National D-Day Memorial
In the middle of rural Virginia is one of the most striking national memorials outside of Washington DC: the National D-Day Memorial. The awe-inspiring memorial provides an educational experience of the D-Day Invasion, the largest amphibious military landing the world has ever seen. With an average of 75,000 visitors each year, the memorial is one of the most underrated in the nation. The National D-Day Memorial was a TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Winner in 2014.
This article is part of a series entitled Underrated America, which is dedicated to the little-known and less-visited monuments and memorials throughout the United States.
On June 6, 1944, 150,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France. General Dwight D. Eisenhower called the operation a crusade in which “we will accept nothing less than full victory.” More than 5,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft supported the invasion, and by day’s end, the Allies gained a foot-hold in France. The D-Day cost was high with more than 9,000 Allied soldiers killed or wounded as the march across Europe to defeat Hitler began.
The National D-Day Memorial
The National D-Day Memorial is located outside the small town of Bedford, Virginia. With a population of just over 6,000, Bedford seems like an unlikely place to build such a significant memorial. The location was chosen as such because the 19 of Bedford’s sons were killed on D-Day, proportionally suffering the highest number of losses in the nation.
The 88-acre memorial is broken up into circular patterns, each one symbolically representing a various stage or aspect of the invasion.
Aerial view of the National D-Day Memorial
The planning and preparation stages of D-Day are represented at the rear of memorial in the setting of a formal English garden. Throughout the garden are the bust of important figures who had a part in the D-Day invasion. An aerial view of the garden reveals that it is shaped to resemble the shoulder insignia of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. At the base of the garden stands a pillared Tuscan dome which shelters a statue of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The underside of the dome contains a mosaic map of the D-Day invasion.
The English Garden
The Supreme Commander
The largest circular plaza represents the D-Day landings. The walls surrounding the plaza are lined with plaques containing the names of of the 4,414 Allied soldiers killed on D-Day. The plaza seems to stretch on forever, representing the crossing of the English Channel by Allied troops. At the far end of the plaza is the Invasion Pool, one of the more emotional elements of the memorial.
A single marble “Higgins boat” sits with its ramp open near the “beach” of the Invasion Pool. If you stand at the far end of the boat and look through to the opening, you’ll see it is designed to resemble the famous photograph Into the Jaws of Death by Robert F. Sargent. Bullet sprays pepper the water as sculptures of soldiers make their way past tank traps onto the beach. Some soldiers never make it; they lie dead on the beach as the waves wash around them. Others charge forward and begin to climb the rocky cliffs of Normandy.
Bullets splash around soldiers as they make their way to the beach.
Each portion of the memorial segues seamlessly into the next. The far end of the Invasion Pool is designed to resemble the German bunkers and pill boxes that were constructed into the cliffs of Normandy. A central sculpture of soldiers portrays them scaling the rocky cliffs in pursuit of victory.
This scene is designed to resemble the famous D-Day photograph Into the Jaws of Death.
Soldiers scale the cliffs of Normandy as they press towards victory.
Flanking each side of the main plaza are smaller circular plazas representing the contributions of both the Air Force and Coast Guard during the D-Day landings. Symbols of each contributor stand in the middle of pattern concrete designed to invoke the circular symbol of the Allied forces during World War II. The surrounding light poles are designed to look like ship masts. Every detail has been thoughtfully designed to accurately represent that fateful day.
A scout plane represents the Air Force contribution during the D-Day Invasion.
The centerpiece of the National D-Day Memorial is Victory Plaza. The monolithic arch towers above the memorial and can be seen for miles. The arch contains a single word, Overlord, referring to Operation Overlord, the code name of the Battle of Normandy. The arch is crowned with five chiseled elements designed to resemble the roofs of houses seen by airborne troops as they passed over the Normandy countryside on the eve of D-Day. The chiseled elements are painted in a black and white pattern, just like the stripes painted on the wings of Allied aircraft.
Victory Plaza is surrounded by the flags of the 12 nations that comprised the Allied Expeditionary Force
On the ground surrounding the Victory Arch are engraved the code names of the five Normandy invasion beaches: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. Under the Arch is a single sculpture of a rifle stuck into the ground capped by a soldier’s helmet, which memorializes those who never made it to D-Day +1.
A tribute to the fallen
At the far end of Victory Plaza is a sculpture of a soldier pressing forward, dragging a wounded comrade. This final sculpture represents the push of those who continued the Normandy Invasion, producing an inroad into Europe which eventually resulted in a victory over Nazi Germany in 1945.
The push further into Europe
One of the more powerful sculptures at the memorial is Le Monument aux Morts. The statue is a recasting of a 1921 sculpture found in Trevieres, France, which was dedicated to the forty-four men of the city who died in World War I. The bronze statue of a Nike-esque female wears the utility belt and helmet of a French soldier from the period. The statue stood unharmed for almost two decades before taking extensive damage during the ground attack on Trevieres in World War II, two days after D-Day. Shrapnel struck the head of the figure and removed its face below the upper lip, along with most of its throat. Le Monument aux Morts has been preserved as transformed in battle as a special testament to the destructiveness of war, evanescence of victory, and fragility of peace.
Les Monument aux Morts
If you find yourself around Bedford, Virginia, be sure to visit the thoughtfully designed, informative, and poignant National D-Day Memorial. We recommend paying a bit extra for the guided tour; almost every aspect of the memorial has symbolic meaning, which you might miss without the docent.