Bush honors D-Day soldiers at Bedford dedication ceremony

By Master Sgt. Bob Haskell
National Guard Bureau

A soldier from the 29th Infantry Division overlooks the newly-dedicated National D-Day Memorial as he renders a salute during the playing of “Taps”. (Photo by Maj. A. A. Puryear)
BEDFORD, Va. - President George W. Bush honored a generation of Americans who “changed the course of history” while dedicating the National D-Day Memorial in rural Bedford, Va., during a moving ceremony on Wednesday, June 6. It was the 57th anniversary of the 1944 Allied invasion of Nazi-held Europe.

“Scared and brave kids by the thousands ... kept fighting and kept climbing, and carried out General Eisenhower’s order of the day -- nothing short of complete victory,” praised Bush, a former Texas Air National Guard pilot whose father, the former President Bush, was a World War II Navy pilot.

The D-Day memorial is located on a hill overlooking southwestern Virginia’s rolling farm country in the community that lost 19 men when its National Guard company spearheaded that bloody invasion as soldiers in the Guard’s 29th Infantry Division. Four other Bedford men died later.

That was the largest number of casualties per-capita from a single U.S. community during the entire war. In all, 35 men from Bedford’s 3,200 residents were soldiers in Company A of that division’s 116th Infantry Regiment that still serves Virginia and the nation today.

“In seven minutes A Company lost 96 percent of its fighting force,” 1st Lt. John Childs, the current commander, said of his unit’s D-Day legacy.

“Twenty-six Bedford men went ashore. Nineteen were killed, including the company commander and first sergeant.”

“The achievement of Operation Overlord is nearly impossible to overstate, in its consequences for our own lives and the life of the world,” the president told an estimated 16,000 people, including nearly 1,000 veterans of the Normandy invasion, who attended the ceremony and checked out the memorial on the hot Virginia day.

“Free societies in Europe can be traced to the first footprints on the first beach on June 6, 1944. What was lost on D-Day we can never measure and never forget,” added Bush of the 2,500 who were killed and 7,500 who were wounded in the first wave of 160,000 Allied troops.

Capt. Kent Lee Doane, commander of Company C, 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, assists a D-Day veteran through the crowd at the dedication of the National D-Day Memorial. (Photo by Maj. A. A. Puryear)
“You have raised a fitting memorial to D-Day,” the president said, “and you have put it in just the right place -- not on a battlefield of war, but in a small Virginia town, a place like so many others that were home to the men and women who helped liberate a continent.”

The nine-acre, $14-million memorial is the inspiration of Bob Slaughter, a D-Day veteran of the 29th Infantry Division and chairman of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation.

The memorial features life-size bronze sculptures of soldiers heroically struggling to survive and gain a foothold on the shell-swept coast of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. A bible lying beside the prone body of Raymond Hoback, who reportedly drowned after being wounded, is a stark reminder of the many young men who died.

A 44-foot, 6-inch high granite and marble arch bearing the operation’s code-name, “Overlord,” and symbolizing the first day of the invasion, dominates the site on Bedford’s highest hill.

“The D-Day invasion is a big part of Virginia’s history. This dedication is good for the rest of the United States,” said Maj. Gen. Claude Williams, Virginia’s adjutant general. “It gives everyone a chance to re-focus and thank those folks. So many of them sacrificed so much.”

Francois Bujon de l’Estang, French ambassador to the United States, thanked America for liberating his country. Secretary of the Army Thomas White recited President Franklin Roosevelt’s D-Day prayer. Gen. John Keane, the U.S. Army’s vice chief of staff, read Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s D-Day order.

“This memorial and dedication would be hard to surpass,” said 29th Division veteran John McQuaid from Ware, Mass., who landed in Normandy during the invasion’s third day as a replacement for Bedford’s Company A. “I didn’t expect this much.”

Ironically, the memorial was dedicated during the same week that other citizen-soldiers in the 29th Infantry Division are beginning a mission rehearsal exercise at Fort Polk, La., before taking charge of the U.S. sector’s multinational peacekeeping force in Bosnia this fall.

It is the fourth time in 83 years that 29th Division soldiers are preparing to serve in Europe. They were over there for World Wars I and II, and a company from Leesburg, Va., spent a winter guarding a bridge across the Sava River during the early years of the Bosnia peacekeeping mission.

And 29th Division soldiers from Virginia took part in the Bedford dedication on June’s first Wednesday. One hundred-thirty citizen-soldiers from Company A and the other elements of the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment stood vigil with other service members around the memorial and among the crowd for the two-hour service.

They honored their outfit’s veterans who trained hard but did not experience the perils of combat until they reached the French coast.

Sgt. 1st Class Vince May, A Company’s full-time readiness sergeant, remembered his grandfather, William Brill, who was 84 when he died last February. May explained that Brill was one of the Army Rangers who scaled the cliffs at Pont du Hoc on D-Day to take out German coastal artillery guns which, it turned out, were not there.

“He and three others were the only men from his platoon to make it back,” May said. “My grandfather would have been here for this service had he still been with us. I’d have gotten him here.”

Another 20 citizen-soldiers from the division’s 1st Battalion, 246th Field Artillery fired a 21-gun salute with four howitzers and with precision worthy of the Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry (Old Guard) from Fort Myer, Va., renowned for their ceremonial tributes.

“We had so many volunteers we had to turn people away. It was quite an honor to do this,” said Sgt. 1st Class Wayne Bosman.

Meanwhile, other members of the 29th helped dedicate a memorial to the division at Camp Blanding, Fla., on June 6, explained Virginia National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Chester Carter, III. That is where the division trained before embarking for England in 1942 for more training that would lead them to immortality at Normandy.

After the ceremony, the site will be open until 4:00 p.m. Beginning June 7, the National D-Day Memorial will be open regularly 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. The Memorial will be closed to the public on Mondays.

For more information, visit the D-Day Memorial web site at www.dday.org contact the Foundation by email at dday@dday.org or phone (540-586-DDAY or 800-351-DDAY).

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