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

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

by Alex Kershaw

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780306813559
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Publication date: 05/10/2004
Edition description: Book with Reader's Guide Edition
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 81,311
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.76(h) x 0.88(d)

About the Author

Alex Kershaw is the author of the widely acclaimed and bestselling books The Bedford Boys, The Longest Winter, and The Few, and two biographies: Jack London and Blood and Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa. He lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

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.

Table of Contents

The Bedford Boysxi
1D-Day, H-3601
2Going to War7
3Moving Out23
4Cruel Seas41
5England's Own53
6"29, Let's Go!"67
7Slapton Sands81
8The Sausages93
9The Empire Javelin111
10The First Wave121
11Dog Beach129
13Every Man Was a Hero149
14Bedford's Longest Day165
16The Longest Wait189
17His Deep Regret197
18Coming Home209
The Bedford Boys and D-Day239

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The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 50 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mr. Kershaw has quickly become one of my favorite writers after reading 'The Bedford Boys.' I am from the Lynchburg, VA area and picked this title up at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford. After reading it, I was moved at how Kershaw was able to bring to life the soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice for the defense of this nation and those of the Allied forces. I found myself feeling as though the people I was reading about were my own family and feeling the heartache that the families felt as their loved ones did not return. This is as good a book on WWII and the D-Day invasion as I have read. This is a must read for anyone who is fascinated with WWII or a history buff.
Christianbelle More than 1 year ago
Masterpiece. Best WWII book I have ever read, it paints a true portrait of what the time period must have been like during WWII Europe, it focues on a town's regiment of enlisted army military who are training and/or ultimately are the first soldiers in the Battle of D-Day, June 6, 1944 Normandy Europe! It was very intense, it was a real page turner, I learned a lot, was very well entertained, this book was simply peerless. Simply put: A MASTERPIECE!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book for the average American who wants to know what occurred on D-Day. I definately make it required reading for high school student. It will truly give one an appreciation of how young these men were who fought, why they fought, and the sacrifices made by them and their families. That said, this is not a book for those who are seeking a history source. The book hasfew reliable primary sources to have true validity. The book was written by an English reporter, not someone with an extensive research background used in history writings. The author mentions every boy from Bedford who fought as a seemingly tribute, but the book could have been much more effective if the author had chosen 3-5 boys and told their stories in depth. I also think the reference, in the newer verison, to the events of 9/11 is tacky. It appears to merely been thrown in as an addition to have another publishing of the book. Overall this is a type of book that one would pick up at a WW2 Monument gift shop.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Twenty-two young men, all from a small town in Virginia, made the ultimate sacrifice. Nineteen died during the first wave on Omaha Beach; later, three more died in the campaign that followed. This is their story - theirs and the other young men from Bedford. It is also the story of the people they left behind and the country they were fighting for. This book is sad but inspiring and informative. You will follow these youngsters from a small- town childhood through the tragedy of Operation Tiger to the fierce brutality of Normandy, June 6, 1944. You will find out more than you ever really wanted to know about why you chose the top of six bunks on the Queen Mary (converted to a troop ship) instead of the more convenient lower ones. You will learn, perhaps with some comfort considering today's news, that the country was not totally united during WWII, in spite of what we are now believe. John L. Lewis conducted his strikes, and there were race riots in Los Angeles and Detroit. This book inspired Saving Private Ryan . . . as it will inspire you.
Jennifermiller More than 1 year ago
God bless Alex Kershaw for writing this masterpiece of a book! It was pure heaven to read. Very inspirational, portrayed the realities of WW2, warfare. Bedford, VA soliders training for Normandy, France invasion in England, then ultimate invasion on DDAY! It was as if I was actually there, alongside these American heros, this book was absolutely incredible. Very well written, recommended for sure.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is worth it's weight in diamonds, silver, gold. Alex Kershaw created a masterpiece of a book, based on the story of Bedford, Virginia enlisted army soldiers- training, battlling of D Day, June 6, 1994 in Normandy, France. The Bedford Boys were the first army soliders off the Higgens boats, to spearhead the greatest invasion force in world history (allied invasion of Nazi occupied France in Normandy). Very good book, incredible, recommend it to everyone I know!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Best Alex Kershaw book written, it is the most gripping world war two story ever told. Brings the experiences of WW2 Bedford Boys, prepping and then fighting on DDay WW2, gripping, moving nonfiction book. Excellent!
BD0 More than 1 year ago
Alex Kershaw is the best history writer on planet Earth. This book is the most revealing book I have ever read in regard to the topic of warfare. Bedford, Virginia soldiers' tale training for D-Day, June 6, 1944 Normandy France, they were the first unit off the Higgins boats to face the Nazis. Excellent, loved this book.
