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D-Day

How Eisenhower made the choice that would lead to the end of the Third Reich

General Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses American troops before the D-Day invasion. Photo from the Library of Congress

By Rich Acritelli

In the early morning hours that led up to the D-Day landings, former general and later president Dwight D. Eisenhower had to make one of the most vital military decisions to determine the fate of plans to invade Normandy, France. While tens of thousands of men were waiting on ships that were being loaded with everything from blood to tanks, Eisenhower was delayed by hazardous weather. It was determined that the water conditions were too rough to launch and land the soldiers who were expected to make it ashore with tons of gear and against the fire of the German army.  Senior officers Gen. Omar N. Bradley and Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, and chief of staff Gen. Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith, watched as Eisenhower was completely alone in determining if the Allies should carry out this attack.

Troops off the boats at the Normandy Invasion. Photo

As Eisenhower walked around the room, he was briefed by his meteorologist about a brief break in the weather that would possibly allow the Allied landings to reach the beaches of Normandy. The general heard Montgomery’s beliefs that all should be risked at this point. He also learned that if they did not go at this moment, it was likely that the Allies would have to wait until July to attack the shores of France due to poor weather reports. While these forces waited in large numbers, Eisenhower fully understood that Hitler was bound to learn of his plans to attack Normandy. He refused to allow noted Field Marshal Erwin Rommel the time to strengthen the French coastline with additional armaments, fortifications and resources to halt this Allied assault. Even as Eisenhower watched the success of Operation Fortitude’s ability to deceive Hitler of the Allies’ false accounts to attack the French location of Calais in the south and Norway in the north, this was too much of a secret to hold on to much longer.

In Germany, Hitler refused to listen to his generals in allowing flexibility within the deployment of Panzer tanks situated in Calais. Eisenhower tricked Hitler into believing that he would attack Calais, which was the closest French landing spot on the English Channel, but as he prepared for D-Day, the American general continually worried about this information being leaked out to the enemy. These fears were presented through a West Point classmate of Ike. Maj. Gen. Henry J.F. Miller was the commander of the 9th Army Air Force Service Command. He made a serious blunder that could have been extremely costly. Drunk, he was overheard speaking about these sensitive invasion plans in a busy English restaurant.  It was described by a younger officer that Miller spoke in an arrogant manner and that he showed no discipline in loudly addressing top secret plans to civilians. Right away Eisenhower questioned him and quickly sent his good friend home to the United States, where he was demoted to his previous rank of colonel. 

As he was surrounded by the likes of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the deposed President of the French Republic Charles de Gaulle and Montgomery, his thoughts were never far away from the rank and file who were tasked to carry out his directives. Although Eisenhower was confident of success against the German army, he feared that his men were bound to suffer heavy casualties against the enemy that was waiting for them at Normandy. At this time, Eisenhower’s son graduated from West Point as a second lieutenant on June 6, 1944, during the very moment that the Allies carried out this risky operation. He was always troubled that he was ordering soldiers younger than his own boy to their possible deaths. To soothe the stress that he felt from his heavy burden of command, Eisenhower smoked almost five packs of cigarettes a day.

There is a famous picture of Eisenhower meeting members of the famed 101st Airborne Division, taken in the hours before he approved the invasion. He was alarmed over the estimated reports that the paratroopers would endure heavy losses. Most of these fears were put to rest when Eisenhower personally asked the airborne where they were from in America, the college teams they followed and their lives before the army. This commanding general always searched for soldiers who were from his own hometown of Abilene, Kansas. Whereas Eisenhower was immensely powerful, he was a well-rounded officer, who enjoyed playing cards and sports, and was extremely well-liked. These junior service members calmly told Eisenhower not to worry about the air drops, as they were determined to defeat the Germans.

Miller’s behavior was contrary to the views of Eisenhower, who preached that every member of the armed forces from private to general was needed to operate as a team to win this war in Europe. The moments leading up to D-Day were perhaps the most difficult that he had to handle through his extensive time in the military and his two-term presidency. Whereas Miller flaunted his rank, he failed to understand that World War II impacted every type of American. Higher command figures like Gen. George C. Marshall lost his stepson during the fighting. Former President Theodore Roosevelt’s younger son Ted was a brigadier general who landed at Normandy and died five weeks after this assault of a massive heart attack. Even FDR’s four sons were all in uniform, where they saw combat duty in Europe and the Pacific.  

