Whoever said all women are gossips and cannot be trusted to keep a secret never met Helen Denton. This remarkable woman kept quiet about an event which would turn the tide in favor of the Allies in the European Theater during World War II.
Helen Denton was born and raised on the farmland her grandfather homestead in South Dakota, then passed on to her father. After completing a two-year course of study at a local business college, Helen enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp (later renamed the Women’s Army Corps / WACs) in 1943, due to the fact all the eligible men in her area were in the Army. Following basic training, Helen served as a recruiter in both Kansas and Missouri, then transferred to Fort Crook, Nebraska.
Once she arrived at Fort Crook, Helen was assigned the position of secretary to the post commander. Not long afterwards, a telegram came through seeking volunteers to join the staff of General Dwight D. Eisenhower in England. She was quick to raise her hand, asking to participate. After her selection, Helen attended a short course on military security given by the FBI. She then joined 30 other WACs and several thousand soldiers on the Queen Mary and set sail for England. Helen would serve on General Eisenhower’s staff from January 1944 until October 1945.
Helen arrived in London during the siege referred to as “The Blitz”. Issued a top secret assignment, Helen sat in a closed room and spent most of her days during the early months of 1944 typing orders for “Operation Overload”, the upcoming invasion of Normandy (D-Day). While she typed the secretive orders, she could hear the German bombers overhead as the attack on London intensified. Helen’s days were spent hunkered over a manual typewriter, transcribing notes and orders nine hours a day, five days a week for the commander of the Allied Forces.
Over the course of eight weeks – five days a week, eight hours a day - Helen typed. Various officers came in and out of the room, placing next to her and the other secretaries, additional stacks of papers to be transcribed. Helen typed an original and three copies, each of which was then placed into four separate notebooks. The MP on duty at the end of the day would collect typewriter ribbons and carbon paper to be burned in an effort to protect the information from falling into enemy hands. He then escorted the women to their hotel in Barclay Square.
When the transcribing was completed, Helen was handed the final copy of the assignment and offered the opportunity to take it to General Eisenhower in his office. She had worked on the general’s staff for over a year, but had never spoken to him. She considered it a great honor to be allowed to enter his office.
As she handed the typed pages to Dwight Eisenhower, the general asked her, “Corporal, do you know what you’ve typed?” She told him, “Yes, sir. These are the battle plans that you will use for the invasion of France.” That was the first time the general had ever spoken to her. Instead, they had only saluted from a distance.
Much to her surprise, Eisenhower then questioned her about her brother, Jerry, who was stationed in England. When Helen told the general she had not seen her brother in three years, he handed her a weekend pass and told her to go visit him.
Though the bombings limited Helen’s chances to get out and see London, she was privileged to a couple of special opportunities. Participating in a Red Cross tour one day, Helen and 14 other tourists were taken on a tour of Windsor Castle. While exploring the Portrait Room, the doors opened to admit four more people – King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth II) and Princess Margaret. Finding herself suddenly in the presence of royalty, Helen was a bit nervous. “I’m just a country girl from South Dakota and here is the King of England. How do you address him? Do you kiss his feet? Do you kiss his ring?” As he approached her, the King asked what she did. She told him her name was Helen Kogel from Woonsocket, South Dakota and that she was one of General Eisenhower’s secretaries. The King then asked if she knew his daughter, Elizabeth. He went on to tell her, “She’s going to be driving some of your officers around.” Directing her attention to the future queen, Helen said, “Oh, I hope to see you around some time.”
Following that experience, Helen later found herself at No. 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Upon their arrival, the housekeeper invited the tourists to enjoy tea in the living room. A short time later, the door opened and in walked Winston Churchill. Not stopping to chat, the Prime Minister helped himself to a cup of tea and a scone, then left the room. Helen later wrote a letter to her mother in which she said she had had tea with Winston Churchill.
Though June 6, 1944 dawned beautiful and sunny, it was a bittersweet day for Helen and many others. The prior day Helen could hear planes roaring overhead as they headed for France. Even though she thought to herself, “Boy, Germany is really going to get a pounding,” her heart was heavy with what our soldiers were going through.
Once the beaches of northern France were in the hands of the allied forces, Helen and other secretaries were transferred to Utah Beach in Normandy. Going through the chow line that night, she met an Army signal corpsman, Noel Denton. Cupid would later have his way with this couple.
Following her experience as one of the first WACs to enter and work in a liberated Paris, Helen went home in August 1945. The war in Europe had come to an end and the one in the Pacific was winding down. Her life would later take wing when she hired on with Delta Airlines. Retiring from Delta in 1982, Helen volunteered with the Red Cross and Delta Pioneers, along with serving as commander of VFW Post 3650.
Even though World War II had now taken its place in the history books and life moved on, the notes Helen typed remained locked within her for 50 years. She could still remember the number of ships, planes and men which were deployed for the mission. She knew the landing locations for each group, the movement of the ships and where the bombs would be dropped. She knew the 101st Airborne would be responsible for cutting railroad lines, blowing up bridges and seizing landing strips. The only thing Helen had not learned until it happened was the date Operation Overload was scheduled to occur. Though she was sworn to secrecy prior to the invasion, Helen later stated the fact she regretted having never shared any of what she learned with Noel, her husband, before he died.