June 6, 1944, a day that is now a lifetime behind us, commands a place in our national memory because it was then, and there, more than at any other place and time in our history, that American force shone brightest as a force for good. This is so because at no other time has evil in the world been so manifest a threat not only to our nation but to the entire world.
The allied triumph on D-Day nowadays is often taken for granted or, incredibly, forgotten by many who have never lived in a time of such stark and dramatic choices. We are accustomed to the grayness of things, their complexity, their tedious obduracy, and this awareness, while necessary and a part of the reality of our lives, should not leave us without a sense of resolution or without the courage that must go with it.
And while it is not difficult to find both resolution and courage in the story of D-Day, one episode stands apart, stands, literally, higher as a dramatic example of what we may be called to do in the most extreme circumstances.
On the morning of June 6, 1944, three companies of the 2nd Ranger Battalion left the safety of their transport ship and crammed into a dozen landing craft that then headed across a heavy sea toward the bare cliffs of Point Du Hoc, on the coast of Normandy. Out of 225 men, only about 190 made it to the narrow, rocky beach below the point. The others drowned or were rescued from the ocean and taken back to larger vessels.
On the way in, shells from the battleship Texas blasted giant craters in the top of Point du Hoc, driving the German defenders away from the crest. But as Lieutenant Colonel Earl Rudder, commander of the battalion, made his way in, he could tell that the landing craft were off course. He and his men were supposed to land just after the Texas had finished shelling the point; instead, the first men hit the beach at 7:10 a.m., more than 40 minutes after the battleship had ceased firing.
Imagine the situation Lt. Col. Rudder was in: the Germans had returned to the crest, some of Rudder’s supplies were on their way to the bottom of the English Channel, and the ladders borrowed from the London Fire Department proved to be about 25 feet too short to reach the crest. On the other hand, the shelling had caused a pile of rocks, mud, and shale to form at the bottom of the point, giving the Rangers a 25-foot “boost” before they had to begin hard climbing.
The Germans began firing down on the men and also threw “potato masher” grenades at the ascending Rangers. Amazingly, some Rangers made it to the top of Point du Hoc within five minutes of landing, aided in part by timely artillery support from the destroyer Saterlee, which had observed that the Germans had returned to their positions. Rangers used rocket guns to launch grapnel hooks connected to rope and rope ladders; the hooks caught in the rocks along the crest, and the men were able to scramble to the top.
The Rangers’ mission in attacking Point du Hoc was to seize and disable six 155 millimeter guns that the Germans had taken from the French. But two days before the invasion, the Germans moved the guns to a position about 550 yards from the point, where they lay camouflaged. Allied reconnaissance failed to pick up the new location of the guns, though Rudder and his senior officers knew by D-Day that the guns were no longer placed on the crest, where they could have trained heavy fire on both Omaha and Utah beaches.
In their new location, the guns were in position to fire on Utah beach alone. The six emplacements on the crest remained, however, and allied commanders feared that they would be used by German forward artillery observers after the invasion commenced. So the mission, in effect, changed: the guns and the emplacements needed to be destroyed, but in separate locations. Most of the men of the battalion did not know that the guns had been moved.
From his command post near the top, Rudder sent his radioman back down to the beach to let the fleet know that the point had been secured. (Radio communication was ineffective on the crest.) Hoping that 500 reinforcements from the remainder of the 2nd battalion and the entire 5th battalion, both of which were to have followed the first wave up the slope, Rudder learned instead that because of the delay they had been ordered to hit Omaha Beach, where their presence was critical to holding the beachhead.
That shift left Rudder and his remaining active force vulnerable to German counterattacks, which were soon in coming. The Ranger force split, with one group under Rudder gathered in and around a giant shell crater on the edge of the crest, and the other forces spread out in an attempt to deal with the counterattacks and secure the coastal road. Rangers in the second group, especially, had trouble seeing or hearing amid the explosions and constant gunfire. One moment they would see a comrade nearby, and the next moment either they or the comrade had disappeared into a looming crater, or worse.
During the night of June 6-7, Rudder had to decide whether to ask his forward elements along the coastal road to join him on the edge of the cliffs, or let them remain where they were–scattered but still fighting off the German counterattacks. That same night found Private Robert Goldacker, a 19-year-old from Michigan, disabled and lost on the torn-up crest of Point du Hoc.
Goldacker, like many of his comrades, clambered over the cliffs only to find that the artillery wasn’t where it was supposed to be. He began running as part of an overall frenzied search for the big pieces but was hit in the back and knocked into a large crater. Unable to move his legs, Goldacker finally crawled through the mud and out of the crater, hoping to find someone other than a German soldier. He encountered another wounded Ranger, also disabled, and the two spent most of the night leaning against each other, back to back, so that they could have a greater field of vision.
The two men didn’t talk–they couldn’t because of the horrifying noise of battle–but they passed cigarettes back and forth as they tried to make out shapes and other sounds in the darkness. As morning approached, Goldacker tried to pass a cigarette back to his friend. “That night we stopped passing,” Goldacker said. “And that was it.” The other man was dead. Goldacker never found out his name.
Meanwhile Rudder had made up his mind. His men would remain in their positions. If he concentrated all of his remaining force at the edge of the cliffs, the Germans would likely focus their artillery on that location, resulting in the loss of the ground that the Rangers had given so much to take. All the company commanders of the units near the coastal road were dead or injured; only three lieutenants remained. They took charge and held off repeated German attacks, using German weapons and ammo for the most part because their own ammo supply was depleted.
Both Ranger positions held through the next day and night, despite repeated attacks. Finally, on the morning of June 8, men and armor from the 116th infantry regiment broke through and relieved Rudder and his Rangers, more than 48 hours after they had ascended the cliffs of Point du Hoc. Only 90 of the original 225 men were still able to function on their own.
Forty years later, President Ronald Reagan delivered an eloquent address, now made famous by Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley’s book The Boys of Point du Hoc. The book is not about the military actions but about the reasons for the speech itself, probably the best work of former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, now of the Wall Street Journal.
Reagan sought to make dramatic use of the “boys” and the location of their battle in his speech, and he succeeded. His message was aimed not at the old enemies of the past but at the totalitarian regimes of 1984, especially the Soviet Union, five years before its spectacular collapse. That message was simple, not gray or complex: Point du Hoc represents what we can do when our options have dwindled to annihilation or survival. We survive, no matter the obstacle.
A sizable number of Point du Hoc veterans were still alive that day, and many were seated near the memorial obelisk that marks the site of their heroic deeds. And it was their presence at the event that must have inspired Noonan’s most brilliant stroke in the president’s famous speech–the use of a line from British poet Stephen Spender’s poem “The Truly Great”:
“Gentlemen, I look at you,” the president said, “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.'”