It’s been 75 years since the “Bedford Boys” — part of Company A of the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division — reached the shores of the Dog Green Sector of Omaha Beach as part of the first wave of the D-Day invasion.
Within minutes, 19 of that Company were dead.
The small Virginia town, and the people they left behind still remember.
So does the nation they served.
Motorists traveling along I-81 or U.S. 460 near Lynchburg or Roanoke in Virginia since 2001 have most likely seen signs directing them to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford.
Congress designated that the memorial be located in Bedford, because in 1944, the town of just more than 3,000 people suffered the highest per capita losses of any other town in the United States on D-Day.
Their story was told in a best-selling book, "The Bedford Boys," written by Alex Kershaw.
No one needs to remind Lucille Hoback Boggess of what Bedford lost. Boggess was two days shy of her 15th birthday when her world changed.
But she wouldn’t know it for another month.
“We were getting ready to go to church on Sunday morning,” she recalls in a soft southern lilt, unique to certain areas of Virginia. “We were getting ready to leave when the sheriff came and delivered the first telegram. Of course, all the people from the church came over. It was a community loss. I guess everybody was crying.”
That first telegram, delivered on July 16, informed her parents their oldest son Bedford Hoback, 30, had been killed on D-Day. The next day, they received a second telegram informing them their 24-year-old son Raymond was missing.
“They apparently never found his body,” she continues. “So after a year, they just pronounced him dead.”
Boggess, who turns 90 Saturday, is widowed and lives in an apartment in a sprawling assisted living community in Bedford. She has books on D-Day and World War II on a shelf. Kershaw — folks around Bedford just call him “Alex” — brought the “Bedford Boys” to the forefront in 2003 with the publication of his book of the same name.
But it’s a brown briefcase full of memories that Boggess treasures most.
She pulls out Bedford’s Purple Heart, awarded posthumously, and both Bedford’s and Raymond’s Army caps.
She has photos — family photos as well as photos of her big brothers in their uniforms — tucked away.
“This was Bedford and his girlfriend,” she says, of a photo that shows a group of smiling soldiers and their significant others. “This was taken just before they shipped out. The girls went to Florida to see their boyfriends. Husbands.”
Another photo shows Raymond in front of the family farmhouse with a suitcase in his hand, ready to head back out from leave.
“I always thought that’s kind of sad,” she says.
She has the Western Union telegram informing her parents that Raymond was missing preserved in thick plastic.
And the most special item in her brown, leather-bound treasure chest, came accompanied with a letter dated July 9, 1944, addressed to her parents from “Somewhere In France.”
“I really don't know how to start this letter to you folks, but will attempt to do something in words of writing,” Boggess says, re-reading a copy of the letter she knows nearly by heart after 75 years. “I will try to explain in the letter what this is all about. While walking along the beach D-Day Plus 1 I came upon this Bible, and as most any person in the world would do I picked it up from the sand to keep it from being destroyed.”
The author of the letter, a Cpl. H.W. Crayton from West Virginia, goes on to say he found Raymond’s Bible, presented to him by his mother at Christmas, 1938, in the sand while looking for his own lost belongings the day after D-Day.
In the center, between the Old and New Testaments, on the “Family Registry” page, Raymond wrote he was the son of Mr. & Mrs. J.S. Hoback of Bedford, Va., enabling the soldier — with whom Boggess never spoke before he passed away — to return The Bible.
“Mother always said, next to her son, she would like to have his Bible,” Boggess says, placing her hand atop the book. “I’ve always kind of cherished The Bible, too.”
Boggess says she always wonders what happened to Raymond, who she describes as quiet, as opposed to Bedford’s loud and outgoing personality.
Because Raymond was never found, she says her mother, who suffered strokes in the years following her sons’ deaths, decided to bury Bedford in France.
“She always said they left home together and she didn’t want to separate them in death,” Boggess recalls, adding Raymond’s name is on the Wall of the Missing.
And she herself has traveled to Normandy three times to visit the beach where her brothers last drew breath.
“It was comforting and the people there were just amazing,” she says, explaining the French hosts “love to see people from Bedford.”
“I think if they (Bedford and Raymond) could see it, they would be very pleased,” she continues. “They’ve been well remembered by lots of people.”
Signs direct motorists to the D-Day Memorial, but the streets of Bedford feature reminders and promises that the town won’t forget the sacrifices made 75 years ago. Lamp posts alternate two flags: “Bedford Remembers” and one bearing the face of a Bedford Boy and his name.
“It helps a lot,” says Jay Ippolitio, owner of The Blue Lady Ever After Florist and Ippolito Candy in downtown Bedford.
Ippolito’s grandparents were neighbors of the Hobacks, so he grew up hearing about Bedford and Raymond, but says he never knew the scope of the town’s loss until he was older.
“One day we were out here and there was a lady going by each one (flag) Googling their names,” he says. “And people take pictures. You can say these men died, but when you see a face, I think it really helps. This town hasn’t forgot and these flags let people know.”
Ippolito, who moved away from Bedford but came back 20 years later and now owns a successful business, says he’s excited more people now talk about the Bedford Boys.
