It was in the papers, but covered far from sufficiently, when Elisha “Ray” Nance died six weeks ago at the age of 94. He was well known around Bedford, Virginia, a picturesque town located at the feet of the Blue Ridge Peaks of Otter, where for years he delivered the mail on nearby rural routes. It was for what he did before becoming a letter carrier, though, that he is best remembered.
Ray Nance was one of The Bedford Boys.
In fact, he was the last surviving member of his town’s contingent in Company A of the 29th Infantry Division’s 116th Infantry – a group that waded ashore on a beach nicknamed “Omaha” in a far away place called Normandy in France, 65 years ago this weekend. And of the 30 soldiers from Bedford, then with a population of 3,200 (today, about twice that), he was one of only eight from his hometown who lived to tell the story.
Ray lost 22 Bedford buddies that day, 19 of them in the very first moments of the battle. By the time he made it to the beach in the last of his company’s landing crafts to reach that point, he saw “a pall of dust and smoke.” He could barely see “the church steeple we were supposed to guide on.” He couldn’t see anyone in front, or behind him; only that he “was alone in France.”
Mr. Nance was a hero “proved through liberating strife.”
Six years ago, Alex Kershaw wrote a fascinating book about it all called, “The Bedford Boys: One American Town’s Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice.” A year ago, on the 64th anniversary of the fierce battle, I had a conversation with him about the story, as well as the modern tendency toward the kind of historical reductionism and revisionism that, in effect, dishonors true heroes.
As the world pauses to mark the 65th anniversary of the longest day, long ago, it is for some truly meaningful. For others it is a bit awkward, but certainly obligatory. Many, however, will think to themselves: “What’s all the fuss about? It’s a different world today.”
Indeed it is in many ways a different world. But interestingly – even ironically – the challenges today are not completely unlike those days when bands of citizen-soldier-brethren from the greatest generation saved the world for those of us who would be later born to enjoy abounding liberty.
Next to ingratitude, forgetfulness is the most serious indicator of cultural decline; and in truth, the two are intertwined. Thanksgiving and remembrance are flipsides of the same precious cultural coin.
I am struck this week, as we watch President Obama conduct his latest international “wea” culpa tour, by the contrasting image evoked with the unveiling of the new statue of Ronald Reagan in the U. S. Capital Rotunda. And I find myself thinking back to a moment 25 years ago this weekend when, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, the Great Communicator captured the attention of history and honored some of the other “Boys” who did so much for all of us on June 6, 1944. He called them “The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc,” and many of them were in his cliff top audience in Normandy that day.
If you wanted to pick a more foreboding, certainly unlikely, place for an important military attack, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a spot more uninviting than the imposing, rugged cliffs overlooking the English Channel four miles west of Omaha Beach. A few years back, when I had the privilege of visiting that region for a speaking engagement, I stood there silently for quite some time and tried to wrap my mind around the quite-evident impossibility of what the United States Army Ranger Assault Group accomplished that fateful day.
Mr. Reagan honored those men there in 1984, saying, “We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but 40 years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of canon.” It was one of his finest rhetorical moments. He continued:
“Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe Du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”
Now, 25 years later, we mark another chronological milestone. But the Boys of Bedford are now all gone. And noble ranks of the Boys of Pointe Du Hoc have been thinned out by the course of time, as well. So, what happens when those who really remember are no longer around to remind us never to forget? What happens when eyewitness memory is no longer vivid and available and we must resort to stories handed down from generations before?
This is where memorials come in, monuments to important men and moments of a sacred and so-easily-forgotten past.
It has been less than 10 years since the National D-Day Memorial opened in that tiny Virginia town of Bedford, a community that gave so proportionately of its finest young men 65 years ago. Now, it is in serious financial trouble and in need of help. Representatives from the Memorial reached out to nearby Liberty University, in Lynchburg, but though school leaders took a look at it, they passed.
At any rate, logic, if not patriotism, suggests that this should be a national concern. There should be a place for this beautiful and appropriate memorial in the family of our National Parks. The Bedford facility has a $2.2 million dollar operating budget, drawing a little less than a third of that from visitors. The rest must be made up by donations, but the tough economy has slowed giving way down.
Of course, one might wonder why, if we can “stimulate” a study in Iowa about “controlling hog-created odors” to the tune of $1.7 million, not to mention earmarking $5.8 million for the of-course-desperately-needed, “Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate,” we shouldn’t be able to find a few bucks to honor those who presumably mean more to our national heritage than swine or a senator.
A while back, my wife and I, along with other family members, visited the D-Day Memorial. I loved talking to two of my grandkids, David (10) and Karen (8), about it all. They acted interested. The man who took us around was Mr. James E. Bryant. He had served as a Glider Infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division and was part of all of his division’s campaigns from D-Day through to the end of the European war in May of 1945. He wrote a fascinating little book about it all called “Flying Coffins Over Europe.” I purchased a copy in the Memorial’s gift shop and asked him to sign it for me. I was honored and humbled to be in his presence. Really.
So, while we watch another president make the rounds “over there,” I am thinking this weekend about Ronald Reagan and “the Boys.” I am also pondering the Gipper’s words from 25 years ago as he addressed some of those who swarmed Normandy’s treacherous shores in 1944:
“Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their valor, and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.”