When the 61st anniversary of the history-changing invasion arrives Monday, the National D-Day Memorial will honor the day free of some of the burdens that have beset it since its start.
The end of a federal investigation, a new set of overseers and progress in erasing a staggering debt have all dissipated the pall that has troubled the memorial since it was dedicated by President Bush in June 2001.
“Things are moving right along,” said Liz Bryant, development associate at the memorial.
Tucked near the Blue Ridge Mountains, the memorial sits in the tiny town of Bedford, Va., which claims the sad distinction of having the highest per-capita D-Day toll in America. Of the 35 Bedford soldiers who took part in the June 6, 1945, invasion off the coast of France, 19 never came home.
It was within weeks of Bush’s dedication of the 88-acre, $25 million memorial that trouble first surfaced. By July 2001, the president of the memorial foundation resigned, citing the stress of the effort to complete the memorial.
Within months, the next head of the foundation called for a probe of the organization’s finances, which showed a swollen debt. Then, the entire foundation board stepped down and the U.S. attorney’s office in Roanoke, Va., began scrutinizing the finances. Later, builders threatened to sue over nearly $3 million in bills from subcontractors that remained unpaid.
By all accounts, the financial bind _ which at its peak reached $5 million _ stemmed not from criminality but from over-ambitious and under-experienced folks who had never attempted a project of such magnitude before.
Former memorial foundation president Richard Burrow was charged with deceiving banks and the state of Virginia to get millions of dollars in bank loans and grants. Two trials resulted in hung juries, and last October, the federal prosecutor dropped the charges.
New foundation president William McIntosh, backed by a new board of directors, has mounted a campaign to raise money to retire the lingering debt and proceed with developing the memorial.
At last count, the construction debt has been pared to about $1.4 million and the foundation hopes to retire that soon. The foundation just received a challenge grant from a private foundation in Richmond, which will kick in $200,000 if a like amount is raised from other contributors.
One fund-raising effort is also contributing to the historic record of the invasion, which essentially turned the tide of the war against the Nazis in Europe. After five years of research, a “necrology” has been compiled of the names of all U.S. and allied troops who died during the invasion.
Cast bronze plaques containing the names will hang on the memorial, and sponsors who will donate $5,000 for each of the 232 plaques are being sought. So far, 146 have been underwritten, Bryant said. For $25,000, a donor can also sponsor a narrative plaque that will describe the contributions of a particular unit, person or force.
Despite negative publicity, the memorial has averaged about $1.4 million in overall donations annually. Attendance at the memorial has also been strong, reaching at least 100,000 annually.
About 20,000 school kids a year also take trips to the memorial, which still lacks a planned statue of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a garden gazebo and an educational center for which Hollywood luminary Stephen Spielberg has donated $100,000 in honor of his father, a World War II vet.
On Monday, the memorial will hold a brief, wreath-laying ceremony. As they have each year since the memorial was dedicated, veterans of the invasion will attend, happy to chat with visitors and others about their memories of one of the most important battles in U.S. history.
“Many historians have argued persuasively that D-Day remains the watershed event of the last century,” the memorial’s Web site notes. “The individuals who died in it warrant special recognition.”
On the Web: www.dday.org
(Contact Lisa Hoffman at hoffmanl(at)shns.com)