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Monday, April 7, 2014

D-Day Through the Decades: 1984 Commemoration

Hello everyone!  

Forgive me for being a day late, but we are 2 months away from the big event!  To say we are busy would be an understatement; everyone is working at 100% to make sure this is the most memorable commemoration we can give our WWII heroes.  There have been several new developments and we still have a few things in the works – remember to visit our 70th Anniversary Event page to keep up with all the information concerning all the events that will be going on over the weekend of June 6-8, 2014. 

Let’s take a trip back in time to look at the 40th Anniversary of D-Day.  It was in 1984 that President Ronald Regan became the first sitting United States President to visit the beaches of Normandy for the June 6th commemoration ceremonies.  Speaking at the Ranger Memorial at Pointe du Hoc at 1:20 p.m., President Regan delivered his now famous “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” address.  Timed to coincide with live feed of the ceremonies on the U.S. East Coast, this address was received by millions in the U.S. and thousands of veterans who had gathered together on the Normandy beaches. 

Here is a short except from the beginning of President Regan’s speech (click here to listen to the entire address):

We're here to mark that day in history when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. For 4 long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved, and the world prayed for its rescue. Here in Normandy the rescue began. Here the Allies stood and fought against tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.

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 cannon. At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, 225 Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs. Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.

The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers -- the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machineguns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After 2 days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms.

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.

Following his remarks, President Regan unveiled memorial plaques to the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions.  As those who gathered in 1984, we will gather together on June 6, 2014 to pay tribute to all the men who initiated the liberty of France and fought to rid Europe of the tyranny of German occupation.  Join us as we unveil Homage, a new statue to honor the valor, fidelity, and sacrifice of all our servicemen and women.  

We look forward to seeing you all on June 6 at 11a.m. for the ceremony marking the 70th Anniversary of this historic event.  

Until next time, 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Around the Memorial: Spring is Here!

Good afternoon everyone! 

I hope you are all having a wonderful day.  I know it has technically been spring for a few weeks now; however, with the snow we had last week, I would beg to differ.  It is a beautiful day here in Bedford at the National D-Day Memorial, and boy are we having a busy day.  With the 70th Anniversary a little over two months away (and the weather finally cooperating), we have begun preparations on-site for the ceremony.  Today, we had a team of men cutting up part of the sidewalk in order to install our new homage sculpture in a few months.  The jackhammer has been loud all morning, but we know that we are pushing toward the future. 

On top of that, we also installed our new education tent.  Some of you may know that back a few weeks ago, our tent succumbed to the weight of the snow, during a particularly heavy snow storm.  We have been waiting for weeks to put up our new tent, and finally the day arrived.  The weather has been perfect today for the installation of the tent.  I would like to say thank you to all the staff involved in putting up the tent (Martin, Ron, and Jamie) and to the Town of Bedford Electric Department for coming out to lift the new tent up and over the existing framework. 

To wrap up my day, the cherry blossoms are about to bloom and my students from Big Island Elementary finally was able to do a little planting in the garden!  Today we planted beets, potatoes, carrots, lettuce, and radishes.  Special thanks goes out to all the Master Gardeners who donate their time teaching these students about gardening, and to Moneta Farm and Home Center for donating the seeds.  I just love this time of year and getting to spend most of the day outside around the site talking to people. 

Be sure to come visit us next Saturday, April 12th from 10-5 for our first living history event of the year!  Prelude to Invasion includes several craft stations and living historians discuss what it took to plan and prepare for the largest amphibious invasion.  Remember, this is our annual scout day - if you are a girl scout or boy scout leader and you would like your troop to attend this event free of change, please contact the education department via e-mail at  Scouts and scout leaders who register for the event and attend in uniform will be given free admission throughout the day.  Registration ends April 9th.

I hope to see you all soon!

