D-Day and The Bedford Boys

In 2001, as a young graduate student in Virginia, my thesis project allowed me the privilege of writing about the Bedford Boys, D-Day and the impact of June 6, 1944 on a small community in western Virginia.

The National D-Day Memorial is tucked away in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the small town of Bedford, Virginia. It’s located there because, as a proportion of its population of 3,200 in 1944, no community in the U.S. sacrificed more men on D-Day than Bedford.

There were 34 men in Company A from Bedford. Of those thirty-four, 23 died in the first wave of attacks at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Six weeks after D-Day, the young telegraph operator at Green’s Pharmacy in downtown Bedford was overwhelmed when news of many of the first deaths clattered across the Western Union line on the same day. Name after name of men from families that she knew well. There were so many telegrams at once that she had to enlist the help of customers in the pharmacy’s soda shop to help deliver them all.

Among those killed in action were brothers Bedford and Raymond Hoback. Bedford was the rambunctious older brother with a fiancée back home that he couldn’t wait to return to. Raymond was the quieter, more disciplined younger brother who could often be found reading his Bible. He fell in love with a British woman during his two years in England training for D-Day. Like in that opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, Bedford and Raymond barely made it down the ramp of their Higgins Boat in the swarm of hot steel before they were cut down in the wet sand.

There was also Ray Stevens and his twin brother, Roy. They were on separate boats that morning and had plans to meet up once their units made it off the beach. Roy’s boat never made it to shore. It was struck by an artillery shell, dumping Roy into the English Channel. He was later picked up by a rescue ship and fought for several weeks in northern France, until shrapnel from a land mine ravaged his shoulder, neck, and jaw, ending the war for him. He carried scars from those wounds the rest of his life, but his greatest loss was his brother, Ray. Like the Hoback brothers, Ray never made it off Omaha Beach that day.

Bedford and Raymond Hoback’s mother, Macie, learned of both their deaths from two separate telegrams, the first on a Sunday morning, the second the following day. Their younger sister, Lucille, remembered her mother’s devastation, and her father walking out to the barn to cry alone.

The day after D-Day, the killing field of Omaha Beach was already transforming into the massive supply port that would help fuel the American drive all the way to Berlin over the next year. A soldier from West Virginia was walking along the beach when he saw something jutting out of the sand. He reached down and pulled it out. He was surprised to find it was a Bible. The inside cover was inscribed with: “Raymond S. Hoback, from mother, Christmas, 1938.” The soldier wrote a letter and mailed it with the Bible to Raymond’s mother. That Bible, which likely tumbled from Raymond’s pack when he fell on D-Day, became Macie Hoback’s most cherished possession — the only personal belonging of her son that was ever returned.

Of the 23 men from Bedford who died on Omaha Beach, eleven were laid to rest in the American cemetery in Normandy.

When I visited the town of Bedford in 2001, I got to spend an afternoon interviewing Lucile Boggess, the youngest sister of Bedford and Raymond Hoback. She showed me Raymond’s Bible that was found on Omaha Beach and mailed to her mother. She gave me a photocopy of the handwritten letter by Corporal H.W. Crayton that accompanied the Bible. She also urged me to drive up to the brand-new National D-Day Memorial site and walk around. The Memorial was still three months from its official opening, but she said if anyone tried to stop me to tell them she’d given me permission (Ms. Boggess was on the memorial’s board). I took her up on her offer. The memorial was largely complete, and it was a moving experience to walk through the statue tableaus at dusk, in total silence.

I spent the following morning interviewing Roy Stevens, the twin brother who survived D-Day, at his home in Bedford. He and his wife Helen (they married in 1946) were such warm, hospitable hosts. After we’d talked for over two hours, Roy and Helen invited me to go to lunch with them at The Bedford Café. This gracious D-Day veteran, who was missing his left hand from a work accident sustained after the war, refused to let me pay for my own meal.

After lunch, I had another interview scheduled at a home outside Bedford. Roy and Helen drove the winding roads and let me follow them in my car. They wanted to make sure I didn’t get lost in those pre-Google map days. It was yet another kind gesture that I’ll always remember. The country home they took me to belonged to Bertie Woodford, the younger sister of Company A’s captain, Taylor Fellers. Fellers was also killed in the first wave attack on Omaha Beach. Ms. Woodford regaled me with tales of Fellers and her family and took me through an amazing scrapbook of photos and mementos from her brother’s Army service. She also gave me a copy of a letter from Captain Fellers that he wrote to his mother from his training base in England over a year before D-Day.

The opportunity to visit the town of Bedford all those years ago made graduate school completely worthwhile. Meeting Roy Stevens, hearing his firsthand account, and learning about the Bedford Boys personalized June 6, 1944 in a way no book or movie ever could. It’s easy to get lost in the fascinating scope of that momentous day. The Bedford Boys remind me of the humanity of D-Day and the reality of what was lost for the sake of freedom.

These men, many of them barely out of their teens, didn’t sign up to march to the slaughter of course. They had hopes and dreams just like we have. During their homesick moments in England, the Stevens twins often talked about the farm they planned to own together. Many of the Bedford Boys signed up for adventure, or because of peer pressure, and yes, a sense of honor and duty. Many of them first signed up for the National Guard just to make a few extra bucks per month, get to hang out with their buddies, and enjoy target practice. But someone had to be first at Omaha Beach and that responsibility fell to the men from Bedford. They didn’t shirk that responsibility, and for that, we salute them.

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Nathan Nipper

Nathan Nipper

Nathan Nipper writes for TV and radio and authored the award-winning book Dallas ’Til I Cry: Learning to Love Major League Soccer.