BEDFORD, Va. — The small boy at the Wal-Mart had to tell somebody about his big day, and he happened to meet Lucille Boggess.
He began recounting his visit to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford: the names on the plaques, the dramatic sculptures, the water jets meant to signify bullets hitting the beach. Boggess listened politely, the story painfully familiar.
"Well," she finally said. "I lost two brothers on D-Day."
She smiles when recalling that conversation. It gives her hope that young people will remember.
"He was just so interested. He might have been in the first grade, but it just made me feel good that a young person like this was so impressed by what he saw there."
She can smile today, but her family and Bedford were never the same after June 6, 1944. The amphibious landing on Normandy beach took a heavy toll, and Bedford suffered the worst proportional loss of any community, losing 19 citizen-soldiers in the initial assault from Company A, 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. Another four Bedford soldiers died later.
Starting Friday, up to 10,000 people are expected to descend on Bedford and its memorial to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day. They'll find a town that hasn't strayed far from its idyllic roots, with a growing arts and crafts scene and live music in local restaurants, where a fire truck extends its ladder to fly a giant American flag to herald the start of Memorial Day weekend, and where an 88-acre memorial at the base of the Blue Ridge mountains overlooks the town and reminds people to never forget a nation's sacrifice.
Among the thousands planning to make the trip will be 250 D-Day veterans from around the country. Organizers have set up oral history stations so the men can tell their stories. As the ranks of the World War II generation dwindle, more attention shifts to keeping the story alive for that 6-year-old boy and those like him.
That task is a labor of love for the families of D-Day veterans who equate that day not only with a military victory, but with a grandfather's hug or a big brother's last smile. The siblings, children and grandchildren of those who landed on the beach in Normandy said their lives were also shaped by what happened on June 6.
Boggess is the National D-Day Foundation's director emeritus and has told her family's heartbreaking story countless times.
Across town, Sarah Yost and Stacey DeMarsh live on farmland purchased in 1938 by twin brothers Roy and Ray Stevens. Both men stormed the beach on June 6, Roy was the only one who made it home. Yost and DeMarsh are his granddaughters.
Today, Yost teaches history to sixth-graders in Bedford and credits "Pop" with inspiring her.
"It's kind of funny because history was one of my worst subjects in high school," she said with a laugh. "But when Pop started talking, I realized that history isn't just something that happened in the past. I realized that every single thing that happened in history is touching families like it touched ours."
News of the June 6th invasion did not reach Bedford until mid-July.
Boggess was 15 years old, a high school sophomore, waiting for news of her two older brothers — Bedford and Raymond Hoback. It was Sunday and the family was preparing to go to church, which was right across the street.
Before they could walk out the door, the sheriff walked up with a telegram. Bedford had been killed in action. The more outgoing and fun-loving of the two brothers, he had been engaged to Elaine Coffey, a local girl.
When the family didn't show up for church, people knew something was wrong, because the Hobacks were regulars. Many in the congregation ended up walking across the street to spend time with the family.
On Monday, the family received a second telegram: Raymond was missing in action.
He was the more religious of the two, a quiet kid who read Scripture and didn't play poker. Some time later, the family received a third delivery. It was the Bible Raymond carried into battle. A soldier from West Virginia spotted it in the sand on Omaha Beach and picked it up so the tide wouldn't wash it away. He found the address of Raymond's parents between the Old and New Testaments.
"My mother always said, next to her son she would have wanted his Bible," Boggess said. "We were really glad. I still treasure it now."
Raymond's body was never found. It was believed he died on the beach and was washed out to sea. Among the sculptures that grace the National D-Day Memorial is one depicting the crumpled body of a soldier with a Bible lying nearby.
In the post-war years, Boggess' mother took an interest in the plight of veterans. She visited the VA hospital in Salem and came home with a new perspective on the horrors of war.
"She would see the men who were severely wounded or maybe didn't know their names," Boggess recalled. "She said there were things worse than death."
Roy and Ray Stevens were two of 14 children, and as twins they were inseparable. Going to war in the same unit as the Hoback brothers, they became sergeants and were assigned to different landing boats before the assault on Omaha Beach.
Ray told his brother he was going to die, but Roy was having none of it. He refused to shake his brother's hand. Granddaughter Sarah Yost recalled the story.
"He told Pop he wasn't going to make it, and Pop said, 'Yes you are. We're going to meet at the crossroads in France and I'll shake your hand there.' That's probably the one thing in life he regretted," she said.
Roy never made it to the beach that first day. His boat sank and he was plucked from the water, unable to swim, and taken back to a ship. He didn't get onto Omaha Beach until a day or two later.
"He already knew that they had gotten wiped out," Yost said. "They were already putting the graves up. The first one he went to was Ray's."
"I hear that and still get chills," DeMarsh said.
Roy came home and returned to the family farm he had purchased with his brother. He remained upbeat and positive about life, and he didn't start sharing his D-Day stories in detail until many years later, when reporters wanted to interview him for the 50th anniversary. When he did, the granddaughters had mixed feelings about hearing it.
"I really didn't want to know," DeMarsh said. "The person I knew had a wonderful life and everything was grand. I really didn't want to know he had to deal with all that."
As Yost teaches history today, she does so with an eye toward her own family's experience.
"I started not only looking at the facts of it. What were the families thinking? That's kind of how we teach you now. You need to stop and think. If you're Teddy Roosevelt's family and he's going off in the Rough Riders, how are you feeling? What are you thinking? Are you worried? He's not in our country anymore. I think Pop telling his story affected me, in that history is not just a bunch of boring facts."
Shaped by war
As Bedford prepares to welcome people from around the country, the president of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation is optimistic that today's younger generation appreciates the sacrifices of Bedford and Raymond Hoback, and Roy and Ray Stevens. That's because today's young generation has also been shaped by war.
April Cheek-Messier, the foundation president, tells a story similar to Boggess' — about a 12-year-old boy who was so moved by his visit to the memorial that he donated $115 he'd been saving for Christmas presents.
Connecting with kids, she said, "is not as difficult as one would think."
Cheek-Messier said more people are coming forward with artifacts and family treasures that tell the story of that day.
"A lot of young people have mothers, fathers, uncles, brothers and sisters who are serving today," she said. "They understand what the sacrifice means because they've experienced it in their own households."