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Ike, the D-Day Invasion, and Fly Fishing 

Photo might have captured then-General Eisenhower and troops soothed for a moment by thoughts of a trout stream, a fly rod, and the peaceful promise of what could lay ahead.

Ike, the D-Day Invasion, and Fly Fishing 
Many believe General Dwight D. Eisenhower stated, "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. But new research suggests they could've been talkin' fishin'. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

Living in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s birthplace—the 34th President of the United States was born in Denison, Texas on Oct. 14, 1890—I thought I knew most everything there is to know about the man known as Ike.

Until today, that is, the 80th anniversary of one of the most fateful battles of all time, the D-Day invasion by Allied troops storming the beaches at Normandy, France. And as I thought about the somber and heroic events that occurred on June 6, 1944, I couldn’t help but think about my town’s favorite son and what he had done the evening before. 

While doing so, I discovered a link to fly fishing in Michigan. More on that in a moment.

As history tells the story, Eisenhower, the five-star ranked General of the Army for the U.S. and the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, was restless on the days before the invasion into the teeth of Hitler’s heavily fortified territory along the coast of France. With days of weather woes threatening the invasion, Eisenhower’s contemplation about what to do had finally given way on June 5 with his order to go forward with Operation Overlord.

On the eve of the 80th anniversary of those fateful landings, tens of thousands of Allied troops landed across five beaches on the French coastline, hallowed spots of sand known as Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah. With the combination of 1,200 paratroopers dropping in behind enemy lines and a fierce combination of aerial assault and naval firepower, the greatest invasion in the history of the world was underway with freedom for millions and the end of Nazi tyranny hanging in the balance.

A graphic showing the which countries invaded where on D-Day.
On the eve of the 80th anniversary of those fateful landings, tens of thousands of Allied troops landed across five beaches on the French coastline, hallowed spots of sand known as Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah. (Graphic courtesy of shutterstock.com)

As someone who grew up in the historical shadow of Ike, and one who minored in American history in college, that’s all heady stuff of legend that I think about often as I drive by the nearby monument to Ike and consider the courageous men from the Greatest Generation who sacrificed so much.

Today, as I was considering all of that, I learned something I didn’t know however: the role, albeit minor, that fly fishing played in the D-Day invasion. 

That all started as I read the X (formerly Twitter) social media post by World War II historian and journalist Alex Kershaw, a New York Times best-selling author who wrote The Bedford Boys, The Longest Winter, and The Liberator

With his June 5, 2024 post, Kershaw chronicled one of history’s most famous moments as Ike traveled to the invasion’s launching point hours before it all began. “Ike is headed to meet with the 101st Airborne to wish them luck,” wrote Kershaw. “He has been warned that more than two-thirds will be killed or wounded within 24 hours.”

The burden of command must have been unthinkable for Ike, with those hours on June 5 described in detail by the Eisenhower Foundation: “Ike tried to relax. He played checkers, met with a reporter, and wrote a message taking full responsibility in case Overlord should fail. He also visited with paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division as they were preparing to board C-47s. Returning to his trailer—unable to sleep—he smoked, drank black coffee, and read westerns. He had launched the mightiest military campaign known to mankind; nothing could stop it now.”

As a student of Ike’s life, I was well aware of that moment and of the famous photograph from the National Archives that shows Eisenhower talking with the Screaming Eagles paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division, and his admonition to them of “Nothing less than full victory!” as he gave the “Order of the Day.”

According to most history books and stories about the pivotal moment, that’s the statement attributed to Ike as he sent the troops off. But while I thought I knew about that famed moment, photograph, and speech, today I discovered that perhaps it wasn’t exactly as I had read about in the history books.

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That discovery started as I read a response to Keshaw’s tweet, one from retired educator Nancy Baron. In her response, she dispelled what I and many others thought they knew about that moment.

“Here is Ike with the 101st Airborne b4 they left,” she wrote in her X post. “This photo was in the history book I taught from, caption said he was giving instructions. Look at his right hand. He was talking to them about fly fishing. The guy standing behind in the same cap was my uncle, 19yo, Ike’s driver.”

Baron added even more context as she continued: “2 years after Ike became president, my uncle was elected to the House from So IL, a Dem. Ike called him and said, I want a hi-way system like the Autobahn. My uncle Ken was a major writer of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. He got it through the House, LBJ through the Senate.”

