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National D-Day Memorial Foundation President April Cheek-Messier

By David Lauterborn
1/2/2015 • Military History Magazine

The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va., honors the nearly 160,000 Allied troops who participated in Operation Neptune—the June 6, 1944, landing phase of the invasion of Normandy in German-occupied France. The memorial centers on a plaza flanked by plaques bearing the names of the 4,413 Allied soldiers confirmed killed in the operation. Bedford alone lost 19 of its native sons that day—the steepest sacrifice per capita of any town in the United States. That personal connection in turn inspired the siting of the memorial outside this small Blue Ridge foothills community (pop. 6,222), and townspeople are fully invested in its operation. Spearheading the continuing effort to fund and expand the site is April Cheek-Messier, president of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, who recently shared her thoughts about the memorial and its unique relationship to Bedford.

How did you get involved with the National D-Day Memorial?
I grew up here, knew a number of the “Bedford Boys” families and have always been aware of what happened. It gave me a sense of pride but also a longing to help share that story. I got a graduate degree in history and education, and when I heard the memorial was being built, I thought, That’s where I need to be. I started in 2001 as the education coordinator and have been here ever since.

In the same way we reflect on December 7, we want people to remember June 6, not only for the tremendous sacrifice made that day, but also by what we gained—a beach, a country, a continent. We succeeded in defeating this tyranny that existed. We need to reflect on that as a nation and never forget what was lost’

How does Bedford mark D-Day?
D-Day is not a national holiday, not a date a lot of Americans readily recognize. This community recognizes June 6 by putting American flags out on their doorsteps and by coming to the memorial to reflect on what took place that day.

A native of Bedford, Va., Cheek-Messier has personal ties to the community that sacrificed so much and is proud to commemorate those who gave all on D-Day. (Illustration by Brett Affrunti)
A native of Bedford, Va., Cheek-Messier has personal ties to the community that sacrificed so much and is proud to commemorate those who gave all on D-Day. (Illustration by Brett Affrunti)

What did happen to the Bedford Boys on D-Day?
Bedford was the home location for Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment. The invasion plan on D-Day called for Company A to land at Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach at 0630 as part of the first wave. Unfortunately, heavy cloud cover made distinguishing targets difficult. Fearful of dropping ordnance on Allied landing craft, many planes and ships directed their fire farther inland, leaving German fortifications in some places almost untouched. When Company A landed on target and on time, they received the fire intended for a far larger force.

For Bedford, the result was especially devastating. Of the 37 Bedford Boys assigned to Company A, 26 reached Omaha Beach, where 16 were killed within a matter of minutes. Three others were unaccounted for and later presumed killed in action. The loss represented the nation’s severest per capita D-Day loss—a somber distinction.

The sense of loss continues to permeate the community. For that reason people have been extremely supportive of the memorial and its mission. Bedford donated a large tract of land for the site. The community is well aware of the high cost of freedom and is quite proud the nation’s memorial to D-Day is in its own back yard.

What will visitors find?
The monument features three plazas, each commemorating a specific stage of the D-Day in-
vasion, from planning to victory.

The English Garden connects the site with England and, in particular, Southwick House, site of Allied headquarters and the staging area for the invasion.

Middle Plaza centers on a large blue-gray expanse symbolizing the Channel crossing. At the far end is a stylized landing scene [see photo, opposite], where a granite representation of a Higgins landing craft sits at the edge of a large pool leading to a sandy beach. Three life-size bronze sculptures—Through the Surf, Across the Beach and Death on Shore—capture scenes commonplace on the morning of the landing. Also in the reflecting pool are two “hedgehog” obstacles. Air jets beneath the water create the illusion of enemy fire in the water around the statues. The soldiers appear to be moving toward a German bunker, the backdrop of the landing scene.

Victory Plaza features the 44-foot 6-inch Victory Arch, inscribed with the word OVERLORD, the operational name for the invasion of Normandy. Centered beneath it is Final Tribute, a bronze rendering of a soldier’s battlefield grave marker, with an inverted M1 rifle, the helmet on top and dog tags hanging.

Courtesy David Lauterborn
Courtesy David Lauterborn

Final Tribute has a particular draw on visitors, yes?
That spot does have an impact on people. When you stand there and look out over the memorial, see Bedford and the Blue Ridge Mountains, what that means is so powerful: This is hometown America. This is every community in America that sent these citizen soldiers, sailors, airmen, coastguardsmen, merchant mariners, Marines. They sent them off in World War II, and so many of them never came home.

