Alumnus statesman’s diary captures unfolding of D-Day invasion

Henry Lewis Stimson
Henry Lewis Stimson around 1944 (Photo credit: Yousuf Karsh [1908-2002], Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau)

U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, 1888 B.A., spent the better part of his day on June 5, 1944 mediating a dilemma concerning the American Red Cross and the Army Emergency Relief, a nonprofit agency established during World War II to aid U.S. military personnel and their families.

In a lengthy diary entry, Stimson provided detailed accounts of two meetings he had led on the thorny matter, concluding that a “full day” had resulted in “a good deal of progress.” He waited until the entry’s third page to mention an unrelated development of historic proportions.

Tonight is the eve of the great occasion — OVERLORD will be on this coming night,” he recorded in the diary, using the code name for the allied invasion of Normandy. D-Day, history’s largest seaborne invasion, would soon commence.

Stimson had been a forceful advocate for the cross-channel invasion of German-occupied France, which occurred 75 years ago this week. He was instrumental in selling the invasion plan to a reluctant British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had preferred a strategy of assaulting the “soft underbelly” of Nazi-dominated Europe from the Mediterranean.

Stimson’s papers, including the extensive and candid diaries, are housed at the Yale University Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Department. His diaries, which span his public career from 1904 to 1945 and are accessible on microfilm, provide insight into the veteran statesman’s thoughts as one of the most complex and consequential military operations in world history unfolded.

According to the diary, which he dictated in the evenings, Stimson spent the evening of June 5 with his wife, Mabel, at Woodley, the couple’s mansion in Washington, D.C., thinking of “the thousands of young men who are keenly on their toes in Great Britain at this time facing the adventure of their lives and perhaps their death. It is one of the great crises of the world, perhaps the greatest and sharpest crisis that the world has ever had, and it all has focused together on tonight.”

He ends the entry by noting his successful effort the previous year to persuade President Franklin Roosevelt to insist that the United States, not Great Britain, command the invasion.

If that step hadn’t been taken, we should not now be facing the invasion, for the British I verily believe would not have done it or not until it was too late,” he said.  

A graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School, Stimson had been a successful corporate lawyer and a partner at the prestigious Wall Street law firm of Root and Clarke. A Republican, he lost the 1910 race for governor of New York. He served as secretary of war under President William Howard Taft, 1878 B.A., from May 1911 to March 1913, and as secretary of state under President Herbert Hoover from March 1929 to March 1933.

In June 1940 — as the Wehrmacht overran France — Roosevelt asked Stimson to serve a second stint as secretary of war, which would lend the president’s cabinet a sheen of bipartisan unity as war beckoned. The Senate confirmed Stimson’s nomination in July and he served in the role through the war’s end, overseeing America’s unprecedented military mobilization and playing an important role in several major events, including the Japanese American internment, the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, and the destruction of Nazi Germany. 

In his diary entry for D-Day, June 6, 1944, Stimson reported that he went to bed with a “radio set” on his nightstand so that he could stay informed on the progress of the invasion. He was able to fall asleep despite the gravity of events in Normandy.

After a good sleep I woke up at about 4 o’clock and turned on the radio just in time to hear a correspondent telling how he had been over to France in the first wave of parachutes, had witnessed the jumps and had returned to England and written his article which he then gave us over the radio,” he said. “It was very clear in transmission and it seemed wonderful to hear this story immediately after the event had happened.”

He listened to the radio coverage with his wife for an hour and then caught a short nap before it was time to start the day, according to his diary.

The landing seems to have gone pretty well, better than we expected, though of course the real evidence of what has happened is very meager yet,” he said. “The papers are full of stories, the commentators are full of tales also but they are all things which have come either by inference or from the German radio itself.”

Stimson, who was 76 years old, mentioned that he got in a “snappy game” of deck tennis — a game that involves tossing a rubber ring back-and-forth over a net. His diaries show that he was committed to exercising.

