Out of all of the amazing cities we had scheduled for this trip, I was most excited to head to the city of Bayeux, which is located in the area of Normandy. I’ve spent a lot of my free time over the years studying and reading about World War II and most of that time has been devoted to learning more about the D-Day invasions and the Normandy campaign. Long before the trip began, before I had even gotten into the program and just saw the list of the locations on the itinerary, I was most excited about headed for the beaches. I wanted my chance to stand where so many others fought and fell for freedom and liberation. I wanted to finally get a chance to stand in the same places that I had read about in books and articles, places I had seen in documentaries and in movies. I wanted to head for the beaches. As the preparations for the actual study abroad portion of the trip progressed and we all got closer to our departure date, there was one location I became more and more interested in visiting besides the famous invasion beaches: Pointe du Hoc.
Over the years I had read a little about what happened at Pointe du Hoc on June 6th 1944. I knew it was a crucial part in the success of D-Day but through the pre-requisite class I had to take before I could study abroad, I was able to learn so much about this location and who fought there. One of the main parts of the pre-requisite class was that each student had to become the expert on one site that we would visit during our trip abroad. When I first received my site assignment I have to admit I was a little disappointed when I did not get one of the beaches or the airborne drops but because Pointe du Hoc was still part of D-Day and the Normandy campaign, I was not too broken up about it; within the first hour of starting my assigned book I needed to read for my site report I was so happy I had been assigned the location of Pointe du Hoc. The book I was assigned, Dog Company: The Boys of Pointe du Hoc by Patrick K. O’Donnell, covered the amazing experiences of the 2nd Rangers Battalion’s D Company through the Second World War with a special focus on their pivotal role in D-Day.
Now when the allied command began planning the specifics of D-Day, they realized that the area of Pointe du Hoc, a high point that rises about 90 feet out of English channel with Utah beach on its east and Omaha beach on its west, was an area of critical importance. Reconnaissance photos had found that the Germans had six 155mm guns located on top of the cliffs that could be used to wipe out any invading allied forces on Omaha beach. If the invasion of Omaha beach were to succeed, the guns had to be taken out. Pointe du Hoc at that time was a seemingly impenetrable position with its 90 foot high cliffs on one side, machine guns posted along the edges of the cliffs, and the area covered in land mines. Thankfully, the American army had recently created a special operations unit called the Rangers who specialized in guerilla fighting and stealth missions and who were probably the Allies best chance at getting onto Pointe du Hoc. The Rangers of the 2nd Battalion trained every day for months, climbing similar cliffs along the southern coasts of England, in preparation for D-Day when they would climb the 90 foot cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. But even with all the specific training, the planners of D-Day agreed that the Rangers mission was the most dangerous of the day and there were expected causalities as high as 70-percent.
On the morning of June 6th, the 225 Rangers cross the English Channel and headed for the Normandy coast. As the Rangers crossed the channel, some realized that they were headed in the wrong direction, which meant that they would be behind schedule and ruin the extremely time sensitive invasion plan. Despite the delays, the Rangers eventually managed to reach the bottom of the cliffs and did not hesitate to scale the 90 foot cliffs under heavy enemy fire. At around 7:30 a.m., the Rangers reached the top of the cliffs and by about 8:30 a.m. all six of the German guns were destroyed. The Rangers were not done when they destroyed the guns however; for two days the remaining undermanned, undersupplied, and extremely exhausted Rangers fought off German soldiers within the area of Pointe du Hoc until they could finally be released on June 8th. When the Rangers were finally relieved on D+2, out of the original 225 Rangers who crossed the channel two days earlier, only 90 men were still able to fight.
After studying the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc for months, I was so excited to visit the location where the intense battle happened that not even the fact that I had to give an oral presentation at the site could lessen my excitement
Unlike some of the other sites we had visited earlier in our trip, Pointe du Hoc remained very similar to how the Rangers left it back in 1944: deep bomb craters still littered the area, German fortifications still stood strong in places, and the postwar additions to the site were few and far between. I was taken aback the first time I laid eyes on the site at both how large the total area of Pointe du Hoc really was and just how big some of the bomb craters got. It was powerful to stand out at the edge of the cliffs- where the monument for the 2nd Rangers Battalion now stands -, look down at the gravely strip of land at the bottom, and imagine what it must have felt like for a German soldier on that historic day to look down and see the Rangers climbing towards you without hesitation or fear. Once the initial shock of the location passed, however, it was almost too easy to lose myself in the site and for a moment I forgot what the place really was. It was easy to run through the dark, cement German fortifications with my classmates and joke how it looked like a scene from the Blair Witch project. There was no hesitation to take cheesy pictures together and reenact the Lion King on some of the larger rock outcroppings that stuck up from the Earth. On that beautiful, sunny May morning, even with the land still so torn up, for a few moments I was able to forget what had happened there. But as I began my presentation and started to repeat the words that I had been rehearsing for days, the novelty of the day washed away and the memory of what happened returned at full force: soldiers- some of them really just kids, what with them being either my age or even younger –fought and struggled and died on the very land I stood and spoke on so that they could help take back almost an entire continent from Nazi rule.
Pointe du Hoc stands today as a symbol of the struggle show by the Rangers that day in their mission to help take back Europe. I am so thankful I was able to not only learn more about those amazing men but be able to get the chance to educate others on them as well.