Bedford hosts D-Day observation on Memorial Day
BEDFORD, VA, May 31, 1999 -- More than 1,000 people attended a ceremony here at the future site of the National D-Day Memorial to observe not just Memorial Day, but also the 55th anniversary of D-Day. The celebration featured guest speakers who offered both military and civilian perspectives of the Normandy invasion and was highlighted by the unveiling of a new sculpture entitled "Across the Beach" which will be part of the D-Day Memorial.
John R. "Bob" Slaughter, chairman of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, opened the ceremony and said, "On Memorial Day, we remember all the men and women who gave their lives defending our nation in battle. The sculpture 'Across the Beach', though specific to D-Day, embodies in a broader sense all who gave their lives for the freedoms we enjoy today. The sculpture also acknowledges the valor and fidelity of all who stand together, whatever the cause. By your presence here today, you honor their worthy service and on their behalf, I thank you."
The D-Day observation took place six days before the actual anniversary day. Dr. William A. McIntosh, vice president for education for the foundation, explained that Memorial Day had been chosen as the day for the ceremony so as to not conflict with the activities planned in Normandy, France to mark the 55th anniversary of D-Day. "It seemed a dreadful thing to do to make people choose," he said, pointing out that many veterans in attendance at today's ceremony would also be traveling to France.
The national D-Day Memorial site was consecrated on June 6, 1997, and a ground breaking ceremony was held on Veterans Day that same year. The Bedford community was selected as the location for the memorial because it had the highest per capita causality rate of any community in the country. Twenty-one soldiers from A Company, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division were killed during the bloody assault on Omaha Beach. (For a more detailed view of the memorial site, visit the virtual tour at http://www.dday.org.)
Delegate C. Richard Cranwell hailed the selection of Bedford as the location for the memorial. "I think it is fitting that we are in the Commonwealth of Virginia for this memorial, and I think it is fitting that we are in Bedford County, because this small peaceful community in central Virginia whose sons and daughters in the early hours of June 6, 1944, carried the day for liberty. I am proud that Virginia has been selected for this national memorial. As one who has enjoyed the fruits of liberty and never known the horrors of war, I would like to say thank you."
Cranwell also pledged to see that the necessary funding for the memorial would be appropriated when he said, "We will appropriate the full 4 million that it takes to make sure that this memorial to honor the commitment and sacrifice and freedom is completed, so that all those people who fought that people can come here and relish in the fact that American and Virginia cares and we thank you."
Jacques Baumel, mayor of Rueil-Malmaison, France, the sister city to the city of Lynchburg, VA, was scheduled to attend the ceremony today but was not able to be present because of the Kosovo crisis. His wife, Madame Louise Baumel, appeared in his stead and read the remarks that her husband had prepared and said, "Today, Memorial Day, each one of us feels even more poignant the warmth of friendship and the depth of our gratitude for those courageous heroes of the Second World War. We in France feel this gratitude for those heroes and for the American people for whom we owe in large measure France's liberation, along with our British Allies and participation of the French Freedom Fighters and French Resistance."
The delegation from Rueil-Malmaison presented Slaughter with a globe depicting both continents and the cities of Lynchburg and Rueil-Malmaison. The globe was partially filled with sand from Omaha Beach.
Bernard Marie, a native of France who is now an American citizen, shared his experiences as a young boy who celebrated his fifth birthday at the time of the invasion. He expressed his gratitude for the sacrifices made by the soldiers and the impact that it had on his life. "As long as I live," he said, "I will never forget what America did for my native country and all the French people will never forget. During the liberation of France, especially during the battle of Normandy, 3,800 lives of the civil population died. We received 6,000 tons of bombs in less than 10 hours. There are 40,000 young men of the allied forces in the cemeteries, 10,000 U.S. boys are laid to rest. That says something loud and clear. That was the price to pay to get back our freedom."
One way that Marie expresses his gratitude is by holding an annual luncheon for D-Day veterans. He began in 1984 with 240 D-Day veterans in attendance and expects 55 this year.
"That's my way to say of saying thank you," he said. "Thank you to my fellow Americans, thank you to my heroes."
Peter Thomas, who joined the 1st Infantry Division eleven days after the invasion as a young private shared a poem he had written about D-Day in 1955 and said he was, "overwhelmed with awe and gratitude ... honored to be a part of that great division, but keenly aware that there remained much to do. Precisely how much remained, precisely for whom, I did not not, could not know. But because that goodness was present, across the beach, through France, Belgium and into Germany, those qualities meant something then, and they do mean something today."
The sculpture "Across the Beach" was donated by the family of Staff Sgt. Isak Nygaard, a native of Norway and D-Day veteran. Nygaard fled Germany during the Nazi rise to power and sought refuge in the United States. He had been drafted at the age of 18 into the Norwegian Army, and was called to serve again in his late 20s when he was drafted into the United States Army for service in World War II. He served in the Army for a total of five years and was made a United States citizen prior to the landing at Omaha Beach.
Click HERE to view images from the ceremony.
Click HERE to read the related story "Memorial Day holds special significance in Bedford".