A small town's D-Day memorial


Letter No. 254 | June 10, 2001

Jon,

Here's a story I thought might possibly be appropriate for the 57th anniversary of D-Day relating to the small town of Bedford, Virginia (present population of 6000). The town is located midway between Roanoke and Lynchburg in southwestern Virginia. President Bush is to attend the dedication of a new memorial there.

Frank Charney

Town Plans D-Day Memorial

By CHRIS KAHN

.c The Associated Press

BEDFORD, Va. (AP) - For years, World War II was a sore subject that many families in this small farming community avoided.

``We lost so many men,'' said Boyd Wilson, 79, who joined Virginia's 116th National Guard before it was sent to war. ``It was just painful.''

The war hit Bedford harder than perhaps any other small town in America, taking 19 of its sons, fathers and brothers in the opening moments of the Allied invasion of Normandy. Within a week, 23 of Bedford's 35 soldiers were dead. It was the highest per capita loss for any U.S. community.

Only recently have residents begun talking about D-Day, mostly in anticipation of the National D-Day Memorial being dedicated here on June 6, the 57th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. The memorial will officially open the day after the dedication.

``A lot of people don't know what happened here,'' said Carol Burnett, 58, owner of the Old Liberty Antique Mall, a downtown antique shop cluttered with lamps, dolls and other vintage knickknacks.

For the past year, Burnett has kept a collection of old World War II uniforms and pictures in her front window. ``People are now coming by, some old veterans, and they tell us their story.''

In the 1940s, Bedford was a farming town of about 3,200 people. The generation of young men who would go to war attended the same churches and schools. There were few jobs, so many joined the 116th, which paid about $35 every two months.

Wilson said they would train together every month at the county courthouse. ``It was like being on a ball team,'' he said.

In 1942, the Guard unit was shipped off to England. It was the only National Guard unit to be on the first boats of the Normandy invasion. Wilson, who was then fighting with another Army unit that arrived at Omaha Beach after the 116th, said he kept looking for his friends, but couldn't find anyone.

``Later they told me that the 116th had been wiped out,'' he said.

In Bedford, Mike E. Reynolds was working in the furniture store he bought before the war. Reynolds said he first heard about D-Day when he went next door to the drug store for a Coke.

The telegraph machine inside had been especially active that day, printing letters to families of the 116th.

``Word passed quickly about what happened,'' said Reynolds, 88. Families received letters during the next several weeks as more bodies were identified on the Normandy beach.

Lucille H. Boggess, 71, was getting ready for church when the sheriff came by with the letter that her older brother was killed in action. The following day, the town cab driver came by with another letter, saying that another brother died.

``By then, my parents were just so overcome with grief,'' Boggess said. ``It was almost like my mom had somehow died.''

It was a pain that many people in Bedford kept to themselves, said Mayor Mike Shelton, who began lobbying for the monument in 1994 after talking with Boggess.

``A few years ago you could walk down the street and only about one out in five people could describe with any sense of knowledge about what happened here in 1944,'' Shelton said. ``Frankly, it's been good for the community to talk about it.''

The $13.6 million monument, paid for entirely by donations, sits on 88 acres of pastureland in Bedford, about 25 miles east of Roanoke.

The structure, made mostly of concrete and polished granite, recreates the Normandy landing. An architectural representation of a Higgins boat, the sort used during the invasion, enters a wading pool that is pierced from time to time by small geysers meant to look like explosions. Bronze soldiers claw through the concrete beach and climb over a wall.

Past the wall is a granite arch inscribed with the word ``Overlord'' - the Allied Forces code name for the invasion. The arch stands 44 feet, 6 inches high to represent June 6, 1944. It is black and white, like the Allies' airplanes during the attack.

Surrounding the arch are flags of the United Kingdom, France, Australia, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Canada, Greece, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland and the United States - countries that participated in the invasion.

Richard Burrow, executive director of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, said officials will include a story wall before the June 6 dedication that bears the names of Allied and American soldiers killed on D-Day.

Organizers are also planning a three-story, 49,000-square-foot education center designed to resemble a German bunker. It will be equipped with a theater paid for with donations from ``Saving Private Ryan'' director Steven Spielberg.

Bedford officials expect as many as 20,000 people to attend the dedication. That number could expand if President Bush decides to come. White House officials wouldn't confirm whether he plans to attend the dedication.

``This is almost like sacred ground,'' Boggess said, looking at the memorial on Tuesday as work crews put the final touches on the parking lot. ``This is a place where veterans can finally meet and share their stories. We can honor them with this.''

On the Net: National D-Day Memorial Foundation: http://www.dday.org City of Bedford: http://www.ci.bedford.va.us/

AP-NY-05-27-01 2108EDT in honor of the town's many soldiers who were casualties on D-Day.

 


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