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Remembering the "Bedford Boys," National D-Day Memorial celebrates 20th anniversary
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Remembering the "Bedford Boys," National D-Day Memorial celebrates 20th anniversary

Though a tranquil space nestled in a small town, free of conflict and the noises, smells and violent sights of war, the National D-Day Memorial bears echoes of the embattled, bloody beach at Normandy on June 6, 1944, where it stands in tribute to soldiers who lost their lives in an effort to bring down the Nazi regime.

Fountains spattering into a shallow pool are reminiscent of bullets riddling waters overseas; the impressive Overlord Arch — named after Operation Overlord, the pivotal storming of the Normandy beach — is a towering monument of tribute to soldiers’ sacrifices. A moving sculpture of soldiers scaling a cliff, faces contorted with pain and determination, looms near a sprawling wall etched with 4,415 names of soldiers who died on D-Day, a story attached to each one.

The Town of Bedford, with the loss of 23 of its more than 30 “Bedford Boys,” suffered one of the highest known losses per capita of any community in the United States on D-Day. 

Twenty years ago Sunday, this memorial to the "Bedford Boys" and all the men who lost their lives in the D-Day operation was dedicated amid a mix of great pomp and reverence, as former President George W. Bush and former French ambassador Francois Bujon de l’Estang joined some 15,500 attendees in honoring the sacrifices of that war. 

The establishment of this memorial happened through the work of World War II and D-Day veteran, J. Robert "Bob" Slaughter, of Roanoke, and his fellow veterans. Slaughter, who died in 2012, spearheaded the founding of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation in 1989. In his memoirs, "Omaha Beach and Beyond," published in 2007, Slaughter wrote:

“I am proud to say my generation helped save the world from tyranny, prevent the extinction of an entire group of people, and preserve the democratic freedoms of our wonderful American way of life. I wouldn’t change a thing, except to wish that my dear Army buddies could be here to see and touch the magnificent National D-Day Memorial that was built for us all.”

This weekend, the memorial commemorated both its 20th dedication anniversary and the 77th anniversary of D-Day with a three-day hybrid celebration.

"We have to plan these things months in advance, and no one knew back in December and January what the COVID situation would be," said John Long, director of education at the National D-Day Memorial. "The hybrid is kind of because we didn’t have a crystal ball on where we would be."

Commemorations across the three-day event include performances by the 29th Division Band and Enduring Freedom Honor band, a virtual panel discussion and a Remembering the Fallen wall tour.

"I think our memorial is unique in that, it’s not in Washington, D.C. It’s in a very quiet, homefront community, where you really are able to experience the somberness. You’re able to have that kind of quiet reflection on what it means to serve this country, and what it means to sacrifice for this country," said April Cheek-Messier, president of the National D-Day Memorial. "Over the years, I have watched so many veterans who have come here who never shared their stories, who never opened up — not even with their families — who suddenly were able to talk about it. I truly think it was that place of healing for so many."

This memorial, in some ways, feels like an inevitable part of Bedford's landscape, but there was a time when the fate of this monolith — even its location in Bedford — wasn't set in stone. 

The National D-Day Memorial began in 1989 as the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, set up by Slaughter and fellow World War II veterans who wanted to ensure the preservation of the memory of D-Day, to tell the stories of the soldiers involved, and to keep alive the legacy of World War II and its impacts as a whole. 

Initial attempts to establish the physical memorial would have put it in Roanoke, but the city did not have enough land they wanted to donate to the proposed site. 

After years were spent seeking the right location to establish a physical memorial without luck, Slaughter was chosen as a D-Day veteran to accompany former President Bill Clinton on a trip to Omaha Beach in 1994 for a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Long said. Slaughter's newfound national notoriety from the trip drew attention to the foundation and its goal, Long explained.

Bedford offered to give land and support for the establishment of such a place. The location primarily was chosen due to Bedford’s deep history with D-Day, as the community suffered the great losses during the pivotal operation. Dubbed the "Bedford Boys," 23 of the 35 soldiers of the Virginia National Guard Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division, died in the efforts to storm the beaches of Normandy. 

These young men, most of whom had grown up together in the close knit community, joined, according to the memorial, for "the extra dollar per day and the handsome new uniforms that many of the men felt would attract the ladies. Few of them believed they would be mobilized for war and embroiled in the largest invasion in history."

Few places seemed more appropriate to establish the memorial.

In 1997, the D-Day Memorial held its official groundbreaking and dedication of the iconic Overlord Arch in a ceremony directed by former Gov. George Allen. The following year, the first part of a sculpture depicting soldiers scaling a cliff arrived, the sculpted man crafted by Kansas-based Jim Brothers.

