Sunday, June 06, 2010

D-Day, 66 Years Later

Today is the 66th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, which began the process of freeing Europe from Fascism. Given the times we live in, it has particular relevance today, as the members of the WWII generation fade into the sunset.

My uncle was one of the brave men who landed on Omaha beach that day. He never spoke about it much. I can only imagine what it was like to see the gates on that LST drop and have to run through the choppy waves to the beach, straight into the face of enemy fire every inch of the way.

About a dozen or so years ago, a few days after another June 6th, I ran into a grizzled but still erect old man and his friend at the bar of a local country club, where I was waiting for a lunch companion to show up. We got to chatting, the way people do in bars, and I found out from his friend that he had been one of the army rangers who performed a feat that seems superhuman to me every time I think of it..scaling the sheer cliffs of the Pointe Du Hoc, under intense enemy fire and taking out the artillery, machine guns and pill boxes at the top of the cliffs. These incredibly brave men performed this a cost of a casualty rate of about 60%.

Fortunately, my lunch date was late, so I had time to hear a first hand account from him of what that had been like. I've never forgotten it...or the matter-of-fact way in which he related it.

In 1984, President Reagan traveled to Point Du Hoc, which is now a military cemetery dedicated to those who fell at Normandy. He spoke to a group of veterans and others who had traveled to be there on the 40th anniversary of the battle, and he had a few things to say to them:

".... This place, Pointe du Hoc, in itself was moving and majestic. I stood there on that windswept point with the ocean behind me. Before me were the boys who forty years before had fought their way up from the ocean. Some rested under the white crosses and Stars of David that stretched out across the landscape. Others sat right in front of me. They looked like elderly businessmen, yet these were the kids who climbed the cliffs.

We're here to mark that day in history when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. 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. Here, the Allies stood and fought against tyranny, in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.

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." {...}

Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief. It was loyalty and love.

The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next. 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. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One's country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.

The Americans who fought here that morning knew word of the invasion was spreading through the darkness back home. They fought -- or felt in their hearts, though they couldn't know in fact, that in Georgia they were filling the churches at 4:00 am. In Kansas they were kneeling on their porches and praying. And in Philadelphia they were ringing the Liberty Bell.

Something else helped the men of D-day; their rock-hard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause. And so, the night before the invasion, when Colonel Wolverton asked his parachute troops to kneel with him in prayer, he told them: "Do not bow your heads, but look up so you can see God and ask His blessing in what we're about to do." Also, that night, General Matthew Ridgway on his cot, listening in the darkness for the promise God made to Joshua: "I will not fail thee nor forsake thee."

These are the things that impelled them; these are the things that shaped the unity of the Allies. {...}

We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars. It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We've learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent. {...}

We will pray forever that someday that changing will come. But for now, particularly today, it is good and fitting to renew our commitment to each other, to our freedom, and to the alliance that protects it.

We're bound today by what bound us 40 years ago, the same loyalties, traditions, and beliefs. We're bound by reality. The strength of America's allies is vital to the United States, and the American security guarantee is essential to the continued freedom of Europe's democracies. We were with you then; we're with you now. Your hopes are our hopes, and your destiny is our destiny.

Here, in this place where the West held together, let us make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for. Let our actions say to them the words for which Matthew Ridgway listened: "I will not fail thee nor forsake thee."

Strengthened by their courage and heartened by their value [valor] and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.

Thank you very much, and God bless you all."

To me, it was one of President Reagan's finest speeches, and his words are as true today as they were in 1984.

We have another president now, a very different one. He speaks the language of appeasement and nuance, and has pointedly refused to confront evil when it approaches. For all his conceived gift of oratory, does anyone see Barack Hussein Obama ever making a speech like the one above?

And in fact, our post-American president chose to remember D-Day not by honoring the men who fought there in any way whatsoever, but by going to a theater party, his second White House entertainment extravaganza in a week.

This is not unexpected. In spite of the soothing rhetoric pulsing through his stereo teleprompters, Barack Obama is a man who's values are ultimately opposed to the heroism and values symbolized by the Pont Du Hoc, an accident of history that may cost America dearly.

There is this, however. When I look at the faces of the men in our military today, I see the same qualities I noticed in the faces in the photographs from 60 odd years ago, the faces of the men who saved us from Hitler. I see the same determination, the same courage and faith, and the same loyalty and love.

It is living proof etched in their faces that, deep down at the core, we are the same country we were then.

If you look at our country's history, you see that we have never failed to find leadership in the darkest of times, or to prevail. We have done so in the past and we will do so again in the future.

And knowing that, I am more convinced than ever that the West will indeed stand, and freedom will triumph, just as it did 66 years ago.

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