He reported receiving “two or three short telegrams” from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, with news that operations on the attack’s eastern wing — composed mainly of British forces — had “passed off satisfactorily” and that the troops had “penetrated several miles inland” with relatively light losses.  

He had heard little direct news from the American land forces, but expressed hope that the American paratroopers “seem to have landed safely” and had “probably secured the causeways” from the beaches to inland areas. At the end of the day’s account, Stimson commented on the media’s enterprising efforts to report news from the war zone.

[W]hile the official information has been meager, the whole country has been swamped with the greatest volume of reporters’ reports and commentators’ reports on the radio that we have ever had,” he said. “Never has any great operation been reported in the detailed way from people right on the ground, so far as they could be, as this one.

As a result, everybody has been pretty cheerful for our boys have certainly done well so far as we can tell on the information that’s been given,” Stimson noted.

Stimson began his entry for June 7 by noting the anniversary of a personal tragedy.

Sixty-eight years ago today my mother died and now that Nan [his younger sister and only sibling] is gone there is no one left except myself to remember it,” said Stimson, who lost his mother, Candace Stimson, when he was 8 years old.

He reported that he had spent an hour with General George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the United States Army, and the Operations and Intelligence staff and that  “every communiqué that came in was plotted on my map and we went over it carefully.”

He recorded no updates on the situation of the American landing forces in Normandy. He went for a horseback ride in the afternoon. That evening, he attended a “stag dinner”— Eleanor Roosevelt being the only woman present — at the White House in honor of Prime Minister Stanislaw Mikolajczyk of Poland.

I had hesitated very much about going to the dinner but afterwards I was very glad I did,” he said. “I haven’t been to any of them, for a long time and I enjoyed very much meeting again and talking with some of the people who were there.”

On June 8, Stimson noted that Marshall had left for England to be closer to the events in France. He reported receiving a telegram from Eisenhower in the afternoon concerning the status of the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions of the U.S. Army’s V Corps, which had led the landing on Omaha Beach.

The Corps has had a very tough time,” he said, explaining that foul weather had complicated the landing and that a German division was maneuvering at the beachhead just as U.S. forces were scheduled to come ashore. American forces suffered about 2,400 casualties during the assault on Omaha Beach, which was the costliest of the D-Day operations.

But they have weathered it and they have gotten ashore, probably with very serious losses; and now, although there has been a delay owing to the weather in getting the equipment ashore, they are now making it up because the weather has improved a little,” he said. “Altogether it has been a worrisome day in respect to the operations in France.”

After receiving the telegram, Stimson called Roosevelt, and discovering that the president had not seen it, provided him the “substance of the situation.”

His entry on June 9 offers a sense of the multiple quandaries Stimson dealt with stateside as allied forces battled to secure a foothold in France. He described a “bombshell” concerning an appropriations bill that the U.S. Senate was about to consider. The bill included funding related to the S-1 Committee, which was managing the top-secret development of the atomic bomb. Stimson needed to ensure that the Senate would approve the appropriations bill without any public discussion of the highly sensitive funding.

In the same entry, he described several issues that arose during a cabinet meeting, including a complaint from Postmaster General Frank Walker that a backlog of the U.S. Army’s mail had accumulated during the invasion and was causing a “great embarrassment.”

On the following Monday, June 12, Stimson confided to his diary that it was clear the American forces had engaged in a “desperate fight” on Omaha Beach. He had watched a newsreel of combat footage from the Normandy beaches.

It was by far the most clear and exciting war news reel I have seen,” he said. “It showed the part of the beach where the crisis occurred and showed our troops pinned under the low cliff with the tide reaching their feet, and bullets sweeping along the side of the cliff from enfilading German artillery posts. It showed the second wave arriving and being met by machine gun fire which was felling the men as they came through the water onto the beach.”

More than 156,000 allied personnel landed in Normandy on D-Day. The allies suffered about 10,000 casualties over the course of the day, including more than 4,000 confirmed dead. By June 30, more than 850,000 personnel and 148,000 vehicles had landed on the 50-mile stretch of coastline that formed the allies’ foothold in Normandy. 

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548