Rick Holmes: Where every day is D-Day

Rick Holmes

It is a quiet place, as all memorials should be.

Visitors speak in hushed tones as they read the bronze panels along its marble walks. The plaques hold the names of the 4,391 American and Allied soldiers who gave their lives on the beaches and fields of Normandy in the battle that began 66 years ago today.

Only as you approach the reflecting pool is the silence broken. In front of you is a stylized landing vehicle, an anti-tank obstacle and a handful of bronze G.I.'s who look only too real. Chest-deep in water, one holds his rifle above his head. Two run up the beach, their eyes fixed on the cliffs ahead. In the shallow water, one lies face down.

Then you hear the hiss and the splash, like bullets landing all around you. And you get a hint of what it must have been like to run into that hail of fire.

But only a hint. The National D-Day Memorial tells the story of the largest seaborne invasion in human history, invokes its spirit and salutes its heroes. Still, it takes some imagination to make it real, to hear the cries of the fallen amid the sounds of flags flapping in the Virginia breeze.

This small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains adds a human touch to the outsized memorial to a gigantic battle. The site was chosen because the "Bedford Boys" hold a special place in D-Day lore. As it happened, tiny Bedford, population 3,200, sent just over 30 of its young men to take Normandy from the Germans on June 6, 1944. Twenty-three gave their lives in the effort, making it the community with the highest per capita losses.

Unlike most major monuments, the D-Day Memorial was built with private funds, and without the political controversy that often accompanies memorials closer to Washington, D.C. Without the publicity, too: It opened in 2001, three months before 9/11 changed the subject, and was eclipsed in the headlines by the World War II Memorial, which opened on the National Mall in 2004.

The D-Day Memorial has made smaller headlines. There have been protests against a plan to add a bust of Josef Stalin alongside busts of his wartime allies, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. A former president of the organization was charged with fraud, but not convicted. At one point, the foundation that owns the Memorial had to file for bankruptcy, and its finances remain shaky. At the urging of Virginia's Congressional delegation, the Department of the Interior is considering having the National Parks Service take it over.

I hope someday to visit the beaches of Normandy, to hear in its silence the echoes of history. For those who cannot make that pilgrimage, the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, a charming town in a wonderful part of the country, is worth a visit.

As the last living witnesses to World War II move on, it is ever more important that monuments like this remain to tell their stories.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at rholmes@cnc.com.