Until next time,


Monday, March 24, 2014

70 Years Later: A Look Back at the Escape from Stalag Luft III

Barracks at Stalag Luft III

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the escape attempt by 76 Allied airmen from the Stalag Luft III.  Many of you have undoubtedly seen the 1963 Steve McQueen film The Great Escape, which brought this story to the forefront.   I am sure that there are many people out there who, like me, find this a fascinating portion of WWII history.  In honor of this anniversary, I thought we would take a moment and look at the 76 men who attempted escape and the three who actually made it back to Allied territory. 

Located in Zagan, Poland, construction on the first compound (East Compound) was completed and opened on March 21, 1942.   This camp, run by the German Luftwaffe, was designed to be a prisoner-of-war camp for Allied airmen.  In April 1942, the first prisoners to arrive at the camp were British Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm officers.  Stalag Luft III had a number of features that made escape extremely difficult and nearly impossible.  First, the barracks which housed the prisoners were raised off the ground in order to help guards detect any tunneling activity.  Secondly, the camp was constructed in an area with very sandy subsoil – which happened to be bright yellow in color, making it easily detectable if placed on surface soil and visible on clothing.  This subsoil was very loose and susceptible to collapse meaning structural integrity of any tunnel would be very poor. 

Roger Bushell
Construction was continuous at the camp and by the end of March 1943 the North Compound for British airmen was opened.  North Compound is the site of this great escape plan.  Each of these compounds consisted of 15 single story huts.  Each bunk room could sleep 15 men in five triple deck bunks.  At the height of occupation, the camp held about 2,500 RAF officers, 7,500 U.S. Army Air Forces, and about 900 officers from other Allied air forces. 

In the spring of 1943, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell of the RAF conceived a plan for a major escape from the camp.  Bushell was in command of the Escape Committee and channeled his effort to finding weak points in the camp and procuring the necessary supplies for the escapees.  Bushell’s original plan was to dig three tunnels at the same time and attempt to break 200 men out at once.  Codenamed “Tom,” “Dick,” and “Harry” the three tunnels were a ploy of deception – Bushell believed that if one tunnel was discovered, the German guards wouldn’t think that two additional tunnels were in the work.  One key component of Bushell’s plan was that each of the escapees a full complement of paperwork and have civilian clothing made for them.

Tunnel "Harry" showing escape route
Tunneling was difficult work, mostly because the prisoners had to evade growing German suspicion that something was a foot.  When “Tom” was discovered, the 98th tunnel in this camp to be, construction on “Harry” ceased for a while as well.  Using the wooden slats from their beds, tunneling around 336 feet, and ingenious methods of funneling air in the tunnel and over 200 tons of sand out, a date for escape was finally selected.  The first group of 100 guaranteed a spot in the tunnel were those who spoke good German, had the most complete set of papers, and were considered those how had worked the hardest on the construction of the tunnel.  
30 ft drop into entrance of tunnel

As night fell on March 24, 1944, all those who had been selected to be a part of the escape made their way to Hut 104.  Slowly, men made their way down the tunnel.  “Harry” exited about 45 feet from one of the camp watchtowers.  The 77th man to emerge from the tunnel at 4:55 am was spotted by one of the guards.  Of the 76 men to attempt escape, only three made it all the way to an allied country.  The remaining 73 men were recaptured over the course of the following days—of those men, 50 were executed on Hitler’s order, including the mastermind of the escape Roger Bushell.

Fellow prisoners created a memorial to their fallen compatriots in the prison camp ceremony. 

To learn more about the Great Escape and those involved, visit the following sites: 

Memorial to those executed after the escape

Until next time,

Friday, March 21, 2014

Women's History Month: 6888th Army Battalion

Hello D-Day Patrons!

Corporal Alyce Dixon (right), of the 6888th, talks with her superior, 1945.
In honor of Women’s History Month, I would like to take some time to talk about the 6888th Army battalion, an African-American all women’s unit dedicated to processing the backlog of mail from the troops and civil-support in Europe.

During World War II, the best way, and essentially the only way, to contact someone overseas was to send them a letter in the mail. This was the only way for soldiers to communicate back home and vise versa, so the importance of keeping soldier morale high rested on the ability of the mail services to complete their jobs in a timely fashion. That task was given to the women of the 6888th battalion.

