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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Walk in His Boots: Lt. Col. Lawrence Meeks

Ever want to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes? We’re guessing you wouldn’t want to go where these shoes went—across Omaha Beach in some of the fiercest fighting of WWII. But once we tell you the story of this well-worn pair of boots, you’ll gain new respect for the man who wore them and the men who fought alongside him.

Lt. Colonel Lawrence Meeks
The shoes, now in the collection of the National D-Day Memorial, were worn by Roanoke native Lt. Colonel Lawrence Meeks on June 6th, 1944. Meeks commanded the 3rd Battalion of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division—the soldiers chosen as the very spearhead of the invasion.
According to interviews done before Meeks’ death in 1995, his battalion was originally slated to land on the Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach, where the fighting would prove to be the thickest and the casualty rate the highest. But in a pre-invasion briefing, regimental commander Colonel Charles Canham of the 29th asked Meeks “Are your men ready to die?” Meeks replied “Hell no! But we are ready to do our jobs, sir!”

An honest and admirable answer, but reportedly not one taken well by Canham. Soon afterwards he changed the plan and reassigned Meeks’ battalion to land later in the first wave. This likely saved a lot of lives in his unit; but Meeks and his men still had plenty of opportunity to do their duty.
Meeks would later report that the landing craft on which he was approaching Omaha Beach hit a mine, and the ramp was blown off. The man next to him, a Captain Gaffney, was killed and died on Meeks’ shoulder. As the craft filled with water, Col. Meeks and his men had to swim for it; most had to shed their equipment and arms to keep from drowning. They arrived on Omaha Beach virtually unarmed.

Meeks' high top boots that he wore on Omaha Beach
Meeks gathered his surviving men and led them to the meager cover of the beach’s shingle. He would later realize that had his landing craft not sunk, and had they landed where they were supposed to, they likely would have all perished—there was a brutally lethal machine gun nest directly in their original path.

For his gallantry and leadership on June 6th, Meeks would be awarded the Silver Star. He also received a Bronze Star among other decorations for heroism.

Many months and harrowing experiences later, Meeks would receive his orders to go home. As he packed his belongings, he took special note of the high-top shoes he had worn across Omaha Beach and for many miles afterwards. Wanting to keep them, either for sentimental or historical purposes, he affixed a tag to the shoes reading “These shoes are the personal property of the undersigned. They were worn ashore by him on D-Day and it is his desire to keep them.”

Tag from Meeks' boots
In 1998 the shoes were donated by Col. Meeks’ son to the D-Day Memorial. Naturally, any such item with such a close link to the beaches of Normandy is a cherished relic for us. It can be awe-inspiring to take such treasures out of their archival storage and wonder that they could tell us if they could speak. Of course, they do speak to us in a sense, reminding us of the valor, fidelity and sacrifice of heroes like Lawrence Meeks. In our future Education Center/ Museum we plan to use such artifacts to continue to tell the compelling story of D-Day.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A 1940s Radio Show

What did the Bedford Boys hear on the radio the night before they shipped out for service in the regular army, service that eventually took them into the war and to Omaha Beach on D-day?

We can’t know the answer to that question, but we can surmise that it may well have been a live musical performance broadcast from the Roanoke studio of WDBJ radio. A little news, some corny humor, some advertising for sponsor Dr. Pepper, and a lot of great music would have been on the agenda.

On Saturday, April 23, the Java Brothers will recreate a live WDBJ radio broadcast from the 1940s such as departing National Guardsmen from our area may have heard. Ralph Berrier, whose grandfather and his twin brother (the Hall brothers) often performed live on WDBJ, headlines the group, and portrays the announcer, the beloved Roanoke icon “Cousin” Irv Sharp. In between songs, Berrier will read original homespun scripts extolling the medicinal value of Dr. Pepper, the sponsor of the shows in the 1940s. Check out a video of their performance below:

The Java Brother’s will perform the recreated broadcast (plus some of their more modern music) at the National D-Day Memorial in conjunction with the annual “Prelude to Invasion” event. Their performances will be at 11:30 and 2:00. Other activities include reenactors, a skit on the Bedford Boys, children’s activities, and special programs for Scout troops.

Regular admission fees to the Memorial apply, with discounts available for Boy and Girl Scout groups. For more information, call 800-351-DDAY or email

Hope to see you there!


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Prelude to Invasion: Meet the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Hello Friends!

As we are getting ready for our event, Prelude to Invasion: Meet the Allies, we want to share today about the role of the United Kingdom and its former colonies Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in World War II and D-Day.

