Two brothers, one Bible, and the sacrifices that won D-Day | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

A fitting memorial

On the 80th anniversary of D-Day, America will honor a small town that gave more than its share

American troops land on Omaha Beach during the 1944 invasion of Normandy. Keystone / Getty Images

A fitting memorial
You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining. You've read all of your free articles.

Full access isn’t far.

We can’t release more of our sound journalism without a subscription, but we can make it easy for you to come aboard.

Get started for as low as $3.99 per month.

Current WORLD subscribers can log in to access content. Just go to "SIGN IN" at the top right.


Already a member? Sign in.

WHEN BROTHERS RAYMOND AND BEDFORD HOBACK joined the Army from Bedford, Va., in 1941, they couldn’t take much with them. But Raymond made sure to tuck his Bible into his bag. And three years later, when he waded into the thunderous water at Omaha Beach, he still had it with him. 

By then, World War II had dragged on for nearly five years. The Allies needed a decisive victory against Germany to gain the upper hand. The coordinated amphibious assault on the northern French coast included 156,000 troops from 12 nations. Just under half the force—73,000 men—came from the United States. Both Hoback brothers were among them.

Their unit, drawn from the Virginia National Guard, mobilized as the United States was entering the war. It included no fewer than 37 men from in and around Bedford—a town of 3,200 residents. Seven more Bedford men served in other military branches. Raymond Hoback was 24. His brother Bedford (named for his uncle, not the town) was 30. With their brothers-in-arms, they stormed ashore in Omaha’s “Dog Green” sector—the same portrayed in the brutal opening of the film Saving Private Ryan. Most men fell in their first minutes on Normandy’s sands. By D-Day’s end, 20 of Bedford’s sons had lost their lives. Two more from the town died in subsequent combat. Another four also became war casualties.

With two-thirds of its servicemen killed, missing, or wounded on D-Day, Bedford suffered more losses per capita than any other community in America. Eventually, the town’s fallen became known simply as “the Bedford Boys.”

Allied forces lost more than 4,400 men on D-Day, some 2,500 from the United States. Another 5,000 suffered injuries. But those losses were not in vain. The Normandy invasion turned the tide of World War II in the Allies’ favor and helped restore a firm and lasting peace the following year.

June marks 80 years since that pivotal battle. Europe will honor the day with a dignitary-studded ceremony filled with speeches and world leaders. America’s remembrances will spotlight the small community in rural Appalachia that sacrificed so much.

Raymond (left) and Bedford Hoback

Raymond (left) and Bedford Hoback Courtesy of John Wilcher/National D-Day Memorial Foundation

BEDFORD, VA., grew up in the green foothills known as the Peaks of Otter. The town was just big enough to boast a Main Street drugstore with a lunch counter and a Western Union telegraph machine that eventually would spit out news of the war.

Local work before the war combined rural and manufacturing industries. The conflict brought an economic boost the town badly needed, like so many others emerging from the Great Depression.

Finding work was a job of its own. In 1940, the year before Raymond and Bedford Hoback enlisted, U.S. unemployment stood at 14.6 percent—an improvement over the previous year’s 17.2 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but still high. (By comparison, today’s unemployment rate is just 3.9 percent.)

Whether for patriotism or pragmatism, military service offered a way to provide, said John Boggess, Raymond and Bedford’s nephew.

“They thought they’d serve a year and come home,” Boggess said. When his uncles joined the fight, the conflict didn’t feel personal. “It was still Europe’s war, for a lot of people, at that point.”

That attitude would change drastically before year’s end. On Dec. 7, more than 350 Japanese aircraft attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. More than 2,400 U.S. personnel died, with nearly 1,200 more wounded.

The “day that will live in infamy,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously put it, compelled the United States—and more importantly, her sons and some daughters—to enter the war.

America’s changing role, from isolationist to dominant global power, took shape in Roosevelt’s White House. But its energy and spirit emanated from tiny towns like Bedford.

