the ceremonies honoring the fortieth anniversary of d day became more than commemorations. they became celebrations of heroism and sacrifice.
this place, pointe du hoc, in itself was moving and majestic. i stood there on that windswept point with the ocean behind me. before me were the boys who forty years before had fought their way up from the ocean. some rested under the white crosses and stars of david that stretched out across the landscape. others sat right in front of me. they looked like elderly businessmen, yet these were the kids who climbed the cliffs.*
we’re here to mark that day in history when the allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. for four long years, much of europe had been under a terrible shadow. free nations had fallen, jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. europe was enslaved, and the world prayed for its rescue. here, in normandy, the rescue began. here, the allies stood and fought against tyranny, in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.
we stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of france. the air is soft, but forty 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. at dawn, on the morning of the 6th of june, 1944, two hundred and twenty-five rangers jumped off the british landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs.
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 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 ninety 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 here. 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. gentlemen, i look at you and i think of the words of stephen spender’s poem. you are men who in your "lives fought for life and left the vivid air signed with your honor."
i think i know what you may be thinking right now -- thinking "we were just part of a bigger effort; everyone was brave that day." well everyone was. do you remember the story of bill millin of the 51st highlanders? forty years ago today, british troops were pinned down near a bridge, waiting desperately for help. suddenly, they heard the sound of bagpipes, and some thought they were dreaming. well, they weren’t. they looked up and saw bill millin with his bagpipes, leading the reinforcements and ignoring the smack of the bullets into the ground around him.
lord lovat was with him -- lord lovat of scotland, who calmly announced when he got to the bridge, "sorry, i’m a few minutes late," as if he’d been delayed by a traffic jam, when in truth he’d just come from the bloody fighting on sword beach, which he and his men had just taken.
there was the impossible valor of the poles, who threw themselves between the enemy and the rest of europe as the invasion took hold; and the unsurpassed courage of the canadians who had already seen the horrors of war on this coast. they knew what awaited them there, but they would not be deterred. and once they hit juno beach, they never looked back.