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Friday, May 27, 2016

What, Exactly, Did Ike Say to Launch the Invasion?

We all know the result of Eisenhower’s order on that fateful day. 150,000 men, 12,000 planes, and 7,000 sea-going vessels launched the most intricately planned (and most risky) amphibious assault in history on the beaches of Normandy. But what exactly did the Supreme Allied Commander say to make that happen? The quick answer is: no one knows.

Captain J.M. Stagg
Eisenhower had already issued one monumental order on June 4th: the invasion must be delayed. Although as he met with his staff and meteorological experts that day, the weather was fine. Ike was concerned with conditions a few hours in the future. His chief weather adviser, Captain J.M. Stagg, reported that a storm front was moving into the Channel and would make the landings virtually impossible if carried out as originally scheduled on June 5. (Had the weather cooperated that day, our Arch would be one inch shorter at 44 feet and 5 inches.)

Through June 5th, Eisenhower and his meteorological team continued to monitor the forecast. Weather prediction on this level was a new science, and it was fortuitous that the Allies excelled at it compared to the Germans, who were blissfully unaware that an invasion could take place in such conditions. Rommel famously decided he could take a day off to visit his wife on her birthday because of the storm.

Ike’s team gathered again in Southwick House at 0330 on June 5th, in miserable weather, to mull the latest reports and the fate of the invasion party that was already at sea in the Channel. Stagg predicted a break in the storm by dawn. The Supreme Allied Commander had a decision of epic proportion to make: go or no go? Another delay could prove disastrous. It would mean recalling the troops already at sea and risking an intelligence leak that could reveal to the enemy the carefully guarded secret of the invasion.

Ike asked opinions of his staff, paced around the room, mulled his options, and then said…What?

The most frequently reported version of his order to launch the invasion is along the lines of “OK, we’ll go”, which Eisenhower himself used later in speaking of the meeting. The “official” tour script for volunteers at the Memorial records the “three words that changed history” as “Ok, let’s go”, which historian Stephen Ambrose preferred in several writings.

But there seems no end of other variations of The Order. In reality, Eisenhower himself never seemed aware of what he said. In 1964, then ex-President Eisenhower gave no less than five different versions for one article in a French magazine commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the Invasion. In his memoir Crusade in Europe, he merely says he “announced the decision” and that no one present disagreed.

A few of the various permutations that have been proposed for The Order through the years include:
  • “OK, let ‘er rip.”: This was actually the earlies version, reported in Reader’s Digest in August 1944, and apparently approved by Eisenhower at the time
  • “Well, we’ll go.”
  • “OK, boys. We will go.”
  • “All right, we move.”
  • “OK, we’ll go ahead.”
  • “Yes, we will attack on the 6th.”
  • “Yes, gentlemen, we will attack on the 6th.”
  • “Gentlemen, we will attack tomorrow.”
  • “We will make the attack on June 6.”
  • “We will attack tomorrow.”

So, which one is accurate? Or do we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that one of the most important decisions ever made in warfare has no definitive text to accompany it?

Southwick House
Only by putting yourself in the room at Southwick House can you begin to see how such a monumental moment could escape so unremarked. Picture a room full of officers on the verge of the most important operation they will ever experience.  There are no recording devices; no one takes notes. All listen intently to the weather reports and various opinions bandied about; all contemplate what happens next once the decision to go (or to delay) is made. They watch Eisenhower intently, but to a man all understandably have their minds more on their duty that on the curiosity of future history buffs.

In short, no one was concerned about the wording of the order. They only cared what the order was. Tellingly, Ike later recorded that as soon as he said whatever it was he said, the room emptied in moments. Each man there had a job to do and immediately got into gear to accomplish it. Recalling who said what and in what words was not a priority.

Incidentally, there is also no definitive list of exactly who was in the room that morning, and no agreement in the historical record of exactly what time the decision was made. Such details were lost in the fervency of the moment and fog of war.

