POINTE DU HOC, France — Of all the Allied attacks on D-Day, the Rangers’ cliff-climbing heroics to take the high ground between the two American landing beaches were the most dangerous.
German guns wiped out almost half the force before it ever reached the 30-meter cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. By the end of two days of fighting without reinforcement atop the cliffs, the Ranger landing force of roughly 225 men was reduced to about 90.
The event is legendary within the 75th Ranger Regiment, which continues to handle some of the most dangerous missions in Afghanistan and in other countries as the elite light-infantry strike force of the U.S. military. Their sacrifices have also become part of the local narrative among the French, who, 70 years later, continue to thank the Rangers for what they did here.
“It was D-Day. It was the longest day, but it was also the dawn of a new day for France and for the whole world,” Philippe Leboucher, chairman of a French organization dedicated to preserving the history of the Ranger assault on Pointe du Hoc, said Saturday at a memorial ceremony at the cliffs’ edge.
“After so many years of occupation, liberty was at last regained.”
The cliffs at Pointe du Hoc provided the Germans a view of both Omaha and Utah beaches, where tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers were to land on D-Day.
“It was considered key terrain for this reason, that whoever controlled it owned the initiative of the impending advance,” Maj. Christopher Hammonds, of the 75th Ranger Regiment, said at the ceremony. “The entire operation was hard to fathom.”
The men who trained for the assault, however, were eager to get the job done, said Ray Tollefson, a World War II Ranger veteran.
Tollefson trained for nearly a year for the assault, he said, and when June 6, 1944, came, he and about 500 other Rangers were in the English Channel eagerly awaiting the call to land. The first wave of Rangers who assaulted the cliffs were to signal Tollefson and the others in the channel to come when they reached the top.
But their radios failed, and the call never came.
“So, Army instructions are next: Hit the beach,” Tollefson said.
Not knowing what happened to the initial assault force, Tollefson and the rest of the Rangers in reserve headed to Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the D-Day landing beaches, providing needed reinforcements to a flagging battle. Tollefson was shot before he reached the sand, spent the night bleeding on the beach and the next two years recovering in a hospital.
He came back here 30 years ago for the first time, primarily to pay respects to nine of his fellow Rangers from Company A, 2nd Battalion, who are buried at Normandy American Cemetery. He’s come back every five years since, he said, because he’s made so many friends here.
“The friendship of the Normandy people is unbelievable.”
Current Rangers who attended the event said they were in awe of the veterans who came before them.
“One of the craziest stories I’ve heard was one of the veterans mentioned that he’d been shot in the face three times and refused [to be evacuated] until eventually he lost consciousness,” said Capt. Andrew Fisher, a Ranger from Indianapolis.
“These men were absolutely amazing. The things that they did, compared to what we do today, compared to the equipment that we have, the technology, our [medical evacuation] procedures; these guys just did it all and selflessly. So it’s just awe-inspiring and humbling to be in their presence.”