Eisenhower and the North Dakota corporal

Eisenhower talking to troops on d-day

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.

8 thoughts on “Eisenhower and the North Dakota corporal

  1. I love reading about this period. Whether it is plain dry history, history revealed by participants, or delivered in a fiction style like Shaara, it never fails to humble me. It really was a great generation. My dad, since passed, was there at Normandy and he always tried to inject humor, as if they were on some great adventure. It wasn’t until he died and we were going through some papers that we realized how many places he had fought and that it had been quite a bit more than an “adventure”. So I think that reading about it and other people’s experiences from that time helps me see him in a different light. Not better or worse, just different. If that makes sense. Thanks for remembering them, Cotton.

    • I’m always struck by how veterans like your dad downplayed their role in the war. I believe they felt that their comrades who didn’t come back were the ones who were entitled to the tributes, even though all of them were heroes. After being part of something that big, I suppose you learn to put your ego aside just a little bit.

      It’s nice you not only got to hear some of what your dad experienced from him, but then were able later learn more about what he did, the parts he didn’t want to go into, probably for fear of sounding like bragging. He sounds like the type of man I would have enjoyed meeting and listening to, Onoir.

  2. CBC- Love this. Watching a Canadian doc about Juno beach right now. So overwhelming hearing the veterans speak about their experiences of that day. 70 years. Lest we forget.

    • It was an amazing effort, wasn’t it? And it is overwhelming to hear the veterans speak of the experience. I never fail to be moved by first-hand accounts, especially when they speak of their friends and comrades that didn’t make it.

      • The individual stories are so amazing- like the one about James Doohan (yes, Scotty from the original Star Trek) storming the beach with the Royal Canadian Infantry. It was his first combat. He was hit by six rounds- took four to the leg, one to the hand and one to the chest. The one to the chest was stopped by a silver cigarette case his brother had given him. He had to have the middle finger of his right hand amputated- and spent his acting career concealing it from the cameras and speaking very modestly about his contribution.
        So many stories- and so important that we remember them all. Might help ensure nothing like it happens again.

  3. Wow, that is a great story, simple and exquisite in every way. Every dat moments in the midst of famous historic events. It doesn’t get better than that! 🙂 Love it Cotton!

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