D-Day memorial finds new ways to tell veterans’ stories

World War II photos and memorabilia adorn the walls of Cheek-Messier’s top-floor office of the National D-Day Memorial’s headquarters overlooking East Main Street in Bedford, about halfway between Lynchburg and Roanoke.

Some images especially dear are of veterans Cheek-Messier met over the years who fought, sacrificed and are like family. As uplifting and heartfelt as they are, a stinging bittersweet reality is clear when she glances at them.

“They’re leaving us. It’s hard,” Cheek-Messier, the organization’s president, said in a recent interview. “It was always so wonderful to have them with us.”

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People gather at the National D-Day Memorial for a Memorial Day Ceremony on May 26, 2024.

As the memorial prepares for its large-scale commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Normandy invasion on Thursday, Cheek-Messier recalls so many World War II veterans who have come through Bedford’s sacred memorial for close to 23 years.

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“You get very attached to them and you get to know their stories,” Cheek-Messier said. “To know that most of them aren’t with us anymore is very, very hard, but at the same time it just makes our jobs more important.”

The mission is to make sure they are never forgotten, she said.

“These are their stories, and we are responsible now.”

‘Strong as we’ve ever been’

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Holden Magill throws a paper airplane during the one day mini-camp at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford on Thursday, July 6, 2023.

On a summer day nearly three months before three planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the National D-Day Memorial celebrated its opening with thousands in attendance at the 55-acre site a short drive from U.S. 460, its Overlord Arch visible on a hill from the highway.

Three months before he stood in the rubble in New York City with a megaphone stating “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon,” President George W. Bush walked side by side with Bob Slaughter, the late Roanoke D-Day veteran instrumental in the bringing the memorial to fruition, to help dedicate it on June 6, 2001.

Fast forward to 23 years later, Cheek-Messier said of the nonprofit foundation: “I think we are probably as strong as we’ve ever been.”

The memorial has a real feel for the stories that need to be told and how to tell them, she said.

“We’ve always known how important it is but expressing it to diverse audiences is something we achieved,” Cheek-Messier said. “Financially, we are very strong. We have been able to grow our donor base exceptionally well over the past few years, which is great. It’s a great feeling to know this national monument truly has a national presence.”

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World War II veterans shake hands with Gov. Glenn Youngkin during the 79th anniversary of D-Day invasion ceremony at the National D-Day Memorial on June 6, 2023. 

The donor base includes all 50 states and 14 international destinations, and the memorial has a “very healthy endowment,” she said. In terms of museums, she said the memorial and its 23 employees, both full time and part-time, is relatively young and it strives to be open as much as it can year-round.

The memorial dedicated the first portion of a new trail last June and will dedicate the second on June 6 in a scenic wooded area around the monument that people don’t typically get to see, according to Cheek-Messier.


Lucille Boggess presents a Bible that her late brother Raymond had during the D-Day invasion in June 1944 to April Cheek-Messier, president and CEO of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation.

“For me, the memorial has always been a place of remembrance, it’s a place where you can truly reflect on that sense of loss and sacrifice,” she said. “The thinking was let’s take this beautiful area that’s around the monument and expand the story we’re telling.”

The “learning trail” will be used for multiple purposes with kiosks to educate pedestrians about how natural resources were used during World War II.

“You’ll learn how fabric, cloth, timber, minerals and all these various things were used to help us win the war effort,” Cheek-Messier said.

The goal is to appeal to the youth and a trail mascot will greet them along the 1-mile loop, she said.

The new trail ties with a master plan that is a roadmap for the site’s future and includes a large educational center with multiple spaces for exhibits.

“We’ve got more than 15,000 artifacts and we want to be able to show a good portion of that,” Cheek-Messier said. “We really want some larger exhibit space and a place for people to go in the winter. A lot of our visitation is driven by the weather. In the winter, it’s kind of tough because we’re mostly an outdoor site. A large indoor space will certainly be beneficial to us to be able to encourage year-round visitation.”

An outdoor amphitheater and a 1940-style motor pool, a smaller building to house a collection of World War II vehicles and exhibits, also is part of the master plan, she said.

The memorial averages between 50,000 to 60,000 visitors per year and this year has been busier with more students pouring in through field trips than any other time in more than a decade, Cheek-Messier said.

“That’s important to us. We’re an educational foundation, so that’s really something that we’re very proud of, to see so many school groups coming, and we do a lot distance learning too,” she said.

The memorial was fortunate in weathering the storm of COVID-19, she said, explaining its visitation decrease of 20% to 30% was much less drastic than other sites.

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Bob Slaughter was 19 years old when he took part in one of the largest invasions in history on June 6, 1944.

“The impact was not as severe as it could have been for us because we are mostly an outdoor site,” she said, adding it pivoted to virtual events with live streaming that attracted thousands of viewers.

Staying true to the mission

A Bedford native, Cheek-Messier said she had relatives who served in the war and she knew some of “The Bedford Boys,” the famed group of local soldiers from Company A whose heavy casualties inspired the memorial to locate in Bedford. The company suffered the most lives lost per capita from D-Day than any other in the country.

