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Alex Kershaw. The Bedford Boys: One Small Town's D-Day Sacrifice.

Simon & Schuster Australia 2003 $32.95. Trade paperback, 274 pp, b&w photos.

The Editor phoned me recently and I mentioned that I hadn't yet started this book. He said "I know". And I said, "how can you tell?". He said, "because you aren't crying". Our editor knows me too well. Sensitive soul that I am, I started crying by page four, and continued intermittently throughout. I am a sucker for social military history, where the main emphasis is the impact of the war on people, and this book is exactly my cup of tea. It focuses on the young soldiers from Bedford, Virginia, who joined Company A, 116th Infantry, 29th Division, and explores the impact of the Omaha Beach assaults on the boys, collectively referred to by Kershaw as the Bedford boys, and on their small hometown. By weaving together recollections from survivors and other townsfolk, as well as extracts from letters, Kershaw has constructed a moving account where the reader gets to know and care for the young soldiers.

None of the Bedford boys had anticipated being involved in combat. Company A was a National Guard unit and most of its members had joined up during the Depression, for the "dollar a day". The atmosphere of the unit was like a social club and the boys were amongst family and friends. Kershaw introduces us to the boys and explores their rational for joining up, and impresses upon the reader the close-knit community ties of the boys. In October 1940, after Congress had passed a selective service bill, Company A was advised that it would be mobilised into the federal Army. Ultimately, they were destined for overseas service.

After they arrived in England, they began the longest training program that any American infantrymen undertook during World War II. It lasted over twenty months from October 1942 and culminated with the D-Day landings in June 1944. Their training was grueling, and they were pushed to their absolute physical limits. 50 boys from Bedford had arrived, but that number continued to fall as each week, one after another was weeded out or assigned elsewhere. The training was so intense because, if they proved up to the challenge, the 29th Division would be selected for an audacious and risky amphibious operation. Their commander, General Charles H Gerhardt, knew this, and he would ensure that they met the challenge. Ray Nance, a Company A officer, and one of the few officers to survive, recalled that they "had tried to be the best in training. It was a matter of pride and honour. And it worked. We were chosen to be the first to land".

On 6 June 1944, 180 men from Company A landed in the first wave on Omaha Beach. By the end of the day, nineteen boys from Bedford were killed, and later in the invasion, three more were killed: twenty-two of the original fifty who arrived in England; twenty-two of the remaining thirty four who had been touched lightly on the arm by Ray Nance as they emerged from their debarkation areas.

The boys knew beforehand that there would be heavy casualties, and that many would not return. Kershaw explores this aspect in some depth, and I was particularly weighed down with this heavy pall of inevitability. Ray Stevens said that "if I go over, I won't be coming back". Roy Stevens, Ray's twin brother, admitted that everyone was scared, but they were putting on a good front. Before they embarked, his brother Ray wanted to shake his hand in farewell. But Roy refused, saying he would shake when it was all over. He continues to regret not shaking his twin's hand. British Sub-Lieutenant Green, who was in command of the flotilla of six landing craft that would take Company A to Normandy recalled that" we ... referred to ourselves as the suicide wave, ... and to be honest we were all quite proud of the label." In his last shore briefing, he was told that he should expect to lose a third of his men and his boats. Earl Parker, who had never met his young daughter said that "if I could just see her once, ... I wouldn't mind dying". He never met his daughter. Even though I knew the fates of these boys (the list of those fallen appears at the back, and you can work out the survivors from the notes) I was moved by their bravery and stoicism in the face of near certain death, and could not stop reading.

When the Bedford boys arrived on the shores of France, waiting for them were almost two thousand men from the German 352nd Division. At least three MG-42 machine guns fired over a thousand rounds a minute. Mortars were fired. Two dozen snipers picked off the advancing men, and those who had fallen, ensuring that they did not arise from the sands. It was a bloodbath, but ultimately, the sheer numbers of the Allied forces ensured victory. But for the town of Bedford, it was a disaster. Perhaps one of the most poignant passages of the book (which is also used on the cover blurb) comes from Elizabeth Teass, who operated Bedford's teletype machine. When she turned on the machine, she received the initial message "We have casualties". Elizabeth read the first line of copy, and expected the message to end. But it did not. "Line after line of copy clicked out of the printer. Within a few minutes as [she] watched in a 'trance like state' it was clear something terrible had happened to Company A. 'I just sat and watched them and wondered how many more it was going to be'".

This book is well written, and Kershaw easily evokes the reader's emotions. The book successfully operates on a number of levels: as a straight history; as a moving testimony to the courage of the Boys; and as a social history of the effects of battle. Kershaw satisfies the reader's curiosity of "what happens next" by telling of how the survivors coped, how the town adjusted and of how, many years down the track, attempts were made to create a D-Day memorial. When I could clear my eyes of tears, I was enthralled by this book. It reads easily, and is difficult to put down. And it touched just about everyone of my emotions: empathy; despair for the boys who did not return; admiration at their amazing courage; sympathy for their grieving families; laughter at the occasional black humour; and hate for the German snipers who struck down those on the beach, and especially hate for the pilot who strafed and killed the last Bedford boy who saw action on D-Day, Charles Fizer, as he and several others lay sleeping on July 11. Highly recommended.
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Author:Alexander, Kristen
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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