June 6 marks the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, the Allied assault on German troops that marked a turning point in World War II. Many lives were lost in pursuit of that victory, and one small town in the rural American South paid an especially high price. Bedford, Virginia, lost 19 young men in the first phase of the attack; three more died in the days that followed. No other American community lost so many young men in proportion to its size, and memories of those days linger in Bedford today.
When the World War II Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C., last month, Roy Stevens traveled from Bedford, Virginia, to take part. He's a D-Day veteran, whose twin brother died in the attack. While Mr. Stevens is enthusiastic about the memorial, he says it comes several decades too late.
"So many veterans passed on and didn't get the privilege of watching to see what this was all about," he said. "They thought, like down in Bedford, it was too late. We wouldn't talk about it until 50 years later. And when you see something like this, it all reflects back to that. And I wonder why me, why did I come back and the rest of them didn't make it."
But people now seem to be talking more about what happened in Roy Stevens' hometown. A D-Day Memorial was established in Bedford in 2001, and a book has been written about the community's loss. It's called The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice. The author is British journalist Alex Kershaw, who says he feels indebted to the Bedford soldiers and the town that watched them go off to war.
"I grew up in freedom because of what these boys did," said Alex Kershaw. "That's not an overstatement I believe that was America's finest hour. Those boys died so that I could be here today."
They belonged to Company A of the First Battalion, 116th Infantry regiment, 29th Division. The 34 young men from Bedford included three sets of brothers, extended family members and close friends. Most came from rural farm families, and they'd joined the U.S. National Guard to earn the extra dollar a day in wages they'd receive. After the United States entered World War II, they were mobilized and sent to England to train for D-Day. But Alex Kershaw says nothing could have prepared these young men for what they faced in the early hours of June 6, 1944.
"They had been told that the beach defenses would be heavily bombed, so they expected most of the defensive obstacles that littered the beaches to have been destroyed by heavy bombing," he said. "But the cloud cover prevented accurate bombing. So when the ramps came down at 6:30 a.m., and they landed on their section of the beach they literally walked into a firing range. The reason why Bedford lost more of its sons per capita than any other American and Allied community on D-Day is because they landed in the worst possible place to be, on the worst possible beach you could ever imagine being, at exactly the wrong time. They were the first to put their feet on sand. Many didn't even get that far. Many were actually killed the minute the ramps came down the boat, and they never even got to fire a shot."
Roy Stevens was aboard a landing craft that sank before reaching the beach. His brother was on a different craft, and they'd agreed to meet and shake hands when they got to the French town of Vierville sur Mer. But when they saw each other just before the attack, Ray wanted to shake hands early.
Stevens: He extended his hand for me to shake, and I didn't do it. I said, 'I'll shake your hand at Vierville sur Mer, where we agreed to meet. I was so sure I would meet him there. That's how naďve I was, because he knew something I didn't know. We'd never been in battle, we didn't know what was in front of us.
Beardsley: How did you learn of his death?
Stevens: I came back in about four days and I saw this medic. And he told me he saw Ray on D-day, and he was hit by a machine gun in his midsection. He [Ray] said, 'Tell them to go on, I'm hurt.' The next time he saw him, he'd passed on. That same day I went over to the cemetery, checking the graveyard there, and the first one I came to was his.
Author Alex Kershaw says news of the deaths reached Bedford six weeks after D-Day, when telegrams began arriving at the local Western Union office.
"A twenty-one-year-old woman called Elizabeth Teass operated the teletype machine," said Alex Kershaw. "She switched on the teletype machine at 8:30 a.m. on the 16th of July, 1944, and nine names of classmates of hers, boys she'd played stickball with in the 1930s, came chattering through the teletype machine. She waited for them to stop, and they didn't. They just carried on and on. Each name was a separate tragedy, a separate trauma, and she knew every family, as did everybody in that town of 3,000 people."
The Bedford soldiers who survived D-Day had a painful homecoming. Roy Stevens had lost not only his twin brother, but also many childhood friends.
"I knew those guys as well as I knew myself," he said. "We knew their habits, what they liked and what they didn't like. When I came home it was alike a vale of tears over that town."
Roy Stevens was able to move on with his life, finding solace in his church and a happy marriage. But some local veterans never got over what they experienced on D-Day. Neither did some of the families. Lucille Hoback Boggess lost two brothers in the invasion.
"It just left a vacancy at the table, where there were always seven seats, and then there were just five," she said.
Lucille Boggess says her mother would wake up at night for the rest of her life, calling out for her sons. Mrs. Boggess has worked to keep their memory alive, serving on the planning board for Bedford's D-Day Memorial.
And when she came to Washington for the dedication of the World War II memorial, she brought along her 17-year-old grandson, John Boggess.
"I've written several research papers and I try getting as much information as I can," he said. "And I love hearing from my grandmother about what she has to say from her experiences during that time."
Author Alex Kershaw says the legacy of the Bedford Boys has also created a close-knit group of veterans and their families, now spread across America.
"They meet as often as they can," he said. "They have dinner once a year. And they share their experiences and they support each other. So in some sense out of that grief and suffering, the death of that family of men, over time a new support group, a new community has formed out of that."
"We'd do it again," said Roy Stevens. "I'm sure we would."
Roy Stevens is joining the Bedford survivors' group as it gathers to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day. He believes every generation has to fight its own battle for freedom, and while he wishes the outcome had been different for his family, he says he looks back with pride on what and his brother did.
All photos, with the exception of the book cover by Don & Elaine Yeargin