Recalling Overlord

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Veterans, their families and the public gather to remember the sacrifices made on June 6, 1944

By Tom Wilmoth

Jenny Creasy and Carolyn Rogers of Roanoke looked intently at the map. They were searching for the spot where their uncle, Joseph Comer Sr., had been dropped during the Normandy invasion that began June 6,1944.


    Comer had been a member of the 82nd Airborne at D-Day. He, along with his nieces and son, attended Saturday’s 65th anniversary commemoration at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford.

    Comer said attending was a chance to honor his buddies who didn’t survive the invasion or who are now gone. He, along with some 4,000 others, were part of Saturday’s events at the Memorial.

    Comer still has a piece of the parachute he used that day 65 years ago and the cricket that they used to help identify themselves to others. “We’re so grateful for what all the veterans have done for us,” said Joe Comer Jr.  of his father. “It just makes your heart swell (to see them honored).”

    Joseph Comer Sr.’s service in World War II would take him to North Africa, Sicily and Italy. He participated in the Battle of the Bulge.

    Much of his story has been recorded by family members. Joe Comer Jr. said some of those memories still haunt his father’s dreams. “He’s always been my hero,” Joe Comer Jr. said of his dad. “We’re so proud of him.”

    After the war, Comer, who lives in Roanoke, worked for the railroad, retiring in 1982. He was greeted by many Saturday and thanked for his service. Comer signed a portrait that would later be auctioned off to help support the D-Day Memorial and he received a certificate from the Army for his service. Later, he visited with current members of the 82nd Airborne, taking time to pose for a picture with that group.

    First Sergeant Ricardo Nieves of the 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne, was among those who talked with Comer. He said it means a lot “when you meet someone who has sacrificed so much for freedom."

    Many of the veterans who attended Saturday’s event gathered at the reunion tent. Louis Barberis was among those there, taking time to sign a book from James Smith of North Carolina who asked for his autograph.

    Barberis signed on with the 4th Infantry Division before Pearl Harbor and served with the 79th Infantry Division through 1942. He was part of the advance group at D-Day and helped set up a command post.

    For Barberis, tears welled up as he recalled the events of those days. He said he’s at times wanted to go back to Normandy, but hasn’t yet made the decision to make the trip. Now 91, a retired architect, he attended Saturday’s event with his wife Mattie. He had visited this area during basic training at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. The couple bought property in the Thaxton area in 1972 and retired here from New York in 1985. He has been a part of the Virginia Watercolor Society.

    Joe Orona, attending Saturday’s ceremony with his daughter Lonnie Orona, sat beside Irving Smolers for the ceremony. Joe, who now lives in Lynchburg, was with the 90th Division and landed at Utah Beach. Smolers was part of B-Battery of the 29th Field Artillery Battalion, 4th Infantry Division. Smolers, who lives in Massachusetts, attended the 50th and 60th D-Day anniversary events held at Normandy, but couldn’t make that trip this year, opting instead to attend the events in Bedford. His unit lost 37 men on D-Day, all who have their names listed on the plaques surrounding the D-Day Memorial.

    “It helps to keep the memories alive of those who made the ultimate sacrifice on D-Day,” Smolers said.

    Lonnie Orona echoed those comments. A veteran herself, she said it’s important to remember those who served.

    Those were sentiments echoed by Dr. William McIntosh, director of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation. He said the mission continues to make sure the honor, fidelity and sacrifice made by the veterans is not forgotten — for generations to come.

    “We do remember,” McIntosh said. “We will remember. Long after you are gone, for generations yet unborn.”

    Among those participating in Saturday’s ceremony were Congressmen Tom Perriello and Bob Goodlatte and Del. Lacey Putney. Liberty High School student Phoebe Weber read a piece from the diary of Anne Frank. Perriello, along with U.S. Senators Jim Webb and Mark Warner have introduced legislation in Congress to study having the Memorial become a part of the National Park Service. The Memorial announced this past week that it might not be able to stay open under its current financial condition.