Key Point: Up to 80 percent of the airborne troops, men whom Eisenhower took a special interest in visiting on the eve of the invasion, might be lost to enemy action over the coming days.
In one of the most recognized photographs taken by U.S. Army cameramen during World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, is addressing men of E Company, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), 101st Airborne Division, in England on June 5, 1944, just hours before their jump into Nazi-occupied Europe. After the black and white film was developed and the photo passed censors, the image was flashed stateside to U.S. wire services for publication in newspapers and magazines. It has since been printed on calendars, coffee mugs, even a postage stamp.
As a morale booster on the homefront, the picture worked, visually depicting a determined Eisenhower and his prepared warriors on the eve of the greatest invasion ever. A common misconception took hold from the very start that the general, with his right fist clenched and thumb up, is extolling the Screaming Eagles to “Full victory—nothing else.” The men who were there, however, and who heard the general speak, including Lieutenant Wallace Stroebel, jump master and the man wearing the cardboard No. 23 indicating his landing group or “stick” in the invasion, made it known after the war that the general was discussing fly fishing with the Michigan native.
The Man with the White Nose
Most of the men in the picture have since passed on, including Stroebel, who died in 1999. But William “Bill” Bowser, 89, who lives near the groundhog-friendly town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, remembers the general’s pep talk to the troops. At five feet, four inches tall and one of the smallest men in Easy Company, Bowser’s helmeted head and blackened face may be seen directly to the left of Eisenhower’s shoulder. And viewed at a certain angle, since multiple shots were taken of the encounter, Bowser’s nose is the “whitest” spot on his face.
“We put some kind of oil on our faces, and a buddy would take a handful of cocoa (chocolate powder) and blow it in your face,” he says. “I must have reached up and touched my nose at some point.”
Bowser says he did not hear Eisenhower’s conversation with Stroebel, but he does remember the general’s brief talk with Corporal Bill Hayes, E Company clerk, pictured directly in the center of the photograph.
“He asked Hayes where he was from, and Hayes told him either North Dakota or South Dakota. I’m not sure which,” recalled Bowser. “He then asked Hayes if he was scared, and Hayes looked over toward Stroebel and he said, ‘Yes.’ And Eisenhower said, ‘That’s okay. I’m scared.’”
The general’s apprehension is understandable. Should the D-Day operation fail, he knew responsibility would fall on his shoulders alone. He also was aware of the dire predictions made by his advisers that up to 80 percent of the airborne troops, men whom Eisenhower took a special interest in visiting on the eve of the invasion, might be lost to enemy action over the coming days.
While the casualty rate among the airborne troops came nowhere close to that estimate, the idea of sending thousands of men to possible death might explain why Army officials treated them to a hearty meal on June 5, sort of a last supper.
“Roast beef, potatoes, the whole works,” Bowser explains. “That’s when it started to dawn on us, ‘Hey, this is it.’”
The Jump on June 5th
In the early evening hours of June 5, paratroops and glidermen of the U.S. 101st and 82nd and British 1st Airborne Divisions began boarding planes that would take them into the darkening skies over England and into the inhospitable darkness over Normandy.
“Officers were supposed to be our jump masters,” Bowser says. “Our plane didn’t have an officer, so the company’s first sergeant [Demitrius B. “Gus” Anagnostis, who later in the war would be awarded a battlefield commission to second lieutenant] acted as jump master. After we took off and flew a little ways, it came over the speaker for everybody to stand up and hook up because we were going to fly right between the Guernsey and Jersey Islands and were going to receive fire.”
Antiaircraft fire from the German-occupied territory in the English Channel never materialized, and about 30 minutes later Bowser and the rest of the Screaming Eagles would hurl themselves into what the division’s first commanding officer, General William C. Lee, called their “rendezvous with destiny.”
“When we got the green light to jump, the first sergeant said, ‘It’s 11 minutes after 12. Let’s get out of here,’ I was the last one in line to get out of the plane,” said Bowser. “In front of me was a kid from Philadelphia. He was our medic. And in front of him was [William F.] Podkulski. And Joe Guevera, a full-blooded Mexican, was the fourth guy. When Joe Guevera got up to the door, he sat right down in the door and Podkulski had to reach down and dump him out.”
Private Podkulski would be killed on September 22 in the battle Easy Company fought along the Wilhelmina Canal at Best, Holland, while Private Guevera would, in Bowser’s own words, “save his skin a number of times” in the war.
“When we hit the ground, there were four of us,” Bowser continues. “Nobody got hurt, and we got ready to go. Then Joe Guevera said, ‘Okay Bill, you’re the leader. You’re a corporal.’ I don’t know how in the world I ever knew which way to go. Something in me said go that way. So that’s the way I went, and it led us right to a canal.”
Allied bombers destroyed the German long-range guns the division was ordered to neutralize as one of its first objectives in Normandy. Over the next five days and nights, the Screaming Eagles fought countless skirmishes, consolidated forces, and pushed southward.
“What sticks in my mind was the 11th of June, and that was on a Sunday,” Bowser explains. “That’s when we moved toward Carentan.”
Capturing the small Normandy town of Carentan with about 4,000 inhabitants was a high-priority assignment given to the Screaming Eagles. If left in German hands, it could be used as a corridor for a counterattack against American ground forces of the 4th and 90th Infantry Divisions moving inland from Utah Beach. Also, its main highway and railroad connected the strategic seaport of Cherbourg to the northwest, St. Lo to the southeast, and Caen to the east. Whoever controlled Carentan could conceivably control the entire Cotentin Peninsula.
While the 101st was an untested fighting force, German troops in the Carentan area included battle-experienced men of the 6th Fallschïrmjager Regiment (airborne) under the command of Major Friedrich von der Heydte. He was given orders to defend the area to the last man.
Purple Heart Lane
The main path of attack for the Screaming Eagles was a one-mile stretch of roadway that began at the south of St. Come du Mont and ended at the outskirts of Carentan. Today, this unassuming stretch of highway has been modernized, still straight and narrow, and rises only a few meters above the boggy marshes located on either side of it. But for two days in 1944, June 10 and 11, many Screaming Eagles died there and many more were wounded. So inspiring was the battle that two soldiers from Headquarters Company of the 502nd, Raymond D. Cready and Robert H. Bryant, wrote a dramatic poem of the attack that they titled “Purple Heart Lane” in memory of those who perished.
The causeway featured four stone bridges crossing canals and the Douve and Madeleine Rivers before leading into Carentan. The terrain on either side of the road prevented troops from digging in, which exposed them to direct enemy fire. Part of the plan to seize the town called for the 3rd Battalion of the 502nd, led by Lt. Col. Robert G. Cole, to attack from the north straight down the causeway, in the open and without cover.
After crossing Bridge No. 1 on June 10, paratroopers found the second bridge destroyed by retreating Germans. Airborne engineers tried for hours to repair it but could not, stymied by enemy fire from mortars and 88mm cannons, one of the most feared weapons the Germans used during the war. Frustrated at their lack of progress, Cole and three others jury-rigged a footbridge with material left by the engineers. It enabled the men to cross the waterway in single file.
What followed was a slow and methodical progression down Purple Heart Lane. Screaming Eagles were extended in long columns hugging both sides of the road and were under sporadic fire from enemy artillery. That changed dramatically when the men reached Bridge No. 4, blocked by a massive iron and concrete Belgian gate that the troopers could open only about 18 inches, allowing just one man through at a time.