The Boys Of Pointe du Hoc
Thirty years ago, when the veterans of D-Day were still relatively young and still largely with us, President Reagan delivered one of the finest speeches of his Presidency.
As the world marks what will most likely be the last major anniversary of D-Day at which men who actually participated in the invasion will be present, many are remembering another anniversary some thirty-five years ago when President Reagan, with the aid of his best speechwriter, delivered what remains one of the great Presidential addresses of our time:
The famous words are scribbled across a paragraph in an early draft of the speech — short, powerful sentences that read like poetry and were added at the last minute.
“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc.
“These are the men who took the cliffs . . .
“These are the heroes . . . “
It was spring 1984. President Ronald Reagan stood on a craggy piece of land jutting into the English Channel where 40 years before American soldiers had scaled the heights on D-Day, June 6, 1944, during the allied landings at Normandy.
Sitting before him were 62 of the “boys,” now-middle aged men who had climbed the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, using ropes, grappling hooks and ladders to reach a suspected German gun emplacement 100 feet up.
They were boys no more, and even on the that stormy morning in 1944, they were more a group of rugged characters than youths.
One, William “L-Rod” Petty, 63, had lost his teeth playing football and suffered two broken legs in training before he joined the Army Ranger outfit that fought there. It took him three tries to reach the top. He is thought to have killed 30 German soldiers that day.
Leonard G. “Bud” Lomell, 64, and been a railroad brakeman before the war. Shot in the side, he barely made it up the cliff, but later destroyed two big German guns with thermite grenades. He would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Frank South, 59, was a Ranger medic, and had treated many wounded men on the beach before reaching the heights with the others. He would earn two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.
Antonio “Tom” Ruggiero, 58, had been a professional tap dancer before the war. He was plunged into the water when a shell hit his landing craft on D-Day and later became a sniper in the Rangers.
President Trump is scheduled to visit Normandy on Thursday for the 75th anniversary of the invasion. But he’s set to speak at an American cemetery, not Pointe du Hoc, according to the White House. Today, there is believed to be only one ranger who fought at Pointe du Hoc still alive.
Even in 1984, D-Day was a hazy memory for many people. The U.S. was still healing from the deep psychic wounds of the Vietnam War, and Washington faced a menacing adversary in the Soviet Union.
Plus, Reagan was in the midst of a reelection campaign, and, during a trip to Europe that spring, his appearance in Normandy was a crucial opportunity.
The task of writing Reagan’s address was given to a precocious 33-year-old speechwriter named Peggy Noonan, one of seven children of an Irish-Catholic family from Brooklyn. Her father was a furniture salesman. The family later lived above a candy store in New Jersey. She had once worked as a waitress.
But she also had a degree in literature, had minored in journalism, and kept a copy of the Bible and Ezra Pound’s “Cantos” by her when she worked.
What she produced was brilliant.
“For sheer oratorical elegance,” historian Douglas Brinkley wrote, it would become “one of the most inspirational presidential speeches ever delivered.”
In June of 1984, Noonan had been at the White House about three months and had never met the president. But she adored Reagan, got a keen sense of the drama of D-Day, and was terrific with words.
“A speech is a soliloquy,” she would write later. “One man on a bare stage with a big spotlight . . . part theater and part political declaration.”
With the possible exception of the televised address he delivered the night of the Challenger explosion, which was also penned by Noonan, it was perhaps the greatest speech of President Reagan’s Presidency.\
As it turns out, the inspiration for what became the most memorable part of that speech didn’t come until late in the drafting process:
In her 1990 book, “What I saw at the Revolution,” she wrote that she paced around the Washington Monument, read books about D-Day and pondered.
“I drifted . . . waiting for the speech to come,” she wrote. “Sometimes they do.”
She would borrow several rich scenes from Cornelius Ryan’s classic D-Day history, “The Longest Day.” She would use a line from the British poet, Stephen Spender: You “left the vivid air signed with your honor,” she would have Reagan say.