One day years ago a lady who was maybe 80 at the time was standing there with her hands on the helmet, just standing there for the longest time. I asked her if she was OK. She explained that she had lost her husband on D-Day, that they had never recovered his body. They had been newlyweds, and she had never remarried—he was her soul mate. She said that standing there she was finally able to say goodbye.

We find mementos there all the time. One day someone attached a Purple Heart to the sculpture. We often find timeworn corsages, notes, wreaths, flowers—in the same way people leave things at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

How did the memorial mark the recent 70th anniversary of D-Day?
The memorial hosted the largest gathering of D-Day veterans in the country. More than 300 D-Day veterans from all over the United States were in attendance, and more than 11,000 people visited the memorial. The weekend included a parade for veterans through Bedford, a movie night, a performance by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and a period field chapel service on June 8.

The ceremony itself was a tribute to those who fought in Normandy. Presenting the keynote address was Bob Sales, who served with Company B of the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division, landed on Omaha Beach and was the only survivor of the 30 men on his landing craft. He was awarded three Purple Hearts and the Silver Star, among other medals, for battling his way across France before being wounded and left partially blind. During the June 6 ceremony Sales recalled in detail his ordeal on D-Day. Toward the end of his speech, he stated:

I tell you my story because it is in our hands, as veterans and as citizens, to preserve the legacy of those who were there. Long after the last of us has rejoined their ranks, we have to make sure that there might never come a day when June 6th means no more than any other day. That there might never be a generation of Americans for whom the name Normandy means nothing at all. Time has…thinned our ranks…since June 6, but on this day of all days, we are always together—in spirit if not in body.

The crowd then enjoyed a C-47 flyover. The Allies used the plane extensively during World War II, with more than 900 C-47s transporting approximately 13,000 paratroopers to Normandy for the invasion. A P-51 flyover brought cheers from the crowd. The P-51 was best known for its role as a long-range escort fighter in Europe, enabling the Allies to gain control of the skies. A T-6 flyover in the missing man formation was particularly stirring. A bugler played taps in memory of the 4,413 who died on June 6 and the thousands more who would give their lives in the days and weeks that followed D-Day. Frédéric Doré, Monsieur le Chargé d’Affaires of France, spoke of his country’s gratefulness to those who fought to liberate France. He remarked, “We will never forget what your sons did to make us free again.”

People laid numerous wreaths to pay tribute to those units, vessels and divisions involved in the invasion, and we dedicated a new sculpture, Homage. A speaker read a portion of the plaque that accompanied the sculpture:

Highlighting the story of Bedford’s loss is a powerful reminder of sacrifice, particularly those on the home front. Families said goodbye to loved ones, not knowing if they would return, and often those who did were never the same. Many family members were never the same either. When Mrs. John Hoback of Bedford, a woman of grit and character, lost both of her sons on D-Day, she carried on, but she did so with a large piece of herself missing. Many years later when she was on the brink of death and lay in her bed (tired and incoherent after a series of strokes), she asked over and over again, “Where are my boys?” When death closed her eyes for the last time, she finally found them.

Veterans moved to the reunion tent after the ceremony to share their experiences with the public and join in camaraderie with one another.

What sorts of programs and exhibitions do you offer?
We are particularly proud of our programs for students. “Valor, Fidelity, Sacrifice,” a presentation that lasts two hours, begins in a period military tent and includes a guided tour reinforced by hands-on-activities. Our Web-based distance-learning offerings enable students anywhere in the United States to view a live program. The memorial’s virtual field trip allows students, teachers or organizations to interact with our staff in real time, providing World War II stories, resources and lessons. We broadcast the live program from a studio decorated like a 1940s living room, complete with artifacts and furnishings.

Supplementing presentations by tour guides are narrative tablets along the memorial walls, which address major military units, naval vessels, air forces and principal leaders and provide engaging accounts of what happened on and around D-Day.

The educational initiative we are most proud of is groundbreaking research that documents the Allied losses on June 6, 1944. The memorial is the only institution in the world to research D-Day fatalities name by name. The foundation sifted through unit reports, military records, databases, microfilm and numerous other sources to verify and add, one by one, the names of those killed. The foundation worked closely with governmental and military officials of the 12 Allied Expeditionary Force nations to identify the 4,413 people who died on D-Day. Of that number, 2,499 were from the United States, while the remaining 1,914 served with the forces of Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. Czechoslovakia, Greece, Netherlands and Poland also participated in the AEF, but their forces had no fatalities on D-Day. The bronze tablets listing the names of the fallen give mute testimony to the terrible costs of war and the scope of sacrifice freedom can demand.

