June 6, 1984. On the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, President Ronald Reagan stood on the very spot where a single battalion of Army Rangers scaled a bluff under fire in order to silence guns that were harrassing troops landing on Omaha Beach.
It was a magnificent feat of arms and Reagan, in one of the greatest American political speeches of all time, canonized those Rangers and drew a larger lesson from their sacrifices.
We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but forty years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon. At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, two hundred and twenty-five Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs.
Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here, and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.
The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at the edge of the cliffs, shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting, only ninety could still bear arms.
And behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war. Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender's poem. You are men who in your "lives fought for life and left the vivid air signed with your honor."
Sixty-nine years ago, the waters in Normandy ran red with the blood of American soldiers. It was a near thing, and as Stephen Ambrose, World War II historian and author of the magnificent book, "D-Day," relates, an impossibly few Americans on Omaha Beach actually made the difference between victory and defeat.
They were getting butchered where they were all the sea wall because the Germans had it all zeroed in with their mortars that were coming down on top of them. And, "Over here, Captain," "Over here, Lieutenant, over here." A sergeant looked at this situation and said, "The hell with this. If I'm going to get killed, I'm going to take some Germans with me." And he would call out, "Follow me," and up he would start. Hitler didn't believe this was ever possible. Hitler was certain that the soft, effeminate children of democracy could never become soldiers. Hitler was certain that the Nazi youth would always outfight the Boy Scouts, and Hitler was wrong.
The Boy Scouts took them on D-Day. Joe Dawson led Company G. He started off with 200 men. He got to the top of the bluff with 20 men, but he got to the top. He was the first one to get there. He's going to be introducing President Clinton tomorrow at Omaha Beach. John Spaulding was another. He was a lieutenant. Many of them are nameless. I don't know their names. I've talked to men who've said, "I saw this lieutenant and he tossed a grenade into the embrasure of that fortification, and out came four Germans with their hands up. I thought to myself, hell, if he can do that, I can do that." "What was his name?" I will ask. "Geez, I don't know. I never found out his name. I never saw him before, and I never saw him again, but he was a great man. He got me up that bluff."
Reagan's speech encapsulated that valor and courage and will be remembered as long as we remember D-Day.