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Stalin Raises a Ruckus at American D-Day Memorial

Should he stay or should he go? A heated war of words erupted in a Virginia town this summer when a sculpture of Stalin was added to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford—a small town 200 miles south of Washington, D.C.—joining a bronze lineup of all of the major Allied leaders of World War II, including Roosevelt, Truman, and Churchill.

For months before the bust’s unveiling, a group of local residents, backed by some veterans groups, protested the Soviet dictator’s inclusion in the memorial, pointing out that no Soviet troops fought on D-Day. When the sculpture went up as planned, tempers boiled over, and the county board of supervisors unanimously voted to recommend that the bust be removed. “I don’t see where Stalin fits in,” said Annie Pollard, the board’s vice chair, during a testy midsummer board meeting. “I’m just embarrassed we have gone this course…to put him on a pedestal, I think, is the worst thing that ever happened in this county.” Bedford, with a population of just over 6,000, was selected as the site of the memorial— which opened in 2001—to honor the town’s enormous sacrifice during the D-Day landings, when 21 of its men were killed.

Treading carefully in the wake of the board’s resolution—which drew national media attention and harsh words from Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), who pointed out that the “long term viability of the memorial will depend on its ability to maintain the support of the community”—the foundation that operates the monument has continued to stand its ground. Acknowledging the concerns expressed by Bedford residents, Robin Reed, president and CEO of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, insisted that the memorial was simply trying to tell the whole story about the Normandy landings— which might not have been successful without Stalin. “As a lifelong educator,” Reed said, “I believe the foundation has a responsibility to serve as a catalyst for serious discourse regarding key historical figures and their actions as they related to the D-Day story and World War II in general. To do otherwise is a serious disservice to those individuals that lived and died during those historical events.”

Though Soviet troops didn’t fight on D-Day, few historians would disagree that their presence on the Eastern Front had a dramatic effect on the battle, drawing hundreds of thousands of German soldiers who might have bolstered the Atlantic Wall defenses away from the battlefield. In a plaque beneath the bust of Stalin, the memorial leaves no doubt that although Stalin was an ally during the war, he was a deeply flawed one. After detailing the Soviet dictator’s role in the famines and purges that killed millions of his own citizens in the 1920s and 1930s—crimes that predated his nonaggression pact with the Nazis and his own invasions of Poland and Finland—text on the plaque points out that Stalin nonetheless played a key role at D-Day. After years of calling for a second front, the Soviet dictator heavily influenced the date and time of the invasion during the Tehran conference in 1943. And when the landings began, so, too, did the race to Berlin—a competition between the Allied armies that would shape Europe for the entirety of the Cold War.

The sculptor of the bust, for his part, has said that his intent was never to glorify, or even to celebrate, Stalin. “He was just a terrible person,” said Richard Pumphrey, a professor and artist at nearby Lynchburg College, in an interview last year. “So the challenge [was] to embody the terror he instilled.” As evil as Stalin may have been, though, Pumphrey has insisted the Soviet dictator belongs in the memorial, comparing leaving Stalin out of the D-Day story with failing to include Judas in The Last Supper. “In my portrait of Stalin, he looks mean. He looks vengeful,” Pumphrey said. But he belongs there, just the same. “It might represent an inconvenient history for some,” he says. “But it is history.”

U-boat Wrecks Off English Coast Identified

The tide turned in the Battle of the Atlantic long before the end of World War II, but that didn’t stop the Kriegsmarine from dispatching hundreds of U-boats in 1944 and 1945 on doomed, last-ditch missions to disrupt Allied shipping. By the war’s end, of the 860 U-boats to see frontline service during the war, more than three in four failed to return—many of them disappearing without a trace in the war’s final months.

Historians have spent decades trying to tie up these lingering loose ends, poring over naval records and diving on wrecks in an effort to identify the final resting places of the dozens of U-boats that are still missing. This summer, they were able to declare a small victory, when an American marine exploration company issued a final report on a 2008 survey of the English Channel that identified the wrecks of five previously unidentified German submarines—some of them far from where naval records said they had last been seen.

