By RICHARD GOLDSTEIN for THE NEW YORK TIMES
Ray Nance with some of his medals.
They were teenage buddies in the Depression days, growing up in Bedford, a town of 3,200 in central Virginia. They joined the National Guard together, they marched in Fourth of July parades and they gathered with their girlfriends at American Legion halls.
But the country life faded for the young men who would become known as the Bedford Boys. In February 1941, they were called into federal service as part of the 29th Infantry Division. Assembled in Company A of the division’s 116th Infantry, they shipped off to Britain in September 1942. Lt. Elisha Ray Nance, the son of a tobacco farmer, helped train them for combat.
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, when the long-awaited Allied invasion of northern Europe got under way, 30 soldiers from Bedford and its environs were among the first infantrymen approaching Omaha Beach. The bombings and shellings preceding the landings failed to soften up the German gunners in the heights. The beach became the scene of carnage.
Four of the 30 Bedford boys were in a landing craft that was hit by German fire and sank. Fished out of the waters, they were the fortunate ones; 19 others died approaching the beach or in their first moments on French soil, among them Capt. Taylor Fellers, the company commander. Lieutenant Nance’s boat, carrying a radio man and a medic, was the last craft from Company A to reach the sands.
“There was a pall of dust and smoke,” Mr. Nance recalled in a 2001 interview with WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Va. “In the distance I could see the church steeple we were supposed to guide on. I waded out of the water up on the beach. I could not see anybody in front of me. I looked behind, and there’s nobody following me. I was alone in France.”
Most of the Bedford boys were dead or dying by then. In all, 22 were killed in the invasion.
“I started crawling,” Mr. Nance remembered. “There was continuous fire from mortars and machine guns.”
Soon he began to see bodies strewn on the beach, and he was shot twice in the foot and once in the hand.
“When I thought there was no more hope, I looked up in the sky,” he told Alex Kershaw for his book “The Bedford Boys.” “I didn’t see anything up there. But I felt something settle over me. I got this warm feeling. I felt as though I was going to live.” He made it to shelter beneath a cliff.
On July 16, the Western Union teletype at Green’s Drug Store in Bedford began clattering with messages from the War Department announcing the deaths of the boys from town.
After a long period of hospitalization, Mr. Nance returned home. He farmed, then became a rural letter carrier.
To honor the memories of his men, he recruited a new Company A in the Virginia National Guard and helped organize a memorial service in town for the 10th anniversary of D-Day. Bedford was said to have lost more men per capita on D-Day than any other town in America. The origin of that claim is unclear, but the losses brought Congressional support for creation of a National D-Day Memorial in Bedford.
When the memorial’s granite arch was unveiled in May 2000, Mr. Nance struggled with his emotions. “It brings back a lot of bad memories,” he told The Associated Press. “I never really got over it, and I’m not sure if I ever will.”
The memorial was dedicated on June 6, 2001, in ceremonies attended by President George W. Bush. On Wednesday, a hearse with Mr. Nance’s body circled that memorial before burial with a military honor guard.
Mr. Nance is survived by his wife, Alpha; his daughters Martha Susan Cobb of Front Royal, Va., and Sarah Watson Jones of Richmond; his son, John, of Lynchburg, Va.; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. Nance’s mail-carrying duties offered no respite from anguish. Some of the families on his rounds had lost sons on D-Day. He wondered what they might have been thinking about his having survived.
“I never was very good at reading people’s hearts,” he once told The Richmond Times-Dispatch. “There was a little twinge of guilt that I was allowed to come back.”