On the afternoon of July 11, 1944 - 35 days after the Allied invasion at Normandy - Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower came across a forgotten note tucked inside his wallet. He called in his naval aide, Capt. Harry C. Butcher, who, taking the paper, read:
"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. 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."
It was dated, in Ike's hand, July 5. Butcher knew it had to have been - and was - written June 5, when "Bravery and devotion" might yet fail the Allies on Normandy's beaches.
Butcher kept a diary of the war. He was a friend of Eisenhower's from before the war. His daughter, Beverly Byron, served as a member of Congress from Maryland from 1978 to 1993.
That afternoon in July 1944 was D plus 35. On June 6, D-Day, the largest armada in history had crossed the English Channel, landing nine divisions of sea and airborne troops in a sweeping assault against Nazi-occupied France that put the Allies on the road to victory.
Eisenhower penned such notes on the eves of other amphibious operations, secretly tearing each one up afterward. He planned to throw this note away. "I told him I wanted it," Butcher would later recall. Ike gave in, reluctantly.
The sheet of beige paper - at 4 1/2 by 7 inches - looks as if it came from a notepad. It is brittle and fragile. The paper doesn't carry the letterhead of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, which Eisenhower was. It's cheaply made. The four sentences on it were written in pencil. They were composed on a portable table.
Archivists at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library & Museum in Abilene, Kan., call it the "In Case of Failure" message. It's kept in an acid-free folder in the security vault there, a veteran, too, of dark days when freedom hung in the balance.
This month - 60 years after Ike faced down the specter of defeat - fireworks from Arromanches to Ste.-Mere-Eglise heralded the return to Normandy of the aged men who, as the National D-Day Museum puts it, once electrified the world. Today, President Bush marks the sacrifice of Americans at the Colleville-sur-Mer cemetery, where 9,386 troops from D-Day and subsequent operations are buried on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach. Total Allied casualties on D-Day were about 10,000 - some 6,603 of them Americans.
They were part of an initial invasion force of some 156,000, launched from Great Britain on Eisenhower's word for a 50-mile stretch of French coastline. A history compiled by the D-Day museum in New Orleans maps out the assault, code-named by beaches: The U.S. 4th Division was to take Utah Beach; the U.S. 29th and 1st Divisions, Omaha Beach; the British 50th Division, Gold Beach; the Canadian 3rd Division, Juno Beach; and the British 3rd Division, Sword Beach.
"This operation is planned as a victory, and that's the way it's going to be," Eisenhower had declared. "We're going down there, and we're throwing everything we have into it."
He meant everything: 11,000 aircraft, 6,000 naval vessels and a total of 2 million men, including reinforcements for the first wave. He issued an Order of the Day - only one of 10 in his name from 1944 and 1945 - to be distributed to every soldier, sailor and airman in "Operation Overlord." The language is epic and undaunted:
"You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade," he began. "The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. ... The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!
" ... Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."
"The outcome of the war rested upon its success," D-Day museum curators write. According to a National Archives account, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin pressed President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in late 1943 to name a supreme commander for Overlord. "Who carries the moral and technical responsibility for this operation?" Stalin demanded. The job fell to Ike.
"General Ike," as Butcher called him, named June 5 D-Day. But the attack was stalled by atrocious weather, including gale-force winds and sheets of horizontal rain. Eisenhower set a new date: June 6.
At noon June 5, Eisenhower sat at the portable desk and assumed, in writing, any failure as his responsibility.
He edited the note in four places with a heavy pencil. He began the second sentence with, "This particular operation," crossed that out and wrote, "My decision to attack." Under the words "mine alone" is a long dash - perhaps meant to emphasize those words, or just to signal the statement's end. In the bottom right corner is the date, which has required explanation ever since.
Ike's was this: "The July 5 date must have been a careless error," he concluded in 1966 after reviewing the note, according to the editors of The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower: The War Years III.
The note's brevity was classic Ike, explains Dennis Medina, museum curator at the Eisenhower Library. A year later, when he wrote Army Chief of Staff George Marshall of Germany's unconditional surrender, he had only this to say about the end of the war in Europe: "This mission was accomplished on May 7, 1945."
At 6:30 p.m. June 5, Ike left his headquarters to join the huge force preparing to embark from England. "The stars on the running board of his automobile had been covered, but the troops recognized 'Ike,' and word quickly spread of his presence," according to an account in the National Archives. He met with the British 50th Infantry Division, then the U.S. 101st Airborne. His grandson, David, recounted the scene in Eisenhower at War: 1943-1945:
"He asked their names and homes. 'Texas, sir!' one replied. ... 'Where are you from, soldier?' 'Missouri, sir.'"
Ike stood by as the paratroopers began to take off, knowing a great many wouldn't be coming home.
The next morning, an hour and a half after the first landing craft hit the beaches but before he had any news of the invasion, Ike sent a message to Washington telling of the men he'd met and how "the light of battle was in their eyes."
Wally Strobel was among them. He turned 22 on June 5. He and Ike talked about fishing in Strobel's native Michigan. In his gear he carried Ike's Order of the Day, with all its valiant imagery and confidence. In Ike's wallet was that other message, the one that was forced to imagine an unimaginable defeat.
Strobel survived D-Day and the rest of the war. In 1994, on the 50th anniversary, he donated his dog tags, uniform and Order of the Day message to the Eisenhower Library. He died in 1999, 30 years after Eisenhower.
Ultimately, Eisenhower could only hope for victory when he bade farewell to the troops he was sending to Normandy.
The note, a scrap of words that might have become famous if the Invasion of Normandy had failed, was tucked away and might have been forgotten altogether had Capt. Butcher not asked Ike to let him have it.