|Wounded GIs await evacuation from Omaha Beach. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES)|
In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, the seas were heavy and frosted with whitecaps. A cold, damp wind swept across the ships’ decks, which were faintly illuminated by a pale moon that barely penetrated the overcast. Here, in mid-Channel, thousands of ships were assembled in the largest invasion fleet the world had ever known.
In the ensuing hours, hundreds upon hundreds of men would start to prepare for battle. Young and frightened, they could only begin to imagine what would await them. For many it would be their longest day; for others it would be their last. Far removed from the fleet preparing to invade Normandy was Bedford, Va., a small, obscure town lying just below the Blue Ridge Mountains. Most citizens of the peaceful community were fast asleep as the young soldiers hundreds of miles away, some from Bedford, were transported to the French coast and made final preparations before embarking on their mission. Yet, as dawn broke over the English Channel, the tranquility of that little town would soon be completely shaken. Until that awful June day, most people in Bedford had never even heard of Normandy, but in a few short hours they would have a terrible connection with its famous stretch of beach known as Omaha.
Made up of men from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the 29th Infantry Division was a former National Guard unit. Among the division’s regiments was the 116th Infantry, whose companies were Guardsmen drawn from various Virginia towns and draftees from elsewhere. Company A of the 116th was home to 35 men from Bedford — all of them volunteers.
On February 3, 1941, Company A had been activated into federal service. Although comparatively new, it was one of the top-ranking companies of the old National Guard, having won many trophies in past training events. Eight months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled the United States into World War II, the citizen-soldiers of Company A had no idea what the future held for them. After mobilization, the men continued training and, after December 7, performed coastal defense duty along the Atlantic shore.
In a gesture intended to bolster Britain’s defenses and to’show the flag’ in an active theater, in September 1942 the 29th Division boarded the converted luxury liner Queen Mary and sailed for England, arriving in October. For the next 21 months, while other American divisions saw combat in North Africa, Italy and the Pacific, the 29th continued with its training. The division’s 116th Infantry became the first unit to complete amphibious exercises at the U.S. Army’s purpose-built amphibious training facility at Slapton Sands in southern England. Known derisively by the men of more experienced divisions as ‘England’s Own,’ the 29th was selected for its invasion role in part because, unaware of the true nature of combat, the division’s men still had a zeal for action that was muted in more experienced formations.
As the date for the invasion neared, the pace of training intensified. In January, British General Bernard L. Montgomery visited the ’29ers,’ and later Generals Omar N. Bradley and Dwight D. Eisenhower also visited the division. On May 18, 1944, the soldiers of Company A began moving from Tidworth Barracks to their marshaling area near Dorchester, England. It wasn’t until they were waiting to board the British troopship Empire Javelin, bound for France, that the men finally learned of their final destination — Normandy — and that they were scheduled to be the first wave of the invasion at 6:30 a.m. on June 5. The 29ers were then briefed on the obstacles they would face, which were formidable.
Between the high- and low-water marks along Omaha Beach where the 29th and the veteran 1st Division would land, the Germans had placed three distinct ranks of obstacles. The first ran the length of the beach, approximately 250 yards out from the high-water mark; it consisted of steel gatelike structures 10 feet high. They were emplaced irregularly, making it hard for the landing craft to avoid them. Lashed to the uprights were mines that would explode if hit by the boats. Closer in, heavy logs with contact mines secured on top were driven into the sand at an angle so that the top part faced seaward. The final obstructions were some 130 yards from the high-water line. These were barriers of three or more steel rails, crossed at the center and embedded in the sand. Known as ‘hedgehogs,’ they could puncture the bottom of any landing craft attempting to ride over them.
If the men were lucky enough to pass through those obstacles, on the shore awaiting them above the high-water mark were strands of barbed wire and thousands of buried mines. Behind the coast rose steep cliffs, some reaching 170 feet above the water. From this high ground, elements of the German 352nd Infantry Division could overlook the entire shoreline, giving them a tremendous field of enfilading fire. Machine guns were positioned in concrete pillboxes and open positions. Mortars, together with 75mm and 88mm guns, formed the final defenses.
Some machine gun nests were almost impossible to spot or hit. And they were positioned so that a burst of machine gun fire that missed one group of Americans was likely to hit other soldiers farther down the shore.
