It’s an obscure mystery in the annals of World War II history.
How did Utah and Omaha beaches — two chunks of French sand that were the scenes of the best-known day in American military history — get their code names?
A Midwestern family believes they discovered the answer in an old notebook found after their patriarch, Gayle Eyler, died in Nebraska in 2003. He was 81.
Seventy years ago, Eyler —from a little Iowa town across the river from Omaha, Neb. — was a carpenter in the U.S. Army, working for D-Day ground troops commander Gen. Omar Bradley.
And there was another carpenter working with Eyler — a sergeant named “Sam,” according to the notebook. No one knows that carpenter’s last name. But Eyler’s writing was clear on one thing: he was from Provo, Utah.
Eyler claims Bradley named Utah and Omaha beaches after the carpenters’ places of origin because they were instrumental in preparing a London headquarters for invasion planners.
It’s a story no one has been able to definitively refute or confirm since Allied forces landed at five Normandy beaches — code-named Utah, Omaha, Sword, Juno and Gold — on June 6, 1944.
Grant Stanfield, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who teaches military history at the University of Utah, emphasized that the Eyler account has never been substantiated.
“My understanding is that the beaches were named with radio clarity in mind,” Stanfield wrote in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune. “The names are random.”
One thing could verify — or debunk — Eyler’s story: finding Sam.
“We’ve tried,” said Jim Eyler, Gayle Eyler’s son. “Nobody was successful. We just couldn’t find this individual.”
• Class assignment
In the years after World War II, Gayle Eyler said almost nothing about his time in the Army. He never told his children about serving under Bradley or working in the command headquarters, Jim Eyler said in an interview Thursday.
About the only thing the elder Eyler said of his wartime service was that he had shrapnel inside of him and that, after D-Day, he was on a Normandy beach with other soldiers when a German jet — one of the first in aviation — flew overhead. Gayle Eyler, according to the short story he told his children, hunkered down in a panic but was not fired upon.
Then a few months before his death, Jim Eyler’s son asked his grandfather to help him with a high school class assignment. The teenager asked his grandfather to write something about his war experience.
A short time later, Jim Eyler said, Gayle Eyler slipped on some ice and broke some bones. Jim Eyler said he and his son didn’t follow up on the class assignment. Then doctors discovered Gayle Eyler had cancer.
It wasn’t until after Gayle Eyler’s death that his family found the notebook. Jim Eyler said he was going to throw it away but decided to flip through the pages first. The handwritten recollections Gayle Eyler had penned for his grandson were on unattached pages that fell from the notebook and onto the floor.
It was the first time the family read or heard details about Gayle Eyler’s time in the war and his story about how Omaha and Utah beaches received their code names.
• Headquarters in a hurry
Planning for an invasion against Germany began in Britain as early as 1940. The planning intensified almost as soon as the United States entered the war, according to the book “D-Day,” by historian Martin Gilbert.
In late 1943, Bradley was chosen to lead the 1st Army for the invasion. Gayle Eyler, according to his written account, was a carpenter on Bradley’s staff.
Gayle Eyler wrote that he and Sam were tasked with turning a London apartment building into a secret U.S. Army headquarters for the invasion of Normandy.
Gayle Eyler’s account says that he and Sam would have coffee and doughnuts with Bradley. One morning, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was there with Bradley. The two generals were discussing landing areas on the French coast and what to name them.
Gayle Eyler wrote: “Bradley suggested the first two. Omaha and Utah for our hard work getting the place ready in a hurry. I and ‘Sam’ put in a lot of hours & hard work.”
Gayle Eyler underlined the words “Omaha” and “Utah.”
The writings do not elaborate on the moment.
• Confirmation elusive
And there wasn’t much description of Sam.
Gayle Eyler couldn’t remember his last name. He wrote Sam’s name in quotation marks, raising the question of whether he was even sure about that.
All he could recall was that Sam was a buck sergeant — Army slang for the lowest rank of sergeant — that he was from Provo, of Italian descent and his family raised cherries. Gayle Eyler also implies Sam had a brother-in-law named Maj. Masso working at the headquarters.
The account from Gayle Eyler and his sons was first published in 2008 in the Omaha World-Herald, which made efforts to verify the story.
Gayle Eyler’s service record confirms he did serve on Bradley’s staff, the newspaper said. Interviews corroborated his description of Bradley’s London headquarters. The World-Herald also found an Army record indicating the code names originated in those headquarters.
But the newspaper could find no trace of Sam. The World-Herald searched Army records and spoke to historians in the Army and in Utah, but no account of him was located.
The World-Herald also contacted Conrad Crane, a historian at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, for its 2008 story. Crane said then, and again in an interview Friday, that despite the lack of proof, he finds the Eyler story plausible.
“People often think these code names come from very sophisticated processes,” Crane said, “and often they don’t.”
• Ships, dogs
There is no record of Bradley, or the man in charge of D-Day, Eisenhower, ever explaining the code names’ origins. There are some other theories.
Naval Task Force O delivered troops and supplies, and fired artillery at the Germans on Omaha Beach. Task Force U did the same at Utah Beach. It’s possible the names were given to correspond with the naval forces’ alphabetic designations.
While in London, Bradley acquired two fox terriers he named Omaha and Utah. Gayle Eyler mentioned the dogs in his writing.
An Associated Press photo, which began to appear in newspapers as early as Aug. 22, 1944, shows the dogs seated beside Bradley’s helmet. The caption refers to them as puppies, but does not specify the date of the photograph.
Crane said the dogs were named for the beaches, and not the other way around.
• Sam is key
Jim Eyler acknowledges there are questions about his father’s account, but he is confident it reveals the true origin of the names of the beaches.
“In my mind, it’s 100 percent correct,” Jim Eyler said. “My dad was not a bullshi--er.”
The Eyler family and others have tried to verify the story by searching records related to Gayle Eyler, Bradley and D-Day.
But Jim Eyler believes definitive proof depends on someone in Utah coming forward with information about Sam.
“We were kind of hoping,” Jim Eyler said, “that maybe a relative of Sam’s [received an account] similar to what I did and could turn it into a proven fact.”
Crane agreed that finding Sam would answer questions about the Eyler story.
“There’s a lot of history,” Crane said, “that if it’s not true, it should be.”