Freedom's Heroes Remembered on a Virginia Hilltop
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
BEDFORD, Va., June 7, 2001 "As our boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell." -- Pvt. Charles Neighbor, 29th Infantry Division, Omaha Beach.
Two soldiers salute the colors and playing of the National Anthem at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va. President Bush dedicated the new memorial, June 6, 2001. The color guard stands under the huge Overlord Arc, the centerpiece of the memorial. Photo by Rudi Williams.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
President Bush came to this small Blue Ridge town June 6 to dedicate the National D-Day Memorial to the soldiers who assaulted the beaches of Normandy, France, during World War II.
"You have raised a fitting memorial to D-Day and you've put it in just the right place," Bush told the crowd of more than 20,000. "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.
"What was gained that first day was a beach, and then a village and then a country. And in time, all of Western Europe would be freed from fascism and its armies," the president said. "Free societies in Europe can be traced to the first footprints on the first beach on June 6, 1944.
"What was lost on D-Day we can never measure and never forget," he said. "When the day was over, America and our Allies had lost at least 2,500 of the bravest men ever to wear a uniform. Many thousands more would die on the days that followed. They scaled towering cliffs, looking straight up into enemy fire. They dropped onto grassy fields sown with land mines. They overran machine gun nests hidden everywhere, punched through walls of barbed wire and overtook bunkers of concrete and steel."
The president quoted World War II journalist Ernie Pyle as saying, "It seemed to me a pure miracle that we ever took the beach at all. The advantages were all theirs, the disadvantages all ours. And yet, we got on."
The two-hour ceremony was highlighted by D-Day veterans reading other veterans' written accounts of the horror, sorrow, fear and heroism during the invasion. Hundreds of veterans traveled from across the country to attend the event.
French Ambassador to the United States Francois Bujon de l'Estang thanked all D-Day veterans for liberating France. Representatives from the United Kingdom and other Allied countries participated in the ceremony.
The price Bedford paid to be the memorial site was in blood.
"Upon this beautiful town fell the heaviest share of American losses on D-Day -- 19 men from a community of 3,200, four more afterwards," President Bush told the crowd. "When people come here, it is important to see the town as the monument itself. Here were the images these soldiers carried with them and they thought of when they were afraid. This is the place the soldiers left behind, and here was the life they dreamed of returning to."
War historians say the tiny town's 23 deaths were the highest per-capita loss of any single community in the United States. The 19 Bedford fathers, sons, uncles and brothers who perished on D-Day died in the first 15 minutes of the invasion of Omaha Beach. Mortar and machine gun fire killed many before they could step from their landing boats. Two more Bedford men died before the month was out, and two more were killed before the war ended in May 1945.
Omaha Beach was the scene of the bloodiest fighting on D- Day. The Bedford men were in the Virginia National Guard's Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. The 170-man company virtually ceased to exist as a fighting unit that first day -- 90 percent were dead or wounded on Omaha.
Operation Overlord involved the United States and 11 Allied countries. The Allies amassed 5,333 ships, nearly 11,000 airplanes, 50,000 military vehicles and more than 154,000 soldiers to launch the largest amphibious invasion in history.
The Allied strategy was to create five beachheads, each three to four miles wide. Units on the beaches were to solidify their gains by linking up as fast as possible with airborne forces that landed behind enemy lines the night before to capture key locations.
Allied forces sustained heavy casualties in breaching Adolf Hitler's Atlantic Wall along the northern coast of France - 9,758 dead and wounded on D-Day, including 6,603 U.S. casualties.
Bedford was officially named the memorial site on Nov. 11, 1994. Groundbreaking followed three years later. Today, a 44-foot-6-inch granite-and-marble "Overlord Arc" sits on a platform atop Bedford's highest hill. Its dimensions are symbolic -- 44 feet for 1944 and 6 inches for June 6.
Surrounded by life-sized bronze soldiers, the arc dominates the memorial visually, but is only one element. Statuary symbolically re-creates a D-Day beach landing in a fan- shaped pool extending from the base of the arc platform. Plans also call for an education center, scheduled to open in spring 2003.
The $13.6 million monument complex occupies 88 acres of former pastureland in Bedford, about 25 miles east of Roanoke.