- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2003


By Alex Kershaw

Da Capo Press, $25, 274 pages, illus.


Alex Kershaw’s “The Bedford Boys” is about people. It is a history of what war does to individuals and those left behind. We are told that 5,000 Americans died on June 6, 1944, D-Day, but that is a statistic. This narrative is about folks who died trying to cross the beach code named Omaha — Bloody Omaha. It is the names that make this volume uniquely harrowing, singularly distressing, exceptionally depressing. It is similar to the effect Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington has on people, 58,000 names memorialized in polished stone. Touch a name; contact a soul.

Bedford, Va, lost a higher percentage of its sons on D-Day than any community in America and that is the main reason the National D-Day Memorial was dedicated in the tiny village of Bedford in June, 2001. But 56-years of time and the presence of the president of the United States were not enough to salve the losses on Omaha Beach. Mothers and fathers were emotionally wounded by their losses, siblings permanently disheartened, widows and fiancees everlastingly scarred. Mr. Kershaw’s book relentlessly reminds us that war is about humans.

The Bedford boys were shaped by the Depression, and the young men of Company A of the first Battalion of the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division had joined the National Guard in the 1930s for social purposes and also for the essential dollar-a-day they were paid when they were in training once each month and for two weeks in the summer. Many other Bedford inhabitants — more than 1500 — served in the armed services during World War II, but Company A was special. These men had grown up, gone to school, played baseball, and worked together, dated each other’s sisters, trained and deployed as a group, and were in the first wave to assault Omaha Beach at H Hour on June 6.

Of the 28 troops from Bedford who left the landing craft, 22 were killed, most before they reached the sand, by murderous machine gun fire. Nine others also from Bedford did not reach the beach: five because their landing craft sunk on the way to shore and four others who were in support capacity and did not get ashore on D-Day.

Mr. Kershaw tells of the men trying to swim or wade with packs of more than 60 pounds on their backs, desperate to get ashore while the Germans from barely damaged bunkers and pillboxes laced the beaches with deadly fire: “The Germans had cut Company A to ribbons but they were not satisfied. They now riddled wounded men with arms outstretched in supplication. They peppered soldiers who could not crawl and American teenagers risking their own lives to save them. The … machine gunners shot rescuers in the back. Snipers aimed for the forehead.” In all,102 men from Company A were killed in the first wave, about one third of the company.

In time, these horrors were brought to Bedford. Back home, the letters stopped a few days before June 6, and when correspondence did not start again soon after the sixth, families agonized over the lack of news.

Elizabeth Teass, one of the town’s few telegraph operators, six weeks later “switched on the teletype machine.” She read “We have casualties,” and read the “first line of copy. ‘The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret.’” Elizabeth had seen these words before, about once each week, but this time the machine did not stop. “Line after line of copy clicked out of the printer… .”

Mothers, fathers, wives learned from Western Union that day, and on other days soon thereafter of the death of Leslie Abbot, Wallace Carter, John Clifton, John Dean, Frank Draper, Jr., Taylor Fellers, Charles Fizer, Nicholas Gillespie, Bedford Hoback, Raymond Hoback, Clifton Lee, Earl Parker, Joseph Parker, Jack Powers, Weldon Rosazza, John Reynolds, John Shenck, Ray Stevens, Gordon White, John Wilkes, Elmer Wright, Grant Yopp. Every name spoke trauma and tragedy.

Understand this about D-Day, dear reader. The air bombardment of German fortifications was crucial, even if not as effective as hoped, and the naval attack on German defenses was essential, even if it did not silence most of the German guns, but at H-Hour when the landing craft lowered their ramps the success or failure of the greatest amphibious attack in the history of warfare, the event upon which the success of the Allied effort in World War II depended, all came down to the Bedford Boys and thousands of men like them scrambling in chest high water, weighed down with equipment and ammunition, and the water they splashed into was crimson with their blood and that of their buddies. And they advanced. Bless them all. Bless them all.

Alan Gropman is the Distinguished Professor of National Security Policy at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

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