Two introductory notes before I start:
1) This will serve as Hamsterdam for the weekend. I front-paged this and made the Hamsterdam idea secondary because I want this post to be about the importance of Memorial Day and what it could/should mean to us as Americans and descendants of wars of freedom. (EDIT: I'll create a separate post for Hamsterdam's usual other sports talk and nonsense; let's let this post be for discussion of Memorial Day and honoring veterans. -- Ross)
2) There are a lot of different accounts with varying facts on the battle I outline below, I chose to write the story as it was told to me by my grandfather, with a few tweaks for where he clearly mis-stated or mis-remembered according to all other accounts. While not a veteran of this particular battle, he had the strange history of fighting for both Hitler and Uncle Sam during WWII after being an Austro-Yugoslav conscripted by the Germans, surrending to the first Americans he saw, and taking up the rifle again with an American flag patch on his shoulder. So if you've got a problem with this account, take it up with him at your own peril.
D-Day, 1944: Pointe Du Hoc
That imposing cliff was the proposed landing point on D-Day for a combined group of just over 500 American Army Rangers tasked with the impossible: Under fire, land your boats on that tiny strip of sand, scale the 100-ft cliffs using rocket-fired grappling hooks with rope ladders attached, and take out the 6 German heavy artillery guns that are emplaced in 10ft-thick concrete bunkers. Those guns, if not destroyed, are going to be firing up and down the shoreline of Normandy killing all your fellow landing troops. And we know it's a suicide mission, so you boys need to vote whether to agree to being on this mission. To a man, they agreed.
This battle was to be one of the first landing places for troops because of the importance of taking out those guns for landing everywhere else. The landing was to be in two waves: 275 Rangers in the first wave on 10 troop boats and 2 boats filled with the ladders and explosives. The second wave of another 250 Rangers would join when called for. If not called within two hours, they would assume first wave had achieved their objectives and would be landing on a different beach to join other efforts. The second wave would never be called to join, not because they weren't needed but because radio transmissions never got through. We're down to 275 Rangers.
When the boats got close enough to see the shoreline, they realized they were a half mile away from Pointe Du Hoc and had to turn and get there, exposing the left side of their line of 12 boats to fire from the cliffs and the tumble of waves. They lost one troop ship to the waves, the men had to be rescued from the cold water and never joined in D-Day until they recovered days later. They lost another troop ship to the guns, all but one of the men from that boat drowned in the waves. The two supply ships had the worst casualties, one sinking completely and the other tossing half the ladders and munitions overboard in order to stay afloat. 8 troop ships and a water-logged half-full supply ship land on the beach. We're down to 225 Rangers and 1/4 of their planned supplies.
The Rangers land at the base of the cliffs and find that their grappling rockets are nearly useless. The time soaking in the waves has made most of the ropes too heavy to fire a full 100 feet, when fired they arc up and fall back down to earth dozens of feet short. Several of the rope rockets don't even fire at all because of how wet they got. In six companies of men, only 5 rope ladders make the top of the cliff, miraculously one each from 5 separate companies. The sixth company has several men free-climb the cliff with their rifle and a rope ladder to drop down strapped to their backs. Somehow all 6 companies, while under fire and with Germans trying to cut some of the ropes, get all their able men to the top in under 15 minutes. Take a look again at that picture, could you free-climb that with wet hands in under 15 minutes even if you weren't under fire? Amazing. 50 brave men have lost their lives on the sand and didn't make it to the top. We're down to 175 Rangers.
The artillery emplacements:
When the Rangers get to the top they storm the emplacements to find telephone poles instead of artillery guns. Decoys. The big guns have been moved just yesterday to a different point along the cliffs, instead of being protected by the concrete emplacements they're now protected by a small battery of German soldiers. The Rangers fight for the guns, destroy their firing mechanisms, and wait for the rest of the D-Day troops to catch up. We're down to 150 Rangers.
An entire German battalion that is a mile away is sent to re-take those vital guns and their vital firing position. The Rangers again vote, they are going to defend the position. The last 150 Rangers hold off the German battalion for the entire night before approaching reinforcements in the morning force the Germans to retreat. Of the 275 that set sail to land, only 90 survive the night. Less than 20 are able to walk off, the rest are too wounded. But the guns remain in American hands.
So to all the veterans, whether they read this or not: Thank you. Memorial Day is to remember the sacrifices of troops past, and so we shall. Have a great Memorial Day weekend, everyone.