Point du Hoc, Omaha Beach, Normandy American Cemetery

This was written for a Friday, two weeks ago. That’s the way of it around here for a bit as we go over our amazing travels. So, if you’d be so kind as to cast your mind back two weeks (and also 78 years ago) …

Like many panoramas, this one lives at the intersection between beautiful and enlightening and distorting. Like all panoramas on this site, if you click it, you can see the larger version. We were there two weeks ago.

We caught a morning train out of Paris to head west to Bayeux.

And in Bayeux we rented e-bikes to ride all over the beautiful countryside of Normandy. It is beautiful. We rode all over the countryside. And not all of it on roads. The Yankee suggested Normandy, and I said I wanted to go here, if we could, and after a lot of pedaling, this was our first stop for the day. (Note that upright stone just on the left margin.

If you stood at that stone and look left, you would see Utah Beach just beyond that point.

And if you stood at that sone and looked to your right, beyond the other point, you would see Omaha Beach.

And if you stood at that stone memorial, you’d be wear Ronald Reagan delivered one of the truly great speeches of his presidency.

Peggy Noonan had found his voice by then, and it didn’t hurt that the topic was such a dramatic moment, and the audience included some of the heroes he was talking about.

I remember reading about this anniversary, the 40th, in the second grade, before any of this made any sense to me. I remember a quote from one of the Rangers who was at that event. They’d taken them to the shore line and they looked up the cliff face in wonder. How in the world did we do that? That quote is now 38 years old, and as much as anything, I owe my awe to the moment to that awe of the men who did it.

The guns were located so that they could cover both Utah and Omaha. They could do terrible damage to the troops coming ashore, or to the vessels waiting off the coast. So they sent in the Army Rangers.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his staff planning Operation OVERLORD assigned the Rangers of the 2d and 5th Ranger Battalions, under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel James E. Rudder and organized into the Provisional Ranger Group, the mission of destroying the enemy positions on the cliff top. Unbeknownst to Allied planners, the Germans failed to believe that U.S. military command would consider the cliff top accessible by sea. The Americans, however, considered it an accessible assault point and reasoned that with a well-trained force, soldiers could land on the narrow beaches below at low tide and ascend the cliffs with the assistance of ropes and ladders. When Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley told Rudder of the assignment, the Ranger officer could not believe what he had heard, but he understood the importance of the mission at hand. In his memoir, A Soldier’s Story, Bradley wrote, “No soldier in my command has ever been wished a more difficult task than that which befell the thirty-four-year-old Commander of this Provisional Ranger Force.”

The original ornate plans were ruined by rough seas, which put the entire Pointe du Hoc timetable well behind schedule. They were forced to improvise.

The delay gave the Germans enough time to recuperate, reposition their defenses, and lay heavy gunfire on the incoming Rangers from companies D, E, and F. The Rangers, no longer able to follow Rudder’s original plan, were now instructed to land all companies to the east of Pointe du Hoc on a strip of beach about 500 yards long and thirty yards wide. They came under heavy fire from the Germans while coming ashore. As the soldiers at the front exited the landing craft, the Rangers toward the rear laid down covering fire as their comrades ran to shore and took shelter in a small cave at the base of the cliff or in craters along the narrow beach.


The Rangers experienced much difficulty climbing up the cliffs that day. Many of the ropes that caught hold of the cliffs that morning were completely covered by enemy fire, making the number available for climbing severely limited. The wet ropes were slippery and soldiers were weighed down by damp uniforms and mud clinging to their clothes, boots and equipment. German bullets and “potato masher” grenades rained down from above. Nevertheless, the Rangers climbed to the top of Pointe du Hoc while under enemy fire. Several German soldiers were killed and others driven off from the cliff edges when Rangers opened fire on them with Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs).

The guns they were sent to capture, their primary objective, weren’t there. The Germans had moved them back from what they’d thought was an impregnable position. A two-man Ranger patrol later found five of the six pieces of heavy artillery and they were subsequently.

After scaling the 110-foot cliff face against brutal German fire, gaining the top and then fighting the enemy for two dys fewer than 75 of the original 225 who came ashore at Pointe du Hoc on D-Day were fit for duty. It’s a testament to bravery and grit, and courage and honor. We were fortunate to have been able to visit it for a brief time.

From there we rode our rental bikes to the Normandy American Cemetery. We weaved through traffic, passing gobs of cars (it was oh so satisfying) stuck in traffic in time to see the evening’s flag lowering.

The World War II cemetery in Colleville-sur-Met, Normandy, France covers 172.5 acres and contains 9,388 burials. In the gardens are the engraved names of 1,557 servicemen declared missing in action in Normandy.

In that building you’ll see massive maps describing the planning and the D-Day assault itself, and also the push all the way to the Elbe River.

None of this was a certainty when D-Day began. And it took about two months of hard, deadly fighting, before the Allies could claim Normandy as under their control. Great losses were absorbed and delivered to get off that beachhead.

On the cemetery’s chapel there is a carving in the marble of part of John 10:28, “I give unto them eternal life and they shall never perish.”

The cemetery looks over a bluff onto Omaha Beach. There are 304 unknown soldiers at rest in the grounds of the cemetery.

It also contains the graves of 45 pairs of brothers (30 are side-by-side), a father and son, an uncle and nephew, two pairs of cousins, four chaplains, four civilians, three generals and three Medal of Honor recipients.

We were about 30 miles into our lovely afternoon bike ride, and we were starting to eye the clock. The bike shop we rented from closed at 7, and our train was coming at about 8:30. So we had to race back. (Nice bikes, would rent again. Would check to make sure my back brake worked before I set out next time, though. I had to feather off the front brake for the entire day!) We made it just in time, which was the shocking theme for the whole day. Just caught the morning train. Arrived with our bikes ready, got lost twice and still made it to the cemetery just in time to see the flags lowered. Lingered around that hallowed place a while, giving us just enough time to get back to the bike shop, which left us enough time to get a bite to eat at a place next to the train station. Which put us safely on the train.

It was an important day in important places. I’m glad we did it, and that it all worked out as it did, which was to say, perfectly.

She planned another great trip, and we’re just getting started.

We still have two days in Paris, where our adventures will continue.

Comments are closed.