In order to secure the beach and prepare it so vehicles and heavy equipment could cross, the men of the first wave were responsible for securing four passages, or draws, along the beach. These led inland, and each was well defended by troops with mortars, infantry howitzers and antitank weapons as well as small arms.
The assignment for Company A was to land on the Dog Green portion of Omaha Beach and secure the D-1 draw in front of the village of Vierville. Following their briefings, the 29ers gave their equipment a final look before boarding the trucks on the morning of Sunday, June 4, that would take them to Weymouth, where they boarded Empire Javelin. The invasion fleet left from Weymouth and other English Channel ports and began assembling prior to making the final run to the beaches. As the vessels approached Normandy, however, the weather deteriorated, and later that evening General Eisenhower made the agonizing decision to turn the fleet around and postpone the invasion for 24 hours. The next day the weather improved sufficiently for the ships to leave the safety of the Channel ports for the second time and make the crossing to France.
In the Omaha Beach first wave with Company A were Ray and Roy Stevens of Bedford. They came from a farm family of 14 children. The twins — Roy was older than Ray by 20 minutes — grew up during the hard times of the Depression, and both had dropped out of school to help support their family. Like many twins, they were close and did many things together, buying a 130-acre farm and even dating twin sisters for a while.
In 1939 Ray joined the local National Guard, and Roy followed a week later. At the time, many young men were joining the Guard; it seemed the thing to do. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the company was in southwest Virginia on maneuvers. Roy Stevens remembered: ‘I was watching a movie in South Hill, Va., when they broke in and told us. We all left and was going to whip them that night; it was pretty exciting. But that’s when we knew we were in for it, we were supposed to be in [the Guard] for a year, and our year was almost up.’
Now on board Empire Javelin, the Stevens brothers, like others, talked of home and what they would do when they returned. Earl Parker, another Bedford soldier, proudly showed off pictures of his daughter, born four weeks after he shipped out. Parker told them he would not mind dying if he could only see her just once.
‘People were serious about this thing,’ Roy recalled. ‘We knew somebody was going to die and it wasn’t going to be long. There was no swearing or cussing like you see in the movies.’
A priest told the men they should prepare for whatever awaited them. ‘I imagine everybody did,’ Roy remembered. ‘If anybody believed in an almighty, they did that night.’
As the troopship pulled out of Weymouth on the night of June 5, Roy lay in his bunk trying to sleep and wondering if he would make it. ‘Nobody slept that night,’ he recalled, ‘nobody.’
At 3 a.m. on the morning of June 6, troops began to assemble to go ashore. Heavily laden with equipment, they slowly climbed down the netting on the side of Empire Javelin and boarded their 30-man LCA (landing craft, assault). Before they climbed aboard their landing craft, Roy recalled he told Ray that they would shake hands when they met again on shore in Vierville. But Ray just kept his head bowed down. In retrospect, Roy is sure that Ray must have had a premonition about what was to come. That moment has haunted Roy ever since.
In the heavy seas, their boats lurched forward, slamming into the towering gray-black waves. Crowded tightly together, many men became violently seasick. With feet awash in water and vomit, they were finally heading to war.
The seven landing craft that would carry Company A — the boys from Bedford — onto the beach formed up in the darkened sea. Finally all the LCAs were lined up and starting to shore. Riding out 6- and 7-foot waves that sprayed water into the boats, the soldiers huddled, wet and shivering. Fearful the craft would be swamped, some men began to bail with their helmets, as water poured in faster than bilge pumps could take it out.
Mammoth naval guns opened up, as did tank guns and artillery firing from LCTs (landing craft, transport), creating a deafening roar that hammered the senses. Landing craft armed with rocket launchers fired thousands of missiles that gave off a horrendous banshee wail. The battleship Texas fired its huge 14-inch guns, lobbing 2,000-pound shells at distant targets. The recoil of the mighty cannons actually moved the ship, causing giant swells that almost swamped some of the small boats.
In the early morning mist, a haze of smoke was the first sign of shore, and then the line of bluffs emerged. When the landing craft were about 400 yards out, the Germans began firing, and artillery and mortar shells splashed down around the boats. At first the fire was inaccurate. Near misses sent water skyward, falling back on the already soaked soldiers. As the LCAs came closer to shore, the shelling became more effective.
