On June 6, 1984, on the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings, President Ronald Reagan traveled to Normandy where he looked out on the American cemetery and said: “Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”
On June 6, 1994, on the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings, President Bill Clinton traveled to Normandy and also looked out on an American cemetery: “They were the fathers we never knew, the uncles we never met, the friends who never returned, the heroes we can never repay. They gave us our world.”
On June 6, 2004, on the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings, President George W. Bush traveled to Normandy and spoke at the same cemetery of America’s fallen: “With us today are Americans who first saw this place at a distance, in the half-light of a Tuesday morning long ago. Time and providence have brought them back to see once more the beaches and the cliffs, the crosses and the Stars of David. Generations to come will know what happened here, but these men heard the guns.”
On June 6, 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, President Barack Obama traveled to Normandy and likewise spoke at the American cemetery: “We tell this story to bear what witness we can to what happened when the boys from America reached Omaha Beach.”
On June 6, 2024, on the 80th anniversary D-Day landings … well, I’d be shocked if President Joe Biden isn’t at Normandy, delivering his own eulogy to the young men who went to France and never came home.
The whole world owes a debt to those men – and not just men. Sonya Butt, later Sonya d’Artois, was just 20 when she parachuted into France nine days before D-Day, an explosives expert for the British whose fluent French made her a good candidate to work with the French resistance. She was the youngest woman to do so, but not the only one. Four American women are buried in the Normandy American Cemetery – three Army soldiers, one Red Cross volunteer.
This part of Virginia, though, feels that debt in a heavy way. One of the units that went ashore that “Tuesday morning long ago,” as Bush put it, was the 116th Infantry Regiment. Just three years before, many of the men in that regiment had been members of National Guard units in Virginia – from Bedford, from Charlottesville, from Emporia, from Farmville, from Harrisonburg, from Lynchburg, from Martinsville, from Roanoke, from South Boston, from Staunton, from Winchester. That geographic concentration of soldiers in a single unit also meant that the losses from D-Day fell most heavily on those communities, most famously Bedford, where 20 men died within minutes on the beaches of Normandy; other deaths came later. This is said to be the highest per capita loss of any community in the United States. We can only wonder at how that news might have traveled today, but we know how it traveled back then: Six weeks later, on July 17, 1944, the Western Union telegraph machine at Green’s Drug Store started spitting out one grim message after another: “The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret …” Elizabeth Teass, then just 21, was the one who first saw all those death notices.
Most of that story went untold for decades. The Greatest Generation also tended to be a silent one that came home and went about its business. D-Day anniversaries have probably gotten more attention in the past 38 years than they did in their first 40. This story has been told before, and better, in many other ways. You can read the book “The Bedford Boys” by Alex Kershaw. You can visit the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford. The spiritual founder of that memorial, the late Bob Slaughter, toiled for many years in the composing room of The Roanoke Times (back in the pre-computerized days when there were composing rooms to deal with the typesetting), with few if any in the newsroom even knowing he’d been one of those who waded ashore that morning on D-Day.
The Bedford angle has now become a standard part of storytelling about D-Day. Clinton invoked Bedford during his 50th anniversary speech in Normandy: “Millions of our GIs did return home from that war to build up our nations and enjoy life’s sweet pleasures. But on this field, there are 9,386 who did not — 33 pairs of brothers; a father and his son; 11 men from tiny Bedford, Virginia …”
Bush, who spoke at the dedication of the Bedford memorial on June 6, 2001, referenced Bedford in his 60th anniversary speech: “Before the landing in Omaha, Sgt. Earl Parker of Bedford, Virginia, proudly passed around a picture of Danny, the newborn daughter he had never held. He told the fellows, ‘If I could see this daughter of mine, I wouldn’t mind dying.’ Sgt. Parker is remembered here at the Garden of the Missing. And he is remembered back home by a woman in her 60s, who proudly shows a picture of her handsome, smiling, young dad.”
There are many places across the United States where D-Day is remembered – the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, the graves of those who were lucky enough to come home, the hearts of those who remember them, and who still care for the dwindling few who remain. But if someone is going to single out one iconic place it would have to be Bedford.
And that brings me to this thought: How should the 80th anniversary of D-Day be marked? Here’s one suggestion: It’s not too early to invite the president of France to Bedford. Over the years, other French dignitaries have represented their country at the memorial, and their appearances have surely been welcomed as a sign of lasting French gratitude. But there’s nothing like a presidential visit, be it ours or someone else’s.
At the 50th anniversary observance in Normandy, French President Francois Mitterand said simply, “Thank you; you gave us our freedom.” At the 60th anniversary observance in Normandy, French President Jacques Chirac looked to Bush and said of the American sons who lay buried there: “They are our sons now also.” At the 70th anniversary observance, French President Francois Hollande vowed that “France will never forget what it owes these soldiers, what it owes the United States.” It seems appropriate that on the 80th anniversary – or any anniversary, or any day, for that matter – the current president of France, Emmanuel Macron, comes to Bedford to say whatever words of thanks he feels compelled to say.
Who shall issue him an invitation?