Published June 10, 2004
It wasn't planned that way, of course, but it all sort of worked out.
There we were in Normandy, France, covering the 60th anniversary of the Allies' D-Day invasion for Fox News when word came of the passing of Ronald Reagan.
The "segue" wasn't hard at all. What the former president stood for, and what the brave men and women who fought and died on the sands of France's northern coast believed in, were pretty much one thing.
Before news "broke" of Reagan's passing, I had done several interviews with D-Day veterans. The guys were all incredible.
But my favorite was Clair P. Martin of San Diego, California. He told me his troops had practiced the landing for months — but only in ankle-deep water.
At 6:30 in the morning on June 6, 1944, C.P. got out of his landing craft in front of Omaha Beach (search) ... and waded into a five foot-deep sea!
With radio equipment in tow, he had to make it 600 yards through a hail of enemy fire to a somewhat safer location near a seawall.
"How long did it take you?" I asked.
"Son," he replied with a smile, "we weren't looking at our watches."
As it was C.P.'s job to set up communications (and not storm Nazi "pill-boxes") he remained on the beach for 19 hours.
"What did you see?" I asked him.
In the most direct, succinct way you can imagine, as if it had just happened that morning, he replied, "Death, chaos, and destruction."
The sacrifice made by the soldiers at Normandy was certainly on the mind of Ronald Reagan when, as president, he spoke at the 40th anniversary of D-Day. His stirring speech was delivered at Pointe du Hoc (search), where U.S. Army Rangers had defied German machine-gun fire, shimmying up a 100-foot cliff to knock out a presumed artillery battery.
I saw the location for the first time on this visit and it's nothing short of mind-blowing: a precipice of rock jutting out between Omaha and Utah beaches, the two American landing spots on D-Day.
As it turned out, the German guns weren't there after all. But the sacrifice was, and Reagan knew it.
"One's country is worth dying for," Reagan told the crowd twenty years ago. "Democracy is worth dying for."
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (search) was there for the speech, and by fortunate coincidence, was back there this weekend. He told me firsthand about Reagan's words and emotion.
Then he did something you usually don't see Washington bigwigs do in TV interviews. He cried. I wasn't sure whether he was shedding tears for the boys who died in France, or for the president. But I think it was for both.
The D-Day veterans were upset, too, to hear about the passing of the man who defended so strongly the ability of the military to defend the U.S.
One hadn't heard about Reagan dying so he was surprised. Another had a down-home analysis of the man: "At the beginning, a lot of people didn't take him too seriously. Then they did." Many other vets acknowledged the former President's role in defeating communism.
President Reagan also busied himself during his years at the White House with an evil very central to our concerns right now: terrorism. It was on his watch that Marines in Lebanon were slaughtered in a truck bombing. And it was Reagan who gave the go-ahead for a strike against Libyan dictator and terror sponsor Muammar al-Qaddafi (search).
I thought it was very appropriate that I ran into an acquaintance of mine from the current terror war, Lt. Col. Steve Russell of the 4th Infantry Division. I had spent some long, hot and dusty days and nights with Russell in Tikrit, Iraq, last year, accompanying his men as they tracked the now-nabbed Saddam Hussein and other bad guys.
But this past Sunday, Russell was there in France, dressed in his official best, part of the anniversary ceremony. Sixty years ago, the soldiers of the 4th Infantry division landed and took Utah Beach.
So by the end of the day, on June 6, 2004, it had all come full circle: the valor of 19-year-old kids on blood-drenched beaches 60 years ago; a president who fought a variety of evils and 20 years ago remembered those who had wrestled past foes; and servicemen and women and family members, very much a part of today's global struggles.
As for C.P. Martin, the fellow who spent those 19 hours on "Bloody Omaha," he made it off the beach. He and his fellow troops went on to defeat Adolf Hitler's forces. Then C.P. got to go home and be with his wife whom he hadn't seen in 3½ years.
"You know what?" he told me. "She was still there waiting for me. No 'Dear John' letters!" He smiled and cried. The crowd which had gathered around us to hear Martin's tale broke out into applause and cheers.
Somehow I think "The Gipper," too, would have appreciated C.P.'s simple story of dedication — and of course, that sweet California homecoming!