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Thursday, June 12, 2014

June 12, 2014: D-Day Stories: The 29th Infantry

[In honor of last week’s 70 anniversary of the D-Day invasion, in this series I’ll highlight different ways we’ve told the story of that fateful day and its aftermath. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and any stories you’d highlight or share, in comments!]
On one subtle but lasting way to memorialize war service and stories.
If you’ve seen either documentary footage from or feature films about the D-Day invasion and its aftermath, you’ve almost certainly seen a good bit of the 29th Infantry Division. This division, often known as either the Virginia 29th (because it is based out of Fort Belvoir) or the “Blue and Gray” (because it includes troops from Maryland and North Carolina as well as Virginia), was originally formed in 1917 and saw extensive service in World War I (and has continued to send troops to late 20th and early 21st conflicts), but is particularly significant for its prominent role in the D-Day landings: soldiers from the 29th formed a vanguard of the first wave of landings, suffering some of the most extreme casualties of any unit; and then advanced through France and into Germany, leading the Allied forces in that war-ending offensive.
So as American military units go, the 29th Infantry probably rivals only the 101st Airborne (the “Screaming Eagles”) and the 1st Infantry Division (the “Big Red One”) in the prominence of its contributions to World War II. But while the Big Red One was memorialized in the 1980 war film of the same name, and the 101st (or at least a famous company within it) in the miniseries Band of Brothers, the 29th hasn’t received its own starring role in such a mainstream cultural text (the soldiers in Saving Private Ryan might be part of the division, since they are among the first wave to land on D-Day, but as far as I know their division is never overtly named). As a result, it’s fair to ask whether the 29th is remembered much at all in our broad national conversations and narratives, outside of those with an interest in military history or the like. And while the division itself is partly just a historical entity, one that has evolved across nearly a century of different conflicts and stages, it is also a metonym for the thousands of individual soldiers who have served in its ranks, and whom we owe memory at the very least.
There is one complex but definite way that we do already remember the 29th Infantry Division, however: US Highway 29, which runs roughly north to south across the whole state of Virginia. As the history at the first link there indicates, the highway long predates World War II, and was known in part as Virginia 29 for much of its history; it also includes multiple other segments with their own historically complex names, such as the Seminole Trail and the Lee Highway. Yet in the early 1990s, the Virginia General Assembly officially designated the entire highway the “29th Infantry Division Memorial Highway,” in overt remembrance of the division’s World War II service. Does that mean that anyone driving along the highway will likewise remember the 29th? Not necessarily, although there are frequent signs that could at least lead an observant traveler to want to learn more. But I would also argue that the name itself represents a meaningful way to memorialize the division, a historic site that spans hundreds of miles and is as grounded in the state of Virginia and connected to local communities as has been the division that calls these mid-Atlantic states home. I can think of few more appropriate ways to remember a divison like the 29th.
Last D-Day story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other D-Day stories you’d highlight or share?

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