Hand written note by General Dwight D. Eisenhower (nicknamed Ike) before the start of D-Day, June 6, 1944

(Dwight D. Eisenhower Library)

Written by Todd DePastino

One of my favorite historical documents is a hand-written statement that was never released to the public. It was written the night of June 5, 1944, at the quaint “Telegraph Cottage” on Warren Road in Kingston-on-Thames southwest of London.

Overhead was the deafening roar of hundreds of airplanes heading across the English Channel to drop thousands of paratroopers–British and American–behind enemy lines in advance of the landings on Normandy’s beaches the next morning.

Sixty miles away in Portsmouth Harbor sat an armada of ships and hundreds of thousands of troops waiting to launch the massive amphibious invasion. They had already been delayed a day by bad weather. There was just one more day left in June, June 6, when the moon and tides would be right for an invasion.

The weather hadn’t improved much in the last 24-hours. But General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, believed he could no longer wait.

“I don’t like it,” he said, “but we have to go.”

Ike drove unannounced to RAF Greenham Common, where the 101st Airborne Division had been sequestered in preparation for its historic jump. Eisenhower circulated among the troops. The iconic photo taken that evening was released with the description that the general was urging his men to “Full victory-nothing else.”

General Dwight (Ike) D. Eisenhower talking with a group of WWII soldiers before the Normandy invasion

General Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the order of the day, “Full victory–nothing else” to paratroopers somewhere in England, just before they board their airplanes to participate in the first assault in the invasion of the continent of Europe (US Army)

In truth, he was making small talk. When he asked Lt. Wallace C. Strobel (wearing the 23 sign) where he was from, Strobel said, “Michigan, sir.”

“Spectacular fishing there,” responded Ike, making a forward casting motion with his right hand.

Such easygoing chit-chat masked Eisenhower’ deep concern about what would become of these men and the hundreds of thousands of others he was sending into battle.

“I hope to God I’m right,” he confessed to his driver and secretary, British Captain Kay Summersby.

Ensconced safely in his private cottage, the general took a moment to handwrite a brief message for public release in case he wasn’t right.

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

I find this scrap of history, which Ike kept in his wallet, one of the most succinct expressions of noble character on record.

He doesn’t shirk blame or hide behind weather forecasters or political pressures. He doesn’t say, “mistakes were made.”

The two scratch outs speak volumes.

The first shifts Ike from the passive voice to the active. Instead of “the troops have been withdrawn”–which leaves the onus of responsibility open to question–he writes, “I have withdrawn the troops.” That is, he places the bad decision on his shoulders.

The second scratch out replaces “this particular operation” with “my decision to attack.” Once, again, he takes responsibility and makes it personal. Punctuating this message, he underlines for emphasis the final words, “mine alone.”

Notice the date at the bottom. Was it nerves that caused him to make that mistake? Perhaps he was unconsciously projecting himself into the near-future beyond the traumatizing moment when his leadership and the world’s fate hung in the balance.