He directs customers next door to the newly opened Bedford Boys Tribute Center, where Ken Parker and his wife Linda greet visitors.
The Parkers are not Bedford natives, but fell in love with the town and moved from Oklahoma in February after deciding to write their own book — this time focusing on the Bedford Boys' family members.
Ken explains he and his wife discovered a lot of men’s social lives revolved around the old Green’s Drugstore. So they rented the property — will buy it next year — restored the front half into a coffee shop and dedicated half the building to a tribute center. Among museum artifacts are photos, letters, telegrams, the original teletype machine from which they came and more, all on loan from family members of the Bedford Boys and other resources from throughout the community.
He points to a picture of the famous Bedford Fireman’s Band, taken on Feb. 19, 1941.
“Marching behind them was Company A,” he says. “They’re marching down to Liberty Station to get on a train to go to Fort Meade for basic training from National Guard status into the regular Army.
“That is the last time that the town of Bedford saw the company together as one unit.”
He points to another picture on loan from the Bedford Welcome Center.
“This is the only known picture of the landing craft of the Company A Bedford Boys, minutes before they hit Omaha Beach,” he says. “And after they landed, within nine minutes, they were all dead.”
Parker says he believes the tribute center is of vital importance to the community and serves as a way to help heal and also as a promise to never forget.
“(It’s giving) the town of Bedford the opportunity to bring forth their artifacts, stories, circumstances and it will guarantee their (Bedford Boys) legacies beyond just a picture on the wall,” he says.
Bronze historical markers have been placed outside of several locations throughout town, informing passersby or those on the Bedford Boys self-guided tour of the significance of locations such as Green's Drugstore.
Another such location is Fisher’s Restaurant, which was founded in the 1930s and owned by Lisa Callahan’s parents from the 1950s until 1995. She reopened it in 2014 after retiring from the corporate world.
Callahan has been contracted as the main food vendor for the D-Day Memorial’s 75th D-Day Service, which will feature keynote speaker Mike Pence and upward of 20,000 people, today.
“It’s an honor,” says Callahan, whose father Cephas’ WWII jacket, as well as other war memorabilia, decorates the wall. “That’s all I can say. It’s just amazing to me how these boys, and I’m sure at a young age they thought, ‘I’m going to do this (fight in the war) and be just fine.’ But a lot of people didn’t come home because of it.
“And to ask me to take care of these people is truly an honor.”
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There is no historical marker at Greenwood Cemetery yet, but it’s coming.
Margaret Parks went with her sister Bettie, who lost her husband John Wilkes, to Normandy for the 40th anniversary in 1984 when a monument was erected in honor of the 29th Division.
She remembers the reactions of the D-Day survivors as the bus came to stop at Omaha Beach.
“Some of them went off by themselves and wept,” the 93-year-old recalls. “There was one fella who was crippled and he just got off the bus and started running as far as he could go. Just started runnin’.
“I was moved, too.”
John Nance’s dad, Elisha “Ray” Nance, made it home from Omaha Beach and never returned.
“We encouraged him to and tried to make it workable, but he said, ‘Once was enough,'” Nance says of his dad, who passed away in 2009.
Ray Nance, was Company A’s executive commander and joined the National Guard in Bedford in 1933, like many others, for that extra $1 a week, never thinking he’d one day be called to war.
John explains his dad was shot three times as he tried to make his way to safety, and then convalesced in England before coming back home. He later restarted Company A and served in the Army again until he received a job as a postman in Bedford.
He says both his father and his mother, Alpha, enjoyed spending time at the D-Day Memorial in their later years.
“They would go up and sit on the porch and visit with staff there, and when they would sell one of Alex’s (Kershaw’s) books, they would say, ‘Oh, there’s Mr. Nance out in that chair out there,’” he recalls, smiling. “And he ended up autographing where his picture was.”
The memorial helped bring a lot of veterans, and, in turn, their stories out for the first time, says Martin Leamy, director of facilities and risk management for the D-Day Memorial.
“They opened up to you once they became more comfortable,” Leamy says, adding several D-Day vets served as tour guides before they passed away.
Lucille Hoback Boggess worked at the D-Day Memorial, too.
She says she would hear survivors swap stories and shed tears. She says she thinks the memorial provides an opportunity to heal.
“You look out over the town and you think this community is still shedding tears about the heavy losses that we suffered and it’s been 75 years now,” she says. “... It was a big, big loss for this community, this town and this county.”
And she wonders what life in Bedford might be like if her brothers and the other Bedford Boys had come home.
“I often thought of that,” she says, smiling. “Wondered what it would have been like if they had come back and had a life. That’s the thing. It’s kind of sad because they never had an opportunity like the rest of us to be married. Have a family. You wonder, if you think about 19 men from this small community and you think if they had lived and come back to Bedford, what would it have been like? And you think it would have been a nicer place. They would have had opportunities to start a business or continue to other things in the community.
“So I’ve often thought about that,” she says. “What would Bedford have been like if these 19 young men have lived and been here? But, we don’t know that.”