- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2008


June 6, 1944, was a sunny, mildly warm day in Washington. Across the Atlantic, however, that was far from the case. While there had been something of a break in the stormy gale and driving rain, on D-Day strong winds were rushing choppy waves to pound the beaches of Normandy beneath leaden skies.

More than 175,000 men were involved in Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion to breach Adolf Hitler’s vaunted Atlantic Wall and break Nazi Germany’s stranglehold on Continental Europe.

Taking part were 11,000 planes other than the swarms of bombers and close to 7,000 ships of all sizes and shapes - the greatest invasion armada ever assembled.

Today, many people seem to think victory was inevitable. Then, it was far from certain for the people dying in the water and on the sand, and far from certain for the people waiting at home in the United States.

The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va., gives a peek at what the landing men went through that June 6.

A triumphal arch stands above the 88-acre site and overlooks a sculptural rendering of Allied soldiers on the beaches and scaling the cliffs. Two circular parcels pay tribute to the efforts of naval and air forces. The Danforth anchor, Coast Guard bell, L-3 observation plane and Dakota propeller now on display are to be replaced by permanent exhibitions that will include figurative sculpture.

Surrounding the plaza are tablets with the names of the U.S. service members killed on D-Day along with busts and sculpted figures of notable leaders.

Why a monument in a small rural town of some 3,00 souls in an almost isolated area in the foothills of Appalachia? Because, per capita, Bedford was the hardest-hit community in all the land.

Using as my guide “The Bedford Boys,” a well-done book by Alex Kershaw, 34 young men from Bedford landed in the first wave on Omaha Beach, all members of the First Battalion of the 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, all but two of them in Company A.

Within minutes, 19 were killed. Three more died later in the campaign.

It was a toll that harkened back to Civil War days, when small towns North and South lost, in effect, a whole generation of young men in a few hours of bloody work on some farm field or gloomy wood.

In a grim way, it was fitting. The 116th Regiment was a National Guard unit that had its roots in the Stonewall Brigade, Stonewall Jackson’s unit at the First Battle of Manassas, known as First Bull Run in the North. The men of the 116th called themselves Stonewallers because of that heritage.

It took all day for the 29th Division finally to push off the blood-stained sand of Omaha Beach and gain a sure foothold on French soil.

While the men were dying on the beachheads, back home we listened to terse messages on the radio, some rashly optimistic, others full of doubt. President Franklin Roosevelt issued a prayer. Many stores followed Macy’s example and closed, saying people had more important things on their minds than shopping.

Sharing Omaha Beach with the 29th Division, the 1st Division also faced withering gunfire and had the same trouble pushing off the beach.

At the end of the longest day, there had been 2,500 casualties on Omaha, less than a tenth of that number on Utah, the other American beach. Total casualties - dead, wounded and missing - on all five Allied beaches came to almost 10,000, a loss of about 10 percent, less than half the 25 percent that the generals had predicted.

By a month after D-Day, 27,000 American casualties had been shipped back across the Channel to England. About 11,000 GIs had been killed, and a thousand more were missing.

For most people in the United States, D-Day was a day of triumph as the Grand Crusade began in earnest, but it was a bad day in Bedford, as the wave of “We regret to inform you” telegrams began to pour into the small community.

On the morning of June 7, the Western Union office - located in a drug store that was the coffee stop for many Bedford folk - opened with the bleak message, “We have casualties.”

The operator waited for the message to end, but it didn’t. Line after line clattered out on the printer. She drafted men who had been sipping coffee moments before to deliver the telegrams, telling them to stay in the stricken homes until church members, relatives or neighbors came to render support and comfort.

Not all the notices, however, arrived then. For days the telegrams came, casting a pall of fear, uncertainty and gloom on the devastated town.

Behind those hard-won beaches in Normandy are the American cemeteries for the men who died in the landing - an ocean of crosses and stars of David.

If one wants to reckon the true cost of war, a walk along row after row of these markers for lives snapped short - where someone 21 years old was considered an old man - is a must.

It’s a walk that U.S. leaders should take before sending people into harm’s way.

Stroube Smith, a former copy editor for The Washington Times, is a freelance writer.

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