It was more than a month after D-Day when the first telegrams arrived, foreshadowing the momentous sacrifices made that day, June 6, 1944, by this town of 3,500: Twenty-one Bedford soldiers had been killed -- 19 of them within 15 minutes -- in the decisive battle of World War II, the greatest per-capita loss of any community in the country.
More than half a century later, the heroes of Bedford's Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division, and the other soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who invaded the French coast at Normandy will be immortalized in the nation's official D-Day memorial under construction on an 88-acre bluff southwest of town.
"Memories are best kept by those who . . . lost the most," said former Army secretary John O. Marsh Jr., speaking in this western Virginia town at a D-Day anniversary two years ago.
Work on the project began on Veterans Day 1997. Today, an 1,800-pound bronze sculpture will be dedicated at a 10 a.m. ceremony that includes remarks by the mayor of Rueil-Malmaison, France, the sister city of nearby Lynchburg, Va. The sculpture, "Across the Beach" by Kansas artist Jim Brothers, depicts a soldier dragging a wounded comrade to safety.
The memorial, framed by the Peaks of Otter along the nearby Blue Ridge, also will include a monument, amphitheater and education center. A granite arch, 44 feet 6 inches tall -- for the date 6-44 -- will be inscribed with the word "Overlord," the code name for the invasion. (Because the date was not set until shortly before the landing, D-Day simply meant whatever date the attack occurred.)
The entire complex is scheduled for completion on June 6, 2000.
Richard B. Burrow, president of the D-Day Memorial Foundation, says much of the credit for placing the memorial in Bedford goes to John Robert Slaughter, a D-Day survivor from nearby Roanoke. He began reflecting on his war experiences after retiring in 1984 as foreman of the composing room of the Roanoke newspapers and discovered there was no national monument to D-Day.
He proposed Bedford as the location, but interest languished until the 50th anniversary in 1994, when Slaughter was one of three D-Day veterans who accompanied President Clinton to the landing site at Omaha Beach.
Walking through a cemetery above the beach, Slaughter vowed that a memorial to his fallen comrades would be built. "These guys are going to stay here," he said to himself, "and they were just kids." Slaughter, who lied about his age and joined the National Guard at 15, was a 19-year-old sergeant on D-Day.
The City of Bedford -- now with a population of about 6,400 -- contributed land for the memorial, and Slaughter persuaded historian Stephen E. Ambrose, who had interviewed him for his book on D-Day, to chair the foundation's board of trustees. In 1996, Congress approved a resolution by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) declaring Bedford the official site, and last year's hit movie about the landings, "Saving Private Ryan," further sparked interest in the project.
A campaign to raise $12 million got a big boost in August 1997, when "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, a World War II veteran, pledged $1 million and agreed to head the fund-raising campaign. So far, $8.2 million has been collected or pledged, including $2.5 million from the state of Virginia. No federal money is involved.
Warren Draper, 78, who served in Europe after his older brother, Frank P. Draper Jr., was killed on D-Day, thinks the memorial is "a little late in coming." Still, Draper said, "it's a great idea. Right after the war, not many people talked about it. At least now we're remembering."
Lucille Boggess, who lost two brothers on D-Day, said the memorial "will give all of us a place to be alone with our memories. We all still hurt a little bit." The deaths "hung like a cloud [over Bedford] for a long, long time," said Boggess, 69. "In a town this size, there wasn't anybody without some connection to the boys. People weren't laughing or doing normal things. There are still some remnants of that today."
The 35 Bedford men assigned to Company A suffered a 100 percent casualty rate: In addition to the 21 who were killed, the 14 others were wounded. Two other Bedford soldiers, in different companies, also were killed that day.
Of about 15 survivors of Company A who are still alive, two live in Bedford: Roy Stevens, 79, a retired factory worker, and Elijah Ray Nance, 84, a former rural letter carrier.
Like many of the men who joined the National Guard during the Great Depression, Roy Stevens and his twin brother, Ray, did it for the money.
