Posted on Jun 6, 2019 in News
I recently was given the opportunity to host KU alumni on a Flying Jayhawks trip across Celtic Lands, visiting the ports of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France and England. The rich history and colorful culture of the Scottish highlands, Dublin, Great Britain and the French countryside would be enough to sell anyone on taking a European vacation with fellow Jayhawks, but the real treat came in the form of a front-row seat to history, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We would visit Normandy in the days leading up to the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and our guide would be none other than David Eisenhower Jr., grandson of President Dwight David Eisenhower, who commanded the D-Day invasion.
Historians agree that D-Day, June 6, 1944, was one of the most important events of the 20th century, and perhaps THE most significant day in American history. Coordinated under the command of native Kansan Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, the D-Day invasion (code named Overlord) was by far the largest organized military offensive in the history of modern warfare, an operation conducted on a massive scale.
Our tour group visited the sacred sites of Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument, Mulberry Harbor at Arromanches, Sainte-Mère-Église, Utah Beach, Angoville-au-Plain, and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, among other historic sites. Before each stop on our memorable trip, we heard lectures from leading historians and guides, including Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Archives Centre at Cambridge, and David Eisenhower.
During a special ceremony at the American Military Cemetery with our group, Eisenhower and his wife, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, the daughter of former president Richard Nixon, led us in honoring our veterans and fallen heroes. With global interest and world leaders–including President Trump and Queen Elizabeth–participating in D-Day commemoration ceremonies, our small, private ceremony was solemn and intimate. This was due largely to the humble and unassuming nature of Eisenhower’s personality. As he walked among thousands of tourists and veterans, few realized they were standing near the grandson of Ike, who liberated France and saved the free world.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace, they fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They yearn but for the end of battle. For their return to the haven of home. –Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States
From an inscription at the D-Day Museum at Pointe du Hoc.
Probably the most surprising moment of the trip was watching David Eisenhower quietly wait his turn to purchase a ticket to visit the D-Day museum at Sainte-Mère-Église. The French cashier had no idea who she was meeting that day–amid the chaos of the thousands of visitors descending upon the small village for the 75th anniversary of D-Day–and Eisenhower wasn’t about to tell her. No special “family-member-of-the-supreme-allied-commander” discount was available, and David Eisenhower wouldn’t want it. He dutifully bought his own ticket, and the unassuming man with the famous name walked in with the crowd. He was there to remember and learn, like the rest of us.
Speaking to our Flying Jayhawks in a special “D-Day plus 75” lecture, Eisenhower talked about how his grandfather didn’t openly share his reflections of D-Day when David was a young boy. Ike just didn’t talk about it much, at least to his grandson. As a result, David soaked up all he could, becoming one of the foremost experts on the subject of D-Day, much of which he chronicled in his award-winning book, Eisenhower at War, a New York Times best-seller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history.
Eisenhower treated our travelers to his vast knowledge of D-Day by conveying both incredible details about the strategic and logistical activity involved in Operation Overlord and the broader, global implications of the victory. Through facts and figures and stories from the people who lived it, Eisenhower gave us a glimpse into the minds of the men who changed history, and the experience was riveting, humbling and profound. The resemblance David shares with his grandfather is unmistakable, most evident in his punchy and personable speaking style that commands interest and attention. One of our KU alumni travelers remarked, “I could listen to him tell stories all day.”
We conclude our Flying Jayhawks trip tomorrow in Portsmouth, where tens of thousands of allied soldiers assembled, preparing for the invasion. In discussing Portsmouth, Eisenhower relayed a poignant vignette about the Allied Naval Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Bertram Ramsay, who also had supervised the British withdrawal at Dunkirk in 1940. It was an emotional moment for Ramsay, Eisenhower shared, given that this was his return to the continent—to organize the vast armada preparing to launch.
“He asks his driver to pull over,” Eisenhower explained, “and he steps out and looks over the harbor at Portsmouth at all these extraordinary preparations being finalized at that moment, and he says to no one in particular: ‘It is tragic and ironic that the stage is being set for great sacrifice, but if out of it comes peace and happiness, who would have it otherwise?’”