Written by Ben Dietderich
I stand in pouring rain. Despite the water seeping through my nylon raincoat and the wind hurling hard, I don’t feel the cold. Perhaps the reason the damp and dropping temperature hasn’t registered with me yet is because I can’t help thinking that the men who had traversed this land 70 years before me must have been colder. These were the same men that 4500 people and I are spending the weekend learning about. These were the same men who climbed cliffs, stormed beaches, and gave their lives to free an entire continent. These were the same men whose sacrifice is still remembered by the 9,387 white marble crosses I stand in front of.
As I look out at those brave soldiers and as I question whether I too, would’ve been as brave as those young men were, I follow the other scouts next to me and I begin to recite words I have stated countless times before:
On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to god and my country . . .
On June 6, 1944, 156,000 American, British, Canadian and French soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy. Almost 70 years later, on Friday, April 25, 2014, I am in Normandy attending one of the largest gatherings of American Scouts ever to assemble outside of America. We stand shoulder to shoulder alongside scouts from a variety of European countries. All 4,500 of us are here for two reasons: To remember the courageous and unselfish acts that occurred on those beaches 70 years ago and to remind the world of the peace that can be created from maintaining a set of common values such as the ones we share in scouting.
As my weekend continues, I learn more about courageous acts that occurred during the war. The invasion of Normandy was the largest amphibious invasion in the history of mankind. The Allied powers launched successful attacks on five beaches, Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Some of these spots were more dangerous than others. The cliffs of Pointe du Hoc were one of those places. A special US army battalion known as the Rangers was deployed to these cliffs. Their task was to climb the 85 to 100 foot cliffs so that they could destroy the deadly long range cannons that stood at the top. Unfortunately, the beach at the bottom of these cliffs offered no cover which made their position extremely vulnerable. To get up the cliffs, they were given shootable ladders attached to grapnel hooks. By the following day,(June 7th) less than a hundred men were still alive of the 225 men that had begun climbing.
Today, the top of the cliffs are still covered in mortar holes big enough to stand in. Along the edge old German Bunkers still stand. A fence exists to keep people from falling off the steep edge of the cliff, but one only has to look down to understand the incredible feats that took place on these cliffs.
The rangers had climbed and climbed. Sometimes their ladders were shot down, but when that happened, another ladder would take its place. The danger they faced as they grasped each rock didn’t occupy them, instead they just climbed further. And for every rock they reached and every foot they advanced, they were one foot closer to the liberation of Europe.
After visiting the sites, the scouts gather for a multimedia event where French Mirage fighter jets fly over our heads, the national French army band plays, and many moving speeches are given. One French Army veteran, who fought alongside the Americans on Omaha beach leaves a letter for us. His message is simple: “Never be foolish enough to think that what happened in that war won’t happen again.” His letter speaks of the conflict they faced and duty they had to defeat such an enemy.
Every day we are faced with similar conflicts. Perhaps the conflicts in today’s world aren’t as terrible– or perhaps they are. Either way, our duty to take a stand against horrendous acts should remain.
As I stand here on the beach, surrounded by other scouts, I see that at least here, duty has not been forgotten. Every uniform in sight has a fleur-de-lis scout symbol sewn onto it. Duty is in that patch. Just like it was in the pledge I took when I became an Eagle Scout. It’s a timeless duty that scouting teaches so well, but a responsibility we all have, to ourselves, and to the world.