The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc – D-Day 78 Years Later

Too many of us don’t take the time to listen when someone opens up about a traumatic event in their lives. We live in an era dotted with the mantra of “I’m swamped, I’m too busy, I just don’t have time,” when the reality is they have more than enough time to do the mindless things they enjoy, they just don’t have the time to listen to someone else tell them a story.

I’ve spent my life listening to the stories of other people, and occasionally writing down those tales for others to benefit.

This is one of those.

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My high school friend Cubby (real name Lyle) got into a lot of predicaments, usually in the hills surrounding him mom and dad’s home just below Pilot Butte. We were continually getting either his dad’s or my dad’s truck stuck in the dunes and sagebrush dotting the area.

Cubby’s father Bill was in charge of the pipeline that ran through the area. Until a couple of decades or so ago, there was a house and nearby shop in that little section between Morton and the Wind River in west-central Fremont County.

Bill was gruff on occasion, but put up with Cubby and I as we shot pool in the basement, went for rides in the surrounding hills on the twin Yamaha motorcycles Bill let us use, and watched with amusement as we played catch with a football in his yard. He even tolerated our friends Trent and Pat when we’d all come over on a Friday night or maybe a weekend afternoon before plotting our exploits in Riverton or Lander later.

One memorable day, June 6, 1974 to be exact, Bill was different. I knew he’d been a sailor in World War II, but in those days, all the fathers of my friends were either World War II or as in my dad’s case, Korean War vets. Military service was much more common among the Greatest Generation than it is today.

As Cubby and I came in from a long ride on those Yahama bikes, Bill was outside working in his garden. He was visibly upset.

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“Sit down  boys,” he said. “I’m going to tell you two something.”

Pointe Du Hoc {h/t US Army Archives}

Bill began to reflect on a June morning 30 years before, when he was just a young man a long way from home in the middle of the greatest war in world history.

Bill was a gunner’s mate, on the USS Saterlee, DD-626, a Gleaves-Class destroyer cruising in the North Sea on a date with destiny.

The Saterlee was assigned to provide close support for the US Army Second Rangers on the morning of June 6, 1944, that’s right, D-Day.

The Saterlee moved close to the French coast just offshore from Pointe Du Hoc, where the Rangers were assigned to scale the nearly vertical cliffs to take out German shore batteries.

Bill teared up as he told his story.

“We were only about a thousand yards off the cliffs,” he said. “We could see the Rangers clearly climbing up to the German positions. Our orders were to fire close support.”

USS Saterlee off Pointe Du Hoc – June 6, 1944 {h/t US Navy}

Bill’s five-inch gun battery was the biggest weapon on the Saterlee along with similar armament on the two other destroyers that sailed in to support the Rangers as well.

“We set our range as tight as we could,” Bill said, “I knew some of those shells were probably killing our own guys, but those were our orders.”

The Saterlee laid down an extensive artillery barrage, and was close enough that they sent smaller armaments, .50 caliber, and 40mm rounds into the German positions above the Rangers as well.

Second Rangers {h/t US Army}

The Saterlee remained on target for three days, finally stopping close support on June 8, 1944 as the American forces moved further inland, out of the range of their guns.

“We killed people that morning,” Bill said. “It wasn’t one of those movies, it was real.”

You could tell it had an effect on him, even three decades later.

He never spoke of it before that day, and as I headed off to college the following summer, and Cubby went off to basic training in the US Marine Corps. I lost touch with Bill. He passed away a few years later.

I’ve spent a lifetime reading about the events at Normandy that day, and in smaller, even more intense battles in the Pacific War on Saipan, Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but even the best written work pales in comparison to a riveting first hand story from a man who was there.

US Army Rangers reach the cliff tops of Pointe Du Hoc {h/t US Army}

Perhaps the best film sequence ever choreographed on the horrors that faced those young Americans, Canadians and Englishmen in the early morning of June 6, 1944 came in “Saving Private Ryan,” but even the best cinematic effects a massive Hollywood budget can generate pale in comparison to stories of the real thing.

It’s been 48 years since Bill opened up that afternoon to a pair of 17-year old kids, but maybe he knew we were finally old enough to get a glimpse of what he was trying to tell us.

Whether that was his motive or not, it worked. The story has remained with me for almost half-a -century.

It’s the type of story young men need to hear from older, experienced veterans. A story that is best told by those who experienced it, but sadly, a largely forgotten connection between generations as gadgets, virtual reality and ubiquitous entertainment rob this generation of the things that really matter.

As president Bill Clinton said at the 50th anniversary celebration of D-Day back in 1994, “When these men were young, they saved the world.”

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