NEW Story: Point du Hoc, by Tommy Batboy
Standing on the Cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc
One of the first books I remember reading as a child was from a series of books on World War II. I was seven or eight and I picked the book because even as a child war fascinated me, and the title was simple: D-Day. Twenty years later, as I got out of the Eurovan in a recently paved asphalt parking lot, I thought of that book again for some reason.
“Just down that path and to the right are the cliffs, I’ll be waiting here for you,” my driver told me.
“Thank you,” I said a little nervously. After years of wanting to see it, after all the stories my old squad leader had told me, all the reading, and the privilege of talking to some of the battles survivors; I was about to go stand on the cliffs of Point Du Hoc.
If you where a Private in the 75th Ranger Regiment, you grew up knowing about Point Du Hoc. If you were a private in 2nd Ranger Battalion you learned it the way Catholic grammar school children learn the Bible. On D-day the men of 2nd Ranger Battalion drew one the hardest missions of the invasion: Scale the sheer and unprotected cliff faces of Point Du Hoc to destroy the captured French 155mm artillery pieces – the big guns that could rain hell on both the Omaha and Utah landing beaches – the guns that could jeopardize the success or failure of the Normandy landings. The mission was equally impossible and critical and its success hinged on Colonel James Rudder’s 225 men. They were equipped with ladders borrowed from the London fire department and ropes with grappling hooks.
The mission started poorly. The land craft got mixed up and the Germans spotted the Americans on their way to the cliffs. When they got there, they had to scale the cliffs under heavy fire. The Germans were putting grenades in mason jars before dropping them, using the glass to increase shrapnel and lethality. Firing straight down at the men at the base of the cliffs as they climbed proved incredibly lethal. 225 men started; by the end of the two-day mission only 90 were fit to fight.
In the time that it took me to walk 150 meters, I’d be standing where these proud and brave men had fought, and where many of them had died. An eerie feeling of the past settled over me. I started to walk down the path and towards the cliffs. Rounding the corner and coming face to face with the bunker complex was surreal. Unlike many of the battlefields of World War II that have been paved over or converted to tourist traps, the French government has left Point Du Hoc unchanged. 65 years later there are still 5 foot or deeper gouges in the Earth where American Naval fire or German counter battery fell. Even with all the effects from the rain and wind and weather, sixty-five years later the Earth still looks horribly scarred from the events of that day. If you stare closely you can see where American and German rifle fire chipped away at the reinforced concrete on some of the bunkers. Written in rusty, twisted rebar, cold crumbling concrete and a cratered surface similar to that of the moon, you can see the ugliness of what D-day was for those brave men.
A ringing cry shook me from my daze, turning to my left I saw a group of French teenagers, who appeared to be on a field trip, running up one side of a shell crater and out the other, playing grab ass in hopes of impressing the girls that were along on the tour.
I got very angry for a second. Remembering how The Weid, my first squad leader in 2nd Battalion, took our squad through the battle on a dry
erase board in the squad room. I remember him explaining that once the Rangers made it up the cliffs they found nothing but logs where the guns should be. The German Army, fearing Allied aerial bombing had moved the guns in-land. Even despite the bad and the rapidly mounting German counter attack the men of 2nd Battalion still fought on, found the guns a mile and a half inland, and completed the mission. I started thinking about meeting two of the men who’d climbed the cliff when I was at the Ranger Hall of Fame Ceremony in 2004, hearing one tell us about watching his friends get shot off the ropes as they climbed – telling us there was nothing to do but to just keep climbing. I was amazed at the matter-of-fact way he said it, and wondered if I could have been half as brave if it had been me on that rope going up the cliffs. The area is listed as a graveyard on the French registry, to see kids disrespect it like that was not an easy pill to swallow.
A deep breath later I started to move towards the cliff faces themselves. Fifteen feet or so from the cliffs there is a fence with signs written in both French and English telling you to stay back for your safety. “They didn’t serve in 2nd Bat,” I told my friend as I hopped right over the fence and marched towards the barbed wire ringing the cliff face, undoubtedly meant to keep people like me from getting right up on the edge. I walked right up the to wire, found a spot that got me just a couple of inches closer and leaned.
“Oh my God,” I muttered, watching the waves crash against the base of the cliffs below me. There is nothing, nothing to protect a man as he climbed. It is as sheer and steep a cliff face as I’ve ever seen. To say these men had no protection but the covering fire from the landing craft is a gross understatement. The moment I looked down I understood why so many men died in training on the Isle of Wright.
I understood even more deeply than I had before why the 6th stanza of the Ranger Creed is “Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor. Ranger’s lead the way!” Through all the adversity, all the hell, through the rifle fire and the grenades, the glass and, even the heavy boulders thrown their way; the men of the 2nd Ranger Battalion climbed. They knew that their buddies were dying and were scared that they might be next, but still they climbed – hoping at least one of them would make it to the top to complete the mission.
Never in my life have I felt so humbled as I did in that moment.
After taking some pictures and walking around I climbed back over the fence. I walked through the bunkers. I walked around and in the craters. Feeling the chilly, brisk early spring breeze on my face, I stared out into the English Channel, dreary and gray with low clouds that reduced visibility. I wondered what it must have been like to ride in those landing craft, pondering just how much the men that had ridden in them knew. I marveled at the bravery and strength of character a man must possess to take that ride. I wondered what Colonel Rudder would say about my generation of Rangers, and hoped that he’d think we were living up to the standards his men had set on this spot. Standing on the cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc I said a silent prayer of thanks for the sacrifices of Col. Rudder and his men.
“What time is it?” My friend asked me quietly.
“It’s time to go,” I said, checking my watch and turning back towards the path that led to the parking lot.
We walked slowly back towards the van as I looked around the top of the cliff and then back into the English Channel. I was thoroughly humbled by the courage of conviction it must have taken my forefathers to take in the same view on that fateful day in June so many years ago.