Today marks the 74th anniversary of the day Allied forces stormed five beaches in Normandy, setting the stage for the longer sustained effort to free Europe from German occupation and end the Second World War.
The bloodiest battle was on Omaha Beach. Starting with Ronald Reagan in 1984, American presidents joined the declining numbers of D-Day veterans there to commemorate each 10th-year anniversary with a speech about the significance of D-Day.
The speeches were aimed at the surviving veterans, but they matter to all of us. They speak of the qualities our warriors displayed on D-Day — bravery, persistence and honor in the defense of deeply held values — and that we hope that we would bring if faced with such enormous challenges.
From each of the speeches:
Ronald Reagan, 1984:
The (2nd and 5th Army) Ranger battalions 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 90 could still bear arms.
Bill Clinton, 1994:
During those first hours on bloody Omaha, nothing seemed to go right. Landing craft were ripped apart by mines and shells. Tanks sent to protect them had sunk, drowning their crews. Enemy fire raked the invaders as they stepped into chest-high water and waded past the floating bodies of their comrades. And as the stunned survivors of the first wave huddled behind a seawall, it seemed the invasion might fail.
Hitler and his armies had bet on it. They were sure the Allied soldiers were soft, weakened by liberty and leisure, by the mingling of races and religion. They were sure their totalitarian youth had more discipline and zeal.
But then something happened. Although many of the American troops found themselves without officers on unfamiliar ground, next to soldiers they didn’t know, one by one they got up and they inched forward, and together, in groups of threes and fives and tens, the sons of democracy improvised and mounted their own attacks. At that exact moment, on these beaches, the forces of freedom turned the tide of the 20th century.
George W. Bush, 2004:
On this day in 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the American people, not with a speech, but with a prayer. He prayed that God would bless America’s sons and lead them straight and true. He continued, “They will need thy blessings. They will be sore tired by night and by day without rest, until victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken by the violences of war.”
As Americans prayed along, more than 12,000 Allied aircraft and about 5,000 naval vessels were carrying out General Eisenhower’s order of the day. In this massive undertaking, there was a plan for everything — except for defeat. Eisenhower said, “This operation is planned as a victory, and that’s the way it is going to be.”
Barack Obama, 2014:
By daybreak, blood soaked the water and bombs broke the sky. Thousands of rounds bit into flesh and sand. Entire companies’ worth of men fell in minutes. “Hell’s Beach” had earned its name.
By 8:30 a.m. General Omar Bradley expected our troops to be a mile inland. “Six hours after the landings,” he wrote, “we held only ten yards of beach.” In our age of instant commentary, the invasion would have been swiftly and roundly declared, as it was by one officer, “a debacle.”
But a race to judgment does not take into account the courage of free men. “Success may not come with rushing speed,” President Roosevelt would say that night, “but we shall return again and again.”
Twelve Americans won the Medal of Honor for heroism on D-Day. Nine of the medals were awarded posthumously.
On the cliff above Omaha beach are the graves of more than 9,300 American warriors killed in Normandy, but in fact more died there. The United States was the only country that allowed families to choose whether they wanted their dead service members returned home for burial.