BEDFORD, Va. — Lynn Rachel, 98, who still has the queen-of-diamonds playing card he found in a German pillbox, was here Thursday.
So was Hamet Lee Piercy, 94, who was captured after the Battle of the Bulge and lost 60 pounds in an enemy POW camp.
And John McCoy, 94, who as a “BAR man” carried the Browning Automatic Rifle and still remembered how heavy the darn thing was.
They were among thousands of aged veterans, VIPs and visitors who gathered on a hilltop memorial here to honor the 20 men from Bedford County who were killed on D-Day, and all those who fell with them 75 years ago on the beaches of Normandy.
The old soldiers were kissed by women, signed autographs and told of fighting in places such as the bloody Hurtgen Forest in Germany, seeing a mountain of victims’ shoes piled at a concentration camp, and meeting up with the Russians at the war’s end.
It was probably the last major D-Day anniversary for most of the surviving World War II veterans; most of those assembled Thursday were in their 90s.
Vice President Pence praised them for their “triumph over tyranny.”
William Iseman, 94, who was in a combat engineer battalion that built bridges, reached Berlin, the heart of that tyranny. He remembered that “most of the buildings were no more than 18 inches high.” He said the city was “completely devastated.”
He recalled how the principal of his high school in Amherst, Va., assembled students after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war in 1941: “We were all 15, 16, and he said, ‘A lot of you boys think this is a lot of excitement.’ He said: ‘It’s not. A lot of you are going to be in the thing before it’s over with.’ ”
“And every one of us were in it,” Iseman said.
“I’m proud to be here,” he said as he sat in his wheelchair with his great-granddaughter, Ava, 3, nearby. “I’m proud to be called a World War II veteran.”
But the tributes here Thursday were also for those whose lives were cut off in their teens, 20s and 30s on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.
An estimated 2,500 American soldiers and sailors and 1,900 from Britain, Canada and elsewhere were killed that day as the Allies went ashore to begin the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi Germany.
The men from this small town and county in south-central Virginia were at the American tip of the spear thrust at the Nazis that stormy morning — roughly 220 soldiers in Company A, 116th Regiment, of the Army’s 29th Division. About 35 of them were “Bedford boys.”
Behind them would come more than 150,000 men and tons of equipment borne across the English Channel.
And 11 bloody months ahead would come the end of the war in Europe.
But theirs was a costly honor.
Company A lost 103 men on D-Day, 19 of them from Bedford County, according to the officials at the memorial. Another Bedford man was killed in Company F.
The 116th Regiment was mauled by the German fire on Omaha Beach and saw 381 of its men killed.
Bedford men were cut down as they waded ashore holding their rifles overhead. They were shot on the beach. They drowned in the water. Others were maimed. The dead littered the sand and their bodies rolled in the surf, according to historical accounts.
In one incident, 29 Company A men were killed by massed enemy mortars and machine guns just as they hit the beach, according to historian Alex Kershaw.
Five of them are believed to be Bedford men: Leslie Cecil “Dickie” Abbott Jr., Clifton Lee, Gordon Henry White, Nick Gillaspie and Wallace Carter.
“The slaughter was fast and merciless,” Kershaw wrote in his 2003 book, “The Bedford Boys.”
Friends and neighbors were killed.
One family — the Hobacks — lost two of its sons, Bedford, 30, and Raymond, 24.
Raymond’s body was never found.
“What my mother always heard [was] that Raymond was wounded and left on the beach to be taken back to England to the hospital and that the tide came in and washed him out into the channel,” his sister, Lucille Boggess, 89, said here Wednesday.
“We don’t know what all happened,” she said. “It was such chaos that day.”
But the day after the battle, a Bible that his mother, Macie, had given him for Christmas in 1938 was discovered by a fellow soldier.
“This soldier was walking on the beach, D-Day plus one,” Boggess said. “He said he saw this Bible lying in the sand. And, as most anyone would do, he picked it from being destroyed.”
“He thumbed through it,” she said. And inside he found the inscription, “Mr. & Mrs. J.S. Hoback, Bedford, Va.”
The soldier, H.W. Brayton, sent the Bible back to the Hobacks, with a letter, unaware that Raymond was lost.
“You have by now received a letter from your son, saying he is well,” Brayton wrote. “I sincerely hope so.”
In fact, on July 17, 1944, the Hobacks, who had seven children and a dairy farm outside town, received a telegram stating that Raymond was missing in action.
The day before they had received one stating that Bedford had been killed.
“You can imagine what a shock it was to my parents, and then to us,” said Boggess, who was then 14. “My mother just cried and cried. Daddy went outside so people wouldn’t see him cry. Both of them were just devastated.”
Bedford Hoback had been hit in the face by a shell fragment, according to Kershaw.
“His head dropped,” recalled a buddy, Hal Baumgarten. “He was done for.”
Bedford Hoback is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, in Colleville-sur-Mer, not far from the beach. Boggess said her mother felt that the two brothers had gone off to war together and should rest near each other.
As for the Bible, which Boggess now has, “Mother always treasured” it, she said. “She said next to her son she would like his Bible.”
The Hobacks weren’t the only ones in the county getting the grim news, which took weeks to reach Bedford’s telegraph office in the back of Green’s drugstore, a long-vanished old hangout and today the site of a small museum.
“If you didn’t have somebody that was affected by this, you knew somebody,” Boggess said. “The whole community was just heartbroken and crying.”
Western Union operator Elizabeth Teass was the first to see the dreadful telegrams when they began to arrive from Roanoke on the teletype machine on July 17, Kershaw wrote.
One came in, then another, and another. “I just sat and watched them and wondered how many more it was going to be,” she remembered.
She pasted the ticker-tape messages onto Western Union stationery. There were so many that she enlisted townspeople to help deliver them across the community. It was a sad task.
“It just doesn’t seem possible that it’s been 75 years,” Boggess said as she sat in the living room of her home with Raymond’s Bible and the telegram her parents got about him. “You almost feel like it was yesterday.”
This week, the town sat steeped in its history.
In front of the old brick courthouse on Main Street, where the Bedford boys trained in the basement of the National Guard armory before they went to war, a plaque pays tribute to Bedford’s heroes from the Revolutionary War, and a tall obelisk honors its men who fought for the Confederacy.
Nearby was a 1954 plaque honoring the men from D-Day. It is set into a large block of stone taken from near Omaha Beach, a gift from the people of France.