The National D-Day Memorial commemorates American participation in the Normandy invasion. After a year of planning in England, more than 130,000 American, British, and Canadian troops, under the command of U.S. general Dwight D. Eisenhower, crossed the English Channel on June 6, 1944, and landed on six beaches along sixty miles of the Normandy coast. Their intention was to drive German forces east and out of France while Russian forces in Eastern Europe slowly pushed west. The heaviest fighting occurred at Omaha Beach, where perhaps as many as 3,000 American men were killed or wounded. By contrast, fewer than 200 casualties (out of 23,000 soldiers engaged) were suffered at Utah, the next beach over.
The Bedford memorial is dominated by a granite arch on which is etched the operation’s military name, Overlord. The arch’s height—forty-four feet, six inches—is intended to recall the date of the invasion, June 6, 1944. An English garden, the Richard S. Reynolds Sr. Garden, represents the planning stage and is constructed in the shape of the uniform patch for the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force. A curved reflecting pool, located inside the Elmon T. Gray Plaza, calls to mind the English Channel, while various bronze sculptures by Kansas artist Jim Brothers provide even more direct points of reference.
One of the statues depicts a soldier wading ashore, his rifle lifted over his head, while another shows a soldier dead on the beach. Amid other soldiers—some helping wounded comrades, some rappelling a cliffside—are landing craft and tank tops. Brothers called the work Across the Beach, and Bob Slaughter, one of the memorial’s organizers, has been clear about the aesthetic intentions of the work: “We wanted realism.” This is in contrast, for instance, to the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C.—The Wall—which is highly abstract. Other portions of the memorial’s six components honor the Air Force and Navy. In addition, there is a seven-foot-high statue of Eisenhower.
A replica of Le Monument aux Morts in France pays tribute to the war dead. The original Le Monument aux Morts was dedicated in Trévières, France, to honor the Normandy town’s forty-four men who died during World War I (1914–1918). The statue by Edmond de Laheudrie, which shows a woman Victory figure holding a sword, was damaged by the fighting on D-Day. For the National D-Day Memorial, the original was recast—in a symbolic nod to the cost of war, its damage was also preserved—and presented as a gift to the Bedford memorial. The names of American and Allied troops killed on June 6, meanwhile, are recorded on the walls of Gray Plaza. Their collection is the result of the first-ever project, initiated in 2000 by the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, to account for each Allied casualty. The number of American casualties stands at 3,581, with 2,403 killed. These statistics, in the context of the larger war, are relatively small and, according to the historian Marianna Torgovnick, “do not match the idea of D-Day in the imagination.”
The final memorial required 8,000 cubic yards of concrete, more than 900 tons of granite, 30 miles of electrical wiring, and 6,000 tons of stone supporting the 300-ton Overlord arch. The reflecting pool at the base of the memorial was designed to hold 50,000 gallons of water. Ironically, Bob Slaughter’s original vision for the memorial was modest.
Slaughter had been in the third wave of troops to hit Omaha Beach, and in 1987, the Roanoke native collected a few like-minded friends into a committee to raise interest in the memorial. A foundation was later formed, and the group eyed locations near Roanoke. As negotiations with reluctant city managers stalled, Slaughter’s profile began to rise. In 1994, he was featured in the Washington Post, Newsweek, and People. The popular historian Stephen E. Ambrose wrote about him in the best-selling book D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (1994), and then helped Slaughter with fund-raising for the memorial. Slaughter even appeared with U.S. president Bill Clinton at a ceremony on Omaha Beach, an event that helped bring in substantial donations from director Steven Spielberg and cartoonist Charles Schulz. The Peanuts creator gave the project one million dollars.
In 1994, the Town of Bedford, Virginia, offered Slaughter’s foundation twenty acres in view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Suddenly, Roanoke was out and Bedford was in, and in 1997 the U.S. Congress made the location official, designating the Virginia town as the future site of the National D-Day Memorial. Bedford was seen as a symbolically apt choice. The town lost nineteen men in the opening minutes of the Normandy landing and claimed to have lost more men per capita that day than any other locale in the United States. That last claim is now questioned by historians, some of whom have worked for the foundation, who realize that full casualty figures may never be known. Nevertheless, Bedford, which had never done much in the past to commemorate its sacrifice, now stood out.
The dedication ceremony on June 6, 2001, was attended by veterans and by President Bush, who explained the project’s significance: “Fifty-seven years ago, America and the nations of Europe formed a bond that has never been broken. And all of us incurred a debt that can never be repaid. Today, as America dedicates our D-Day Memorial, we pray that our country will always be worthy of the courage that delivered us from evil and saved the free world.”
In 1996, the foundation hired an executive director, Richard B. Burrow, and announced its plan for a $12 million memorial and education center. Roanoke architect Byron Dickson was hired as the project designer, Coleman Adams as the contractor, and Brothers as the chief sculptor. The group broke ground on Veterans Day, November 11, 1997. By the 2001 dedication, however, the project’s budget had ballooned to $25 million and was mired in controversy. The contractor had not been paid and threatened to cease work on the unfinished memorial, which alerted the foundation board to the budget overruns. An investigation targeted Burrow. In November 2002, the foundation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and the following month Burrow was tried in federal court on charges of fraud. That trial, and another in October 2004, ended in a hung jury. Charges against Burrow were dismissed.
The debt from 2001 has been retired, and as of 2008, the memorial foundation planned to expand its education center to include a theater and auditorium, video stations, meeting rooms, and exhibition space. The fee to visit the National D-Day Memorial goes toward membership in the Overlord Society, a fund-raising vehicle for the foundation, which receives no federal funding.