Throughout the year, the memorial also hosts lectures, teacher institutes, commemorative programs, oral history sessions, living history programs, outreach events, concerts and other educational initiatives to support its mission.

What are some of your expansion plans?
An education center is the next big project for us. Ever since we opened, we’ve been collecting artifacts from veterans and their families. People can read names on the wall now, but how wonderful it will be to go into the center and connect a name on the wall with that person’s experience. A great example: Private James Foster, a soldier who died on D-Day. We have his watch—which stopped the moment he hit the beach—his wallet and pictures of his family, his wife. The new facility will promote understanding of this critical period in our history, while also exploring the sacrifices made by those who served our nation and lives impacted on the home front.

Courtesy David Lauterborn
Courtesy David Lauterborn

How do veterans react on visiting the memorial?
You can see them reliving that day in their minds. The memorial has also given them permission to talk about what they saw and experienced, veterans who have never shared their stories before. It is a cathartic place for them, a place of healing.

What about younger visitors?
The young people who experience the memorial and meet veterans are really affected by it. It hits closer to home now because they probably know someone—a mother or father, a brother or sister—who has served or is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are aware of what sacrifice means, and that makes it so much more relevant. It is a touchstone for the next generation. Just a year ago I spoke with a soldier who had already served four tours in Afghanistan. Before going on his next tour of duty, he had driven down to reflect on those who came before him.

How do you personalize the war for them?
Our education program is geared to students. Before a group comes, we give their teacher a list and have them assign their students a name of a soldier in Company A. When the students are onsite, we start calling out the names of those who died and have each student with one of those names stand. And so these kids stand up, look around and see that they are all standing. They are standing there thinking, These are my buddies, and all of us were killed that day. You can hear a pin drop.

A couple of years ago a 12-year-old boy came to the memorial for a school program. Not long after that his teacher called and said the boy wanted to present the memorial with something. I met with the boy, and he presented us with $115 of his own money he had saved from Christmas and his birthday. He said, “I was saving this for a video game, but I’m giving it to the memorial instead.” I asked what made him decide to do that. He said, “People need to not forget.” And I thought, Wow, if we can have that kind of impact on young people!

The war ended 70 years ago. Why continue to commemorate D-Day?
In the same way we reflect on December 7, we want people to remember June 6, not only for the tremendous sacrifice made that day, but also by what we gained—a beach, a country, a continent. We succeeded in defeating this tyranny that existed. We need to reflect on that as a nation and never forget what was lost.

Our D-Day veterans are in their 90s. Five to 10 years from now they’ll be gone, and the torch of their memory and legacy will be squarely in our hands. Whether and in what form we carry it to the next generation is up to us. Monuments last because men cannot, and memorials stand because men cannot stay. We cannot help but lose the men and women of D-Day—that is in higher hands than our own. But we can ensure we preserve their memory and pass on their legacy.

Do you ever regret not being, say, on the Mall in Washington, D.C.?
I can’t imagine it anywhere else. This is hometown America. Most of the men and women were from these little communities where you knew everybody. Most had never traveled more than 50 miles from home, and suddenly they are overseas in lands they wouldn’t have dreamed of before. This place is a very powerful symbol of that. Bedford is emblematic of all communities, large and small, whose citizen-soldiers answered the nation’s call to arms.

Perhaps President George W. Bush, who officially dedicated the monument in 2001, said it best when he stated,

You have raised a fitting memorial to D-Day, and you have put it in just the right place—not on a battlefield of war, but in a small Virginia town, a place like so many others that was home to the men and women who helped liberate a continent.

In its first year of operation more than 400,000 people visited the memorial, including numerous World War II veterans. To date more than 1.3 million visitors have passed through the gates of the memorial to honor sacrifice of Allied forces on D-Day.

What can visitors do to support your mission?
Come experience the memorial—read those names on the wall, see who made that ultimate sacrifice, experience that beach landing scene, the landing craft with the ramp down, and imagine the bullets hitting the water. It will put them in touch with a generation of people who were willing to give their all. This was the largest amphibious assault in history—we’ve never seen anything like it, and we’ll never see anything like it again. This tells that story.

And if they like what they see, support us. The memorial does not receive federal or state funding and is maintained and operated solely from admission fees and contributions. Please visit the memorial online or call (540) 586-3329 for more information.

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