Another Look: A D-Day Casting Demonstration?

By John Mundt

The National Archives captioned this iconic 5 June 1944 photo, “General Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the order of the Day. ‘Full victory-nothing else’ to paratroopers in England, just before they board their airplanes to participate in the first assault in the invasion of the continent of Europe.” Photo includes Sergeant Fred Lindsey holding a sketchbook, behind and to the left of Eisenhower’s back; Russell Wilmarth, behind Eisenhower’s chin; Lieutenant Wallace C. Strobel with a “23” tag; Ralph “Bud” Thomas, to the left of Strobel; probably Corporal Donald E. Kruger, in front row, far right, wearing a musette bag on his chest; and Joseph Burdette May Jr., above Eisenhower’s thumb. National Archives Identifier: 531217, Local Identifier: War and Conflict 1040.

Seventy-five years ago, World War II had finally been won by U.S. and Allied forces. The main road to victory in Europe began on the beaches of Normandy after the costly but successful D-Day landings of 6 June 1944. Operation Neptune was, and remains, the largest amphibious invasion force ever deployed. Of the 1,527,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in England, 15,500 were paratroopers prepared to drop silently through dark skies into Fortress Europe.1

On the eve of D-Day, General Dwight D. Eisenhower made his way through the Allied camp at Portsmouth and was photographed speaking with Screaming Eagles of Company E, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. This photograph is one of the lasting and iconic images of the anxious moments before what could become one of the most disastrous military failures or resounding successes the world had even seen.2

There is also a more telling version of what Eisenhower was discussing with those troops that will resonate with our readership. According to 1st Lieutenant Wallace C. Strobel (seen at the center of the photo, wearing the number 23):

The picture was taken at Greenham Common Airfield in England about 8:30 p.m. on June 5, 1944. My 22nd birthday. Down the street came the general, surrounded by his staff and a large number of photographers, both still and movie. As he came toward our group we straightened up and suddenly he came directly toward me and stopped in front of me. He asked my name and which state I was from. I gave him my name and that I was from Michigan. He then said, “Oh yes, Michigan, great fishing there, been there several times and like it.” He seemed in good spirits. He chatted a little more, which I believe was intended to relax us and I think that all of us being keyed up and ready to go buoyed him somewhat.3

What Eisenhower called the Great Crusade was a success, but unfortunately, most of the paratroopers seen here surrounding Strobel were either killed or wounded during the fighting that followed.

This story was recently made known to me by Philip Devlin of Higganum, Connecticut, who wrote, “When I visited the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, several years ago, our guide (a vet) began the tour at the statue of Ike and asked us if anyone knew what Ike was saying to the soldiers in the famous picture. Nobody knew. He told us that he was talking about fly fishing.”4 I had seen that photo dozens of times over the years and completely missed what now appears to be obvious.

Strobel’s direct quote mentions fishing, not specifically fly fishing, but we do know that the general fished as a guest at the Houghton Club on the River Test in May 1944, where only upstream casting with a dry fly to sighted fish is permitted. The action in the photograph certainly appears—at least to my eyes—to be a forward casting motion with an invisible rod. Either way, it’s a known fact that Eisenhower was a devoted fly fisherman, and it was fascinating to learn that the general had the composure to recall fond memories of fishing when the fate of the free world was at stake.

 

This article first appeared in the Fall 2020 (Vol. 46, No. 4) issue of the American Fly Fisher.

The cover of Yank magazine from June 30, 1944, showing Dwight Eisenhower speaking to troops in the field. He appears to be demonstrating how to cast a fly rod.

The photo appeared on the cover of the 30 June 1944 issue of Yank, just twenty-four days after D-Day.

Endnotes

  1. These figures can be found at D-Day Overlord, Encyclopédie du débarquement et de la bataille de Normandie, Figures of the Normandy landings, www.dday-overlord.com/en/d-day/figures. Ac­cessed 5 July 2020.
  2. National Archives. Photograph of General Dwight D. Eisenhower Giving the Order of the Day. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/531217. Accessed 5 July 2020.
  3. Wallace C. Strobel, 1st Lieutenant Company E, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, World War II, in an article prepared for the Eisenhower Birthplace State Historical Park archives. The park’s archives are no longer available online, but Strobel’s remarks about the photo have been quoted elsewhere, including on the website History Addict. Accessed 5 July 2020.
  4. E-mail to author from Philip Devlin, 27 June 2020.