The first craft sunk was Boat No 5. Six members of Company A drowned in that vessel, along with the boat crew. Twenty other men were rescued by naval craft. As the six other LCAs continued to approach shore, a shell hit Boat No. 3, killing several men. A dozen men of the assault team were hurled into the water and drowned.
Roy Stevens was in Boat No. 4. As it approached the beach, he remembered: ‘It came down off a wave and hit an obstacle just like that. Punched a hole in it.’ Fortunately there was no explosive on the end of the obstacle, and the boat simply sank, 500 yards from shore. ‘I was about as scared as I ever was,’ Roy recalled. ‘I could swim, but not real well.’ Like others, he wore a life preserver, but loaded down with 60 pounds of equipment, it was a struggle to keep his head above water. Roy would have drowned if another Bedford native, Clyde Powers, had not come to his aid and cut off his pack. The survivors of Boat No. 4 bobbed alone in the water for almost two hours before they were rescued by a passing boat and returned to England.
Roy was lucky, but his brother Ray had not been so fortunate. When Roy finally reached Omaha Beach three days later, a medic told him that Ray had been shot across the midsection by a machine gun and had died on the beach. Several days later Roy found his brother’s grave. He said he couldn’t write his family with the news: ‘I was hoping all the time that I was wrong, but it didn’t turn out that way.’
Lieutenant Edward Tidrick, heading to shore in Boat No. 2, saw that it was coming in at the right spot, but the beach was untouched. In briefings, the 29ers had been told that bombs and artillery shells would create craters in the sand for their protection. For Company A, however, there was no cover on the beach. The U.S. Army Air Forces was supposed to bomb the beach, but, fearing they would hit invading Americans, the airmen flew too far inland before dropping their bombloads. The plan had been for the men to wade ashore in three files from each landing craft. But when the ramps were dropped at 6:30 a.m., all hell broke loose as the waiting Germans unleashed fusillades of withering automatic weapons fire. Order turned into confusion, with each man fighting for his own survival.
Ray Nance in Boat No. 1 remembered: ‘The minute the ramp went down they opened up. We must have been torn up pretty badly. A good many men were killed on the ramp.’ Nance left the landing craft and plunged into the chest-deep water. ‘I think that is what saved me,’ he recalled.
Struggling ahead of Nance was Pfc John Reynolds. Reynolds went down on his knees, then brought his rifle up and fell forward, dead. ‘It was here that the heaviest fire came down on us,’ Nance would write later. ‘A bullet passed through my pack and clothing, cutting the strap on my binocular case. We were caught in very heavy machine gun fire.’ Not long after, Nance was struck in the heel and also the stomach by bullets. All but three men on Nance’s boat were either killed or wounded before even reaching the water’s edge. Later, two of the three survivors were killed; only Cecil Breeden was untouched.
The objective was to get up to the high-water mark and off the beach, but many did not make it. John Wilkes and John Schenk were cut down by heavy fire at the waterline, and J.D. Clifton only made it as far as the cliffs before he was killed. Lieutenant Tidrick was struck in the throat shortly after landing. Gasping for air, he ordered, ‘Advance the wire cutters.’ Private Lee Nash heard the order, but was badly wounded and unable to comply.
Nearby, Boat No. 7 drifted toward shore, its coxswain dead beside the wheel. A medical section with 17 men was on board but could not exit; the Germans zeroed in on them as they struggled to get out, and the medics were helpless. Several were killed before they had a chance to help their badly wounded comrades on the beach.
Company commander Captain Taylor Fellers (who was seriously ill with a severe sinus infection and could have remained in England) and Lieutenant Benjamin Kearfott arrived at the beach with 30 infantrymen aboard LCA-1015. When the ramp went down on their boat, the Germans trained devastating machine gun fire on the group. Fellers and the rest of the men on his boat were killed before they got far up the beach.
After Fellers’ death, Nance became the senior officer in the company, but he did not have many left to command. Despite his wounds, Nance managed to move up the beach, flopping down less than 100 yards from a German pillbox. He could see that bullets were striking the ground around him. One of them hit his pack again, which contained a quarter of a pound of TNT, but it did not strike his skin.
