FORT BELVOIR, Va. (Army News Service, June 7, 2010) -- The Virginia National Guard gathered alongside World War II veterans June 5 at the Cherry-Beasley Readiness Center in Winchester and June 6 at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford to pay tribute to the sacrifices made by the Soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division, the 116th Infantry Regiment, and all the men who fought in the largest amphibious assault in the history of modern warfare 66 years ago.

At the event in Winchester, Delegate Bev Sherwood, of Frederick County, unveiled a joint resolution passed by the Virginia General Assembly to honor the Soldiers from than 20 communities across Virginia that participated in the assault on June 6, 1944, that led to the liberation of German-occupied Europe.

The resolution read: "the Commonwealth of Virginia and its citizens are indebted to and thankful for the D-Day soldiers, their successors in the ranks of the Virginia National Guard today, and their families for their valiant service and enormous sacrifice."

"Many Virginians may have forgotten, and many may never have known, that the 29th [Infantry] Division consisting of men from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia was the only Guard unit selected to participate in the initial invasion of France at Normandy on that pivotal day in June of 1944," said John O. Marsh Jr., a World War II veteran who served in the Virginia National Guard and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He served as the secretary of the Army between 1981 and 1989 and also served in the House of Representatives from Virginia from 1963 to 1971.

"The Soldiers of the 'Stonewall Brigade' stormed the beach with 3,100 officers and men. They had to cross over 300 yards of sand beach under heavy cross fire that reached the shore, and to fight their way up the bluffs that towered up to a hundred feet. By the end of what is known as 'the longest day' the 116th took over 1,000 casualties," described Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia as he spoke of the brave men that fought on the beaches of Normandy.

The Soldiers of the Winchester-based 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry, also recognized the accomplishments of an individual Soldier for his sacrifice and courage demonstrated during the initial assault and subsequent push across France by naming a classroom in the readiness center after Maj. Thomas D. Howie of Staunton. The battalion also planted a tree outside the facility in his honor.

The tree planting was conducted by Howie's daughter and her family using soil from Howie's hometown of Abbeville, S.C., as well as soil from the parade fields of the Citadel and Staunton Military Academy, sand from Omaha Beach and soil from Saint Lo, France.

Howie became a "symbol of courage and sacrifice after newspapers flashed to the world a picture of his flag-covered body in the ruins of a St. Lo church," Marsh said.

Howie, a graduate of The Citadel's Class of 1929 and a teacher and coach at Staunton Military Academy, is best known as "the Major of Saint Lo." He was killed in action on July 17, 1944, while in command of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry, during its final drive to capture the strategic city of Saint Lo. Some have even speculated that Tom Hanks' character in the film, "Saving Private Ryan" was modeled after Howie.

"It's just so nice for the veterans and their families and for me to be asked to participate. I'm proud to know that the citizens here have named this wonderful room in the armory for my father and remembered him in that way," said Sally McDevitt, Howie's daughter. "If you have to lose someone, it's so nice to have them remembered this way." McDevitt was barely 4 years old when her father was killed in action.

During the ceremony the connection was made between the men of the 116th who fought during the Allied invasion of Normandy and the men and women of the 116th who have and continue to fight for freedom in the ongoing Global War on Terror.

"Although Major Howie was but one of an 850-Soldier battalion, he was then and is today the spirit of those great fighting men who did such wondrous things on the battlefields of Normandy," noted Maj. Gen. Robert B. Newman Jr., adjutant general of Virginia.

"Today the spirit that won the day against the Nazis in Europe is every bit alive in the Soldiers of the 116th Infantry Regiment, Soldiers from units here in Winchester, from Lynchburg, from Danville and from Portsmouth that proudly carry the legacy of Tom Howie's men as they fight against America's terrorist enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan."

At the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va., Guard Soldiers joined hundreds of guests to honor and pay tribute to the handful of remaining veterans of D-Day in attendance.

One of the World War II veterans had a crucial role in the day's events as he led the Virginia Guard's 29th Army Band through two musical numbers at the memorial.

Ninety-two-year-old Ralph Shank, the commander of the 116th Regimental Band in June 1944 who led the band as they played across Europe following the initial invasion, picked up the baton to conduct the band as he did 66 years ago.

"We played for the first parade on German soil by American troops," said Shank.

"We didn't have any instruments, so we did guard duty. We lost the instruments in the invasion," said Shank. "But our general asked for us to play, so he made arrangements through the Red Cross to get us some basic instruments."

Keynote speaker Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke about the importance of remembering the sacrifices of the men who fought and how their bravery is reflected by the military men and women of today.

"The greatest tribute we can pay to the fallen and to the missing from every generation is not only to hold ceremonies and erect monuments, but to look after their Families and embrace their brothers and sisters in arms when they return," said Mullen.

"Today's wars do not involve a single day like the 6th of June or end in victory parades," he said. "And yet, like the Bedford Boys, we, our allies, and our partners must keep moving forward even when we are crawling. We must always fight for the best ideals of our nation . . . that was what the boys of Bedford taught us. That is Normandy's legacy."

Bedford was chosen as the home of the National D-Day Memorial because the town lost more men per capita than any other community in America during the Allied invasion. Bedford, whose population was around 3,200 in 1944, lost 19 men in the initial invasion, and lost three more in the Normandy campaign.

Soldiers of the 116th participated in a wreath-laying ceremony during the event.

Aca,!A"The spirit of the heroes of D-Day lives on in the men and women who form the 116th of today,Aca,!A? Marsh said. Aca,!A"They come from the same Virginia communities, train in the same armories and are displaying similar dedication and courage by fighting for freedom and democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. We should celebrate the sacrifices of these young men and women and their families even as we remember with profound gratitude the sacrifices of the men who fought and died at Omaha.Aca,!A?

(Sgt. Andrew H. Owen writes for 29th Infantry Division Public Affairs.)

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16