The photograph of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower talking with American paratroopers moments before they were to board planes bound for the French coast and the invasion of Normandy on D-Day is among the most famous of World War II.
The story behind it is less well known.
Bill Hayes, the helmetless trooper shown in the center of the photo just to the right of Eisenhower, behind the latter’s uplifted hand, remembered getting ready to make his first-ever combat jump when someone asked, “Well, you ready?”
He looked over to see Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe.
Hayes was a corporal in Company E, 2 Battalion, 502nd Parachute Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, which was spearheading the American wing of the invasion, which began 70 years ago today.
Their objective was as simple as it was difficult: Jump from C-47 transport planes behind enemy lines and destroy German guns along the Normandy coast before the infantry landed on the beach.
Hayes, who was 26 at the time, recalled Eisenhower spent just a few minutes with his unit before they boarded the planes.
“He says, ‘Are you ready to go?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ He kind of danced around … and I said I was damned scared,” Hayes would recall in 1994, on the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landing.
Eisenhower asked Hayes what he did before the war, and Hayes told him he worked as a manager for a Sears store in North Dakota.
Moments later, a photographer in Eisenhower’s entourage captured the moment. The photograph, appeared on the cover of Yank Magazine, Life Magazine and many newspapers after the wire services picked it up and distributed it worldwide.
Captions always indicated that Eisenhower was giving last-minute instructions or urging his troops on to victory, but only Hayes, Ike and a select few soldiers knew what was being said when the photo was taken, the Fargo Forum wrote in 2006.
Hayes and the rest of his unit jumped a little after midnight and he ended up getting caught in a tree. He managed to cut himself free, but because his unit had become scattered after the jump, it took him another 90 minutes before he located some fellow paratroopers.
He survived D-Day, went on to participate in Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge, and, perhaps not surprisingly, cast his ballot twice for Eisenhower when Ike later ran for president.
Hayes died in 2006 at the age of 88. Like so many of the men who took part in the Normandy invasion, he never considered himself a hero but was one in every sense of the word.