Imagine Moses tapping you on the shoulder saying to follow him up Mount Sinai and bring along your hammer and chisel because he has a really important job requiring your engraving skills. This is Moses, for Heaven’s sake, so you obey without question and soon find yourself involved in the most important, history changing, event the world has ever known and when it’s over, Moses says to you, “Now don’t ever tell anyone that you had a hand in chipping out these tablets of stone.. understand?”
Okay, that’s a little far fetched but it’s not far from the experience of a young female U.S. Army corporal from Woonsocket, South Dakota who just happened to find herself on the staff of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during World War II, when plans were being made for the D Day invasion in 1944.
Helen Kogel grew up with five brothers and two sisters on the farm homesteaded by her grandfather near Woonsocket. She loved and respected her family but she also wanted more for herself than to be a farm wife so after high school, she went to business college..then, in part because eligible men were kinda scarce due to the war, she and a friend decided to join the WAC’s (Woman’s Army Corps). After basic training, her superiors soon recognized Helen’s skills and, after a stint as a recruiter, she volunteered and was selected to serve on General Eisenhower’s staff in London working as a secretary-typist. After a four day ocean voyage aboard the Queen Mary, she arrived in England during the height of the blitz..set up in a hotel room with a few other girls ..then taken to a secret location where for the next two months she sat in a closed room up to nine hours a day typing Ike’s orders for “Operation Overlord”…the detailed plans for the invasion of Normandy (D-Day.) and the liberation of Europe.
She’d been ordered to forget everything she typed but that, of course, was impossible. Instead, she concentrated on doing her work absolutely mistake-free to avoid slow-downs. At the end of each session, a Military Policeman would gather up all carbon copies and typewriter ribbons and toss them in the burning fireplace..then escort all of the female staffers back to their hotel on Barclay Square where they’d try to sleep. A difficult proposition as V2 German buzz bombs exploded around the city leaving them to wonder if the next one might have their name on it.
During those eight weeks, Corporal Kogel had seen and saluted the General many times but never met or spoken to him. That all changed when finally the invasion transcribing was complete and she was invited to hand the papers over to Ike in person. He asked, “Corporal do you know what you’ve typed here?” She said, “Yes sir. These are the battle plans that you will use for the invasion of France.” He stressed the importance of secrecy and then did something that caught Helen totally off guard. He said, “You have a brother, Jerry, over here don’t you?” “Yes,” she said. “I haven’t seen him in three years.” That’s when he produced a weekend pass and told her to go and visit him. (Jerry Kogel survived the war serving with General George Patton’s Tank Corps.)
Although it was dangerous to venture out in London, Helen and 14 others did take a tour of Windsor Castle and while exploring the portrait room… in walks King George VI along with the queen and princess daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret. Seeing Kogel in uniform the king approached her and asked her name and what she did. The 23 year old girl from Woonsocket, South Dakota later said didn’t know whether to genuflect, bow or kiss his ring..instead she just shook his hand and identified herself saying she served on General Eisenhower’s staff. The king then gestured to his eldest daughter and asked if she knew her. He said Elizabeth is going to be driving some of your officers around. Helen looked at the future Queen of England and said, “Oh, I hope to see you around some time.”
Not long afterward, the group stopped at Number 10 Downing Street and were surprised when the housekeeper invited the tour group in for tea. Before long, the living room door opened and in walked the British Prime Minister who grabbed a beverage and scone then left without saying a word. Later when Helen wrote her mother about the experience she couldn’t help but tease how she had tea and scones with Winston Churchill.
She knew the number of ships, planes, weapons, personnel and major objectives. She even knew the allied plan to fool the Nazi’s by taking the long way across the channel. The only thing Cpl. Helen Kogel didn’t know about the invasion was the exact date it would happen and didn’t find out until she heard the roar of planes overhead flying east in the early morning hours of June 6th, 1944. Even after it was obvious the invasion was underway, Helen never breathed a word about her role in it to anyone including her fellow WAC’s on staff. They were all sworn to secrecy and that was that.
General Eisenhower wanted to move his headquarters to France as soon as possible so Helen needed to send a telegram home to let her family know she’d soon have a new address; Paris! That’s when her luck dodging buzz bombs ran out. One struck the telegraph office. She woke up covered in dust and glass being shaken by someone telling her she’d be okay. Years later, Helen told an interviewer that she still had nightmares about that day; hearing the V-1 whistling above..then going quiet and the explosion which followed. “I was lucky to have gotten out alive,” she remembered.
The move to France was on the exact same route as so many thousands of others had made weeks earlier but without the bullets and bombs. Cpl. Kogel and her 29 female colleagues crossed the English Channel aboard a Navy transport ship then had to climb down a rope ladder into a landing craft which took them as close as possible to Utah beach then dropped the ramp requiring everyone to wade ashore in waist high water.
It was while waiting in the mess line along the beach..still dripping wet..that she met her future husband, Sergeant, Noel Denton, who offered to retrieve the WAC’s personal bags. With the sound of battle in the background, Helen and the staff spent 6 weeks camped on that beach in a special holding area; sneaking a few moments with Noel at every opportunity. Finally Paris was liberated and Cpl. Kogel rejoined the General’s staff and remained there until the end of the war.
Helen had promised her father that she wouldn’t get married while in the service so, after Noel was also discharged and had been rehired to his former job with Southern Bell in Atlanta, he made tracks for South Dakota to ask for Helen’s hand. The two were married in the Woonsocket Catholic Church; a marriage that lasted 36 happy years until Noel’s untimely death of a heart attack in 1982.
In all that time. Helen never told a single sole including her beloved Noel about her contribution to history during the war.
To deal with..not only Noel’s passing..but the accidental death of their adopted son, Jon, a few months earlier, Helen immersed herself in volunteer work receiving countless honors and awards for her efforts with the Red Cross, March of Dimes, United Way and just about any organization that needed someone to get a job done. That included serving for many years as both post and district commander of the Riverdale Georgia Chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
But, it wasn’t until the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994 when a friend asked if any women were involved in the invasion, that Helen finally broke her silence. When the friend heard her amazing story she couldn’t wait to call the local TV station and from that day until Helen’s passing last December in Fayetteville, Georgia at the age of 91, she spoke to hundreds of groups from school kids to veterans and gave dozens of media interviews leaving everyone a bit slack jawed not only for the vital role she played in Operation Overlord but in keeping mum about it for a half century.
I managed to get in touch with Helen’s nephew, David Kogel who still lives in Woonsocket. I was curious if his aunt was actually that good at keeping secrets. “Oh, Yeah,” David told me. “None of us heard about it until 1994 and we were all amazed.”
David says he’s not surprised that Helen would join the WAC’s adding that five of the Kogel siblings were in the service at the same time. “Patriotism runs pretty deep in our family, I guess” he said. And that includes David himself who served in the Army infantry during the thick of it in Vietnam. He’s a long time member of the Woonsocket Post 29 and, like his aunt Helen, has served in a number of elected positions including post commander. Also like her, David Kogel works tirelessly volunteering on behalf of veterans and other causes including the American Cancer Society.
“Any idea why Helen kept her secret well beyond what anyone would consider a reasonable time?” I asked. “Well, she said she was afraid that the FBI might still be keeping tabs on her and could end up throwing her in jail,” David laughed.
I’m sure glad she finally got over that fear. Me too.