BEDFORD — At Fishers Restaurant, a repurposed filling station, customers are greeted with comfort food and warm smiles, precisely what you would expect in a small town. The décor is also a tip-off about where the community’s collective heart lies.
The walls of the small restaurant are covered with military paraphernalia: artwork depicting the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, wartime pictures, posters and American flags, an Eisenhower jacket worn by owner Lisa Callahan’s father during his service.
“This town is very proud of our military heritage,” said Callahan, third generation of her family to operate the restaurant.
And particularly proud — though painfully so — of being home of the “Bedford Boys,” specifically the young soldiers among that group who died on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day. The invasion on June 6, 1944, was a military operation that changed the course of World War II and, back home, would bring the community in the foothills of the Blue Ridge to its knees.
The first wave of the invasion force included a company of Virginia National Guardsmen from Bedford that was decimated in the attack. Nineteen members of Company A died that day. (A 20th Bedford resident, attached to another company, also was killed that day.) For a town of only 3,200, the loss was devastating.
The story of the Bedford Boys is a large part of the reason the National D-Day Memorial, operated by a nonprofit foundation, chose a hilltop above Bedford as its home. For this year’s 75th anniversary of D-Day, Bedford is the nation’s focal point for the commemoration. The memorial is calling the occasion “The Final Salute,” an acknowledgment that even the youngest D-Day veterans still with us are approaching their mid-90s. The National World War II Museum estimates that 348 World War II veterans die each day.
“It’s what we’re viewing as our last, best opportunity to thank the veterans properly, to let them know that their stories will live on, that our mission continues,” said Angela Lynch, the memorial’s associate director of marketing. “We’re really looking forward to having them here with us and letting them know how appreciated they are. It’s really a big deal for us.”
On Thursday, the memorial will hold an aerial tribute to WWII veterans at 10 a.m., followed by the commemorative observance at 11 a.m. In addition, events were scheduled around Bedford for the days leading up to and following D-Day, including a concert Friday evening at the memorial and a 1940s-style parade through downtown Bedford on Saturday at 11 a.m.
A stage production of “Tuesday Mourning,” a play that tells the story of D-Day and Bedford from the perspective of several Bedford Boys, will be presented Thursday through Sunday at Gibson Memorial Auditorium at the Bedford Science & Technology Center. Ticket orders have come from all over the country from visitors who were planning to be in Bedford for the anniversary, said Melissa Kennedy-Grey, a Bedford native who is producing the show through her Effulgent Productions.
“I grew up knowing who these fellows were and knowing about the story … because as a local you just simply grow up with it,” she said. “It’s simply part of who you are.”
Visitors also can take a “homefront” tour with stops at pertinent locations around Bedford, including Fishers, the old train station, the courthouse where the town dedicated a monument to the Bedford Boys, and Green’s Drug Store, which Ken Parker, who is perhaps slightly biased, considers “the most iconic and historic building in Bedford relating to the Bedford Boys.”
Parker and his wife, Linda, are in the process of transforming the pharmacy into a tribute to the Bedford Boys. The drugstore is vital to the story because the young soldiers grew up hanging out at the soda fountain, worked there and went on dates there. Green’s also was home to a Western Union telegraph desk where a series of telegrams began arriving on the morning of July 17 — almost six weeks after D-Day — from the office of the U.S. secretary of war, notifying families of the deaths of their sons. The first of the telegrams were carried to homes by a drugstore delivery boy riding a bicycle.
Two years ago, the Parkers didn’t even know where Bedford was. They were retired in Oklahoma, planning a trip to Normandy for the 75th anniversary. To further acquaint themselves with D-Day, they did some reading. Alex Kershaw’s book “The Bedford Boys” grabbed them like no other. They were so touched by the story, they wrote Bedford churches last spring trying to make contact with families of the fallen soldiers to ask if they would like to send anything to be placed on the French graves of those Bedford Boys buried there. The response was overwhelming.
“The phone rang off the hook,” Ken Parker said of the calls from the relatives, who were eager to share stories about their heroic kin. “You’d fall off the chair laughing from the stories they were telling and then reaching for Kleenex 30 seconds later.”
A few weeks later, the Parkers decided they wanted to write a book about the Bedford Boys and their families. They visited Bedford to conduct interviews, discovered the building that had housed Green’s Drug Store was available, and decided to move to Bedford, take over the space and create a museum that pays tribute (as well as an adjacent coffee shop).