United Kingdom

After realizing that his attempts at Nazi appeasement failed, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned and Winston Churchill succeeded him and lead the United Kingdom through World War II. He utilized the support of their commonwealth allies—Canada, Australia, India, and others—to maintain a presence in North Africa with the hopes of eventually striking Italy and eventually into the heart of the Axis powers. Germany attacked the UK through the sea cutting imports they needed to survive during the Battle of the Atlantic and also through the air with the Battle of Britain. Before the United States entered the war, they supported the UK militarily through the Lend-Lease Program.

British troops landing on D-Day
After Pearl Harbor, the US provided a needed boost to the UK after losing Malaysia and Singapore and the threat of a Japanese attack on Australia. Through the US and UK’s alliance, they were able to expel German and Italian forces from North Africa in May 1943, topple Mussolini’s regime in July 1943, and cross the English Channel to invade France in June 1944 marking the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. In the Pacific, the UK also lost Burma to the Japanese, but prevented a Japanese invasion of India.

Although the UK was victorious in World War II, it also brought about the end of their global empire. They lost influence over their overseas possession, and also lost the role of world leader to the US.


Initially, Canada, specifically Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, stood behind Britain’s policy of appeasement in the 1930’s against German aggression. However, after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, King himself had no doubt that in a great war involving Britain, Canada could not stand aside. Prior to D-Day, Canadian forces participated in the unsuccessful Dieppe Raid and defense of Hong Kong. They also participated in the Sicily campaign.

Canadian troops landing on Juno Beach on D-Day
On D-Day, 15,000 troops in Canada’s 3rd Infantry Division landed on Juno Beach under the operational control of the British 1st Corps. The Royal Canadian Air Force committed 39 strategic and tactical squadrons on D-Day flyer 230 sorties of the 1,200 total mounted by Bomber Command. Nearly 10,000 officers and men (more than six times the strength of the Royal Canadian Navy in 1939) served aboard the 126 Canadian fighting ships, 44 landing craft among them, participating in Operation Neptune on D-Day.

Between 1939 and 1945 more than one million Canadian men and women served full-time in the armed services—much more than one would expect for a nation that had a population of 11 million. More than 43,000 were killed. Despite the bloodshed, the war against Germany and the Axis powers reinvigorated Canada's industrial base, elevated the role of women in the economy, paved the way for Canada's membership in NATO, and left Canadians with a legacy of proud service and sacrifice.


Australia declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939 in coalition with Great Britain shortly after the German invasion of Poland. Around this time, women in Australia compromised the majority of the working class with paid employment. Throughout World War II, Australia fought in the European and Pacific theaters alongside the U.K. and the United States with almost one million men in their armed forces. For the first time since being a British colony, Australia was directly attacked by the Japanese. On D-Day, Australia contributed over 3,000 military personnel who served under British command in the Royal Navy, Army, and Air Force.

During World War II, Australia experienced the greatest prison break in history at Cowra, New South Wales. The Prisoner of War Camp No.12 contained POWs from Japan and Italy. On the night of August 4th, 1944, over one thousand Japanese POWs broke out of the prison believing that dying while attempting to escape would wipe out the shame of capture. 231 Japanese POWs were killed and 107 wounded. Another 45 died by suicide or in the process of being captured in the following days. In order to prevent Japanese retribution against Australian POWs, the incident was kept secret for over six years. Like the United States, World War II advanced Australia’s economy and industrialization allowing it to progress to a more cosmopolitan society.

New Zealand

New Zealand joined World War II when Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939. Economic and defensive considerations also motivated the New Zealand involvement — reliance on Britain meant that threats to Britain became threats to New Zealand too in terms of economic and defensive ties. New Zealand provided personnel, equipment and supplies for the British forces in addition to deploying their own divisions to aid in the Allied effort.

Spitfire Pilot from New Zealand
About 30,000 members of the Royal New Zealand Air Force were in Operation Overlord. Squadrons for New Zealand’s fighters and bombers flew in every phase, the former performing with particular efficacy above Omaha Beach on D-Day. Some 4,000 officers and men of the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve also took part in Operation Neptune. On D-Day many of New Zealand’s junior officers commanded either landing craft delivering troops to the British beaches or one of the numerous motor torpedo boats interdicting German E-boats.

The Second World War was New Zealand's greatest national effort to date. About 140,000 men and women were dispatched overseas to serve in fighting formations-- 104,000 in New Zealand’s armed forces, the rest in the British or New Zealand naval or air forces. In March 1944, there were just under 70,000 New Zealand personnel serving overseas. New Zealand’s casualties during WWII numbered 11,928.

