Marguerite Cottrell remembers the summer day almost 75 years ago when a note was brought to her family’s farm.
Her mother opened the note, read it, sat down and cried.
The note informed the family that Cottrell’s older brother, John Reynolds, had been killed. He died during the Allied Force’s invasion of Nazi-controlled Normandy on the coast of France on June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day.
“I knew something bad had happened,” Cottrell told the Associated Press. She was four years old at the time and remembers her mother telling her: “Well, little Jack has gone to heaven. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
All over the little town of Bedford, Virginia, near the Blue Ridge Mountains, other families received similar messages that summer. Each message opened the same way, expressing the United States secretary of war’s “deep regret” in informing that a loved one was killed or missing.
Twenty men from Bedford and the surrounding area were killed on D-Day. Nineteen died while trying to take control of Omaha Beach from the German army as members of Company A of the 116th U.S. Infantry Regiment. The 20th death was of a soldier in a different company.
The D-Day invasion was a hugely important event in World War II. It marked a turn in the fighting. The allied forces led by Britain, the Soviet Union, France, and the U.S. won the war less than two years later.
The invasion also had a major effect on Bedford, a town of about 4,000 people at the time. Its D-Day losses were among the largest of any community in America.
Writer Alex Kershaw’s 2003 best-selling book “The Bedford Boys” notes that the dead were young men who entered adulthood during the Great Depression. They joined the National Guard before the war to make some extra money. They also sought to wear the uniforms that local girls found appealing, Kershaw wrote.
Frank Draper and Elmere Wright were popular local baseball players. Wallace Carter worked at a business where people gathered to play the game of pool. Earl Parker was a newly married man that died before seeing his baby daughter. Brothers Ray and Roy Stevens hoped to farm together after the war, but only Roy survived.
Their time in fighting was short. Among the first groups on Omaha Beach, Bedford’s sons were killed by Nazi machine guns and explosives within minutes of their arrival on boats.
Soldier Elisha Ray Nance is one of the few Bedford Boys who survived that day. Local historian James Morrison wrote about Nance’s recollection of the experience in Morrison’s book “Bedford Goes to War.”
“They were waiting for us, the minute the ramp went down, they opened up,” said Nance, meaning the Germans fired at them immediately.
In 1996, the U.S. Congress established the National D-Day Memorial on an area of land next to Bedford. The memorial honors the more than 4,000 Allied soldiers who lost their lives in the battle.
“When people come here, it is important to see the town as the monument itself,” then-President George W. Bush said at a 2001 ceremony that opened the memorial. “This is the place they left behind.”
History lover Ken Parker and his wife, Linda, have turned the town’s old drug store into a coffee shop and place of remembrance for the Bedford Boys. Green’s Drug Store was where Bedford Boys spent free time as high schoolers. Their wives and girlfriends often went there to exchange news and information during the war.
The center is now filled with uniforms, pictures and other items. This includes the device, known as a teletype machine, that Parker says printed out the notices when the boys were killed.
On a recent Monday, townswoman Maryellen Cunningham came in to take a look around. She said seeing the old teletype filled her with strong emotions.
“I can’t even imagine the operator that was getting one telegram after another after another,” she said.
The Parkers — who recently moved to Bedford from Oklahoma — said they get similar visits all the time from people living in Bedford. People often want to leave a war-related family heirloom for presentation at the new tribute center.
Elisha Ray Nance, the last surviving Bedford Boy, died in 2009. Only a few of the fallen soldiers’ brothers and sisters are still alive. But the Parkers said younger generations have held on to many of the boys’ letters and other items. They pass the items down through generations almost like holy objects.
The Parkers said one of the Bedford Boys’ relatives recently found a collection of unopened letters his grandmother had sent to her son before she knew he had been killed on D-Day.
“They just bottled this up for so long,” Linda Parker said. “They can finally open that box and let the stuff out.”
Marguerite Cottrell recently visited Green’s Drug Store. She said her mother used to open an old container of her brother’s belongings on Sunday afternoons and read his letters. Cottrell said her mother blamed herself for letting Jack join the military and talked about him often to keep his memory alive.
“There’s so many people that have passed away, you know, that this would have meant so much to,” she said of the drugstore. “My mom would have loved coming here.”
I’m Pete Musto.
And I’m Anna Matteo.
Words in This Story
heaven – n. the place where some religions say God lives and where good people go after they die
uniform(s) – n. a special kind of clothing that is worn by all the members of a group or organization, such as an army or team
recollection – n. the act of remembering something or the ability to remember something
ramp – n. a piece of equipment with a slope that is used to join two surfaces that are at different levels or heights
monument – n. a building or statue that honors a person or event
heirloom – n. a valuable object that is owned by a family for many years and passed from one generation to another
tribute – n. something that you say, give, or do to show respect or affection for someone
bottle(d) (this) up – p.v. to keep a feeling or emotion inside of you instead of
pass(ed) away – p.v. to die