As he pondered this vital decision, Eisenhower was constantly reminded of the poor conditions as the rain was heard hitting his headquarters in England.  With his arms folded behind him, Eisenhower looked at the American and British officers and stated, “The question is, just how long can you hang this operation on the end of a limb and let it hang there?” With the risk of the weather, Eisenhower continued, “I am quite positive we must give the order. I don’t like it, but there it is … I don’t see how we can do anything else.” This directive by Eisenhower cut the tension in the room, as his key air, naval and army officers carried out their D-Day responsibilities. Eisenhower wrote a detailed letter accepting the failure of this operation if his forces were pushed back into the English Channel.

Eisenhower was a spectator observing the military might of this machine that he molded to destroy the might of the German military that waited behind the “Atlantic Wall.”  This decision encompassed almost a year of intense training by the United States military and continuous day and nighttime bombing missions that targeted resources, bases, railroad lines and key targets that were able to support the enemy at Normandy. By June of 1944, Eisenhower was a seasoned leader who had learned from his own failures in North Africa and during the hard campaign to take Italy. He was extremely determined to defeat Hitler and drive the final nail in the German war machine to destroy their forces in France and move into Germany to gain a final victory. It was at this moment some 75 years ago that Eisenhower made the successful decision that led to the end of the Third Reich’s reign of terror in Europe.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

Randall Woodard, 97, reflects on meeting Roosevelt, a life and roots in the village, military service

Then 12-year-old Randall Woodard, Gilbert Kinner and New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt in Port Jeff in 1932. Photo from Warren Woodard

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in one case, a picture is worth almost 100 years of history.

On Dec. 8, 1941, 76 years ago to the day, then president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, delivered his “day which will live in infamy” speech during a joint session of Congress in response to Japan’s attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Dec. 7. The address served as the precursor to the U.S. finally joining World War II and taking up the fight against the Axis powers. He went on to serve as president until his death in 1945, preventing him from completing his fourth term in office, a feat in itself, as no other American president has served more than two terms.

In the summer of 1932 just before his first presidential campaign, Roosevelt, an avid sailor, made a recreational stop in Port Jefferson Harbor.

Woodard and son Warren during a recent trip to Washington, D.C. Photo from Warren Woodard

At the time, Roosevelt was the governor of New York and the Democratic Party nominee for the general presidential election that fall. He defeated incumbent President Herbert Hoover to win the highest office in the land in November 1932. During the visit, Roosevelt took a photo aboard a sailboat with two youngsters from Port Jeff, one of whom is still alive residing in the village.

Randall Woodard was born Sept. 3, 1920, in his home on Prospect Street. His family has deep roots in Port Jefferson, though his ancestors can be traced back even further to Southold in 1664.

“I wasn’t there that day,” Woodard quipped during a November visit to the Times Beacon Record News Media office in Setauket, accompanied by his youngest son, Warren, and Richard Olson, a longtime Port Jefferson School District history teacher who has since retired.

Woodard’s father Grover was the school district manager in Port Jeff, and actually hired Earl L. Vandermeulen, who the high school was eventually named after. His wife Barbara worked in the elementary school under Edna Louise Spear, the eventual namesake of the same school. Though he said he didn’t meet any other presidents in his life, Woodard met Albert Einstein once, and his grandmother heard Abraham Lincoln give a speech in New York. Woodard went on to have two sons and a daughter, who were all raised in Port Jeff in a house on the corner of High Street and Myrtle Avenue.

The photo of Woodard, his childhood friend Gilbert Kinner and the soon-to-be president of the United States is a cherished possession of the Woodard family. Warren joked there’s a framed copy hanging in every room of his house.

Woodard said on the day he met Roosevelt that he and Kinner were sailing his family’s 12-foot mahogany vessel around Port Jefferson Harbor on a warm summer morning in June or July.

At about 10 a.m., two or three seaplanes landed in the harbor and taxied over to the beach near the east end of the waterfront near the famous Bayles Dock. Woodard, who was 12 years old at the time, said he and Kinner noticed a large crowd gathering near the dock, so they decided to sail over and see what the commotion was all about.

