The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice

The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice

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by Alex Kershaw

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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.

Editorial Reviews

Drawing on interviews with survivors and relatives, newspaper clippings, letters, and diaries, Kershaw has chronicled one community's great sacrifice.
With the publication of Alex Kershaw's The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice, their story is told in more detail then ever before.
Associated Press
A gripping account...provides a view of the home front and the war's aftermath of joys and sorrows.
An exhaustively researched, poignantly rendered excellent, fact-packed chronicle...a literary memorial.
July 6, 2003
New York Times Book Review
There are scores of accounts of D-Day, but a new perspective...The story of the Bedford boys is worth telling.
Roanoke Times
Give[s] us an opportunity to understand what our fathers did to preserve our way of life.
The Weekly Standard
A worthy addition to the history of D-Day, and a memorial to the small Virginia town.
Washington Times
Mr. Kershaw's book relentlessly reminds us that war is about humans.
Publishers Weekly
This accessible and moving group biography portrays the men of Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, who were part of the first wave at Omaha Beach in WWII. Initially, 103 of them left the small town of Bedford, Va.-now the site of the national D-Day memorial-when the local National Guard was called up in 1940; 34 were still with the company on D-Day. Of these, 19 died in a matter of minutes and three more perished in the Normandy campaign. Men lost ranged from the company commander, Captain Taylor N. Fellers, from a wealthy Bedford family, to Frank Draper Jr., a fine athlete and soldier from the wrong side of the tracks. Long-time National Guardsman John Wilkes died as the company's top sergeant, while Earl Parker left behind a daughter he never saw. Both Holback brothers and Ray Stevens died, while Ray's twin Roy Stevens was one of the handful of survivors. Kershaw (Jack London) includes combat sequences that give a vivid private's- eye view of the particular hell that was Omaha Beach, while one of the most moving portions of the book is the simultaneous arrival in Bedford of nine "We regret to inform you..." telegrams. A capsule history of Bedford before the war, its role as part of the home front during it and its current place as (controversial) memorial site are all covered, but the book's central focus is on the town where a good many survivors remain whose memories have not faded and whose emotional wounds have not healed. (May 26) Forecast: With a 75,000-copy first printing, along with author and radio tours, Da Capo is clearly looking for Memorial Day and D-Day (June 6) spikes in sales, but the book is good enough to have a life beyond that, especially with the 60th anniversary of D-Day approaching next year. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Sixty years ago Allied soldiers hit the beaches of Normandy. The Bedford boys were among them: National Guard volunteers from a small, close-knit rural community in Virginia. Nineteen of them died almost immediately and three died later. This story of loss that inspired Saving Private Ryan is told in vivid detail. We follow the boys of Company A of the 116th Regiment from their joining the Guard to make money for their families during the Depression to their training and deployment to England. We are tossed about in landing craft in the English Channel and hit the beach under murderous machine gun fire. We see the men die as their loved ones anxiously await their return. Soon the telegrams begin to arrive. "We regret to inform you..." Kershaw's powerful retelling of D-Day gives us not only the story of ordinary men doing extraordinary things, but also of those left behind in small towns all across America. And that epic battle is still claiming victims. "Sixty years after he crawled across Omaha Beach, the last living officer from Company A on D-Day was still plagued by survivor's guilt and the occasional episode of post-traumatic stress disorder." Photos enrich the story, which is followed by copious notes, a bibliography, an index, a conversation with the author, and 13 questions for discussion. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Da Capo Press, 274p. illus. notes. bibliog. index., Ages 15 to adult.
—Janet Julian
Library Journal
During World War II, the American 29th division went by several names, including "The Blues and the Grays" and "England's Own." In the companies of the 116th regiment, the men went by other names as well-brother, cousin, neighbor, and friend. Many of these men came from a National Guard company centered around Bedford, VA, and had joined during the Depression for the money and uniforms; friends and family members often joined together. The 116th was chosen to be the first ashore on Bloody Omaha beach on D-day, and their unit was devastated. Journalist and biographer Kershaw (Blood and Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa) follows these young men from the time they joined the National Guard until they met their tragic end. Unlike the authors of other war books, he also highlights the families and hometown these young men left behind. Indeed, the powerful and heart-wrenching final chapters follow the families from D-day until they were given the awful news months later that 21 of their own had died, a loss the town continues to grieve almost 60 years later. Strongly recommended for all public libraries.-Brian K. DeLuca, Avon Lake P.L., OH Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
By-the-numbers saga of a bruised and bullet-riddled combat unit in WWII. Embracing only some 3,000 inhabitants, the little Blue Ridge town of Bedford, Virginia, offered few jobs for young men in the last years of the Depression. One source of work was the local National Guard detachment, which, writes journalist Kershaw, "was more akin to a social club than a military unit" and paid only a dollar a day. Still, most of the Bedford boys signed up, and when America entered WWII, they were shipped off to fight as part of the unlucky 116th Infantry, which saw hard combat in Europe. The regiment got chewed up at the Normandy landing, losing 375 men—including 19 of the young men from Bedford, bringing untold suffering to the town, now the site of a national D-Day memorial, for years to come. Kershaw does a reasonably good job of detailing the lives and deaths of these unfortunates, and of gathering the recollections of survivors and kin. Still, the enterprise seems a second-tier offering in the face of the Ambrose/Brokaw industry—and one drenched in clumsy sentimentality at that ("it is not so much in Bedford that the spirits of its lost sons are most palpable, but rather a few hundred yards from the beach where they died, in the American cemetery overlooking Omaha"). Though he has his strong moments, Kershaw misses or underplays a couple of big questions about the experience of fighting a war in the company of neighbors—common enough in the Civil War, but not so common in WWII. And in all events, he knows only two moods: a sepia-toned prewar nostalgia in which the young Guardsmen reveled on beaches "where city girls wore revealing woolen bathing costumes and the Bedford boyswould sweet-talk them as they jitter-bugged the night away"—and a scarlet breathlessness evoking scenes of detached eyeballs and "a body with legs off, sometimes just a leg, mangled parts." For war buffs who can’t get enough of Saving Private Ryan. First printing of 75,000; author tour. Agent: Derek Johns

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Da Capo Press
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6.28(w) x 9.33(h) x 1.00(d)

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The Bedford Boys

One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice


Copyright © 2003 Alex Kershaw
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0306811677

Chapter One

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!"

Chapter Two

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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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