Marking the D-Day Invasion Sixty-one years ago, U.S. Rangers stormed the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc to break through Nazi lines. Historian Douglas Brinkley talks about this historical event and the rise of the 'New Patriotism.'
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Marking the D-Day Invasion

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Marking the D-Day Invasion

Marking the D-Day Invasion

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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Sixty-one years ago today, 180 US Army Rangers attempted one of the most difficult and dangerous missions on D-Day--the Allied invasion of Normandy. They jumped off landing craft amid withering German fire, ran across a shingle beach and climbed a hundred-foot cliff with orders to knock out six powerful guns emplaced on top. Twenty-one years ago, President Ronald Reagan paid tribute at the monument atop the Pointe Du Hoc.

(Soundbite of Ronald Reagan speech from 1984)

President RONALD REAGAN: The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. 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. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms. And 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. REAGAN: These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war.

CONAN: President Ronald Reagan speaking in Normandy, France, in 1984 on the 40th anniversary of D-Day.

In his new book, "The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the US Army 2nd Ranger Battalion," historian Doug Brinkley describes the heroic events of that day in 1944 and how that speech by President Reagan helped change politics and culture in this country.

If you have questions about what happened on that day 61 years ago or about the speech 40 years later, give us a call. Our number is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Douglas Brinkley joins us from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco.

Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. DOUGLAS BRINKLEY (Author, "The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the US Army 2nd Ranger Battalion"): Well, thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Want to talk about both aspects of your book, but let's begin with the assault itself. And if you would, tell it through the eyes of Sgt. Len Lomell, who was one of the Rangers who climbed the Pointe Du Hoc that morning.

Mr. BRINKLEY: Well, first off, the term Rangers--and of course we have them now, Army Rangers; they're elite fighting men--the term has been around since the time of the French and Indian War. In wilderness communities in Colonial America, you had Rangers who would go and kind of look for wilderness problems, Native American warring tribes and the like. Then the term Ranger continued in our culture in the Civil War. You had Mosby's Rangers in the Confederacy. You have Texas Rangers. But by the beginning of World War II, Rangers had been a kind of decommissioned term. Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, FDR wanted to have a group of elite fighting men, something like the British had with their commandos. And eventually the term Rangers was picked.

And the 1st Ranger Battalion fought in North Africa. And the second Ranger Battalion that I wrote about were eventually--they were the best of the best of the best of the US Army. They were all volunteers. They were trained in Tennessee in the piney dirt-road mountains near Chattanooga. They had amphibious training at Ft. Pierce in Florida near Palm Beach. They had intelligence training, survivalist training at Ft. Dix. And by New Year's Day 1944, they had journeyed on the Queen Elizabeth to Great Britain and were living in Cornwall. And these men did not know what they were being trained for. They were being trained for mountain climbing. Sometimes they would climb straight up, you know, 200-foot walls for training. They did know that they were going to do some kind of amphibious landing because those so-called Higgins boats--but in this case they were British LCAs, landing craft assault vessels, the ones that you see, like, in "Saving Private Ryan" that could hold 30 to 37 men in them. They were training, and suddenly they were told that spring that they were going to be the first wave at Normandy; that their mission was mission number one, and that was to take out the big German guns on the cliffs at Pointe Du Hoc.

Now Pointe Du Hoc's a hundred-foot-straight-up promontory right in between Omaha and Utah beaches. It's a stunning natural sight. Just forget the war history there--just standing there and looking over into the English Channel, it's a beautiful, numbing spot. But these Rangers were going to come in on the boats, they were going to fire these special rockets with grapnels on it that were going to latch on to some hole in the cliffs. And they would start pulling themselves up and climbing while the Germans were shooting at them.

CONAN: Almost a suicide mission.

Mr. BRINKLEY: It really was. And of the 225, 99 survived. And so, you know, you're losing over half of them. And yet they knew it. Colonel Earl Rudder was their commanding officer. I spent some time with the Rudder papers, which are now open at Texas A&M University. And Rudder actually went with his men that day--he was wounded--'cause he couldn't bear to just send his boys out to slaughter and not put himself in harm's way like they were doing. And...

CONAN: Well, Sergeant Lomell himself was shot just as he was getting off the assault craft.

