For D-Day architect, memorial reflects an unbreakable will
'These weren't professional warriors ... but they were patriotic'
By JAY CONLEY
The Roanoke Times
June 3, 2001
One day in 1989, Byron Dick on read a newspaper column about the pie-in-the-sky dream of Bob Slaughter, a D-Day veteran from Roanoke : to build a memorial to World War II soldiers and sailors who had
launched the Allied invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944.
Natalee Waters / The Roanoke Times
Byron Dickson, 63, checks a loose piece at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford in April. The memorial opens Wednesday, the 57th anniversary of the invasion at Normandy.
The idea grabbed Dickson, an architect who designed bank branch buildings, grocery store expansions and houses from an office in his Roanoke home. Dickson also was a military history buff, and he saw a D-Day memorial as a rare opportunity to merge his architectural skills with his hobby. He called D-Day organizers and volunteered his services.
There was no site, no money and virtually no support for the project.
"A lot of people thought these guys were crazy. You wouldn't believe how skeptical people were," Dickson recalled. "People didn't even know what D-Day was, much less why we ought to be doing a memorial."
About 12 years, $14 million and thousands of hours of research and sketches later, the small-town architect is about to cap a 35-year career with a project that will hold the world's attention, at least for a day.
On Wednesday, President Bush, hundreds of military veterans, national and international media and thousands of onlookers will attend the dedication of Dickson's creation, the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford. When Dickson, 63, joined the D-Day foundation, designs for the memorial were far from the first order of business. The big question was, where would it go?
Early efforts to find a home for the memorial were frustrating and torturous, Dickson recalled. The foundation's suggestions to put it on Mill Mountain or anywhere else in Roanoke fell on deaf ears. For years, Dickson and Slaughter, the foundation's chairman, drove all over town trying to raise money and D-Day awareness. Dickson had a slide presentation. Slaughter told the story of Omaha Beach.
In 1994, the project landed in Bedford. City officials embraced the idea of the memorial and offered a rolling, 88-acre site for it. The open, grassy hilltop was gorgeous. It overlooked downtown Bedford, and the mountainous Peaks of Otter loomed in the background.
It made sense to build the memorial in the small city of 6,300, because s oldiers from Bedford and surrounding Bedford County were among the first wave of American troops to land at Normandy's Omaha Beach. These Bedford boys, as members of Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division, became known, came under heavy German fire.
In all, 21 Bedford men died during the invasion, the largest number of casualties per-capita of any community in the United States during the war. Men from Roanoke and Southwest Virginia also perished on the beach.
Now that they had a place to put the monument, next came the daunting task of raising money to pay for it . Dickson, meanwhile, had been drawing some possible designs.
"I've never been driven by profit. I enjoy what I do. I just wanted the opportunity to be around the veterans and talk about World War II," he said. "Do a few sketches, and just sort of pal around with the guys I admired. I was in heaven."
In 1997, amid its fund-raising efforts, the foundation received a $2.5 million commitment from Virginia. That kicked the planning for the monument into overdrive.
Memorial required studying the art of war
Foundation members such as Gen. William Rosson of Salem had embraced Dickson's designs from the start. Shortly after the state kicked in taxpayer millions, Dickson resigned from the foundation and was hired as the architect.
His negotiated fee is 15 percent of the memorial's $14 million cost, or slightly more than $2 million. But after Dickson pays the subcontractors he's hired, he estimates he'll clear about $200,000.
The foundation listed three directives for the design, Dickson said. The memorial had to commemorate the sacrifices of the invasion force, convey the reality of war, yet be attractive so people would come to see it.
Dickson had never deeply delved into war memorial design, but he was a quick study. He pored over books on the Normandy invasion, such as "Decision in Normandy" by Carlo D'este and "The Architecture of War," which details how Normandy's beaches were fortified by the Germans.
He also schooled himself in the history of war-monument architecture. He found arches erected in Europe under which victorious armies could march, as well as statues in the United States - especially those honoring the Civil War - that showed soldiers on horses with their swords drawn and heroic expressions on their faces.
"You don't do a memorial like this without doing your homework," Dickson said. "I toured every memorial I could find."
One of the things many military monuments had in common, he found, was an absence of the horrors of war. But that wouldn't fit in Bedford, which had lost so many men.
To find out what the invasion was like, Dickson got firsthand accounts from local veterans.
He found a pattern in their stories.
"I'd pick their brain and just listen," he said. "Almost to a man, the soldiers are just so appalled by death, the carnage that goes on in war."
