These are the men who took the cliffs: The anniversary of D-Day and the end of an age

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
July 9, 2023

“These are the boys of Point du Hoc,” declared President Ronald Reagan in 1984, as the free world celebrated the 40th anniversary of D-Day and as waves crashed into the cliffs of Normandy. The man met the hour in that speech, and with the world watching, President Reagan went on to talk about the courage of those troops: “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.”

They were heroes. They did help end a war. And they were boys. Of the more than 150,000 Allied troops who hit the beaches of Normandy starting on June 6, 1944, untold thousands were teenagers, barely out of high school, if that. They hit the beaches, jumped out of airplanes, dropped out of the sky in gliders, praying that they would survive just the next few hours. Many did not. President Reagan was speaking of both the living and the dead. These days, not many remain among the living.

It’s a simple matter of math and longevity, and the truth is deeply humbling. There were multiple thousands of D-Day veterans alive when Reagan gave that speech, so near the honored dead in 1984. Now, precious few remain alive. The youngest living veterans of D-Day are now 100 years old, or very close to it.

Some of them shared a moment of destiny this week as they visited France for the D-Day anniversary. Delta Air Lines and the Best Defense Foundation flew some of them to Normandy for the commemoration. Most were lined up in wheelchairs, and the veterans were accompanied by medical personnel. Understandably, they were all deeply moved by the occasion. Veteran Andrew Negra returned to Utah Beach, one of the main landing sites for the invasion, and one of the deadliest. Nazi defenses were massive, and casualties were many. The first Allied troops landed on June 6. Negra landed on that beach on July 18, 1944, and the first time he went back, he was 99 years old. That was just days ago. Andrew Negra is now the only member of his battalion still alive. “So many were lost,” he reflected, “and here I am.”

Indeed, there he was. With him was Jake Larson, age 100, and Bill Gladden, now 99. They met at the event, 79 years after the invasion. “I want to give you a hug, thank you,” Larson said to Gladden. “I got tears in my eyes. We were meant to meet,” he said.

Last Sunday, a parade of wheelchairs rolled through Sainte-Mare-Eglise, where American paratroopers landed by the thousands on D-Day. At Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, veterans visited a monument that honors the U.S. Navy. The inscription reads: “The fallen will never be forgotten. The veteran will ever be honored.”

The Allied cross-channel invasion of Europe remains the largest single military operation involving an invasion of land from the sea. The future of Europe was on the line. The Allied war command knew that the Nazi regime would never be subdued, much less defeated, unless the combined strength of the Allies could liberate France and press into the heart of the Third Reich. Nazi defenses were daunting, with pillboxes and fortifications, landmines and sea mines, searchlights and guard dogs. Machine guns and massive shore guns met the Allies in the face, and the success of the entire operation came down to minutes and seconds, soldier after soldier, sailor after sailor, airman after airman, step after step.

America’s Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe, had to make the hardest call that day—the call for the invasion to commence. The possibility of failure was so great that “Ike” wrote a letter of resignation in advance. Eisenhower never had to send that letter.

Harry Reed, a British veteran of D-Day, once said: “It was a different world then. It was a world that requires young men like me to be prepared to die for a civilization that was worth living in.” He was speaking of himself as a very young man in 1944. Was he right? Did his generation really represent a different world? In a sense, we know Harry Reed was right, while in our hearts we must hope he was wrong. We must hope that our own generation of Americans would rise to be faithful when such an hour of duty calls. Is that a false hope?

Civilization sometimes depends on the courage of young soldiers to take to a beach in the face of daunting fire. In 1944, when history was about to swing on a hinge, the question was whether the hinge would turn to liberty and human dignity or to despotism and dictatorship. On that day, and for many more deadly days, civilization depended on “the boys of Point du Hoc,” and others who fought for freedom. We do well to pause and ponder the courage and sacrifice displayed by those boys, once so young, once so brave, and now so old. At the very least, may history record our unspeakable gratitude.

This article originally appeared at WORLD Opinions on June 9, 2023.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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