Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Last of the Bedford Boys

There was a touching story published in the Richmond Times Dispatch on June 6, 2007 about Ray Nance, the last of the famed "Bedford Boys" that stormed the beach at Normandy on D-Day. Nineteen of the young men cut down that day were from the small central Virginia town of Bedford. The saying has been oft repeated that Bedford suffered the greatest loss of any town in the U.S. that day, per capita.

I grew up about 20 miles from Bedford and my uncle trained with Company A, but went into Normandy on D-Day plus one. Before D-Day was over 90 per cent of Company A was dead or wounded and Ray Nance was their lieutenant. He is now 93 years old and failing.

His life since D-Day has been haunted by bad dreams but sleep comes easier now, the ravages of time offering blessed forgetfulness.

Ray Nance, who is about to turn 93, sleeps peacefully, largely because his failing memory no longer summons many images from June 6, 1944, when 19 young Bedford men were killed on the beach at the start of the D-Day invasion.

During recent interviews, the memory that shone through brightest for Nance was his rescue from the beach, where he had lain wounded for hours.

"I looked up, and there was a sergeant -- he was from Roanoke -- he said, 'Get up on my back, and I'll take you out of here,'" Nance recalled. "He carried me almost piggy-back all the way along the beach, maybe 300 yards. And don't you know, there wasn't a shot fired at us."

I went to high school in Bedford and have been well schooled in the sacrifices of that day and the way that little town was torn apart. I recall the story of the Western Union telegrapher taking notice after notice of the deaths and how they just wouldn't stop coming.

I went to school and grew up with their cousins and nephews and nieces. Some of my teachers were their sisters. And now all the boys of Company A are gone, but one, and he's fading away and soon he'll be gone.
Until a few years ago, those memories haunted Nance's dreams. He would wake up and replay the events in his head, asking himself what he might have done differently to save some of his men. Nance was a lieutenant.

But he can no longer access those dark memories, he and his wife, Alpha, said in recent interviews. As a result, his wife said, "Ray is much more at peace."

Nance, who still has a boyish face and penetrating blue eyes, said he would prefer to remember everything -- "the good and the bad." Then he added, "Maybe some things are better forgotten."
Ray Nance still visits the National D-Day Memorial that sits on a beautiful hillside there in Bedford on a weekly basis with Alpha, his wife of 62 years. He is a smiling and pleasant gentleman and the last time I saw him was at the memorial about a year ago.

These men weren't heroes, they were just teenagers and young men answering the call when their country needed them. But when you think of what they accomplished, those cut down so young, the ones that have passed on and the one that is now left, they ended up being giants.

Jim Martin

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Blogger Capt. Fogg said...

That's a moving piece Jim. It's doubly sad that people have used these amazing men and their amazing deeds to promote atrocities like our occupation of Iraq.

We use the word Hero too often and we manufacture heroes to make militarism seem glorious instead of gruesome, but the men who pushed back Hitler and defeated Hirohito truly rescued the world. Whether or not any one of them should be called heroic for the part they played, all together they made our country a hero.

May we never forget them and may we never forgive those who squandered and ruined the respect and admiration they earned for America.

10:36:00 AM  
Blogger Jim Martin said...

Amen to that Fogg.

11:04:00 AM  
Blogger Ronnie Joyner said...

Jim -- I enjoyed your homage to Ray Nance and the "Bedford Boys." Being local to that area of Virginia, you are obviously much more informed than outsiders when it comes to the history of Bedford's soldiers of Company A. For that you must consider yourself fortunate. Being an outsider myself, I must admit to having known only the most rudimentary details surrounding what happened to the 19 young men of Bedford who were killed on D-Day.

Amazingly, I had to travel thousands of miles to learn the details of what happened to those boys on the morning of June 6, 1944. Just one-and-a-half weeks ago, I was standing on Omaha Beach with a handful of other Americans as we listened to our British tour guide detail the events that took place 63 years earlier. Then he described what he personally felt was perhaps the most devastating loss of the invasion -- a direct hit to one of Company A's landing crafts. There was genuine emotion in his voice as he explained that the explosion instantly killed 19 men from the small town of Bedford, Virginia. To add to the magnitude of the loss, the tour guide added that two additional men from Bedford were later killed in the continued fighting that took place after the invasion.

