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Fly-casting before D-Day

Dwight D. Eisenhower did not think of politics as performance art, and he brought to his public service the willingness to take responsibility for his decisions that he had displayed the night before D-Day.

General Eisenhower speaks with men of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), part of the 101st "Screaming Eagles" Airborne Division, on June 5, 1944, the day before the D-Day invasion. (Image: Wikipedia)

With a gracious assist from former Kansas governor Sam Brownback, I had the privilege of a personal tour of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Museum in Abilene this past March. And I couldn’t have had a better guide: Mary Jean Eisenhower, the 34th president’s charming granddaughter, with whom I shared lunch in a roadside restaurant evidently much favored by the locals — the parking lot was jam-packed before noon. After a getting-to-know-you hour over heartland victuals, Mary Jean and I were off to the museum and the memorial chapel where Ike, Mamie Eisenhower, and their son Icky, who died of scarlet fever before his fourth birthday, are buried; the boy’s death, his father later wrote in At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends, was “the greatest disappointment and disaster of my life.”

The museum is very well done and includes some striking memorabilia, including the table at which Ike, surrounded by British and American colleagues, took the hard decision to launch the invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944, a day after having cancelled the assault because of weather. After making that gut-wrenching call, General Eisenhower went to visit the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division, hours before they were to drop into the dark, flak-ridden skies over Normandy. British Air Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory had tried to talk Ike out of the airborne attack, claiming it would result in horrendous casualties — perhaps 80% of the men would be lost, he warned. Eisenhower, who knew that the paratroops were essential in securing the causeways out of the invasion zones if the Allies weren’t going to be trapped on the Normandy beaches, rejected Leigh-Mallory’s doomsday warning. Before they took off, however, he wanted to be with those he was sending in harm’s way. That determination led to one of World War II’s most famous photographs (later depicted on a U.S. postage stamp), now displayed in a large format in the museum.

Eisenhower was possessed of a remarkable, disarming smile, a reflection of the man’s transparent decency; an early D-Day planner, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan, once claimed was that Ike’s grin was “worth an army corps in any campaign.” In the photo in question, however, the famous Eisenhower smile was not to be seen. Rather, surrounded by men of the 101st, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force is looking grave indeed, his right arm raised in what seems to be a Patton-like gesture of bold, even fierce, encouragement. Lieutenant Wallace Strobel, his face blackened with burnt-cork camouflage, looks just as serious as the general addressing him.

What was Ike saying, people have wondered for decades? What do you say to men about to jump out of C-47s into the fiery cauldron of war? Mary Jean Eisenhower got an unexpected answer on meeting Mr. Strobel at the christening of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. When she asked the now-elderly veteran what her grandfather had said to him, Strobel said that Ike had begun by asking where he was from; “Saginaw, Michigan, sir.” “How’s the fishing up there?” asked the Supreme Commander. Then the four-star angler proceeded to demonstrate his technique — and the photographer caught him with that determined look as with his right arm he showed the young paratrooper how to fly-cast the Eisenhower Way.

Is it any wonder that so many esteemed him?

Dwight David Eisenhower was at the roiling center of world affairs for 20-plus years, longer than many of the other great figures of the 20th century. As commander of the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Normandy, as president of Columbia University, as the first commander-in-chief of NATO, and in two terms as president of the United States, Eisenhower embodied the public servant who asks to be judged by results, not by snap, crackle and pop. Ike did not think of politics as performance art, and he brought to his public service the willingness to take responsibility for his decisions that he had displayed the night before D-Day. Then, he not only met his men and encouraged them by being utterly normal as well as bracingly confident; he had also drafted a communique to be issued in case the invasion failed, in which he laid any blame on himself, not his troops.

If you can imagine Donald Trump or Joe Biden doing any such thing, your imagination is greater than mine.

Character is the basis of all leadership. The man demonstrating fly-casting the evening before D-day was a man of character. We could use more of his kind today.


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About George Weigel 410 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

12 Comments

  1. Weigel ends a fine laudatory of an admirable general, academic and politician by what I call “pulling a Bergoglio”. He praises one man by comparing him unfavorably to others of whom he disapproves. Bergoglio has made this his distinctive style of oratory. It betrays much about a writer or speaker’s character.

    • “It betrays much about a writer or speaker’s character.” Not really. Bergolio aside, it shows, as was intended, that some folks by way of contrast–here Trump and Biden–are not in the same league as Eisenhower. Is that so hard to fathom? I don’t think so. All men are flawed, granted. But Weigel’s observation is right on in my book. If some don’t like it, so be it.

      • D-Day was a very complex strategic assault, in Operation Overlord, involving five beach-heads on the Normandy coast at the rising of the tide; and multiple tactical operations. Here at IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM website, UK, the D-Day page has a good brief overview of what took place.

        The US is in a war tangle inside Ukraine that could ignite a huge senseless conflagration across the world; and by all accounts Weigel is in support of the whole dynamic. It’s surprising that Weigel felt is it a good time to unfavourably contrast Presidents Biden and Trump to General Eisenhower.

        Furthermore NATO is not united on the approach. EU, which was organized around peace, is trying to make up for the disunity by adding itself as a military guarantor, thereby voiding the whole EU vision and ethos and placing burdens on the European landmass the US won’t accept for itself.

