HONFLEUR, France – In one of the five landing beaches of the June 6, 1944 invasion in northern France, U.S. First Army soldiers drowned in strong tidal currents. German gunners were shooting as they ran toward the cliff. Some died after they stepped on mines. It was a killing zone.
German troops heavily guarded the Omaha Beach and Utah Beach landing areas in Normandy. The soldiers' mission was to destroy the German's five 155-mm guns at the top of Pointe du Hoc, a cliff that is in the middle of the two landing areas.
The surviving soldiers scaled the 100-foot limestone cliffside in small groups while Germans dropped grenades and shot at them. Two rangers who made it up the jagged cliff used thermite grenades to damage the weapons.
"It was stormy. It was rainy. It was cold," said World War II veteran John C. Raaen, a Silver Star recipient who is in Normandy for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, codenamed Operation Overlord.
In honor of their courage there is a stone with a message at the top of the cliff: To the heroic ranger command D2RN, E2RN and F2RN of the 116th Infantry, who under the command of Colonel James E. Rudder of the First American Division, attacked and took possession of the Pointe du Hoc.
About 100 rangers used well-secured climbing ropes during a spirited ceremony to commemorate the historic feat. They were also honoring the 75th Ranger Regiment's role during the D-Day landings. About 4,414 Allied troops died, out of which some 2,500 of them were Americans.
Raeen, 97, of Fort Benning, Georgia, was there to watch the climb. He was a company commander in the 75th's 5th Ranger Battalion, which landed in Omaha Beach, which he said smelled like a mixture of burning gasoline and blood.
Raeen, who served as a captain on D-Day and went on to become a major general, still remembers a friendly-fire nightmare while he was storming Omaha Beach on D-Day. Amid the confusion, he said five Allied tanks burst over the hill and attacked them -- killing about eight rangers.
Raeen returned home December 1944. After 36 years of service that included posts during the Korean and Vietnam wars, the veteran retired in 1979 and now lives in Central Florida.
President Donald Trump and leaders from Britain, Canada and France will be in Normandy Thursday. Raeen will be attending several remembrances throughout the day at the military cemeteries.