"Each time we trained, we got a dollar," said Roy, who said the $2 they earned each week for showing up in the basement of the Bedford County Courthouse made a difference back in 1938, especially for a farm family with 14 children.
Moments before Roy and Ray Stevens were lowered into separate landing craft, 12 miles off the Normandy coast, they made plans to reunite on the shore. "Ray extended his hand to me," Roy recalls, "but I didn't shake it. I said we'd shake hands when we got together again."
As they approached the beach, the six landing craft carrying Company A lowered their ramps into a choppy sea. Company A's ranking officer, Capt. Taylor N. Fellers, of Bedford -- Ray Nance's cousin -- and his 30 soldiers quickly drowned in the first furious minutes of battle. Roy Stevens's boat hit a below-water pipe, plunging its 30 men into the frigid waters, where six of them drowned.
The others were rescued. Clyde Powers, a buddy from Bedford, "pulled me into the boat," Roy Stevens said. After a four-day trip to England, Stevens returned to Omaha Beach, where he saw German prisoners of war digging graves for the dead GIs.
"Right away, I felt like Ray hadn't made it," Stevens said. He started down a row of open graves, knocking dirt off the identification markers attached to improvised crosses and found Ray's dog tag right away.
Anger fused with grief. Stevens said he vowed to "whip 'em all myself. I was going to get even." For 20 days, Stevens volunteered for every patrol, eager to avenge his brother's death. But on June 30, while crossing a hayfield near St. Lo, he stepped on a booby trap and fell, clutching his neck. Again, a Bedford buddy, Harold Wilkes, was there to save him.
After emergency surgery in a field hospital, Stevens was moved to England, where he wrote to his parents that he was all right. He didn't mention his brother's fate, and they were not notified of Ray's death until late September.
In his book about D-Day, Ambrose wrote that "for Bedford, the first 15 minutes at Omaha was an unmitigated disaster. . . . The Germans just poured the machine gun, artillery and mortar fire on them. It was a slaughter. . . . Company A hardly fired a shot."
But Ambrose said their sacrifice was not in vain. Company A had brought rifles, ammunition and equipment onto the beach, where it made "a life or death difference to the following waves of infantry, coming in at higher tide and having to abandon everything to make their way to shore."
Elizabeth Teass, who worked in the Western Union booth at the rear of Green's Drug Store on Main Street that summer, was the first to realize the depth of Bedford's loss.
She recalls turning on the teletype machine the morning of July 16, a Sunday, and receiving a message from the office in Roanoke that said "we have casualties." Shortly after that, the first of seven or nine nearly identical messages -- she can't remember the exact number -- clattered across the wire. Although their contents were confidential, and to this day Teass treats them that way, she can still recite their morbid beginning: "The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that . . . "
There were so many messages, Teass remembers, that Sheriff Jim Marshall hired the town's taxi driver and a car from Carter's funeral home to help him deliver them.
"You go on with your life, but the hurt's always there," Boggess said. "You wonder how Bedford would have been different, what contribution they would have made. We lost a treasure."
On the 10th anniversary, in 1954, Bedford dedicated a small monument bearing the names of its fallen sons. It was made of granite carved from cliffs above Omaha Beach.
In the years since the war, hatred of the enemy has waned.
"I was wrong," Roy Stevens said of his urge to kill every German in sight. But what he hasn't changed his mind about is the importance of remembering.
Stevens, who brought his brother's body back to Bedford for reburial in 1948, said the memorial is "for those fellows on the beach. It'll show that they didn't die for nothing." And for those who survived, "it will help us finish it off. Close it, with great pride."
CAPTION: In Bedford, Va., a sign designates the site of the nation's official D-Day memorial, which is scheduled to be finished June 6, 2000, the 55th anniversary of the pivotal World War II invasion.
CAPTION: Roy Stevens, left, and Elijah Ray Nance, D-Day survivors who still live in Bedford, stand next to a plaque commemorating their regiment's accomplishments.