Thursday, June 5, 2008

Omaha Beach, Sixty-Four Years Ago

How much does the American public still know about the D-Day invasion? A few with first-hand experience are still alive, more have second-hand experience (I, for example, have my father's V-Mail letters from before and after the invasion, which I've passed on to my children), but most people today probably get their historical knowledge of the event vicariously from entertainment media. For older Americans and classic movie fans that means the 1962 film "The Longest Day," for a younger generation it means the 1998 film "Saving Private Ryan," and for an even younger generation it might mean role-playing video games such as "Call of Duty 3."

Should you want a bit of direct historical experience on this D-Day anniversary, and the chance to mingle with a few World War II veterans, I recommend you drop in on the National D-Day Memorial in the quiet little town of Bedford, Virginia, which is a reasonable driving distance from Washington DC down U.S. Route 29 [official name of that roadway: "29th Infantry Division Memorial Highway"].

Apart from us locals, many people may wonder why a foundation would choose Bedford as the location for the National D-Day Memorial. They did so because 30 troops from Bedford, serving in the 116th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army's 29th Infantry Division, were in the first wave of the assault on Omaha Beach and 19 of them were killed there, as were three more Bedford troops before the Normandy invasion was over. Bedford's population in 1944 was about 3,200, and proportionally that community suffered the nation's highest D-Day losses.

People who've seen the movies probably didn't notice it, but the 29th Infantry Division was heavily featured in both "The Longest Day" (Robert Mitchum was portraying the assistant division commander Brigadier General Norman Cota) and "Saving Private Ryan" (most of the troops depicted in the Omaha Beach sequences wore 29th Division shoulder insignia). It's even the unit featured in Call of Duty 3. I suppose there's nothing much wrong with getting your information from movies and games, so long as they're accurate.

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