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

D-Day: Eisenhower and the paratroopers key to success
D-Day: Eisenhower and the paratroopers' key to success 05:40

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

"It's one of those images that just causes you to pause," said James Ginther, the archivist of the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas. "There's clearly something going on. There's conversation. but we don't know what it is, and it invites us in."

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

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower meets with paratroopers, part of Company E, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, at the 101st Airborne Division's camp in Greenham Common, England, on June 5, 1944. U.S. Army/Library of Congress

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

Asked why it was so important for Eisenhower to visit the troops the day before Allied forces landed at 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 soldier in the helmet in that photo – passed away in 1999, but he recalled his brief encounter 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 someone came running down the street and said, 'Eisenhower is here!' Well, everybody kind of said, 'So what?' We had more important things!"

Nobody snapped to attention or fell into formation. But then, Strobel recalled, "You could hear the excitement as he came close. So then we turned and kind of looked out, and then he came over and at that point he stopped in front of me."

Asked why Eisenhower, who was in command of two million Allied forces in Operation Overlord, chose to speak with 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 in ahead of the main landing force to seize the causeways leading inland. 

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Strobel's mission was to knock out German guns that could turn those causeways into shooting galleries. He said, "They emphasized the fact, 'Now, if you don't get those guns out by H-hour the whole damn invasion's gonna fail.'"

What Strobel didn't know was that a letter stamped "BIGOT" had landed on Eisenhower's desk. BIGOT stood for British Invasion of German Occupied Territory. "It was higher than a top secret classification," said Ginther.

Air Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, the officer in charge of the air drops, had written, "I am very unhappy about the U.S. Airborne Operations as now planned," and warned that half the 13,000 paratroopers could be lost.

In a 1964 interview with CBS' Walter Cronkite, Eisenhower recalled what Leigh-Mallory told him: "He was so sure we were making a bad error, that about a day or two before the attack, he came to see me down in my camp, down here, and he just was really earnest in his recommendations we must not do it."

From the archives: 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" 01:22:15

It was a call only Eisenhower could make. His response to Leigh-Mallory, delivered by hand the next day, read: "A strong airborne attack ... is essential to the whole operation and it must go on."

It was, in Eisenhower's words, "a soul-wracking" decision -- but he gave no hint of that as he mingled with the paratroopers an hour before they were to board their planes.

So, what exactly did the general say to Lt. Strobel? "He said, 'Where you from, lieutenant?' And I said, 'Michigan.' He said, 'Oh, Michigan, I used to fish there. Great fishing in Michigan.'"

Martin asked, "So, in that famous photo, they're talking about fishing?"

"That's what Wally Strobel says," Ginther noted.

"That kind of changes my preconceptions of that photo. You look at it and you think he's going, 'Give 'em hell.' Maybe he's going just like he's casting?"

Strobel told CBS, "It was as though he was trying to calm everyone down."

Eisenhower later told Cronkite the paratroopers had tried to put him at ease as well: "They were all getting ready and all camouflaged and their faces blackened and all this, and they saw me and recognized me and they said, 'Quit worrying, general, we'll take care of this thing for you,' and that kind of thing. It was a good feeling."

A better feeling the next morning, when the main landing force went ashore on the beaches of Normandy.  "All preliminary reports are satisfactory," Eisenhower cabled in his first dispatch. "Airborne formations apparently landed in good order."

It was too early to predict success, so Eisenhower closed by saying he had visited the paratroopers the night before, "and the light of battle was in their eyes."

See also:

GALLERY: D-DAY – When the Allies turned the tide

For more info:

Story produced by Mary Walsh. Editor: Joseph Frandino. 

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