It was spring 1984. President Ronald Reagan stood on a craggy piece of land jutting into the English Channel, where 40 years before, American soldiers had scaled the heights on D-Day, June 6, 1944, during the allied landings at Normandy.
Sitting before him were 62 of the “boys,” now-middle aged men who had climbed the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, using ropes, grappling hooks and ladders to reach a suspected German gun emplacement 100 feet up.
They were boys no more, and even on the that stormy morning in 1944, they were more a group of rugged characters than youths.
One, William “L-Rod” Petty, 63, had lost his teeth playing football and suffered two broken legs in training before he joined the Army Ranger outfit that fought there. It took him three tries to reach the top. He is thought to have killed 30 German soldiers that day.
Leonard G. “Bud” Lomell, 64, had been a railroad brakeman before the war. Shot in the side, he barely made it up the cliff but later destroyed two big German guns with thermite grenades. He would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Frank South, 59, was a Ranger medic, and had treated many wounded men on the beach before reaching the heights with the others. He would earn two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.
Antonio “Tom” Ruggiero, 58, had been a professional tap dancer before the war. He was plunged into the water when a shell hit his landing craft on D-Day and later became a sniper in the Rangers.
President Trump is scheduled to visit Normandy on Thursday for the 75th anniversary of the invasion. But he’s set to speak at an American cemetery, not Pointe du Hoc, according to the White House. Today, there is believed to be only one Ranger who fought at Pointe du Hoc still alive.
Even in 1984, D-Day was a hazy memory for many people. The United States was still healing from the deep psychic wounds of the Vietnam War, and Washington faced a menacing adversary in the Soviet Union.
Plus, Reagan was in the midst of a reelection campaign, and, during a trip to Europe that spring, his appearance in Normandy was a crucial opportunity.
The task of writing Reagan’s address was given to a precocious 33-year-old speechwriter named Peggy Noonan, one of seven children of an Irish Catholic family from Brooklyn. Her father was a furniture salesman. The family later lived above a candy store in New Jersey. She had once worked as a waitress.
She also had a degree in literature, had minored in journalism, and kept a copy of the Bible and Ezra Pound’s “Cantos” by her when she worked.
What she produced was brilliant.
“For sheer oratorical elegance,” historian Douglas Brinkley wrote, it would become “one of the most inspirational presidential speeches ever delivered.”
In June 1984, Noonan had been at the White House about three months and had never met the president. But she adored Reagan, got a keen sense of the drama of D-Day and was terrific with words.
“A speech is a soliloquy,” she would write later. “One man on a bare stage with a big spotlight . . . part theater and part political declaration.”
It was also “poetry: cadence, rhythm, imagery, sweep!” she wrote.
But it was also an official presidential address, and Noonan had to pack a lot into it.
“A good speech is really a sausage skin,” she wrote. “The stronger it is the more you shove in.”
She had to hit some Cold War notes for the president, criticizing the Soviet Union for its continued and unwanted occupation of large chunks of Europe.
She had to remind shaky European allies of what they had accomplished in World War II.
And she had to make Reagan look and sound good.
In her 1990 book, “What I Saw at the Revolution,” she wrote that she paced around the Washington Monument, read books about D-Day and pondered.
“I drifted . . . waiting for the speech to come,” she wrote. “Sometimes they do.”
She would borrow several rich scenes from Cornelius Ryan’s classic D-Day history, “The Longest Day.” She would use a line from the British poet, Stephen Spender: You “left the vivid air signed with your honor,” she would have Reagan say.
Then, she had a revelation.
She knew that Pointe du Hoc veterans would be in the crowd to hear the speech. But she had not known until she learned from a colleague that they would all be sitting together right in front of the president when he spoke.
“I was indignant,” she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2004. “How could you not tell me?”
Reagan must address them directly.
At the bottom of page 2 of her May 21 typed draft, the sentence, “We have here today some of the survivors of the battle of Point du Hoc, some of the Rangers who took these cliffs,” is crossed out.
Handwritten over it, in neat printed script, are the words, “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc . . . ”
It was the greatest line in one of Reagan’s greatest speeches, and perhaps the most memorable about D-Day since Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower told his men that day: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade. . . . The eyes of the world are upon you . . . ”
Noonan wrote that she grabbed the “boys” line from Roger Kahn’s 1972 baseball book about the Brooklyn Dodgers, “The Boys of Summer.”
“O happy steal,” Noonan wrote.
(But Kahn had his own “steal,” taking his book title from a Dylan Thomas poem that begins, “I see the boys of summer in their ruin,” according to the historian Brinkley.)
Not all of Noonan’s words made it into the speech. There were deletions and insertions. But much of the good stuff did.
Reagan delivered it on a gray afternoon, against the backdrop of the gray sea, “on a lonely windswept point on the northern shore of France,” he said.
He stood before a French-built stone monument to the Rangers constructed atop an old German bunker.
The Rangers, in dark blazers, gray slacks and business suits, stood and saluted when he stepped to the lectern, then sat down on wooden folding chairs. Reagan returned their salute.
Noonan watched on TV in her office back in Washington.
“Forty years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and . . . was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon,” Reagan said.
“Free nations had fallen,” he had begun. “Jews cried out in the camps. Millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved and the world prayed for its rescue.”
“Here . . . the rescue began,” he said.
“Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs,” he said, glancing over his shoulder. “And before me,” he said with a pause for drama, “are the men who put them there.”
“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” he said, stopping as applause rippled through the crowd. “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.”
There were tears in the eyes of some of the old soldiers. The speech lasted about 14 minutes. Afterward, Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan shook hands with the Rangers and moved on to their next stop.
Seven months later, Reagan was reelected in a landslide. He served a second term, and died in 2004.
Noonan left the White House in 1986, and is an author and columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
The men of Pointe du Hoc, meanwhile, returned to their lives. Some would return to Normandy for other visits.
"Tom” Ruggiero, already a retired Plymouth, Mass., fire department captain, went back in 2009, for the 65th anniversary of D-Day and met President Barack Obama. Ruggiero died in 2016 at the age of 95.
Len Lomell, a successful lawyer and the subject of a painting of D-Day, died in Toms River, N.J., in 2011, at age 91.
William “L-Rod” Petty, who after the war directed a camp in New York for low-income children, died in 2000 in Carmel, N.Y., at age 78.
Frank South, a physiology professor at the University of Delaware, died in 2013, at age 88. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
At the end of his speech, Reagan used Noonan’s closing lines to pay tribute to the Ranger dead:
“Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their valor, and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.”