On this special day

Published 4:42 pm Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The only sound was the gentle breeze blowing through the trees. We walked up the hill with fields of freshly mowed grass swaying in the wind. The few houses were well kept. Clean and tidy, like a picture out of a magazine. It was unimaginably peaceful.

Late that afternoon, we drove up a long, winding drive ending at the highest hill in the area. The view in the distance was of mountains fading in the sunset. A huge monument at the tip of the hill hid the hundreds of people that had gathered on the other side.

This Memorial Day weekend, Mary Lou and I had the opportunity to visit both Appomattox and the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va. What incredible sites to reflect and honor the many members of the armed forces that have sacrificed so much so that we can be free.

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The small village of Appomattox Courthouse was the home of John McLean, a prosperous merchant who had lived at the site of one of the first battles of the American Civil War, Manassas. He fled to that small village to escape the war only to have its final moments played out in his own home.

Lee and Grant met in the parlor of McLean’s House to hammer out the terms of surrender, ending the bloodiest conflict in American history. More than 620,000 men and boys from the blue and gray lost their lives in the four years of fighting. The painting of Lee’s surrender is familiar to every student of American history. Just a small room in a house in an obscure village would earn its place in history as the place the Civil War finally ended.

What peace and serenity filled this place on a beautiful Virginia day. It was such a stark contrast to what it must have looked like with the mass of suffering humanity gathered there a century and a half ago.

We then made our way to Bedford, Va., which is home to the National D-Day Memorial. Bedford was also the home of the “Bedford Boys,” which earned the small town the terrible distinction of having the greatest one-day loss of lives per capita in the history of our country.

Thirty-two young men, mostly boys, from the community helped form part of Company A, 116th Infantry, 29th Division. Leading the invasion on the beaches of Normandy, the Company suffered a more than 90 percent casualty rate. Of the 230 men, only 18 were unhurt by nightfall.

However, the reason the D-Day Memorial is located in this rather obscure part of southwestern Virginia is because of the sacrifice of this particular community of only 3,200 people. Of the 32 Bedford Boys that went ashore that fateful day, 22 were killed. It is thought that 19 of those young soldiers lost their lives within 10 minutes of landing on the beach. Most never made it to the cliffs they had been trained to climb.

The notices didn’t hit the Western Union offices until weeks later. Then one after another, the telegrams came, notifying the shocked town of the extent of their loss. Three sets of brothers were among those killed.

The town eventually welcomed the few survivors home, but things were really never the same. The memories of the terrible destruction and the torn, lifeless bodies remained with the survivors until this past April, when the last of the Bedford Boys passed away at the age of 91.

Like Appomattox, Bedford also had other memories of those that died. Memories of young, smiling faces. They were boys full of laughter and youthful innocence. They were boys who did what their country asked of them without flinching. They weren’t really boys at all; they were men in the truest sense of the word.

Mary Lou and I listened to a concert in the shadow of the massive stone monument to the men who pushed ashore on D-Day. The program this Memorial Day was in honor of another Bedford Boy. This soldier was also cut down in the prime of his life in a far away place called Iraq. He left behind a grieving family, two small children, and a grateful nation. We stood proudly in honoring his memory as his family accepted a flag.

There are many stories about just where Memorial Day began. It is likely that it began spontaneously just after Civil War to honor the war dead from almost every little village, town and city in the country. It was officially proclaimed in 1868, with flowers being placed on the graves at Arlington and other military cemeteries. By 1890, it was celebrated across all the northern states, while southern states honored the confederate dead on another day.

World War I caused the holiday to be expanded to honor the fallen of all previous wars, not just the Civil War. It was made a federal holiday in 1971, more than 100 years after Appomattox. Memorial Day is now celebrated in every state in the union, with several southern states continuing to observe Confederate Memorial Day at a different time.

Appomattox, Normandy and Iraq, plus hundreds of other battlefields in a dozen different wars. How different the reasons for their call to arms, but how similar their responses to a nation in need. We honor them all.