John S.D. Eisenhower Part II
Immediately upon his graduation from West Point on June 6, 1944, John Eisenhower sailed for Scotland aboard the SS Queen Mary and a week later was in London to meet his famous father for the first time in many months. While other members of his graduating class spent their leave time Stateside before attending basic training, John was soon in Normandy with Ike to meet Gen. Bernard Montgomery, neither the first nor the last of the many famous people he came to know during his lifetime.
His presence with his father was at the instigation of Army Chief of Staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, who believed John would be helpful to relieve the pressure Ike was under in commanding the invasion of Normandy and the subsequent campaign in France.
In his memoir John mentions that despite their father-son relationship, he was always conscious that he was a very junior officer in a rarified atmosphere of senior officers.
It was the beginning of a military career that never permitted him to forget that his name was Eisenhower. After infantry training and an assignment to an infantry division at Fort Benning, Georgia, his desire to serve a rifle platoon leader with his unit when it deployed to France in early 1945 was soon quashed when Omar Bradley correctly deemed it too dangerous for the son the supreme Allied commander to be serving at the front where he might be captured.
When I visited John while researching my biography of his father, he took me into his office and pointed to a photograph taken with Ike in the winter of 1952 in Korea. When he campaigned for president, Eisenhower vowed that if he won he would go to Korea, which he did. The photo depicted father and son against a backdrop of mountains and snow.
The photo of the two men was illustrative of the problems John faced throughout his professional life. As he wrote in an op-ed piece the New York Times in 2008 titled “Presidential Children Don’t Belong in Battle”:
In the summer of 1952, when I was 30, the Army assigned me to an infantry unit fighting in Korea … My father had become the Republican presidential nominee. As an ambitious young major, I refused any offers for other assignments. Avoiding combat duty was and is an unforgivable sin for a professional soldier.
As the time for my deployment approached, I discussed my intentions with my father … My father, as a professional officer himself, understood and accepted it. However, he had a firm condition: under no circumstances must I ever be captured. He would accept the risk of my being killed or wounded, but if the Chinese Communists or North Koreans ever took me prisoner, and threatened blackmail, he could be forced to resign the presidency. I agreed to that condition wholeheartedly. I would take my life before being captured.
On looking back through the years, however, I now feel that I was being unfair and selfish and that my father was being far too conciliatory in giving me such permission. On the other hand, I don’t think that the Army should ever have given me an option in the matter.
Nor was Korea the only occasion when a conflict ensued between his career and duty to his father. John was called to serve at the White House to advise on national security during Ike’s second term and later, in 1961, when his father began writing his presidential memoirs, John was tapped to help oversee the project. After two years in a leave-without-pay status, John resigned from the Army with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He would eventually attain the rank of brigadier general in the Army Reserve.
From his days at West Point, John Eisenhower always aspired to be a writer and in the years after his military service he began what would become an exceptionally successful writing career.
John began researching the Battle of the Bulge that he later turned into a landmark book called The Bitter Woods, which was published in 1969.
In The Bitter Woods, an account of the Battle of the Bulge, he tells a powerful story of the one of the key battles of World War II fought by the Western Allies in December 1944 and January 1945 in the frozen hell of the Ardennes Forest.
The Bitter Woods is remarkable for a number of reasons, but primarily as a superb work of narrative history. As a former career soldier, John Eisenhower had a superb understanding of the terrain, of history, the key players, as well as a deep understanding of the tactics and strategy employed on both sides. Moreover, there is no favoritism toward his famous father. He tells the story frankly and where criticism is warranted, without bias.
As I wrote in Armchair General in 2007, I found the book so fascinating that I purchased a detailed Michelin map of the Ardennes to better follow the Eisenhower’s descriptions. What makes this book special is the author’s description of the people who drive the story. It takes a great writer to make the reader feel as if he or she is actually present and experiencing the tension, the terrible cold, and the fighting. In one remarkable scene, during the crucial battle for St.-Vith, the two opposing commanders, Brig. Gen. Bruce C. Clarke and Gen. Hasso von Manteuffel, appear on the same ice covered road directing traffic on opposite sides of St.-Vith the evening of December 17, 1944.
Others have praised the book. Historian Stephen Ambrose has written: “Like his father, John Eisenhower knows how to get to the heart of the matter. The Bitter Woods will be read so long as the Republic lasts.” S.L.A. Marshall likewise praised it in Life magazine: “John S.D. Eisenhower writes with power. His imagination flames and his prose flows. His first work leaves no doubt that he is a military historian born.”
And this comment from Col. Jerry Morelock, the editor-in-chief of Armchair General: “John Eisenhower’s The Bitter Woods remains ‘the’ classic account of the greatest battle fought by GIs in World War II. Reading it helped spark my own early interest in the Battle of the Bulge, made me want to learn more about the men who led this monumental struggle, and really started me on a path that eventually led to my first book, Generals of the Ardennes, my PhD dissertation and numerous articles on various aspects of the battle. Later, when I commanded my own battalion in Germany, I led my battalion’s officers on a tour of the Ardennes, The Bitter Woods in hand as we walked the actual ground the GIs in the book fought over. The Bitter Woods helped to start me on a journey that shows no sign of ending.”
During his distinguished writing career, John Eisenhower wrote or co-authored nineteen books. In addition to his acclaimed The Bitter Woods, demonstrated his immense talent by writing about a variety of subjects that included a thoroughly engaging memoir (Strictly Personal), World War I (Yanks: The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I), a history of the World War II alliance (Allies), a superb biography of Zachary Taylor, and Teddy Roosevelt and Leonard Wood: Partners in Command, and a history of the 1846-48 war with Mexico titled So Far From God.
John Eisenhower’s life was a record of great accomplishment: soldier, lecturer, military historian, biographer, instructor at West Point, book editor, and U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg (appointed by Pres. Richard Nixon to serve near the scene of the infamous campaign that he had written about so eloquently).
As Pres. Obama noted of his passing: “He grew up the son of an American hero, but emerged a great American in his own right – a brave soldier who served in World War II, the Korean War, and ultimately retired with the rank of Brigadier General, an accomplished writer and historian, a talented diplomat. His was a big and quintessentially American life – one of patriotism and character, learning and teaching, and a deep and abiding sense of service to his country.”
A fitting tribute to a great American.