Mr. BRINKLEY: Well, that's right. And it's all a buildup. Len Lomell is still alive today in Pennsylvania, lives in rural Pennsylvania. And he was one of the Rangers who made it to the top. He was wounded. He got there. And they went into these bunkers that the Germans had built with these giant 155mm guns. And lo and behold, these big German guns, the ones that Ike feared were going to blast away our armada, were gone. They had rollers, and when the Nazis saw in the English Channel that this was the big D-Day moment, they took the guns and rolled them away about a mile into a pasture. Well, nobody knew where the guns were. These few Rangers were in firefights with German shoulders on top of the cliffs. Len Lomell and a man named Jack Kuhn, who I write about--Jack just died in November--they suddenly just dropped down on their bellies next to a hedgerow. And they looked across a meadow about a football field away. And there were a hundred or so Nazis with one leader with a clipboard trying to regroup. They were trying to figure out what do we do now with the big guns. And they were going to move them to Omaha Beach and try to, you know, stop the invasion on that beach.

So Len Lomell, as all the Rangers were, trained to think quickly. And he had three kinds of grenades on him. One was your typical grenade that just goes ka-boom. You know, the second was a grenade that's a flare. And the third were incendiary or thermite grenades which would create white heat up to over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It burns right through metal, and it makes a hissing noise, but it's generally silent. So Len Lomell climbed on his belly with two thermite grenades, put one in two of the guns and destroyed both guns by melting their firing mechanisms. He then...

CONAN: And the Germans didn't notice. And he was able to crawl back, get more grenades, and destroy the other guns.

Mr. BRINKLEY: Well, that's right. He took out--well, there were originally six of them. Allied bombing got rid of one. So now there were five. He just took out two. And he took the gamble--let's run back to the coast, let's find some buddies that have thermite grenades, we need three more. He got three more, came gain, again crawled on his belly. And they were still trying to restrategize, the Nazis. He put them in and took out all five of the guns, crawled back. And while he was crawling back to safety, he heard a big ka-boom. There was a ammo depot that was blown up. But the point is, the number-one mission, as Dwight Eisenhower saw it on D-Day, was to take out the guns of Pointe Du Hoc. And Len Lomell did that. And he's one of the great heroes of World War II.

CONAN: And how did this story get missed for the next 40 years?

Mr. BRINKLEY: That's a good question. You know, Cornelius Ryan wrote a very compelling narrative book, "The Longest Day." It was made into a very popular movie. But the Rangers wouldn't cooperate with him. One of the things about Rangers is they don't tell stories on other Rangers. And there was a feeling that--he did approach Len Lomell and others, and they just said, `We're not going to tell our stories 'cause it'll seem like we're bragging.' So Ryan kind of missed it and wrote up his story that they got to the top, the guns weren't there, and it was all for naught. In truth, a man named Ron Drez, who was a captain in the Vietnam War and a D-Day expert--he gives tours over there--was the one some years ago that discovered the real story about the guns and what happened. And my book builds on some of his research.

CONAN: Let's get some callers on the line--(800) 989-8255 if you'd like to join us. Our guest is Douglas Brinkley. His new book: "The Boys of the Pointe Du Hoc and Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the US Army 2nd Ranger Battalion."

Mike is with us on the phone. Mike's calling from Bishop, California.

MIKE (Caller): Hello, thank you.

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. BRINKLEY: Hi, Mike.

MIKE: Yes, I just got a little story I'd like to tell you. I am a former 2nd Army Ranger Battalion--a member of the 2nd Ranger Battalion. And when I served in the '80s, there was a sergeant ahead of me a little more senior named Matt Ryerson(ph). And Matt had jumped into Grenada, and a year later he was selected to go over to Normandy to participate in that ceremony that you played the tape from with Ronald Reagan giving a speech.

And anyway, he said that after the ceremony, all the old Rangers there, the World War II guys, came over to him and they wanted to hear all about what the Ranger Battalion is like now, and his mission in Grenada and everything. And then Matt of course wanted to hear about their stories. So they all told him about scaling the cliff and, 40 years later, these guys still had tears in their eyes as they're telling this story about how hard it was.

Well, anyway, the saddest ending to this story is that Matt Ryerson stayed in the Army and I got out. And he was involved in the battle of Mogadishu, which is--you might know that by the "Black Hawk Down"...

CONAN: Sure.

MIKE: ...book and movie. And anyway, Matt was killed in action over there in Somalia.

CONAN: I'm sorry for the loss of your friend, Mike.

MIKE: Well, he was a good soldier, yes. That's OK. But anyway, thank you for having this show today on this day.

CONAN: We appreciate the phone call, Mike.

MIKE: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

MIKE: Bye.