“A lot of farm boys,” Boggess said of the Bedford volunteers. To them, “Europe was a distant planet.”

But by 1944, they were well acquainted with the Continent’s battle lines.

Lucille Hoback Boggess holds a photo of Raymond and the Bible he carried on D-Day.

Lucille Hoback Boggess holds a photo of Raymond and the Bible he carried on D-Day. Courtesy of John Wilcher/National D-Day Memorial Foundation

THE HOBACK FAMILY got their first message on a Sunday morning. Well over a month had passed since D-Day, and the news was filled with parents’ nightmares: thousands of boys dead or maimed. Hundreds missing in action. Had Raymond and Bedford survived the assault at Normandy? The Hobacks didn’t know. They’d heard nothing from the Army, which was good. But also nothing from their sons, which wasn’t.

Then on July 16, as they prepared to attend their Methodist church across the street from their home, there was a knock at the front door.

It was the Bedford sheriff. In his hand, he held a telegram: Pvt. Bedford Hoback had been killed in action.

The next day, another telegram: Sgt. Raymond Hoback was missing in action.

About a month later, the Hobacks got another message from Normandy, this time in the form of a package. It came from a West Virginia corporal named Harold Crayton. They didn’t know him, but his package contained a measure of solace for their grief: Raymond’s Bible.

Crayton found the book on Omaha Beach the day after the battle, when the stretch of sand lay securely in Allied control. On its first page, the Bible contained a handwritten inscription: “From Mother, Xmas, 1938.” Crayton had consulted its family register and mailed the book, with its red-edged pages, back to Bedford.

“I am sending it knowing that most Bibles are a book to be cherished,” Crayton wrote, in a letter dated July 9. He didn’t know what had happened to its owner, but assumed the best. “You have by now received a letter from your son saying he is well. I sincerely hope so.”

Lucille Hoback Boggess holds the telegram informing her family of Raymond's death.

Lucille Hoback Boggess holds the telegram informing her family of Raymond's death. Courtesy of John Wilcher/National D-Day Memorial Foundation

LUCILLE HOBACK was just shy of 15 years old on the day her brothers stormed the beach. The sixth of seven kids, she was a quiet, reserved child. Lucille once shared her family’s story regularly, but at 94, she’s passed that mantle to her son, John Boggess.

Boggess described his mother’s childhood as of a bygone American era. Life in Bedford was sleepy, and a trip to larger Virginia towns like Roanoke or to the farmers market at Lynchburg counted as a big day out.

Back then, Bedford was like The Waltons, Boggess said, referring to the classic television series about a large Depression-era family in Appalachian Virginia.

In their religious life, the Hobacks were consistent but not zealous, Boggess said. They attended their Methodist church every Sunday. They helped organize church social events. But the family did not pray at mealtimes.

“This was a time when religion was private,” Boggess said.

When Raymond’s mother gave him the Bible, it may have been as much a family matter as a religious one.

Alex Kershaw has written exhaustively on World War II and its legacy. He currently serves as the resident historian for the Friends of World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Kershaw’s book The Bedford Boys: One American Town’s Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice, retells the town’s D-Day experience, the longer war, and life in peacetime.

While some soldiers left home with an inherited or cultural faith, he notes, the crucible of war hardened it, for many, into bedrock.

“I don’t think any of them were atheists,” he said. “Prayer was an important part of their lives.”

Those who had prayed for deliverance felt their pleas had been emphatically answered, Kershaw added. Many grew very religious—and stayed that way the rest of their lives.

IN THE YEARS following the war, most Bedford residents resumed, as best they could, the lives they’d led before. Survivors returned, married, had children and grandchildren. Nearly a half-century passed.

By then the Hobacks had long since learned the worst: Like his older brother, Raymond was not missing but dead. The Hobacks kept his Bible and other items locked away. The family’s postwar silence reflected the habits of the times, Boggess said. Few veterans spoke of their trauma in those days. That attitude affirmed the purposes of fighting in the first place: win the war, then put it behind them, and return home to live out the peace they had earned.