The Supreme Allied Commander’s monumental decision raises a couple of interesting points. First, note that his order was the ONLY one Ike issued that day. His work was done in the months leading up to Operation Overlord. On the actual day, he could only pace, smoke too much, and wait as agonizingly slow and incomplete information arrived at Southwick.

Second, notice that he alone made the decision. He did not consult, and was not expected to consult, General Marshall in the States or the President himself. Such weighty responsibility entrusted entirely to a single officer would never have happened in the totalitarian regimes of our enemies, or even with our ally, the Soviet Union.

So Ike made the call. But, in the end, we can never know exactly what he said to make it. We can only contemplate the results of his order, and the valor, fidelity, and sacrifice of the men who carried it out. 


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Captain Ned S. Elder, One of the First to Land on Omaha Beach on D-Day

Richard Elder,
Volunteer at the National D-Day Memorial
Perhaps I am slightly biased when I say this, but the National D-Day Memorial has some of the best volunteers around. Not only are they a delight to work with and to learn from (since many of them know way more about WWII than I do), we absolutely could not do what we do without them. In just 2015, over 90 active volunteers contributed over 10,766 hours of recorded service time.

Today, I am excited to share a blog post written by one of our volunteers. Richard Elder has been a volunteer at the National D-Day Memorial since March of 2013. He travels over 90 minutes to donate his time and knowledge as a tour guide every week. But, he also has a personal connection to D-Day as his father was one of the first men to land on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Check out his post below.


Captain Ned S. Elder, commander of Company C of the 743rd Tank Battalion was one of the first Americans to land on Omaha Beach on 6 June, 1944.

Captain Elder, a Reserve Officer, reported for duty as a First Lieutenant at Fort Knox, Kentucky in February, 1941 where he was assigned to the 69th Armored Regiment. By the summer of 1942, he became commander of Company C (Charlie Company) and led his Company through training for dessert warfare. In November, 1943, the 743rd was transferred overseas to England for 5 months of Top Secret Training for its role as an assault company on Omaha Beach.

This Medium Tank Company was equipped with floating Sherman Tanks, commonly called DD Tanks, which were to be launched from LCT’s (Landing Craft Tank) out in the English Channel 4000 yards from the beach. A second drive, propelled the tank through the water as if it were a boat. Once on shore, these tanks were to array themselves along the water’s edge to provide artillery and machine gun support for the combat engineers and initial assault waves of infantry.

According to the invasion landing plan, Charlie Company was to be the first American soldiers to land on the Dog White sector of Omaha Beach at H hour – 5 or 6:25 AM.  Immediately to their right, Company B of the 743rd was to be the first to land on the Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach followed by landing craft carrying Company A, 116th Regiment (also known as The Bedford Boys). It is well documented that some of the fiercest fighting took place on these two sectors of the beach which accounts for the heavy losses incurred by The Bedford Boys.

During the early hours of 6 June 1944, Captain Elder’s Company of 16 DD tanks was aboard 4 LCT’s afloat in the rough waters of the English Channel awaiting the moment for the run to the beach. At about that time, Captain Elder was faced with a difficult decision – whether to launch his 16 tanks from the LCT 4000 yards from the beach as planned, or to direct the LCT’s to carry his tanks directly to the beach. Captain Elder decided on the later course of action. This decision played an important role in the gaining of a foothold on the Coast of France. As a comparison, two Companies of DD Tanks on his left decided on the first of the two courses of action, resulting in the sinking of 20 of 22 DD Tanks in the rough waters of the English Channel.

Medics from the 743rd Tank Battalion caring for 
Lieutenant Robert M. Hodgson on Omaha Beach.
Immediately upon landing his Company on Omaha Beach, Captain Elder directed the fire of his tanks against enemy pill boxes and strong points along the high bluffs of the beach. Shortly after landing, Captain Elder was wounded but refused to be evacuated. Despite intense enemy fire, he dismounted from his tank to select enemy targets and direct the fire of his Company. Due to the effectiveness of this fire, Captain Elder was eventually able to drive his tanks through the enemy lines and establish a vitally needed beach exit. For his actions on D Day, Captain Elder was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart.

