BEDFORD, Va. - When researcher Carol Tuckwiller called the Army's grave registration unit at Fort Lee, Va., to request help identifying every fatality in the D-Day invasion, a skeptical sergeant told her: "There's no single source for this. No one's ever put a list together. It can't be done."
"I told him that's precisely why we were doing it - because it hadn't been done," Tuckwiller recalled the other day as she sat at her computer in the office of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation located in this country town midway between Lynchburg and Roanoke. Bedford proportionally lost more of its soldier sons June 6, 1944, than any town in the United States.
Now, after two years of dogged research, scouring military records, setting up an elaborate database and tracking down U.S., British and Canadian veterans, the foundation is closing in on its goal of compiling the first list of those who died on the Normandy beaches. So far Tuckwiller has identified 3,700 of the estimated 4,400 killed.
"An effort like this, as labor intensive as it is, makes an important contribution to our understanding of military history," said John F. Votaw, executive director of the First Division Museum at Cantigny in Wheaton, Ill. "It connects with oral history projects and the database gives us a better understanding of the invasion and who the soldiers were, as well as providing an entry point for historians to ask larger questions."
Tuckwiller's first task was to determine which Allied units participated in what Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called "the great crusade," an operation involving 154,000 troops spread across 50 miles of French coastline. The list of Army units alone filled 12 single-spaced pages. Then, under the Freedom of Information Act, she had to gain access to the units' microfilmed "morning reports" - a one-page log every company commander files daily to his headquarters that shows "a record of events" and changes in the status of personnel.
The notations that caught her attention were "fm dy to kia" - stark, cold shorthand for saying a soldier's status had changed in the past 24 hours from being on active duty to being killed in action. But information often was incorrect. Soldiers who were separated from their units and thought to be dead sometimes reappeared. Others buried in temporary graves were reinterred. Many men seemed to simply disappear. Each name became part of a giant jigsaw puzzle for Tuckwiller.
"I ran into the name Raymond Aubin, and it looked familiar," she said. "Sure enough it was in the database, but with two death dates." Tuckwiller found an association of Aubin's landing-craft unit and two eyewitnesses e-mailed her the precise details of his death.
"One of them came by the office a few months ago and brought me this picture, and there's Mr. Aubin right there," she said, touching the figure of a handsome young man in a faded black-and-white photo of the ill-fated unit. "I love the sequence of events you discover in this research. It makes everything so personal."
The names of the U.S. and Allied fatalities on D-Day - an invasion that broke Adolf Hitler's grip on Europe and led to Germany's surrender on May 7, 1945 - will be placed on 116 bronze plaques and mounted on the D-Day Memorial, a stirring monument on 88 acres here whose dedication last year was attended by President Bush. More than 200,000 people visited the memorial in the last year. Many veterans left mementos to fallen comrades, as do younger veterans at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
"This memorial means everything to D-Day vets and to the town of Bedford," said Roy Stevens, 82, who was one of 70 young men from Bedford inducted into the Army before the Normandy invasion at a salary of $21 a month. "The 70 of us were like family. We knew each other's habits just like we were brothers."
Stevens and his twin brother, Ray, then 25, were among 35 Bedford soldiers of Company A of the 116th Infantry in the first attack wave. Nineteen of them died, most in the first 15 minutes of the invasion. The dead were buried in the sand when the fighting died down, then moved to a temporary cemetery on higher ground.
"I had hopes Ray made it and was maybe in a hospital," Stevens said. "Then, on about the fourth day, I went up the hill to the cemetery. They'd put up wooden crosses. The first one I went up to, and cleaned the mud off a dog tag, it was Ray's. The telegrams notifying families a son or a husband had been killed didn't reach Bedford for about a month. Then they came in a burst. It was like a veil of tears settled over the whole town."
The town of Bedford, then with a population of 3,200, claimed the distinction of having suffered the greatest proportional D-Day loss in the country. Some communities, such as Roanoke, 28 miles to the west, contended its per capita losses were higher, because some of Bedford's casualties undoubtedly came from Bedford County, which was 10 times larger than the town of Bedford.
William McIntosh, a retired Army colonel who is president of the D-Day foundation, says the point is insignificant. Bedford was chosen as the site for the memorial - and the plaques listing the dead - because, "It is emblematic of all the American heartland communities, large and small, that have provided citizen soldiers," he said.
McIntosh said the foundation's future is not threatened by debt - which, although decreased, still stands at $4.3 million - or by the indictment last month of Richard Burrow, 35, a Roanoke engineer who was hired in 1996 to build the memorial. He is accused of fraud for allegedly misleading lenders in his haste to secure loans to finish the site in time for its dedication last summer. He has pleaded not guilty and is not charged with having gained personally from the transactions.
"He was working his fanny off to get that thing finished," said D-Day veteran Bob Slaughter of Roanoke, who spearheaded the idea to build a memorial and who has started a defense fund for Burrow to which many vets have contributed. "He was doing this for us. That's why we're standing behind him."
David Lamb is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.