Only those of us who were there know what Ike was really saying when the famous photograph was taken.
The photograph has been printed and reprinted far and wide. It is found in school books, history books, and encyclopedias. It is on display at the Pentagon.
It is, of course, the photograph of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower taken the evening before D-day, June 6, 1944, speaking to the men of the 101st Airborne Division. The caption always reads that he is urging his paratroopers “on to total victory.” But to this day what really occurred and what was really said is still known only to the men with whom he was talking.
The troops had been moved into the marshaling area at Greenham Common airfield during the latter part of May and had been fully briefed with aerial photos and sandbox mockups on the coming invasion of Normandy. Restricted to the area now that sensitive information had been passed along, the men had little else to do other than check their equipment and go over the plans and their final objectives.
The “go” came on the evening of June 5, 1944, after an entire day’s delay due to weather. Everyone was more than ready, in full battle gear. It was rumored that Ike was in the area, yet the men’s reaction was surprisingly calm. Until it was added, “But you ought to see his driver—a woman!”
There was a wild dash down the temporary street between the tents to see the driver of Ike’s car, Kay Summersby. As the men ran down the street, who should be heading up the same road but Ike and his group of officers and photographers? When the two groups converged, correct military courtesy prevailed, the parachutists standing at attention and Ike coming over to greet his men.
His words were not “total victory,” as might be expected before one of the war’s greatest battles, but rather, “What’s your name, lieutenant,” and “Where are you from?”
“Strobel” and “Michigan, sir,” were the replies. Ike recalled in some detail the spectacular fishing he had enjoyed there. Then, quickly, he moved on, the photographers having captured the exchange on film.
The troopers’ brief delay was over and they continued on to see Ike’s car and its beautiful driver. Then, a few minutes later, the troopers boarded planes, and just hours later they were parachuting behind the beaches of Normandy.
In the following turmoil the incident was forgotten until early July, when the same lieutenant saw a grainy picture of Ike and his troops in the pony edition of Time magazine. There he saw himself, standing in front of Ike, with camouflaged face and the identifying number 23, his plane number, hung around his neck.
Over the years the photograph has found its way into countless publications about World War II, and almost always the caption has read “Ike urging his troops on to total victory.”
I have to smile along with the others who were there because we all know what was really said. You see, I was that Number 23.