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`Beyond Beachhead' speaks to post-war generation about valor

One of the joys of traveling to Washington several times a year is that the museums have books that you never see anywhere else.

I was browsing through the bookstore at the National Archives - after a hard day of meetings - when I ran across such a book, entitled "Beyond the Beachhead, the 29th Infantry Division in Normandy."

The 29th Infantry Division was different from most of the U.S. Army divisions that fought in World War II. While many of those were made up of draftees, the 29th consisted of National Guard units from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

At the start of the war, the 29th, which was nicknamed the Blue and Gray Division, underwent new training and then was shipped to the southern coast of England. There, by a twist of fate, it was selected to be one of the two divisions to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Much has been written about that landing. The first 30 minutes of the movie, "Saving Private Ryan," depict what happened to one of the first rifle companies that landed on the stretch of beach assigned to the 29th and the 1st Infantry Division.

Some of the 29th Division companies landed in areas where the beach was obscured by smoke and took few casualties. But Company A of the 116th Infantry Division was nearly wiped out when its landing craft dropped their ramps in full view of German machine gunners on the bluffs above the beach.

Before the war, Company A had headquarters in Bedford, Va., a small farming community. When the War Department began sending out the first telegrams from the D-Day landings, the taxis in Bedford spent most of the day delivering the grim news to one farmhouse after another. (Bedford is now the site of the National D-Day Memorial.)

Somehow, the remnants of Company A and other 29th Division units fought their way off the beach. The courage it took to get up off the sand and run the 300 to 400 yards to the bluffs and take out the German machine guns is something that few of us can imagine.

The book doesn't end there. It took the 29th another 44 days of continuous combat to capture its primary objective of St. Lo, about 10 miles inland from Omaha Beach. By the time, its units entered that city, only a handful of the men who landed on D-Day were still with the division.

For those of us who were born after World War II, it's easy to forget the sacrifice made by the men of the 29th and the other units that followed them in Europe and in the Pacific. Most historians agree that we would be living in a far different world today if these men had simply stopped at the beaches or in the hedgerows of Normandy.

They say that the veterans of World War II are dying at the rate of around 1,700 men a day. If you know one of these, thank him or her today, before it's too late.

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