BEDFORD COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ7)-- In a basement in Bedford, boxes are stacked from the carpet to the ceiling. Filing cabinets are pushed up against one wall, large shelves on the other. It is a feat to find empty space and no matter which box you pick up off any of the shelves, you are almost guaranteed to find treasure.
"It is chilling sometimes to look at some of these artifacts and know that in some cases a man died holding this,” said John Long, Director of Education for the National D-Day Memorial Foundation. “These tangible reminders of what happened in WWII."
Long is in charge of the archive room in the basement of the foundation's building in Bedford. It is a room where you walk between war medals, family portraits and war uniforms in one step.
Each encounter with history brings you closer to the most personal aspects surrounding June 6, 1944. And, in one case, an artifact tells you about the exact moment everything changed.
"It is stopped forever at 8:25 a.m. The moment we assume he died,” said Long, holding a wrist watch. “So this is actually recording the moment of the death of a D-Day hero.”
Jimmy Foster was wearing the watch when he died on Omaha Beach. He was the only fatality from the Town of Waynesboro, according to Long. In addition to his watch, his widow donated his wallet which holds a picture of the young couple and a calendar from 1944.
“It always brings tears to the eye to think about Jimmy Foster and his watch,” said Long.
Most items were donated to the National D-Day Memorial by family members. The collection contains pieces from around the world, but it is Virginia heavy.
In one box, live a pair of boots worn by a Lt. from Roanoke as he crossed Omaha Beach. He saved them and had them sent home. His son later donated the boots to the memorial.
“I think it was very meaningful to him to know these took him across the killing zone in Omaha and he survived,” said Long, holding the boots. “He wanted them to be preserved and now we can use them as an illustration of D-Day.”
The memorial has been receiving donations since before it even opened in 2001. Long carefully curates, numbers and stores each artifact, and will continue to do so until the foundation can build a museum.
Even at more than 11,000 items collected, some still stand out. Long pointed to a heartbreaking letter from a devoted wife to her husband.
Ivylynn Schenk was married to John Schenk, a Bedford Boy who died on D-Day. However, she did not know he died for several weeks.
She wrote him a letter everyday. The last one she wrote to him was on the evening of July 16th, according to Long.
“Telling him about working in the garden, the weather here in Bedford. Just a very friendly letter to the man she loved,” said Long. “What she didn’t know was that he was already dead.”
The letter closed, "It will not be long until you can be done with all that and come home and enjoy a few months of quiet and calm. All my love is yours, Lynn.”
She wrote it on Sunday night and on Monday morning she received the telegram that John had been killed in action.
"It can be very emotionally stirring,” said Long.
But it is the emotions, the handwritten notes and the endless boxes filling the basement that humanize a moment in time that changed history.
"The artifacts didn't win the war. The men did. The ones who were crossing the beaches, jumping out of the airplanes,” said Long. “And the fact that they were carrying this bayonet or wearing these dog tags are a reminder of what happened on June 6th and why we need to remember it."
The foundation is in the very early stages of building a museum/educational center, according to Long. In the meantime, a new education hut was opened at the D-Day Memorial this week. Several artifacts will be placed on display there.