April 23, 2009

Virginia Guard pays tribute to last of the “Bedford Boys”

By Maj. Cotton Puryear
Virginia Guard Public Affairs

BEDFORD, Va. — Soldiers from the Virginia National Guard joined family, friends and the community of Bedford April 22 to bid farewell to Maj. Elisha “Ray” Nance, the last of the “Bedford Boys” who stormed the beaches of Normandy almost 65 years ago. Nance passed away April 19 at the age of 94.

  Funeral of Maj. Elisha Nance

Soldiers from the Bedford-based Company A, 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Brigade Combat Team served as pallbearers during the funeral of Elisha “Ray” Nance April 24 in Bedford. All of the Soldiers were combat veterans, and the Soldiers wore their Army Combat Uniform at the request of Nance’s family. (Photo by Maj. Cotton Puryear, Virginia Guard Public Affairs) Click HERE to download a high resolution version of the photo.

Nance was one of 32 Virginia Guard Soldiers from Bedford’s Company A, 116th Infantry, 29th Division who were among the 160,000 Allied troops  that landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany and begin the march across Europe to defeat Hitler.

According to the National D-Day Memorial web site, Company A assaulted Omaha Beach and by the end of the day, 19 of the company’s Bedford Soldiers were dead and two more died later in the Normandy campaign. Bedford’s population in 1944 was about 3,200, and proportionally the community suffered the nation’s most severe losses on D-Day, as well as all of World War II.

Congress saw Bedford as a symbol of all communities whose Citizen-Soldiers served on D-Day, and chose Bedford as the location to establish the National D-Day Memorial.

According to Virginia Guard historical documents, Nance enlisted in Company A in 1932 to help provide some income for his parents and because of the appeal of two weeks of annual training at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach.

Nance was commissioned a second lieutenant after completing a condensed officer training program in late 1940, and he returned to the unit just prior to its Feb 3, 1941 mobilization date. First Lt. Nance  was Company A’s Executive Officer on D-Day.

  Funeral of Maj. Elisha Nance

Virginia National Guard Soldiers pay tribute to Elisha “Ray” Nance during his funeral April 22 in Bedford. More than two dozen Virginia Guard Soldiers were on hand for Nance’s funeral service. (Photo by Maj. Cotton Puryear, Virginia Guard Public Affairs) Click HERE to download a high resolution version of the photo.

Virginia Guard historical documents indicate the Virginia National Guard did not plan to station a unit in Bedford in its post-World War II structure. The feeling, according to Nance, was that Bedford having suffered so much during the war, the community would not support a Guard company again.

Nance set out to prove them wrong. After personal visits to both the Adjutant General of Virginia and National Guard Bureau he got permission to try to recruit a company again in Bedford. By 1948, 124 men had joined the re-formed Company A, and Nance served as the company’s first post-World War II commander He retired as a captain on April 6, 1953 and was given a state promotion to major.

More than two dozen Virginia Guard Soldiers were on hand for Nance’s funeral service and helped the community remember his service, as well as the service of the other Bedford Soldiers.

“It is a positive thing to reflect back on the heroism and courage of the average American citizen, because the American citizen always steps up and does the right thing.,” said 1st Lt. Michael Maxwell, the executive officer for Company A, the same position 1st Lt. Nance held on D-Day.

"I'm personally proud to be commanding a unit that traces its heritage to such brave patriots as Ray Nance," said Maj. Gen. Grant Hayden, present-day commander of the 29th Infantry Division. "Somewhere in Heaven they are mustering Company A again, this time at full-strength with Ray Nance rejoining his Bedford Boys buddies in formation. If we listen carefully, we may even hear a proud call from up above as the troops come to attention: '29, Let's go!'"

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