written by Mary Klepper
My father recently had to stop driving, so I’ve been taking him to points south of Baltimore to visit his siblings. In July, my cousin mentioned the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, only 30 miles from his home in Roanoke, Virginia.
I was especially excited to see the memorial, especially since I had gone with the VBC to Conneaut, Ohio, for the enormous D-Day reenactment.
I had heard of the “Bedford Boys,” but never knew the full story.
Hundreds of thousands landed on Normandy on the morning of June 6, 1944. Among them were 44 soldiers, sailors, and airmen from Bedford, Virginia. Thirty-seven of these young men belonged to Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division. Thirty-one loaded up and headed for Omaha Beach in the first wave. The others belonged to supply details and arrived later.
One landing craft struck an obstacle and sank, stranding dozens far from shore, including five Bedford Boys. The remaining 26 successfully reached Omaha Beach, where 16 were killed and four wounded within a matter of minutes. Three others were unaccounted for and later presumed Killed in Action (KIA).
Another Bedford soldier was KIA on Omaha Beach with Company F, bringing Bedford’s D-Day fatalities to a total of 20. With its wartime population of 3,200, Bedford suffered the country’s worst D-Day loss per capita.
“A twenty-one-year-old woman called Elizabeth Teass operated the teletype machine,” said British journalist/author Alex Kershaw (The Bedford Boys: One American Town’s Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice):
She switched on the teletype machine at 8:30 a.m. on the 16th of July, 1944, and nine names of classmates of hers, boys she’d played stickball with in the 1930s, came chattering through the teletype machine. She waited for them to stop, and they didn’t. They just carried on and on. Each name was a separate tragedy, a separate trauma, and she knew every family, as did everybody in that town of 3,000 people.
Bedford would lose over 100 men during WWII.
Even though the National D-Day Memorial Foundation was created in 1988, there was no real interest in a memorial until the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994.
The nation has D-Day Veteran Bob Slaughter of Roanoke to thank for this amazing memorial. He served with Company D of the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division, landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was wounded twice in France. Bob noticed there was little knowledge of D-Day and worried his brothers-in-arms who died in Normandy would be forgotten. He and President Clinton walked Omaha Beach for the 50th anniversary. Soon after, Slaughter’s idea of a Memorial got off the ground when Senator John Warner (VA) sponsored an amendment to The National Defense Authorization Act:
The memorial to be constructed by the National D-Day Memorial Foundation in Bedford, Virginia, is hereby designated as a national memorial to be known as the ‘National D-Day Memorial’. The memorial shall serve to honor the members of the Armed Forces of the United States who served in the invasion of Normandy, France, in June 1944.
Like our other national monuments and memorials, this one was built without federal dollars. The Foundation started fundraising, with the help of Snoopy.
WWII Veteran Charles M. Schultz donated $1 million and served as Campaign Chair, working to secure another $11 million.
The city of Bedford donated over 50 acres of land up on a hill with beautiful, unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains.
Work on the memorial began on Veterans Day 1997. It is built on Hallowed Ground – a mix of Normandy Sand and Bedford Soil.
Then in 1998, early donor Stephen Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” hit theaters. The film, which won five Oscars (although not Best Picture), was centered on D-Day. The story hit home in communities across the country.
On June 6, 2001, Bob Slaughter stood beside George W. Bush as the President accepted the memorial on behalf of the American people:
You have raised a fitting memorial to D-Day, and you have put it in just the right place. Not on a battlefield of war, but in a small Virginia town. A place like so many others, that were home to the men and women who helped liberate a continent. Our presence here, fifty-seven years removed from that event, gives testimony to how much was gained and how much was lost.
The first thing you see is the Overlord Arch. Its imposing height of 44.5’ high represents the date June 6, 1944 and celebrates the breaching of Fortress Europe. The black and white stripes represent the alternating stripes that made Allied Aircraft easily identifiable. The flags of the 12 Allied nations fly with the United States on the left, then in alphabetical order, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, and the United Kingdom.
