John Strother, who turns 100 this August, has been involved in many adventures, but the greatest was helping to plan for the invasion of France 69 years ago today on June 6, 1944.
A Louisiana native and Army major, Strother was sent to England in 1943.
“I didn’t know until later that they were waiting on the conference that was occurring between Roosevelt and Churchill to set the invasion,” he said.
Strother was assigned to the chief quartermaster’s office in England.
“They called me in and told me that I was going to be given certain information that I could not divulge to anybody, including the date of the invasion, because I was going to need to know that to do my job, and I said ‘Well, what’s my job?’ They said, ‘You are to coordinate all the quartermaster supplies for all the troops leaving England and going to France and not coming back.’ I thought that the damned roof had caved in. I didn’t know I was going to be involved in anything that big.”
This was in October of 1943, he said.
“I was charged with coordinating all the supply of all the quartermaster items to troops leaving the U.K.,” Strother said. “That means everybody that’s there that’s going anywhere that I have to see to it that they get their requirements for quartermaster supplies taken care of, and that they’re at wherever they tell me they have to go.”
Quartermasters are responsible for everything from what the troops eat and wear, to the cots they sleep on.
“It includes everything that they have to have to go into the field — not their weapons, but everything else they have to have,” he said. “If they get killed, I have to bury them and notify the family. That’s what a quartermaster has to do. I was to coordinate all of that activity for the troops in England.”
Strother explained how many people that included.
“By the time we got through with it, it was around 3.5 million,” he said.
Strother said the first thing he had to do was fill out the manifests for all the ships that were to be used during the invasion, about 2,000.
“In order to do that, I was to have them ready, but I couldn’t tell them what date we were going to need them because I couldn’t give them a date when they would go,” Strother said.
Finding the space to anchor 2,000 ships was a big problem.
“It took up all the space they had to spare in England and Scotland,” Strother said. “Then we went to Iceland, and we put some in Newfoundland, and starting down the coast, we came down as far as Nova Scotia with anchorage.”
“The enormity of the operation was breathtaking.
“It was the largest military invasion in the history of the world,” he said.
The first news he heard of the landing was when Gen. Omar Bradley’s quartermaster contacted him by a special radio net he had set up.
“So on the afternoon of the invasion, he called me about 3 p.m. over this line, and he said, ‘Guess who came to see me?” I said, ‘I don’t know.’ (To which the quartermaster replied), ‘French guy came in and told me he had 48,000 pounds of butter he wanted to sell me.’”
Strother said they had loaded down a number of ships with butter and lard on the theory that there wouldn’t be any available for the troops in France for the first few weeks after the invasion.
“We didn’t think they would get the cows in and milk them and have time to make any cheese for a week or two,” Strother said. “Turns out they did, and I still don’t know how in the hell they did it. I don’t know how those French farmers down there kept their animals, where they hid them.”
The quartermaster told Strother that was his fun for the day before turning to darker news.
“Then he said, ‘I have to have a ‘Morris,’” Strother said.
The two had devised their own code for this very exchange, but Strother said ‘Morris’ wasn’t one of the code words they had agreed to use.
“Well, the only ‘Morris’ that I knew was the guy in charge of graves registration,” Strother said. “In other words, he was the one that buried the casualties, kept the records, that kind of thing. So I called London on my hotline, and I said the only thing I can figure is that something has gone wrong with his graves registration unit. And I said that’s Morris, the major that’s in charge of it.”
As it turns out, Strother said, the 65-man Graves Registration Unit detachment was on one of the ships sunk off Omaha Beach.
“So we went ahead and assembled a duplication of the troops and the supplies that we had sent over in the actual invasion, and we put them on a special boat, and we rushed them over as quick as we could, and that was exactly what they needed,” Strother said. “I think it got there maybe three or four days after the invasion. It’s a terrible mess when you’re in a situation like that was and your guy that takes care of all the dead bodies is knocked out, all of his men, all of his equipment. It just played hell.”
Strother would go on to play a role in other celebrated historical chapters in the war, such as the Battle of the Bulge, “but that’s a long story,” he said, insisting that he is “no hero.” He spent a career with Lockheed, served on the Cobb Board of Education and was one of the founding fathers of Kennesaw State University. He is the father of two and grandfather of six. He and his third wife, Katherine, who he married last year, live in Marietta.
“The best place to find the legacy of D-Day in my opinion is to read Tom Brokaw’s book, which says that the United States had never been before or since as united and as go get ’em as they were during World War II, and that was the difference between us and the other people,” Strother said.