This story was originally published in The World-Herald on Nov. 9, 2008.
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OMAHA BEACH: PURSUING THE MYSTERY
Typical of so many soldiers of his generation, Gayle Eyler never spoke much about his World War II Army days.
A mention that he was part of the Normandy invasion and a brief story of “shaking in my boots’’ when strafed by a Nazi warplane were about all his family could ever coax out of him.
Eyler’s children assumed his stories and memories had passed into history when the longtime Omaha city building inspector died of cancer in 2003.
But sifting through the scattered papers Eyler left in his Papillion apartment, his son found a written account of Eyler’s military service that was surprising, intriguing — and maybe historically significant.
It could provide an answer to a mystery that has long stumped historians here and elsewhere: how a modest landlocked city on the Plains came to have its name attached to the bloodiest beach — Omaha — of the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion.
Written by hand and tucked into a spiral notebook, Eyler’s account says he served as a carpenter on the headquarters staff of U.S. Gen. Omar Bradley.
As part of those duties, Eyler had helped convert an apartment building in central London into a secret U.S. Army headquarters for the invasion to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany.
Later in that same headquarters, Bradley code-named one of the two U.S. landing areas in Normandy as Omaha Beach in his honor, Eyler wrote, in recognition of his hard work “getting the place ready in a hurry.’’
The second U.S. beachhead, Eyler wrote, was similarly designated Utah for another carpenter on Bradley’s staff — a man who hailed from Provo, Utah.
More than six decades later, it is probably impossible to prove the validity of Eyler’s account. But some history detective work by The World-Herald has confirmed the accuracy of many of his recollections.
Army records show that Eyler did serve as a specialist in the headquarters company of Bradley’s First Army Group. Interviews also indicate that Eyler’s account of Bradley’s D-Day headquarters in London and how they were set up is historically accurate.
And a once-secret Army record appears to indicate the code names for the beaches did, indeed, originate within Bradley’s headquarters.
The World-Herald was not able to find any details about the Utah soldier Eyler mentioned in his account.
One intriguing aspect of Eyler’s account is that it offers an explanation for how both U.S. invasion beaches got their names. As with the Omaha code name, the origin for Utah Beach had long been lost to history.
After reviewing Eyler’s account, one of the Army’s chief historians didn’t dismiss it. Naming the beaches probably did come from something as random as the hometowns of carpenters. That’s the way such things typically happened, he said.
“It all makes sense,’’ said Conrad Crane, history director at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. “You could be on to something.’’
As Gayle Eyler writes it, his Army career began modestly enough.
He was first assigned in 1943 to a massive tent city in England, repairing bunks for the thousands of soldiers gathering for the battle to liberate Europe. But that all changed when he was singled out one day by a redhaired captain.
“(He) told me a new outfit was starting up down on the coast,’’ Eyler wrote. “And they needed a carpenter.’’
He received his orders, packed his bag and boarded a train. He didn’t know where he was going.
He ended up in London, where a jeep took him to a block-long town house apartment building near Hyde Park. It was heavily guarded by MPs.
He was issued a Class A pass, with some level of security clearance, and reported to a Maj. Masso. He was introduced to a buck sergeant named “Sam,’’ and the two set up a carpentry shop in the town house basement.
Writing more than a half-century later, Eyler did not remember his coworker’s full name, and his use of quotation marks around “Sam’’ suggests it could have been a nickname. But he recalled that “Sam’’ was an ItalianAmerican from Provo whose family grew cherries.
Eyler said the men were instructed to knock out the walls between the apartments, transforming the building into a complex of big map rooms. He hadn’t known it at first, but they were setting up the Army’s invasion headquarters.
It was hard work. After interior walls were knocked out, the men covered the remaining walls with plywood, on which were hung the maps of the French coastline and Europe used to plot the invasion.
At one point, the building was hit by a German firebomb, requiring Eyler and Sam to make some repairs.
Though the building was Bradley’s headquarters, all the top generals — including Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces — and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery frequently were there. Eyler said he once saw Gen. George Patton, too.