In the days following 6 June 1944, Captain Elder continued to lead his tank Company night and day. These actions included leading his tanks from the beaches to relieve the 2nd Ranger Battalion which had been surrounded by the enemy after their dramatic D-Day assault on Point De Hoc.

Captain Elder was killed in action by enemy tank fire on 11 July, 1944 near St. Lo, France. A brick honoring Captain Elder has been placed in the Gold Star Memorial Garden at the National D-Day Memorial.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Identifying D-Day Fallen: John E. Anderson

D-Day was almost 72 years ago, but the memories are still vibrant, the pain of the losses hasn’t faded, and many mysteries remain unsolved. We’re pleased to report, however, that this month one of the heroes of D-Day will come home and receive the long-overdue recognition which circumstances until now have denied him. It’s a compelling story.

John E. Anderson
John Emanuel Anderson of Willmar, Minnesota, was a Motor Machinist Mate 1st Class in the US Navy on June 6, 1944. He served as part of the crew of LCT-30 (Landing Craft Tank), delivering part of an anti-aircraft battalion to Omaha Beach in the thick of the fight. That noble vessel entered the field of D-Day legend with a “damn-the-torpedoes” charge against the beach obstacles, many of which had been submerged by rising tide by the time LCT-30 arrived.

Although the ship completed its mission safely, in withdrawing from the beach it was hit by a German shell and the engine room where Anderson was stationed flooded. He was the only fatality reported in official records for that craft; however for reasons never fully explained his body was listed as not recovered.

(The rest of the crew abandoned ship and hit the beach, where several were wounded by enemy fire or shrapnel. They were eventually able to evacuate, but their beached vessel, now without a working engine, remained for days afterwards and is seen in the background of many post-D-day photos).
Some assumed Anderson had been buried at sea by his shipmates later. Others that his body washed out into the channel, never to be seen again. What didn’t occur to anyone was that his remains and his identity might have simply become separated.

Back in Willmar, Anderson’s parents and family mourned. They no doubt relived their grief, mixed with a twinge of pride, when John’s name went onto the “Tablets of the Missing” at the Normandy-American cemetery. And they went to their own graves never knowing where the mortal remains of their son were.

Now fast forward to 2009. A researcher (who has made it his mission to help give a name to the unidentified remains of American military personnel) contacted John Anderson’s family. An elderly sister survived; plus many of the next generation who felt immense pride in their kinsman’s service. The researcher claimed to have evidence that John’s body had not, in fact, been lost at sea, but had been recovered from LCT-30 and had been listed as unidentified burial X-91, lying in an anonymous grave in Normandy.

The only way to be sure, however, was to do DNA testing on surviving relatives and on the remains in X-91. The family was more than willing, but the military took much more convincing. What they hoped would be a matter of months turned into more than six years.
However, patience and persistence paid off, and last fall the remains were disinterred and brought to the US for DNA testing. The results were conclusive. The body in X-91 could only be that of John E. Anderson. Later this month, he will be laid to rest next to his parents in Wilmar in a special ceremony.

It’s been six dozen years since 2,499 American men laid down their lives in a valiant effort to complete their mission in Normandy. One of those men now has come home. A 72-year-old mystery has been solved; a grieving family now has closure to a painful memory of loss. We as a nation can take the opportunity to honor John Anderson and the other men who died alongside him. They completed their mission to, in Ike’s words on that fateful day, “bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”

Welcome home, Petty Officer Anderson, and may you rest in peace beneath the brilliant blue skies of Minnesota. The National D-Day Memorial will be sure your legacy of valor, fidelity and sacrifice never fades.