BEDFORD, Va. — Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen greeted World War II veterans and acted as military escorts during a roll call honoring their service at the observation of the 75th anniversary of D-Day June 6, 2019, at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. Virginia National Guard Soldiers assigned to the Troutville-based 29th Infantry Division Band performed ceremonial music, and members of the Virginia Defense Force volunteered their time to assist local law enforcement with traffic flow, parking and pre-security checks before the event.
More than 100 World War II veterans, including more than 40 who participated in the invasion of Normandy June 6, 1944, were in attendance among the thousands of service members, veterans and citizens who came to the Memorial for the event.
Before the ceremony began, Virginia Senator Bryce Reeves presented Virginia Senate Resolution No. 110 commending the 29th Infantry Division toBrig. Gen. Lapthe Flora, VNG Assistant Adjutant General-Army, Col. Preston Scott, 29th Infantry Division chief of staff, and Lt. Col. Steele McGonegal, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. Read the full resolution at https://go.usa.gov/xmeWm.
The program began with a fly-over from a series of World War II-era aircraft. After the aerial display, Vice President Mike Pence, Robert Wilkie, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs and U.S. Senator Mark Warner addressed the massive crowd, calling attention to the sacrifices made by the D-Day veterans and the freedoms they fought for.
“It’s so important that this memorial is here in Bedford, a town that sacrificed so much on this day,” said Warner.
The 29th ID’s 116th Infantry Regiment was in the first assault wave to hit the beaches and more than 800 members of the 116th were were killed, wounded or missing during the assault on Omaha Beach.
“On that day in 1944 they gave up two lives: The one on the beach, and the one they would have led had they come back,” said Wilkie. “They gave up the chance to be husbands, father, grandfathers, teachers, pastors. They gave it all up so the rest of the world can be free.”
When the 116th Infantry was activated Feb. 3, 1941, Virginia communities provided Soldiers to serve in the unit, and Bedford provided Soldiers to serve in Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. During the assault on Omaha Beach, 19 of the “Bedford Boys” of Company A died. Bedford’s population in 1944 was about 3,200, and proportionally the Bedford community suffered the nation’s most severe D-Day losses.
“Forty-four boys who had never strayed far from home mustered out for England, and some, for eternity,” said Pence. “They were hometown folk who became national heroes. They will forever be remembered to history as the Bedford Boys.”
Recognizing that Bedford represented both large and small communities whose citizen-Soldiers served on D-Day, Congress warranted the establishment of the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford.
Following the keynote speeches, government officials, community leaders and senior military members, including Flora and Scott, presented historical readings of writings and oral histories by World War II-era veterans and leaders. That set the stage for the roll call of all World War II veterans in attendance as VNG Soldiers and Airmen, as well as participants from other branches of the Armed Forces, escorted the day’s honorees across the stage to receive thanks and a special memorial coin.
The magnitude of the event was not lost on the VNG service members serving as escorts for the World War II heroes. They described the chance to interact with members of the greatest generation as an incredible opportunity.
“Today was a pretty huge honor walking him over the memorial bridge,” said Sgt. Michael Wilcox, who escorted D-Day veteran Ubert McConnell. “It really hit me, seeing him look out over the beachhead monuments. I was just amazed by who I was accompanying and what he must have gone through and just wondering what he was thinking in that moment. I’ll never forget that.”
“I wouldn’t have been anywhere else today,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jerry Leonhardt. “This was an absolute privilege for me. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
For McGonegal the opportunity to meet and guide the World War II veterans in attendance was a chance to showcase what serving in the Guard is all about.
“I’ve served over 33 years, and this is one of the highest honors for me as a Soldier, to get the opportunity to say thank you to them,” said McGonegal.
“I think it tells the story of what the Virginia National Guard brings to whatever they participate in. They’re men and women of honor who want to step forward and do the right thing. It was an opportunity to say yes, we’ll serve and help recognize the veterans who are here today.”
During the ceremonies, representatives from all of the Armed Forces, including Flora and Scott, placed ceremonial wreaths at the memorial. The ceremony concluded with “Taps” performed by 29th ID Band trumpeter Sgt. Brian Campbell.
PHOTOS: Bedford ceremony marks 75th anniversary of D-Day
More information about the National D-Day Memorial: https://www.dday.org/