D-Day Memorial in Dire Need
Lucille Boggess lost two brothers in the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. She wonders what will happen to the memorial to them and the other "Bedford Boys" whose deaths that day made their town in the Blue Ridge foothills a national symbol of suffering in World War II.
"I'd be very saddened" if the financially troubled National D-Day Memorial in the southwest Virginia town had to close, says Boggess, 80. "This community made a sacrifice on D-Day. We want our young people to understand."
Bedford lost 19 sons on D-Day, more proportionally than any other U.S. community. In all, 22 soldiers from the town of 3,400 died in the invasion. That loss prompted Congress to choose the town 200 miles from Washington for a memorial to the greatest amphibious assault in history.
Congress gave little more than its good wishes. Private funds covered the $19 million construction cost. The memorial has relied on admission fees and donations since its dedication in 2001.
Bedford's remote location, the recession and the dwindling ranks of World War II veterans have combined to devastate the memorial's bottom line. Ray Nance, the last surviving Bedford Boy, died in April.
Visitor fees bring in $600,000 for a memorial that costs $2.2 million a year to run. Unable to make up the shortfall, the memorial has asked the National Park Service to take over its bronze sculptures of soldiers scaling cliffs and dodging geysers in a reflecting pool that evoke enemy bullets pinging the water. "I cannot say we will get through the winter," says William McIntosh, president of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, which runs the 88-acre memorial overlooking downtown Bedford.
Assessing the need
A park service assessment team sent at the prompting of Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. Tom Perriello, both D-Va., visited the memorial last month. The lawmakers have introduced bills to transfer it to federal oversight, but the hurdles to making it the agency's 392nd park unit are high.
"A lot of towns were affected by World War II and D-Day," says park service historian Gerry Gaumer, who has visited the memorial and whose uncle fought in Normandy. "The question is whether we can afford to run it and is it nationally significant enough . . . or is it something we already have?"
Nearly 22 million people have visited the National World War II Memorial since it opened on the National Mall in Washington five years ago. In Hawaii, the USS Arizona memorial attracts 1.5 million people a year.
The D-Day Memorial averages 85,000 visitors annually - nearly half from Virginia. It hit a high of 410,000 visitors in its first year before attendance plummeted sharply.
McIntosh says the memorial's location is central to its story but concedes it "was not something that was carefully thought out" during the planning stage.
The memorial declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy soon after opening.
Fundraising put it back in the black, but last year's stock market crash caused donations to drop and deficits to soar, McIntosh says.
Wary of a precedent
Terry Moore, the park service planner who led the assessment visit, says Bedford has an "impressive memorial," but taking it over "could set a precedent we ought to be careful about."
At least 25 historic and scenic sites are being considered for national park status. Among them are state parks that local legislators pressed by budget deficits would like to unload on the federal government, Moore says.
Among them is the Pennsylvania spot where George Washington crossed the Delaware and sites near Massachusetts' Plymouth Rock, where the Pilgrims landed.
If the park service takes over the Bedford memorial, Moore says, the site would probably close in the winter and reduce staffing from 24 people to 10.
Privately built memorials have been taken in before, former park service historian Dwight Pitcaithley says. The most notable: Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
Still, Moore says, the park service should be "very cautious" accepting other "self-proclaimed national" sites.
Boggess, a former D-Day Memorial board member, says many in Bedford would prefer to keep local control but notes it "doesn't seem feasible" to raise the $33 million needed for an endowment fund.
Still, McIntosh says, the D-Day Memorial "tells the story of what was the watershed event of the 20th century. Everything in the century flows to it or from it."