___ANNA___ More than 1 year ago
Incredible book, a must read for anyone interested in WW2. Gripping, amazing writing. Recommend this book highly.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is the best history book I have ever read, should be required reading for anyone. It is very well written, amazing story of WWII Bedford Boys of Bedford, VA USA. Great!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Moving, Awakening, Touching, and Unforgettable. Today's news medic blinds the price of freedom from our generation of young people. This books shows how ordinary brothers left their homes to face the ' world evils of Hitlers'. 'They wanted to see mom and dad again, and hold their sweethearts or wives...' Yet they, twenty- two Bedford, Virginia Boys paid the ultimate price for us on Omaha Beach, D-Day, June 6, 1944. A must read to understand the battle, the homefront and the cost to have a free world.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Military conflicts have been typically taught within a geo-economic-political-social framework. Very little attention has been traditionally given to human and personal tragedies, torn relationships, and social and community disruption within the circles of those who actually fought and died. One reason for this omission is a scarcity of appropriate resources. It's not easy to find really good, readable material that depicts the effects of war on real folks. Kershaw's riveting treatment of the enormity of Bedford's loss shown through the eyes of those individuals who lived it should be required reading for history classes everywhere. This is what war is really about.
Guest More than 1 year ago
War books never mention the price paid by the folks back home. For the first time, here is a book which shows how heroes and great Americans died to free others - the ultimate sacrifice - and how their deaths impacted families and a community. Original, written with great feeling and a tenderness for the community, and impossible to put down once the men land on Omaha - a fast and devastating read that all Americans should read to remind us of the price of war and freedom.
PIUSLEE More than 1 year ago
World champion of nonfiction books. Maybe, the best book ever written on the topic of war. Alex Kershaw, is very gifted in his research, presentation of facts surrounding WWII battle of DDay. Very good book, first-rate, insightful. Best book I have read in last ten years.
austintexas More than 1 year ago
The real mccoy in writing about WWII, best story I have read about warfare! Very good book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Alex Kershaw's The Bedford Boys is the best WWII book ever written, far superior to anything written by Stephen Ambrose. I read this book, then when out and bought all of his other books' and read all them. Honest account of war is really like, brutally honest, paints a horrifying yet insightful picture of warfare, great book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
THRILLER of a book! Best WW2 book I have ever read, this author is something out of the Hemingway cloth! Very well written, highly recommended to anyone! VERY WELL DONE! THRILLER!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Over the years, have visited many museums in England and became interested in what WWII was like for US military. This book gave me insight, resulting in wanting to read more and more.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Another account and more evidence that points to the fact that the 'Greatest Generation is appropriately named. The sacrafices made and price paid for World War II were made not only by soldiers, but by those who stayed home.
REDFOXEAST More than 1 year ago
The Bedford Boys is the best WWII (history) book I have ever read. Period! This author is extremely talented at providing a birds eye view of the DDAY training and/or ultimate invasion by USA Army forces. Well done, very good book, exceptionally written.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As an educator with summers off, I always set a goal of reading at least three books before I return to the classroom. The Bedford Boys was an outstanding text. I thought it was interesting the way the author wrote about the events that took place on 6/6/44 on both the beaches of France as well as back in Bedford, VA. It showed how wars may be fought by the soldiers in the trenches, but the agony of fear and worry is a battle in itself. I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in keeping the spirit of American valor alive.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The first chapters provide a very good discription of the young men serving in the Guard. They are followed by several chapters describing combat's impact. These later chapters should be read by anyone preparing for war. Missing was the WWI veteran's report. Within the 29th Division this led to speculation on heavy losses which came true. Troublesome was the reliance on the official unit history which cannot be accurate due to losses and time in combat. The unit histories are useful to understand terms such as 'the Kings Own 'National' Guard' and explain why the Bear Barrel Polka was important. Incidently, when the 29th arrived in England, the British Army utilized a five day workweek with Saturday and Sunday off duty. This caused interal strife within the division until the change of command and weekends passes were granterd. Missing from Dartmoor was the Jamaica Inn. The Inn was visited by AWOL troops on over night marches. This added a 3 mile one-way hike with loss of an hour sleep for a few bottles of warm beer. Two typographical errors were spotted (LCA Landing Craft Army instead of Landing Craft Armored or Assault, and blacked up instead of backed up.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Thank you for writing about these men that lost there lives and will always be remembered. My family is from Bedford and Montvale, VA. and my uncle, George Creasey was their and came back alive. It is so nice to see there horrible ordeal put to print and remembered for all to read and know. I love my family very much and to read what one of them went through at such an early age makes me love them even more!
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading many books and having studied the assault on Fortress Europe in depth; I have never read a book relating the ordeal of the American GI as personal as this. A visit to the beaches and cemetaries in France will never be the same again......
Guest More than 1 year ago
The above review was written by a prattling elitist snob. This book is a powerful, heart-breaking account of what ordinary Americans gave to free the world of evil. It is unforgettable, impossible to put down and a very timely reminder of when America won the entire world's great respect. It is unlike every other histry book on war I-'ve read - about families, loved ones, children - the people who suffer most from the terrors of war. This is a great book, for every American who wants to feel truly proud about his or her country. One for the people - at last.