As 1940s music played in the background, Ken Parker showed us around the exhibit that contains artifacts he and his wife have spent recent months collecting from families:
- A guitar that belonged to Jack Powers, whose brother Clyde also was in Company A but survived because he was in a landing craft that sank and was rescued. Clyde Powers, a good swimmer, helped keep Roy Stevens from drowning. Both were rescued and returned to England. Stevens’ twin brother, Ray, died on the beach.
- A wristwatch that Jack Reynolds had borrowed from commanding officer Ray Nance and was wearing when he was killed on the beach. In the glass case around the corner is the replacement watch Nance used. Nance, who was shot twice in the foot and once in the hand but survived, kept it until his death in 2009.
- A handwritten letter the company’s commanding officer, Capt. Taylor Fellers, wrote home to his mother more than a year before D-Day, in which he told her, “I am beginning to think it is hard to beat a Bedford boy for a soldier … ” which Parker believes might be the first time “Bedford boy” was attached to those in Company A. Posted nearby is a second letter involving Fellers in which a friend in England wrote Fellers’ mother three weeks after D-Day, expressing condolences for Fellers’ death. Only thing was, at that point the people of Bedford had not been told what happened at D-Day. It would be another three weeks before the telegrams started to arrive, and the Fellers family was officially notified of his death in September.
- A sash from the Girl Scout uniform of Danny Parker, the only child of a Bedford Boy killed in action.
- Among other artifacts on display that Parker believes show the Bedford Boys were more than mere names and photos was Fellers’ report card from the first grade (“He was an excellent student,” Parker says), Purple Hearts awarded to Charles Fizer and Clifton Lee, and the high school ring of Gordon Henry White, who grew up on a dairy farm.
The families have opened their hearts and attics to the Parkers, in part because so many years have passed — the Bedford Boys are all gone, their parents are gone and most of their siblings are gone — and the debilitating grief of earlier generations has given way to a desire and willingness to share their relatives’ stories. There also is the overriding mission of the grassroots museum .
“This is for the boys,” Ken Parker said.
The D-Day Memorial up the hill is tasked with a job more national in scope, and for that reason memorial officials are glad to have Green’s back in business.
“The way we view it is we’re the nation’s monument to D-Day, but there’s a reason we’re in Bedford, and we have been working on various projects with the town, supporting the Parkers … to further tell that story,” said the memorial’s Lynch. “The goal is if people come here to see us and then go into town and they can learn more about D-Day and the community’s sacrifice, well, that’s a win.”
And that trip to Normandy for the 75th anniversary? The Parkers postponed it, so they could be in Bedford instead.
Someone else who plans to be in Bedford for the 75th is Richmonder Gary Thompson, who feels an understandable connection to the place. His father, George R. Thompson, was in the first wave of soldiers to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was badly wounded in the hours following the invasion and lived the rest of his life — he died in 1991 — hobbled by a leg mangled by German machine gun fire.
Like the young men from Bedford, Thompson grew up in a small Virginia town — Chase City — and joined a Virginia National Guard unit that was federalized in wartime. He was a staff sergeant in charge of an infantry squad, and one of his fears leading up to D-Day, he always told his son, was that he would drown before reaching the beach. The men were loaded down with equipment: a rifle, ammunition, hand grenades, a backpack.
“Sure enough, his landing craft dropped the gate a distance from the beach, and he went into water over his head,” Gary Thompson said. “He sunk like a rock.”
Struggling to stay float, Thompson cast off his backpack and a lot of his equipment — but held on to his rifle — and made it to the beach. Many of his friends were killed under ferocious German fire on the beach, but Thompson survived.
Later that day, he was sent on patrol and hit by German fire — a line of bullets went up his left leg, his son said — and he crawled deep into a hedgerow to hide. He tied a tourniquet around his leg and gave himself a shot of morphine. Hours later, U.S. medics heard his moaning and found him. At a hospital, Thompson begged surgeons not to amputate his leg, so they cut away muscle and fused his ankle and knee together. His left leg wound up half the size of his right.
Thompson, who spent a long time in rehabilitation and met his wife, Alma, a physical therapist, at what is now McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center, wore a heavy brace and dragged the leg behind him for the rest of his life.
“Every time he would get home from work and pull that brace off, his leg ached,” Gary Thompson said of his father, who worked almost 30 years as deputy commissioner of revenue for the city of Richmond. “But he was terribly proud that he participated in all that.
“And I’m just terribly proud of him. ... These men from these little towns in Virginia traveled across an ocean to drive fascism from Europe and save the world.”