6888th Army Battalion
Women began taking important roles in the Armed Forces as far back as the Revolutionary War and began performing military support during the Civil War and on. However, World War II was the first war in which so many women were called to serve, but it did not come without its challenges. Even though women were active in every branch, the only branch to officially recognize women as viable support was the Navy. World War II was also unique because so many men, mostly young and middle aged, were called to serve in combat roles, leaving behind multitudes of jobs that needed to be filled by women. Congress authorized the recruitment of female officers and enlisted to do more military duties than just nursing because of the desperate need for support.

The women of the 6888th not only had to handle being women in the Armed Forces, but they also had to withstand racial discrimination. Despite President Roosevelt’s efforts to fight intolerance in civilian defense industries, prejudice and segregation remained in the military. Through the efforts of Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, African-American women were allowed to serve in the Women’s Army Corp.

Women of the 6888th sorting out the backlog of mail, 1945.
Those young ladies had to begin working straight away after boot camp training was completed. Once American soldiers landed in Europe on June 6, 1944, the amount of logistical problems were quickly becoming a nightmare. Sorting and mailing the troops post was low on the totem pole. Since the soldiers were moving around rapidly and were sending out letters whenever they had the chance, the amount of mail piled up so quickly they were almost immediately behind schedule. While waiting for the women in the 6888th to arrive, seven million undelivered letters had quickly piled up; many had even been sent over a year before.

To get the job done quickly and effectively, the women used a system of information cards on all recently deployed soldiers, Army and Navy. They had six months to clear the buildup, working nearly twenty-four/seven. Not only did they have to locate the soldiers, they also had to decipher whom the letter even belonged to because many people did not address their letters properly. Through hard work and determination, they were able to process nearly 65,000 letters per workday and completed the task in just three months time, cutting the projected time in half. The Army was so impressed by them that they were then deployed to Paris, France to keep the mail moving on the front lines.
Women of the 6888th overseas, World War II, 1945.

Despite the segregation and discrimination these women were subjected to, they still completed their job flawlessly. In 2009, they were finally recognized for their hard work, sixty-four years later. Surviving members and their families came out to Arlington for the ceremony to honor those brave women in hopes to correct the past and set things right.

Take care,

Monday, March 17, 2014

Irish Traditions

Top o’ the mornin’ to ya!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone! I thought it would be festive to talk about the history and fun facts about the holiday since about 44.6 million Americans can trace their ancestry back to Ireland (including those of Scot-Irish descent). Even during World War II, a number of the soldiers were either born in Ireland or of Irish lineage.

Saint Patrick's Day parade in New York City, circa 1940s
As most of you probably know, the Day of the Festival of Patrick is not only a cultural holiday, but a religious one as well. The day is celebrated annually on March 17th, the death date of Patrick (461 AD), the patron saint of Ireland. Saint Paddy’s Day was made an official Christian feast day in the seventeenth century and was not only celebrated by the Catholic Church, but the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutheran Churches as well.

Most of us celebrate by partaking in public parades and festivities, wearing mostly green clothing or shamrocks, and attending church services. Except for attending church service, basically all the traditions we partake in originated
Stained glass depiction of Saint Patrick
in America, but that doesn’t stop the fun! Also, St. Patrick’s Day usually falls during the Lenten season, a time of fasting and reflection. As of about forty years ago, eating and drinking restrictions were lifted for the day to encourage celebrations.

