Exactly twenty years ago, Ronald Reagan inspired world with his words of tribute to those who fought and died in Normandy.
Ronald Reagan was the first president to grasp the symbolic significance and glory of D-Day celebrations. Ten years later, Bill Clinton spoke to the world from the Normandy beaches as well, as will current President George Bush on Sunday.
But Ronald Reagan’s message was a personal one— they always were. He always knew how to boil down a big idea—in fact, his State of the Union addresses were the first to point out individual stories, of someone’s life up in the audience. It is a testament to the mythical vision Ronald Reagan had.
On the D-Day anniversary 20 years ago, the Gipper’s speech was inspired by a young woman whose dad has survived the Battle at Omaha beach. His speech included words from Lisa Zanatta Henn, from a letter she wrote him about her father Private Zanatta.
“I don’t know how or why I can feel this emptiness, this fear, or this determination, but I do. All I know is that it brings tears to my eyes to think about my father as a 20-year old boy having to face that beach… In his words, the Normandy invasion would change his life forever,” wrote Zanatta to the president, which Reagan read out loud on the beach.
Private First Class Peter Robert Zanatta died in 1976. He never got to see the graves at Normandy, lay flowers, or walk the beach again, which was one of his hopes. But Private Zanatta did get to the beach in his own way.
For Lisa Henn, hearing former Pres. Reagan say her dad’s name, on the beach where he nearly died for his country, was a fitting tribute for her hero. “Reagan gave me the greatest gift,” says Henn. “He’s made my dad immortal.”
The President’s speech helped assure her that her father’s memory would live on. Now, she focuses on her own kids, to try and pass on the stories to them.
At the end of his speech, former President Reagan said, “Through the words of his loving daughter…. a D-Day veteran has shown us the meaning of this day far better than any President can. It is enough to say about Private Zanatta and all the men of honor and courage who fought beside him four decades ago: We will always remember. We will always be proud. We will always be prepared, so we may always be free.”
It was a message which would have made Private Robert Zanatta proud. It is a message fitting for us to remember this D-Day anniversary weekend, and on a day this great man passed away.