As we left the beach I did the same thing that countless other American visitors have done on that hallowed ground -- I scooped up a bit of Omaha sand and bottled it for my return back home to Maryland. I couldn't help but think of the sacrifice made by the Bedford Boys, as well as the others who perished on that beach.

One of the first things I did upon my return was to buy a copy of the Bedford Boys book. I'm currently reading and enjoying it. By reading the book I feel as if I sort of know Ray Nance, so it saddens me to hear that he is not doing well. If you speak with him or his wife soon, please pass on this sentiment -- while Ray may be the last of the famed Bedford Boys, I am sure that their sacrifice will live on long beyond his natural life. Hopefully forever. Thanks to relatives, writers, historians -- and passionate British tour guides -- the passing of time does not seem likely to diminish the story of the Bedford Boys. In fact, time only seems to be enhancing their legacy. They were a rare breed. Thanks again for your great piece on the Bedford Boys.

4:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was moved by the accounts of A Company - The Bedford Boys. My wife and I live in Ivybridge, Devonshire. You will of course be aware that we had the privelege and honour to have these brave young men billeted in our village prior to the Normandy Landings in 1944.

This Sunday past was Rememberance Sunday, sometimes called Poppy Day. Throughout Great Britian in every city, town and village we honour the dead of two World Wars and those wars since. As President of Ivybridge Probus Club it fell to me as representative of our club, to march in the parade up Fore Street behind the Plymouth Pipe Band to our War Memorial. The Last Post was sounded, there followed two minutes silence followed by Revellie. All the more moving since The Great War ended 90 years ago this year. We then paraded round to the American War Memorial, erected to the memory of the Bedford Boys.
Prayers were said for all our American allies but especially A Company. Wreathes of Flanders Poppies were laid in tribute and memory. So far as Ivybridge is concerned these words are true and said with deep sincerity:- "They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old, nor shall the years condemn them. At the going down of the Sun and in the morning we will remember them."

5:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

moving piece, is your uncle still living-whats his name-i know of a couple others who were in unit and came in later pride wingfield, allen huddleston and 1 other- mr nance is a good fiend and a wonderful man, i had the pleasure of meeting boyd wilson and roy stvens when they were still living- travis aldous- cha2002@verizon.net

8:38:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry for the typos above i have a busted wing and a cast which makes hard to type- thanks for posting, ive read this book several times and could read it over and over again. travis aldous

8:41:00 AM  
Blogger Snakeeater said...

Ray Nance, the last of the Bedford Boys passed away on Sunday, 19 APR 2009.

The stalwartness and courage of those men, and the sacrifice of the town of Bedford should stay in our minds forever.

3:13:00 PM  
Blogger twostrangers said...

People forget that many Americans did not support the war against Germany in WWII. Those who denegrate the military and their efforts to keep us safe today would have done so in WWII as well.

12:18:00 PM  
Blogger Capt. Fogg said...

I hate to respond to drive-by comments on old posts, but in my 64 years I have never talked to anyone who "denigrated" the efforts of our armed forces to keep us safe. Unfortunately very very little of what our post-war governments have used them for has had anything to do with keeping us safe and have regularly supported their own dubious efforts by accusing us of "not supporting the troops" We always support the troops since the troops are us. It's the government who has not supported them because it cuts into profits and the government who values their lives so cheaply that they send them out, ill equipped for reasons that are purely political.

I should point out that many Americans who did not support Going to war with Germany before they declared war on us were supporters of Germany's Fascist movement and were conservatives. Hence it's hard to see that you make any point here unless it's to repeat that same nauseous bit of Vietnam propaganda we've been smelling since the 60's.

8:38:00 AM  

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