The Bedford Boys; One American Towns Ultimate D-Day Sacrificeomaha beach
Posted 24 May 2003 - 02:05 PM
These are not imaginary or composite characters, but soldiers with real names, real lives-real deaths. Among 34 soldiers from Bedford,Va.,who took part in the D-Day landings, 22 were killed-19 of them in the first minutes under a withering storm of fire from German defenders.
Bedford, a farming hamlet of 3,000 citizens, nestled against Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, has been widely credited with having suffered the greatest per capita loss in WW2 of any American town.
While he clearly accepts historians reseach on the subject as valid, author Alex Kershaw mentions the bedford loss claim only in passing. He does deal at length with the deeper controversy about a financially troubled national D-Day memorial being built there.
But even that does not detract from his main theme - the story of what happened to Bedford's sons on Omaha Beach, how the people learned the terrible news, and their struggle to come to terms with it.
Kershaw was working on a book about Life magazine photographer Robert Capa when he stumbled across Bedford and realized that its story, though not unknown, had never been told in full.
"It was a great narrative about ordinary people who made great sacrifices and did so with great dignity." Kershaw says in remarks quoted by his publisher, De Capo Press. "Many journalists have written about the loss but for some reason no one could see it as a book, telling the story of a small town that went to war."
Bedfords's men were members of Company A,116th Infantry Regiment, the Virginia National Guard, which along with the Maryland National Guard formed the Army's 29th, or "Blue Gray" Division. On June 6, the 29th and the 1st Infantry Division landed on Omaha, by far the bloodiest of Normandy's five invasion beaches.
There was Southern Civil War tradition here; the Virginians were known as the "Stonewallers" for historical ties to Lt.Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. Many Bedford boys were already seving in the Guard to earn an extra "buck a day" during the Depression.
Kershaw's account of who the Bedford boys (and girls) were unfolds like a pre-war vintage, black-and-white movie. On maneuvers in North Carolina when Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, the Virginians find themselves "in for the duration," Kershaw writes. "The buck a day had saved them from poverty. Now it had bought a ticket to the front lines."
He delivers a gripping account of D-Day landing barges pitching in gray seas, laden with seasick soldiers who, as Sgt. Roy Stevens recalled, were two groups-"those who had already decided they were 'going to die' and those who hoped to 'make it through.'"
Capt. Taylor N. Fellers, a Bedford boy commanding Company A, and 28 of his men, 18 from Bedford, were killed minutes after debarking-the real version of the harrowing opening scene in "Saving Private Ryan." Also reprised is the "Longest Day" heroism of Brig. Gen. Norman Cota, the 29th's deputy commander who exhorted his troops to move forward or die, then led their attack on German-held high ground.
First word on the long-anticipated invasion of France came from radio news bulletins, 90 minutes after the first wave hit Omaha Beach.
No one in Bedford could know then that these were their boys, although that day's local newspaper speculated that Company A "probably was" involved. And all day at Green's drugstore, Kershaw writes, "there was just one topic of conversation - D-Day."
In pages that follow, Kershaw provides a microcosmic view of the home front and the war's endless aftermath of joys and sorrows.
Apart from some mixed spellings of names,The Bedford Boys" benefits from meticulous research, 32 pages of photos, and a respectful appreciation of the people, their pride and their pain, in an obscure corner of America.
"The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice." by Alex Kershaw. Da Capo Press. $25. 274 pgs.
Copied from a AP release.
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Those who kept silent yesterday will remain silent tomorrow"
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