“As our boat touched sand and the ramp went down I became a visitor to hell.”
Private Charles Neighbor, 29th Division, Omaha Beach
On June 6, 1944, thousands of Allied troops were tasked with the mission to jump, swim, run, and crawl ashore to the cliffs at Normandy and drive the Germans back. The Germans were prepared for this and the Allied troops faced extensive, hellacious obstacles.
- barbed wire
- anti-tank ditches,
- tank turrets
- machine guns
- rocky beaches
- iron gates
The successful landing at Normandy came at a high price. The sacrifices of that day are honored now at the National D-Day Memorial.
National D-Day Memorial
In a small town in rural Virginia you will find the National D-Day Memorial. This 88-acre memorial in Bedford, Virginia is a thoughtful, impressive monument to the thousands of men who fought on June 6, 1944, as part of Operation Overlord, or as it is more commonly referred to, D-Day.
Construction of the memorial was initiated by D-Day veteran J. Robert “Bob” Slaughter and dedicated on June 6th, 2001 by President George W. Bush. The National D-Day Memorial was built in honor of all those who fought that day but especially for those who died that day. It is laid out in a circle with each and every element selected specifically to represent a person or an aspect of that costly day. Nothing here is wasted. Each piece tells part of the story of one of the most significant battles in our nation’s history. Overlord was the largest air, land, and sea operation ever undertaken. The landing included over 5,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes, and over 150,000 service men. The successful landing came at a high price though. At the end of “the longest day”, the Allied Forces had suffered nearly 10,000 casualties with more than 4,000 dead.
Bob Slaughter – The Man with the Vision
Bob entered the military at age 15 and at age 19 he stormed the beach at Normandy. He was haunted for years by the war and after several visits to Normandy years later, he conceived of an American D-Day Memorial. In 1989, a committe was formed and the 50th anniversary of DDay in 1994 brought renewed interest into construction of this memorial. In 2007 Bob wrote an autobiography titled Omaha Beach and Beyond about the war and the eventual work to bring the memorial to life.
You’re probably wondering why this small town in Virginia was chosen to be the site of this major memorial. It’s because of the Bedford Boys.
Thirty-four Virginia National Guard soldiers from Bedford, Virginia, were part of the D-Day landing. Nineteen were killed on the first day and four more died later in the Normandy campaign. This is the highest proportion of soldiers killed from any one American community in the D-Day invasion.
The National D-Day Memorial has three levels, or plazas. Each level represents a different part of the invasion.
At the lowest level of the memorial is a garden featuring a statue of General Eisenhower below a mosaic of the invasion map and a sword that points to the arch. This section focuses on the planning stage of the operation.
Above the garden is a reflecting pool containing sculptures representing troops as they attempt to come ashore. Intermittent fountain blasts are reminiscent of the bullets raining down on the beach that day. At the edge of the pool, directly across from the arch above are walls that represent the landing craft used that day.
The Overlord Arch
High atop the center of the memorial stands a 40-foot arch bearing the name of the D-Day operation, Overlord. The flags of all twelve allied nations participating in D-Day fly along a wall which bears the date of the invasion. The Overlord Arch represents the Allied victory.
Saving Private Ryan
There have been many books written and many movies made about World War II and about D-Day specifically. The movie of my generation (or at least for me!) is Saving Private Ryan. Three things that I didn’t realize about the movie until now are:
- Steven Spielberg decided to direct the movie as a tribute to his father, Arnold Spielberg, who served in the U.S. Army and Signal Corps, and fought in Burma during World War II as a radio operator in a B-25 squad.
- The movie Saving Private Ryan was inspired in part by the high proportion of losses among the Bedford Boys.
- The movie is actually based on the Niland brothers, four siblings who all served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Three brothers—Robert, Preston, and Edward—were supposedly killed in action, which caused their remaining brother, Fritz (the character of Private Ryan in the movie), to be shipped back to America so that the Niland family wouldn’t lose all of their sons. Unlike the movie’s search for Private Ryan, a search for Fritz Niland was unnecessary. Niland was sent home immediately to his family without incident.
I can’t even begin to imagine the horrors experienced by men fighting in war. As a Navy midshipman I participated in a very short beach landing exercise one day. The smell of diesel fuel, the rocking of the landing craft through the waves, the stressful anticipation of what was to come… not fun. Just this tiny taste was enough to leave a lasting memory. The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan is so intense. My own sensory memories of an abbreviated beach landing training exercise mixed in to make the effect that much stronger. (I also struggle with movies that take place on ships or submarines that have suffered damage.) In my research for this story, I found out that the US Department of Veterans Affairs set up a toll-free hotline for veterans to call if suffering after viewing the intensely realistic war scenes of the movie. I’m not surprised. I was upset without any personal war memories. I can’t imagine how hard it would be for combat veterans to watch.
Watch the opening scene of the movie here… Be warned, it’s a rated R movie and this beach landing scene is intense!
Tips for visiting the National D-Day Memorial
The memorial is all outdoors so dress appropriately for the weather. Sunglasses would be a good idea. I left mine the the car and was blinded by the light stone of the reflecting pool and surrounding plaza.
Buy tickets for the memorial at the Bedford Visitor’s Center directly across the street from the memorial entrance. Don’t follow the road around to the building off in the distance. That’s an elementary school.
As I said before, this memorial is very well-thought out and put together. It is absolutely worth a trip to reflect on and honor the many sacrifices made by so many in the Normandy invasion.
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