While each fought as an independent nation, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand supported the United Kingdom from the beginning of the war and fought alongside each other as a part of the Allied Expeditionary Force on the beaches of Normandy. It wasn’t just the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who demonstrated fidelity on D-Day, but also the countries of the Allied Expeditionary Force.

Until Next Time,


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Some Necks: A Caricature of the Allied Leaders

Hello Again, Friends!

In keeping with our theme of Prelude: Meet the Allies, this week’s post by John showcases a unique print of the Allied leaders. Check it out below:

Delve into the growing collection of artifacts, photos, documents at artwork of the D-Day Memorial, and you don’t have to look very far to find an unexpected treasure. Every piece tells a story, though some stories are easier to reconstruct than others and many are lost in the shadows of history. But every so often you’ll run across one of those pieces that at first glance gets little attention…a second glance makes you think “what is that, anyway?”…and a little digging reveals a fascinating glimpse into our WWII past.

Arthur Szyk photographed in the 1930s
Such was the case with this compelling print by a little known artist named Arthur Szyk. Although not as well-known as other contemporaries like Bill Maldlin or Norman Rockwell, Szyk’s work still evokes powerful responses and stand as plaintive cries against the tyranny of the Axis.

Szyk (pronounced “Shick”) was born in Russian-occupied Poland in 1894 to a well-off Jewish family in Lodz. That cosmopolitan city was an artistic center for Poland; and young Arthur began early to exhibit signs of impressive talents. His training, however, was interrupted by WWI, when he was drafted into the Russian army, and then by service to the newly independent Poland in the short-lived Polish-Soviet border war afterwards.

Between the wars Szyk’s art began to win acclaim and was featured in major exhibitions in Paris and London. When Hitler came to power in Germany, threatening both his native Poland and his fellow European Jews, Szyk was one of the earliest artistic critics of Hitler—perhaps prophetically. For instance, in an illustrated Haggadah (1932-38, arguably his magnum opus), he portrayed blond Egyptians wearing swastikas as they chased the Israelites through the Red Sea. Perhaps he intended a subtle, portentous warning—things didn’t end well for the Egyptians.

In 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and Arthur Szyk intensified his one-man artistic crusade against the Axis. Soon after, the artist moved to New York, perhaps intending to use his talents to convince the isolationist America to enter the war.

"Some Necks"
His works, especially his caricatures, were vivid, meticulously detailed, and anything but subtle. He made no bones about his disdain for the Axis enemy, and the American public came to embrace his work. Whether published in books, on posters, on magazine covers, or shown on exhibition, his art featured unmistakable themes: freedom is better than tyranny; justice is better than oppression; the Allies were the good guys in an epic crusade against the contemptible monsters on the Axis side.

The print in our collection, dated 1942, is an unusual example, in that it portrays the Allied leaders—most of his work featured only lurid caricatures of the Axis dictators. Titled “Some Necks,” it shows the Big Three Allied leaders as intrepid heroes, destined for and deserving of victory. Note that any contradiction between Stalin’s bloodthirsty tyranny and Shyk’s political idealism is a subject studiously avoided.

The title comes from a speech made by Churchill during a visit to Canada in December 1941: “When I warned them that Britain would fight on alone whatever they did, [the defeatist French generals] told their Prime Minister and his divided Cabinet, ‘In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.’ Some chicken! Some neck!”

In "Some Necks," Stalin is portrayed flinging away Hitler.
Szyk portrays Churchill as the stately, dignified British aristocrat; Stalin is a resolute Georgian man of the soil; while Roosevelt confidently assumes the role of the grandfatherly cowboy sheriff. Churchill, with an unmissable V for Victory on his ascot, holds aloft a dwarfish Mussolini clearly labeled “Flop.” Stalin disdainfully prepares to fling away a grotesque, screaming Hitler. Meanwhile an unconcerned FDR, flashing his own V sign with two fingers, holds a sign reading “Wait” against a charging Tojo, while he stares self-assuredly into a better future. Perhaps it was intended as Szyk’s endorsement of Roosevelt’s “Europe First” strategy.

Szyk lived to see the defeat of his dreaded enemy, and continued to work until his death in 1951, always taking the opportunity to speak out for political causes, the Jewish people, and the rights of other ethnic minorities (including African Americans). After his death he largely faded into obscurity, but Szyk has enjoyed a bit of a revival in recent years, with major exhibitions of his work and several publications. Across the decades, Szyk still speaks to us that freedom and justice are superior to tyranny and oppression; that such lofty ideals are still worth defending.

We have a lot of stories to tell through our collection at the NDDMF. We look forward to sharing them all.