For years we’ve driven Rt. 81 in Virginia, passing the signs for the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, swearing that this is an important site to visit. Finally we made it—with no regrets for the twenty mile drive through beautiful Virginia countryside to Bedford, VA. Proportionately, this small community with a 1944 population of 3,200, suffered the nation’s severest losses. This sad claim to fame caused Congress to warrant the establishment of the National D-Day Memorial here. On June 6, 2001, D-Day’s 57th anniversary, President George W. Bush formally dedicated the memorial.
It is a monument to the valor, fidelity, and sacrifice to those who served, but also it is an education center for those who should learn from this momentous event.
There is a self-guided walking tour and an excellent, informative brochure, but Rob and I took the riding tour because we wanted a knowledgeable guide who would elaborate. We were sold tickets by a woman whose husband was a WWII veteran, whose son is a veteran, and whose grandson just returned from Afghanistan.
Our tour guide was a proud WWII veteran dedicated to keeping this event alive in the minds of those too young to remember. In addition to explaining the planning behind the creation of the Memorial as well as the contributions of people like Tom Hanks (who has stated that filming Saving Private Ryan was a seminal moment in his life), he told us about the Bedford men who fought—and died—on D-Day. He knew most of them. I spent much of the tour trying very hard to keep the lump in my throat from turning into a fountain of tears. When we did leave him at the end of the tour, the flow did begin. This memorial is extremely personal, and it does not sugarcoat, in any way, the nature of war, how difficult it is to maintain freedom, and how impossible it is to do so without ultimate sacrifice.
Although there are many tangential exhibits, the Memorial is essentially three separate sections on rising levels. The first level is an English garden where General Dwight David Eisenhower met with his advisors and allies to plan the invasion. The flowers in the garden, just beginning to bloom at our visit, form the design on his uniform patch (SHAEF—Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force). In the week following our visit, a full free-standing figure of Eisenhower was to be installed. The pillars we saw were to be topped with busts of the advisors. It is an ironically peaceful and beautiful place, so far from the plans hatched that spring.
The middle level is representative of the landing and battlefield. There is an invasion pool with obstacles, sculptures of soldiers dying, struggling ashore, and helping one another in unity and brotherhood. There is the sound of gunfire emanating from bunkers above the landing sites and causing bursts of explosion in the water. It is awesomely and horribly powerful and gripping. It is really a depiction of hell on earth.
We rise to Victory Plaza and the Overlord Arch. The Arch is exactly 44 feet, 6 inches high, representing June 6, 1944. Flags of the twelve allied nations wave in the breeze. Inscribed on the granite surrounding the arch are the names of the five beaches in Normandy.
I’ve shared only some of the Memorial. There’s so much more, including a necrology wall, the only place listing the names of the more than 4,000 dead. Go to the website, and if you can, make your pilgrimage to this site. If you’re interested in history, the website also offers links to many sites.
There are fees here, a small price to pay. Admission is $5.00, a guided walking tour is $2.00, and a riding tour—in a golf cart—is $3.00. The entire site is wheelchair accessible. Allow at least two hours to view everything. We were there over three because there is so much to see and to read. It is impossible to go quickly because there is a solemnity that is impossible to miss.