The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrificeby Alex Kershaw
June 6, 1944: Nineteen boys from rural Bedford, Virginia, died in the first bloody minutes of D-Day. They were part of Company A of the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division, and among the first wave of American soldiers to hit the beaches at Normandy. Later in the campaign, three more boys from this small Virginia community died of gunshot wounds. Twenty-two sons of… See more details below
June 6, 1944: Nineteen boys from rural Bedford, Virginia, died in the first bloody minutes of D-Day. They were part of Company A of the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division, and among the first wave of American soldiers to hit the beaches at Normandy. Later in the campaign, three more boys from this small Virginia community died of gunshot wounds. Twenty-two sons of Bedford lost -- it is a story one cannot easily forget and one that the families of Bedford will never forget. Here is the true and intimate story of these men, and the friends and families they left behind -- the story of one small American town that went to war and died on Omaha Beach.
July 6, 2003
- Da Capo Press
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- DA CAPO
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- 6.28(w) x 9.33(h) x 1.00(d)
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The Bedford BoysOne American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice
By ALEX KERSHAW
DA CAPO PRESSCopyright © 2003 Alex Kershaw
All right reserved.
June 6, 1944, 12:30 A.M.: The British troopship, the Empire Javelin, steamed steadily across the English Channel. Among her passengers were thirty-four young men from the small Virginia town of Bedford. They belonged to the 116th Infantry's Company A, a select two-hundred man unit. After twenty months of arduous training, Company A had been chosen from among the 15,000 GIs in the Army of the United States' 29th Division to spearhead the most dangerous and critical American assault of the entire war.
Below decks, twenty-five-year-old Sergeant Frank Draper Jr. scribbled notes in his diary. The army had been the making of him. Draper, naturally ebullient, with finely chiseled features and a superb physique, had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks in Bedford, poor even by the woeful standards of the Depression. Since leaving home, he had become a first-rate soldier, and he was determined to bring honor to his unit as well as to his hardscrabble neighborhood back in Bedford, where he'd scavenged for coal as a boy to keep his family warm. As ever, he wanted to be sure he was prepared for the next day, so he wrote himself a note: "Sleep in your trousers, shirt and gas mask. Breakfast-2.30 A.M. Departure-4 A.M. Hit water-4.30 A.M."
Twenty-four-year-old Sergeant Roy Stevens, a handsome farm boy, tried to get some sleep but was too afraid, so he went on deck. Fellow Bedford boys and other GIs were crouched in small groups in the darkness, trying to keep cards and dice from flying or tumbling away across the heaving deck, betting fortunes in poker and craps games: "It didn't matter whether you won or lost. You knew you probably weren't going to get a chance to win your money back anyway."
Roy scoured the blacked-out deck for his twin brother, Ray. Back in England at a training camp, Roy had "hit a streak at blackjack and won a whole lot of money and given Ray half of it, maybe a couple of hundred dollars." Perhaps Ray was using the last of it to play a final few hands of rook, the Bedford boys' favorite card game.
The Stevens brothers had shared everything except women since they could remember: poker winnings, uniform, Red Cross parcels, news from home, and their most intimate fears and hopes. But in a few hours' time, after years of being inseparable, they would not share the same landing craft bound for the beaches of northern France. For the first time since they had joined the National Guard, a week apart in 1938, they would not be side by side. They would not face their greatest test together. They would arrive on Omaha Beach in different boats.
Roy looked around. He wanted to talk to Flay before the ship's alarm sounded and they went to their action stations. He wanted to remind him of the farm they had bought together, and of their dreams of making it successful after the war, and he wanted to arrange to meet at the crossroads of a small village above Omaha Beach called Vierville sur Mer.
A fellow Bedford boy, Lieutenant Ray Nance, twenty-eight, managed to get a few hours of sleep. Nance could trace his heritage to British aristocracy, George Washington, and Huguenot exiles. Like other Bedford boys, he had joined the National Guard as far back as 1933 out of necessity as much as patriotism. Nance was highly intelligent and softspoken. He was also fastidious in everything he did and awoke around 2 A.M., dressed in full combat gear. He had not even removed his boots. Nearby were five fellow officers from Company A. By lunchtime, three of them would be dead.
In the noncommissioned men's berths, a few men dozed fitfully. Most men sat in silence, alone with their thoughts. Other Bedford boys lay in bunks writing last-minute letters home. Nance knew that some would not live to write another. He felt responsible for them all. He had grown up with these men, trained them to be superb soldiers, censored their love letters to girls he knew back in Bedford. The men under his command were family. Their parents and lovers had entrusted Nance and Company A's Captain Taylor Fellers with their lives.
At the same time that Nance got up, twenty-one-year-old British SubLieutenant Jimmy Green was woken by an orderly and told that his flotilla commander wanted to see him urgently. Green was second in command of the flotilla but in full command of the first wave of boats that would land Company A in France. The flotilla had twenty craft all told: eighteen LCAs [Landing Craft Army] and two LCPs [Landing Craft Personnel].
Green's commander told him the boats would have to leave earlier than planned because weather conditions in the English Channel were so bad. Green grabbed a cup of tea and a "bite to eat" and then drew his weapons from the Empire Javelin's store. He had no illusions about what lay ahead. There would be heavy casualties. In his last shore briefing, he'd been told to expect to lose a third of his men and his boats.
As Green told his men about the weather conditions and consequent changes in course and timetable, Ray Nance went to the officers' mess to eat breakfast: pancakes, sausages, eggs, and coffee. Few actually ate the hearty meal, served by upbeat orderlies in starched white uniforms.
"Over breakfast, we sat around and shot the breeze," recalled Roy Stevens. "We were laughing, joking, carrying on but you could tell it was phony-everybody was scared. They were putting on a good front."
After breakfast, Nance gathered his kit and climbed up a gangway. A heavy canvas curtain stopped light seeping onto the deck from below. Nance stepped through and into pitch blackness. He went to the rail and looked out at the dark waters, swelling ominously. Suddenly, he noticed Captain Fellers at his side. Fellers had, like Nance, grown up on a farm outside Bedford. The two were cousins.
Twenty-nine-year-old Fellers was tall and thin, with a prominent chin and rolling gait. He was suffering badly from a sinus infection and looked tired and concerned. Before embarking for France, Fellers had confided in Nance, telling him that very few of the officers and men in Company A would come back alive. Fellers had studied the Allied intelligence and countless aerial shots and concluded that Company A was being sent to face certain slaughter.
Fellers and Nance both looked out to sea.
"We stood there awhile," recalled Nance. "We didn't say a word, not a single word to each other. I guess we'd said it all."
An anti-aircraft gun broke the silence, tracer bullets spitting through the sky, and then a searchlight caught the blaze of an exploding plane.
"That brought it home to me," recalled Nance. "This thing is real. It's not an exercise."
Fellers still didn't say a word and then turned away and went below.
A loudspeaker called the British naval crew to its stations. The troops knew they would be next. Ray Nance made his way quickly to where Company A would assemble on deck.
Bosuns' whistles sounded.
"Now, hear this! All assault troops report to your debarkation areas."
As thirty-four Bedford boys emerged from below into the cold darkness, Nance touched every one of them lightly on the arm. "It was a gesture, a goodbye," he recalled sixty years later. "They were the best men I have ever seen in my life. It was a privilege to be their officer. I loved those men."
The men included husbands, three sets of brothers, pool-hall hustlers, a couple of highly successful Lotharios, a minor league baseball player destined for great things, and several Bible-reading, quiet young men who desperately missed their mothers and dreamed of home cooking.
Although they were supremely fit, many of the Bedford boys moved slowly to their debarkation stations, weighed down by their kit. "We had been issued an assault jacket, a sort of vest-like garment with many pockets and pull-strap fasteners to yank off in a hurry," recalled one of the few privates who would still be alive by nightfall. "In the various pockets we stored K-rations, a quarter pound of TNT with fuses, hand grenades, a smoke grenade and medical kit with syringe and morphine. Besides our regular M-1 clips [for the M-1 Garand rifle], we had two slings of ammo belts across our shoulders. On our backs, we carried an entrenching tool, a bayonet, and a poncho and whatever else we could stuff in." The men's kit weighed well over sixty pounds.
The men's M-1 Garand rifles, among the few Allied weapons that were superior to the German equivalents, were wrapped in cellophane wrappers to protect their working from sand and water. Some men had finally found a use for their Army-issued condoms and tied them around keepsakes, lucky charms, and even small Bibles that they wanted to keep dry. Around each man's waist was buckled a "Mac West" lifebelt which would inflate by squeezing a CO-2 tube.
The Bedford boys checked weapons and kit, exchanged scribbled home addresses "just in case," wished each other good luck, and tried to bolster others who suddenly looked terrified.
"This is it, men," a loudspeaker blared to the men of the 29th Division. "Pick it up and put it on, you've got a one-way ticket and this is the end of the line. 29, let's go!"
