The Bedford Boys
President Roosevelt federalized the National Guard in early 1941, and in Virginia and Maryland that meant that the men of the 29th Infantry Division “The Blues and Grays” reported to their armories. All across Virginia, guardsmen mobilized and formed the historic 116th Infantry Regiment, the “Stonewallers”, so named because they traced their unit lineage to the 2nd Virginia Regiment. The 2nd Virginia was the senior regiment in Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate Brigade and was present during the brigade’s famous stand during the 1st Battle of Manassas. Company A, of the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment was formed from citizens in the sleepy little town of Bedford, Virginia, population of about 3000.
Over the next three years, the 125 men of Company A trained together in Maryland, crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary in 1942, and then trained in Scotland. In early 1944, they moved to the south coast of England, and trained some more, this time on amphibious operations and assaulting fortified positions in preparation for Operation Overlord. Due to normal transitions in any normal military unit, there were only 34 original members of the company that marched out of Bedford three years prior. The rest were replacements, though all of the officers and senior NCOs were still Bedford natives.
In the upcoming invasion of France, Company A was assigned Dog Green beach, the 116th’s western most section of Omaha Beach with objective of securing Exit D1: the Vierville draw. On 3 June, CPT Taylor Fellers and 1SG John Wilkes loaded their men onto the British troopship SS Empire Javelin. For the next two days, the seasick Stonewallers steamed in circles in the naval assembly area known as “Piccadilly Circus” waiting on The Word from Gen Eisenhower. On the night of June 5th, they got it, and the Empire Javelin headed south.
In the early morning hours of 6 June, 1944, the 116th loaded into their Higgins boats and began the approach to the beach. It was chaos. Higgins boats were everywhere and navigational errors were rampant. It was never completely sorted out, but at least they were headed toward Normandy.
Unfortunately for CPT Fellers, the Bedford Boys, and the rest of A Company, they were the only formation headed to the correct beach. The rest of the 116th was too far to the east. Two boats full of Rangers tagged along but the engineers that were supposed to land ahead of them and clear obstacles were nowhere to be seen. Looking out over the gunwale, CPT Fellers was horrified to see that there was nothing to his left. The only target for every German gun within 3/4 of a mile was A Company.
200 yards out the British coxswains couldn’t get any closer, one yelled “Up and at ‘em, boys!” and dropped the ramp. Within seconds a mortar exploded inside of a nearby boat and killed everyone. At least three German strongpoints, six MG 42 machine guns and hundreds of Mauser rifles zeroed in on the rest of A Company. Within ten minutes, 90 members of the company were casualties, including all of the officers and most of the NCOs. Only four soldiers would make it to the shingle, which was still two hundred yards from the bluffs that the Germans occupied. Most of the remaining soldiers survived by hiding in the surf and staying underwater while breathing through their nose, their nostrils being the only exposed part of their bodies. The Germans would eventually run out of targets and shoot the wounded to make sure they were dead. Those that the Germans didn’t kill were drowned as the tide came in. 19 of the 34 Bedford Boys were killed in the first minutes of the battle, including CPT Fellers and 1SG Wilkes, and the rest wounded to some degree. Three more would die later in the day.
The first death notifications came to Bedford Virginia about a week later. There were nine on the first day, and the rest were spread out over the next week. They came as Western Union telegrams and were delivered by cab drivers. The small town was devastated. There wasn’t a single person in the town who did not personally know someone killed between 0630 and 0640 on 6 June, 1944.
To honor the sacrifice the town made on that day, the National D-Day Memorial was established in Bedford on 6 June 2001.
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