Then, she had a revelation.
She knew that Pointe du Hoc veterans would be in the crowd to hear the speech. But she hadn’t known until she learned from a colleague that they would all be sitting together right in front of the president when he spoke.
Reagan must address them directly.
At the bottom of page 2 of her May 21 typed draft, the sentence, “We have here today some of the survivors of the battle of Point du Hoc, some of the Rangers who took these cliffs,” is crossed out.
Handwritten over it, in neat printed script, are the words, “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc . . . “
It was the greatest line in one of Reagan’s greatest speeches, and perhaps the most memorable about D-Day since Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower told his men that day: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade. . . . The eyes of the world are upon you . . . “
Reagan delivered it on a gray afternoon, against the backdrop of the gray sea, “on a lonely windswept point on the northern shore of France,” he said.
He stood before a French-built stone monument to the Rangers constructed atop an old German bunker.
The Rangers, in dark blazers, gray slacks and business suits, stood and saluted when he stepped to the lectern, then sat down on wooden folding chairs. Reagan returned their salute.
Noonan watched on TV in her office back in Washington.
“Forty years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and . . . was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon,” Reagan said.
“Free nations had fallen,” he had begun. “Jews cried out in the camps.
Millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved and the world prayed for its rescue.”
“Here . . . the rescue began,” he said.
“Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs,” he said, glancing over his shoulder.
“And before me,” he said with a pause for drama, “are the men who put them there.”
“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” he said, stopping as applause rippled through the crowd. “These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”
There were tears in the eyes of some of the old soldiers. The speech lasted about 14 minutes. Afterward, Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan shook hands with the Rangers and moved on to their next stop.
It’s worth noting that President Reagan was the first sitting President to visit Normandy on the D-Day anniversary. President Eisenhower chose not to travel to Europe for the 10th anniversary in 1954 in part because he believed that to do so would appear overly boastful at a time that Europe was still recovering from the war. President Johnson did not appear in 1964 because he had vowed that he would not travel during his first term in the wake of the assassination of President Kennedy. In 1974, President Nixon was mired in Watergate and just two months away from resignation. Since Reagan, of course, each American President who has been in office during a significant anniversary has traveled to France to represent the United States.
It’s also worth remembering that Reagan’s speech in 1984 was delivered in a Europe that, in some ways, was still suffering from some of the damage that World War II had inflicted. The Berlin Wall was still standing, and it would be another five years and five months before it finally crumbled into dust. The Cold War was still a concern, and NATO and Warsaw Pact continued to face each other across the border between West and East Germany. The Soviet Union was still led by an old, sick man and nobody could foresee that only 9 months later, he would be dead and a new leader would be in place who, along with Reagan, helped bring an end to the Cold War and, though he didn’t intend it, the end of the Soviet Union itself. It was a time, in other words, when there were few on either side of the Atlantic who questioned the importance and value of alliances like the one that made the D-Day invasion possible. Today we face new challenges. The Soviet Union no longer exists, but Russia remains a threat to Eastern Europe. China is a rising power and, while there is no rational reason for our two nations to clash militarily, one that could see the United States as standing in its way, especially in areas in the Pacific it sees are part of its area of interest. The world faces threats from terrorism, rogue regimes in North Korea and elsewhere, and the threat that conflicts in places such as the Middle East, the tensions between India and Pakistan, and between India and Pakistan that make the alliances, we have all the more important. That’s why the lessons of D-Day and World War II matter. As I noted earlier today, that isn’t the case today and the fact that we are back in a world where those alliances are being questioned is unfortunate, and in some sense an insult to the boys of Pointe du Hac:
At the end of his speech, Reagan used Noonan’s closing lines to pay tribute to the Ranger dead:
“Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their valor, and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.”
I fear we are in danger of forgetting all of that.
You can read the transcript of Reagan’s address here, or watch the video: