Illinois river town plans lasting D-Day tribute

Illinois river town plans lasting D-Day tribute

Driving past the towering limestone bluffs overlooking the Great River Road and Mississippi River at Grafton, Ill., in 2019, Mike Morrow exclaimed to his wife, Lynne, “It’s Pointe du Hoc!”

The couple had just returned from Normandy, France, where they’d stood at the site of what Gen. Omar Bradley called “the most dangerous mission of D-Day.” In the early hours of June 6, 1944, members of the 2nd Ranger Battalion scaled 100-foot cliffs to neutralize German artillery expected to fire on U.S. troops landing at Omaha and Utah beaches.

The Grafton cliffs’ resemblance to those scaled by Army Rangers that day gave Morrow an idea. Soon after voters elected him mayor in 2021, he proposed the city build a veterans memorial complex emphasizing not just bravery and sacrifice in war, but the positive nature of military service.

“It’s the right place and the right time,” says Morrow, a retired Army colonel, Gulf War veteran and member of Whalen-Hill American Legion Post 648 in Grafton. “We have to educate our children.”

The Grafton memorial will be wide in scope, with a plaza and museum that pay tribute to veterans of all war eras – those drafted and those who volunteered, those who saw combat and those who never went to war. “This is for them and their families, too,” Morrow says.

Twelve bronze Ranger statues, though, are expected to be the big draw – five of which will be anchored to the cliff face, representing the heroic climb up Pointe du Hoc. Installation of the statues is on track for fall 2025, followed by the memorial’s dedication June 6, 2026.

The plaza will have obelisks representing the six branches of the U.S. military, with an adjacent courtyard offering visitors an opportunity to reflect. As for the museum, Morrow envisions educational programs and immersive experiences, to give people a sense of what it was like to ride in, say, a landing craft, tank or helicopter.

Last year, re-enactors from the 2nd Ranger Battalion of St. Louis camped under the cliffs near the memorial site, where they talked to visitors about Army life during World War II and what happened on D-Day. The group will return to Grafton this week for the 80th anniversary of the invasion, with uniforms, equipment and models for 3D scans to create the Ranger sculptures. 

Morrow and architect Jamie Henderson talked to several foundries, eventually selecting Carolina Bronze Sculpture of Seagrove, N.C. “They said, ‘We’ve done our homework and contacted every foundry we know, and there is no other project like this in the world,’” Morrow says. “I thought, ‘Wow.’”

The total cost to build the memorial complex is $6 million, but Morrow is encouraged by the support he’s seeing from the community. “I’ve had people walk in the door and say, ‘I heard you on the radio’ and hand me a check,” he says. “Two Vietnam veterans -- both cancer survivors, Agent Orange -- came in with $1,000 in cash and said, ‘We just want to help.’ Everybody says it’s a great idea.”

A small river town, Grafton has the highest population of veterans per capita in the state, at 17%. Post 648 helped kick off fundraising with a $2,000 donation, and the local Raging Rivers Waterpark will host a “Storm the Beach!” event for families on June 7, with profits benefiting the National Museum of Military Ascent.

“This will be something we can all be proud of, and a great thing for Grafton,” says Russell Roy,
a city alderman, Marine Corps veteran and member of Post 648. “I’m 100% behind it.”

Learn more at graftonmemorial.org.