Nation raises D-Day memorial - In Bedford, VA


By Lance Gay / Scripps Howard News Service

Roy Stevens at the Bedford Memorial
Roy Stevens, 81, was one of the few members of the National Guard unit -- Company A of the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division -- to survive the D-Day landings and make it back to Bedford.

BEDFORD, Va. -- It was something so painful they only wanted to forget. In the first 15 minutes after the dawn broke June 6, 1944, this tiny Virginia hamlet, population 3,200, lost 19 of its 35 soldier sons on Normandy's Omaha Beach. Four more were dead within weeks -- giving Bedford the highest casualty rate for its population of any place in the United States during the D-Day invasion. The loss left painful, open wounds that some here say have never really closed.

Congress in 1996 recognized Bedford's tragedy by naming it as the site for the nation's memorial -- to be dedicated Wednesday -- to all of those who gave their lives on D-Day. President Bush will attend the commemoration.

Long before talk of a memorial, each day until she died, Martha Jane Stevens kept watch for her son, Ray, expecting that some day the U.S. Army might have found it had made a mistake about his death on the beach and Ray would walk down the path to home.

Ray's twin brother, Roy Stevens, now 81, was one of the few members of the National Guard unit -- Company A of the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division -- to survive the D-Day landings and make it back to Bedford. Roy Stevens' landing craft hit an underwater object and sank at sea, leaving him floundering in the water, struggling to shed his heavy gear as the friends he grew up with in Virginia's farmlands died on the beach several hundreds yards away.

Four days later, in a search for his brother, Roy came across a cemetery and the first grave he found had Ray's dog tags on it. Lucille Bogess, 72, whose brothers Raymond and Bedford Hoback were killed on Omaha Beach, said families were never the same after the news of the deaths came. "I heard my father say that it wasn't just their sons fathers lost that day, but their wives, too. I know my mother was devastated, her health deteriorated, then there were a series of strokes," she said. The number of deaths "was a tremendous loss, but we accepted it, and went on," she said.
D-Day Memorial 2001- Bedford, Virgina
Wednesday's commemoration of the nation's memorial to all of those who gave their lives on D-Day will be attended by President Bush.

Accepted, but not discussed for many years. "We just wouldn't talk about it, not to a civilian, they would think I was bragging," Roy Stevens said. He said other survivors would meet occasionally at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars building to remember what they saw, talk of their losses and relieve the pressure.

Ray Nance, now 85, was the only officer left alive from Company A 10 minutes after the boats landed at Omaha Beach. "There wasn't anybody in front of me. There wasn't anybody left behind me. I was alone in France," he said. He was the first sent home to Bedford, where he became the town's mailman.

Stevens said he wanted to get on with his life and forget that he never shook his brother's hand the last time he saw him -- a memory he says he still bitterly regrets. Bobby Latimer was 11 years old that July. That's when the messages from the War Department came over the teletype at Green's Drug Store, the local Western Union office, notifying families of their losses that occurred the month before. "It was a real blow to Bedford," he recalled. "I want to tell you that made an impression."

But as time passed, the tragedy's impact lessened as the veterans and families kept their memories to themselves. Bogess said that by 1960, you could find people on Bedford's Main Street who had never heard the story about how the town's heart was torn out on Normandy's beaches on D-Day in 1944.

Almost three generations passed before the World War II generation realized their grandchildren didn't really know what that war meant to Bedford. Stevens and Nance are the only two living survivors of the Omaha Beach invasion. Both visit Bedford Middle School to tell seventh-graders what World War II was all about, and what it meant to Bedford. Bedford was once named Liberty in Revolutionary War times, and Stevens says he hopes coming generations will think of their liberties when they visit a memorial to D-Day, Bedford and Company A.

That's the message he tries to tell the new generation: "These men made it possible for you to be here today, and talk about being free, and they aren't here today so you are," he said. "This is something we should never forget, and kids ought to know this."

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