Spring had more than sprung in Richmond County when I departed less than a week ago. Winter gear could safely be put away until about November. Here in the north of France, the calendar may indicate spring, but it is shockingly different than the Carolinas — like 40 degrees cooler with fog and wind. It all blew in last evening. It sounded like a hurricane all night as the wind and rain beat against the house. Also beating against the front of the house and the black-out storm shutters was the old parachute that was decorating the place.
Irene is hosting us for our stay in Normandy. She is an energetic person who we are able to communicate with despite our language barrier. She is happy to make friends with us and excited about what we’re doing here — she was one of the first to meet me when I hit the ground on DZ A the other evening. Irene thought it would be a good idea to hang an old parachute on the front of her house in our honor. And it was … until the hurricane-level winds twisted it into an elongated rat’s tail that beat on the house until morning. Not really that disruptive in the grand scheme of things.
The weather is harsh and wasn’t forecast to clear up during the day. The planned jump was scratched well before our weather decision time. Good call. Opportunity to see more of the area.
I set out to visit the beach landing sites and the cemetery at Colleville sur Mer. I decide to stay off the main roads as much as possible and really get a feel for the terrain and vegetation in Normandy. Country roads are barely single lanes and it feels like you’re going to have a collision with every oncoming car. It works out and the rental car remains unscathed. I drive south down the coast from Utah Beach to my first stop.
Pointe du Hoc was a heavily fortified position of operational significance that needed to be secured as an early priority of D-Day. The heavy weapons that had been there could be a significant factor in American successes along the landing beaches. To secure them, soldiers would have to scale 100-foot cliffs while under fire, make it over the top, and root out the entrenched Germans. The area had been heavily bombed — the craters and destroyed fortifications are still there. I marvel at how anyone may have withstood the bombardment. There are chunks of reinforced concrete — some larger than my F-150 — that sit half a football field away from where they were blown off their aperture. The craters are 10 to 15 feet deep and some are 50 feet wide. My hearing is bad, but any defender at Pointe du Hoc had to be stone deaf.
A view looking south looking South down from the site of the Ranger memorial at Pointe du Hoc.
The task of scaling these cliffs and then securing the heavy weapons to prevent interdiction of our landing force fell on elements of the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions. The Rangers earned the phrase “Rangers lead the way” at this place on the 6th of June, 1944. I’ve visited before, but there were fences that limited how close you could get to the Ranger memorial that is built on top of a heavy weapons position at the apex of the pointe. Today, I can go out to it and look over the enormity of the task that the Rangers undertook. Unbelievable.
Just getting up the cliffs without falling, being shot, having a grenade get you, or physically exhausting yourself is more than most would even consider. What about when you reach the top? You have no orientation to the ground which, by the way, has been systematically chopped up by all the bombing. You must find the enemy — and the threatening weapons — and help your buddies to get up there as well. Incredible. Rangers lead the way!
I’m walking back toward the entry and I hear someone call my name. I turn and discover the son of a 507th PIR World War II paratrooper and his daughter. We recognized each other and stopped for some conversation. He and his daughter are having a great trip so far and are intent on continuing to Belgium where his dad fought at the battle of the bulge. He tells me about three emotional coincidences that have happened during the trip. We get a photo together and he says that he wishes his dad was here. He is … the paratrooper in the sky.
I leave Pointe du Hoc intent on visiting Omaha Beach and the cemetery, but get halfway there and all roads are closed. Traffic is unbelievable as so many people have limited time to get to the significant sites. I have a few more days so I decide to drive some more country roads toward the village of Graignes — a little-known town where about a company-sized element of the 507th was miss-dropped and fought. We are planning to jump there tomorrow.
I must say that I am constantly amazed by the memorials and tributes paid to the Allies who fought in Normandy. So many people work to honor the heroes of ‘44 in so many different and unique ways. Some of the things people do are physically, mentally, or even financially challenging. People have said that I’m a bit touched to choose jumping out of old airplanes with round military static-line parachutes as my way of honoring our veterans and the fallen. It’s who I am and what I want to do for as long as I can. I’ve done a fair amount of it.
As a career infantryman, paratrooper, and Ranger, I also have done a LOT of walking … with a LOT of equipment. If anything that I did in my career has lost its luster, it is road marching. I can do it all day and all night — I just would never select road marching as my way of honoring those who went before. Quite by chance, as I was driving some country roads between Omaha Beach and Carentan, I came up behind a company-sized element of “soldiers” in period uniform with full kit and — I’m guessing — replica weapons doing a road march toward Carentan. I don’t know where they started or where they were to finish … perhaps “Dead Man’s Corner” … but that’s hardcore.
Here’s to tomorrow’s MET — perhaps we can get our knees in the breeze.
Vive la France!
Vive la Liberte!
Retired Army Lt. Col. Jon Ring, JROTC instructor at Richmond Senior High School, is a member of the Liberty Jump Team and will be participating in events this week commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944.