Seventy-five years ago Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had a monumental decision before him.
After a year of preparations, Operation Overlord was finally going to be put into action. Simply putting together the largest invasion force in human history by land, air and sea from eight Allies was a feat of shear leadership. But that was probably easy compared to the decision he had before him on June 4, 1944.
On that day, Ike was handed a choice by his chief meteorological officer, British Capt. James Stagg. Delay the landing on the beaches of Normandy by a day for the weather to clear, or wait until two weeks later when the conditions could be much worse. Every hour the plan was delayed was another hour that the Germans could learn of the plans and the entire operation would fail.
Eisenhower chose to wait 24 hours for a break in the weather, and the invasion was a success and the tide of World War II turned in the Allied Forces’ favor.
Much is written about Eisenhower’s steely leadership of D-Day. As a Kansas kid who grew up in Ike’s home county, one had to work hard to be blind to his life of service and leadership. Our parents and teachers held him up as an example of bravery and steely resolve.
There have been times in my life, though, that I wondered if Ike had struggled with the weight on his shoulders in 1944? Think about it. Years of war, of lost lives, of countries in turmoil and families ripped apart could have been either wasted or vindicated with his one choice to send the troops June 5 or June 6.
On the morning of June 6 Ike addressed the troops and told them, “I have full confidence in your courage, devotion and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory.”
I take comfort in knowing that folded in Ike’s pocket that day was a second letter, an “in case of failure letter.” I guess even the commander of all Allied Forces in Europe had a moment of pause to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
In this letter, though, we can see that Ike chose his words to not lay the blame at anyone else’s feet but his own.
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops,” it starts out. (In his handwriting he’s crossed out the phrase “the troops have withdrawn” and instead used the phrase, “I have withdrawn the troops.”) It continues, “My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
More than 4,000 troops lost their lives in the D-Day invasion. And I can only imagine that each one weighed on Ike all the rest of his days. But in the end, his decision to go ahead on June 6, 1944, turned the tide of the war and saved millions of lives. Ultimately, his second note was not needed.
Now I will never have to make the decision to send men into battle, but I hope that every day I have the courage to stand by my decisions like Ike. Eisenhower could have pushed the blame for any failure on any number of excuses: the weather, the troops on the ground, the equipment, or even the leadership under his command. But instead, this man from Kansas chose in this moment to stand up and squarely take the blame.
That’s a rare quality to find today in leaders across the spectrum. From city councils, to business leaders, to the highest offices in the land, how many times do we get the “spin” on the situation and finger pointing instead of someone standing up and taking responsibility?
What does that teach our young people who are watching the adults in the room?
It’s a question we have to ask ourselves every time we choose finger-pointing and spin over responsibility over our own actions.
So, what does your note in your pocket read?
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.