“In Tribute To The Valor, Fidelity, And Sacrifices”
I was traveling through Virginia recently when I came upon a road sign on I-81 near Bedford, Virginia that indicated the presence of the National D-Day Memorial. My first thought was to wonder why a national memorial to such a pivotal event in the course of WWII would be located in Bedford rather than in Washington, DC or some other capital. I decided to find out.
When I was a boy, memories of WWII were fresh and close to the surface, the war having ended just ten years before I was born. And celebrations and commemorations of certain dates were common. Every school child knew that V-E Day, celebrating the end of the European phase of the war, happened on May 8. They knew that victory over Japan was celebrated on V-J Day, September 2. And everyone commemorated the tremendous efforts and loss of life that occurred at the onset of the Normandy Invasion on June 6, known as D-Day. If you didn't recall the exact dates, they were printed on every calendar on every desk and wall in America. Along with Pearl Harbor Day on December 7, they were days to be remembered.
But in the second decade of the twenty-first century, we've largely forgotten them. I looked at every calendar in my house and office. They're not there anymore. And asking about them of anyone under the age of 65 or so will likely result in blank looks. Such things are politically incorrect these days, I suppose. Or, perhaps, merely irrelevant to generations that have moved on. I wonder how many people pass the same sign I did and wonder not why it's there but rather what it is in the first place. As the warriors of “the Greatest Generation” fade away, the moments that shaped and defined their lives and their world are deemed relics of an uninteresting past. Sad but true.
It seems Bedford, Virginia was chosen for the site of the National D-Day Memorial because the tiny town suffered the greatest per capita loss of life on the beaches of Normandy of any town in the United States. Bedford's 1944 population was about 3,200. The town sent a company of soldiers, Company A, to serve in the 29th Infantry Division of the 116th Infantry Regiment. Thirty young men were in that company when it landed at Omaha Beach. By day's end, nineteen had perished, a huge loss for a small community.
The idea for a memorial had been talked over and kicked around for quite some time, but the push for actual development came about after the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day in 1994. Occupying eighty-eight acres of land overlooking the town of Bedford and with stunning views of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains, the National D-Day Memorial officially opened on June 6, 2001.
The foundation that administers the memorial is a non-profit organization and the memorial itself was built primarily from donations and funds raised by the original organizing committee that formed in 1988 and by the subsequent non-profit organization. Cartoonist Charles Schulz, himself a WWII veteran who served in Europe as part of the 20th Armored Division, was a major contributor to the memorial project and volunteered to head an early fund-raising campaign. The memorial continues to be supported by contributions made to the foundation.
As it stands today, the National D-Day Memorial is comprised of three plazas representing the planning, execution, and victory phases of the D-Day invasion. Reynold's Garden, laid out in the shape of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force combat patch, represents the planning stage.
Visitors then move on to Gray Plaza to experience the landing and fighting stage of the operation. A reflecting pool at the center of the plaza includes beach obstacles and vivid sculptures of soldiers wading and struggling ashore from the ramp of a Higgins craft, accentuated by intermittent jets of water spraying up to represent the gunfire under which these brave men made the landing. A necrology wall curves around this central plaza containing the names of more than 9,000 men who lost their lives at Normandy. US losses are displayed on the western aspect of the wall and the other Allied losses are seen on the eastern side.
The third plaza, Estes Plaza, celebrates the Allied victory under the massive Overlord Arch, “Overlord” being the code name under which the invasion was conducted. The arch is 44 feet, 6 inches tall and bears the date June 6, 1944 at the bottom and the word “Overlord”at the top. The twelve flags of the nations that served in the Allied Expeditionary Force (AEF) surround the arch.
Plaques, sculptures, and artifacts throughout the memorial provide educational information on every facet of the operation, detailing facts about events, personnel, and equipment. Gardens dot the landscape, offering opportunities for quiet reflection surrounded by the beauty of the near distant mountains.
As I said, I kind of stumbled upon the memorial while traveling someplace else. But it is definitely a destination in its own right. It's a little off the beaten path. Once you exit I-81, you've got about twenty miles to go, but it's easy four-lane travel and the route is well-marked. Allow yourself at least a couple of hours to take advantage of everything the site has to offer. In addition to the permanent displays, there are frequent programs and events held at the memorial, especially on the anniversary date and on holidays such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
From their website: “The national D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia exists in tribute to the valor, fidelity, and sacrifices of the Allied Forces on D-Day, June 6, 1944.”
Besides the monuments on the grounds, the National D-Day Memorial Foundation is involved in conducting an oral history program and a participant and identification program for D-Day veterans.
One of my uncles fought in the Battle of Normandy, although he was not involved in the initial D-Day invasion. Still, his recounting of the carnage he witnessed when he arrived shortly after conveyed much of the horror and valor that occurred there. Decades after the war, his eyes would tear up at the memories. It was not something he talked about often. But it should not be forgotten. It should never be forgotten.
The National D-Day Memorial is located at 3 Overlord Circle, Bedford, Virginia with a mailing address of P.O. Box 77, Bedford, Virginia 24523. Visit the website at http://www.dday.org/ for comprehensive information on fees, hours of operation and phone/e-mail contact information.