Travels with Papillon
The Narrative - Page Index
Under the Peaks of Otter
Bedford, Virginia was and is the quintessential "sleepy little American town". In the early 1940's daily activity often revolved around the arrival and departure of the passenger trains of the Norfolk and Western Railway - west to Roanoke and Cincinnati and east to Lynchburg and Norfolk. As the leading center between Roanoke and Lynchburg it prospered on rural products such as apples, tobacco and truck farms. It also served as a center for the tourists who visited the nearby Blue Ridge mountains; especially the twin heights of the Peaks of Otter, perhaps the most renowned summits in Virginia. But the tensions of the world rudely came to Bedford's doorstep in 1940 when the Federal government called up many National Guard outfits for a year of service. This in response to the ever more menacing world situation. And 46 young men of Bedford went off to training.
are a few villages named Vierville in France, but only one that geography
has blessed with a location that invites further clarification to showcase
its attributes. Vierville sur Mer - Vierville by the Sea. And
though it too is and was a very sleepy little village, the Earth blessed
(or cursed) it with one other geographical feature - a ravine that led
down from the heights above the sea to the beach beside the sea. An
easy avenue for the passage of man and beast from one world to
another. A ravine that drew the name Vierville Draw.
Sons of Stonewall
|In 1941 the U.S. government made
the decision to Federalize all the National Guard units in order to
maintain active strength in those tense times. Thus the
"Bedford Boys" were in this mans Army for sure, and for the
duration now. And these men had been sent to Fort Meade, Maryland
for training with other Virginians and Marylanders and they became
officially known as Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment. And in the
mysterious ways of the Army's reasoning, this regiment was the direct
descendant of the famed Stonewall Brigade of the Army of the Confederate
States of America - General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's first
command. And teamed with other men, from north and south, this
regiment became part of the U.S. 29th Infantry Division.
29th Division Emblem
The Desert Fox cometh
And the world rudely came to Vierville's doorstep in the summer of 1940 in the form of Jack Boots and field grey uniforms of the German Army. In an amazing six weeks the German's overran the north of France and forced the French government to surrender - a decision that to this day still rankles the French Soul. A Nation that withstood over 2 million battle causalities just 20 years before saw its military and political leadership just fold and capitulate.
|Vierville endured those years from 40 to 44, but just barely. Because in early 1944 General Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, was put in charge of the defenses of the "Atlantic Wall" and he began a building plan to significantly strengthen the beach defense. And under Rommel nearly everyone in town was forced to do heavy manual labor in support of the building campaign.|
And Rommel had every reason to be forceful in his construction efforts, especially in the Vierville area. For below Vierville there began a six mile long flat sandy beach that others in nearby England had dubbed "Omaha". Soon to be one of the contested sites of "Overlord", the Invasion of continental Europe by the Western Allies from England.
Omaha Beach at low tide at its westernmost point at Vierville looking east
The Gathering Storm
In early 1944 the Allied war planners were busy as well with the preparations for the great invasion to come. And as they studied their maps and charts and tables they tweaked their initial plan for Omaha Beach. Rather than limit themselves to just one division - the First Infantry Division (The Big Red One) coming in over the shore at Omaha on D Day they decided to have a second division join them that morning. And they selected the 29th Infantry Division to come ashore also. But because of limited landing space only one regiment out of 3 was selected to assault in the first wave - the 116th Regiment. The other two would arrive in the 2nd and third waves.
And once again the mysterious ways of the military lead to the labeling of places and things in a jargon that sometimes only they can understand. And with Omaha Beach the area was sub divided into sectors with letter names: A, B, C, D and so on and these in turn were sub divided into colors: green, red and white. And as we all know, the military then gives a phonetic name to each letter for ease in understanding during radio communication. Thus A equals Alpha, B equals Bravo, C equals Charlie and D equals Dog and so on.
But to further complicate the matter, for what ever reason, the extreme western landing sector for infantry on Omaha Beach was labeled Dog Green Sector. Selected to come ashore in the Dog Green Sector, directly in front of the Vierville Draw on the First Wave was Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division.
Saving Private Nyland
Actually, 2 boats with 60 men of Company C, 2nd Ranger Battalion would be to the right of Company A (landing in Charlie sector) with an independent mission of capturing an isolated German bunker further west. These 2 boats (as well as the A Company boats) are the boats depicted in the superb movie Saving Private Ryan starring Tom Hanks, which somewhat showed the events surrounding the Nyland Brothers - 2 of whom are buried in the American cemetery above Omaha Beach
Dog Green looking west toward Pointe du Hoc
For all their bravado, and there was much of it as witnessed by their letters home, the Bedford Boys and their company mates had much to fear and think about in the nine mile ride into shore from the British vessel Empire Javelin in their 6 Landing craft of 30 men each piloted by British crews. With Company B to their left, the Rangers to their right and 6 amphibious tanks along as well they felt assured of success.
Those feelings of bravado were truncated in a hurry. In the course of the run in all 6 tanks floundered and never reached the shore. First one Company A boat was swamped and those troops did not land as intended, secondly a German artillery shell landed inside another craft and killed all aboard. With their ranks 1/3 rd diminished they arrived at the low water mark (see photo above) and had 300 yards to cross before they got anywhere near defensive cover. For the next couple of hours it was a fight for survival for these men, not the planed destruction of the enemy. The Rangers did not fare much better. Only 30 of them got off the beach but they successfully completed their mission.
Company A's assigned task was to capture and clear the Vierville Draw and push inland. They did not complete their mission. Fifty percent of the company was killed and another 40 percent injured. As an effective fighting force they were destroyed under the bluffs of Vierville Draw at Dog Green sector.
Approaching Vierville Draw a day or 2 later
The Longest Day
Contrary to the movie Saving Private Ryan, the next of kin were not notified immediately, but more than likely weeks later. In the case of Bedford, Virginia it was 5 weeks later.
In those days the Western Union office was "manned" by women, and not all small town offices were open 24 hours a day. Thus is was quite normal for the Bedford office to report in to its control station with a cheery "Morning Mage, Trish in Bedford here. How about the new Fred Astaire movie?" And Mage in Roanoke would respond in kind. But when bad news is around we humans respond in bureaucratese to help cushion the blow. This morn the rejoinder was "Good morning Bedford, we have traffic."
And so it began... "The Secretary of War regrets..." As she began the 3rd telegram Roanoke was interrupted by Bedford, "How many?" Roanoke tersely replied "20".
And Bedford's Longest Day had now begun. For Roanoke had a number of out stations and each received traffic in a predetermined sequence: 3 for you, 4 for you etc, thus Bedford would receive 3 or 4 at a time and then have the suspense of waiting some more. In a way that was helpful because it was decided to quietly deliver these sad tidings, thus the delivery boy and the recruited police chief as well as the taxi driver could get them to their destinations in a timely manner. But it took all day. And in the next few days a few more telegrams arrived so that the small town of Bedford would mourn the loss of 23 young men. Half the force that it sent off. 19 perished on Omaha Beach and four more on Normandy. This is the highest per capita loss of any American city for all of World War Two.
|Two brothers from the town were
killed there: Private Bedford
Hoback, who is buried in the cemetery there, and Sgt
Raymond Hoback who is listed on the wall of the Missing in
All Honor to the Soldiers
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