Bedford Boys

Good morning, it’s Wednesday, June 5, 2019. On this date 75 years ago, the SS Empire Javelin, a British troopship built in Wilmington, Calif., eased out of Portsmouth harbor for the open waters of the English Channel. The British vessel was one of 4,100 such troop transports in an immense armada numbering nearly 7,000 ships.

Some 132,600 infantrymen and airborne troops from Britain, Canada, and the United States were on those vessels, about 1,500 of them on the SS Javelin. Most of the soldiers had been aboard the ship for four days and nights while their commanders waited nervously for stormy weather to pass. In the predawn hours of June 5, 1944, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the final order to launch Operation Overlord. The D-Day invasion was finally underway.

Among the contingent of 1,500 Americans on the SS Empire Javelin was the 200-man Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th U.S. Army Infantry Division. Before the United States entered World War II, most of the men in Company A had been part of a National Guard unit based in the Blue Ridge foothills of Virginia. Thirty of them were from the hamlet of Bedford. We know them today, collectively, as “the Bedford Boys.”

The Bedford Boys had originally gone into military service in the 1930s not necessarily because they wanted to be soldiers but because the National Guard paid $1 a day. In rural Virginia, during the Great Depression, 30 bucks a month meant something. After Pearl Harbor, however, they all knew that the stakes had changed.

Incorporated into the regular Army, they set sail for England in the autumn of 1942 on the massive Queen Mary. The men felt safe aboard that iconic vessel. The fastest big ship in the world, no German submarine could keep up with her. But once they reached the U-boat infested waters of the North Atlantic, neither could her destroyer escorts. As they neared the British coast and began zigging and zagging, the Queen Mary inadvertently rammed the HMS Curacoa, splitting the antiquated cruiser in half and sending her crew of 439 into the water.

Under strict instructions to keep going, the captain of the Queen Mary didn’t stop and rescue the British sailors, only 101 of whom would make it out of the water alive. The Bedford Boys above decks on that fateful October 2, 1942 day, watched that scene in horror. “We’d not been in combat before,” Roy Stevens later told historian Alex Kershaw. “We’d never seen people die like those who drowned there. The men were very disturbed.”

An even more lethal catastrophe occurred six months later when the 29th Division was participating in a large-scale drill dubbed “Exercise Tiger,” which involved ships practicing landing troops ashore. Two German U-boats came across the exercise off the coast of Devon and sank two Allied ships, drowning 700 men in the process. Although the U.S. and U.K. governments covered up this disaster for 30 years, word of the tragedy spread through the ranks at the time. To some it was an unsettling omen: Although the Bedford Boys had yet to fire a shot in anger or set foot in Europe, 1,000 British and American lives had been lost in preparation for battle.

This did more that impact morale. The loss of so many seasoned soldiers was one of the reasons that the men of Company A of the 116th Regiment were designated to be among the first troops to hit Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Another was that President Roosevelt thought putting National Guard troops in the vanguard underscored the whole idea of America’s “citizen-soldiers.” Some of the British seamen tasked with ferrying the untested G.I.s across the channel believed that the very naivete of the men in Company A is what appealed to the high command: These young men didn’t have any idea of the odds stacked against them. The British sailors gave the infantry going ashore first in Normandy a grim nickname. They called them “the suicide wave.”

The men of Company A had a different working theory. The way they figured it, after excelling at two years of rigorous training, they’d earned the honor of going first.

“This company will be the leading wave of infantry in the invasion of Europe,” company commander Taylor Fellers would tell new Company A recruits. “You men will be part of the great force to end the war.”

Yet, in the hours before the invasion, Capt. Fellers had developed his own misgivings. At 29, he was older than most of his fellow Bedford Boys, the only professional soldier among them. He’d been briefed on the battle plan for D-Day — and was unimpressed, even worried. Although the plan called for a fierce naval bombardment of the defenders on shore, Fellers was skeptical that all of the defenders would be rooted out. He shuddered at the thought of leading his men across a 300-yard wide beach while snipers and machine gunners fired away at them from bluffs a hundred feet above.

Fellers confided his doubts to fellow Bedford recruit and longtime friend Ray Nance. Fifty-five years later, Nance told Richmond journalist Bill Geroux how Fellers had said matter-of-factly that with an automatic rifle on those bluffs, he could hold off an entire company by himself.

“Ray,” he said, “we’ll all be killed.”

Tomorrow: The Bedford Boys on D-Day.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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