By U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith
On the last Monday of May, Americans remember those brave men and women who died defending our country.
We honor all Americans who fell in battle on Memorial Day, but this year it also falls close to an important anniversary of a great battle. Seventy-five years ago, on June 6, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy in France to bring about the liberation of Western Europe and the final defeat of Nazi Germany.
The events of D-Day still inspire us, and some of its heroes were our friends, family members, and neighbors. As a result of our area having so many there, we have the National D-Day Memorial. They are holding “The Final Salute” program this year, which will be broadcast live on WDBJ.
On that day, the Allies faced a daunting challenge. Nazi Germany had spent months preparing its Atlantic Wall of defenses to fend off an assault. It meant to push any Allied soldiers who dared land back into the sea.
On Omaha Beach, the 29th Division would lead the way. It included the 116th Infantry Regiment, an activated National Guard unit.
Before the war, the 116th’s Company A was based in Bedford, B in Lynchburg, C in Harrisonburg, D in Roanoke, and H in Martinsville.
On June 4, they boarded ships to carry them across the English Channel and join the battle the next morning. Bad weather delayed the assault. It still threatened on June 6, but the Allied high command gave the order to go.
Naval and air bombardments were supposed to pound the enemy’s defenses. The men of the 116th Infantry boarded landing craft to ferry them to shore, with Company A scheduled to be first ashore at 6:36 a.m.
They motored over rough seas to the landing area on Omaha Beach. As the first boat disembarked, the German defenders opened fire. Unfortunately, the bombardments had overshot Omaha.
Some men never made it to the beach, weighed down into the sea by their gear or killed by German fire in the boats. Those who did had to cross hundreds of yards at low tide while sniper fire, machine guns, and artillery targeted them. Little cover between the surf and a sea wall protected them. Craters that were supposed to be there because of Allied bombardment were not. Instead, obstacles such as mines and barbed wire were strewn about.
The men who made it to the sea wall were pinned down by the German defenses, which were stronger in this area than anticipated, and hindered by rough terrain moving inland.
Brigadier General Norman Cota, the 29th Division’s assistant commander, led a breakout from the sea wall by exploding an opening in a barbed wire fence. Soldiers, including Bob Slaughter of Roanoke in Company D, advanced in small groups off the beach along the wall.
The 116th established its beachhead, but at a frightful cost. There were 2,500 casualties on Omaha Beach. Bedford was the American town hardest hit. Nineteen of its sons who had landed in the first wave did not make it off the beach.
Over the ensuing years, the country’s memory focused on Bedford. I met the advocates for establishing a national D-Day memorial, including Bob Slaughter and Lucille Hoback Boggess, whose brothers Raymond and Bedford Hoback were killed that day.
I was at the National D-Day Memorial dedication on June 6, 2001. It is a great place to learn about the heroes of D-Day and reflect on the things they did.
As Company A medic Cecil Breeden said of all who landed with him, “Every man was a hero.”
They were heroes like Talmadge Seay of Martinsville, who landed with the 474th AAA Automatic Weapons Battalion.
They were heroes like Bill Dabney of Roanoke County, who landed with the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. In a segregated army, he was part of the only African-American combat unit to land on D-Day and received the French Legion of Honor.
And they were heroes like the 9,380 military dead buried in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France. They fought to protect our country’s freedom and to restore it to others, and they gave their lives for that cause. Now they lie in orderly rows of crosses that face west, toward home.
I was honored to introduce my daughter Abby to Bob Slaughter.
I was honored to introduce my sons Davis and Starke to Talmadge Seay.
And I am honored to be part of a congressional delegation that will commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy. I look forward to paying my respects where these men changed history.
For comments or concerns, call my Abingdon office at (276) 525-1405, Christiansburg office at (540) 381-5671, or email me at www.morgangriffith.house.gov.