General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969), born in Texas to pacifist parents and a graduate of the West Point Class of 1915, was one of the most important American generals of World War II. He also later became the 34th President of the United States (1953-1961). He was best known by the nickname acquired while growing up in Abilene, Kansas - Ike.
As a result of his organizational skills during the U.S. Army’s 1941 maneuvers in Louisiana he was promoted from colonel to brigadier general on September 29 that year, just a few months before America’s entry into World War II. Although during the First World War he had been in charge of a Tank Corps training camp at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he had never seen combat.
Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he was ordered to Washington, D.C. There at the War Plans Division he assisted Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall in developing important global strategy. Marshall had such great confidence in Eisenhower’s abilities that in June 1942 he placed Ike in command of the American forces gathering in the United Kingdom.
In November 1942, Eisenhower commanded amphibious troop landings on the coast of northwest Africa. His forces, augmented by General Montgomery’s British Eighth Army, brought about the complete defeat of all Axis forces in the North African campaign by mid May 1943, setting the stage for further advances in the Mediterranean Theater. Later in 1943, Eisenhower also was in command during the campaigns in Sicily and Italy.
In December 1943, he was given the top job of Supreme Allied Commander for the all-important invasion of Normandy, France. He had skillfully led three amphibious invasions and had often tactfully dealt with the sometimes difficult relations between the American, British, Canadian, and French Allies. His skill at getting all the different Allied forces to work together as a team was critical to the invasion’s success. During the 1944-45 campaigns in Western Europe, nine different nationalities served on his headquarters staff.
Many historians consider his most important decision of the war was issuing the order to launch the D-Day assault on German defenses in occupied France. The D-Day invasion of Normandy was the largest amphibious attack in history, involving approximately 6,000 vessels, over 11,000 aircraft, and 156,000 ground forces. The operation was a very complex undertaking and its success – securing the much needed beachhead from which the Allies could eventually drive the German forces back to their homeland – was by no means assured.
Bad weather forced Ike to delay the attack by one day. But when told that on the following day, June 6, 1944, the weather would likely improve enough to allow for favorable conditions, Ike made the crucial decision, “OK, let’s go!”
In the first three weeks of fighting in Normandy the Allies suffered 60,771 casualties, but they fulfilled their initial objective of breaching the enemy’s coastal defenses and beginning the long-awaited advance into northern Europe.
Ike’s Allied Armies fought their way across France and Belgium, reaching the border of Germany by mid-September. Limited gains were made in the Netherlands with OPERATION MARKET-GARDEN that month. Logistical support for the advance on the western front was problematic, but despite supply shortages and several costly battles that autumn, Ike was able to maintain the upper hand. Much of the success was due to support from Allied Air Forces which by spring 1944 gained supremacy in the air over the German Luftwaffe.
Eisenhower was promoted to Five Star General on December 20, 1944, just as a major crisis erupted along the Allied front. The Germans had launched a massive surprise counter offensive in the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxemburg and were overrunning Allied positions. During the next four weeks Ike made command decisions during what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, the largest, costliest single battle ever fought by the United State Army. The Supreme Allied Commander kept a positive spin on the situation by insisting to his subordinates that the enemy made an enormous tactical blunder. Not only had they ventured out from their strong defensive positions, but overextended themselves as well. The Allies could now turn the situation around and destroy Hitler’s forces.
By mid-January 1945, Hitler’s last big gamble to regain the initiative in the west failed and by that winter’s end Eisenhower’s troops were across the Rhine. In May 1945, with Hitler dead, the Soviet Army already in Berlin and Eisenhower’s forces advancing deep into Nazi Germany, the German high command surrendered at Eisenhower’s Headquarters in Reims, France, thus ending the war in Europe. Ike’s simple message to that effect read, “The mission of this Allied force was fulfilled at 0241 local time, May 7, 1945.
After the surrender, General Eisenhower was hailed by many as a great hero. However, he believed it was the front line soldiers of his Allied Expeditionary Force, those who risked and too often lost their lives in combat, that were the true heroes. He had a personal connection to those men and it was with a heavy heart he read the casualty lists that regularly crossed his desk.
The men who served under him sensed his feelings. In the months leading up to D-Day he spent most of his time visiting with the troops, often making it a point to speak with individuals of all ranks. He was always looking after their welfare. His Order of the Day messages to the troops communicated his great admiration and confidence in them.
While being honored at London’s Guild Hall on June 12, 1945, General Eisenhower said, “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends.” And on another occasion he said “The truly heroic man of this war is G.I. Joe (the average soldier).” These sentiments made him a very popular man.
In January 1961, after eight years in the White House, Eisenhower and his wife Mamie retired to their home on the farm they had purchased at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.