Roy never got to shake his brother’s hand.

Melissa Davis | Special to the Fort Leavenworth Lamp

BEDFORD, Va. — Twins Ray and Roy Stevens grew up doing everything together, including serving in the National Guard company of Bedford, Va., their hometown, which activated for World War II in 1941. On the morning of June 6, 1944, Ray wanted to shake Roy’s hand before boarding separate landing crafts headed to the Normandy coast. Roy refused, saying that he would shake his brother’s hand in Vierville-sur-Mer, France, later that day.

Roy never got to shake his brother’s hand.

Ray and Roy Stevens belonged to Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, often referred to as the “Bedford Boys.” The unit was chosen to be the first infantry ashore on the Dog Green section of Omaha Beach as the invasion of Europe began. In the first few minutes of the landings, the small town of Bedford, with a population of less than 4,000, lost 19 soldiers — more per capita than any other community in the United States.

In 1987, local D-Day veteran Bob Slaughter formed a committee to build a memorial to remember the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of D-Day in Bedford. On a hill overlooking the town, the layout of the National D-Day Memorial tells the story of Operation Overlord beginning with the planning and ending with the liberation of Europe. On June 6, 2001, then-President George W. Bush dedicated the memorial in front of a crowd estimated to be five times larger than the population of Bedford.

This year, the memorial commemorated “The Final Salute: D-Day Plus 75 years,” honoring World War II veterans for the last big anniversary they could attend.

Speakers included Vice President Mike Pence, who paid tribute to the veterans attending.

“Gentlemen, you honor us with your presence, and I want to assure you, we see you not just as you are, but as you were,” Pence said. “And seeing that, we marvel at the courage that you showed as young men when you stormed the beaches and faced the shadow of death.”

The highlight of the commemoration was the roll call of all World War II veterans in attendance. Each name was read, along with details of where and how the veteran served, as they were escorted by actively serving military members across the bridge at the memorial and greeted by the official party. Many of the veterans, all in their 90s, walked unaided through the ceremony, while others used walkers or rode in wheelchairs.

As he walked by, Marine veteran Theodore Hayman grabbed my hands and said in a voice full of emotion, “This is our last time here, you know. This is it.”

The commemoration also had readings from the letters and diaries of allied military and civilians about the D-Day landings. The readers included members of Congress, serving and retired general and flag officers, presidents of corporations, and relatives of general officers from World War II. As has been the tradition in past D-Day commemorations, none of the readers were announced by name, focusing on the words instead.

Throughout the program, historic and modern war planes flew over, including the B-17 Flying Fortress “Memphis Belle,” a P-51 Mustang, an F4U Corsair and a B-52 Stratofortress. Bands played throughout the day, featuring patriotic songs and music from the 1940s.

After the main ceremony, there was a smaller one at the statue, “Homage,” which represents Roy Stevens as he finds his brother Ray’s grave in France several days after D-Day. Each June 6, Ash Rothlein, 95-year-old D-Day veteran, places his Legion of Honor award on the statue to honor the Stevens brothers and all D-Day veterans and asks those assembled to repeat “We will never forget.”

The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va., is about a three-hour drive southwest of Washington, D.C. It is a non-profit completely supported by private donations. The memorial is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the Bedford Area Welcome Center at the foot of the memorial. For more information, visit www.dday.org.

Editor’s note: Melissa Davis is a former member of the Fort Leavenworth Lamp staff who now is the educational resources librarian at the Von Canon Library, Southern Virginia University.