He stood erect and stately in his crisp and perfectly-tailored dark blue suit.
The day was cloudy, the wind blew gently across the northern sea. It was a majestic setting, these high, sharp cliffs.
Those seated in front of him wore stoic countenances on their weathered faces.
Forty years ago, these men were young and filled with both terror and determination. The task before them was as dangerous as it was noble.
On that historic day, D-Day, their president had lifted them up in prayer on national radio before millions of their countrymen:
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.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt unashamedly beseeched the aid of God in the great and hazardous undertaking.
The stakes had never been higher.
The whole world stood poised on the precipice of darkness and ruin. Good and evil stood balanced and faced each other. The eyes of the nation united in looking unto Him Who alone rules in the affairs of men and holds the nations in His omnipotent hand as the small dust of the scales (Isaiah 40:15).
The praying president was humble and direct before the Creator of all the earth:
“They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces … They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest – until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.”
The president confessed the reality every parent of every soldier in every war dreads to face.
“Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.”
FDR closed with a simple petition:
“Thy will be done, Almighty God. Amen”.
On June 6, 1984, standing on these cliffs on the northern shore of France where American soldiers had stormed ashore four decades earlier “to set free a suffering humanity”, President Ronald Reagan had come to salute those who had survived.
He was joined by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands, King Olav V of Norway, King Baudouin I of Belgium, Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg, and Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau of Canada.
In his clear and mellow voice, the President set the stage, as perhaps only an actor with a great speech writer – Peggy Noonan – could:
“We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but 40 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.”
Reagan described what came next for the 225 Rangers who ran to the bottom of these cliffs at dawn that fateful day.
“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 President spoke of how the men climbed up rope ladders amidst the German artillery fire descending from the summit. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut by the enemy, a Ranger would grab another and keep climbing.
“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.”
After two days of undiminished perseverance, of the 225 who began the climb up the cliffs, only 90 could still fight.
Referring to the memorial behind him that honors their gallantry, President Reagan looked at the aged veterans. His voice filled with emotion, he said:
“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. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”
The old soldiers’ eyes glistened.
Reagan spoke to them:
“Forty summers have passed … You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys …Yet, you risked everything here.
Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here?
We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love.”
Today, we also salute “the boys of Pointe du Hoc … the men who took the cliffs …” and all the men and women who have laid down their lives in the cause of freedom around the world.
The heroism that preserved liberty is the lasting legacy of a free republic.
Thank God for our soldiers, our sailors, our airmen. May we remember them always – and their heritage of sacrifice which is ours as a free people.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13, KJV).