This past Saturday I was in Bedford for the Trail Nut Half Marathon. I’ll talk more about that later this week. Right now I want to talk about what I did on the way home. Bedford happens to be home to the National D-Day Memorial, and after driving by it hundreds of times I finally decided to stop and check it out. I can remember learning about D-Day in school, and it blew my mind back then. But to see the memorial, and the bronze plaques with the 4,413 names of the Allied forces lives lost was really something.
A little background for you: D-Day took place on June 6, 1944 on the beaches of Normandy, France, in the midst of WWII. It is the largest amphibious landing in history and required an unprecedented number of servicemen and equipment. Allied troops totaling 150,000 landed on a 50 mile stretch of Nazi-held Normandy, supported by more than 5,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft. Against all odds, the Allies gained a foothold in occupied Europe. D-day is one of those rare single days in history that represents a complete turn of events. The Allies success set in motion the destruction of the Nazi regime, but at a high cost. Over 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded on this single day in history.
I started my self-guided tour at Estes Plaza, which celebrates the success of the Normandy invasion and the international allied effort that made it possible. It also recognizes Operation Overlord’s human role. The flags of each of the twelve nations of the Allied Expeditionary Force (AEF) surround the arch. They include: the United States, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, and the United Kingdom.
The Overlord Arch in the center represents triumph, and stands 44 and a half feet tall (for 1944). In front of the arch, a sculpture of the soldier represents the valor, fidelity, and sacrifice of those brave souls. This is common theme throughout the memorial.
In front of the arch, overlooking the plaza below, is a sobering tribute to the more than 4,400 members of the AEF who were killed on D-Day. The inverted rifle topped with a helmet is an emblem of death in battle, and it is a powerful symbol of the ultimate sacrifice of the fallen.
Stretching out behind Estes Plaza is the Stettinius Parade, which signifies the expansion from the beaches of Normandy to Paris and beyond. This was the beginning of the end of the war in Europe. A Purple Heart Monument looms under the shadow of the flag, in honor of all those who received the purple heart on D-Day. This area also includes Clement R. Atlee and Harry S. Truman, the successors of Churchill and Roosevelt, respectively.
From there, I headed down to the Gray Plaza and the beach area. The Plaza is divided into five sections to represent the five D-Day landing beaches: Sword, Juno, Utah, Omaha, and Gold. The beach area signifies the fierce struggle as the Allies landed on the beach. A “Higgins Boat” was used to transport troops from the ships to the shore. These boats were later credited by Eisenhower for winning the war for the Allies, thanks to their versatility. Sculptures show troops in various poses of battle to honor the hallmark theme of the D-Day Memorial: Valor, Fidelity, and Sacrifice.
In front of the beach, going up towards the arch and Estes Plaza, a sculpture depicts the rangers who scaled the cliffs at Normandy. They were fired upon from above, and had grenades thrown at them by enemy soldiers, as they shot rope ladders and began climbing the cliffs.
As the ranger soldiers made it over the top of the cliffs, they gained a firm grip on the land at the top and began to seize back Europe. These rangers are the first ones who helped free a continent.
On either side of the beach are two circles which pay tribute to the 5,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft which supported the D-Day operations.
Surrounding the Gray Plaza are long stretches of bronze plaques. These are by far the most haunting of all of the figures at the D-Day Memorial, as they bear the names of the 4,413 Allied service members killed on this single day in history. The western wall has the names of United States service members, while the eastern wall has those of the other AEF members.
As I made my way back to the parking area, I passed by the “In Homage” statue. This symbolic piece is for the communities across the country who supported those who went away and grieved for those who never returned.
This memorial was truly amazing to see. There was so much to read and everything on the property has a meaning. You may be wondering why this national memorial is located in Bedford. It’s because of the “Bedford Boys.” Among the hundreds of thousands of service members massed off the shores of Normandy, 44 were from the rural area of Bedford, VA. Twenty of them were killed on D-Day and another four in the days to follow. On June 6, 1944, Bedford suffered the nation’s severest per capita D-Day loss. It’s a somber distinction to hold, but it is the reason behind the memorial’s location.
I fully intend to return to the memorial again, if not several times, in the future to spend more time reading all of the information.
Have you ever been to the National D-Day Memorial?
Are you a history buff?