D-DAY, 70 YEARS LATER

June 6, 2014

It was in the papers, but covered far from sufficiently, when Elisha “Ray” Nance died five years ago at the age of 94.  He was well known around Bedford, Virginia, a picturesque town located at the feet of the Blue Ridge Peaks of Otter, where for years he delivered the mail on nearby rural routes.  It was for what he did before becoming a letter carrier, though, that he is best remembered.

Ray Nance was one of The Bedford Boys, of whom Ronald Reagan spoke in 1984 on the 50th anniversary of the Storming of Normandy .

In fact, he was the last surviving member of his town’s contingent in Company A of the 29th Infantry Division’s 116th Infantry – a group that waded ashore on a beach nicknamed Omaha in a far away place called Normandy in France, 65 years ago this weekend.  And of the 30 soldiers from Bedford, then with a population of 3,200 (today, about twice that), he was one of only eight from his hometown who lived to tell the story. 

Ray lost 22 Bedford buddies that day, 19 of them in the very first moments of the battle.   By the time he made it to the beach in the last of his company’s landing crafts to reach that point, he saw “a pall of dust and smoke.”  He could barely see “the church steeple we were supposed to guide on.”  He couldn’t see anyone in front, or behind him; only that he “was alone in France.”     

Mr. Nance was a hero “proved through liberating strife.”

Six years ago, Alex Kershaw wrote a fascinating book about it all called, “The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice.”  This is a must read and a well documented account of the momentous event that turned the tide against the Nazi's in World War II.

As the world pauses to mark the 70th anniversary of the longest day, long ago, it is for some truly meaningful.  For others it is a bit awkward, but certainly obligatory.  Many, however, will think to themselves: “What’s all the fuss about? It’s a different world today.”

Indeed it is in many ways a different world.  Our President has traded five of our worst enemy terrorists for a deserter and possible traitor and has made him a "hero." Put Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl up against any one of the Bedford Boys and he would be raised high by the Obama regime because it is doubtful Obama knows who real heroes are.

But interestingly – even ironically – the challenges today are not completely unlike those days when bands of citizen-soldier-brethren from the greatest generation saved the world for those of us who would be later born to enjoy abounding liberty.  

Next to ingratitude, forgetfulness is the most serious indicator of cultural decline; and in truth, the two are intertwined.   Thanksgiving and remembrance are flipsides of the same precious cultural coin.  

I am struck this week, as we watch President Obama conduct his latest international “wea” culpa tour, by turning our attention away from the hundreds, perhaps thousands of veterans who have lost limbs or suffer from the trauma's of war that render them disabled, in order to hail his own ability to broker a deal to bring home a disgrace.

I also find myself thinking back to a moment 30 years ago this weekend when, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, the Great Communicator captured the attention of history and honored some of the other “Boys” who did so much for all of us on June 6, 1944.  He called them “The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc,” and many of them were in his cliff top audience in Normandy that day.  

If you wanted to pick a more foreboding, certainly unlikely, place for an important military attack, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a spot more uninviting than the imposing, rugged cliffs overlooking the English Channel four miles west of Omaha Beach.  A few years back, when I had the privilege of visiting that region while on vacation, I stood there silently for quite some time and tried to wrap my mind around the quite-evident impossibility of what the United States Army Ranger Assault Group accomplished that fateful day. 

Mr. Reagan honored those men there in 1984, saying, “We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France.  The air is soft, but 40 years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of canon.”  It was one of his finest rhetorical moments.   He continued: 

“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.”

Now, 30 years later, we mark another chronological milestone.  We have traveled through history from a President who hailed real heroes to a President who mocks heroism. It is doubtful if Mr. Obama can name one of those soldiers who stormed the beaches. I doubt he cares enough to research for one name among that group who lost his life.

The Boys of Bedford are now all gone.  And noble ranks of the Boys of Pointe Du Hoc have been thinned out by the course of time, as well.  So, what happens when those who really remember are no longer around to remind us never to forget?   What happens when eyewitness memory is no longer vivid and available and we must resort to stories handed down from generations before?

This is where memorials come in, monuments to important men and moments of a sacred and so-easily-forgotten past. 

It has been less than 15 years since the National D-Day Memorial opened in that tiny Virginia town of Bedford, a community that gave so proportionately of its finest young men 65 years ago.  For the last few years the memorial has experienced financial difficulty and a lack of care for the facilities.  Patriotism suggests that this should be a national concern.  There should be a place for this beautiful and appropriate memorial in the family of our National Parks.   The Bedford facility has a $1.86 million dollar operating budget, drawing a little less than a third of that from visitors.  The rest must be made up by donations, but the tough economy has slowed giving way down. 

Of course, one might wonder why, if we can “stimulate” a study in Iowa about “controlling hog-created odors” to the tune of $1.7 million, not to mention earmarking $5.8 million for the of-course-desperately-needed, “Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate,” we shouldn’t be able to find a few bucks to honor those who presumably mean more to our national heritage than swine or a senator.  

Two years ago, while on a half-week vacation at Smith Mountain Lake, VA, I visited the D-Day Memorial.  One of my grandkids was with me and we talked about it all day.  He was truly interested, as he is of all kinds of American history.  The tour guide who took us around  had served as a Glider Infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division and was part of all of his division’s campaigns from D-Day through to the end of the European war in May of 1945.  He made the tour worth every penny we "contributed."

So, while we watch another president mock our past and forgetting about the sacrifice made “over there,” I am thinking this weekend about Ronald Reagan and “the Boys.”  I am also pondering the Gipper’s words from 1984 as he addressed some of those who swarmed Normandy’s treacherous shores in 1944: 

“Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their valor, and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.”


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