Throughout the Memorial, the visitor is reminded of the qualities of the soldiers of the Allied Expeditionary Force: Valor, Fidelity, Sacrifice.
As you go down into the memorial, there is a stunning beach scene; perhaps even overwhelming to the D-Day Veteran. The detail was incredible, but it was the simulation of the fighting that was shocking. It wasn’t gunfire; rather it was the “ping” of the bullet or the grenade hitting water. I took several videos but was able to capture the “shots” in some photos. In them, you can see where the water is shot up out of the nozzle.
The “gunfire” hits water to the right of the hedgehog.
In this beach scene, you can see the granite Higgins Boat, the soldier protecting his rifle, the soldier killed and the soldiers making their way across the beach.
When I first saw this relief, I naturally assumed this paid tribute to the 2nd Ranger Battalion who scaled Pointe du Hoc. The plaque corrected me.
“Scaling the Wall”
Sculptor Jim Brothers was inspired by the Allies breaching Hitler’s “impregnable” Fortress Europe.
Surrounding the plaza floor behind the Higgins boat are the names of the 4,415 Allied service members KIA on D-Day. The 2,502 Americans are listed on one side; the 1,913 Allies on the other. Like the Vietnam Wall, there is an app to find a specific name. The plaza itself is split into five segments representing Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.
Towards the rear of the memorial in the English garden is a statue of the Supreme Commander of Operation Overlord. General Eisenhower is surrounded by busts of his main subordinates including Omar Bradley and Bernard “Monty” Montgomery.
“The Supreme Commander”
It’s a marvelous setting and as I looked at it from the front, I realized what I would see if I went around the back. I hope others realize when they visit Ike! The ceiling is a tile mosaic of the invasion.
Eisenhower overlooks the entire Memorial. Just a fabulous interpretation.
Fun fact: His son John graduated West Point on June 6, 1944. Dad was unable to attend.
There are at least 100 plaques that relay information about the different units that took part in D-Day; including our own Julia Parson’s Navy WAVES! I took a photo of every single one.
One of the more touching sculptures was the Gold Star Memorial Monument, recognizing the sacrifices of the families left behind when heroes pay the ultimate sacrifice.
The “missing man” reminds us of the profound loss felt by survivors.
The four segments represent Homeland (town of Bedford), Family, Patriot, and Sacrifice
At various entry paths around the memorial are various busts and accompanying plaques of Winston Churchill, FDR, Harry Truman, Bob Slaughter, and interestingly, Stalin. While the pedestal is like the others, there is not a bust; only the plaque. It recounts his reign of Great Terror, his non-aggression pact with Hitler, and the uneasy alliance with the West. “Once the Kremlin / Set us tremlin: / Nowe we’ve got a pal in / Stalin”. At the Tehran Conference in November 1943, Stalin influenced D-Day’s date and place.
IN MEMORY OF THE TENS OF MILLIONS WHO DIED UNDER STALIN’S RULE AND IN TRIBUTE TO ALL WHOSE VALOR, FIDELITY, AND SACRIFICE DENIED HIM AND HIS SUCCESSORS VICTORY IN THE COLD WAR
As we walked around the memorial, I couldn’t help but wonder why there wasn’t a Bedford Boys plaque or statue. Then I realized that while the memorial is in Bedford, it is a National Memorial and perhaps there just wasn’t one here, but in town.
Fortunately, as we made our way to the gift shop – where every good tour ends – I found it. And it was just as wonderful as I had hoped.
The plaque at the bottom lists the names of the Bedford Boys killed on D-Day and ends with this heartbreaking paragraph:
Highlighting the story of Bedford’s loss is a powerful reminder of sacrifice, particularly those on the homefront. Families said goodbye to loved ones not knowing if they would return, and often those who did were never the same. Many family members were never the same either. When Mrs. John Hoback of Bedford, a woman of grit and character, lost both of her sons on D-Day, she carried on, but she did so with a large piece of herself missing. Many years later when she was on the brink of death and lay in her bed (tired and incoherent after a series of strokes), she asked over and over again, “Where are my boys?” When death closed her eyes for the last time, she finally found them.