Westerville News & Public Opinion

70th anniversary of invasion

Westerville's Ernsberger helped set date for D-Day

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When June 6 rolls around each year, many take a moment to remember those who were lost as part of D-Day, the largest seaborne invasion in history and one of the pivotal battles of World War II.

Tomorrow marks the 70th anniversary of the invasion.

But for longtime Westerville resident Warren "Ernie" Ernsberger, the day brings back memories of being enveloped in a secret mission to choose the day for the attack, when as a young man his knowledge of weather forecasting brought him into the company of giants.

In the spring of 1944, Ernsberger was a 22-year-old lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Forces, stationed with the Royal Air Force at Medmenham British Intelligence General Headquarters, about 40 miles outside London.

He had enlisted as a 21-year-old meteorology cadet after attending meteorology school at UCLA for nine months.

When he enlisted, he never anticipated much of a weighty job to do the war.

"I thought, 'In this job, I'll probably be back of the lines, if anything. Or stuck in an airport somewhere,' " Ernsberger said last week.

Near the end of May 1944, Ernsberger received a call that told him he was to meet with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and a secret committee in London. Eisenhower had been appointed Supreme Commander of Allied Forces at the time.

A car deployed straight from London picked Ernsberger up shortly after the call, and took him to a meeting that he said was filled with generals and colonels, including Eisenhower, George S. Patton and Omar Bradley, all key American military leaders in World War II and the Normandy invasion. Ernsberger was immediately intimidated by his surroundings.

"When I think back, it scares the hell out of me," he said. "I was 23. I had a lot of life experience at that point, but not that much life experience. ... I thought, 'What the hell am I doing here?' I was in a state of shock at that point."

But Ernsberger did belong in the room, and his meteorology experience gave him an important role in planning the attack.

After the committee narrowed down the options of locations on the Normandy beaches, Ernsberger was given the task of determining when it would be best to carry out the attack based on weather patterns, cloud cover and the tide.

It was even more obvious that he was as important as anyone else in the room when Bradley turned to him and said, "At this table, you're a general, too," he said.

Ernsberger worked tirelessly for the next several days, and got daily reports from pilots flying from the United States to London who had observed weather movements. After careful deliberation, he chose June 6 as the optimal time, citing the correct weather and the high tide that would allow allied boats to approach as close as possible, and give paratroopers the correct conditions above.

When he presented his findings, Eisenhower addressed him at the very beginning of the meeting, telling him, "Since you have the most important report today, you can start."

But even at that point, Ernsberger didn't realize the importance of his work. He said Eisenhower called him days later, waking him up from a dead sleep to verify the forecast was still accurate and that no changes needed to be made.

Out of instinct, Ernsberger quickly replied that everything was unchanged.

"I had been sleeping for seven or eight hours at the time," Ernsberger laughed. "Lots of things could have changed, I realized later."

On the day of the attack, with 150,000 Allied troops deployed to invade Europe, Ernsberger was assigned to take photos from above. From 8,000 feet in the air, he was higher than the paratroopers and the supply planes, and saw the carnage unfold below him.

"I think I aged 20 years that day," he said.

When he returned to Medmenham, he went straight to his bunk, unable to shake the numb feeling of seeing thousands of men charge to their deaths.

"I had no concept of the scope of what was involved and the thousands and thousands of troops that were involved," he said. "Seeing all that down below and all the bodies floating and the carnage, it was just beyond consciousness."

Nearly 70 years later, the memories of D-Day have stuck with Ernsberger, much to his chagrin. He says he doesn't like to think about what he saw and what he was a part of, but knows how important it was to the war and to history.

"I try not to think about it," he said. "But every time it's mentioned, it all comes back. It still seems as unreal as it did that day."

Despite aging 20 years more than the average person, Ernsberger, 93, now lives in his quiet Uptown Westerville home. He's lived in the city since he was 15, and he and his wife Patricia (Patsy), 93, never moved when he returned from the war.

Since the war, he has been incredibly active in the Westerville community. He served on City Council between 1955-72, owned four different businesses with Patsy, and has been involved with Otterbein's theater program and the Westerville Historical Society.

Seven decades removed from the headiness of D-Day planning, he says he knows his race is nearly run. He was diagnosed with lung cancer nine months ago. His vision has failed. But he still visits Patsy in her assisted living home every afternoon.

Like the rest of his life, he takes his condition lightly.

"I've lived plenty," he laughed.

And though no military mementos or memorabilia are prominent in his home, his memories of influencing one of the most important battles in history remain.

"I can't believe it," he said. "But I saw it. It happened. It's real. It's almost more than you can grasp."

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