21 January 2015

The Man Who Saved D-Day

I met retired State Police Lieutenant Sidney Spiegel in the mid-1990s, when he was a volunteer at the New Jersey State Police Museum.  Lieutenant Spiegel and four of his fellow Former Trooper comrades would come to the museum every Tuesday to both help me organize our vast collections, identify photographs and, as any two or more Former Troopers will do, compare war stories from their long careers.  I would sit back and take it all in, learning some aspects of State Police history and lore that I knew I would never be able to repeat.
            There was one story, however, that I am eager to repeat.  Lieutenant Spiegel told it to me in 1994 and it had nothing to do with his State Police career.  Rather, it was a war story from a real war – the Second World War – and it was about how he, alone, had saved D-Day.
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            The war in Europe had been raging for five long years.  The British Expeditionary Forces had been expelled from France during the Battle of Dunkirk in spring 1940.  But now it was time to return.  The Allies were going to invade France.  “The Allied Expeditionary Force undertook over 3,200 photo reconnaissance sorties from April 1944 until the start of the invasion…Photos of the [French] coastline were taken at extremely low altitude to show the invaders the terrain obstacles on the beach, and defensive structures such as bunkers and gun emplacements.”(1)
            During the early spring of 1944, Sidney Spiegel was with General Dwight D. Eisenhower at a D-Day planning meeting somewhere in England.  Spiegel, an Army Ranger and “just a buck sergeant”, had been handpicked by General Eisenhower to serve as his personal bodyguard.  The two men became very close friends.  In his book, Crusade in Europe, Eisenhower mentioned Spiegel in the middle of a chapter about generals and fieldmarshals:  “A sergeant who accompanied me everywhere in France was a motorcycle policeman named Sidney Spiegel.  His personal loyalty and his anxiety to protect and assist me knew no bounds.”(2)
            Just as the high-level planning meeting was about to get underway, the currier who was to deliver top-secret films showing the French coastline arrived – with a hole in his satchel.  The films were missing!  Eisenhower called on Spiegel to take his men and scour the English countryside and “find those films!  Spiegel took off on his motorcycle not knowing how on earth he would ever find the missing film.
            While riding along through the countryside, Spiegel saw some children on the side of the road.  “They were looking up in the sky at something.  As I got closer, I realized that they were looking at films – the missing films of the French coastline!”  Spiegel wheeled around, hopped off his bike and approached the children.  “Look hear! That’s government property.  I have to take that.”  The children looked at him and asked what he had to trade for it.  Trade??  Spiegel realized that he was not going to get the film back easily if he didn’t offer them something.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out the only thing he had – a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum.  He held it out in offering and the children pounced on it, completely forgetting about the top-secret film.
            Spiegel quickly returned to the meeting and handed over the film.  The all-important planning meeting was able to continue.  Shortly thereafter, on June 6, 1944, Operation: NEPTUNE was launched.  This was the opening sequence of the better-known Operation: OVERLORD, the Battle of Normandy.  Thanks to “buck sergeant” Sidney Spiegel, the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Western Europe had been saved!
            A fun tale, but was it true or just another “war story” from a retired Trooper?  When he finished recounting the events of the spring of ’44, Lieutenant Spiegel handed me a piece of paper.  It was a communiqué dated April 8, 1944 from the Commanding Officer at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force Command.  It read, in part, “To Sgt. Sidney Spiegel:  You are to be commended for having displayed an alertness which resulted in the recovery of lost aerial films containing military information.  Your action thus precluded the possibility of such information falling into enemy hands to the jeopardy of future operations of the Allies.”  It was signed, R.Q. Brown, Colonel, Field Artillery Commandant.(3)
            With Lieutenant Spiegel’s permission, I wrote-up his story and sent it off to Wrigley’s in time for the 50th anniversary of D-Day.  He said that whatever we got in return from them, we would split 50/50.  He kept his promise and we split the 50 packs of chewing gum they sent us!
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            I had the privilege of working with Sidney Spiegel at the State Police Museum for eight years while he proudly volunteered as my “assistant” and we became good friends.  He always looked forward to discussing his State Police career and his time with “Ike” over a cup (or two) of coffee.  He died in May 2001, and is buried in the Memorial Garden at the Museum.  I had the honor of playing the bagpipes at his memorial service that summer.  To again quote General Eisenhower, “When finally we were separated I lost a devoted friend and a valued assistant.”(4)

Tpr. Sidney Spiegel greets his friend and former comrade-in-arms
President Dwight D. Eisenhower
in this iconic State Police photograph

1 wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Overlord.  Retrieved January 21, 2015.
2  Eisenhower, Dwight D.  Crusade in Europe.  Doubleday & Company, Inc., New York; 1948.  Page 265.
3  Brown, R.Q. Colonel FA.  Statement of Sgt. Spiegel.  SHAEF HQ.  April 8 & 9, 1944.
4  Eisenhower, page 265.