June 4, 1999
This morning I wanted to write a D-Day column about the late Sherman Oyler, a paratrooper from Topeka who jumped into Normandy and helped get the Allied invasion of Europe started. He did it just a few hours after he had a memorable, and embarrassing, meeting with General Dwight D. Eisenhower, another Kansan and the man running the whole show.
My trouble was, the story I wanted to tell came to me from the book “D-Day” by Stephen E. Ambrose, and I couldn’t get permission from the publisher to use it. Not that I didn’t try.
In the front of the book it says it was published by Touchstone in New York City. It also says, “Copyright 1994” and “All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.” I took that to mean they didn’t want newspaper columnists stealing from it, and if I did help myself to it I might be sued. That would be inconvenient for me, since I’d have trouble putting together a high-class, or even a low-class, legal defense team.
So, I set out to gain permission from the publisher to borrow a few lines from the book. I called New York City information, not through one of the newfangled numbers advertised so heavily on TV by James Garner and others, but the old-fashioned way. I asked for Touchstone on the Avenue of the Americas, known to the locals as Sixth Avenue, and was told there was no such listing. No minor setback like this can stop a true reporter who has his teeth into a story, or someone else’s story, as in my case. I went back to the book and found that Touchstone is a trademark of Simon & Schuster Inc. I called information again and this time got a number, which I called. I got a recording saying if I wanted to talk to an operator to “dial” zero. I punched zero and the phone rang about 20 times. I hung up and called again. Same deal. I dozed off, and when I awoke the phone was still ringing.
I was about to hang up when a woman answered, and after I explained what I wanted she said, “You want Permissions. I’ll ring.” Another woman answered and I told her in great detail what I wanted. She replied, “You want Permissions,” and gave me a new number, saying I’d have to hang up and call in again. I did and this time got a man who listened to my story and said, “You’ll have to put that in writing and mail it in.” I said I was facing an immediate deadline, and he, unimpressed, said. “Just a minute,” and rang another number. This time I got a recording telling me how to mail in my request for permission.
At that point I gave up, but I also had an inspiration. Surely, Oyler had told this story to people other than the book’s author, so why didn’t I get it from one of them? But who? I called Gene Smith, The Capital-Journal’s resident expert on military affairs, told him my problem, and asked him whom Oyler might have regaled with this tale. “He told it to me,” Smith said. “It was one of his favorite stories, so I’ll tell it to you, and I haven’t even read the book. You’ve found your source.” So, after a few wasted hours and about $197 worth of useless phone calls, I heard Smith’s version of the story, better than the one in the book. To start with, Oyler was a staff sergeant at Fort Benning, Ga., who couldn’t get out of the base cadre and into the war. But finally his requests grew so annoying his CO told him he could transfer — as a buck private. Oyler took him up on it.
Now he’s Pvt. Oyler, and a few hours before his D-Day jump he’s eating a steak in the airfield mess when he’s told he’s wanted in one of the hangars. He put the steak between two slices of bread and stuck it in his uniform. At the hangar, he’s told Gen. Eisenhower is there and was asking if anyone in the group was from Kansas. Oyler was pushed forward, and he said, “Sir, I’m from Kansas.” Ike asked Oyler, “What’s your name, son?” And Oyler gave Ike a blank stare. He couldn’t think of his name.
Maybe it was the excitement of the impending jump and the danger he faced, or maybe it was the presence of the supreme Allied commander, or maybe it was both. He couldn’t for the life of him remember his name. Oyler’s friends helped him out, shouting, “Go ahead, Oyler, tell him your name.” And Oyler got it out. Ike gave him his famous grin, a thumbs-up sign, and said, “Go get ’em, Kansas.” Later that night, Oyler jumped and hit a cow when he landed. Before daylight he had killed five enemy soldiers and run into a group of American paratroopers that included a wounded colonel being pushed in a wheelbarrow. John Wayne played the role of the colonel in the movie “The Longest Day.” I told this story to Vic Yarrington, who was a crew member on one of the planes that dropped paratroopers. He noted that of the thousands of American soldiers scheduled to jump that night, only a handful chickened out, refusing to jump, and rode back to England in disgrace. Oyler, on the other hand, went home with three Bronze Stars for bravery.