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80 summers ago

Published in Blog on June 06, 2024 by Jakob Fay

“I wanted American teenagers to stop chewing their Rice Krispies for a minute and hear about the greatness of those tough kids who are now their grandfathers.” Today, we might rewrite the line: I wanted American teenagers to stop sipping their Starbucks and binge-watching TikTok. 

This odd sentence, almost completely lost to history, hails from Peggy Noonan, President Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, who penned his famous D-Day commemorative addresses. It describes the effect she hoped to achieve with the president’s words.

On Wednesday, June 6, 1984, the American commander-in-chief arrived in Normandy, Noonan’s speech in hand, for the 40th anniversary of the Allied invasion, a rescue mission of continental proportions. Operation Overlord, fueled by the landing of nearly 160,000 Allied troops, including 73,000 Americans, aimed at liberating Western Europe from the steely grip of Nazi control and oppression. It succeeded (and altered the course of the war in the process) but at the terrible cost of 4,414 Allied troops dead and 5,000 more injured.

How does one pay tribute to such seemingly superhuman bravery and behavior? How does a nation commemorate so many honored dead? Such questions appeared to weigh heavy on Reagan as he faced a crowd consisting of many of the day’s surviving heroes.

“I had difficulty getting through my speech,” he confessed to his diary. Omaha Beach, he noted, was a “heartbreaker.”

Omaha, the codename for the six-mile stretch of land between Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes and Vierville-sur-Mer, was the second beach targeted by the Americans that fateful morning. It followed on the heels of Utah Beach, the westernmost beach (also targeted by the Americans), and preceded Gold (reserved for the Canadians), Juno, and Sword (earmarked for the British). Reagan paid tribute to the fierce fighting at each in his speeches; naturally, though, he focused on the courage and sacrifice of his fellow countrymen.

“Men bled and died here for a few feet of — or inches of sand, as bullets and shellfire cut through their ranks,” described the “Great Communicator,” himself a noncombatant World War 2 veteran. “About them, General Omar Bradley later said, ‘Every man who set foot on Omaha Beach that day was a hero.’”

Eight miles west, where the 2nd Ranger Regiment, under the leadership of Lt. Col. James E. Rudder, scaled 100-foot-cliffs and, despite heavy losses, dislodged the Germans from one of their most treacherous positions, Reagan paid special tribute to the “boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs,” he remembered. “These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

“Will you tell me how we did this?” Rudder asked ten years after the harrowing assignment, which one of Rudder’s colleagues deemed the most “difficult task” ever assigned to a “soldier in my command.” “Anybody would be a fool to try this. It was crazy then, and it’s crazy now.”

“The German is a good fighter, but he’s no match for the Rangers,” Rudder added proudly.

But how did they do it? It was crazy, foolish, impossible. They were mere boys. As Reagan put it, “You were young the day you took these cliffs… with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet, you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it?”

“We look at you,” he attempted to respond, “and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love.”

“The men of Normandy,” he said, “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.”

But that was not all. “Something else,” he continued, “helped the men of D-day: their rockhard belief 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 [was] 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,” Reagan contended.

Indeed, even as the Allies faced relentless waves of murderous enemy bullets 80 summers ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt led the nation in prayer on their behalf.

“Almighty God,” he petitioned, “our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith. They will need Thy blessings.”

“Their road will be long and hard,” Roosevelt admitted. “Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return, again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.”

Triumph, they did. And Roosevelt and Reagan both knew why.

Brave men may fight for ill. Indeed, soldiers on both sides of the conflict displayed patriotism and courage. But one side is remembered as the “Greatest Generation,” while the other persists only as an evil memory. What set them apart?  

Our boys succeeded because they were righteous. They knew that their cause was good, just, and noble. And, on the eve of battle, when they turned their faces to heaven, God did not look away.

May this always be said of those who fight to defend this country. And 80 years from now, when D-Day is as distant as Gettysburg, may we still remember and celebrate the greatness of those tough kids.

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