D-Day with Ike: Red Mueller at Eisenhower’s headquarters

When Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s public relations advisers informed him that they were planning to assign two wire service correspondents, two radio reporters, and two Army photographers to his headquarters during D-Day operations, the Supreme Allied Commander had one main concern: they might be bored.

So wrote Eisenhower’s naval aide, Capt. Harry Butcher, in his diary that was published after the war: “Ike’s principal worry was that they would have little to do and less to report, but after the conference I think he is now satisfied that they will find considerable interest about which to write.”

That particular assignment might not have carried the adrenaline rush of hitting the beach with the assault forces, but it brought the possibility of rare access to the man overseeing the war’s most anticipated operation.

The pool of correspondents with Eisenhower at his headquarters near Portsmouth would consist of one Brit and one American from both the wire and broadcast sides: Stanley Burch of Reuters, Robert Barr of the BBC, Edward V. “Ned” Roberts of United Press and Merrill “Red” Mueller of NBC.

Red Mueller (Library of Congress)

Mueller, as Butcher would note in his diary, was the only one of the group who had any sort of relationship with Eisenhower. The 28-year-old New Yorker had first encountered Ike in London before the Allies had launched operations in North Africa. In fact, Mueller would write to a friend decades later that he had once gone out on a date with Kay Summersby, Eisenhower’s driver and all-around companion.

The bond between the pair was cemented in August 1943, when correspondents got word of a pair of incidents involving Gen. George Patton in Sicily. Word had spread among the troops that Patton had berated and slapped two soldiers who were in the hospital recovering from what was generally described at the time as “battle fatigue.”

After the second incident on August 10, reporters gathered at the nearby press camp to discuss how to handle it. Four men from the group — Mueller, Demaree Bess of the Saturday Evening Post, John Charles Daly of CBS and Al Newman of Newsweek, decided to conduct an investigation. Bess eventually wrote up a detailed report on what they had discovered and flew to Algiers along with Mueller and Quentin Reynolds of Collier’s on August 19 to take the matter directly to Eisenhower.

The general already had heard about Patton’s transgressions. He commissioned an investigation to be led by Gen. Frederick A. Blessé and sent Patton a harshly worded letter of rebuke, but he had no interest in word getting out to the public. Eisenhower met with the trio of reporters and tried to calm them down, reiterating Patton’s value to the overall war effort. He said he would not try to stop them from publishing a story about the incidents, but he hoped that they wouldn’t.

“Quent and Mueller and I have been discussing what would happen if we report this, and our conclusion is that we’re Americans first and correspondents second,” Bess then told the general, according to Reynolds’ autobiography. “Every mother would figure her son was next.”

With that, and a reported pledge from Mueller that the correspondents would deny the story if anyone went rogue and broke it, they agreed to keep it quiet. The self-imposed embargo lasted until late November, when syndicated columnist Drew Pearson broke the news on his radio show back home in the U.S.

It created a stir but quickly blew over — nowhere near the public relations catastrophe it might have been had the news emerged just as Patton was wrapping up a triumphant campaign in Sicily. As an added plus in Eisenhower’s camp, the general and his aides had established a rapport with the press that could come in handy as the war unfolded.

As Mueller would tell it later, when the time came to determine who would represent the American broadcast media at Eisenhower’s headquarters during the invasion, the general asked for either Mueller or Edward R. Murrow. The CBS icon suggested Mueller would be the better choice because he already had enough on his plate handling the London bureau.

With that, Mueller got the nod. He arrived at the advance command post near Southwick House in Portsmouth on Wednesday, May 31, and would remain attached to Eisenhower’s command for nearly four months.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

At 2:30 p.m. on June 5, with Operation Overlord firmly in motion, the four correspondents met with Eisenhower inside his private command tent — “a plain, bare-walled structure about 20 feet square with a canvas roof set on walls of stained pine boards,” as Ned Roberts described it. Smoking a never-ending supply of cigarettes, Eisenhower spent an hour and a half walking the correspondents through the invasion plan and praising the staff officers from both countries who had helped assemble it.

Around 8:40 a.m. Eastern War Time the following morning, Mueller shared a bit more about the general and the hours leading up to the invasion:

The whole thing started moving when one man pressed the theoretical button some hours ago. That man was the Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who thinks of himself modestly as a Kansas farmer. Everything that could humanly be done had been done up to the point when General Ike pushed the button. The campaign thus passed to the direction of God and the hands of the common soldier.

As H-Hour, D-Day approaches, there is nothing more tactically useless than a supreme commander, except as an inspiration. General Ike is certainly this. One British battalion cheered him as they clanked aboard their fast landing barge. He waved a friendly hello and that broad grin lit up his face — a face that showed nothing but confidence in his men. A face in which fatigue is miraculously erased whenever it nears the allied esprit de corps and the fighting spirit of the little men with rifle and bayonet. …

“I’m so goldurn nervous I boil over.” That’s what General Eisenhower said to me after we walked out of his tent Monday morning. The Supreme Allied Commander had been talking to members of the press, his final conference before he gave the signal for the cross-channel push to start. He said that all credit for any success must go to the common man, the soldier in the lower rank and the ally. The General spoke to GIs gathered about him, asking who was the best shot, while far back in the ranks his soldiers shouted, “Ike!”

Mueller and the small press pool were with Eisenhower for those visits to the docks in Portsmouth, where British troops boarded their LCI. Later that evening, as the skies grew darker, Summersby drove Eisenhower about 50 miles to RAF Greenham Common, near Newbury, where he met with paratroopers from the 101st Airborne as they prepared to board their planes.

Eisenhower with the 101st Airborne at RAF Greenham Common (National Archives)

As the C-47s began to taxi, Eisenhower climbed to the roof of the headquarters building to watch them take off and form up overhead. Mueller would later tell friends he saw tears trickling down the general’s cheeks as the men he had ordered into battle got under way.

At 8 a.m. local time the following morning, with the operation in progress, Eisenhower sent a message to his superior, Gen. George C. Marshall, in Washington. The first three paragraphs are nuts-and-bolts updates that don’t offer much news. But Eisenhower felt compelled to add this fourth paragraph, no doubt pondering the fates of the men he had met over the past 24 hours:

Yesterday, I visited British troops about to embark and last night saw a great portion of a United States airborne division just prior to its takeoff. The enthusiasm, toughness and obvious fitness of every single man were high and the light of battle was in their eyes.

Once the fighting commenced, Red Mueller’s duties were indeed a bit more mundane than those of his counterparts on the far shore. All of his reports were pooled across every American broadcast network, and his 6 p.m. recording on June 6 was a recap of a brief press conference held by Adm. Sir Bertram Ramsay, who was in charge of naval operations for the invasion.

On June 7, he worked in a bit of color, describing in detail Eisenhower’s quarters in the woods, and offered a bit of commentary, cautioning listeners back home to “guard against undue optimism” despite positive initial reports from France.

The afternoon of June 8, though, brought another gem, as Eisenhower strolled down to meet the correspondents after returning from a shipboard survey of the invasion beaches. “I noticed immediately that the big broad grin was missing; heavy strain showed around his eyes,” Mueller would tell listeners, saying Ike was increasingly worried about how poor weather in the channel might hamper follow-on operations even though a foothold seemed to have been established.

And so it went from there as Allied armies made their way across France. Mueller’s invasion-day counterparts Barr, Burch and Roberts eventually moved on to other duties, but the NBC correspondent stayed on, moving to France with Eisenhower’s headquarters in early August and ultimately entering Paris with the general on August 27.

Mueller made his last pooled broadcast September 21 from Paris, paying tribute to Eisenhower as he exited for his accommodations to the press over the previous weeks and months:

Constantly aware of the vast American radio audience that is anxious to work with him, General Eisenhower has made our task infinitely easy by considering himself public property: a national developed investment in the service of a democratic country where each individual has a right to know all permitted within the limits of military security.

General Ike now becomes available to all the press, but in bowing out of his personal camp the American radio networks have said thanks for his assistance, guidance and inspiration. In return, General Ike has thanked the networks for their understanding and cooperation.

This is Merrill Mueller closing the American radio pool with thanks for the honor of this assignment and returning you now to the United States.

Check out these behind-the-scenes stories you might have missed:
D-Day: Keeping the Mulberry secret
Ernie Pyle's struggle to tell the invasion story
Martha Gellhorn goes rogue to get her D-Day story
Radio breaks the invasion news to the world
Parachuting behind enemy lines ... with a typewriter
Correspondents missing D-Day feel left out
Joan Ellis and the AP's accidental invasion flash
D-Day with Ike: Red Mueller at Eisenhower's HQ
D-Day correspondents balance fear, ambition
Hemingway invades London ahead of D-Day
Bringing the sound of battle into your living room
Hitting Utah Beach with Ken Crawford

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