If you wanted to pick a more foreboding, certainly unlikely, place for an important military attack, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a spot more uninviting than the imposing, rugged cliffs overlooking the English Channel four miles west of Omaha Beach. A few years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Normandy region for a speaking engagement. I stood on the spot where the Great Communicator spoke and tried to wrap my mind around the quite-evident impossibility of what the United States Army Ranger Assault Group accomplished that fateful day. Mr. Reagan honored those men there:
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 canon....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. These are the heroes who helped end a war.
Now, all these years later, we mark another anniversary of D-Day. But the boys of Bedford are now all gone. And noble ranks of the boys of Pointe Du Hoc have been thinned out by the course of time, as well. So, what happens when those who really remember are no longer around to remind us? What happens when eyewitness memory is no longer vivid and available and we must resort to stories handed down from generations before?
This is where (and why) memorials come in, monuments to important men and moments of a sacred and so-easily-forgotten past.
It has been a dozen years since the national D-Day Memorial opened in June of 2001 in that tiny Virginia town of Bedford, a community that gave so proportionately of its finest young men so many years ago. A while back, my wife and I, along with other family members, visited the D-Day Memorial. I talked to my grandkids about it all. The man who took us around was Mr. James E. Bryant. He had served as a Glider Infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division and was part of all of his division’s campaigns from D-Day through to the end of the European war in May of 1945. He wrote a book about it all called, Flying Coffins Over Europe. I purchased a copy in the Memorial’s gift shop and asked him to sign it for me. I was honored and humbled to be in his presence. Really.
So, today I find myself missing the eloquence of Ronald Reagan and remembering how he honored “the Boys.” I also ponder the Great Communicator’s words from that inspirational speech in Normandy:
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.