It was in the papers, but covered far from sufficiently, when Elisha “Ray” Nance died six weeks ago at the age of 94. He was well known around Bedford, Virginia, a picturesque town located at the feet of the Blue Ridge Peaks of Otter, where for years he delivered the mail on nearby rural routes. It was for what he did before becoming a letter carrier, though, that he is best remembered.
Ray Nance was one of The Bedford Boys.
In fact, he was the last surviving member of his town’s contingent in Company A of the 29th Infantry Division’s 116th Infantry – a group that waded ashore on a beach nicknamed Omaha in a far away place called Normandy in France, 65 years ago this weekend. And of the 30 soldiers from Bedford, then with a population of 3,200 (today, about twice that), he was one of only eight from his hometown who lived to tell the story.
Ray lost 22 Bedford buddies that day, 19 of them in the very first moments of the battle. By the time he made it to the beach in the last of his company’s landing crafts to reach that point, he saw “a pall of dust and smoke.” He could barely see “the church steeple we were supposed to guide on.” He couldn’t see anyone in front, or behind him; only that he “was alone in France.”
Mr. Nance was a hero “proved through liberating strife.”
Six years ago, Alex Kershaw wrote a fascinating book about it all called, “The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice.” A year ago, on the 64th anniversary of the fierce battle, I had a conversation with him about the story, as well as the modern tendency toward the kind of historical reductionism and revisionism that, in effect, dishonors true heroes.
As the world pauses to mark the 65th anniversary of the longest day, long ago, it is for some truly meaningful. For others it is a bit awkward, but certainly obligatory. Many, however, will think to themselves: “What’s all the fuss about? It’s a different world today.”
Indeed it is in many ways a different world. But interestingly – even ironically – the challenges today are not completely unlike those days when bands of citizen-soldier-brethren from the greatest generation saved the world for those of us who would be later born to enjoy abounding liberty.