The generals would have coffee, Eyler wrote, and he and Sam sometimes were invited to join them.
During one of those idle chats, Eyler wrote, the generals asked where the carpenters were from. He said those hometowns became relevant during a subsequent discussion.
“We were resting & having coffee with ‘Ike,’ Bradley & more one morning,’’ Eyler wrote. “They were discussing landing areas on the French coast and what to name them.’’ Then, Eyler wrote, Bradley suggested Omaha and Utah for the U.S. beaches, recognizing his carpenters.
When planning was complete, Bradley, Eyler and the rest of the headquarters staff left London for Southampton, to stage for the historic landings.
When D-Day dawned June 6, 1944, and U.S. soldiers — at horrific cost — stormed Omaha Beach, Eyler was just offshore aboard Bradley’s flagship, the cruiser Augusta. Days later, Eyler landed on the beach that bore the name of his hometown.
Eyler said he and other members of the headquarters company accompanied Bradley across Europe — from Normandy to northern France, across the Ardennes and into Germany. They made Paris the day after liberation, he said, and got within 50 miles of Berlin.
As Bradley’s carpenter, Eyler said, he made a foldable, one-hole toilet for the general. It was one of the first things that went up wherever they established their mobile headquarters.
Bradley had a personal driver who took care of his uniforms and also cared for two fox terriers the general took with him all across Europe.
The dogs, Eyler wrote, were named Omaha and Utah.
The Gayle Eyler story actually begins not in Omaha but in Bartlett, Iowa, a farming town on the Missouri River about 25 miles south of Omaha.
After graduating from Bartlett’s tiny, now-defunct high school, Eyler moved to Omaha to take a job as a carpenter for the Burlington railroad. Living out of a bunk car in Omaha, he and his crew repaired bridges on the line south of Omaha.
But around the world, war was raging. In May 1943, Eyler received his draft notice and began a three-year Army odyssey.
After the war, he returned to Omaha. He first found work as a commercial carpenter and then later took a job as a City of Omaha housing inspector. He rose to the post of chief housing inspector, retiring in the 1970s after 25 years.
Along the way he married, raised two sons and later divorced. During retirement, he was active as a volunteer at the Veterans Hospital in Omaha, running a woodworking shop for rehabilitating veterans.
While proud to be a World War II veteran, Eyler never told his family much about his war days. His son Jim Eyler of La Mesa, California, could recall little more than the strafing story.
Sometime in 2001, Jim Eyler’s son was working on a school paper in which he was supposed to write about a member of his family, and the boy began asking about his grandfather’s World War II service. Jim Eyler suggested that his father take the time to write about it.
It wasn’t long after that Gayle Eyler learned he had cancer. And on May 27, 2003, about a week before the 59th anniversary of the D-Day landings, he died.
The next day, Jim Eyler and his brother, Bob, went to their father’s apartment to begin packing away his life. Jim Eyler opened a notebook. Out fell six pages of writing on lined paper, undated and in his father’s hand.
After quickly reading it, Jim Eyler incredulously handed it to his brother.
“You aren’t going to believe this,’’ he said.
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Three years ago, Jim Eyler brought his father’s account to The World-Herald.
So how do you go about verifying events claimed to have taken place more than six decades ago? The newspaper started with archival records.
Discharge papers from a military records center in St. Louis confirm that Gayle Eyler was among the “special troops’’ assigned to Bradley’s headquarters and that carpentry was his craft. Military histories shed little light on how the beaches got their names. And, unfortunately, there is no indication that Bradley was ever asked about the beach names before he died in 1981.
Lt. Col. Chester Hansen, a top aide to Bradley who may be the last surviving member of the invasion staff, doesn’t remember how the names were chosen. But after hearing Eyler’s account, Hansen has little doubt the Omaha soldier was part of Bradley’s London headquarters.
Hansen said the headquarters company, numbering more than 200 men, included the clerks, cooks, drivers, mechanics and, yes, carpenters who supported Bradley’s command.
“Headquarters company kept things going,’’ Hansen said.
