Last Saturday was the 65th anniversary of D-Day. The most memorable anniversary of that occasion, however, took place in 1984 as President Ronald Reagan delivered two outstanding speeches in commemoration of the sacrifices the Allied troops made that day.
Reagan’s first speech was at the cliffs of Point du Hoc, where a specialized Ranger battalion scaled the cliffs to take out the German guns. This was a key to victory, since those guns were capable of firing upon every invading Allied soldier for miles along the coast.
In the audience that day were surviving Rangers who had returned for the 40th anniversary. It was a moving experience, made more so by the words Reagan spoke:
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.
Reagan spoke from the heart because he was a man of that generation. He remembered what the country went through in WWII. It was appropriate for him to be the one to commemorate the occasion.
To me, it was also most appropriate that Reagan died the day before D-Day, 2004, on the 60th anniversary. Television news coverage of the anniversary of that day went hand-in-hand with a celebration of the life and achievements of Ronald Reagan.
Did an era end with his death? Does D-Day commemoration mean as much any more? Are we a nation that still honors those who died, or have we changed irreparably? Only time will reveal our true character now.