Friday, June 6, 2014

Reagan at Normandy, Thirty Years Ago Today

The Wall Street Journal published President Ronald Reagan's speeches at the 40th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944--both "The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc speech and the Omaha Beech Memorial speech. Thirty years ago there were still many survivors yet living to remember that day--today, those numbers are dwindling.

Between great speech writing--with Peggy Noonan as the main writer and contributions from others, including Reagan--great location, and great delivery (notice how Reagan stands at very simple lectern with nothing to hide behind), this is a rhetorical performance that still resonates today. When I say "rhetorical" I don't mean anything negative, as the term usually indicates today. I mean the use of words and phrases, pauses and inflections, that move the audience. Move them to remembrance, to admiration and praise of the Boys of Pointe du Hoc and then of the heroes of Omaha Beach--that's the power of language and of human speech, exerted for the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Here is the heart of the Pointe du Hoc speech, when the President spoke to the survivors about the great sacrifices made that day and the great risks they had taken that day:

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.

All of these men were part of a rollcall of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore: the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland's 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeomen of England's armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard's ``Matchbox Fleet'' and you, the American Rangers.

Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. 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.

And then at Omaha Beach:

No speech can adequately portray their suffering, their sacrifice, their heroism. President Lincoln once reminded us that through their deeds, the dead of battle have spoken more eloquently for themselves than any of the living ever could. But we can only honor them by rededicating ourselves to the cause for which they gave a last full measure of devotion.

Today we do rededicate ourselves to that cause. And at this place of honor, we're humbled by the realization of how much so many gave to the cause of freedom and to their fellow man.

Some who survived the battle of June 6, 1944, are here today. Others who hoped to return never did.

``Someday, Lis, I'll go back,'' said Private First Class Peter Robert Zanatta, of the 37th Engineer Combat Battalion, and first assault wave to hit Omaha Beach. ``I'll go back, and I'll see it all again. I'll see the beach, the barricades, and the graves.''

Those words of Private Zanatta come to us from his daughter, Lisa Zanatta Henn, in a heart-rending story about the event her father spoke of so often. ``In his words, the Normandy invasion would change his life forever,'' she said. She tells some of his stories of World War II but says of her father, ``the story to end all stories was D-day.''

Lisa Zanatta Henn attended that anniversary for her father, because he had died eight years before.

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