For me, Memorial Day happens twice within a week. The first, the official holiday at the end of May, is quickly reinforced a week later, every June 6: D-Day.
Of all the wartime anniversaries, none strike me quite like D-Day -- the invasion of Normandy, the liberation of France, the final push to defeat Nazi Germany. It was June 6, 1944, a date that sticks like December 7, like July 4, like September 11. The mix of extreme sorrow and triumph has been unforgettably replicated on film by Steven Spielberg in the stunning opening of Saving Private Ryan.
What must it have been like to be among those first waves at the beaches? Indescribable, simply indescribable.
When I think of D-Day, I always think of two presidents, neither of which were president at the time: Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. What they had to say about the event was profound.
Ike was Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, a long way from humble beginnings as a Kansas farm boy. He gave the final order to send an armada of 5,000 ships, 12,000 aircraft, and 155,000 soldiers -- the largest amphibious assault in history. The morning prior, the forecast wasn't good. Ike asked each of his subordinates what they thought about proceeding.
"Ike wasn't taking a vote," recorded Stephen Ambrose, the late WWII historian who was also Ike's biographer. "Ike asked all 14 men in the room. Seven of them said to postpone and seven of them said to go ahead." Everyone stared at General Eisenhower for what seemed like forever. Finally, Ike said simply, "Okay, let's do it."
Ike then wrote a note to himself: "Our landings… have failed."
If failure resulted, Ike would take the blame. Of course, failure didn't result, though a lot of horror came in the process. The men who battled on those beaches sampled their own taste of Armageddon. It was hell on earth.
Ike never forgot those boys. When he visited Omaha beach 20 years later -- by then an ex-president as well as an ex-general -- he told Walter Cronkite: "You know, Walter, I come here and the thought that overwhelms me is all the joy that Mamie and I get from our grandchildren. I look at these graves out here and I just can't help but think of all the families in America that don't have the joy of grandchildren."
Another 20 years later still, June 6, 1984, another president, Ronald Reagan, visited those beaches, and gave two memorable speeches. The first paid tribute to the men who did return to that beach, and the second acknowledged a man who didn't return.
The first speech was given at 1:20 PM at the U.S. Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc, France, where a group of American veterans of Normandy had re-convened for a special ceremony. Reagan stated:
We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but 40 years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon. At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, 225 Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs….
The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers -- the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machineguns 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 2 days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms.
Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there.
These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. 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.
As Reagan spoke, these "boys of Pointe du Hoc," by then men in their 60s, dabbed their eyes with their sleeves. Indeed, they were the guys who took those cliffs, who helped free a continent, and who ended a vicious war that killed 50 million.
The second Reagan speech that day came at 4:33 p.m. at the Omaha Beach Memorial. It was most poignant because of Reagan's discussion of a veteran who never made it back to Normandy, a Private Robert Zanatta. Said Reagan:
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….
When men like Private Zanatta and all our allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy 40 years ago they came not as conquerors, but as liberators….
Lisa Zanatta Henn began her story by quoting her father, who promised that he would return to Normandy. She ended with a promise to her father, who died 8 years ago of cancer: "I'm going there, Dad, and I'll see the beaches and the barricades and the monuments. I'll see the graves, and I'll put flowers there just like you wanted to do. I'll feel all the things you made me feel through your stories and your eyes. I'll never forget what you went through, Dad, nor will I let anyone else forget. And, Dad, I'll always be proud.''
Through the words of his loving daughter, who is here with us today, a D-day veteran has shown us the meaning of this day far better than any president can. It is enough for us to say about Private Zanatta and all the men of honor and courage who fought beside him four decades ago: We will always remember. We will always be proud. We will always be prepared, so we may always be free.
The video of the Zanatta speech, as well as the Pointe du Hoc speech, need to be seen (click here and here for highlights). This article can't do justice to the image of Lisa, her mother and brothers weeping as the president of the United States shared Private Zanatta's words with the world, and as Reagan got choked up delivering them.
This past weekend, I spoke to Tony Dolan, Reagan's chief speechwriter, who wrote such classics as the Evil Empire speech and the Westminster Address, among hundreds of others. What are his recollections about that day in June 1984?
"The irony," says Dolan, "is that the Dublin speech was the big speech." Dolan was referring to Reagan's speech to the Irish Parliament on June 4, which indeed was a remarkable speech, albeit largely forgotten. Instead, what stole the show during Reagan's trip to Europe came not in Ireland but France.
"Peggy did Pointe du Hoc," says Dolan, pointing to Peggy Noonan, the gifted speechwriter. When I asked Dolan if he had written the second speech, he typically deferred credit: "It wasn't my speech, Paul. It was Reagan's."
I asked Dolan about the Zanatta reference. He recalled that he had struggled with that speech until "around 11 or midnight" late one evening. And then, "I found this letter from this gal [Lisa Zanatta]. I knew how she felt. Her dad was always going to go back [to Normandy], but he never made it."
Dolan worked the letter into the speech. "I was on it until 4:00 or 5:00 AM. The next morning, I was driving across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, and I thought, 'Gee, someone is going to turn this into a NATO speech!'"
Fortunately, no one did. Dolan knew what appealed to Reagan, and Reagan, who had already exchanged letters with Lisa Zanatta, wasn't about to let it turn into a NATO speech -- not with a story like Private Zanatta.
"I played a game with myself called, 'Choke-the-Gipper-up,'" says Dolan with a laugh. No matter how sentimental the thought, the Gipper usually delivered it flawlessly, the consummate communicator behind the camera. But not this time. "I got him on this one," says Dolan.
He sure did. "Ronald Reagan was so profoundly moved by this gal and her words," adds Dolan. "And think about this, Paul: There was something about him [Reagan] that made her write to him. What was it?"
Perhaps it was that Reagan had what Ike had: He looked at Normandy and he saw not NATO, or strategic plans, troop formations, tactical maneuvers, battlefield gamesmanship, or foreign-policy theory. He saw children, grandchildren, and men like Private Zanatta and the boys of Pointe du Hoc.
And that's who we, too, should see on every anniversary of Normandy. This June 6, let's remember.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and the executive director of The Center of Vision & Values. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and the newly released Dupes: How America's Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.
Publication date: June 6, 2011