Keeping the Memory Alive

Virginia: Six decades after World War II claimed nearly a generation of its boys, Bedford has built a D-Day memorial that stands as a powerful tribute -- and a reminder that liberty has a price.

November 11, 2001|By Gary Gately | By Gary Gately,Special to the Sun

Walter Howard never talked about what happened at Omaha Beach. For 57 years, the war raged inside his head. He could see the bodies on the beach, feel his heart pounding and his hands trembling, hear the hot metal hitting the water -- single shots from rifles, bursts from machine guns. Still, he never spoke of it to his wife, three sons or his fellow World War II veterans.

Then a few months back, Howard came from his home in Canton, Ohio, to the new National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va., the tiny Blue Ridge Mountain town that lost much of a generation of its boys at Omaha Beach, Normandy. And the ghosts in his head finally broke free.

He gazed at the lifelike bronze sculptures of soldiers trudging through water toward a beachhead, lying wounded on a beach, scaling a cliff. Then he heard the announcement over the loudspeaker: "Would any D-Day veterans visiting today please raise their hands."

Howard raised his right hand, and soon a young mother rushed toward him and shook it. "I just want to thank you -- for what you did for me and my family," she said. Then another visitor approached, and another -- to shake his hand, to embrace him, to say thanks, to ask him about D-Day.

He told them about being on the tank detail and watching from the water as Nazi gunfire ripped apart Allied soldiers, about finally rolling his tank onto the beach and navigating around bodies. Everybody stood transfixed by Howard's stories, not least his 55-year-old son, Ronald, who had never heard his father speak of D-Day.

"I had these memories with me all these years, but I just didn't think it was something to talk about," Howard says. "I thought I could never explain that mess and how petrified I was."

How fitting that Walter Howard would finally tell his story at this memorial in this town. If the beaches of Normandy and the row upon row of graves there represent the chief European memorial to D-Day, then Bedford (population 6,300) surely deserves to be the site of the American tribute.

The memorial is the talk of Bedford today. D-Day has been the talk -- and the glory and heartbreak -- of Bedford for nearly six decades. On June 6, 1944, 35 Bedford boys led the Allied invasion at Omaha Beach. In the first 15 minutes of battle, 19 of them died, and four others perished later. With a population of just 3,200 at the time, Bedford, halfway between Roanoke and Lynchburg, suffered a higher per capita loss on D-Day than any other community in America.

Bob Slaughter, a D-Day veteran, worked for more than 10 years to bring together the people and the money to build the memorial. "The memorial was put not in the field of battle," he says, "but in the town that lost the most at D-Day, and that's exactly where it should be."

The memorial sits on a gently rolling, 88-acre hilltop site overlooking the center of Bedford and the Blue Ridge Mountains' Peaks of Otter. In this community built on farming and manufacturing, downtown looks pretty much like it did in 1944, right down to the American flags hanging from every lamppost and the green-and-white striped awnings at the former drug store where the telegrams bearing news of war casualties began arriving that long-ago spring.

The National D-Day Memorial may well be the biggest change in these parts in decades. It has brought high hopes of a boost to the local economy, considerable hometown pride -- and some clashes between small-town ways and the challenges of running a major national attraction on a pace to attract nearly 1 million visitors in its first year.

Slaughter and others say the memorial is long overdue. The 76-year-old considers himself one of the lucky ones. As he hit Omaha Beach on D-Day, a bullet tore through his helmet and creased his forehead, then shattered, leaving pieces of metal embedded in his head. Forty men in his company died.

"I just wanted to create something that would make people remember those who didn't make it," he says, "and that there's so many people who gave so much at such an early age, that they should never be forgotten."

A much-visited place

Judging from the popularity of the nation's first national D-Day memorial, the veterans who helped save the world from the Nazis won't be soon forgotten. In the four months since opening, the memorial has attracted more than 300,000 visitors from every U.S. state and from as far away as South America, England, France, Germany and Australia.

Framed on an autumn afternoon by mountains ablaze in a thousand shades of red, orange and yellow, the memorial to heroes of war is a remarkably peaceful place of reflection and recollection. Visitors speak in hushed tones if they speak at all.

Even with an average of more than 2,000 people visiting daily, the outdoor memorial rarely seems crowded with its winding walkways and plenty of open space. Some veterans roll through in wheelchairs, while others hunch over walkers, lean on canes or ride on golf carts with tour guides.

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