“For four long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved and the world prayed for its rescue. Here in Normandy, the rescue began.”
Those are the words of President Ronald Reagan on June 6, 1984 as he stood on the “lonely, windswept point on the North of France,” the cliff of Pointe du Hoc. In front of him were many of the American Rangers who had scaled the cliffs under German machine gun fire forty years before. Reagan’s speech was written by Peggy Noonan and is one of the most moving speeches he ever gave.
Omaha and Utah Beaches, designated as the American landing zone for D-Day, are separated by Pointe du Hoc, a promontory boasting 100-foot cliffs. From the point, both beaches are clearly visible, and on it the Germans had constructed a massive fortress. Six artillery pieces, boasting a 14-mile range, could reach both Omaha and Utah Beaches, and even a portion of the British landing zone, and posed a threat to the Allied ships carrying the invasion forces. Destroying them was critical to the success of the D-Day invasion.
Pointe du Hoc was nearly impregnable. The fortress itself was formidable, plus the Germans had suspended improvised explosives from the cliffs. German machine guns could reach the beaches at the bottom, where the invaders would be forced to land. A seaborne assault was the only option—machine gun nests, barbed wire, and heavy mine fields made airborne or land assault impossible. The 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions were tasked with scaling the cliffs to secure the point. It was a suicide mission.
At 0710 local time on June 6, 1944, 225 members of Dog Company in the 2nd Ranger Battalion reached the beach below the cliffs. They were 40 minutes later than planned because the radar that was supposed to guide them malfunctioned and they ended up 2 miles off course; several of their landing craft sank due to artillery fire before they reached the beach.
The Rangers were supposed to storm the point just as the Allied aerial and naval bombardment ceased at 0630, but due to the delay the Germans had plenty of time to recover. As the Americans disembarked and crossed the beach to the cliff, the Germans poured machine gun fire down on them. Using grappling hooks fired from the landing craft, they climbed the muddy, slippery ropes two and three at a time while the Germans rained machine gun fire and grenades down on them.
The follow-on forces from the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions landed at Omaha Beach instead of Pointe du Hoc because they had not received the all clear signal at the appointed time. They and the Infantry units came under heavy machine gun fire as they crossed the beach—this was portrayed in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan.
By 0730 the Rangers had reached the top of the point, where they cleared the Germans out of what remained of the bunkers—but the artillery were nowhere to be found. Acting on their own initiative, two of the Rangers identified and followed tire tracks made by the German guns; they fought their way through several German strong points and eventually located the guns camouflaged in an apple orchard. They disabled the guns with thermite grenades—just two men accomplished what hundreds of Allied bombers and the heavy guns of Allied warships had failed to achieve.
The Rangers set up a roadblock across the road behind Pointe du Hoc. By nightfall on June 6, one third of the 225 men who had landed at Pointe du Hoc were dead or wounded; some of the wounded continued to fight on, and all of the survivors were surprised and thankful to be alive. That night, the Germans counterattacked, overran some of the Ranger positions, and nearly recaptured the point, but the Rangers held. They were the tip of the spear that would liberate Europe. Through personal initiative and courage against impossible odds, a small group of true heroes shaped the course of history.
Faith, loyalty, and love, Reagan said, are what impelled these men forward in the face of near-certain death.
“It was the deep knowledge—and pray God we have not lost it—that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation, and the use of force for conquest.”
Forty years after D-Day, Reagan urged that we “make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for…” Now, 75 years after the valiant invasion, I challenge us to examine ourselves in the same light: are we honoring their memory with the way we live, the way we defend liberty and justice, the way we treat one another, and the way we display our American patriotism? The heroes of D-Day began the liberation of the world from German conquest and Soviet socialism. Let us ensure that their labor was not in vain, especially now, as socialism tries to gain a foothold in the freest nation in the world.
“Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their value and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.”