Last surviving Bedford Boy dies
By Courtney Cutright
Elisha “Ray” Nance, the last surviving officer of Company A and the last surviving Bedford Boy, died Sunday at 94.
Nance was one of 34 servicemen from Bedford County who landed on the beaches of Nazi-held France during World War II. He arrived on France’s beaches in the first waves of the largest land, air and sea invasion in military history.
On June 6, 1944, 19 of the 34 Bedford men in Company A of the 116th Infantry were killed on Omaha Beach. The death toll is considered one of the largest per capita suffered by any American community, a fact which was instrumental in establishing the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford.
Nance and the other Bedford Boys were members of Virginia National Guard. The young men joined the Guard to earn an extra dollar during the years following the Great Depression. Before D-Day, none of the Boys had seen combat.
In Alex Kershaw’s book “The Bedford Boys,” Nance recounted crawling onto Omaha Beach and facing the corpses of fallen fellow soldiers from Company A that morning. As he scrambled for cover, he was hit in the right foot by enemy fire. He also sustained a shrapnel wound in one hand.
As Nance remembered dodging bullets, he described feelings of hopelessness and despair.
“They [bullets] came so close,” Nance said in an interview with Kershaw. “Then, suddenly, when I thought there was no more hope, I looked up into the sky. I didn’t see anything up there. But I felt something settle over me. I got this warm feeling. I felt as if somehow I was going to live.”
Nance, who trained many of the Bedford Boys and felt responsible for their safety, was plagued by survivor’s guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder and frequent nightmares.
The son of a Bedford County tobacco farmer, Nance, married Bedford native Alpha Mae Watson in November 1944. At the time, both Nance and his bride were first lieutenants in the United States Army. She was a member of the nurse corps and he of the 29th Infantry Division.
After leaving the Army in December 1944, Nance returned to Bedford and worked as a postal carrier.
Although he encountered much opposition, Nance successfully reorganized the Company A of the Virginia National Guard in Bedford, in an effort to honor the dead soldiers. By 1948, 124 men joined the re-formed Company A. Nance was the company’s first post-WWII commander.
When the National D-Day Memorial opened in Bedford in 2001, Nance did not come around much, according to Shannon Brooks, the memorial’s associate for research and publications.
“It seemed painful for him to be there,” Brooks said.
After the January 2007 death of fellow Bedford Boy Roy Stevens, it seemed Nance began to visit the memorial regularly, said Jim McCann, the site operations manager.
“For years he just didn’t come up here,” McCann said.
Then, following Stevens’ death, the Nances, who lived at the nearby Elks National Home, would visit the memorial on a more frequent basis. The elderly couple would walk around and then sit on the deck for an hour or so, McCann said.
“Maybe he was trying to fill a role,” he said, in an effort to explain the change. “I think he was doing what he could to honor the other guys who can’t come anymore.”