None of the Bedford boys had intended to see combat, let alone spearhead arguably the most critical American assault in history. The boys had not volunteered for military service. Back in the thirties, they had joined their local National Guard outfit, more akin to a social club than a military unit, for a "dollar a day" and to play soldier with their brothers, cousins, and buddies. "We were one big family," recalled Roy Stevens. "We'd dated each other's sisters, gone to the same schools, played baseball together.... And we were so young!"
Roy and his twin brother, Ray, had joined the National Guard a week apart in 1938 at the age of eighteen. "There had been one opening [in Company A] and we'd matched for it and he'd won," recalled Roy. "I joined a week later. We thought we were something else. We wore these [World War I] brown uniforms and leggings that we never did manage to get wrapped up just right."
Bedford's prettiest girls, sipping sweet lemonade on the porches of whitewashed antebellum homes, watched the Stevens brothers and their fellow National Guardsmen march through Bedford every Fourth of July and could not help but be impressed. The Depression was still felt acutely in Bedford and other rural communities throughout the South in the late thirties: Smart uniforms were a bright contrast to the cast-offs and hand-me-downs that were all most young men in Bedford could afford.
The Stevens brothers and their buddies enjoyed the attention their uniforms brought and the sense of civic pride the National Guard engendered. Then there were the two weeks of paid training each summer, at Manassas or in New York and sometimes on Virginia Beach, close to the swank hotels where city girls wore revealing woolen bathing costumes and the Bedford boys would sweet talk them as they jitterbugged the night away. But above all the Bedford boys were looking to pocket a dollar every Monday night after marching practice at the Bedford armory.
Like most of the men in Company A, the Stevens brothers had grown up on a farm just outside Bedford, a tight-knit community of three thousand whose English ancestors had settled the area in the 1700s. By 1754, the town lay at the heart of arguably the most bucolic county in all Virginia: 764 square miles of rolling hills and lush valleys with mountains reaching 4,200 feet above sea level. The county was named after John Russell, the fourth duke of Bedford, who served as Britain's secretary of state before the Revolutionary War.
Even in the 1930s, Bedford was still a quintessentially English town. The names carved into headstones in its Greenwood cemetery were almost all British; several of the town's merchants could trace their trades back to English craftsmen and artisans; and in many homes furniture and heirlooms dated to the early colonists. The town was first named Liberty after the Colonial victory over Cornwallis at Yorktown. It was renamed Bedford in 1890 and to this day has signposts boasting that it is "the best little town in America."
The Stevens family had farmed in Bedford since anyone could remember. Roy and Ray were two of fourteen children (including triplets) and had attended a one-room schoolhouse before finding jobs to help their family through the Depression. Fiercely competitive, they learned to box at an early age and by the mid-thirties were regularly fighting each other to earn a few cents: "There was a filling station near our home and we would go out there some nights with an older brother who had boxing gloves," recalled Roy. "He'd put up a kind of ring, call folks over, and then take a collection. We never did see much of that money. Soon as we were done he'd take the money, ask somebody for a lift, and go see a girlfriend in Roanoke."
The Stevens brothers were no strangers to tragedy. The triplets all died shortly after birth. In 1934, Roy had watched helplessly as an older brother died from a seizure. "I was putting his socks on and he just tightened up so much, the doctor later said, that his veins burst. I was standing right beside him. First person I ever seen die. He was a real good boy." The loss had left Roy heartbroken but also determined to do all he could to protect his remaining siblings.
After leaving high school, Roy worked on the production line at one of the town's largest employers, a mill called Belding Hemingway, and Ray in a grocery store. Once they knocked off for the day, they were inseparable. "A twin is a little bit different than an ordinary brother or sister," recalled Roy. "They depend on each other a lot more. We were close." For a few months, they even dated two sisters, Emma and Jane Thaxton, sometimes taking them to one of Bedford's two movie theaters which showed such classics as Bette Davis in Jezebel and Spencer Tracey's Boys Town. The Liberty Theater, at the heart of Bedford, was the more conservative of the two cinemas. In 1937, under pressure from Bedford's powerful Ministerial Association, the theater's manager had stopped showing movies on Sunday.
In 1938, the Stevens twins acquired a 136-acre farm as a home for their parents and as a place they hoped to work on full-time when the Depression ended. They got the property, complete with several pastures ideal for dairy farming, at a bargain price-$3,700-and payments were deferred for several years, but they knew they would have to wait until the economy rebounded before they could hope to make a living working it.
After the Wall Street crash in 1929, prices of crops had collapsed in America, and hundreds of thousands of farmers had been forced to sell.
Excerpted from The Bedford Boys by ALEX KERSHAW Copyright © 2003 by Alex Kershaw. Excerpted by permission.
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