BEDFORD, Va. – U.S. and French flags adorned lamp posts along this rural community's quaint Main Street as thousands gathered to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day on a warm, sunny day in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Bedford, home to the National D-Day Memorial, was also home to the "Bedford Boys," 30 National Guard soldiers who joined tens of thousands in storming the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. An astounding 19 of the local men perished, giving this town of fewer than 7,000 the most casualties per capita in the nation.
Two miles from the center of town, the memorial looms large, punctuated by an imposing stone arch at its center. Vice President Mike Pence delivered the keynote speech, marveling at the courage of veterans and praising the Bedford Boys as “hometown folk who became national heroes.”
The crowd that gathered was a mix of families with young children, older military veterans in leather biker jackets and service members in full uniform. Some chatted and laughed among themselves, others solemnly read the plaques commemorating those who gave their lives that day.
Army veteran Jon Roth, 30, served in Iraq and said he feels a special connection with those who fought at D-Day.
“I have the utmost respect and admiration for the greatest generation,” Roth said. “Once you’re in the military, you’re all brothers.”
Vernell Kain and Donna Winn, both 70, are volunteers at a senior home in Lynchburg, Virginia, about 25 miles east of Bedford. They came down as part of a senior home trip.
“We live this close and have never been inside,” Kain said. “To see so many soldiers here, it’s amazing to see what they witnessed.”
On Main Street, Green’s Drug Store is a landmark. The Bedford Boys spent many of the defining moments of their young lives there: going on dates, falling in love, even working the counter. Owners Linda and Ken Parker, transplants from Oklahoma, have turned the Bedford institution into a tribute center for the D-Day soldiers.
“The boys finally have their voice,” Linda Parker said. “This is staying open for a long, long time, because this isn’t just for D-Day. The town has always needed something for the Bedford Boys.”
The couple did their research – conducting interviews, assembling artifacts and refurbishing the store for educational purposes. Photos of all 19 are on display, along with details of their lives. John Schenk met his wife on a blind date at Green’s. Elmere Wright pitched for the Company A baseball team and would have had a contract with the St Louis Browns had he not perished. Jack Powers was a guitar player, and John “Jack” Reynolds had a younger sister, Marguerite, who he told to “be a good girl until he got home.”
A few blocks away, Julie Leist, 41, a Bedford resident of 15 years, helps manage her family’s restaurant, Liberty Station. The train station where the boys first left for the war used to stand here. Leist said she’s constantly reminded of the Bedford Boys’ legacy in her daily life, adding that kids here also are very familiar with the history.
“I’m here every day, so I get the remembrance every day," Leist said. "For me, personally it’s a part of my everyday life."
Remembering and honoring the sacrifices made on D-Day and overall, Leist said, is important in acknowledging one’s roots and the bravery in the past.
“It’s huge to remember where you came from and how it got you where you are, and realize that it was a huge cost,” Leist said.
Leigh Buckner, a Vietnam vet, was visiting from Kensington, Maryland, with his wife Sally-Beth. The retired couple feel a strong connection to World War II and its veterans and have previously visited the beaches of Normandy.
“I’m a World War II baby,” Leigh Buckner said. “I heard a lot about it growing up, so I feel like even though I don’t remember it, I’m a part of it.”
Paul Coleman, a Korean War veteran who served in the Navy, struck a familiar note when asked about the importance of the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
“There’s not that many (D-Day veterans) left,” said Coleman, 89, a native of nearby Lynchburg. “This will be the last one.”
D-Day was ever present on the news when Coleman was growing up, and he had numerous family members who served in World War II. And if not for the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, Coleman said he might have been a World War II veteran as well.
Coleman said the ship reunions for those he served with in Korea have dropped off in recent years. As veterans from his era pass away, Coleman said it was vital to remember the “sacrifices given, not only by the service people, but by the people left at home.”
Bill Blankenship, a Vietnam vet, was in Bedford with his wife, Donna. The couple came from Princeton, West Virginia, about 120 miles west of here, their fourth visit to the National D-Day Memorial.
“If you love this country and its freedom, you have to respect and remember it,” Bill Blankenship said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bedford, a small Virginia town hit hard by D-Day, marks 75th anniversary in a big way