to fish there. The fishing is great in Michigan.’”

Martin asked, “So, in that famous photo, they're talking catching fish?,

“That's what Wally Strobel says,” Ginther said.

“That changes my preconceptions about that photo. You look at it and you think he’s saying, ‘Send them to hell.’ Maybe that’s what he’s doing as he’s casting?”

“It seemed like he was trying to calm everybody down,” Strobel told CBS.

Eisenhower later told Cronkite that the paratroopers had Him I was also at ease: “They were all getting ready and all dressed up and their faces were black and all that, and they saw me and recognised me and they said, 'Stop worrying, General, we'll take care of this for you,' and things like that. It was a good feeling.”

A better feeling set in the next morning when the main landing forces landed on Normandy's beaches. “All initial reports are satisfactory,” Eisenhower said in his first message. “The airborne formations landed in apparently good condition.”

It was still too early to predict success, so Eisenhower ended the speech by saying that he had met the paratroopers the previous night, “and the light of war was in their eyes.”

See all:

Gallery: D-Day – When the Allies turned the tide

for more information:

Story Producer: Mary Walsh. Editor: Joseph Frandino.


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