By June 6, 2001, the National D-Day Memorial officially held its opening ceremony with some 15,500 attendees crowding the sculptural tribute. Former President George W. Bush and former French ambassador Francois Bujon de l’Estang joined in honoring the Bedford Boys and all other soldiers who served on D-Day and during the remainder of World War II.

"This is the place they left behind. And here was the life they dreamed of returning to," Bush said of the Bedford Boys in his remarks.

Bujon de l’Estang expressed his country's gratitude to all the veterans and their aid in rescuing Europe from Nazi domination.

"Their future was stolen from them by a far-away war," Bujon de l'Estang said of the soldiers.

It was not long after that 2001 celebration the memorial faced some significant setbacks.

Raising money to foot the bill for the $25 million project was not easy, especially being a foundation without federal funding in a small, rural community. Even with sizeable donations and support from filmmaker Steven Spielberg and Charles Schultz, creator of the “Peanuts” cartoon series, word came out in October 2001 that the foundation was $5 million in debt, coverage by The News & Advance reported.

The debt report was followed in April 2002 by two liens filed against the foundation in court by the chief contractor and architect on the memorial project, totaling more than $400,000. By June, Coleman-Adams Construction filed a lawsuit against the foundation seeking to enforce the liens. The foundation finally filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November 2002, citing it had to protect itself financially.

The following spring, foundation president William McIntosh announced the successful conclusion of mediation between the foundation and the major creditors who filed the liens against it. The foundation would pay off its remaining $3.8 million in debt during a five-year period, and the creditors would seek no further litigation.

One fundraising effort included a partnership with NASCAR, where proceeds from a special race held on June 6, 2004 — the MBNA 400: A Salute to Heroes — benefited the foundation. By then, the debt was pared down to $2.9 million.

Despite the early obstacles, the foundation survived. 

It survived the economic recession in 2009-10, too, when donations the organization relied on dwindled and school groups stopped coming to visit due to budget cuts, Cheek-Messier said.

And it survived the global pandemic, primarily thanks to generous donors and federal Paycheck Protection Program funds.

Last year, the organization found a surprising silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic through its increase in virtual programming.

During the course of the pandemic, the memorial, like many other organizations, pivoted to an online platform to continue reaching its community. Being forced to close for three months was frightening, Cheek-Messier said. The memorial had never had to shut down before.

The virtual programming gave the memorial a far broader audience than it had before.

"Now we're reaching more people than ever," Cheek-Messier said.

The few virtual programs prior to the pandemic only drew a couple thousand users per year, Cheek-Messier said. During the past year, however, virtual programming users skyrocketed to more than 83,000 as people stuck at home sought learning opportunities, ways to continue honoring veterans or sources of entertainment.

The organization realized it had an opportunity, and even as the world reopens and pandemic restrictions lift, Cheek-Messier said the D-Day Memorial will continue its virtual programming initiatives, in addition to full reopening and in-person opportunities as provided in the past.

"Even through the ups and downs, you stay the course, and it all works out," she said. "So yes, there have been difficult times, but we’ve come through that, and I’m so proud of where the memorial is today."

This weekend, the memorial celebrated its anniversary by remembering its mission.

On Friday, a virtual panel discussion with historians John McManus, Joe Balkoski and Mitchell Yockelson was streamed online, moderated by Long. The conversation focused on the enduring impacts of D-Day, its modern-day relevance and historical information surrounding the famous event.

Saturday featured in-person events at the D-Day Memorial, including music from the 29th Division Band; book signing opportunities with author and filmmaker Rick Beyer; special necrology wall tours facilitated by Long, which featured the latest additions of soldier names to the wall — an Allied sailor from California and a paratrooper from Ohio — and an afternoon performance from the Enduring Freedom Honor Band.

Saturday also invited a guest of honor to the site, veteran Luciano “Louis” Graziano, who was part of the third wave on D-Day 77 years ago on Omaha Beach. The last known living witness to the German surrender that ended World War II, Graziano was available to sign copies of his book, “A Patriot’s Memoir of WWII.”

Sunday — the actual anniversary date of D-Day and the 20-year mark of the memorial’s dedication — was marked with a special remembrance speech, D-Day veteran guests and a wreath-laying ceremony at the “Homage” sculpture, followed by hourly premieres of the memorial’s 20th anniversary commemoration video both online and on-site.

During the course of the three-day event, thousands of visitors and numerous veterans from various conflicts attended the memorial or tuned in virtually to remember and honor the service of those who sacrificed themselves.

"We should never forget that the freedoms we have come at a very high cost, and I think the memorial’s a powerful reminder and testament to that," Cheek-Messier said.

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