Today is the 71st anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of France at Normandy beaches that was the turning point in World War II. Last week I had the honor of visiting the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia and meeting some of the survivors and their families.
While remembering history and paying tribute to these soldiers is an important thing, this experience had a very personal meaning to me because my grandfather, E.F. Smith, Jr., also landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day.
In the 30th Infantry Division, he survived D-Day and went on with his platoon to liberate the town of St. Lo. A short time later, in Mortain, he was captured and spent 15 months in a German POW camp until the war was over.
In 2000, I took my daughter and went to France, where we retraced his steps from Omaha Beach to Mortain. We were actually in Normandy and at the American Cemetery on the anniversary of D-Day, where an incredibly moving ceremony took place. I was surprised that many of the area homes still flew American flags out front alongside their French ones.
My grandfather, Smitty as he was called, passed away in 2009 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.
In Bedford, I thought about him often as I moved through the memorial which spans across 88 acres at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At its center stands a monumental forty-four foot tall arch, embellished by the military name, “Overlord,” that was given to the crucial operation.
It’s an incredibly well-done monument, put together in an impressive fashion that lets the visitor learn the history, back stories, Operation Overlord plans, and actual invasion in sequential order that also resonates emotionally.
Sculptures by Jim Brothers come to life in an elaborately constructed setting that recreates the landing and storming ashore at Normandy beaches, complete with “exploding” mines underwater that shoot sprays of water up in dramatic fashion.
Dedicated on June 6th, 2001, the National D-Day Memorial was constructed in honor of those who died that day, fighting in one of the most significant battles in our nations history. It is even more impressive when you learn that the memorial was constructed with NO federal or state funding whatsoever.
I was especially honored, that day in Bedford, to talk to some survivors and their families. The reason this memorial is here is because this town suffered the most severe losses of any U.S. city on D-Day. The “Bedford Boys,” as they were known, were 30 National Guard soldiers who landed on the beaches on D-Day. By day’s end, 19 of them were dead; and 4 more died later in the Normandy campaign. For a town of about 3,200 at the time, this was devastating. [Read my story about the Bedford Boys at the L.A. Times.]
At the memorial, I talked to Charles “Buster” Schaeff, a surviving Bedford Boy.
“We hit the beach and dropped anchor about 3 am on D-Day morning at the foot of Pointe du Hoc,” Shaeff, 89, recalled. “We ran [the soldiers] off the boat and started back to make another run. They left the boat and started climbing. We made a second run about 9 am; then on our third run, at high tide, we accidentally found one of the hedgehogs that tore a hole in the bottom of the boat. Fortunately, we were able to get to the beach before the boat sank.”
Buster, who was 18 at the time, says that he just didn’t think about the horror of that day or the magnitude of the operation he was a part of. “We had a job to do, and we did it,” he said simply.
I also talked to Lucille Hoback Boggess, who was 14 at the time of D-Day and lost two brothers, Bedford and Raymond Hoback, that day. She shared:
“We were getting ready to go to church when the Sheriff brought the first telegram. My father answered the door. That telegram told us that Bedford had been killed. The next day, Monday, we got the telegram about Ray, but they never recovered his body.”
However, another Bedford Boy walking the beach after D-Day found Raymond’s bible, and eventually sent it back to his mother along with a letter. For Lucille and her family — parents and four remaining siblings — things were changed forever.
“After that, my mother felt that my brothers weren’t here to have fun and do things like family picnics, and so we shouldn’t either,” Lucille said. “It was really hard on her. There was no fun left after that.”
And in perhaps one of the day’s most heartbreaking stories, granddaughters Sarah Yost and Stacey DeMarsh shared the memories that their grandfather, Roy Stevens, had passed to them. Roy went to war with his twin brother, Ray.
Before boarding the ships in England on the morning of D-Day, Ray moved to shake Roy’s hand before going into battle. But Roy refused, saying he would meet him on the beach across the Channel and shake his hand then.
Roy never got that chance. Ray was killed that morning, and the way that his twin brother learned of his death was four days later when the graves were beginning to be dug. Roy walked up to the first rifle sticking in the ground that he saw, and when he brushed the sand off the dog tags he saw that they were his brothers.
“His biggest regret was that he didn’t shake Ray’s hand that day and tell him goodbye,” Stacey said. “Freedom isn’t free — that was the main thing that he always told us.”
Sarah recalled that Ray’s picture was always in the house. “We knew who he was, and his story, but our grandfather never really talked about it. He just wanted to put it behind him and all of us have a happy life.”
That, in fact, was exactly how my grandfather was; not talking about the war until decades later with my father, and eventually me. I found myself tearing up and fighting to hold back sobs as the two women talked about their grandfather’s experience.
Yet all of these survivors and their families agree on one thing: the memorial, besides paying tribute, has become a way for people to open up and talk about what happened to them during this time, for various reasons. Not wanting to subject their families to the horrors; wanting to put it behind them; or feeling guilt that they returned when so many didn’t.
“I kept the memories mostly to myself until the memorial opened,” said Buster. “It brought back the memories but made it easier to talk about what happened that day.”