“I think I could take you.”

— Randall Woodard

They approached the black yawl sailing craft tied to the dock with a man wearing a white sun hat seated in the cockpit. Woodard said he still remembers noticing the metal braces on Roosevelt’s legs and a pack of cigarettes on the seat next to him.

“The whole waterfront of Port Jeff was people,” Woodard said. Roosevelt was waiting for his four sons, who were running late, to arrive to begin a vacation cruise.

The Democratic National Convention had just selected him as the party’s nominee for the presidential election that fall, and it was too early to begin campaigning. While he waited for his sons to arrive, Roosevelt and the reporters milling in the vicinity suggested the candidate should be in a photo with the two boys. Woodard and Kinner boarded, and “Vote for Roosevelt” hats were placed on their heads to wear in the photo. Woodard recalled that Kinner took the hat off, tossed it in the cockpit and calmly said, “My father is a Republican.”

Woodard said there was an even more memorable interaction from the meeting when Roosevelt asked him, “How does the boat sail?” Young Randall responded, “I think I could take you.”

He referred to the then-governor’s vessel as “badly designed,” with a laugh during the interview. He said eventually Roosevelt and the others took off sailing in the Long Island Sound. Woodard and his friend tried to keep up with Roosevelt for as long as they could until the soon-to-be president was out of sight.

“We kids went to the movies for a week straight just to see ourselves on the Pathé News movies,” Woodard wrote in a 2004 account of the day.

Woodard and his son Warren shared a story about seeing by chance a clip of 12-year-old Randall dancing on Roosevelt’s boat in a documentary about past presidents decades later. Warren said they purchased multiple copies of the documentary on DVD.

“We kids went to the movies for a week straight just to see ourselves on the Pathé News movies.”

— Randall Woodard

Woodard’s life and interests would intersect with Roosevelt’s in other ways later in life. His daughter Tracy was diagnosed with polio in 1949, which also famously afflicted Roosevelt. Woodard’s affinity for boating only grew after 1932, and he eventually went on to serve in the U.S. Navy, where Roosevelt had previously served as the assistant secretary prior to his years as governor.

The Woodards owned several sailboats and fishing boats through the years. In 1936, Randall and his older brothers, twins Martin and Merwin, finished tied for first among 2,000 other competitors worldwide for the Snipe Class International championship. Through the years he often competed in races and experienced more-than-modest levels of success.

After graduating from Port Jefferson High School in 1938, Woodard attended The Citadel military college in South Carolina.

“The war was on the horizon in Europe and a military college made sense at that time,” he wrote in 2004. He joked he and a high school friend went to Citadel because their grades were not good enough to attend the U.S. Naval or Coast Guard academies.

“I was not a hero,” Woodard said. “If we didn’t have a Marine Corps we’d still be over there. I was in enough tight spots to know.”

After graduating from The Citadel with a degree in civil engineering, he became a Seabee officer in the U.S. Naval Construction Battalions. The Seabees, as they were called — a play on “CB” for Construction Battalion — were deployed to Pearl Harbor in the aftermath of the Japanese attack to reconstruct damaged bulkheads, dredge the ocean floor to allow ships passage and assemble barges and causeways in preparation for an amphibious attack, according to Woodard. During his training prior to deployment while stationed in Rhode Island, Woodard was aboard the world’s largest sea tow, which was an experimental floating airfield slated for assembly in Alaska. The airfield was not needed, and broken-up pieces were used during the Normandy Invasion on D-Day.

“The war was on the horizon in Europe and a military college made sense at that time.”

— Randall Woodard

He was part of a mission headed to a series of islands in the Pacific near Japan in May 1944, weeks before the beaches were stormed in Normandy. Nine days after D-Day, aboard a craft carrying four barges Woodard was responsible for overseeing, the U.S. Marine Corps invaded Saipan, a Japanese-held island. Woodard and the Seabees contributed to the mission by using the barges to unload ammunition, gasoline and other supplies.

One day a Japanese Zero aircraft flew low and attacked his flat steel barge with little options in the way of hiding places. He said he pulled out his handgun and fired two rounds at the aircraft, which eventually went down.

