Cover Story

In Honor of Sacrifice

by Tom Wilmoth, Contributing Writer

Thurston Howes Photo

The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford serves as a gathering place for veterans to honor their own and for civilians to pay tribute to the sacrifice of service.  

When the National Guard Company A unit based in Bedford, Va., was called up to active duty in 2003, the unit decided to mobilize for departure from the

That decision was certainly appropriate.

The last time Company A had been called up was during World War II. During that deployment the Bedford unit fought in the D-Day invasion and the town lost more men per capita than any other community in the nation. Thankfully, when Company A arrived back from Afghanistan in 2005, everyone returned. The parade in honor of Company A’s return in 2005 also included a trip around the D-Day memorial as a tribute to the unit’s World War II predecessors.

Indeed, the Nation­­­al D-Day Me­morial serves as a rallying point for veterans of all ages and for those who support them. And it pro­vides an opportunity to remind visitors of all ages of the sacrifices that have been made for them.

“A trip to the memorial would be a great opportunity for a family to not only recognize what it took to end World War II, but also a great way to see how one town’s struggle is really symbolic of all the communities, large and small, who answered the nation’s call to arms,” says Joe D. Banner, associate for special projects with the National D-Day Memorial Foundation.

The memorial draws visitors from all over, including an annual visit from members of Rolling Thunder, a veteran's organization of motorcycle enthusiasts.

The memorial serves as a gathering place every Veterans Day, where soldiers come together to share memories and those whom they served take the time to shake their hands and offer thanks. It’s a place where on Memorial Day generations gather at a bronze battlefield grave-marker to leave flowers, mementos and gratitude. Perched atop the highest hill in Bedford, the National D-Day Memorial, on a daily basis, tells the story of great sacrifice and great valor.

 “It’s a way not only to memorialize those who went in on D-Day, but to honor those who are serving today,” Banner explains. “A good memorial tells a story, and we tell a story about the most important event in the 20th century. The mission is to make sure that story and the lessons and legacy of the story remain clear and meaningful to everyone — the present and future generations.”

That story is well documented. On June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen executed the invasion of Normandy. Months of careful planning and training went into preparing these citizen soldiers for the largest land, air and sea assault the world had ever known. The force of 12 nations crossed the English Channel and landed soldiers on five beaches along the Norman coast known as “Fortress Europe.” Stormy weather and enemy fire took a terrible toll, particularly from the first wave to come ashore. By nightfall, Allied soldiers held the beaches firmly, but more than 4,600 had lost their lives in the effort.

Nineteen “Bedford Boys” lost their lives in that invasion, a devastating blow to this town of 3,200 citizens.

The memorial, officially dedicated on June 6, 2001, by President George W. Bush, will draw its one-millionth visitor sometime this year. Included among those visitors are some 70,000 schoolchildren from nine different states who have attended the memorial’s “Fidelity, Valor and Sacrifice” program.

Teaching our youth is important, Banner says, because it’s estimated that between 1,200 and 1,500 World War II veterans pass away each day. “It’s increasingly important while they’re still among us to not only thank and honor them for their contribution, but for them to know that after their generation passes their story is still going to be told and not forgotten … They are a resource that, as we all know, is leaving us.”

Banner himself was awestruck by the memorial when he first visited it five years ago.

Having served in the Army, he was visiting family in North Carolina when someone suggested he visit the memorial. “I just felt moved by the mission and what they were trying to do,” Banner said. So touched was he, in fact, that he moved to the area to spend a year writing about the memorial. Somewhere along the way, he was approached by the foundation and asked if he wanted a job.

Meeting and working with the veterans helps provide perspective on his job. Banner wants to represent the generation of World War II veterans so their story lives on. “Our mission is to make sure they are not lost,” he says of the veterans’ stories.

The National D-Day Memorial offers annual programs, celebrations, remembrances and special events. It offers walking tours and shuttle-cart tours each day. Those tours highlight the planning and preparations for D-Day, as well as the execution of the assault. The nine-acre monument is situated on the 88-acre memorial grounds.

The monument captures the complete D-Day experience. Three plazas communicate specific stages in the invasion, from planning to battle to victory.

Visitors begin their tour in the Richard S. Reynolds Sr. Garden , where they view a bronze 7½-foot statue of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Leaving the garden, visitors traverse Gray Plaza , a large, blue place symbolizing the crossing of the English Channel . They then find themselves facing a landing-zone scene, complete with landing craft, obstacles, simulated enemy fire and bronze soldiers struggling towards shore.

Estes Plaza , featuring the striking Victory Arch, is the final stop on the tour. Standing a sym­bolic 44 feet, 6 inches tall, the arch is a classical tribute to the Allies’ success. Framed by the arch is a bronze battlefield grave marker, a silent reminder that success requires sacrifice and freedom is never free. The legacy of D-Day is also celebrated in the entrance leading to the monument. “This memorial is for anyone who enjoys freedom today. It’s a story that started 63 years ago and yet we still see the effects today,” notes Banner.

As time moves forward, the memorial grows. Soon, portrait busts of Eisenhower’s “six lieutenants,” the staff members who helped plan the invasion, will be added. More pieces are to be added to the beach scene and eventually there will be components added representing the Air Corps and Navy. Long-term plans call for construction of an educational facility.  In addition, there is a wall listing the names of every person killed on D-Day. The memorial foundation is the only organization to have compiled such a list.

“We want people to realize this is a memorial to not only that one event, but to anyone who has worn the uniform, and has answered the nation’s call or made themselves available. We make it a point to honor all of our veterans,” Banner adds. 

Visitors are moved, many to tears. There are stories of inspiration, closure and remembrance. “We had a sixth-grader who took a tour and the next day he approached a teacher at school with $130 that he had saved to buy a video-game system. Instead he donated every bit of it to the memorial,” Banner recalls. “When they asked him why, he said, ‘Well, I want to be a Marine when I grow up.’ ”

To the memorial supporters and staff, that’s what it’s all about: inspiring members of the younger generations and honoring the older ones. “It really does reach across the generations,” Banner says of the National D-Day Memorial.

The Road to Bedford

The National D-Day Memorial is located at the interchange of Rt. 460 and Rt. 122 in the city of Bedford, between Roanoke and Lynchburg. Access from U.S. 460 to both Interstate 81 and Rt. 29 is within 25 miles of the memorial. It is convenient to various lodging, dining and shopping facilities. Several other attractions, historic sites and museums are also nearby. Smith Mountain Lake is located within 20 miles of the memorial. For more information about Bedford and the surrounding area, contact the Bedford Welcome Center at (540) 587-5681.

The memorial is open daily between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. except for New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. During the winter months prospective visitors should call (800) 351-3329 before visiting. Admission is $5 for adults; $3 for children ages 6 to 16. There is no charge for children under 6 years old. Guided walking tours and cart tours occur throughout the day. The tours last about 45 minutes. Walking tours are $2; cart tours are $3. Tickets may be purchased at the information desk. The Memorial is 100 percent wheelchair accessible. Group and special tours may be pre-arranged. Special events and celebrations are planned throughout the year.

For more information, contact the National D-Day Memorial Foundation at (540) 586-3329, (800) 351-DDAY or visit the Web site at www.dday.org.  

 

Home ] Up ] [ Cover Story ] Food For Thought ] Reader Recipes ] Down Home ] Say Cheese! ] Garden Muse ] Natural Wonders ] Editorial ] Caught in the Web ]