National D-Day Memorial
In the early 1990s, World War II vet Bob Slaughter wanted to build a life-size statue of a GI to honor D-Day soldiers from Roanoke, Virginia. But the idea got swept up in the "Greatest Generation" frenzy of the 1990s: the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994, Saving Private Ryan in 1998, the rush to do something for the vets whose ranks were rapidly thinning.
The statue became a full-blown national memorial; its cost ballooned to $25 million; it was moved far off the interstate to Bedford, which claimed to have had the highest D-Day casualty rate per capita of any town in America (23 deaths from a population of 3,200). Although the memorial was a private enterprise, President George W. Bush was the keynote speaker at its dedication on June 6, 2001.
Then the memorial declared bankruptcy. It was revealed that its pledge numbers had been inflated to secure state matching funds. Some said it didn't matter; it had been for a good cause. Others said that cheating was not the way to honor those who died on the beaches of Normandy. The memorial has since tried to give itself to the National Park Service, which has said no thanks.
What America got for its $25 million is impressive, but incomplete. Because the memorial still needs money, you pay to see it, and access is restricted. Visitors must pay at the county welcome center down the road, then be bused to the memorial site. And since the memorial still hasn't built its indoor visitor center, you're left in the open with the statues. Rainy days see fewer visitors, while sunny summer days can be grueling, particularly for the aged vets the memorial honors.
Still, there's much to see, spread across 88 acres. You're supposed to start at the back end of the memorial, then work your way to the front.
First in the timeline is a life-size statue of then-Supreme Allied Commander and future-President Eisenhower standing beneath a dome whose ceiling is a mosaic map of the D-Day invasion. Flanking Ike, in a replica English garden, are busts of his generals and notable politicians of the time: Churchill, FDR, Charles de Gaulle. In 2010 a bust of Josef Stalin was added, then quickly removed when potential donors raised howls of protest.
The centerpiece of the memorial is a recreation of one of the invasion beaches. A landing craft with an open ramp sits off-shore while the water randomly explodes with simulated mortar fire. A dead bronze soldier lies on the beach; others struggle to make it to safety or advance on the enemy. Posted warnings forbid visitors from disrespecting the site by carrying boom boxes or wading in the invasion water.
At the back of the beach is a wall inscribed with the names of all 4,413 Allied soldiers who died in the invasion. Four life-size bronze GIs scramble up the wall; one is frozen in death, another yells in triumph as he makes it to the top. What he sees aren't German soldiers, but a huge arch, 44 feet six inches tall (D-Day was on 6/6/44) inscribed "Overlord," the operation's code name.
There are more statues of soldiers in action, and at the very front is an exact replica of a World War I French statue whose face and throat were blown off in the D-Day battles. In the timeline design of the National D-Day Memorial, this undead wraith is the first thing you see when you arrive.
The Allied soldiers who fought and died on D-Day certainly deserve a great memorial, and while even the battle-tested might wish the statues were near somewhere dry and air-conditioned -- like the outdoor displays at the National POW Museum -- we're grateful that it went over the top, giving us more to see. And maybe its outdoor placement isn't so bad, reminding us, if only slightly, of the brutal slog of war someone else endured for our benefit.