CONAN: We're talking with Douglas Brinkley about D-Day and about the speech that President Ronald Reagan gave at D-Day 40 years later.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Douglas Brinkley, Mike did take us to that moment and this extraordinary speech that Ronald Reagan gave. You describe in great detail how speechwriter Peggy Noonan--just her second speech for the president of the United States--drafted the speech, and all the infighting that went on, and what was in, what was out. But the main idea of this speech, though, was that it was central to something that you call the new patriotism. Tell us about that.

Mr. BRINKLEY: Yes. Well, first off, Ronald Reagan became a captain during World War II, but he stayed Stateside. He never left American soil. That was largely--and I say fully--due to his poor eyesight. He could barely see in front of him. He was near blind. So he was disqualified for going abroad in combat. And the Army Air Corps made good use of him in both Culver City and then he was in San Francisco, first, but making training films. He made over 300 training films during the Second World War in addition to a couple of theatrical-released films dealing with World War II. So he was always in uniform. People kind of confused the matinee idol with the war hero. Reagan kind of seemed to fulfill both in his persona.

From that being spokesperson for Army Air Corps, in the '50s Reagan was spokesperson for General Electric. And by the 1980s, he was trying to build what I call the new patriotism, which is embracing of anything American. It was a way to bring the Republicans together with more conservative, moderate Democrats, with Independents based on the flag, based on America's glorious past. And the reason this was effective in the '80s is that our country was quite weary from the Vietnam War. In fact, even this past election year, we saw how divisive arguments over Vietnam can be. But there wasn't a whole lot to argue about over US Army 2nd Rangers at D-Day or D-Day in general. It was a moment, one of the turning points of the 20th century. The United States were the white hats, the good guys; we were on the right. We weren't invading Europe to conquer it; we were there as liberators. It succeeded after Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge, and eventually the destruction of Adolf Hitler in Europe.

So Reagan, who liked morality tales and also liked his American history very cheery--Gary Wills once said he had a kind of Disneyland version of American history--it all came to a perfect head for him in June of 1984 because it was a presidential election year, it was the 40th round-year anniversary of D-Day. And a lot of those D-Day soldiers, you know, and citizens, and just World War II veterans weren't given a lot of attention during the tumultuous '60s and '70s.

In the '80s, with the aid of Time magazine, a Lance Morrow story putting D-Day on the cover in May of 1984, and then Reagan's going over to Europe, he was able to use, if you'd like, World War II triumphalism, the victory of Normandy, the raw courage of these US Army 2nd Rangers, as a metaphor--the climbing of the hill for freedom--and use it in a Cold War context. It was his first great speech. There are three great Ronald Reagan presidential addresses. Peggy Noonan wrote two--`the boys of Pointe Du Hoc' and then her Challenger disaster speech, and then finally `Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,' largely written by a man, Peter Robinson.

CONAN: And...

Mr. BRINKLEY: But this...

CONAN: I just wanted to play the excerpt of the Cold War aspect of that Peggy Noonan speech at Pointe Du Hoc on the 40th anniversary of D-Day.

(Soundbite of Ronald Reagan speech from 1984)

Pres. REAGAN: In spite of our great efforts and successes, not all that followed the end of the war was happy or planned. Some liberated countries were lost. The great sadness of this loss echoes down to our own time in the streets of Warsaw, Prague and East Berlin. Soviet troops that came to the center of this continent did not leave when peace came. They're still there, uninvited, unwanted, unyielding almost 40 years after the war. Because of this, allied forces still stand on this continent. Today, as 40 years ago, our armies are here for only one purpose: to protect and defend democracy. The only territories we hold are memorials like this one and graveyards where our heroes rest.

CONAN: And, Douglas Brinkley, you write, `From 1984 onward, the Republican Party, following Reagan's lead, became the political party of the Second World War.'

Mr. BRINKLEY: And that's absolutely correct. What happened was, you know, Reagan's foreign policy public opinion rating was quite low in early '84--it was around 37, 38 percent, but it was in the 30s. By June, it was up in the 60s and 70s. The jump was really these speeches. Mike Deaver is the great stagecrafter of Ronald Reagan, and he realized how dramatic Pointe Du Hoc was. And we're only talking about that speech, but Reagan gave two that day, one at Omaha Beach I also write about. But the combo of those two speeches--they were timed to coincide with American television. They were on the morning shows. And it really gave that morning-again-in-America approach a vitality. And we'll talk about it after we take a break.

CONAN: And without that speech, Douglas Brinkley writes in "The Boys of the Point Du Hoc," `that there would be no "Band of Brothers," no "Greatest Generation." This was the moment when American culture changed in this respect.'

Douglas Brinkley joined us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. We thank him for his time today.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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