In the spring of 1944, Europe had been heavily bombed by American and British planes; first using American B-24s followed by B-17s. The first targets were military bases, and then the bombing began to concentrate on railways, highways, bridges and airports. There were no ground troops or allies in Europe then but there was much speculation about an allied invasion.
My husband, who became a first lieutenant in May 1944, arrived in England on March 3, 1944. He had been sent to meteorology school at UCLA and received a Certificate of Achievement, the equivalent of a master's degree. From UCLA, he was sent to Harrisburg, Penn., to the U.S. Army Air Forces Intelligence School. Then, he went to Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma City, where the 2nd Photo Intelligence Squadron was formed. From there the Squadron embarked for England from New York, on the Queen Mary, on Feb. 3, 1944. He arrived in Glasgow, Scotland on Feb. 27. The squadron proceeded by train to High Wycombe, the U.S. 8th USAAF Headquarters, where Gen. Jimmy Doolittle was the commander. Five days later, five men were put on detached duty with the Royal Air Force and were sent to Medmenham British Intelligence General Headquarters.
After spending his first three weeks studying aerial photos taken by American P-38s and P-51s as well as British Spitfires (the Spitfires actually spit fire, when they started up), my husband was assigned to what was called the Normandy Project.
About the first of April in 1944, word came the Normandy Project was to be involved in plans for the invasion of the continent. Five men -- four British and one American, Lt. Ernsberger -- were assigned to study landing sites for the invasion. There were 11 possible sites. After five sites were selected, the committee met with one of Gen. Eisenhower's staff, Gen. Bradley, a three-star general. Each of my husband's group of five was to choose a site based on:
* Accessibility to land the craft;
* Ability to get equipment five miles inland;
* How near the landing was to German encampments;
* Weather conditions, wind direction, cloud height and tide.
It was because of my husband's training in both meteorology and intelligence that he felt he was chosen to serve on the group of five.
Soon after the meeting with Gen. Bradley, my husband, Lt. Ernsberger, was at work when he was notified he was to meet with Gen. Eisenhower's committee in London. Gen. Eisenhower had been appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces.
One day at the end of May at my husband's office at Medmenham, a call came in directing him to be prepared for a meeting the next day at Gen. Eisenhower's headquarters in London. A car would be there to pick him up at 6 a.m.
Ernsberger was on duty that night when the call came in, and was to work until 6 a.m.
However, he left at 5 a.m. to shave and get ready. He arrived in London at 8: 15 a.m. without sleep or breakfast.
At the building in London there were military police everywhere. One of them opened the car door for my husband and then walked him to the building. He was shown to a waiting room with six empty* chairs. After 15 minutes, a three-star general arrived. My husband stood up and the other man introduced himself as Omar Bradley. Then Eisenhower walked in and shook hands but they did not salute. The conversation was very relaxed. My husband did not speak except to say he didn't know what the protocol was* for a lieutenant among generals. They laughed and Bradley patted him on the back.
Gen. Patton arrived next followed by British Gen. Montgomery. Eisenhower was sitting at the table in a conference room going over papers with the door open. At precisely 9 a.m. Eisenhower's aide, a Lt. Colonel, came into the waiting room and said to "come in now," and announced Gen. de Gaulle would be late and for them to get started. They went into the conference room and sat around a big, dark, very shiny, wooden table. Ernsberger was seated at the tail end of the table, he said, across from* Montgomery and Eisenhower at the head. In a comer was a large urn of very strong coffee. Each general was assisted by an aide and Eisenhower also had a POW survivor from Dunkirk with him. When the group got down to business, the aides left the room and returned only when Eisenhower buzzed for them to serve more coffee.
Eisenhower went around the room and introduced everyone. When he got to my husband he said, "Lt. Ernsberger is here as a representative of the Intelligence Department." He further stated he wanted to set the invasion for the first week of June, which meant within eight days.
He was asking for a target. date and said there were three things that needed to be considered to set a date.
They were the weather, the sea, and getting organized by the target date. There was a lot of discussion of how this could be done. He added he would assign each target area to someone to be responsible for. Then Gen. Eisenhower said, "Lt. Ernsberger, you're the meteorologist and you are responsible to come back with the information on the weather and the sea."
The generals were each to bring back information about all coordination in their given area. There was a request for any other questions to be discussed as well as for an oceanographer. The tide varied so much in different areas that an expert was needed. Gen. Montgomery had such a man on his staff that was in his 80s. They met within three days. The oceanographer brought three experts with him. This meeting occurred in London.
Eisenhower set a date for another meeting and the discussion period ended. My husband returned to Medmenham. He was met by a barrage of questions about where he had been. He could not answer those questions. "Later, after the invasion the questions really came," Ernsberger said, but still he did not answer them. At their meeting, Eisenhower had stressed the need for absolute secrecy.
Three days later my husband returned to London. A car and driver were put at his disposal. The second meeting was held in the same place, in the meeting room adjacent to Eisenhower's office. At this meeting things were set for the invasion date, June 6, after all the generals presented their reports, questions were asked and details were all openly discussed.
