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Posted on Nov 7, 2005 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Ike: World War II’s Indispensable General, Part 1

By Carlo D'Este

A promising football player, Ike’s knee was damaged early in his cadet days and further injured when he fell from a particularly obnoxious and mean-spirited pony during very dangerous "monkey drills" – jumping off and then back on again while the animal in question strived mightily to rid himself permanently of its rider.

A little known aspect of Ike’s life was his health and how it nearly ended his career on several occasions. In fact, he very nearly was not commissioned because of his knee injury and it was only thanks to the intervention of the Academy surgeon that the Army accepted him. At one time or another Eisenhower had problems with his back, his stomach and a host of other ailments that, in his later years as president, included ileitis and heart attack. Added to his natural health problems was an addiction to cigarettes begun at West Point, which by WW II had escalated to as many as four or more packs a day.

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Eisenhower graduated in 1915 in what later became the most famous class in West Point history and was known as the class "the stars fell on." During World War II it produced two five-star generals and more than a dozen division commanders, most of whom served under their former happy-go-lucky classmate in the Mediterranean and European theaters. Ike entered the Army with few career aspirations and a casual attitude that soon changed into one of professional seriousness. In 1916 he married Mamie Doud whom he had met shortly after arriving at his first duty station in San Antonio, Texas. Their remarkable marriage lasted until his death in 1969.

He soon made his mark as a superb trainer of troops, a duty Ike came to detest as one training assignment followed another during the months leading up to America’s participation in World War I. He desperately wanted a combat assignment in France in General John J. Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Instead, he was assigned to the newly formed Tank Corps and sent to command Camp Colt at Gettysburg (virtually the site of the present Eisenhower Farm). There, he trained men destined for service in the AEF tank corps commanded by a young officer named George S. Patton, Jr. When the war ended on November 11, 1918 before he could go to France, Ike was devastated and perceived his career a failure. "I will make up for this," he said in angry frustration.

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Transcontinental Motor Convoy in 1919

We all use America’s magnificent Interstate highways and take them pretty much for granted. No doubt many know that it is actually called the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, legislation that was signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. His interest in a highway system that would connect all corners of the United States had its roots dating to 1919, when Eisenhower was offered a chance to escape the routine of peacetime army life by becoming a member of what was called the Transcontinental Motor Convoy. In 1919 the age of the motor vehicle was in its infancy. The Transcontinental Motor Convoy was a truly incredible feat whereby an Army convoy of trucks and assorted vehicles crossed the USA from Washington, DC to San Francisco in an epic journey across a virtually road-less America. During their 79-day journey, the convoy traveled 3,251 miles and was seen by 3.5 million Americans. Ike never forgot.

In the aftermath of the Great War, the dreadful carnage in Europe bred a national apathy in the United States toward war. By the early 1920s the great patriotism that had once existed had turned into a national aversion to all things military. A militant pacifism took seriously the notion that America had indeed fought "the war to end all wars." Woodrow Wilson’s illusory belief that future wars could be prevented by the new League of Nations left the American military little more than an afterthought in the age of the Roaring ’20’s. The peacetime army of the interwar years has been aptly described as "an island surrounded by a sea of uncaring, more often contemptuous civilians," who had little regard for men with nothing better to do with their lives than soldier. Ike was one of those men who stayed the course when others left the service for more lucrative civilian employment.

The peacetime army consisted of a mere 100,000 men. Common symbols of the times in the 1930s were signs proclaiming: "Dogs and soldiers, stay off the grass." During those years Ike served in a series of staff assignments, all the while wishing for but not getting troop assignments, and believing his career would end in his retirement as a relatively junior officer, his courage and professionalism untested in war.

With the advent of World War II, new chief of staff, General George C. Marshall purged the Army of its aging leadership. Officers over the age of fifty were unceremoniously retired. Two notable exceptions were Dwight Eisenhower and George S. Patton, each of whom had become too valuable to retire because of age. In 1941 Eisenhower’s star rose as a result of the Louisiana Maneuvers – the largest peacetime military training exercise ever conducted in the United States. He drew the attention of the press, in part because his tent became a friendly place where reporters could obtain liquid refreshment of the alcoholic type in an otherwise dry state.

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Eisenhower shares a quiet moment with a Louisiana Maneuvers umpire outside Ike’s tent in 1941

After Pearl Harbor, Ike was summoned to Washington where he passed muster with the very demanding Marshall who sent him to England in 1942 in command of US forces. In London he again passed muster, this time with the most important person in the Allied coalition – Winston Churchill. The rest – as they say – is history. No American military commander has been called upon to make such fateful life and death decisions, as Eisenhower was required to make during World War II.

The death of soldiers in the cause of peace was close to Dwight Eisenhower’s heart and soul. Although as a professional soldier who detested war, he was not entirely unique, few hated their enemy with greater passion than did Eisenhower who regarded his adversaries with nothing short of loathing. There is no better example than the final night of the war in Europe. At 2:41 A.M., May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally. At Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in Reims, France, Colonel General Alfred Jodl signed the documents of surrender for Germany. The only sounds in a densely crowded room came from a horde of photographers jockeying for the best location.

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