Heroes: One Day Vacation With a Purpose

Hero is an overused word. As July 4th passes each year, my heart is drawn to people who did extraordinarily great things. Part of the summer has been devoted to vacations. Vacation to me is really vacating and getting WAY out of town. On June 6, 2014, I drove to Bedford, Virginia, about an 8 hour round trip to meet the men of D-Day and honor them. Here are some of my thoughts:

The Longest Day. I read the book in high school. I met the men of the book on a Friday in 50 years after that longest day. And is not just a story. It is history. As documentarians, media representatives, and news networks around the world brought to remembrance what happened on June 6, 1944, I set out to meet in person some of the men who were there- in the boats, on the beaches, and in the air.

I journeyed on this special day to Bedford, Virginia, site of the United States D-Day Memorial, because they went in my place to fight and live so that the government of the people, and by the people, and for the people would not perish from this earth. On that day, many of their comrades died. In the months beginning with and subsequent to D-Day, 200,000 people would die in a war where good had to triumph over evil for the world to survive. Dr. Anthony Eastman, Professor Of History at Gardner-Webb University, says, “World War II was an Old Testament war where good trumped evil.” One veteran I met on Friday survived D-Day and then was transferred to the Pacific Theater where he served on Okinawa and then fought in the Korean War years later.

The skies were a brilliant blue. The Blue Ridge Mountains stood in rolling attention at a distance. A ninety-minute ceremony with presentations from poets, priests, and politicians from the United States, Great Britain, and France began with the “Passing of the Baton” from the “Golden Knights” U.S. Army Parachute team who landed and saluted the original D-Day Paratroopers present for the day. The ceremonies were punctuated by a flyovers by a C-47, a P-51, and the T-6 “Missing Man” formation. All took place under the watchful symbolic eye of General Dwight David Eisenhower in the distance surrounded by the generals and other leaders set in stone memorials who made Operation Overlord successful.
Ike On Mission

At the conclusion of the ceremony, “Homage”, a brand new statue dedicated to “The Bedford Boys” of Bedford, Virginia who gave their lives in the battle was unveiled and dedicated for the first time.D-Day Cross

Surrounding the oval shaped monument area draped in the flags of all the nations who participated, were dozens of living oral history presentations by re-enactors- many of them 18-21 year old young men (the age of the 90’ish year old veterans of this harrowing event 70 years ago). Young SoldierEach spent the afternoon educating us after the service was over.

The pivotal personal moment of the day took place when Robert Sales moved forward to begin his presentation near the conclusion of the ceremony. The official program for the day read:

“Bob Sales served with the Virginia National Guard, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division, Company B. He landed on Omaha Beach on 6 June 1944 and was the only survivor of the 30 men on his landing craft. Sales was awarded three Purple Hearts and the Silver Star, among other medals, for battling his way across France before he was left wounded and partially blind. Earlier this year, he was presented with a medal by the French government and made a Knight of the French Legion of Honor.”Robert Sales

After a brief introduction, Sales deferred to his lovely wife dressed in red and white as she read the account that Bob had written describing the horror of the events that day- the ramp to the landing craft dropping down, his comrades embarking, and then watching them be picked off one by one as he made his way to the shore. He survived miraculously as he crawled across the beach from body to body with his comrades as his shield. In the audience were dozens of men like Bob from around the United States who survived that day to be honored on this day seventy years later.

When the ceremony was over, I made my way to the platform to meet this man who served so heroically. He graciously allowed me to have my picture taken with him. As Bob’s wife being interviewed by others, I met Bob’s sister-in-law. She whispered to me that Bob’s wife had to read the remembrance because it was too painful for Bob to recount on his own. I said, “Of course. This is not just a story. It is real history.”

In the near foreground, a young child played around an anchor used during the war. I snapped a picture. It iBoy and Anchors a picture of life in microcosm- childhood to the wisdom of maturing age all wrapped into one brief shining moment that God allowed me to experience.

As I looked at that little guy, I recalled what I had seen earlier in the week as Tom Brokaw interviewed one of these survivors of D-Day and the “Greatest Generation”. He said as he, like Bob Sales, saw men from his landing craft die one by one for their country, most of them died in the water while calling for their “Mama.”

Sir Edmund Burke once said, “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” My day began at 6:00 AM on Friday and ended at Midnight on Saturday. It was a long day. Theirs began on June 6, 1944. I have to believe it has never ended for them. They live the “Longest Day” everyday…and for that, I am grateful.

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