War reminds of hurts that haven't healed

Va. town that lost 19 men on D-Day remembers the heartache

April 10, 2003|By Charles M. Madigan | Charles M. Madigan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BEDFORD, Va. -- For Elizabeth Teass, the beginning of a new American war revives distant memories of a conflict that shattered this little Blue Ridge Mountain town, marking it forever as a place defined by the sacrifices of its citizen soldiers.

Teass was the Western Union girl down at Green's Pharmacy, a hometown soda shop hangout. She read all the messages that came across the line from Richmond, Va., pasted them on telegram paper and sent them on their way.

Each morning she would flip the switch that turned the machine on, say hello to Richmond and wait for telegrams. By midsummer of 1944 it was becoming more and more difficult to flip that switch.

The response, almost invariably, was "Good morning. We have casualties. The Secretary of War regrets ..."

As U.S. forces move deeper into Iraq and as the inevitable casualties mount, the old memories are being revived in this place that paid such a high price in another war. In all, 35 young men from Bedford were in the first wave to hit Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.

Decades of grief

Nineteen of them died in the first moments of the battle, and more died later. None of them was regular Army. They were all in the Virginia National Guard, novices at combat, citizen soldiers, as they are called in Bedford.

In a town where everyone knew everyone, the 19 death notices opened a time of grieving that lasted for decades.

To this day, Bedford's loss, among the highest per capita losses on D-Day, stands as a reminder that soldiers who die in battle are not just statistics. Each death leaves a space filled only by regrets and memories, however distant.

In World War II, there were 406,000 U.S. deaths on and off the battlefield. More than 4,000 of them came in those first days at Normandy.

A foundation has constructed a fine monument just outside town to the boys and men who died in the D-Day assault, the National D-Day Memorial, and while it is a tribute to all the troops who perished, somehow, the connection to the boys from Bedford seems cast in steel.

Boyd Carl Wilson, 81, shows up every day, a tall man wearing a red hat who doesn't care that he needs a shave. He still is feisty and particularly peppery on the subject of D-Day.

He has a bullet in his hip from Africa and a hunk of shrapnel he picked up on Omaha Beach. He won't talk about it, but his buddies say he has a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.

He watched nine of his 10 comrades die at Omaha and managed to survive, he says, by moving quickly, digging in and praying for protection.

"They were the nicest bunch of guys you have ever seen," he said. But Omaha Beach was too much for them, too much for anyone.

"Every time I moved, a bullet hit where I had been," Wilson said. "We were stuck there on the beach, and the Germans were just up there picking us off. That was stupidity on the part of our higher-ups."

He visits the monument every day, he said, because he feels he owes it to those who died on D-Day. After a lifetime of searching his thoughts about warfare, he has concluded that it would be best if officers always went into assaults first because that would make them more careful. He has his own thoughts about Iraq.

`Drop an A-bomb'

"Pull them all out and drop an A-bomb. That would settle it," he said. "We don't need to lose any troops."

You can't visit this town without hearing about what it means to lose so many young men at one time. Talk to any of the residents of a certain age, an age that would have put them in the Glenn Miller/Tommy Dorsey generation, and they tell their sad stories.

"It was a hard job," said the Western Union girl, Elizabeth Teass, now 81 and still unable to forget. She would give the Western Union forms to Mr. Green or the sheriff, who would deliver the telegrams. Later Ray Israel, who owned the cab company in Bedford, told her, "Elizabeth, if you get any more, just tell me and I will deliver them." And so he did.

Two brothers, Bedford and Raymond Hoback, died. Raymond was wounded and left on the beach for evacuation. The tide came in, carried him away, and he drowned. Only his Bible was found.

Clifton Lee and Earl Parker and Jack Powers and Weldon Rosazza ("Such a handsome, handsome boy, dark and Italian," one of the local women recalled) all died in the first few hours. The names, and the names of all the others, are inscribed on the monument in front of the Bedford County Courthouse.

Ray Stevens died a little way in from the beach, where his twin, Roy, who had always hoped they would be inseparable, later found his grave.

For all their lives, Roy remembered, they did everything together. Ray got into the Army a month early. But Roy was close behind. As they boarded the boats to hit the beach at Normandy, Ray wanted to shake Roy's hand. Roy said "No," and they made a plan to meet and shake hands at an intersection in a little French village off the Normandy beach.

"He just put his head down. I think he knew," said Roy, who still writes poems about his brother.

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