As my generation’s grandparents grow older and slowly go to rest in peace, fewer and fewer people in the U.S. think about anything in particular on June 6 each year. Not where I come from, though. I woke up this morning to numerous photos and statements of remembrance from my friends and relatives who hail from the small town where I was raised. Today is more sacred to us than Memorial Day in some ways.
For those wondering what the heck is so special about June 6, you just need a quick refresher on your history lessons. On June 6, 1944, Allied troops launched an offensive in France, on the beaches of Normandy, a day that is now commonly referred to simply as D-Day. It was a significant battle in World War II history; some claim it was the beginning of the end for German forces. And on that day in 1944, the tiny community of Bedford, Virginia, lost 19 young men. For a town of just over 3,200 people (at that time), 19 was a hugely significant loss. Most of the town’s residents knew several, if not all, of the men lost. And because the same families tend to stay in such small towns, most of the relatives and descendants of those young men still live in (or at least grew up in) Bedford today. My own great-uncle John, my grandfather’s brother, was one of those who perished in Normandy.
The loss experienced by Bedford in 1944 is anything but forgotten. The World’s Best Little Town (Bedford’s long-standing nickname) has the dubious distinction of losing the most soldiers per capita of any city in the United States on D-Day. There’s a well-known book about Bedford’s story, and a movie that has been shown around the world. The citizens of Bedford fought for years – and finally won – the right to host the National D-Day Memorial. The Memorial itself has been beset by all sorts of trials and tribulations, but it really is beautiful. The monument itself is lovely, the view from the monument is lovely, and the historical information is well-presented – and pertinent to the entirety of D-Day, not just the boys from Bedford. (It’s well worth the short trip from Charlottesville for a visit – just about a 90 minute drive, south on US Rt 29 and then west on US Rt 460.)
I find it heartening that people my age and younger – whose parents weren’t even born in 1944 – still care about the family and community members who gave their lives 67 years ago. It’s a positive hallmark of a small town. Sure, we all joked (sort of) while growing up about how everyone was always in the middle of everyone else’s business. And if I’m totally honest, it’s true that there is less tolerance of difference of any sort (race, sexuality, even just pink hair or a nose piercing) in a small Southern town. But there is also a very strong sense of community, with people still basically wanting to connect with and help one another.
That sense of community creates a strong collective memory that encompasses the experiences of all the families who have lived there. That’s why many of the people in Bedford know the name of John Schenk, though most of them never met him – they’ve seen his name in the numerous memorials to those men Bedford lost. It’s why reading about my great-uncle John and the other Bedford Boys in a book can bring tears to my eyes, though I never knew any of them – I feel as though I knew them from the stories told by my grandfather and my mom and our family friends and church members. And it’s why I saw at least 10 Facebook posts this morning from Bedford natives, aged 25 to 35, reminding people of an event that happened 67 years ago and encouraging them not to forget.