I grew up in the suburbs of Lynchburg, Virginia which, in itself sounds somewhat strange in that, compared to the major metropolitan areas I have spent most of my adult life Dallas, TX and Washington, DC; to consider Lynchburg a metropolitan area that; with its somewhere south of 100,000 in population tips the sales considerably smaller that places such as Herndon/Reston or Garland, what would be considered more true “suburbs” as generally understood in metro areas of over 6 million in total population.
Growing up in Lynchburg was insulating in ways I would never understand until, later in life having traveled on business to much of Europe and key population centers of Hong Kong, Seoul, and Tokyo, perspective gained from such eye opening excursions, new found appreciation was gained for just what the expression “not knowing what I didn’t know” truly meant.
And so I found myself, accompanied by my fiancé and life partner, traveling back towards Northern Virginia from the wonderful paradise that is Smith Mountain Lake, to our home in what I routinely called “occupied territory” not a stones throw from where, Jeb Stuart telegraphed Abraham Lincoln complaining of the poor quality of mules he had just “liberated” from the Union Army at nearby Burke Station. Seeing the picturesque Peaks of Otter’s unmistakable profile situated against the skyline as we made our way on Router 132 toward the city of Liberty, better known today by its non-colonial name of Bedford, I suggested we stop at the National D-Day memorial knowing as I had that, despite the fact I had pointed out it’s 44’ granite arch from the 460 bypass on other recent trips along the way, she had never seen the actual memorial and, knowing her abiding support for our military and the sacrifice of its members, she would find it a most appropriate venue to commemorate (my Civil War professor Bud Robinson educating me that we do not celebrate acts of war but commemorate the valor and sacrifice) Memorial Day 2010.
I had been there before. Shortly after its dedication in 2001 where my mother had accompanied my aunt along with representatives of the Allied Nations of 1944 along with numerous politicians headed by WWII veteran President George Bush, both Grande dames having recently buried their WWII veteran husbands my Uncle having the distinction of having spent June 6, 1944 in the hell that was Omaha Beach.
I can say with confidence that I like what they have done with the place. While impressive and thought provoking in 2001, today the evidence of the beautiful landscaping, moving plaques that document the contributions of the various units the 156,000 participants of Operation Overlord were members of, and the absolute professionalism the mainly volunteer staff bring to this most unique and solemn tribute; recall the valor and sacrifice with a sublime understatement that seems appropiriate for such a memorial. We signed up for the guided tour, having arrived just a few minutes before the scheduled 2:30 time slot despite my initial reluctance seeing how I usually like to proceed at my own pace and, based on the amount of reading and study I have done over the years, consider myself well educated in the events of June 6, 1944 and, with amazing conceit, wonder on just what fact some tour guide could enlighten me in any event.
How wrong I was.
You see despite my knowledge of the events and times, units and their leaders, and all the myriad of facts and figures I can proudly recite guaranteeing any trivia contest I find myself a contestant in will have me hoping the topic of the winning question will be D Day, I had forgotten or simply refused to acknowledge that it is the human stories that bring the remarkable events into a perspective most appropriate for any day, but perhaps most relevant on Memorial Day.
Our host proudly proclaimed he was a D Day son; his father having been there that day and, with a long career with the US Army, had also served in Korea. After a commendable tour in summary at the “Victory Arch” he relayed how, taking his father to the memorial on the occasion of its dedication he learned the answer to the unanswered question his father had always deflected when asked, on numerous occasions, by his curious son growing up. The basic question was, his father having survived the carnage of Omaha Beach, was “How did you make it across that beach, Dad?”
The answer was always some version of “It was hell and you don’t want to know about it…” the son having learned through the years that some demons are best left untouched.
It was on the occasion of the dedication, a dedication that almost never happened and would not have save a chance encounter between then President Bill Clinton and Bob Slaughter, a veteran of the 116th Infantry Regiment who, its companies made up of National Guard units from the environs of Bedford, had suffered the highest percentage of KIA on D Day of any town in America on that fateful day. Bob Slaughter was in Normandy on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of D Day when he was asked by the President to accompany him in placing flowers on the graves of the fallen. The ensuing news converge and live interviews that resulted of Bob gave him the chance he had been waiting for to issue the call for a Memorial, on the lines the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, to commemorate the sacrifice of those who died on June 6, 1944 in Normandy. That the outflowing of support that resulted was responsible for my being able to walk among the beautiful gardens and granite tributes was a result of that fateful encounter from a member of the 116th Regiment and the President. That I was to understand the events better was the result of a chance encounter that occurred at its dedication in 2001. My tour guide’s father , being escorted by his son, was accosted by a man from Pennsylvania who, some 57 years earlier just a couple of days after D Day, had managed to hook up with my guided father in Normandy and, as fate would have it, serve beside him until the end of hostilities in Europe. My guide saw the old comrades in arms hug each other and brushing back tears borne in long remembrance, heard his father asked, and gained in his response, the answer to the question he had long wanted to know but had been unable to coax an answer from his stoic father. “How did you make it across that beach alive, Bob?” came the question from is former comrade. The answer came thus” “for the last two hundred yards I crawled from dead body to dead body somehow reaching the base of the hills”. To the son this was transformational as our guide, his voice choking with emotion, relayed how he had gained a peek into the pure hell his father and thousands of other fathers endured that day.
At the memorial there are a series of arched walls, low set with engraved names in no particular order of the 4,000 plus who died, not in the Normandy Campaign, but on the very day itself mainly on the beaches. The story is told of two twin brothers, members of the 116th from Bedford, who agreed to meet at a certain crossroads to shake hands after crossing the beaches, the older refusing to shake the younger’s hand prior to loading on the separate Higgins Boats which would convey them to shore. The handshake never occurred the younger being killed on the beaches his body washing out to sea never to be recovered with only his bible being found washed ashore in the aftermath and returned to his family as the only personal effect they ever received to remind them of their loss.
Bob Slaughter told our guide personally and showed him the copy of the speech Eisenhower gave to all the Allied participants in the invasion on its eve – the “Great Crusade” speech that is so often highlighted on commemorations of the event. In Bob’s case his was special having been signed individually by all 36 men who were to load in the Higgins Boat that Bob was assigned. Of the 36 names 21 died on the beaches. Our guide related how Bob in recalling the event some 60 years later could recite in all but two cases exactly the circumstances and place that each had died.
It was sobering to visit so beautiful as setting yet at the same timed filled me with pride and gratitude for the blessing of being born an American.
Memorial Day was about a fun and relaxing three day weekend at the lake. But just over an hour spent walking the grounds and hearing the stories made all the more real the sacrifices made and being made by the members of our Armed Forces. May I never fail to remember and do all I can to educate those who have not had the privilege of learning just what Memorial Day is all about.
What most probably don’t realize is the the National D Day Memorial is a private endeavor and its non-profit foundation suffers financial turmoil such that the continued operation is in peril. Should you be so inclined a contribution would be considered a worthy cause by any who believe that the education of future generations of the words and deeds of its past is essential to maintaining the fabric of our nation.
More information on the Memorial can be found here.
More on Bob Slaughter and the men of the 116th can be found here.