BEDFORD — Any way you look at it, war is a devastating thing — whether the scene of battle is a broad open plain, or a jagged shoreline, or house-to-house in the streets of a town where residents once lived peacefully, plying their trade, earning their daily bread.
Yes, where war transpires, men die, families suffer irreplaceable voids, and chairs at dinner tables stand vacant in silent memorial to the one — or ones — who once livened the table with laughter or lit the room with a smile. There’s an ache that subsides, but never quite goes away.
The same can, in many ways, be said of the towns that, often by happenstance, were the scene or great combat, or carnage. Strategic serendipity moved the two main armies of the Union and the Confederacy to a rather sleepy crossroads town in early July 1863. After three days of intense battle punctuated by an all-out charge up a hill against solidly entrenched positions, Gettysburg, Pa., was never the same, and never would or could be. One hundred years after swords were sheathed, a pall still hung over the town at the battle’s centennial. In my mind, it largely remains so today — too many deaths, too many ghosts.
Sharpsburg, Md., on the other hand, which overlooked the bloodiest single day on American soil, has little or no such discernible pall. What may help in this regard — the luminary vigil (a candle for every man who died along Antietam Creek on Sept. 17, 1862) each December and the grand concert each Fourth of July. Sharpsburg is exorcising its ghosts, it seems, with each passing year.
But what be said of my datelined town, Bedford in central Virginia. Though the Civil War raged throughout Virginia, Bedford escaped, to the best of my knowledge, all but unscathed. Not until World War II did the town makes its lamentable entrance into military history when, simply put, it lost nearly a generation of young men, 19 in less than a five-minute span one cloudy momentous June morning in 1944.
The Bedford Boys have been labeled the tip of the spear wielded against Nazi Germany. The metaphor is a bit imprecise, as the town’s Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, occupied the far right of the attack line on Omaha Beach during D-Day. Theirs was the most daunting challenge as they landed at the Vierville draw, the only one of the beach openings on Omaha that was paved. What’s more, they more than any unit were subject to the enfilading fire from cliffs and bluffs above the beach.
Small wonder then that when the ramp on their landing craft dropped down, they were sitting ducks. Nineteen, including company commander Capt. Taylor Fellers, perished in a flash. Two more Bedford boys would die later that day, giving the town of 3,200 the tragic distinction of suffering more casualties per capita on D-Day.
As Ken Parker, whose wife and he have established the splendid little Tribute Center to the Bedford Boys in the building that once housed Green’s Drug Store, a popular town hangout, says, the town did “wallow in grief” in the immediate war years. But one man initiated change that would help the lugubrious town regain its moorings.
Elisha “Ray” Nance, an officer in Company A, did not die with the others largely because his landing craft took German fire and capsized nearly 1,000 yards from the beach. Nance escaped the vessel, and so was a survivor.
Upon returning home, he accepted a postal position as a rural mailman. A plum job by most instances, but not necessarily for Nance as his travels took him to many of the homes of his deceased comrades whose parents constantly questioned why he had not done more to save their sons.
Finally, Nance petitioned the military powers that be to re-activate Company A with him as captain. His wish was fulfilled, and 22 men signed up — including six of the survivors from D-Day.
More than anything, Parker says, that series of acts — Nance’s request and the response of the six survivors — returned the town to a semblance of an even keel.
But then the same can be said — that is, the circle completed — when Ken and Linda Parker started asking the descendants of the heroic “boys” for memorabilia for the purpose of fashioning a tribute center. Bedford now, it seems, has come to terms with its tragic place in the sun.