I was headed down the interstate highway, ironically one of the brainchildren of President Dwight David Eisenhower, towards home when I spotted it. A clearly visible sign announcing the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. I had seen this sign before when traveling this same road home from Washington, DC, a few months ago, but I did not have the time to veer off and explore the site. This time, I decided that I did have the time, and I drove the two dozen extra miles to reach it. I am so glad that I did.
The mission of the Memorial is to preserve the lessons and legacy of D-Day, June 6, 1944. It was officially dedicated on the fifty-seventh anniversary of D-Day. It is described as a “sacred precinct”, and once on site it is easy to see why.
Why Bedford, Virginia? Bedford provided Company A to the 29th Infantry Division when the National Guard’s 116th Infantry Division was activated on February 3, 1941. Thirty Bedford soldiers were still in that company on D-Day. Other Bedford soldiers were in other companies.
Transported by the British Navy’s 551st Assault Flotilla, Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment landed on Omaha Beach in the first wave of the First Infantry Division’s Task Force O. By the end of that terrible day, nineteen of the thirty Bedford men were dead. Bedford’s population in 1944 was only 3200 souls. Proportionally, this tiny Virginia community suffered the nation’s severest D-Day losses. Bedford instantly became emblematic of all communities whose soldiers served on D-Day. Congress decided that this would be the perfect place to establish the Memorial.
The site is laid out in three plazas. The lower-most is dedicated to the planning that went into Operation Overlord and the men who made it all happen. Most notable of course was General Dwight David Eisenhower, architect of the plan that covers the canopy above his head in his own corner of the monument.
The landscaping, flowers and color scheme in this part of the Memorial tell the story of the flaming sword that would point towards Hitler’s Atlantic Wall on that fateful day.
The middle plaza is dedicated to the assault. Just walking onto this area was an experience like I’ve never had before. Quietly, powerfully, I was able to feel what it must have been like to jump out of a Higgins boat in choppy seas, carrying an eighty-one pound pack on my back, run the length of four football fields in wet sand, and immediately be raked with machine gun fire from the low brown bunkers atop the cliffs in front of me. I looked to my left and saw a comrade wading ashore. To my front a medic helped an already wounded comrade to safety. To my right, a friend was already down, awash in his own blood, his battle over. Hedgehogs, made to upend Allied boats and cause drowning deaths, became places to hide behind to dodge the murderous enemy fire that spit and zipped all around me, making little geysers of water to my left and right. The architects of this Memorial got it right. I could feel it as if I were really there. Powerful stuff.
The upper plaza is dominated by a multi-ton granite monument to Operation Overlord. Imposing, stark, and perfectly colored to blend with the gunmetal gray skies the day I visited, it overshadowed everything in its purview. The alternating black and white stripes atop the arch pay homage to the part the air corps played in the success of the operation. Directly in front of this massive structure, a Ranger tops the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, symbolizing not only that critical piece of the assault but the victorious spirit of all the Allied troops who pushed ahead against all odds to secure a beachhead that day. Just in front of him, a lone inverted rifle and helmet pay silent tribute to the 4400 members of the Allied Expeditionary Force who were killed on D-Day.
I love our American military history, whether it is Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War II, the Vietnam Conflict, or other engagements. Visiting well-executed monuments and memorials like the National D-Day Memorial make me think, really think, about the men and women who risked their lives so that I might be free today. These wonderful American treasures help us to see, feel and experience this history and what it means to us like no history book ever could. The fact that D-Day was a well-planned cooperative effort among twelve countries just made this even more fantastic.
Looking back down the hill towards General Eisenhower, knowing the planning that went into the assault, seeing the expanse of beach that had to be taken by Allied forces, and then seeing the look of sheer triumph on the Ranger’s face as he crested the cliff made it clear to me how much these brave soldiers added to our rich military history.
We owe our freedom to soldiers, sailors and airmen who serve bravely, fight valiantly, and execute when the cost of failure would be just too much to bear.
If you are ever in the Bedford, Virginia area, please make time to stop by and experience the National D-Day Memorial. You will see that day, June 6, 1944, in a way that you have never seen it before.