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WWII

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.

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Marie Mack, front, and her family and friends celebrated her birthday Jan. 27. Photo from Betty Mulligan

By Jane Swingle 

Our grandparents Charles Petersen and Anna Kenney were married in 1913 and had three children. Their son, John Anthony, was born in 1917 and lived for 10 days. Their daughter, Marie Gertrude, our mother, was born in 1919 and has been living for 100 years. Mary Catherine was born in 1920 and lived for 24 hours.

Marie, who eventually married to become Marie Mack, always wanted a sibling and was told as a child that if she put salt on a windowsill, she would get a brother and if she put sugar on a windowsill she would get a sister. She said she remembers that at one time she had sugar or salt on 11 windowsills. Unfortunately for Marie, she remained an only child, and Jan. 18 of this year she celebrated her 100th birthday. A surprise birthday party was held for her Jan. 27 with over 90 guests in attendance.

Marie Mack during her birthday celebration Jan. 27. Photo from Betty Mulligan

She was loved dearly by her father who in 1898 joined the Navy during the Spanish-American War at the age of 15. She remembers him having a dry sense of humor (we’re sure she herself got this from him). He was a good cook and she always looked forward to a batch of potatoes, eggs and onions after work. Her dad loved coming out to Long Island to vacation and in 1928, when Marie was 10 years old, he bought the house in which she currently resides. They had spent their summers in the same house beginning in 1924, the same house that was the Mount Sinai Post Office and General Store from 1908 until 1922.

Her mother was very different from her father. She was very melancholic most of the time unless she was taking the Putnam Avenue trolley to downtown Brooklyn to go shopping. She crocheted beautiful baby outfits for her grandchildren and loved going to the movies. Marie said her mother had a beautiful smile and always wondered why she didn’t smile more often. 

They lived at 83 Saratoga Ave. in Brooklyn in what was known as the “Railroad Flats” where they paid a monthly rent of $25. As a child she remembers the iceman delivering blocks of ice two to three times a week to keep their food cold. Milk was delivered at 4 a.m. and they had dumbwaiters so they didn’t have to carry everything upstairs. They lived on the third floor and once Marie even put our sister Elizabeth, “Betty,” in the dumbwaiter so she didn’t have to carry her up all those stairs.

In 1934 Marie saw our future dad, John Howard Rogers,  working in a candy store and continued to eyeball him until they finally started dating in 1935. They went to their first prom at the Hotel George and she remembers wearing a pink taffeta long gown, silver shoes and our dad gave her her first corsage. They continued to see each other and in 1941 they were married and had their reception at her home on Saratoga Avenue. Our sister Ann Marie was born in December 1942, but our dad left soon after she was born for the Pacific front in April 1943. He did not see his daughter again until 1945 when he returned from the war. During the time that he was away our mother moved back in with her parents — she had only 35 cents to her name. She became an air raid warden and was given a certificate for selling war bonds.

When dad returned from the war, they became very busy making a family and in 1946 Elizabeth was born, followed by Nancy in 1951, Jane in 1953, John in 1954 and Thomas in 1956.  With this expanding family they could no longer live in Brooklyn so they moved to Woodhaven in 1948, then to Rockville Centre in 1962 and eventually to Mount Sinai in 1968.

When asked when her favorite years were, Marie told us during the 1950s when she was raising her children. She got us through chicken pox, measles, mumps, ear infections, the teen years and the death of our father in 1969. She went back to work in 1970 at the Probation Department in Yaphank and remained there until 1977 when she married Bernard Mack. She again lived in Woodhaven for a short time after they were married but moved back to her home in Mount Sinai.

In 1996 when going into her attic to open a window she fell through the ceiling and shattered her knee, which required surgery and many months of rehabilitation. During this time Bernard passed away, but she rallied around again with her children pushing her to recover and get well.

She often wonders why she has lived so long. On many occasions she has said: “I’m not good enough to go to heaven, not bad enough to go to hell, so I guess I’m still here to torment all of you.”

Marie Mack during her birthday celebration Jan. 27. Photo from Betty Mulligan

When we think about her life spanning 100 years, we are astounded with all the changes that she has experienced in her lifetime. She was born before most people had electricity in their homes. She remembers gas lamps still being used, when there was no TV, no computers, no cellphones and when it cost 2 cents to mail a letter. She has lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, 9/11 and 18 presidents. She was even born before they started slicing bread in 1928.

She credits her long life to her family for keeping her – in her words – “Alive, alert and stimulated.” She’s had many bumps along the way, especially the passing of our brother John and our sister Ann Marie, but she’s always had a positive attitude and has always wished our father could have been with her to share this journey. What amazes all of us is her incredible memory – she remembers names of friends when she was a child, teachers’ names, games she played, street names where she used to live, movies, actors, books she read and all the places she has ever worked. As a child she enjoyed going to Coney Island for hot dogs, the hurdy-gurdy man who played the accordion with his monkey, putting hot bricks in her bed at night to warm her feet and attending the World’s Fairs in both 1939 and 1964.

When asked what important lessons she wanted to pass on to her children, her 12 grandchildren and her eight great-grandchildren, she told us to always remember how important family is, to be respectful, considerate and always take the time to listen. She was the best teacher of these lesson and we couldn’t have asked for a better mother.

Jane Swingle is a resident of Norwich and echoes the sentiments of her siblings, Betty Mulligan, Nancy Rogers and Tom Rogers. Their mother Marie Mack has lived in Mount Sinai for close to 50 years.