Eisenhower asked if everyone felt they were ready. No one dissented or made a negative comment. Ernsberger said there might be a glitch with the weather due to a low pressure over Sweden but that it did not appear it would move down fast enough to interfere on the 6th (actually it moved down on June 10).
Between the first and second meetings, Ernsberger sent a telegram to learn the whereabouts of a meteorologist, a Swedish man named Bjerknes. Bjerknes was Ernsberger's professor at meteorology school at UCLA and had put together the theory of air mass analysis, which is still used in weather forecasting today. Ernsberger learned Bjerknes was in London at that time so they conversed on the telephone. Of course, no mention was made of why he asked about air mass indexes. In Bjerknes' opinion, the low pressure system in Sweden would arrive in southern England until June 10.
Ernsberger's report included the time of 6 a.m. which was what was wanted, and the 6th was also at the highest tide so the ships could be above the I-beams the Germans had set in the water to snag Allied landing ships. It would not be at the highest tide again for another 30 days.
The report included wind direction which influenced dropping bombs, shelling and cloud height.
He also had to supply each general with aerial photographs of their assigned landing areas and the area five miles inland. Gen. Eisenhower said if there were any hitches that they must be reported before noon on June 4; otherwise, the invasion was set. Ernsberger attended no more meetings.
Of the five landing sites selected, one on the west coast of France was a decoy. Some Allied ships were sent there to do shelling and thus, deflected three German divisions totaling nearly 50,000 troops from converging on the actual landing spots.
Localite and school-mate of my husband, Navy Officer Harry Bean, was in command of his squadron of six landing crafts. Some of the crafts were off-loaded at Glasgow, Scotland and taken over land, then launched at Portsmouth, England so the Germans did not know of all the assemblage. Harry Bean said there was no sleep the night before the invasion.
It was later learned that the night of June 4, de Gaulle and Montgomery were in London. Patton was with his troops when they went in on Omaha Beach. It was reported that President Roosevelt was on a battleship off of Greenland. Professor Bjerknes, whom Ernsberger had consulted, traveled with Roosevelt as his meteorologist and that was why he was in London and able to consult with my husband, by phone.
My husband stated that on the night of June 5, ships were coming from France and Spain. They were ready and assembled at 6 a.m. June 6.
On June 4, after the second meeting, when it was decided the invasion would take place as scheduled, Ernsberger was to return to Medmenham by car. A four-door, V-8 Ford Army car picked him up and took him to an airport outside Oxford. It had an extra long runway, a civilian airport taken over by the military. There, he met with one of the pilots assigned to Intelligence flights by the name of Harry Orwell. They sat in the car by the entry guardhouse. Harry was a flight lieutenant, an Englishman who had flown 2,000 miles. He flew the American P-38.
At the airport, the driver was excused from the car and Harry was given the instructions for June 6. He was to be over the English Channel by 7 a.m., taking off from Medmenham at 6;30 am. He flew at 7,000 feet, the top layer of the varying heights to which the planes were assigned, according to their mission. Harry was assigned to a section to fly while photographing the action. He flew from three miles out into the Channel to approximately one mile inland. The aerial footage stopped at 1 1 a.m.
The P-38 is a two-seated plane. The pilot sat in the back seat. A very large camera was in the front seat and the opening in the floor there. Two other cameras were placed on each wing and fuselages; three in all. Though there was no seat for Ernsberger as he was not officially assigned to go on the flight, at Harry's invitation, he did go and rode piggy-back, his legs around Harry's waist. There was no wiggle-room. And they held these positions for two hours.
Ernsberger could only see out the side of the plane between the wings. He could see a haze of smoke from the bombing and shelling, and enough vision was allowed to see the carnage on the beach -- the many bodies floating on the water. Nearly 8,000 Americans, plus British and other Allied troops not in that count, perished that day, June 6, 1944.
Looking down and seeing the bodies was horrifying and my husband did not speak of it for many years. He still does not like to talk about it as it brings back the horror of the scene. He said no reports or publicity that appeared afterward adequately described how terrible the mission was and that if he closes his eyes, still, he can see it.
Harry Bean made multiple trips (Ernsberger believes six or seven perhaps) back to England and brought troops back close enough to wade onto Omaha Beach. On the way back to England he retrieved and ferried wounded and dead service members from the water.
Harry Orwell and Ernsberger never met again. Not too much later Orwell did not return from a photography flight, over the site where buzz bombs and V-2 rockets which devastated Britain were made. What Orwell's fate was, we have never known.
On his return to Medmenham Lt. Ernsberger, without revealing the reason for his absence, resumed his routine duties and his meetings became a part of history.
Patricia and Warren "Ernie" Ernsberger are longtime residents of Westerville, with Mr. Ernsberger serving on Westerville City Council from 1955-72 and both being very civically active in the community for decades. This account of Mr. Ernsberger's historic involvement with the D-Day invasion -- which took place 70 years ago tomorrow -- was written by Mrs. Ernsberger, as told by Mr. Ernsberger in November 2013.