June 6, 2014
London’s Daily Telegraph provides us a link to this rare “colour” footage of D-Day. The Allied attack on the heavily-fortified coast of Nazi-occupied France was the largest seaborne invasion in history. With this clip, we can see what the uniforms looked like, what color is meant by the German word feldgrau (field gray).
In the White House, President Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcast to the nation over all radio networks. The Commander-in-Chief was unembarrassed about his faith. He asked his fellow Americans to join him in this prayer. He told the people the D-Day invasion was a struggle to preserve “our republic, our religion, and our civilization.”
For thousands of those young warriors in the invasion force, June 6, 1944 would be their last day on earth. Many of them would carry among their battle gear small New Testaments. These good books, including the Psalms, had been issued to our troops. They bore an inscription by President Roosevelt encouraging the soldiers, Marines, airmen, and Coast Guardsmen to read and attend to the message they contained.
D-Day has always had a special significance in our family. My father and my wife’s father were both veterans of World War II, and though neither man took part in the Normandy invasion, all Americans of their day felt that those troops who stormed ashore that cold June morning carried our hearts with them.
My wife and I went to Normandy for our twenty-fifth anniversary. We wanted to see the place where so many American, British, Canadian, Polish, and Free French forces had fought. It is an unforgettable sight.
The French have preserved the landing beaches largely as they were then. They are still designated with their D-Day code names — Utah and Omaha (American), Gold (U.K.) Juno (Can.), and Sword (U.K.).
Standing on those forbidding cliffs, high above the beach, we looked down on the approaches from the perspective of the German soldiers who were part of Festung Europa (Fortress Europe). Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had spent a year and millions of man-hours pressing Norman farmers as slave laborers. He made them build up the ugly concrete bunkers and steel obstacles that were supposed to stop the Allied invaders on the beaches. Rommel knew if the Allies gained a foothold in France, he would not be able to stop them pushing all the way to Germany.
We especially wanted to stand at Pointe du Hoc. That’s the spot where President Ronald Reagan stood in 1984 to commemorate the Fortieth Anniversary of D-Day. President Reagan saluted “the boys of Point[e] du Hoc.” He lauded those U.S. Army Rangers as “men who left the vivid air signed with their honor.”
Historian Douglas Brinkley wrote a book on The Boys of Pointe du Hoc. Brinkley believes that Ronald Reagan understood that we cannot focus on the massive number of troops; we cannot appreciate the enterprise of the largest invasion force by a listing of all those tens of thousands of many nations and many units that took part. So, Reagan chose to honor those Rangers who scaled those cliffs and placed their daggers in the land they would soon liberate. In so doing, Brinkley writes, Ronald Reagan sparked a resurgence of patriotism in America.
We stood at Pointe du Hoc, just a few months before President Reagan died in 2004. He had summoned up the best of our nation’s past in the service of his great quest to free that half of Europe still held captive. It was Ronald Reagan’s great achievement. Best of all, he helped to free hundreds of millions from Communism without war.
We wanted to have some remembrance of this signal moment in our lives. My wife, a thirty-year veteran of the Navy, was made even prouder of her service by standing at that spot. As a veteran of the Coast Guard, I was thrilled to see the place recorded for history in this photo taken by Coastie manning a landing craft. He had delivered those dauntless warriors “into the jaws of death.”
The French allow no commercialization of those beaches. They are pristine. No souvenir stands are allowed. The closest museum is in Caen. There’s no place there to buy even a post card.
So she spied a discarded ice cream container neatly deposited in a receptacle. “Let’s take sand,” she said. So I scooped up a gallon of that sand for which our fathers’ great generation bled and died.
Returning home, Capt. Kathleen Morrison filled small plastic containers with those sands of Normandy. For years, she gave these vials to Navy and Marine Corps friends upon their retirement from honorable service to our country. Often, these retirees would tear up when they received these gifts. Today is a time to remember the gift those Invaders of June 6, 1944 gave us: freedom itself.