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.