The headquarters for Bradley’s First Army Group were set up in London’s Bryanston Square, Hansen said, just as Eyler described. A row of brownstone town houses was converted into offices, and then 4-by-8 sheets of plywood were attached to the walls to hold the maps. As Eyler described, the headquarters were hit by an incendiary bomb, Hansen said.
And just as Eyler described, Hansen said, Eisenhower and British commander Montgomery were frequent visitors to Bradley’s headquarters, and Patton made occasional visits.
As to the enlisted man’s account about sharing coffee and doughnuts with Bradley and other top officers, Hansen doesn’t find that hard to swallow. He said there’s a reason reporters at the time labeled the unpretentious commander from western Missouri as “a GI’s general.’’
“Sure, he would have coffee with a carpenter,’’ Hansen said.
Hansen said he would find it less believable that Bradley would talk about code names when a carpenter was around. But he didn’t rule it out. He said all headquarters personnel had security clearances, and Bradley would have been comfortable around the carpenters.
Yes, Bradley did acquire two dogs in London that he named Omaha and Utah, though it was unclear which came first: the dogs or the invasion. Still, Hansen said, he doesn’t know if Eyler’s beach-naming account is true.
The World-Herald dug deeper, making inquiries to the National Archives in Washington.
Archivists found a document issued by Bradley’s headquarters labeled “Amendment No. 1’’ to the D-Day invasion plan.
The March 3, 1944, document indicates that all references to beaches “X” or “Xray’’ and “Y’’ or “Yoke’’ were being changed to “Utah” and “Omaha.”
While not indicating how the name change occurred, the document seems solid evidence that the names of the beaches did originate — as Eyler wrote — in Bradley’s headquarters. But the archivists also found a reference in a 1991 World War II encyclopedia that mentions another possible source.
“World War II: America at War’’ credits the Omaha Beach name to Navy Vice Admiral Alan Kirk, who was responsible for the armada of ships that transported soldiers to the invasion beaches. Kirk suggested Omaha and Oregon, the book says, with the latter name later changed to Utah.
The book’s authors could not recall the source of that information. Archivists for the Naval Historical Center in Washington found no reference to beach names in any of Kirk’s papers.
However, they said, the beach names seem to correspond with the code names of the naval task forces assigned to the beaches: Force O for Omaha and Force U for Utah. A Navy historian said that suggests the beach names could have been derived from the letter designations of the task forces.
Crane, the Army historian, said he’s more inclined to believe the designations of the naval forces came from the names of the beaches, not vice versa.
One thing that would lend more credence to Eyler’s account would be if the Utah soldier could be located.
Despite a concerted effort over many months to find him, through local and state historians in Utah and Army personnel records in St. Louis, The World-Herald was not able to identify “Sam.’’
The search for “Sam’’ did reveal that there once was a sizable enclave of families, some of them Italian, who grew cherries in the mountain foothills near Provo. Given Eyler’s Iowa and Nebraska roots, that’s a fact he is not likely to have known unless he knew someone from the area.
“It was a lovely fruit area, and they raised a lot of cherries,’’ said local historian Robert Carter. But those families are gone, he said, the orchards displaced by suburban development.
One aspect of Eyler’s account of “Sam’’ doesn’t check out. He recalled that the Utah soldier was the brother-in-law of a captain who headed their unit. But that captain’s family could recall no relatives serving with him.
If Sam existed, there’s no evidence he left behind a tale similar to Eyler’s. Utah historians say they have no idea how Utah Beach got its name.
Crane, the Army historian, said it’s not surprising Eyler’s account can’t be definitively proved more than half a century after the events. Interpreting history, he said, is often like matching points on a fingerprint. The more matches, the more believable the account.
Many facts in Eyler’s story do match, Crane said. Future historians may be able to build on Eyler’s account. Even if Eyler’s story is not quite ready for the history books, Crane said, it’s worthy of being told.
Jim Eyler said that at the rate his father’s generation is dying, the whole story, unfortunately, may never be known.
“This may be as close to the names of these beaches as we’ll ever get.’’
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