Using a submersible armed with a high-powered underwater camera, Odyssey Marine Exploration, based in Tampa, Florida, found the five U-boats clustered around the coast of Cornwall, where they seem to have fallen prey to the deadly combination of minefields and depth charges that protected Allied convoys en route to ports across Europe.

After examining unique features like the subs’ gun placements and bow shapes, Axel Niestlé, a German U-boat expert who accompanied the expedition, was able to determine the identities of all five submarines, including the wrecks of the U-325 and U-650, two U-boats historians had been unable to find any information about since they went missing a few months before the war ended. Niestlé believes a further search in the area will reveal the identities and exact locations of another dozen U-boats thought to be nearby.

“This is only a small piece of information we can add to the whole picture of the war,” Niestlé told World War II. “But it’s still important to find these answers. On each of these boats were 50 crewmen, and for their relatives, this closes the book. Now, for the first time, there is a way to remember them—to know what happened.”

Mein Kar Loan

Historians could be forgiven their rueful chuckles this summer after a collection of historical records from the prison that held Adolf Hitler in 1924 sold at auction for $33,400. Among the documents was a previously unknown letter from Hitler to a Mercedes dealer asking for assistance with a most mundane request: a car loan.

While Hitler spent much of his time in prison for his role in the Munich beer hall putsch writing Mein Kampf, he also seems to have had his sights set on lesser goals. In particular, a gray 11/40 model Mercedes-Benz, which cost 18,000 Reichsmarks. For the jailbound Hitler, at the time a failed artist and failed revolutionary, there was just one problem: he didn’t have that kind of money. “The hardest thing for me at the moment lies in the fact that the biggest payment for my work is not expected until the middle of December,” Hitler wrote in September 1924 to Jacob Ferlin, a Mercedes dealer. “So I am compelled to ask for a loan in advance. Naturally something on the order of several thousand marks would be a big help.”

It is unclear if the dealer sold Hitler the car when he was released from prison a few months later. Hitler’s original letter disappeared, and the trail of correspondence seems to have ended there. But the prison kept a copy of his initial request, which turned up recently at a German flea market and was authenticated by the Bavarian State Archive in Munich.

In the end, as he rose to power over the next decade, Hitler frightened the world by getting just about everything he wanted—a fleet of Mercedes-Benz vehicles included.

Offshore Poison Gas Dump to Remain Near Oahu

Going for a swim off Waikiki got a little less appealing this summer, when the U.S. Army announced that a stockpile of World War II–era chemical weapons dumped in deep water five miles off the coast of Oahu will have to stay there, since moving them might be more dangerous than leaving them on the ocean floor.

The army dropped some 16,000 pounds of bombs on the site when World War II ended, each one containing 73 pounds of mustard gas—a weapon that was never used during the war. At the time, the deep ocean off the coast of Hawaii was a frequently used munitions dumping ground, and records show that thousands more pounds of munitions were dumped in the area. An investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives five years ago found that World War II–era chemical weapons were dumped in at least 26 locations off the coast of 11 states. A law passed in 2006 requires the Defense Department to report annually on known dump sites.

Margo Edwards, a senior research scientist on a University of Hawaii team that has been using submersible vehicles to monitor the bombs near Oahu, released a report this summer that said the weapons are not currently hazardous. Samples of marine life taken six feet away from the munitions showed no signs of contamination, but the bombs still require close attention. “They’re clearly deteriorating. Most of the ones that I saw were intact,” Edwards told reporters. “They had not broken, breached. But they are rusting away.” If the canisters were to begin leaking, the mustard gas would form a concentrated gel that would likely last at least five years in saltwater, lying on the ocean floor. The gel would cause severe burns in any humans or marine life that came in contact with it.

In a statement released after the University of Hawaii study was published, J. C. King, the army’s assistant for munitions and chemical matters, said the military’s policy is to leave underwater munitions in place—particularly when removing them might cause even greater damage—and to continue to educate people about what to do if they find a shell. (Hint: Don’t touch it). King did say that weapons posing an imminent threat should be removed from the area.


Originally published in the December 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here