        Eisenhower won the US Presidency defeating Taft who was against NATO. I wonder if the recklessness being shown by NATO today; and by the US, would have been acceptable to Eisenhower. US effectiveness in both World Wars came about via its historical and very firmly guarded neutrality.

        https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-d-day-beaches

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normandy_landings

  2. “If you can imagine Donald Trump or Joe Biden doing any such thing, your imagination is greater than mine”…. What’s with that comment in this piece? I’d say ” If you can imagine the writer of this piece bravely contradicting his neocon posse/cabal that took us into the multi-trillion dollar quagmire which was the destruction of the country of Iraq in 2003 – and doing so against the explicit words of St. John Paul II who said not to – you’re imagination is greatet than mine”!

    • Agree the ending of the article is another malicious attempt to trash President Trump. Frankly except for Reagun and Trump, the presidents after Einsenhower, from JFK to Biden, have slow walked our country to the disaster we have today. More and more I think of Weigel as someone who just lives off the Catholic street cred of his biography of St Pope John Paual II. Beyond that he has little to offer.

  3. Zelensky as Eisenhower and Prokopenko as Strobel? Surely it can’t be that!

    Maybe Murakhovsky didn’t really get killed and so it’s Zelensky for Eisenhower and Murakhovsky for Strobel? Surely can’t be that either!

    Eisenhower was a 4-star fly fisherman? It’s a nice idea but I don’t know about the facts really and truly.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denys_Prokopenko

    https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/leader-of-neo-nazi-azov-battalion-reportedly-killed-in-ukraine/

    https://www.flyfisherman.com/editorial/50-most-influential-fly-fishers/451814

  4. Weigel lost my respect in 2016 along with other Catholics who signed a letter denouncing Trump as a candidate. I heard he had recanted, and so was hopeful, but now I know he hasn’t changed and is a snob, who hangs out with famous people and likes to write about it.

  5. I see here, in the 4th link at bottom, that, according to Richard Nixon, Eisenhower didn’t have much of a fly cast. I imagine that on the night before D-Day he would have been briefing the 101st Airborne what he expected would be happening if they parachuted into the target zone and what would happen if they landed shy of it and had to make their way forward on foot.

    Ultimately they landed off target; and formations had crumbled and had to regroup. Perhaps he told them his fly cast was poor and he only expected their best from them? The published material I can find, doesn’t say.

    It is claimed that the success of D-Day was the result of many allied efforts and among the contributing experiences is the raid on Dieppe 2 years earlier, August 19 1942. I add this not to “steal Eisenhower’s thunder”, but to place it in a just context as everything else should be for WWII. You can get a very close-up account of how ravaging that bit of fighting was, in the short book Green Beach by James Leasor.

    The pall still hangs over anyone trying to make right, concocting Ukraine in-fighting and inciting sectarian Ukraine desires to annihilate Russia; and trying to favourably compare the efforts to allied defense in WWII.

    * * * * *

    ‘ Lessons Learned

    By early afternoon, August 19, 1942, Operation Jubilee was over. Debate over the merit of the raid continues to the present day. Some believe that it was a useless slaughter, others maintain that is was necessary for the success of the invasion of the continent two years later on D-Day. Without question, the Raid on Dieppe was studied carefully in planning later attacks against the enemy-held coast of France. There were improvements in the technique, fire support and tactics, which reduced D-Day casualties to an unexpected minimum. The lessons learned at Dieppe were instrumental in saving countless lives on June 6, 1944. ‘

    https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/second-world-war/1942-dieppe-raid#d_lessons

    https://www.amazon.ca/Green-Beach-James-Leasor/dp/0755100441

    https://www.amazon.ca/Green-Beach-James-Leasor/dp/1908291109/ref=sr_1_1?crid=J1JRDVLK45MB&keywords=green+beach&qid=1654115914&s=books&sprefix=green+beach%2Cstripbooks%2C183&sr=1-1

    https://www.flyfishingwithjeff.com/dwight-d-eisenhower-fly-fisherman

  6. Out of 6,600 total deployed, the casualties for the 101st Airborne at Normandy through June 30 were reported by VII Corps as 4,670 (546 killed, 2217 wounded, and 1,907 missing). That’s 70% with 37% killed or still missing (a high price, but less than the British Air Marshall’s predicted 80%).

    A gusty decision to make on the fly, so to speak.

    And then there was another of a hundred such conundrums, while Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force leading a more deliberated strategy–as near the end, when General Patton was eager and probably capable of breaking ahead to secure Berlin for the West.

  7. By 2010 strategic thinking had normalized around treating with Russia as a strategic ally. This can be seen in the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept for Defense and Security. Search the word Russia in the document for a quick overview.

    The subsequent history reveals the moves to unsettle that, which later included the decision to help demolish the MINSK Accords for Ukraine.

    While presently there might be some “split” or hesitancy in bringing further sanctions, it still remains part of an overall process of deciding what to do next and how much of it to implement at any given time.

    As usual in these kind of play-it-by-ear interventions there is an ongoing concurrent effort to assimilate a broad consensus. It is part of the “gambit” portion of the activities. Typically it is a component that marks an UNJUST WAR.

    Arguing about “if there is such a thing as a just war” or about “if just war principles still merit anything”, is like having a party for the sake of throwing confetti on everybody and saying how it was so much fun to do it.

    https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_publications/20120214_strategic-concept-2010-eng.pdf

    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-06-01/us-wavers-over-next-russia-sanctions-as-fears-of-divide-grow

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