Fun facts:
-Saint Patrick was not actually Irish. He was born into a wealthy Romano-British family in Roman Britain. At about 16 years old, he was captured by Irish raiders and taken to Gaelic Ireland. He found God during his time of captivity and fled to the coast where he was able to escape back home. He became a priest, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.
-Patrick returned to Ireland to preach to the pagan Irish.  According to folklore, he used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity and spent the remainder of his life in Northern Ireland, converting thousands of people to the Christian faith.
- It is a common mistake to say St. Patty’s day instead of Paddy. According to the Irish, Patty is short for Patricia and not Patrick.
"The Emerald Isle"- Ireland
-Ironically, the official color for St. Paddy’s day is actually blue. Patrick is frequently depicted wearing blue and the color is on many Irish coats of arms.
-Why we wear green on this day: Green has been connected with Ireland since very early on, most likely because of the overwhelmingly green “Emerald Isles”. The color green is also used to signify Catholics, while the color orange is used to show someone of Protestant heritage. Historically, the Catholics and Protestants of Ireland have had a less than harmonious relationship. However, today the Irish flag we know and love (green, white, and orange) signifies the unity between the two religious sects.
-Believe it or not, tales of the leprechauns (Irish for ‘small-bodied fellow’) have been around since the 8th century and believed to come from old Celtic fairy-tales. The tiny men and women have magical powers and spend most of their time making shoes and hide their fortunes of gold in pots!
Displaying photo.JPG
Corned beef and cabbage with Irish Soda bread and boiled potatoes
-If you ever find a four-leaf clover you are truly blessed! There is only a one in 10,000 chance you will ever find it. This fun fact would have saved me countless hours as a child.
-Corned beef and cabbage is more of an American tradition than Irish. But it is still a delicious one and was quite popular in the 1940s!

I hope you enjoyed the little bit of Irish trivia today! Stay safe and warm!

Take care,

Friday, March 14, 2014

Women Spies of WWII: Nancy Wake

On March 25 at Noon in the Bedford Area we will have the last lecture of the winter season.  For women history’s month, we will be looking at a topic that is one of my personal favorites – women spies of World War II.  The lecture will be led by D-Day Memorial President, April Cheek-Messier.  Please feel free to join us for lunch at Noon for a wonderful discussion about several spies who were instrumental to the Allied efforts over the course of the war.  We look forward to seeing you there! 

Before the lecture, I would like to the introduce you Nancy Wake.  Wake was born in New Zealand on August 30, 1912 to Charles and Ella Wake.  Growing up she was the youngest of six children and fiercely independent.  When she was 16 years old, Wake ran away from home to work as a nurse.  After an aunt gave her some money, she set out to see the world starting with Europe.  Working as a journalist, Wake witnessed the rise of Hitler, Nazism, and anti-Semitism.  While in Vienna, she witnessed Nazi gangs randomly beating Jewish men and women in the streets.  These attacks fed her determination to work against the Nazis. 

Her time would come up soon as part of the French Resistance.  In 1939, Wake married Henri Fiocca, a wealthy French industrialist.  Their charmed life would be short lived; six months after the marriage Germany invaded France.  Shortly after the German occupation, Wake had moved from observing what was going on around her to actively participating in the Resistance.  At first, she was a courier, smuggling messages and food to the underground groups in Southern France.  Her husband helped her secure an ambulance which she used to transport refugees out of German occupied areas.  She obtained papers that allowed her to work in Vichy France and became deeply involved in moving prisoners of war and downed Allied pilots out of France to Spain. 
Wake's fake passport

Her missions put her life in constant danger.  By 1943, Wake was number 1 on the Gestapo’s most wanted list – they referred to her as the “White Mouse” because she was so good at evading capture.  The Resistance determined that Wake should leave France and go to Britain.  Escape was easier said than done.  It took six times to get across the Pyrenees, even being captured and interrogated for four days during one of the attempts.  In her escape, she had to leave behind her beloved husband.

Once in Britain, Wake became one of 39 women and 430 men in the French Section of the SOE.  She was trained in survival skills, silent killing, codes, radio operations, night parachuting, plastic explosives, rifles, pistols, and grenades.  In April 1944, Wake parachuted into central France with orders to locate and organize the bands of Maquis, establish ammunition and arms caches, and organize the Resistance in preparation for the D-Day invasion.  Wake led more than 7,000 men in guerrilla warfare against the German troops and facilities. 
When Paris was liberated on August 25, 2014, Wake walked her troops into Vichy to celebrate.  Once there she learned that her husband Henri had been captured, tortured, and executed when he refused to give them any information about the whereabouts of his wife.  After the war, she continued to work with the SOE. 

To learn more about her extraordinary life, be sure to join us on March 25!  

Until next time,