The Rangers at Pointe-du-Hoc
And you know, I really hate it when literature tries to demonstrate the absurd and futile nature of war.
War. Hell. One and the same.
Duh! Yeah, we know. It's not useful to dwell on.
Repeatedly driving that point home, as was done in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, only makes it harder to muster the will to fight when the need actually arises.
As in, now.
Western civilization is in need of a massive "deprogramming". The process began to reverse a bit, amid elitist howls fo disapproval, in the Reagan 80s, with the counterattack of non-PC characters like Rambo and the Dark Knight. The sudden fall of the Evil Empire, however, caused us to let our guard down for a decade.
So the part in "The Longest Day" where I turn it on is one of my favorites: a small band of Rangers is assaulting a narrow beach and climbing sheer cliffs under Nazi machine gun fire in order to capture dug-in batteries of heavy cannon on the high ground that would menace the flank of the main landing.
The mission was seen as crucial; and at impossible odds, with great heroism, and at greater cost, they climbed right into the fortifications and seized the bunkers.
The movie shows them walking around in the bunkers, stunned: the pillboxes are empty! The guns are nowhere to be found! The leader mutters, almost in shock, something to the effect of, "they were never here, there aren't even any gun mounts!"
And the Brooklyn kid character laments, in a daze, "Sarge...you mean...we came all this way...for nuthin'?!?"
(well, actually, it was a hard cut to another scene.)
That always annoyed me, how it was all a set-up for the "message". Oh, the irony! Oh, the stupidity! The lovable big-guff character died for nuthin!
Well, that account didn't quite square with my dim memory of what I had read in a book at my elementary school, many years ago, abbreviated as the account at that level necessarily was.
So I went to my shelf and took down my copy of Ryan's "The Longest Day" to read exactly what was being adapted.
On page 184 of the paperback edition, Ryan writes:
Minute by minute the valiant Ranger force was being chipped away. By the end of the day there would only be ninety of the original 225 still able to bear arms. Worse, it had been a heroic and futile effort -- to silence guns which were not there. The information which Jean Marion, the French underground sector chief, had tried to send to London was true. The battered bunkers atop Pointe du Hoc were empty -- the guns had never been mounted.So the movie faithfully reproduced that. It's just so perfect a tragedy, with even the classic device of the "undelivered message", that makes one lament, "if-only...!"
But wait! There's more! A footnote then informs us
Some two hours later a Ranger patrol found a deserted five-gun battery in a camouflaged position more than a mile inland. Stacks of shells surrounded each gun and they were ready to fire, but the Rangers could find no evidence that they had ever been manned. Presumably these were the guns for the Pointe du Hoc emplacements.Now hold it right there! It's more like, Cornelius Ryan could find no evidence. What, the guns just put themselves in the woods by themselves? Some non-people just stacked the heavy shells nearby for no particular reason, and then wandered off?
Perhaps Ryan didn't want to find such evidence to ruin his point?
This aroused my suspicion, so I went to my other book, D-Day by Stephen Ambrose, who, writing in 1994, had 35 more years of research to draw on, and draw heavily on it he did, using the resources of 1,380 first-person accounts.
Ambrose's account is quite different!
First, he points out the Rangers had a secondary mission of some importance, that they went right to work on, being to set up roadblocks to prevent reinforcements from attacking the main landing beaches. So it had a purpose in any event.
But second, Ryan is deficient in many important details, and in his whole spin!
Ambrose tells that decoy guns were found in the bunkers with telephone poles for barrels to fool spotter planes, and that tracks led away into the forest -- indicating the guns had been mounted, and were withdrawn to save them from bombardment.
On page 415 of the book club trade paperback edition,
The primary purpose of the rangers was...to get those 155 mm cannon. The tracks leading out of the casemates and the effort the Germans were making to dislodge the rangers indicated that they had to be around somewhere...Excellent soldiers, those rangers -- they immediately began patrolling.Lomell and Kuhn destroyed the heavy guns with thermite grenades, and another patrol led by Sgt. Rupinski discovered and detonated another "huge" ammunition dump nearby.
There was a dirt road leading south (inland). It had heavy tracks. Sgts. Leonard Lomell and Jack Kuhn thought the missing guns might have made the tracks. They set out to investigate. At about 250 meters (one kilometer nland), Lomell abruptly stopped. He held his hand out to stop Kuhn, turned and half whispered, "Jack, here they are. We've found 'em. Here are the goddamed guns."
Unbelievably, the well-camouflaged guns were set up in battery, ready to fire in the direction of Utah Beach, with piles of ammunition around them, but no Germans. Lomell spotted about a hundred Germans a hundred meters or so across an open field, apparently forming up. Evidently they had pulled back during the bombardment, for fear of a stray shell setting off the ammunition dump, and were now preparing to man their guns...
Ambrose also indicates the rangers discovered the guns after 30 minutes of patrolling, by 0900, and not after a leisurely 2 hours, as Ryan implies; it was 2 hours after the initial landing, not after the discovery of the empty bunkers.
Ambrose concludes this section with the scathing rebuttal, directed apparently at Ryan,
Later, writers commented that it had all been a waste, since the guns had been withdrawn from the fortified area around Pointe-du-Hoc. That is wrong. Those guns were in working condition before Sergeant Lomell got to them. They had an abundance of ammunition. They were in range (they could lob their huge shells 25,000 meters) of the biggest targets in the world, the 5,000-plus ships in the Channel and the thousands of troops and equipment on Utah and Omaha beaches.Put that in your pipe and smoke it!
Lieutenant Eikner was absolutely correct when he concluded his oral history, "Had we not been there we felt quite sure that those guns would have been put into operation and they would have brought much death and destruction down on our men on the beaches and our ships at sea. But by 0900 on D-Day morning the big guns had been put out of commission and the paved highway had been cut and we had roadblocks denying its use to the enemy...The rangers at Pointe-du-Hoc were the first American forces on D-Day to accomplish their mission and we are proud of that."
So I relaxed and recovered afterwards by catching the end of Bronson's trashy and ludicrous but oh-so-satisfying Death Wish 3.