By MeLinda Schnyder
The Eisenhower statue at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home
All photos courtesy of The Eisenhower Presidential Library
When visitors to the Eisenhower Presidential Museum stand next to the 10-foot-long Sheraton-style pedestal table used by Allied commanders in Southern England during World War II, they can feel overwhelmed imagining the pressure General Dwight D. Eisenhower faced while sitting at what is now known as the D-Day planning table. As Supreme Allied Commander, Eisenhower met with top aides, commanders and his weather team twice daily at this table in the days leading up to the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. They voiced opinions, expressed fears, and debated every aspect of sending more than 150,000 men, some 12,000 aircraft and nearly 7,000 sea vessels in the surprise attack on German-occupied France.
Historic photo of General Eisenhower talking with soldiers
There were only a few days each month to capitalize on the ideal low tidal and bright lunar conditions needed for a successful coastal invasion. With a window of June 5, 6 and 7, they had to monitor the weather closely. Forecasts called for stormy weather on June 5 followed by 36 hours of clearer skies and lighter winds starting June 6. Was the forecast accurate? Should they go now or wait?
“If they missed that window, it was going to be at least another two weeks,” says Tim Rives, deputy director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas. “And on that date two weeks later, there was a massive storm, one of the worst storms in English Channel history. It’s really an imponderable, but how would it have changed the course of history had they waited?”
Other exclusive artifacts from this decisive moment in world history are on display in the hometown of Eisenhower, who went on to become the country’s 34th president. In addition to D-Day memorabilia, the museum displays manuscripts, photographs, automobiles, fine art and many other relics among its 36,000 items.
Abilene, a community with 6,500 residents in north-central Kansas’ Smoky Hill River Valley, was named to Smithsonian magazine’s 2017 list of 20 small U.S. towns to visit for its cultural and historical gems. In addition to the Eisenhower legacy, Abilene has a proud Western heritage from its role as the end of the 1,000-mile Chisholm Trail.
President Eisenhower’s boyhood home
Five museums are within a four-block area, including the town’s prize attraction: the Eisenhower Presidential Museum. The Eisenhower Foundation formed in 1945 to create a memorial to the nation’s first five-star general. His boyhood home opened to the public in 1947 and the museum in 1954, on the first occasion of Veterans Day (President Eisenhower officially changed the name of the holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day). Ike served as president from 1953 to 1961, and the Eisenhower Presidential Library opened in 1962.
Today, the Eisenhower Center is a campus with five buildings within walking distance of one another, all open to the public: the Presidential Museum, the Presidential Library, Eisenhower’s boyhood home, a visitors center, and the Place of Meditation, where President Eisenhower and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower are buried. After a 12-month closure for an extensive reformat of the interior space, the Eisenhower Presidential Museum will reopen this June.
The museum’s revised storyline will include twice the space previously devoted to the Eisenhower presidency, and a significant portion of the 25,000 square feet of exhibition space will cover World War II, including about one-quarter of the museum devoted to D-Day. Along with the planning table and 10 of its accompanying chairs, this section will showcase the original blue rug on which Eisenhower was known to pace and an “in case of failure” note he scribbled after making the monumental decision to launch the D-Day campaign. Ike wrote similar notes before all major operations. Intended to be used as a brief statement to the public, this one asked that all blame for a failed attack be aimed at him.
Eisenhower's Order of the Day to the Allied Expeditionary Force
The redesign also incorporates new research and multimedia features in a way that honors the partnership and contributions of Ike and Mamie, says Dawn Hammatt, director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.
“His lifespan ran from cowboys to astronauts, and his presidency was incredibly important to the nation at a moment when we were really trying to figure out what our future was,” Hammatt says. “He was exactly the man we needed exactly when we needed him.”
The new exhibit galleries will open in conjunction with a D-Day 75th commemoration week, beginning June 1. Featuring free activities for all ages, events range from outdoor concerts to a three-day symposium to a wreath-laying Day of Remembrance on June 6. At press time, details were still being finalized; check dwightdeisenhower.com for updates.
More D-Day Commemorations:
Visit the following websites for details on more 75th-anniversary D-Day observances.
Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
National World War II Memorial
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of AAA World.
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