Then, n 1998, Dickson, D-Day sculptor Jim Brothers and other foundation members visited invasion sites in Normandy, France, to study the landscape. They looked at German bunkers still standing at Point Du Hoc. They walked on Omaha Beach.
What they saw, Slaughter says, still looks much like it did 57 years ago.
Bedford Mayor Mike Shelton, who went along on the trip, watched as Dickson painstakingly took notes.
"I could tell this is a guy who had some real vision and knew how to do research," Shelton said. Dickson has "been so absorbed in the people and events of D-Day," Shelton said. "Byron's attached clearly. You can see it and hear it and feel it come out of him."
'Designs have lent dignity and power' to D-Day site
The result of Dickson's research is a concrete edifice that covers more than eight acres. Because visitors drive up to it from the rear, their first impression is a view of the invasion in reverse.
A 44-foot - high, art - deco-style arch bears the invasion's military code name, Overlord, and is the memorial's most prominent feature. It symbolizes the invasion's success and can be seen from the highway.
Below the arch is a replica of a German bunker looming over bronze sculptures of American soldiers storming Omaha Beach. Some of the soldiers have fallen. Others are desperately trying to scale the wall-like bunker.
A reflecting pool with intermittent jets shoots water into the air, resembling the spray of German gunfire and the harrowing experience of combat.
Beyond that is a sprawling, circular plaza flanked by concrete walls upon which will be engraved the names of about 6,000 Allied soldiers killed on D-Day. Behind the plaza is an English garden, representing the months of training and preparation by Allied forces in England before the invasion.
Dickson says he views the memorial as an expression of gratitude to regular guys who were thrust into battle.
"These weren't professional warriors. ... Most of those guys had no idea what they were getting into," Dickson said. "But they were patriotic."
Richard Burrow, the foundation's executive director since 1996, said Dickson's design has passed muster among hundreds of veterans, architects and memorial consultants who have reviewed it.
Slaughter couldn't be happier with Dickson's work.
"I can't think of many things we've changed that he's wanted to do," Slaughter said. "It's a neat concept, and I think it's pretty pleasing to the eye."
"The brilliance of Byron's designs have lent dignity, and power, to the entire D-Day site," said Paul Dorrell, an art consultant who specializes in monumental sculpture and who represents Brothers.
But the design also has earned Dickson some stiff criticism.
In a March article in The Weekly Standard, Washington, D.C., art critic Catesby Leigh called the memorial "preposterous." Canvas-covered pavilions on either side were clunky, Leigh wrote. He panned the dispersion of "hyper-realistic sculptures of American troops" in the huge middle plaza and cited the overall design as a good example of "conceptual confusion."
Dickson, however, said that the design works because the open plaza between the English garden and the beachhead scene creates a sense of drama that builds as visitors move around it.
"Your anxiety and anticipation grow as you walk across that plaza," Dickson said.
Dorrell said the middle plaza gives visitors time to take in all that the memorial has to offer.
"Reflection is the biggest part of a memorial," Dorrell said.
'I've gotten more out of it than I've really deserved'
A native Roanoker, Dickson muses that there are plenty of talented people who shun high-profile positions in big cities such as New York and Los Angeles in exchange for the convenience of small-town living.
Shelton, the Bedford ayor, agrees.
"You'd think he'd be in one of the large firms from New York," Shelton said. "It clearly gives you a sense of what you have in your own back yard."
A University of Virginia graduate, Dickson returned to Roanoke in 1969 after a three-year stint in the army and jobs in Washington D.C., Greensboro, N.C., and Sioux Falls, S.D.
At the time, Dickson was married with two children. ( He has since divorced.) He saw Roanoke as a good place to raise his young family. He also hated long commutes to work.
"It's time I could be spending on other projects," Dickson said.
He eliminated his commute altogether in 1987, when he bought a stately three-bedroom, 1930s Tudor - style house across from the Roanoke Country Club and made it his home and office.
A self-proclaimed workaholic, Dickson used to wake at 5 a.m., walk the few feet from his bedroom to his office and work on his computer in his pajamas. By the time his staff arrived, "I'd already done a day's worth of correspondence."
He bought a duplex next door almost two years ago and separated his home from the office. Now Dickson's workday commute is about 70 yards.
He spent years working on local and regional projects. Some of them include work at the Bast Center and Olin Hall at Roanoke College, the Promenade Park shopping center, the family life center at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Salem and a recreation park in Franklin County.
But of all the projects on which Dickson has worked , the D-Day memorial has consumed him the most - but in a way unique from any other construction project.
"I feel like I've gotten more out of it than really I've deserved, just from the experience," he said.