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June 6, 2013, the 69th anniversary of D-Day included authentic weather. Instead of the usual Virginia June heat and humidity that accompanies these anniversary observances at the National D-Day Memorial, it was cool and a low overcast sky poured buckets of rain.
Actually, said Charles “Buster” Shaeff, the weather on D-Day was worse. He knows. He was the engine man on one of the LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel), the small landing craft that carried the men to the beach on D-Day. Shaeff’s LCVP made three runs to the beach that day.
Shaeff was one of a few dozen D-Day veterans who showed up for the ceremony. The group is dwindling, and many now require walkers and canes. But they still come and are recognized for their service.
The ceremony is normally held at the National D-Day Memorial but the downpour required a last minute change of plans. Martin Leamy, the Memorial’s site administrator, contacted Elizabeth Arnold, Bedford’s buildings and grounds supervisor, to see if they could use Bedford Elementary School. The city still owns Bedford Elementary, until July 1. Leamy called sometime between 7:30 and 8 a.m. and Arnold was already at work at that time.
Leamy had to do this at the last minute because weather forecasts the day before called for good weather in the morning.
“They bent over backwards to accommodate us,” Leamy said.
Major General Charles Whittington, the current commanding officer of the 29th division, spoke about D-Day and the division today.
Back in 1944 the 29th Infantry division, of which Bedford’s Company A was a part, was in the first wave of landing craft to reach the section of the beach designated Omaha. Gen. Whittington noted that the remainder of the men who landed on D-Day, and lived to tell about it, won’t be with us for very many more years. He stressed the importance of not letting their sacrifice be forgotten and urged that their stories be told to teach future generations.
“No one asked ‘What’s in it for me?’” Gen. Whittington noted of the men who fought that day. He said that this is why “I wear this uniform with pride.”
Colonel Jacques Aragones, military attaché to the Embassy of the Republic of France was also on hand to speak.
“To the French people, the D-Day Landings of June 6, 1944, and the ensuing battle of Normandy, would forever remain the most unforgettable and defining event of the 20th century,” Col. Aragones said. “The opening of this new western front involving an impressive 150,000 allied soldiers and the largest military armada ever assembled, felt to the people of France like the beginning of the end of a four-year national nightmare that had started in May, 1940, with the invasion and occupation of the French territory by German troops.”
Col. Aragones went on to describe the nightmare.
“France had lost 120,000 of its brave soldiers who had sacrificed their lives trying to save their homeland,” he said. “Its population was fleeing cities as the aggressors were pushing forward. The French government had collapsed. An armistice had been signed with the enemy. Those were days of extreme darkness and despair under the brutal force of tyranny. Its entire population had found itself suddenly deprived of its basic freedoms and rights. Arbitrary arrests were everyday life occurrences. Food was scarce and rationed while medical supplies were sorely lacking.”
He also referred to a time when French troops, under Marshal Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, commander in chief of the French Expeditionary Force, came to America to help the Continental Army fight the British during America’s war for independence. The combined French and American forces trapped British Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown and a French fleet blocked a British fleet from entering Chesapeake Bay, cutting off Cornwallis’ anticipated escape by sea. Cornwallis was forced to surrender.
“Today each of us reaps the rewards of what we accomplished that day,” said April Cheek-Messier, co-president of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation of D-Day’s importance.
As the result of the success of the D-Day landing, a huge force of men and equipment poured over the beaches in subsequent weeks. Cheek-Messier said that, by July 4, 1944, a million men and 100,000 vehicles had crossed the beach.
She also pointed to the cost of the fighting on both D-Day and the subsequent battles in the hedgerow country of Normandy. The American cemetery that overlooks Omaha Beach has more than 9,000 graves.
Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Cheek-Messier said they hope to dedicate a monument to the Bedford Boys. A flyer distributed shows a bronze sculpture of a soldier standing, with his helmet off and looking down at the marker of a soldier’s temporary grave — an M1 Garand, with fixed bayonet, stuck into the ground and topped by the dead soldier’s dog tags and helmet.
This is an echo of Roy Stevens’ actual experience. He and his twin brother, Ray, were on separate landing craft. Roy’s landing craft hit a submerged obstacle and sank. Roy and the other men were fished out of the water and finally made it to the beach some days later. When he got there, one of the first things he saw was a temporary cemetery. He went over to look at it and discovered that the first grave he came to was his brother’s. Ray Stevens’ landing craft made it to the beach and he was one of the 23 Bedford Boys who died that day.
Lucille Boggess also described her memory of D-Day. She had just finished her freshman year in high school. She knew her brothers, Bedford and Raymond Hoback, were in the invasion. There was no news.
“As the days passed, concern turned to fear,” she remembered.
The news finally came in the form of telegrams. Boggess’ parents got one informing them of Bedford’s death. Some days later, they got one telling them that Raymond was missing in action.
“Raymond was never found,” she said. He was killed on D-Day and his body apparently was taken by the tide into the sea.
Some days after getting the missing in action telegram, a package arrived. A soldier had found Raymond’s Bible on the beach and sent it to his family.
“It was the Bible my mother had given Raymond on Christmas in 1938,” Boggess said.
Boggess brought the Bible with her. Inside is her mother’s writing, presenting the Bible to her son. Turn a page and there is a signature: Raymond S. Hoback, in her brother’s handwriting, a beautiful, legible script.