As another anniversary – this one the 67th – of the event we call “D-Day” passes by on the unfolding calendar of history, it is worth pausing to consider the profound impact this moment of time continues to register across the nation; and in some places more than others.
Operation “Overlord”, the long-anticipated and extremely chancy Allied invasion of the European continent on June 6, 1944 was given no more than a 50/50 chance of success by its planners, even before stormy weather on France’s channel coast made matters much worse.
In sheer numbers, the base of the sword aimed at the five target beaches of Normandy at 6:30 am that June morning remains mind-bending from any perspective: 5000 ships from 8 Allied navies, carrying 160,000 combat-ready troops and 30,000 vehicles supported by 11,000 aircraft, and an unprecedented year of focused and secret planning, training and preparedness. At the tip of that sword, and aimed at the critical and heavily-defended five-mile-long stretch of beach designated by the code word “Omaha”, was the untested 29th U.S. Infantry Division. Leading the first wave of that force were the men of the 116th Regiment, and at their forefront, the troops of Company A, a “brotherhood” of former National Guardsmen from the small rural Virginia town of Bedford.
Dating back to the days of colonial America’s first militia elements, there has existed in our country and in all our wars a tradition of recruiting fighting units by community; individual companies, entire regiments and even brigades, enabling volunteers to organize, train and eventually fight together. In fact many war historians will point to this phenomenon as an explanation of the high level of fighting efficiency noted in units of the National Guard in times of national emergency. (My own father in WW I served in a company of U.S. Marines who grew up together in a small Washington county, himself wounded coincidentally in France and on the same day – June 6th – but 26 years previously.)
In the 1930s, the mountain town of Bedford, Virginia was struggling to recover from the depths of the Great Depression as was so much of rural America of the time. Training with the National Guard not only gave young men an opportunity to wear a uniform the girls went for and perform useful service, but to earn the very attractive “dollar-per-day” which sweetened the chance to spend time with friends, neighbors and classmates at the nearby Armory, and on summer maneuvers. Brothers Clyde and Jack Powers, Raymond and Bedford Hoback, and the twins Ray and Roy Stevens had always enjoyed doing things together, and training with A Company of the 116th was a natural carry-on. For Pride Wingfield and Paul Schenk, it was a continuation of a close friendship which had followed them through their school and growing-up years, and would help to wile away the days of pre-invasion training in England where they would bicycle together through the countryside.
Taylor Fellers had been one of the first to become a Guardsman back in 1932, and by 1944, he was the Captain who would lead his younger townsmen onto the deadly beach, along with 1st Lt. Ray Nance and now Master Sergeant John Wilkes; serious men who had learned how to soldier; friends and “brothers” all.
When they surged over the edge of the British troopship Javelin and into their landing craft in the early morning dark, they each carried a 60-pound combat pack, and the knowledge that as a part of the first wave, their chances of surviving even the first few minutes would be slim. They would be right.
Twenty-two sons of Bedford Town would lose their lives that day, nineteen of them in a span of a few minutes; a larger percent of one town’s population than at any time or place in the course of WW II; Taylor Fellers, both Hoback brothers, Jack Powers, John Wilkes, John Shenk and Ray Stevens among them. Ray Nance would be the only Company “A” officer to survive Omaha Beach, and only Bob Slaughter would still be fighting when the war in Europe ended.
Only six Bedford boys walked away from Omaha Beach, but it would be stretching things to think they were unscathed. In all, the 116th regiment suffered 797 casualties.
Back in rural, green and beautiful Bedford, Virginia, population 3,000, the whole town mourned and many families treasured up the photos and memories they had wisely stored away. Today, Bedford is home to the official U.S.D-Day Memorial.
NOTE: The experience of the Bedford boys inspired the story and film “Saving Private Ryan".
A Company of U.S. soldiers huddle in their LSP (Landing Ship Personnel) with Omaha Beach and its unrelenting gunfire in sight.
U.S. Navy photo
Caption for Title Photo:
The U.S. Military cemetery at Normandy occupies high ground overlooking Omaha Beach today. 9,387 Americans are buried here on a piece of French soil that is held in title by the U.S.A.. Before the battle for Normandy officially came to a close on July 24th, 1,323,000 Americans had taken part, with casualties exceeding 120,000