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One D-Day veteran still holds the baton

June 06, 2010
  • Ralph E. Shank, 92, helped make the 29th Infantry Division band during WWII.
Ralph E. Shank, 92, helped make the 29th Infantry Division band during WWII.

Most weren't there June 6, 1944, but they know the value of that day.

Hundreds stood Sunday morning at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford for those who fell for our freedom.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen gave the keynote speech, but the one keying up the notes is 92-year-old Ralph E. Shank.

Shank said before he picked up the baton Sunday to guest conduct the band.

"I'm always afraid that I'm going to screw up or something like that," said Shank before he picked up the baton Sunday to guest conduct the D-Day band. "Oh, I wouldn't say I'm too excited. It's nice to get back."

He'll shrug is shoulders, laugh and say, "I don't know anything." Shank is probably the humblest band conductor you will ever meet.

"These are the band," he pointed out in an old, framed picture. In the sepia-tinted photo, he stands at the midpoint of the long line of band members. "The 116th Infantry band that was conducted into federal service."

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During WWII, Shank held the baton to help make up the 29th Infantry Division band.

"You played for IKE, didn't you?" nudged a younger man in uniform.

"What?" said Shank.

"Eisenhower."

"Oh yeah," Shank shrugs.

That's not the only special concert with an impressive back story.

"We played for the first parade on German soil by American troops," said Shank. He smiles, pauses and then starts to recompose the story.

"We didn't have any instruments so we did guard duty. We lost the instruments in the invasion," said Shank. "But our general asked for us to play, so he made arrangements through the Red Cross to get us some basic instruments."

The band grew and at one point he was the conductor for more than 100 musicians.

In 1947, he came home to Martinsville where he started the high school's band program.

"I started on the trumpet. I played a long time," said Shank. Want him to play you a few notes? "No, I've lost my pucker," he laughs.

As for conducting, he's certainly still got it.

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