A history major who loves the subject, Cheek-Messier said she was in graduate school when she knew the memorial would become reality.

“I knew it was some place I wanted to be,” Cheek-Messier said. “The most exciting thing was to see these very important stories of those who had given everything, it was getting out there. People were going to know about why they gave their lives.”

The New York Times bestselling book “The Bedford Boys” tells the story of the young men, most of whom were killed on the first day of the invasion. In her 11th year as the memorial’s president, Cheek-Messier said it is gratifying to recall Bush and Slaughter, who never gave up in making sure the memorial came to life, dedicating the site to much fanfare.

“And I continue to feel that today,” Cheek-Messier said. “Every time we get ready for a big anniversary, or just day to day, seeing students at the memorial is so gratifying to think of Roy Stevens and Ray Nance and all the Bedford Boys and beyond that, all those who served and sacrificed, that their stories are being told and I think that’s the most important thing.”

Stevens, a “Bedford Boys” survivor of D-Day who died 17 years ago, was an active presence at the memorial in its first six years. Cheek-Messier smiles when remembering him, stating the staff always made sure to have his coffee ready when he stopped by. Nance, the last of the group who fought on the beach and return to Bedford, died 15 years ago.

“To have it in their hometown, I think, meant so much to them,” Cheek-Messier said, adding many buried the trauma they dealt with for years.

She said today fewer than 1% of 16 million World War II veterans are still living.

“That’s a sad reality and I think that’s why it makes even more urgent that we continue to make sure we are telling the stories and how we’re telling the stories,” Cheek-Messier said. “We’ve got a younger generation who learn in different ways, they are very digital and love technology and so we are being very creative in how we’re working to meet them where they are.”

For example, she said a person can hold a photo at the memorial and through a virtual reality experience have a view from a Higgins boat with planes flying overhead, which makes it feel much more real for youth, she said. Another app shows pop-up features such as standing in front of the sculpture of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and his order of the day address will appear on the phone.

“We’re constantly kind of challenging ourselves to figure out how do we continue to tell the story,” Cheek-Messier said. “We’re trying to make it interactive for people.”

A common question is what the memorial will do when the last World War II veteran dies, she said, and she finds more and more people are getting nostalgic and making sure that important history is passed on to their children and future generations.

“From our international visitors, they are always extremely impressed and pleased that we don’t just tell the American side of the story. We are a monument that tells the stories of the Allies,” Cheek-Messier said. “They see … plaques from their own countries. It was a truly combined effort among Allies to make D-Day successful.”

Many find the wall with the names of those who died June 6, 1944, a meaningful experience, she said.

“… Those are things that make people proud and grateful,” Cheek-Messier said. “It’s in just the right place. It is in a small, rural homefront town that is not in the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan area. This was homefront America and I think for a lot of people that really resonates … because they can understand how immense that loss was and how important it is to think about that and those families that suffered those losses.”

The memorial always is in need of volunteers, including retired educators or anyone who likes to work with students and groups. Telling others about the memorial or becoming a foundation member are ways to support the foundation with one perk being free admission for any visit, she added.

“Our donor and member bases have grown significantly over the past decade,” Cheek-Messier said. “Less than 25% of our funds to support the foundation annually come from ticket sales or gift shop sales, at least 75% of our operation costs we have to raise throughout the year.”

Keeping the sacrifices alive

With future plans in swing and a strong master plan for growth, Cheek-Messier is optimistic the memorial will be well positioned when the 100th anniversary comes in 2044. The memorial is educating more people now than ever on the legacy of D-Day and World War II, she said.

“We’re in a really strong place and I could not be more excited and more proud of how far we’ve come and just the fact that our veterans over the years that we have met and talked to truly appreciate and are pleased with everything that we’re doing,” she said. “They know that we continue to pass on their stories, and I think that’s the best gratification of all, to know that we are doing what those original founders, including Bob Slaughter, set out to do, and we’re achieving that and I’m very proud of that.”

C.G. Stanley, who serves on Bedford Town Council, recalled the excitement, fanfare and sweltering heat of the memorial’s 2001 dedication.

“I’ve said this many times … if you grew up in Bedford, you knew about the sacrifice that Bedford made during the Normandy invasion,” Stanley said, adding his father fought the Japanese in World War II. “He could not talk about that without getting emotional and tears falling down his eyes. But that’s the impact it had on people.”

His father, Clarence, knew some of the soldiers who fought overseas and didn’t come back.

“I don’t think any other place would have done it justice,” Stanley said of the memorial’s home in Bedford. “The thing about D-Day is those stories came out from the ones who came out and survived. If that D-Day Memorial had not been up there, those stories would have gone to the grave … It has done wonders to draw people here and it keeps that sacrifice alive.”

Bedford Mayor Tim Black said the town is honored and proud to have the memorial in town as a testament to the sacrifices of “The Bedford Boys” and many American and Allied soldiers who took part in “one of the most historic events in our nation’s and world’s history.”

“It’s imperative that we remember them and honor them and recognize them constantly, to tell their story, to educate future generations on the significance of what those young men accomplished and show that with courage, commitment and perseverance, good will always win over evil,” Black said.

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