On D-Day minus 1, the subject was fishing

Paratrooper: Wally Strobel was just another "citizen soldier" before being immortalized in one of the most memorable photographs from World War II.

September 05, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen

THE PHOTOGRAPH of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower speaking to paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division on the eve of the D-Day invasion remains one of the most compelling and classic images from World War II.

Several years ago, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp of the historic moment.

Eisenhower appears animated, with an intense expression on his face. His right hand is raised and slightly clenched, and he is speaking directly to a young paratrooper.

"It's almost the most famous picture of Ike, and everyone knows this picture," said Stephen E. Ambrose, author of "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945," published last year.

Last week, the young paratrooper, Wallace C. Strobel, the lieutenant with the blackened face and his jumpmaster's No. 23 hanging from a string around his neck, died of respiratory and heart failure in his hometown of Saginaw, Mich. He was 77.

The photograph, which appeared in Life and Time magazines, newsreels and in hundreds of World War II books through the years, featured young Strobel coming face to face with the Supreme Allied Commander on June 5, 1944. It was Strobel's 22nd birthday.

Strobel and his fellow Screaming Eagles at Greenham Common Airfield in England were being briefed and awaiting invasion orders. Once the invasion began, they were to be dropped in the pre-dawn hours behind Utah Beach.

Eisenhower had been advised by his tactical air commander that 50 percent of the paratroopers would be dead before they hit the ground, and that 70 percent of the gliders would be lost in the initial air assault.

British Air Marshall Trafford-Leigh Mallory warned Eisenhower to cancel the drop on Utah Beach, that in his opinion it would result in the "futile slaughter" of two airborne divisions.

Though Eisenhower agonized over the projected heavy casualties, he decided to go ahead with the air drop that would spearhead the invasion.

On June 5, Eisenhower left his forward command post near Portsmouth, England, and drove to Greenham Common Airfield along roads that were choked with military vehicles. He wanted to spend the last evening before D-Day visiting the men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.

As Eisenhower toured the tent city piled high with equipment and filled with apprehensive soldiers, he stopped and spoke to the paratroopers.

The soldiers "saw an entourage coming and stopped and saluted when they realized it was General Eisenhower. He then stopped and spoke a couple of minutes to Wally," said Josephine Strobel, his high school sweetheart, whom he married in 1946.

Historians have speculated on the topic of Eisenhower's remarks, some suggesting that he stressed "total victory and nothing else" to Strobel and his fellow paratroopers.

Actually, the conversation was about fishing.

"He asked Wally where he was from, and he told him Michigan," said Mrs. Strobel. "He said, 'How's the fishing in Michigan?' and Wally replied, 'It's great, sir.'"

Ike replied that Michigan was a "beautiful state" and that he had been fishing there several times, Mrs. Strobel said.

Douglas R. Price, a Chestertown business consultant, is writing a monograph, "Tale of A Screaming Eagle," about Strobel's World War II experiences. Price, who served on Eisenhower's White House staff and is a board member of the Eisenhower Institute, befriended Strobel about 10 years ago.

"After reminiscing about fishing in Michigan for a few minutes, Ike asked Lieutenant Strobel if he was ready and had been briefed properly. Jumpmaster Strobel replied, 'Yes, Sir, we've been well-briefed and we are ready.' Then Eisenhower said, 'Good,' and moved on," writes Price of the encounter in his monograph.

"Wally said that the next morning, as the planes were taking off into the dawn, they saw Eisenhower standing on the tarmac," Mrs. Strobel said.

"I first met Mr. Strobel in London in 1990," said John Eisenhower, son of the president and former ambassador to Belgium.

"I told him that I had wondered what had happened to him and how he made it through the war. I really had tremendous admiration for this man, who as a paratrooper was most likely going to jump to his death in a couple of hours," said Eisenhower, who lives in Trappe and is writing a book about the American Expeditionary Force during World War I and the development of the modern Army.

However, John Eisenhower wasn't surprised at the subject matter of his late father's casual conversation.

"He was always trying to talk to troops about things back home, things that were familiar to them. If he found out that someone was from Kansas, he'd talk about cattle and farming, so it's natural that with Wally he discussed fishing," he said.

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