But as the 50th anniversary approached, veterans began speaking out. Concerned that the importance of D-Day was going untold, and with a dwindling number of veterans still alive to share their stories, Bedford officials and residents began to talk about building a memorial devoted to the Bedford Boys.

A few years earlier, Roanoke native Bob Slaughter, himself a D-Day veteran, had started to advocate for a D-Day monument somewhere in the United States. In 1989, Slaughter helped form a steering committee, the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, to realize that goal. Five years later, he accompanied President Bill Clinton to Normandy to mark the 50th anniversary.

Meanwhile, Bedford’s advocates, including then-Mayor Mike Shelton, lobbied to have the memorial built there, in the town whose families had given, arguably, more than their share. They believed its mountain-valley setting, with the potential for grounds filled with gardens and outdoor ­sculptures, would make a backdrop that was both august and picturesque.

In 1996, Congress agreed: America would plant its D-Day monument in Bedford. Fundraising momentum grew, and Saving Private Ryan director Steven Spielberg became an early donor. The following year, the monument committee broke ground. During construction, workers mixed local Virginia soil with specially imported sand from Normandy. On June 6, 2001—three months before Sept. 11, another morning of dramatic American loss—President George W. Bush traveled to Bedford for the dedication.

“You have raised a fitting memorial to D-Day, and you have put it in just the right place,” Bush said. “Not on a battlefield of war, but in a small Virginia town. A place like so many others, that were home to the men and women who helped liberate a continent.”

Bedford’s D-Day tribute, Bush said, “gives testimony to how much was gained and how much was lost.”

The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va.

The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va. Courtesy of the D-Day Memorial Foundation

THE D-DAY MEMORIAL’s central, dark granite monument rises above the lush green of Bedford’s rolling hills. Behind it, the blue-tinged Appalachian Mountains rise in the distance. Across the top is etched the word Overlord, the official name of the operation that turned the tide of the world’s last great war.

Historian Alex Kershaw grew up in the U.K. but has spent the last three decades living in the United States. He told me D-Day means so much because of what came after it. Postwar Europe enjoyed “the most peaceful, most democratic era” of its existence as a civilization.

“It’s the only time in history that Europeans haven’t been trying to kill each other,” he said. Kershaw calls America’s contribution, and the sacrifice of its soldiers, a beautiful gift.

Last year, the Hoback family added their own contribution to Bedford’s D-Day history. In November, Lucille Hoback Boggess donated Raymond’s Bible and other artifacts to the Memorial Foundation. The book, Raymond’s military portrait, and the telegram announcing his death now lie on display in the foundation’s permanent collection.

None of Bedford’s D-Day veterans will be on hand to mark this year’s anniversary. The last surviving Bedford Boy, gravely wounded in the assault, died in 2009. Lucille does not plan to attend the events either. Her advanced age, mobility issues, and Bedford’s summer humidity mean she will be staying home, her son told me.

The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va.

The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va. Courtesy of the D-Day Memorial Foundation

Still, starting on June 6, Bedford will commemorate the occasion on a grand scale. The memorial’s four-day program will feature D-Day veterans, war-era boats and aircraft, and a “field chapel service” like the camp-style worship events conducted for troops during the war.

But for Kershaw, the work of remembering D-Day remains unfinished. Amid today’s divisions, he fears the United States and its allies risk forgetting the blood-bought peace they won together.

“We should still care about D-Day because it was America’s finest hour,” Kershaw said, borrowing the phrase coined by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the 1940 speech he delivered just after the evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk, France. “You liberated countless millions of Europeans from evil.”

—William Fleeson is a writer and journalist based in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in BBC Travel, National Geographic, and Newsweek.

This story has been corrected to reflect that Bedford Hoback was named for his uncle.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...