“I probably missed, but the plane crashed into the side of a freighter,” he wrote in 2004. He said his barges survived for five weeks until the island was secure. After the victory over Japan, he spent six months at Navy Department Bureau of Yards and Docks in Washington, D.C., where he met Barbara Brown, whom he later married. Woodard said he remained in the Navy reserves for about 15 years.

When he returned home, Woodard worked for years as a civil engineer. In the 1950s he was the resident engineer overseeing a series of contracts to construct the Northern State and Sunken Meadow parkways, and said he was responsible for the construction of all of the parkway overpasses in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

This post was updated Dec. 8 to correct the date of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 speech.

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Yogi Berra was an iconic major league baseball catcher for the New York Yankees. Public domain

By Rich Acritelli

Yogi Berra may have grown up playing baseball in Missouri, but when he was a catcher for the Yankees he was Mr. New York.

Yogi Berra was an iconic major league baseball catcher for the New York Yankees. Public domain
Yogi Berra was an iconic major league baseball catcher for the New York Yankees. Public domain

The legend died a few weeks ago at 90 years old, but he will be remembered by Long Island baseball fans for years to come.

Born in 1925, Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra grew up in the Italian section of St. Louis, the son of immigrants who worked many hours to make ends meet for their family. As a kid, Berra discovered his love for baseball and would play at every opportunity, though his equipment was not always very advanced — coming from a poor family, he used old magazines as shin guards.

The Hill neighborhood of St. Louis produced outstanding ball players such as catcher Joe Garagiola, who played against Berra. However, the legend did not get to the major league right away.

Berra’s grades were poor and education was considered a luxury during the Great Depression, so he went to work in a coal mine. But Berra was meant to play baseball — he lost his job because of his habit of leaving work early to play the game with his friends. His parents did not understand or like baseball, but their son excelled and became one of the best players from their neighborhood. In 1942, the New York Yankees brought him into their dugout.

At 17 years old, Berra was away from home for the first time. His career began slowly, and he committed 16 errors in his first season as a catcher, although his hitting was consistent. Times were tough for the young man — he made $90 a month, before taxes were deducted, and there was little leftover after covering his living expenses. There were times Berra was close to starving. At one point, his manager loaned him money to buy cheeseburgers and adoring fans made Italian heroes for him to eat. He sold men’s suits in the winters to get by.

“What you have to remember about Yogi is that all he ever wanted was to be a baseball player.”
— Jerry Coleman, hall of fame broadcaster

Soon into his career, America’s priorities changed. With World War II raging, Uncle Sam started to draft baseball players into the military. Berra joined the U.S. Navy and was in the middle of the action in Europe on one of the most important days for the Allied war effort: June 6, 1944. On D-Day, Berra was on a rocket boat that fired armaments against the German fortifications at Normandy.

That August, the catcher aided landing troops during the amphibious invasion of southern France through Operation Dragoon. After fighting on D-Day, Berra said he was scared to death during those landings, because he realized the Germans could have killed his entire crew due to their proximity to the beaches. Despite his fear, he fought valiantly and went back behind home plate with a Purple Heart.

By 1946, with the war behind him, Berra returned to the ball park. He was one of the toughest and most talented players in the league, a three-time MVP who hit 305 homeruns and earned 10 World Series rings. Don Larsen, who in the 1956 World Series threw a perfect game to Berra, believed the catcher was the best pitch caller in baseball.

Yogi Berra was an iconic major league baseball catcher for the New York Yankees. Public domain
Yogi Berra was an iconic major league baseball catcher for the New York Yankees. Public domain

The all-star was at the center of many historic plays, including when Jackie Robinson famously stole home during the 1955 World Series. Berra, who was catching for pitcher Whitey Ford, attempted to tag out Robinson, but the umpire deemed the runner safe — a call Berra did not agree with.

Once he hung up his catcher’s gear in the 1960s, Berra became a coach and manager for the Yankees, the Mets and later the Houston Astros, among other business ventures.

For a man who did not earn an education past the eighth-grade level, Berra accomplished much during his lifetime, included being known for his creative sayings, commonly known as “Yogi-isms,” such as his famous quotes, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” and “It’s déjà vu all over again.” He was an American and athletic icon who represented the grit and character of his unique nation.

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