BEDFORD, Va. -- History put their town on the map 53 years ago in a way the community and those involved have never forgotten. Now, Bedford, Va., is creating a place to help the nation, especially its youth, remember as well.
To commemorate what many historians call the most significant event in the 20th century, a National D-Day Memorial will be built in Bedford, in southwestern Virginia. Bedford suffered the greatest number of per-capita casualties of any U.S. community that day, losing 23 of its young men.
At the time the town's population was 3,400.
"Bedford sent off its best young men in the war. Very few came back, but they got the job done," said Stephen Ambrose, a noted D-Day historian, author and biographer. He is chairman of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation Advisory Board.
The Memorial Foundation is conducting a national capital campaign to raise additional funds for the $8 million monument. Nearly $2.4 million has been raised since January 1996, mostly from the state of Virginia, the surrounding local governments and individuals.
Construction is to begin this year, with the memorial set to open June 6, 1999, the 55th anniversary of the Allied forces' invasion of Nazi-occupied France.
Code-named "Operation Overlord," it proved to be a turning point in World War II and marked the beginning of the end of Hitler's domination. The first troops landed on Omaha Beach, Normandy. The invasion resulted in 6,603 deaths for the United States.
The focus is not just to build a memorial for the veterans, but also to build an educational tool. The 88-acre site, which is on a hilltop above Bedford Elementary School, includes a museum and information center.
"Education is very significant to our mission," said Bedford Mayor Michael Shelton. "It's not just a statue for people to look at, but we want people to really get their hands deep into the center of what happened."
Thomas M. Hatfield, dean of Continuing Education and Extension at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed.
"It's important for future generations to know of the sacrifices that men made in the 1940s to protect and extend liberty around the world," said Hatfield, who for the past 10 years has taken groups of UT students to France to visit the D-Day landing site and other battlefields in Europe. "It's not so important to know exactly what happened [on D-Day], but it is important to remember the sacrifices that were required of them to defeat Nazi Germany and the great benefits that came from those sacrifices."
Veteran Robert Flory, 72, of Webbers Falls, Okla., remembers those sacrifices. He and other paratroopers jumped on the beach the night before the invasion. He remembers the sky being ablaze, full of gunfire and parachutes. "We couldn't see, but we could hear," he said.
"It was the greatest airborne invasion in history," said Flory, who hopes to visit the memorial in Bedford when it opens.
Veteran Ben Mirmelstein, 76, of Dallas, who plans to attend the opening of the monument in 1999, is very pleased the memorial is finally being built.
"I think it's about 30 years too late though," he said.
Veteran Robert Slaughter, 72, of Roanoke, Va., who is chairman of the board for the National D-Day Memorial, agrees with Mirmelstein.
"I think it's wonderful, but it's way too late," said Slaughter, who accompanied President Clinton to the Omaha Beach Cemetery in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of D-Day.
"So many of my friends have died and won't get a chance to see it," he said. "I'm in a hurry to get it done."
Pub Date: 6/08/97