Nance remembered a Navy medic who approached him and tended his wounds. ‘I wondered where he came from. I was wet, dirty and my hands black and greasy from all the oil in the water, but he was clean and dry. I knew he was from the Navy because he wore green coveralls. As he squatted beside me, he said, ‘This is worse than Salerno.’ He was there. I didn’t see him touch anyone near me. Then he left. Others I asked later said they never saw him. I know he was real, he touched me.’ To this day Nance still wonders where that medic came from.
Less than 10 minutes after the ramps dropped, Company A was virtually gone. By the end of the first hour, only a handful of survivors remained. Those men crawled across the sand to the seawall and stayed there throughout the day, suffering from shock, exhaustion and wounds. By nightfall, of the 230 men in the company, only 18 men were unhurt. ‘It took me until 11 a.m. to reach the bank,’ Nance recalled. ‘You can’t imagine the sight of all the bodies, lying close together. I knew what happened then.’
Bob Slaughter, who went ashore with Company D that same morning but landed to the right of Company A, described the beach the next morning: ‘The tide was coming in, and we stared in disbelief at this wasted scene. Hundreds of dead bodies and wrecked hulks littered the somewhat tranquil shore. There were wrecked landing craft, burned-out tanks, LSTs [landing ships, tank], ammo, helmets, grenades, but most shocking were the cold and bloody bodies washing in the surf.’ Company A’s soldiers, so young, proud and eager to do their job, had paid a terrible price — more than 90 percent casualties. A few days later four more would die in combat.
Another casualty was the town of Bedford itself. With a population of 3,200, it had the unfortunate distinction of suffering the highest one-day loss of any U.S. town. The first reports of the D-Day invasion received in Bedford had indicated that overall losses were light. News reports stated that there was little opposition from the enemy land and air forces, but at points on the beaches losses were quite heavy from machine gun fire.
The people of Bedford worried for weeks after the invasion. They knew their ‘Bedford Boys’ were assigned to Company A — a unit that reports said had been in heavy fighting, but they did not know that many of their fathers, sons and husbands had been in the first wave, or that most had been hit before even reaching Omaha Beach.
A month after that tragic morning, however, the Bedford Bulletin reported that the town’s own Company A had been in the first wave. At the time, there were still no reports of casualties. Eleven days later, on the morning of July 17, Elizabeth Teass was at her Western Union booth at Green’s Drugstore when the telegrams began to arrive.
Over and over the same message came across: ‘The Secretary of War desires to express his deep regrets….’ No one remembered exactly how many telegrams came that day, but by the end of the week the hard reality was that 22 men from Bedford were dead. A somber stillness descended as the whole town mourned. Almost everyone knew those killed or their family or friends.
‘I had a job to do, a responsibility,’ Teass recalled. ‘I don’t remember crying, but it was shocking to get so many messages and keep them confidential and find someone to take them out to the families. It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever had to do, delivering that sad news to a loved one.’
The hardest-hit family was that of John and Macie Hoback. On Sunday morning, the sheriff brought a telegram saying that their son Bedford had been killed. The following day, another telegram arrived saying that their other son, Raymond, was missing in action. ‘My mother was never the same after,’ Lucille Hoback Boggess, who is the brothers’ sister, later remembered.
Not long after the telegrams arrived, the Hobacks received a package in the mail with Raymond’s Bible inside. With it was a letter from Corporal H.W. Crayton, who said he found the Bible on Omaha Beach the day after D-Day. The Bible was not wet, so Raymond probably made it ashore, but his body had not been found. After the war, Bedford’s body was exhumed from a cemetery overseas, and it was sent back home.
When Roy Stevens returned in August 1945, his mother saw him walking up the road to their house and came out to greet him. ‘I was home,’ he said, ‘but Ray would never be coming up that road. I could see the pain of it in her eyes.’
The town welcomed the survivors home, but things were not the same again. To those who were there, the memories never went away — not only of the terrible carnage and the still, lifeless bodies, but also of the young, smiling faces, boyish laughter and youthful innocence. These are the memories that time cannot diminish or take away.
This article was written by David Fortuna and originally appeared in the June 2004 issue of World War II. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of World War II.