D-Day Remembrance: Students visit Normandy; President Falwell takes part in national memorial event
A group of 10 Liberty University students and two staff members on an LU Send trip to France with the Rawlings School of Divinity attended a special 75th anniversary ceremony at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on Thursday morning to pay homage to the Allied troops who fought on D-Day. The group heard from President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron and visited the American cemetery that overlooks Omaha Beach.
Tim Yonts, associate director for LU Serve and an adjunct professor, led the trip. He said being part of the anniversary event at the actual site was a “surreal experience.”
“As a military veteran myself, the day was especially meaningful,” Yonts said. “But no student will ever be able to see again what they were able to see today (for the 75th anniversary). That really sank in with them that this was their once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The D-Day landing of American, British, and Canadian troops, known as Operation Overlord, was the largest single amphibious assault in history. About 10,000 Allied casualties incurred on June 6, 1944, including more than 6,000 members of the U.S. Armed Forces; 4,413 Allied soldiers were killed.
D-Day and World War II veterans were also honored in a national ceremony held close to campus. The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va., about 25 minutes from Liberty, hosted “The Final Salute” ceremony, which featured many guest speakers, including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, and several military, political, and local leaders, including Liberty President Jerry Falwell.
An aerial tribute of World War II-era aircraft coordinated by retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Dave Young, former dean of Liberty’s School of Aeronautics, set the stage for the events that spanned throughout the day at the national memorial site. An Aeronca L-3 plane recently restored by students from Liberty’s aviation maintenance technician program was on display adjacent to the memorial’s trademark 44-foot-tall Overlord arch.
Veterans were introduced individually and paraded across the bridge at the base of the memorial before a flyover of contemporary U.S. Air Force jets. “Taps” was played during a “Missing Man” flyover, an aerial salute commemorating the life of a warrior killed in combat and symbolizing his ascent to heaven.
Less than a month after delivering the keynote address at Liberty’s 46th Commencement, Vice President Pence applauded the veterans for fighting for freedom in America and around the world.
“You are among the greatest Americans who have ever lived; you are the pride of our nation, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts,” Pence said.
He also honored those who sacrificed their lives during the invasion, including those from the small town of Bedford, which suffered the highest casualty rate per capita of any community in the nation during the invasion — 19 died on the shores of Normandy.
“God bless the Bedford Boys,” Pence said. “As a tribute to those who gave their last full measure of devotion 75 years ago … we say one more time, ‘Thank you for your service, thank you for our freedom, and God bless the United States of America.’”
In reverence of the day’s tribute, the other guest speakers were not introduced, but took turns reading excerpts from writings, speeches, and stories that recounted that perilous time that changed the course of history.
President Falwell, who has lived in Bedford County for many years, read an excerpt from the journal of Rev. R.M. Hickey, chaplain of the North Shore Regiment that invaded Juno Beach.
The lineup of about 25 speakers also included George Patton “Pat” Waters, grandson of U.S. Gen. George Patton, who read from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s D-Day order; former U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte; U.S. Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.); and U.S. Sen. Steve Newman (R-Va.), who cited President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s D-Day prayer.
Falwell said he has heard many inspiring stories of the Bedford Boys. Next door to his farm is an old school house that was once the home of Bedford Boy Capt. Taylor Fellers.
“I was honored to be here and it had special meaning to me; it’s so close to home,” Falwell said. “Those veterans who went over and fought and died were fighting against the Nazis who were just brutal and authoritarian. Unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot of similarities with progressive establishment politicians in both parties in the United States today, so we’ve got to be forever vigilant not to forget what they were fighting because we’ve got the same battle going on now. When I see all of the anti-Semitism around the country and the move toward progressivism and authoritarianism, it reminds me of the Nazis they were fighting.”
Liberty offered bus shuttle service from the parking lots to the monument and opened Williams Stadium for a live simulcast of the ceremony.