That sent me to digging a little bit more, and after some online researching, I soon discovered confirmation about Kenneth J. Gray’s driving Ike around before the battle: “According to the authors of Pass the Plate, a 2009 biography of Gray, he was at the Greenham Common air base in June, 1944 and was assigned as Dwight D. Eisenhower's driver when Eisenhower met with Company E, 502nd Infantry Regiment shortly before the unit boarded planes and departed for the assault on Normandy. The authors also indicate that Gray can be seen in the well-known photo of Eisenhower speaking with soldiers including First Lieutenant Wallace C. Strobel.”

With the plot thickening, all that was left at that point was to see if there was any record of the contents of Ike’s speech to the paratroopers and that it was about, or at least contained some mentions of, fly fishing.

A black-and-white photo of U.S. troops landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day.
World War II, Official U.S. Coast Guard photograh of American soldiers leaving an LCT to invade Omaha Beach on D-Day, 1944. (Photo courtesy of shutterstock.com)

Soon, I was reading through an American Heritage magazine story printed in April 1990, one that was titled "What Ike Really Said." 

The story hooked me quickly with the lines "The caption always reads that he is urging his paratroopers 'on to total victory.' But to this day what really occurred and what was really said is still known only to the men with whom he was talking."

One of those men was Lt. Wallace C. Strobel, the paratrooper wearing a #23 card around his neck and the man being addressed by Eisenhower as his right hand resembled the forward motion of the fly casting stroke, something that would have made the late Lefty Kreh—himself a World War II veteran—proud indeed.

According to the American Heritage story, Ike's words to that solider were not "...total victory," as might be expected before one of the war’s greatest battles, but rather, "What’s your name, lieutenant," and "Where are you from?”

On the eve of modern history's greatest battle and having been addressed by one of the modern world's most important and powerful leaders, the soldier responded.

“Strobel” and “Michigan, sir,” were the replies" reports the American Heritage story. "Ike recalled in some detail the spectacular fishing he had enjoyed there. Then, quickly, he moved on, the photographers having captured the exchange on film."

A short while later, the paratroopers were loaded into their planes, the skies filled with the sound of aircraft motors, and the great Normandy invasion was underway.

How did the author of the American Heritage story know exactly what it was that Eisenhower and the young soldier had discussed, and that it revolved around the fabulous trout fishing in Michigan?

"Over the years the photograph has found its way into countless publications about World War II, and almost always the caption has read 'Ike urging his troops on to total victory,'" wrote the author.

"I have to smile along with the others who were there because we all know what was really said. You see, I was that Number 23."

While Strobel's quote mentions fishing, but not necessarily fly fishing, is that indeed the topic of Eisenhower's last moment speech to the troops before the amphibious assault began?

According to the American Museum of Fly Fishing (AMFF), it probably was.

First, in a story entitled "Another Look: A D-Day Casting Demonstration?" by John Mundt, there was more from Strobel about that day as Mundt examined resources that included an article Strobel had written for the Eisenhower Birthplace State Historical Park.

"The picture was taken at Greenham Common Airfield in England about 8:30 p.m. on June 5, 1944," said Strobel in that article. "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."

Mundt's conclusion in his AMFF story is that with the world at war, and the burden of command weighing heavily on Eisenhower as he sent soldiers into one of history's fiercest and most costly battles, the peaceful pastime of fly fishing played a role, albeit a brief and minor one, on June 5, 1944.

"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," wrote Mundt. "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."

A black-and-white photo of Omaha Beach after D-Day.
Omaha Beach after D-Day. Protected by barrage balloons, ships delivered trucks loaded with supplies. June 7-10, 1944, World War 2. Normandy, France, World War 2. (Photo courtesy of shutterstock.com)

Contained in the contents of that AMFF online story, there are photographs of Eisenhower's Hardy St. George fly reel given to him by the state of Vermont, an Orvis Manchester bamboo rod given to him by his wife Mamie, and a photograph of Ike casting a fly rod on Maine's Magalloway River in 1955, scarcely more than a decade after he gave the order to go to battle on one of history's most infamous days.

In that photograph, Ike has a smile on his face as he looks to catch something, perhaps a Maine brook trout, under the tutelage of guide Don Cameron.

He seems at peace in that moment as the chaos of war erupted into the D-Day invasion and its hellacious landscape.

Thank you Ike, thank you Lt. Stroebel, and rest in peace to those brave souls who helped liberate Europe after rushing the sands of Normandy. As we wade into our streams this summer, we'll never forget or take your sacrifice for granted because we’re forever in your debt.


Lynn Burkhead is a senior digital editor with Outdoor Sportsman Group.




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