My dad was in his formative years during the decade history recalls as "The Roaring Twenties." As a young adult he began his professional career just as "The Great Depression" and its repercussions came to bear upon our nation in the 1930s.
Daddy and his generation weren’t too concerned with news from Europe of growing tensions and a possible war, for in 1918 they had just seen the end of what was termed "the war to end all wars." Americans commonly believed that no turn of events, no matter how cataclysmic, would bring the nations of the world to war again, so horrific had been the destruction wrought by newly invented chemical warfare, mechanized tanks and aircraft.
Indeed, one small town in France, Trevieres, which lost 44 sons in World War I, commissioned and prominently displayed a sculpture by Edmond de Laheudrie entitled "Le Monument aux Morts" so that the terrible sacrifice paid by that village would never be forgotten. The Greek goddess of victory, Nike, was depicted holding a sword and wearing a warrior’s helmet, symbolizing what all hoped to be the end of war.
In the 1930s, however, gripped by dreadful economic depression, young men from the tiny hamlet of Bedford, Va., enlisted in their local National Guard. There they had clothes to wear and food to eat and could earn "a dollar a day" training for the very military service which nobody expected to be needed.
But in September of 1940, Congress passed a selective service bill, ushering in the first peacetime draft in American history. The regular Army had been limited to just 75,000 men; the draft called 800,000 men to arms. On February 3, 1941, when their National Guard’s 116th Infantry Regiment was activated, Bedford provided a company of soldiers to the 29th Infantry Division.
America, of course, became fully embroiled in World War II when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Three days later Adolph Hitler declared war on the United States.
A book, "The Bedford Boys," by Alex Kershaw, published by Da Capo Press, details not only their deployment to England and their training for the inevitable invasion of France, but intimately introduces each of those men, their families, their hopes and dreams. When Company A departs England on that longest of days, June 6, 1944, heading for the Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach, they’re a part of the reader’s life. The Virginians were to hit Dog Green at 0630, knock out defenses and breach Hitler’s Atlantic Wall by climbing the D-1 draw toward the little town of Vierville.
They never made it.
Nineteen of Bedford’s boys were cut down by pre-sighted German machine gun and mortar fire, most before they even had a chance to return fire. Three more died during the carnage and aftermath of D-Day, the largest combined military operation in history. So horrific was the slaughter that the soldiers of the German Wilderstansnest 76 unit firing on them reported that, by 0730, the Germans had won the day.
The fate of the men from little Bedford was graphically re-enacted in the opening scenes of Steven Spielberg’s film, "Saving Private Ryan." When the film debuted, it was shown first to veterans of Omaha Beach, with shattering effect.
Back home, decades later, the little town of Bedford still grieved. Some 4,400 Allied soldiers had been lost that day, more than 2,000 of them Americans, but Bedford’s 22 represented the single greatest loss by any village in America, per capita. And so it was that 20 years ago the town determined to build The National D-Day Memorial, situated on a hilltop between Bedford and a spectacular mountain known as The Peaks of Otter. Built with private funds, the memorial was dedicated by President George W. Bush on June 6, 2001.
This coming June 6 marks the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Men still live and move among us who went ashore at Normandy, but the progression of time steadily takes them from us, making it nearly impossible to seek them out and thank them for the valor, fidelity and sacrifice with which they provided us the priceless gift of freedom.
I urge you to read Kershaw’s book, then to visit the D-Day Memorial in Bedford. If you can’t go, visit www.dday.org online and see what that little town did in memory of their sons.
Oh, and about that statue, "Le Monument aux Morts"?
During the 1944 invasion, an artillery round struck near the statue and ripped off half the face below the nose. Recast in its damaged state, and placed on display at the D-Day Memorial, it now mutely delivers a sober lesson on the transience of victory and the fragility of peace.
On its base an inscription, penned anonymously, reads: "Peace is the consequence of vigilance and justice, not an accident of complacency or indifference."
Bedford, Virginia, knows the high cost of freedom. May God bless "The Bedford Boys," and may Americans never lose sight of their sacrifice, nor ever take freedom for granted.
Nat Harwell is a resident of Newton County. His column appears in The Covington News on Sundays.